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Defiance and Progress

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Part I: First Impressions

 

            Derek’s heart pounded as he sprinted down the street, glancing behind him to see if he was in the clear before twisting down yet another side alley. He wasn’t gasping for breath, but it was a near thing and he groaned when he saw the side alley was a dead end. Sighing, he measured the distance and jumped up, momentarily transforming his hands into claws to better snag the edge of the roof. Then he was up and running, slower now, not wanting to disturb those who lived or worked beneath his feet. Though he heard questioning mutters anyway. He would have to get off the roofs soon.           

            Derek didn’t know how he got himself into these things.

            He was too old for this. Really. Twenty-two was much too old to be playing what amounted to an advanced game of tag with his little sister. But what had started with annoying poking in the marketplace had led to a challenge and then Laura insisted that Cora could probably catch him in twenty minutes and now he found himself-

            Skidding to a stop as he finally saw what he needed: Water. A big trough of water. Big enough to dunk in and disguise his scent.

            He jumped in with little more thought than that and was dismayed to discover that it must have been some sort of rain water collection. That doubled as a water hole for animals. It wasn’t quite sewage water but the smell was enough to make him gag.

            Well, at least this would make it a hell of a lot more difficult for Cora to find him.

            He climbed out of the water and shook himself, taking a moment to glance around. In the height of the chase, he hadn’t bothered keeping the firmest grip on where he was going and it was time to start angling back towards the house. It had already been almost twenty minutes and he was going to need to get out of these clothes sooner rather than later.

            He didn’t instantly recognize any of the streets so he took a deeper breath, trying to smell something besides himself. But even accounting for his dunk, the smells around seemed to be dirty, bloody, saturated in fear and- Ah, slave market. There was a big slave trade this weekend. He must’ve stumbled onto th-

            “He totally came this way,” It was only because he knew to listen for it that he recognized Cora’s mutter down the street.

            She’s getting better, he thought, grinning a little. Briefly, he considered sprinting away- but she would be able to hear that easily and right now his scent was covered enough that if he stayed put, she might make the mistake of moving on too quickly. So he walked, calmly, nodding to those who were sort of staring at him (fair, he had just jumped from a roof into a glorified puddle) but everyone could still smell he was a werewolf, so most paid him no mind. Most probably assumed it was some type of training exercise. Or at least he hoped so.

            He needed a place to hide. He kept his eyes and nose open, just hoping to find-

            There. Storage pantry. Off a smaller alley. Not much smell was getting out- so thick door. Perfect for what he needed.

            He had just opened the door when he heard Cora’s angry growl that meant she had lost his scent so he was turned away and laughing when he stepped in and-

            Then the smell hit him and he was tripping and slamming the door shut because he wasn’t alone.

            It took all of a moment for Derek’s eyes to adjust and he cut off the warning growl that had risen in his chest because it was instantly obvious that there was no threat.

            It was a slave. The first thing Derek registered was that his heartbeat was completely out of control, beating in rapid, uneven beats to accompany his shallow gasps of breath. The stench of terror was so strong that Derek felt himself glance around for something dangerous before realized that he was probably what had the slave startled so badly.

            He looked back at the corner where the slave was standing, mouth twisting as he got a better look. The slave was blindfolded, some kind of rag tightly bound across his eyes, even though the room was dark enough that Derek though a human wouldn’t be able to see very clearly anyway. He was shirtless, hands tied behind his back, leaving his chest exposed.

            It was disgusting. Derek couldn’t help but stare. It was covered in dirt and grime and- Derek focused his eyes- no, the dark patch along the boy’s side was a bruise, not dirt. A huge, deep bruise clearly made by some sort of boot. Derek didn’t even know how long that would take to heal. It would take him about five minutes but humans were different.

            He didn’t think on it for long though because his eyes had already flashed to the most prominent feature of the slave’s chest, which for once wasn’t the number tattoo on the upper left chest that all slaves had: it was the scars. There were four ragged lines- werewolf claws, Derek’s mind supplied- that ran from above the boy’s collarbone to almost halfway down his chest. They curved over his shoulder on the right side and Derek wondered if they ran all along his back. They were healed over and pink, but not old yet. Not faded.

            The sight was horrifying, but it was the smells that had Derek’s stomach turning. It was all dirt, sweat, and blood. And though he obviously didn’t know all the nuances of this slave’s emotional scents, the overriding smells of fear and desperation were too clear not to pick up. Derek actually concentrated on his own water-logged smell just to try to avoi-

            “Alright, fucker,” the slave’s voice was hoarse and tired but angry. “I know you’re there. Let’s just get playtime over with, shall we?”

            “Uh,” Derek drew a complete blank on what to say. “I- I’m not-” his voice had come out higher than usual. He paused, planning on clearing his throat when the boy’s whole demeanor shifted. Derek hadn’t even realized how tense the slave was holding himself until he sagged, letting out a breath of air and sort of collapsing into the corner.

            “Oh, shit,” the boy breathed. “You’re not- fuck. You gotta announce that next time, man. Nearly gave me a heart attack.” The boy let out a relieved laugh and Derek could only blink. He had no idea what was happening. Luckily the boy was already moving, not waiting for a response. He took a step away from the corner, shoulder twitching like he had tried to reach out to put his hands out before remembering they were tied behind his back.

            The slave took a deep breath. “Dude, you stink. You smell like the fucking water hole. Didja fall in or someth-” The boy stopped himself so abruptly that Derek thought something was wrong.

            “Fuck- waterboarding? I didn’t know this group was into that. That… that sucks.”

            It finally hit Derek then. The boy thought he was another slave. Thrown in there as punishment. Though what the fuck was this kid talking about? Waterboarding? Wasn’t that like holding someone underwater? Who did that?

            “Uh,” Derek supplied again. He kept his voice higher than usual. Not that he was trying to deceive the slave but, at this point, what was he supposed to tell him? “Yeah.”

            “Fuck, dude, I’m so sorry,” the words were genuine, said softly and Derek shifted awkwardly. He opened his mouth to maybe say something but the slave was shaking his head. “Your throat must be killing you. Don’t worry about talking. I know that even I shut up for a few hours after that particular bout of fun. I think Scott was secretly kind of glad for the respite. You know, after he finished trying to glare everyone to death. I mean, not glad it happened but Scott takes his silver linings where he can get them. Besides I can talk enough for both of us.” The slave had drifted back towards his corner, giving Derek space, Derek realized, allowing Derek to have a personal zone to recover in. Derek didn’t need to recover and that just made his stomach twist with guilt. He also couldn’t follow half of what the kid was saying.

            “It’s nice just knowing someone is listening. I’m not good with silence. Hey, do you know what day it is?”

            “Wednesday,” Derek supplied. Then flinched as a wave of despair washed over the room.

            “Wednesday? You sure? Fuck,” the slave chewed on his bottom lip as he gingerly sat down again, long legs curled up as he rested in the corner. Derek stayed standing, awkwardly wondering what the hell he was supposed to do. “I thought it was Thursday for sure.” The boy seemed to wilt further before taking a breath and steeling himself. “Okay. Wednesday. Not bad. Just another like two days. Then Friday for clean-up. Sales on Saturday. Two days. That’s nothing.”

            For all that the slave seemed to be talking to himself, Derek felt the need to say something. If only because it didn’t smell like the pep talk had actually worked. The slave still smelled of defeat tinged with panic. Of course, he had no idea what to say so he settled on:

            “Clean up?”

            The distraction worked, because the boy’s head snapped up and tilted toward him.

            “Yeah, clean-up, you know. It’s what Scott and I call the whole-” the slave stopped again. “You’re new, aren’t you?” The question was asked softly, sadly and Derek told himself he should leave. This wasn’t right.

            “Yeah,” is what he said instead.

            “Oh, dude, uh- first sale or recently caught or- you know what, never mind. Don’t answer that. Shouldn’tve asked. I’m being freaking rude. Ignore me. Seriously- I’ve been in here too long.” The slave took a breath and focused. “Well, the sale’s on Saturday usually so Friday morning we all get hosed down- maybe even some soap if we’re in a rich area- and cleaned up to impress all our new beloved masters. It’s super exciting. Some of us will even get beautiful new haircuts. It’s like a day at the spa.”

            The grin that accompanied the sarcastic words was bitter and angry. For a moment, Derek wondered what the slave would say if he realized that Derek was a werewolf. That, in all likelihood, his family would be picking up a few new slaves this weekend.

            But we don’t treat them like this, Derek assured himself. This is ridicul-

            “Oh, pro-tip,” the slave continued. “If you can, steal some extra bread at breakfast on Friday. They never bother feeding us dinner that night. Or Saturday morning. Plus they won’t risk beating you if they catch you so it’s really the only time I’d suggest it.” The slave shrugged one shoulder. “Of course, everyone will be doing it but… worth a try, right?”

            Derek had been looking at the slave’s face, trying to catch the flashed of movement he could see despite the blindfold and avoiding staring at the scars out of politeness but he glanced down again. And now that he knew to focus on it, he realized how skinny the slave was. How he could easily count all his ribs and how his collar bones jutted out from his chest.

            “Once heard of a guy who managed to steal enough to last for like four days. Somehow got string and sorta… lined his pants with them. Somehow.” Again his shoulders twitched as if he were trying to motion with his hands. “Kept them all through the sale but then knew he couldn’t keep them through the inspection from his buyer so he tried to eat like… all five loafs at once. He ended up yakking all over his new owner.” The boy was grinning and for no reason at all, Derek felt himself smile back. It was sort of funny.

             “Of course, I’m sure he got beat within an inch of his life,” the slave was still smiling somehow. “But… imagine the look on their faces. Totally worth it. I bet I could do it. Hell, with how long I’ve been stuck in here, give me two loafs and I’m sure I could projectile vomit over this whole place.”

             Derek’s smile had dropped away. He didn’t like that idea.

             “I don’t think you should-” he kept his voice higher than normal but the concern wasn’t faked at all. The slave laughed outright.

            “Don’t worry,” the teen said. “Scott would never let me do it. Hey! Do you know Scott?”

            “Err,”

            “101487,” the slave continued. “My age, dark hair- super fucking nice to everyone even when he shouldn’t be.”

            “No, I don’t think so,” Derek replied, glancing down at the numbers on the boy’s chest. 101539- they must be from the same area. Brothers?

            “Yeah, you would know him if you met him. We were over in Pen 2.” The boy went quiet for a moment, head tilted down instead of its usual upwards angle. “If you get out before me, could you… could you tell him I’m fine? Tell him I’m… you know, not dead. He’s probably worried sick. Or he thinks I’m dead. That would be… just let him know I’m okay, alright? Picture of perfect health and all.”

            Derek frowned. The boy did not look like he was the picture of perfect health. He certainly didn’t smell like it. But, Derek supposed that a human wouldn’t be able to hear the lie anyway.

            “Sure,” Derek said. Even though he probably wouldn’t be able to. “Uh- what’s your name?”

            “Oh!” the slave’s head snapped back up and Derek could see the faint blush that rose before it was swallowed by the blindfold. “Shit! Sorry! I’m Stiles.”

            “Stiles?”

            “Yeah… well it’s a nickname. My real first name is horrific. I’m pretty sure only my Mom could actually say it properly so Stiles just works better for everyone involved.”

            The smell of grief that laced the air told Derek that the slave’s – Stiles’ – mother was dead. For some ridiculous reason he wanted to say he was sorry, or ask how it happened, or when, but he didn’t. Because he wasn’t really a slave and it felt too much like prying.

            “You?” Stile’s asked and Derek froze.

            “Miguel,” he blurted and then rolled his eyes at himself, grateful that Stiles couldn’t see the look of horror that passed over his own face. Where the hell had he come up with that name? What was he thinking?

            “Cool,” Stiles bobbed his head in a nod and shifted a bit. He smelled uncomfortable. And… embarrassed? Derek needed to get out of here. But he couldn’t just walk out. This was the worst. And all Cora’s fault. He was never being tricked into such a silly little ga-

            “Hey,” Stiles’ voice broke into his thoughts and Derek started. Then he took another sniff to double check that the sudden embarrassment that flooded the room wasn’t something else. It wasn’t. “Sooo… this is super embarrassing but would you mind doing me a favor?”

            “Uh… okay?” Derek made it a question.

            “Okay so, the thing is,” Stiles shifted again, leaning against the wall as he stood slowly, gasping a little. “This is… fucking awful but I- I really have to pee.”

            The last words were rushed and quiet and if Derek wasn’t a werewolf, he might not have caught them. Which was fortunate as the word that popped out of his mouth was:

            “What?” It was even lower- closer to his regular voice- but luckily Stiles didn’t seem to catch the sudden drop in tone.

            “I really have to pee,” Stiles repeated. “And it turns out that having your hands tied up behind your back is really, really sucky for getting your pants down. And I thought that instead of just… you know, fucking up my only pair of pants, maybe since you’re here you could… help?”

            Derek didn’t say anything. Because he felt sick- not at the idea of helping Stiles but at the thought that this would be a concern for people. It was… it was inhuman and who exactly was running these slave auctions? Were all of them like this? Shouldn’t someone put a stop to this?

            “Uh- Miguel?” Stiles asked and Derek realized he’d been seething for too long. Stiles was shifting back and forth a little. “Look, I know this is fucking weird and when you first walked in, I was so startled that I think it… went back in a little? Is that possible? But anyway… it’s kinda back now- and I promise it’s not number 2 or anything so if you could decide sooner rather than later, it would really help me out.”

            “Yeah,” Derek grunted. “Yeah. Sure. Sorry. I mean, of course. No problem.”

            The smell of relief that washed over Stiles made Derek’s stomach twist.

            “Dude. You’re the best. Thanks,” Stiles took a step forward. “Mind leading me to the corner that’s covered when the door opens? Don’t need to get blamed at for peeing in the middle of the pantry.”

            Derek moved forward and then stopped as he came up to Stile’s side.

            He had found the source of the scent of blood.

            Stile’s back was covered in welts. Some were thick bruises but some were open cuts, still oozing, looking raw and maybe infected.

            Derek felt sick.

            “Hey,” Stiles said, perhaps sensing his gaze. “They look worse than they are. And don’t worry- belts are saved for real idiots like me. Bad investment strategy. Won’t happen to you.” Derek heard the slight uptick in Stile’s heart, not big enough to be a full-on lie but enough that Derek knew Stile’s didn’t really believe what he was saying. Even though Stiles wasn’t lying. It never would happen to Derek. Because Derek wasn’t human. Even if it did, his would have healed by now.

            Derek shook himself and gently grabbed Stile’s arm, wishing he didn’t notice the slight flinch that ran through it even though Stiles had been ready for him. Then he kept his eyes resolutely on his destination, trying not to think about the smells of blood, pain, and shame coming off Stiles. He needed to get out of here.

            The corner was only a few shuffling steps away- diagonal from where Stile was sitting- and he pulled Stiles up short and then hesitated.

            “Just go for it,” Stiles said and he was trying to keep his voice light, like this was no big deal, but Derek could feel how tense he was even if he weren’t a werewolf.

            “Don’t worry,” Derek replied, gently grabbing the hem of Stiles’ pants. “I’ll close my eyes.”

            Stiles barked a bitter laugh at that. “Don’t bother. I’m not sure I have any modesty left in me, Miggy-boy.” Derek’s claws almost popped out in distress but he held them back. He still closed his eyes, pulling down the slave’s pants until they tangled around his knees, noticing Stiles relax as he stepped back as soon as he was done.

            Then he frowned. “Uh- do you need me to…” he trailed off. How had his day come to this? He had just offered to hold another man’s penis while he peed in a corner.

            This time Stile’s laugh was more genuine.

            “Christ, you are new, aren’tcha?” Stiles said. “Haven’t even learned to pee while tied up. Take it from a master, Miguel, it’s all about angles.”

            Derek didn’t watch exactly, but he cut his eyes over to Stiles’ general direction enough to see him squirm out of his pants a little more, then lean forward so his head was against the wall and his body was slanted enough so that his pants were safe and then-

            Derek looked away, staring at the wall of food and water and making a point to read as many of the labels as he could.

            Then Stiles coughed a little and he was clearly done and Derek went over and dragged the boy’s pants up as quick as he could without being rough and was it weird that he could tell that he was dehydrated just from the smell?

            He helped Stiles back to his corner and winced in sympathy as Stiles slowly sat down again and gingerly placed his back on the stone. To his dismay, Stiles seemed to be fading- either because his bladder was no longer full enough to keep him awake or because the short movement had wearied him. Probably both.

            “Thanks,” Stiles said. “Sorry you had to do that but… thanks. Feel loads better now.”

            “Do you want some water?” Derek asked, reaching to grab one of the bottles lying on the shelf.

            Stile’s eyes snapped open from where they had fallen shut and he jerked forward.

            “No!” Derek snatched his hand away as if Stiles could see him. “Jesus, Miguel! Fuck, do you want to get killed? Don’t touch anything!”

            “Right!” Derek said, glad his voice was high and embarrassed enough that he must’ve sounded like an naïve slave. “Sorry! Sorry! I… forgot.”

            “Shit,” Stiles said, but he was sinking back into his corner. “You nearly gave me a heart attack. Dude, I don’t know who your owner was before or what your story is but you’ve got to be smarter now. You’re gonna get destroyed out there.” Stiles managed to sound stern even as his eyes slid closed again.

            “Sorry,” Derek said again.

            “ ‘snot your fault,” Stiles muttered, shaking his head. “Fucking werewolves. Just… be careful. If you get out of here, find Scott. He’ll help you out. Idiot helps everybody.”

            “Okay,” Derek said but from the sound of Stiles’ breathing, he was already out.

            Derek waited a few minutes, staring, memorizing what he could of Stiles’ face. Then when he was sure Stiles was truly asleep, he walked over, using all his werewolf abilities to make no noise.

            He was leaving, Derek told himself. But first he gently placed a hand on Stiles’ shoulder and focused until his veins turned black and leeched as much pain out of Stiles’ as he could. He sensed Stiles’ sink into an even deeper sleep. Which was his plan all along. Of course.

            Then he stood and silently opened the door and left.

            He didn’t think about Stiles on the way home. He didn’t think about how he would wake up alone in that room or the wounds on his back or the scars on his chest. He just walked home. And when Cora tackled him outside of his front gate, looking peeved that she had lost the bet and begrudgingly impressed by him, he forced a smile on his face and didn’t say anything about where he’d been other than: “Around.”

*^*^*^

            “This was a bad idea,” Stiles muttered, leg jerking up and down with nervous energy. He went to run a hand over his face, only stopped because Scott reached over and grabbed him.

            “Don’t touch,” Scott said, frowning at Stile’s face. Right. Stiles left eye was still half swollen shut and the bruise covered a good quarter of his face. “And, it was a good idea.”

            Stiles somehow managed to nod his thanks and shake his head in disagreement in the same movement, but kept his mouth closed. Scott was wrong. Well, not wrong, Scott never did anything wrong but in this case, he was incorrect. They should have never planned to get sold again. This was a mistake. They were going to get separated.

            “We should’ve stayed,” Stiles said, not for the first time. In fact, he had been saying it for the whole week, minus the three days he’d been trapped alone. He had said it almost the moment they had both been put up for sale.

            “We weren’t staying there,” Scott said firmly and his big earnest eyes practically dared Stiles to disagree. Stiles looked away first, ducking his head and then looking out towards the street.

            It was Friday. Show day. The morning had been spent getting a quick, cold bath and then throwing back on pants still damp from their quick wash. Stiles glanced towards Scott, revealed to see that his friend looked more or less clean and healthy. The wash had done him good, given him the opportunity to scrub away the dirt and tame his hair away from his face.

            It hadn’t done any good for Stiles. He knew that. All it did for him was reopen at least two of the cuts on his back and make it obnoxiously obvious how many bruises littered his face and torso. That combined with the just-healed scar that tore across his chest… well, Stiles wasn’t under any illusions that he was going to be bought by anyone with good intentions.

            His stomach rumbled, causing Scott to glance over and immediately reach for the bread he had stashed behind them. Luckily Scott had managed to grab extra this morning. Especially since Stiles had barely managed to get any as a shove to his back had him on the ground gasping.

            “Nah, don’t bother,” Stiles told Scott, going for a grin. He was skinny. Too skinny. An extra slice of bread wouldn’t help him. But if Scott ate it right before the auction…

            “Stiles. Eat it,” Scott commanded. And then when Stiles’ opened his mouth to refuse, Scott turned on the puppy eyes- wide and concerned and pleading and Stiles grabbed it and shoved it into his mouth. Scott should not be allowed to have eyes like that. Or at least he should have outgrown them. For as long as he could remember, Stiles had been giving into those eyes, which had only grown stronger as they got older.

            Oh, god, Stiles thought, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the street where werewolves were meandering past, some calling to slaves to step forward for closer inspection. What if he never saw Scott again?

            He wasn’t going to. This was it. This was probably their last day together. Stiles knew that. Scott was healthy and good-looking enough to probably end up with someone who needed a house slave. Or a laborer. Or maybe he could turn on those eyes and end up as some kind of skilled labor.

            And Stiles… Stiles knew where he was ending up. He was young enough that werewolves would still want him and used enough that they wouldn’t have to bother keeping him healthy. He knew that. And it was awful, not for obvious reasons but because he would die if Scott was sold to the same type of place, but life without Scott was unimaginable.

            Stiles swallowed and stopped from vomiting through sheer force of will. Couldn’t waste the bread.

            They shouldn’t have had done it. They had been lucky for these past 6 years, similar enough in age and skill that they had managed to be sold together through private sale twice and had made it through two auctions. They never should have risked it again. They were going to be split up.

            “Stiles.” Sometimes Stiles thought Scott was a werewolf, because the kid always seemed to know when he was on the verge of a panic attack. “Calm down.”

            “We shouldn’t’ve left,” Stiles said.

            “We had to leave,” Scott told him. “There wasn’t an option.”

            That was a lie. There was an option. Leave it as it was. Scott thought that Stiles couldn’t take it, maybe he thought the time with the claws was the first time, but it wasn’t. Stiles had been dealing with it for months before that (years, if you counted other things), keeping the bruises and bleeding carefully away from Scott, forcing himself to act normal. He had it under control. He could have kept it up.

            But then their master, Matt, had to go and get violent- well, more violent than usual- and claw him nearly in half even though Stiles had been being good.

            But that didn’t matter. Because Scott had seen and Scott and figured it out and Scott had told him they were leaving, not with puppy eyes but in a clear voice of anger and command that Stiles, still making a half-hearted effort to stop the bleeding on his own, hadn’t even thought to argue.

            It wouldn’t have done any good. Stiles knew all the many faces and voices of Scott McCall and he knew there was no arguing with that tone. That was the I am going to stitch you up right now tone; the Yes, we will be sharing our food with the girl in the next cell tone; the I’m going to take the blame for the boy who tried to escape last night and get beat to within an inch of my life tone. You couldn’t fight it. But Stiles should have tried.

            Not that Stiles ever argued with Scott very much. It rarely did any good because Scott was always right. And it went against his orders.

            “Stiles,” His Dad was hugging him, tightly, too tightly and Stiles had mistaken it for comfort at first. Because Stiles was sobbing that Scott was going to be sold, the blur around his eyes maybe a result of his sprint back from Melissa’s house, maybe the start of a panic attack and it was his father. So comfort made sense.

            “He’s l-leaving,” Stiles said again, unsure what he really wanted his father to do about it, only knowing that Scott couldn’t leave. Scott was his brother. Scott was there for him and he made Stiles laugh and wasn’t mad when Stiles got them in trouble and-

            “Stiles,” his dad said, still squeezing him. “You’ve got to… you’ve got to go with him.”

            The words hadn’t made any sense- or maybe Stiles hadn’t heard them- but suddenly his dad was letting him go.

            “You have to go with him, son,” his dad said again, sounding strangled himself. “Scott… Scott can’t be alone. You’re the only one who can.”

            “What’re you-” Stiles choked, but the tears were already stopping, more out of shock than anything. “What… I can’t. He’s being sold.

            His dad was moving, opening a cabinet of their small cottage, grabbing a packet that Stiles was never allowed to even touch and-

            And suddenly it made sense.

            His dad knelt in front of him.

            “You two can stick together,” his dad said, shoving the small packet into Stiles’ hands and closing Stiles fist when he failed to do so. “You can get sold at the same time and stick together. You know how right?”

            “Y-yeah,” Stiles said, feeling numb. “B-but… Dad?” This was too fast. He loved Scott. He wanted to go with Scott but- his dad would stay here.

            “I’ll take care of Melissa,” his dad said. “She’ll want you to be with him. You want to be with him, right?”

            “I can’t!” Stiles said, terror rising in his chest. He couldn’t. Mom was dead. Dad would be alone and he-

            “I’ll be okay, kid,” and even then, even at twelve, Stiles saw that for the lie it was. But he saw the strength in his father’s eyes as well, the determination. “You and Scott… you two need to take care of each other. You’re brothers. Brothers need to stick together.”

            His dad grabbed him again, hugging him with the same intensity and that’s when Stiles realized: it wasn’t comfort. It was goodbye.

            Stiles clung back. He didn’t argue because there was no argument, but he clung and tears slid down his cheeks and then soon, too soon, it was over.

            “Go,” his dad said, standing. “Go and be good. Hurry.”

            Stiles had stumbled towards the door. He had to move fast. He knew that. The buyer was already there. They had already grabbed Scott from his mother. But he hesitated.

            “Don’t get into trouble,” His dad said, trying for a smile as he rubbed his hand through Stiles’ hair. “Well, try not to. Listen to Scott. Go.”

            “I-I,” Stiles stuttered. “Dad-”

            “I love you too, Stiles.”

            Stiles turned and ran.

            Even then, his dad had known the truth of their relationship. Scott, despite being raising for a time by a father who oscillated between verbally and physically abusive, was innocent. Pure goodness in a way that Stiles, with his love of pranks and rebellion, would never be. They needed each other, Stiles knew. Stiles’ job was to protect Scott, to keep him safe and good and happy. And healthy. Can’t forget that. And, Scott…. Scott was there to be Stiles’ conscience. Stiles had long since collapsed his idea of family into just the two of them. Scott kept it open, encouraging them to care for the weaker and younger slaves, continuing to do selfless deeds just because they were the right thing to do.

            How was Stiles supposed to keep Scott safe if he wasn’t there?

            “Stiles, we’re gonna be okay,” Scott said,  smiling and nudging Stiles gently with his shoulder even though they were already plastered next to each other. “Same buyer.”

            Stiles nodded mutely.

            “And…” A look of concern flashed over Scott’s face. “And, if not, we have a plan. We get sold again in three weeks.”

            Stiles snorted. That was a miserable plan.

            “That’s assuming both our new owners live in the area. And will sell through the auction rather than privately. And what if you have a nice owner who doesn’t even sell you-”

            “Stiles,” Scott said, sounding calm and in control. “Three weeks. If we’re not together. Three weeks.

            “It’s- That’s-” Stiles flailed a hand uselessly, unable to find the words.

            “I’ll be here,” Scott said firmly. “I promise. And then three weeks after that, if I have to. And onwards.”

            And that settled it. Because if Scott would be here than Stiles would be here. Or he would die trying.

            “Okay,” Stiles was embarrassed at the relief that coursed through his body. They would figure it out. Scott would figure it out. Scott was always right. “I’ll be here too.”

            Scott grinned at him, all joy and thankfulness and warmth and, despite it all, Stiles felt himself smile back.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Derek glared at anyone who came too close to him, grateful beyond belief that Jennifer was there with him to do the actual bidding and talking and verifying.

            He was glad it was Jennifer. The head cook for their household was known for being fair and kind, but understanding most of all. That meant that she could sense when you didn’t want to talk. Which for Derek, was fairly often. As he thought of it, Laura and Cora did enough talking for the whole younger generation of Hales. Jennifer knew that. When he went to the kitchens at random times, she was comfortable enough to just stick a plate of food in front of him, give him a fond pat on the shoulder and let him be.

            His whole family had been abuzz with questions when he had volunteered to accompany Jennifer on her trip to the slave auction. As a human, Jennifer obviously needed a werewolf supervisor, though usually the job fell to his mother, who seemed to always know exactly what she was looking for in her additions to the household staff. But Derek had volunteered and Talia had agreed after a long look and everyone else had asked questions to which Derek had merely shrugged.

            If Cora realized that his decision came after their trip through the market earlier this week, she didn’t say anything.

            “Your mother said we need at least two boys and a girl,” Jennifer finally said as they entered the market. She then handed Derek a piece of paper and a pen. He grunted and raised his eyes. Maybe he should have asked his mother what she normally did before coming.

            “Write down the numbers of who you want,” she told him. “Then you can sit back and let me get them.”

            Derek jerked his head in a nod. It seemed so simple.

            “I’ll be over there,” Jennifer said, pointed towards the area that had already been set up for people to sit while they bid. “I- I prefer not to look around if I can avoid it.”

            Derek blinked and focused for a moment on her scent. The woman smelled mostly calm, but there was an air of discomfort and sadness that made Derek grimace.

            “Auction starts in about an hour,” she said as she turned to walk off. “Be on time- it moves pretty quickly!”

            Then she was gone through the crowd and Derek was left standing there with a pen and a piece of paper and no idea what he was doing.

            Other werewolves were milling around as well, staring and sniffing at the cages. As Derek watched, an elderly beta signaled for a slave to come forward and casually reached out to press into his chest while the slave stood there silently.

            Derek looked away and headed to Pen 2.

            He was breathing through his mouth, he realized- the overwhelming scent of the place was cheap soap, but the undercurrent was all nerves, fear, and hunger. He hated it. He hated it with everything in his being and he didn’t understand how his mother could stand to come every three months or so. It was like-

            There.

            Stiles.

            Derek came to a stop while still a distance away, for some reason fearing that Stiles might recognize him even though that was impossible. Instead, he squinted ever so slightly, willing his eyesight to become sharper to he could see.

            Stiles was along the back of the pen, sitting with one leg propped up, the other stretched out, head tilted towards a boy who was sitting close enough that their legs and shoulders were pressed together.

            Scott, Derek’s mind supplied, not even bothering to check the boy’s number to make sure he was right. He was. There was no mistaking the sense of familiarity and ease the two shared. For a moment, Derek thought he could smell the fondness and love that had wafted off Stiles before.

            Both seemed to be ignoring the crowd in favor of grinning and talking to each other so Derek moved closer, attempting to act like he was looking at all the slaves in the pen equally. And that he was comfortable. Or at least not absolutely disgusted.

            “I still say it’s your fault,” Stiles was saying. Derek was close enough now to see the bruise that covered the side of his face and smell the raw nerves that emanated from both boys, although they appeared casual.

            “No it wasn’t,” Scott said, sounding only fond and a bit embarrassed. “She was wearing grey pants! Dirty grey!”

            “They were like silk or something!” Stiles responded and Derek knew this was an old argument. “The material was shiny- they probably cost more than both of us combined!”

            “Grey is grey, Stiles. And they were baggy.”

            “So anyone wearing baggy, grey pants is entitled to our food?” Stiles said. “If we followed that rule, we would literally starve to death.”

            “She was six!” Scott said, waving his hands hopelessly. “She was six and she asked. You would have given her the food too.”

            “No, I would not have,” Stiles said, grinning. “I’m the smart one. I would have noticed that she was wearing rich people pants and that, I don’t know, she was a freaking werewolf!

            “There was no way for me to know that,” Scott said. “Besides… she was cute.”

            “Oh God,” Stiles groaned. “You don’t even feel bad, do you?”

            Scott started to shake his head, but Stiles cut him off.

            “We got nothing but water for four days for ‘being ungrateful and wasting food’ and you would probably do it again.”

            “Not if I knew she was a werewolf!” Scott said. “I mean… unless maybe she was like a neglected werewolf? Do they have those?”

            “I hate you,” Stiles informed Scott. “I really do.”

            There was a pause where Scott just smiled and Stiles rolled his eyes and the smell of love between the two was overwhelming. And Derek cringed because the smell of terror had increased as well, as if both slaves had just realized they might not see each other again.

            Derek double checked their numbers (even though he had already committed them to memory) and wrote them down.

            As he turned to walk to find a suitable girl, he heard Scott point out:

            “Hey! At least we got as much water as we wanted for those four days!”

            Stiles groaned.

 

*^*^

 

            Jennifer had simply nodded as he handed her the list, informing him that he had to stay but that most werewolves had slaves to handle the actually bidding process so he was free to sit back and just watch. Derek was grateful as the whole morning had him on edge. His head ached from the unpleasant smells and occasionally laughter from werewolves, which seemed out of place and he just… he just hated everyone right now. He hated all the werewolves he saw and hated that the other masters and slaves that saw him assumed he was the same way.

            And he wasn’t. His family wasn’t. Hale slaves were treated well. They were given at least three sets of clothes, their own bed, and allowed to shower daily. They certainly weren’t beaten. They were respected. They were happy. Jennifer, who ran the huge kitchen of the house like it was her own, was known for smiling and tutting and scolding the Hale children as if they were her own. Deaton, who was the head of the extensive gardens of the house, was often seen deep in consultation with his mother, the two chatting away like old friends about the benefits of certain flowers or herbs. Even Harris, the head of their household, who Derek personally thought was too stuffy and pompous for his own good, had received a formal apology from Cora whenever their mother discovered one of Cora's more destructive pranks.

            And he knew that not everyone treated their slaves like this. He could remember when Isaac had first arrived and had flinched and finally asked if he was going to be locked in a freezer if he didn’t behave. But that had been years ago, when Isaac was only 6 and Derek was 12 and he had assumed that that type of treatment was a rare case. That most werewolves treated their slaves like the Hales did and it was the rare outlier who was abusive and cruel.

            However, based on the scent of the slaves and the occasional snippets of conversation Derek heard…. He was no longer so sure. There was just an overall sense of… calm disinterest emanating through the werewolves that made him feel like he was the only one paying attention.

            Then the actual auction began and Derek clenched his fists hard enough that he broke the skin of his palms without even shifting his hands into claws. One slave at a time was brought up to the podium, made to spin in a circle, then forced to kneel (though it looked like few bothered resisting), and then the bidding began. All while the announcer, in a disgustingly nasal voice, talked about perceived strengths of the slave in an effort to drive the price up.

            The girl had come up first- she was about 14 with a sweet smile who smelled terrified but endearingly hopeful somehow. Her eyes stayed firmly on the ground but since Derek knew his mother was planning on getting Cora her first lady’s maid, he hoped this girl’s sweet nature would balance Cora out. Perhaps even calm her down a little. Of course, he had no idea what she was actually like but he had gone with his gut and that was that. Jennifer had bid on her smoothly and had flashed him a smile when she was finished. Derek hadn’t been able to return it as his mouth was still twisted in a grimace from hearing the announcer say: “Give her a few years, gentlemen, I’m sure she’ll grow a bit more.”

            Scott was next- almost an hour later. The announcer stayed focused on how well muscled he was, perfect for outdoor labor but if Scott heard any of it, Derek couldn’t tell. The slave didn’t bother to keep his eyes down, instead continuing to crane his head back towards the line to look for someone. It wasn’t inherently defiant and Scott looked no more than unfocused and slightly bored but Derek saw them force him to his knees with more force than necessary and shove his head down. Scott looked back up at them with his face in a frown of judgment if that were possible. But it made Jennifer chuckle a little bit to herself and Derek was pleased to see that so far Jennifer seemed to agree with his choices.

            Then, after another excruciating wait, Stiles’ number was called.

            “Well, look what we have here,” the announcer started and Derek tensed. His voice was already coy and suggestive and it was only made worse when Stiles was all but dragged to the stage. The bruises and scars somehow looked worse than they had before, standing out when compared with the other slaves who were cleaned up and relatively unharmed. “This is a pretty little thing, isn’t it?”

            The werewolf who had dragged Stiles out forced him into the turn when Stiles didn’t start it on his own, spinning him around quickly before slamming him to his knees.

            “A little used, yes,” the announcer was saying. “But, he sure looks good on his knees, doesn’t he?”

            There were a few chuckles from the crowd and Derek flinched as the scent of arousal hit his nose. When he looked back up, Stiles had recovered from being shoved down and was glaring at the announcer and the crowd. His jaw was clenched and angry and Derek thought he could smell the hatred from where he sat. The handler went to force his head down but Stiles flinched, jerking his head away.

            “And, look,” the announcer cooed. “He’s still got a bit of fight in him too!”

            Despite the apparent praise, the man still started the bidding at $50, the lowest so far.

            Out of the corner of his eye, Derek saw Jennifer frown at the sheet of paper in front of her, doubtless checking that she had the right one.

            “Get him,” Derek growled.

            “Are you sure?” Jennifer whispered. “He looks-”

            “Get him,” Derek repeated. He didn’t need to be told how Stiles’ looked. He looked defiant and in pain and angry and Derek told himself that he would buy him and then he could finally stop thinking about the stupid slave.

            Jennifer didn’t ask any more questions, simply pursed her lips and raised her hand and the bidding was done mercifully soon.

            Derek stood up immediately. There. It was over.

            “We’ll need to go around back to pay and pick them up,” Jennifer informed him, an air of disapproval and confused still hovering around her. He was content to follow her around the podium and main pens and stand where she pointed.

            “I’ll go pay at that desk there,” she said. “Wait here and watch for them. They’ll bring them to that holding pen there. It can take a little while to get them from their various cells or whatnot.”

            Derek nodded and stood off to the side, keeping his eyes pointed towards the pen while trying not to be too obvious. There were a few other werewolves standing about, but not many as the day was still fairly early.

            Scott arrived first, frowning and cocking his head as if he was trying to hear if Stiles’ number had been called yet. He didn’t pace, but he shifted back and forth, occasionally chewing on his thumbnail waiting for-

            “Scott!” Stiles’ call came from when he was still far off and Derek saw Scott’s face break into something too bright to be called a smile. It was absolute delight and it was mirrored on Stiles’ face.

             “Stiles!” Scott said, voice high pitched and excited. Derek watched as Stiles all but ran to the cage and the two boys threw themselves at each other. Their embrace was immediate and intense and Derek saw at least one cut reopen on Stiles’ back but the only scent Derek could smell was raw relief.

            “Told ya!” Scott said after a long moment, hitting Stiles playfully in the shoulder. “I told you it would work out!”

            “Oh shut up,” Stiles replied, but his grin seemed to stretch even wider and he pulled Scott in for another hug.

            “I’m always right,” Scott said, pulling back to bounce around excitedly. Derek thought he looked about ready to burst from excitement. “I knew it! I’m the best. Say I’m the best.”

            To Derek, it looked like the wave of relief had left Stiles’ almost weaker in its wake. Still, “you’re the best,” he dutifully repeated. And there was no change in his heartbeat to say it was a lie.

            “You’re the best, you’re always right, and I should always listen to you,” Stiles repeated as Scott sort of danced around him. Scott nodded happily next to him. “Though,” Stiles continued. “We’ve probably just been bought by some kind of cult. Werewolf cult. That eats people. Slowly. For cult sacrifice.”

            “Nope,” Scott said, shaking his head. “We’ve already proven I’m always right and I say it’s going to be fine. So it will be!”

            “Hmm,” Jennifer said from next to Derek and Derek felt himself jump. He had been paying too much attention to the new slaves. He had probably been staring. Luckily, both were still too enthralled with each other to even bother looking around yet.

            “He’s too skinny,” Jennifer said and Derek frowned. It was true, yes, Stile’s ribs were almost all clearly visible and his hip bones jutted out and he looked ready to collapse at any second but-

            “He’ll have to work in the kitchens at least at first,” Jennifer continued. “And see a doctor for those cuts.”

            Derek stared at her for a second, though her eyes were still firmly on the two boys. She was watching with an air of cautious fondness and Derek felt relief wash through him. She had decided to approve. She would take care of Stiles.

            “You did a good job,” she said. “I wasn’t sure but… but this was good.”

            Derek nodded his thanks and turned back to the boys, who now, it seemed, were deep in an argument about the best meal they’d ever had. Derek wasn’t sure how they got there. But it was over and they would go home and Derek could stop thinking about all this.

            It was done.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles was suspicious.

            He didn’t bother keeping it from his face either, which was already earning him some part-pitying, part-disapproving looks from everyone. This was fine with him. Those looks needed to be directed at him, not Scott. That was always step one of entering a new house. Make sure that everyone disliked him and loved Scott. It really wasn’t that hard to accomplish. And if looking suspicious was the trick in this house, Stiles was happy

            Besides, it wasn’t like he was faking the suspicion. He was well and truly positive that this was too good to be true. Well, as good as a life of slavery could get anyway.

            It had started when they were picked up by a matronly human – Jennifer Grant the cook, his brain supplied because Stiles didn’t forget people – and a dark-haired, angry looking werewolf – Derek Hale (he never added the “Master”; not in his head) – who seemed content to let the human do all the talking.

            Stiles had blatantly stared, frowning as he tried to get a read on the situation. Scott had already anointed himself the girl’s- Heather’s- protector with an overly enthusiastic handshake and stood ready to move if she was injured in any way, but Stiles knew Scott was still riding the joy of being together to properly assess anyone. Scott pretty much always failed at judging people. His conclusions were always positive.

            So Stiles had stared and actually made eye contact with Derek Hale and when he had decided to just fuck it and keep staring, it was Derek who looked away first. The werewolf had flicked his eyes over Stiles in a disapproving manner and his face had twisted in an even deeper frown but he had looked away. Stiles didn’t necessary see arousal there, it was more disgust but his gut had still clenched at the scrutiny. Disgust didn’t necessarily keep people away. He knew that.

            Still, it was suspicious that Derek didn’t verbally berate him for looking at him so obviously. And then Jennifer had informed them that the traditional strip search wouldn’t be necessary. Which actually made Stiles forget to glare for a moment because Scott already had his pants halfway down (probably to make the girl less embarrassed by going first) and his friend actually blushed and stammered an apology as he dragged his pants back up. Stiles had laughed before he remembered to stop himself.

            He hadn’t been disciplined for that either. Instead, Jennifer had simply pursed her lips as if to stop from smiling and started walking.

            It only got more suspicious from there. Stiles had managed to coordinate a trip next to where he and Scott had hid their meager possessions and snatch them back, shoving the tiny bag into the inner pants pocket he had meticulously sewn in. He didn’t get hit for that either. Jennifer frowned and Derek looked… well, he couldn’t actually tell how Derek looked. But he had put his head down and looked suitably apologetic and terrified and they had kept going. Scott was even smart enough to not reach over for a high five as he realized what Stiles had done. The boy had learned some sense along the way.

            Then there was the ride to the house, well estate really, where they were allowed to sit in seats and Jennifer told them a short history of the Hale estate. Then they were shown to their room, which was to house Stiles, Scott, and someone named Isaac where they each had their own bed. And there were a total of five beds in the room so they even got to choose which they wanted. Stiles glared Scott into the corner and took the one closest to the door.

            They each had a trunk and just as Stiles thought they that was incredibly stupid because there was nothing to put in the trunk (he had already stashed their bag in the pillowcase), they were taken to a room and told to find three sets of clothing that fit. Including underwear. And it wasn’t grey but a light blue that was actually soft to the touch and that’s about when Stiles decided that something was seriously wrong with the Hales. There was a catch here, he knew. And he could tell that by Scott’s increasingly surprised glances that even Scott could sense something was wrong. Then they were each given a pair of shoes and Scott looked downright worried.

            He didn’t like it, he decided as they stood in the small slave’s dining room waiting for the head of the household. Slaves weren’t meant to be treated like this. There was a catch.

            “Ah, here you are,” the voice came from a man who arrived through the door. He was wearing a crisp blue suit, standing overly straight, and managing to look down at all of them. Stiles hated him instantly. It was a relief.

            “Welcome to the Hale Household,” the man continued. “If you hope to remain here, you will be expected to perform all tasks to the best of your ability, respect the house and the grounds in all ways, and, of course, obey all members of the Hale family promptly and faithfully.”

            Stiles looked down so he could roll his eyes. He hated these people, the slaves who pretended they had some kind of say in their lives. The man probably loved the Hales, probably thought they loved him because he was their good little lapdog. Pathetic.

            He must not have hid his disgust as well as he thought, or maybe it was simply the bruise that took over half his face or maybe Stiles was just automatically despised by figures of authority, but regardless when he looked back up, the man was glaring at him. Stiles tried smiling. The glare turned into disgust.

            “I am Mr. Harris,” the man continued. “Head of the household here at Hale Manor.”

            There’s a tongue twister, Stiles thought, struggling to remain serious. This was all so ridiculous.

            “You may call me Mr. Harris or sir. Understood?”

            “Yes, sir,” Scott and Heather repeated dutifully. Stiles was a beat behind. Harris definitely hated him already.

            “Should you happen upon members of the Hale family, you will refer to them as Master or Mistress. Include their first name if it is not the alpha or her husband.”

            Stiles was bored. He could feel his attention wavering. It was only made worse when Harris turned to Heather.

            “You will be a lady’s maid for Mistress Cora. For the first few days, you will be studying under…”

            Stiles gave up trying to listen. His back itched. He thought wearing a shirt was making it worse. That would be his luck- finally allowed to wear a shirt and he actually hated it. Though maybe that was because it was kind of baggy on him. Though a tight one would be worse. Unless it acted like one big bandage? What was the difference, really, between a bandage and a really tight shirt? Maybe he could test that out someday. Of course, it was going to take him weeks to fill out even the smallest of shirts. Unless, he could steal one of Heather’s. She was pretty small. That could-

            “Stiles?” Harris’ voice cut through his thoughts. It was a slight question as if he could tell Stiles had been paying no attention. “You will be working with Ms. Grant in the kitchen. She will have more details about your duties and what she expects of you.” Stiles nodded, muttering something that could have been a “yessir” if you were being generous. Harris had already turned to Scott.

            “And, finally, you will be reporting to Mr. Deaton in the gardens.”

            Gardens, Stiles thought. Outdoors, flowers, manual labor. Not good.

            “Can we switch?” he asked before the thought was even fully formed. Scott couldn’t work outside. Not with gardening. Too many flowers and movement and they hadn’t managed to secure an inhaler in almost a year. The one he had was probably empty. Or expired. Expired! Stiles hadn’t even thought of that. He had to check that when he got back to the room.

            “What?” Harris sounded scandalized.

            “Switch?” Stiles repeated, waving a hand to stop Scott from saying anything. “Like, he works in the kitchen and I’ll take the gardens. I love gardening. Really. It’s one of my biggest passions. People have said I have a green thumb. Or fingers. Entire green hands right here.”

            Harris’ frown had turned stony. “Are you implying that you know more about your proper placement then your owners?”

            The answer was obviously no. Stiles knew that.

            “Well… yes,” he said. Scott groaned behind him. Stiles kept going, desperate. “I mean… they don’t really know anything about me. But I know me. And I know I’ve worked in gardens before-” Thank God Harris wasn’t a werewolf so he couldn’t hear what a lie that was. “So I know I’m really good at it. And so putting me there would just be economical really. Most bang for your buck. In fact, they would probably be grateful if you-”

            “That is enough,” Harris growled. His face was red and Stiles wondered briefly if he had pushed too far. He couldn’t actually get sold right away. The hand clamped and squeezing around his elbow seemed to agree. “You will not question the authority of the masters of this house. Is that clear?”

            “Uh-” Scott’s hand squeezed even tighter. “Yes.” Stiles dropped his head out of disappointment but tried to seem cowed. “Yes, sir. Right. Never again. Sir.”

            Harris continued to glare at him for a moment and then turned and motioned to someone waiting in the hallway. Scott took the opportunity to call Stiles an idiot with just his eyes. Stiles tried to convey that it had been worth a try. Scott remained firm on his point. Stiles conceded.

            “Isaac, please escort Scott to Deaton and let Mistress Cora know that her new lady’s maid is here to meet her, should she wish it.”

            “Sure thing, sir,” the boy replied. Stiles looked at him, trying to see any signs of what life was actually like here but the boy was tall and thin without looking sickly and seemed generally relaxed. He waved to Scott and walked out and Stiles was content to hope that he would be allowed to just head to the kitchens. Maybe snag a bite of food. Maybe more than a bite if his stomach could handle it.

            “Stiles,” Mr. Harris said, turning towards the door. “Master Derek has insisted that you see a physician.”

            Stiles froze, terror swamping his veins.

            “That’s-” he abruptly swallowed what he was going to say (That’s not necessary) when Harris looked back as if daring him to say the wrong thing. “Very generous.”

            Harris started walking and Stiles followed, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart in his ears and the way his vision seemed to fuzz around the edges. He was not having a panic attack right now. He wasn’t. It was just a trip to the doctor’s. Probably just to clean out the wounds in his back (unnecessary, Scott had already done that) or inspect how deep the scarring was on his chest (maybe necessary, he had pulled Scott’s haphazard stiches out himself and refused to let his friend anywhere near them). That would be all. Just a simple physical judging how weak or strong Stiles was or if he was healthy enough to fuck and that was no big deal.

            Stiles took a deep breath and forced himself to hold it, thankful that Harris was walking a head and didn’t seem inclined to glance behind him. He was okay. This was no problem. Nothing new. They had been owned by Matt for 16 months and Stiles was fine and Scott was happy and he could be happy again here. Different house. Different werewolf but same deal. And the deal was fine. Stiles wouldn’t complain.

End Part 1.

Chapter Text

Part II

 

            Derek didn’t see his mother alone until three days later when she wandered into his favorite spot, the library, and sat down. Derek didn’t think anything of it. She had her own book with her and rang Harris to request tea be brought up and his mother was known for keeping her schedule open in the afternoons. He had already turned his attention back to his book when she spoke.

            “So,” she said softly. “What did you think of the auction?”

            The question could have been casual except that she made no move to open her own novel. Instead she was peering intensely at him. It wasn’t quite the tone of an alpha to her beta, but Derek felt scrutinized anyway.

            “It was fine,” he said shortly. He didn’t want to talk about it. He had been trying to avoid thinking about it. And he didn’t know what answer his mother wanted. He knew that she went about once every three months and had been doing so for years, even if sometimes she came home with no new slaves to show for it.

            “Fine?”  Derek glanced over to see her eyebrow was raised.

            “I dunno,” he mumbled. He felt like a little kid again. He had never been good with words. Laura and Cora were the talkers. “It was… different. Than what I expected.”

            “How so?”

            Derek shifted. He didn’t know what to say. The auction had made him angry and sad and… uncomfortable in ways that he hadn’t anticipated. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want to go back.

            “It was just…” Maybe he was just being a naïve idiot. Maybe everyone knew that that’s how slaves were treated and he was just slow on the uptake. Maybe it didn’t even matter because humans were the weaker race, everyone knew that and so how they were treated wasn’t a big deal. Maybe he was an idiot for letting this upset him so much. “Some of the slaves were not treated well.” He finally said, aiming for some sort of neutrality.

            “That’s true,” his mother agreed, nodding slightly. “Coming here I’m sure will be a transition for some of them.”

            “I guess I hadn’t realized that,” Derek admitted, wishing he didn’t sound so clueless.

            “It’s not everywhere,” Talia said. “But-”

            It was at that moment that Jennifer arrived with the tea, smiling and bustling in. Seeing her was a relief, partly because she was a slave and seemed happy and partly because Derek didn’t know where the conversation was going and Jenny's presence interrupted it smoothly.

            “Tea for you!” Jennifer said. “I figured I’d bring it myself since dinner seems to be well in hand.”

            “Thank you very much,” Talia replied, smiling back. “It looks lovely as always. And everything is well downstairs? The new arrivals are settling in okay?”

            “Oh, Heather’s lovely,” Jennifer replied. “Very levelheaded young lady. She might even managed to calm Mistress Cora down if we’re lucky!”

            “Well, Lord knows someone has to try,” Talia said, rolling her eyes.

            “And the boys are good, skinny at twigs, both of them but nothing a pinch of peanut butter won’t fix!”

            “Peanut butter?” Derek asked.

            “Best weight gain trick there is,” Jennifer replied. “Good source of protein and fat. Plus you can slather it on anything- sandwiches, fruit, you name it really. If that’s all, Mistress?”

            “Yes, thank you, Jennifer,” Talia replied and Jennifer was gone. Talia frowned a bit after her for a brief moment but turned to Derek calmly. He didn’t smell much off of her, but then again, she was the alpha.

            “Make sure you see your slaves are settling in happily in a few weeks, Derek,” she said, reaching to grab her book.

            “My slaves?” Derek echoed, frowning. What was his mother talking about? As the alpha, she technically owned all the slaves. It hadn’t even been his money to buy them.

            “Well, not Heather,” Talia conceded. “Cora will look after her, I’m sure. But the boys? You chose them to join this household, you should take some responsibility for them.”

            “But- how?” Derek asked. From Scott’s quick glance of warning and Stile’s blatant glare of challenge, he didn’t think either slave would appreciate talking to him. If the scent of terror and contempt was anything to go by, they would probably like him more if he stayed far away from them.

            “Talk to their supervisors for one,” his mother told him, looking slightly exasperated. “You sent the one to the doctor, did you see how his examination went?”

            “Yes,” Derek said, glad that he could tell his mother he had done something responsible on his own. He hadn’t necessarily been happy with the report- Stiles was severely malnourished and his injuries would take at least a few weeks to heal completely but there was no infection and he should be fine. “It’s was nothing too serious. Just… bangs and bruises.”

            “Hmm,” Talia said. “Well just make sure they’re okay then. It’s not hard, Derek. When Isaac arrived, Cora did it without having to be told.”

            Derek nodded even though that’s not quite how he remembered it. When a six year old Isaac arrived, Cora, who was only five and already a menace, had latched onto him and practically forced him to do nothing but play with her for months. Talia hadn’t even bothered assigning Isaac as a kitchen boy until after Cora had started school. Now that Isaac was apprenticed under Mr. Harris, Cora was near constantly getting him into trouble. Derek certainly couldn’t do that with Stiles or Scott. For one, he had his own research to attend to and two, they both were assigned jobs already. And they both hated him. There was that too.

            “Don’t frown too hard, Derek,” Talia said, smiling fondly. “Your face will stick like that.”

            The old joke just made Derek scowl harder.

 

*^*^

 

            Jennifer secretly loved when things went a little wrong in the kitchen and she was forced to stay late. Seeing as it was a kitchen that was tasked with feeding nine werewolves three meals a day and over 20 household staff, things often went wrong.

            But, there was something peaceful about working alone, doing basic tasks that she often would order someone else to do in the silence. She was just grabbing a knife to get down to chopping when the door slid open and Derek Hale poked his head through.

            He looked tentative and hopeful and Jennifer grinned as she confronted the real reason she loved working alone at nights. Feeding the midnight-snackers.

            All the Hales frequented the kitchens fairly regularly at night, following the example set by their mother that the staff was not to be disturbed after ten pm. Jennifer had fed them all at this hour at some point or another, but Derek seemed to be the most common visitor. When he was a growing teenager, it had been nearly every night and Jennifer had simply gotten used to being there. In part it was because Derek wouldn’t be contented with merely chips or cookies, wanting entire sandwiches or burgers and in part it was because Derek was seemed more relaxed at night. Now, even though he was obviously done with his growth spurt, Jennifer suspected he waited for when she was there and came anyway.

            Jennifer loved all of the Hales- from Laura’s inherent bossiness to Cora’s rebellious inquisitiveness- but there was a special spot in her heart for Derek. He was a sea of calm in a family that was loud and oversharing and Jennifer could relate. Sometimes quiet was a good thing.

            “We have leftover pizza,” she offered, wandering over to one of the two fridges in the kitchen. “Or I could reheat steak?”

            “Pizza, please,” he said. “Cold’s fine.”

            Jennifer grabbed a plate and stuck it in front of him, ready to turn back to her chopping. Then she noticed that Derek hadn’t started eating right away.

            “Everything okay?” she asked, frowning.

            “Yeah,” he said, frowning a bit. “Uh- How’s Stiles? Doing, I mean. Is he… settling in?”

            Jennifer ducked her head to keep a small smile from her face, inwardly delighted at how awkward Derek still managed to sound after all these years.

            Then she kept it down as she grabbed the tomatoes because she had no idea what to say.

            Stiles was… It had been two weeks and Jennifer still had no idea what Stiles was.

            In ways, Stiles was everything she feared he would be when she saw him glaring at the audience, practically daring anyone to buy him. He wasn’t openly rude or disobedient. There was too much fear and caution instilled in him for that. But he didn’t trust. And he wasn’t opening up.

            He was wary towards everything. He was wary of the other staff and particularly towards her. But Jennifer had dealt with that before. She was used to jumpy new slaves, who scrambled to be perfect and flinched and cringed when they made a mistake. She was used to patiently and kindly showing them that they were safe. That the Hales were different.

            Stiles wasn’t like that. He was… contained. She knew he was scared, she didn’t have to be a werewolf to notice him tense every time he was forced to interact directly with the Hales. But he didn’t show it. He didn’t stammer apologies and beg for forgiveness when he had dropped a glass earlier this week and it shattered. Instead, he had gone still, taken one deep breath, and turned to stare at her directly. There was a challenge there too. He wasn’t sorry, his eyes seemed to say. And he wasn’t scared of her. Jennifer thought she could have ordered him flogged right there and he still wouldn’t have allowed himself to move a single muscle.

             He was smart too. He watched everything. He measured everything. Jennifer suspected that he had memorized every recipe that had been made in the kitchen since he arrived. He could probably be a brilliant chef if he put his mind to it. But she knew that’s not even what he was truly focused on. Because he was mostly watching the people. He watched how she interacted with the staff and how the staff interacted with her and seemed to be waiting for something. She wasn’t sure what. But he seemed to get more restless the longer it took to get there.

            And, again, he was smart. When Jennifer had ordered him to stop just standing there and grab the broom to sweep up his mess, she hadn’t missed the frown of confusion that crossed his face. And he hadn’t missed that there was no punishment.

            He had started testing the limits the next day.

            First, he had stopped saying “Yes, ma’am” whenever she told him to do anything. She had barely even noticed because honestly the kitchen was a loud place and almost no one bothered to reply to every single order she gave around here. And she didn’t care. But then he’d done it in front of Mr. Harris who of course had noticed and informed Stiles to treat her with the proper respect and Stiles had nodded and parroted the words back dutifully. Then Harris had left and Stiles had dropped the title again and looked at her thoughtfully.

            The next day, the pots hadn’t been washed thoroughly. Jennifer had calmly informed him that he would have to do them all over again but hadn’t said any more than that. Again, there was no complaint, just that same calculating look and Jennifer knew then that it was going to get worse.

            Stiles could mess up the kitchen if he wanted to. He could lose ingredients, or chop too slowly, or break glasses, or do a thousand other little things that Jennifer couldn’t even think of. But she didn’t doubt that Stiles had thought of them. And if she were being honest, she didn’t have a clue what to do about it. The Hales didn’t beat their slaves. She didn’t want to have to yell at Stiles or threaten him or whatever else his previous masters did to keep him in line. She’d never had to do that before.

            “He’s not gaining weight like he should,” Jennifer said when it became clear she had to fill the silence with something. “He’s barely gained any and it’s been two weeks.”

            She continued focusing on chopping, hoping that Derek would be distracted by her answer and not ask any more questions.

            Because, despite it all, Jennifer didn’t want to see Stiles in trouble. Because, yes, he was the boy she saw on the stage, but he was also the boy she saw run into a cage into a hug, laughing and delighted. He was also Scott’s best friend.

            The outdoor slaves didn’t usually interact with the indoor slaves too much. Jennifer had food waiting for them early in the morning when they rose and sent food out to them for lunch. And all the slaves ate dinners at different times depending on their duties.

            Still, the second morning, Jennifer had seen both Stiles and Scott huddled together at the far corner of the table, talking eagerly even though Stiles didn’t have to be up for another hour. Stiles had even asked- politely!- if he could eat his lunches out with Scott instead of inside with the others if he promised to be back in time to help with dinner. And Jennifer had obviously said yes and Stiles had looked pleased before he remembered to be suspicious.

            And then that evening, Scott had showed up. His hair was still damp from the shower and his eyes were big and hopeful and trusting in all the ways that Stiles wasn’t. He had all but begged to be allowed to sit in the corner, by where Stiles was washing dishes, promising that he wouldn’t get in the way or distract anyone and that he would even help out if she wanted. Jennifer had been surprised enough (most of the garden staff was known to use their evenings to relax and rest) that it had taken her a moment to react and Scott had risen his eyebrows up even higher and his eyes practically glittered and Jennifer actually rolled her eyes as she said yes because there was no way that that boy didn’t know exactly what he was doing with that puppy dog face.

            Except the smile he gave her in return was so earnest and thankful that she thought maybe he didn’t.

            It was the one time of day that Stiles relaxed, Jennifer thought, when Scott came and perched himself in the corner. Scott would smile and tease and say “Dude, chill!” when Stiles tried to keep tabs on everyone and everything in the room and Stiles obeyed, reducing his glares to anyone who even seemed to glance at Scott. Scott sometimes helped Stiles with whatever task he was doing, dutifully drying the dishes as Stiles washed them, sometimes he simply sat and talked, and sometimes he actually drifted to sleep before Stiles would kick him out, telling him to go get some rest. The two times that had happened, Stiles face has formed into a small, fond smile before he looked angry and annoyed that he had given so much away. Every other time, Scott had stayed until Jennifer released Stiles and the two had left together, dangling off each other as if the other might disappear at any moment.

            It had been two weeks, and Stiles had finally started talking back, his voice usually pitched low enough that no one but Scott could hear. Jennifer was usually too busy to pay much attention either way.

            Yesterday, Stiles had laughed. It was a loud, joyful bark that he quickly stifled, shoving his hand over his mouth even while his shoulders still shook and for once it was Scott who was glaring around the room protectively as Stiles ducked his head and gasped for air. There wasn’t as much warning in his glare, more casual conviction that Stiles should not and would not be punished for this. It was a look that expected to be obeyed without being defiant. Jennifer had actually smiled at him and Scott had beamed back at her. It was as if she’d passed some kind of test.

            Stiles was Scott’s best friend and Scott was unequivocally good and so Jennifer knew that Stiles must be good too. She knew awful things must’ve happened to force him to be the way he was. It was just easier to remember that when Scott was around to soften his edges.

            “He’s not?” Derek asked, sounding annoyed in a way that Jennifer knew meant he was concerned. “The peanut butter isn’t working?”

            “I guess not,” Jennifer replied, frowning a bit herself. Scott had put on weight and muscle fairly rapidly, clearly benefiting from three proper meals a day. Even Heather, who hadn’t been nearly as malnourished as the boys, had flourished. It was only Stiles who seemed to be floundering. He had put on some, his face no longer looked quite so sickly (it helped that the bruising had finally faded), but his clothes still hung off of him and his hands and wrists still looked skeletal.

            “Is he not eating?” Derek asked.

            “I don’t see why he wouldn’t be,” Jennifer replied. It was true that she didn’t see Stiles eat often since he seemed uncomfortable eating in front of people. Even when he wasn’t out at lunch with Scott, he often grabbed the plate of food she made him and headed somewhere unseen. But it always returned empty.

            “Well, are you giving him the right stuff?” Derek said. Jennifer glared at him. Derek dropped his eyes.

            “I know what food to give people suffering from malnourishment,” she said coolly. “Fruits, nuts, breads- nothing too heavy. We’ve just started on chicken as well.”

            “Not red meat?” Derek sounded doubtful. Jennifer rolled her eyes. Werewolves.

            “They’ve probably been vegetarians for some time now,” Jennifer replied. “You can’t just start eating meat again if your body isn’t used to it.”

            “Oh. Right,” Derek said, looking embarrassed. “Uh… could you give him… more?”

            “The boy has eaten enough peanut butter and banana sandwiches that he should have been gaining more weight,” Jennifer replied. “I’m just letting you know that if he doesn’t start gaining weight soon, there might be something wrong with his stomach. He might have to go to the doctor again and get some tests done.”

            “Okay,” Derek said, nodding. “Okay, well let me know when you think it’s bad enough to call in a… doctor.”

            “I’d give him a few more weeks,” Jennifer replied. “Sometimes it takes people longer to transition. He was a good deal more sickly than Scott. And Scott wasn’t that well-off.”

            “Humans are so fragile,” Derek muttered unhappily.

            “Werewolves could suffer from starvation too,” Jennifer said. “Though you probably would recover faster.”

            “Alright, so he’s not gaining weight. Anything else?” Derek asked and Jennifer should have realized that her distraction tactic was not going to be work. Derek was Talia’s son after all.

            “Give him some time,” she told him, unable to keep the sadness from her voice. “He’s… I think he’s been through a lot. It’s only been two weeks.”

            There was a lot more that she wasn’t telling Derek but he nodded at her. Maybe he didn’t want to push the issue as badly as she didn’t want him to.

            “I’ll keep an eye out as well,” Derek promised as if he was making a big decision.

            Jennifer nodded and then Derek turned his full attention to his pizza. In silence, he ate and she chopped and it was peaceful.

 

*^*^

 

            Derek couldn’t help but feel an immense sense of relief as he left Deaton’s, thankful that at least Scott’s checkup had gone smoothly. Even if talking to Deaton was always a bit unsettling, in Derek’s opinion. He didn’t see how his mother did it so often. Maybe Deaton was a bit less cryptic with her. It just seemed the man loved speaking in oddly vague phrases. Even when answering direction questions.

            “He’s… cautious,” Deaton said after frowning in thought for what Derek thought was an entirely strange amount of time. He didn’t say anything more.

            “Cautious?” Derek repeated. He didn’t even know what context Deaton was talking about. Cautious with tools? With Deaton? Luckily, Deaton blinked slowly and actually clarified.

            “He’s a little slow with his work, but not because he’s lazy or fooling around but he moves… like he’s not sure of himself. Cautious.”

            “Is that a… problem?” Derek asked because Deaton didn’t sound annoyed by it. More vaguely curious.

            “No,” Deaton replied and Derek relaxed a little. Thank God. He would have had no idea what to do if Deaton had expected him to actually make Scott move faster. He wasn’t even sure he knew how to do that. “No, he does a good job. He’s fine.”

            “Any problems with the other staff?” Derek asked. Jennifer hadn’t said as much, but it seemed Stiles was having some trouble connecting with the others. Maybe Scott was too.

            Deaton actually laughed at that. “Scott? Oh heavens no. Everyone loves him. And he seems to love everybody. He’s even taken Greenburg under his wing.”

            “Good,” Derek said, nodding. At least one of his charges seemed to be settling in. “Well, I’ll be se-”

            “He’s a leader,” Deaton interrupted, looking at Derek like this was significant. “He inspires loyalty. Naturally.”

            Derek was back in the realm of confusion. Deaton was still looking at him like he was expecting Derek to know what he was talking about. Derek had no idea. Was Deaton asking him to teach Scott to be his official replacement? Did he think Scott should go work for Harris and train as Head of the Household?

            “Uh- okay,” Derek said. Deaton nodded seriously. Derek nodded back. Deaton turned back to the flowers he was trimming or planting or something. Derek decided to walk away.

            So, no, he didn’t know exactly what Deaton had meant entirely but still… it was an overall positive review. It was much better than Jennifer’s obvious worry and careful words of last night.

            He turned towards the house, thinking he should check in on Cora and Heather, even though his mother had told him it was unnecessary. His mother had also said that he was responsible for the slaves he bought. And, really, someone should always make sure Cora wasn’t forcing slaves to do too many crazy stunts or pranks.

            A slight scent of Stiles stopped him and without really thinking about it, he followed it. It led him further away, towards where the woods came up to the back of the vegetable garden. He looped into the woods and came from around the back and then stopped when he could easily hear voices but before they would be able to see him.

            He wasn’t snooping. Or hiding from his own slaves. He was just observing. Unseen.

            What he saw didn’t make him happy.

            Scott was sitting on the ground, back against a tree, eating a sandwich while Stiles seemed to be digging a thin trench in the ground.

            “I’m just saying,” Stiles was saying as he forced the shovel into the ground. “It doesn’t seem necessary.”

            “It’s to keep deer and stuff out of the garden,” Scott said around a mouthful of food. “It’s probably necessary.”

            “Dude, think about it. It’s a house of werewolves. I bet they could like scent-mark this place up and all types of furry woodland creatures would turn tail and head the other way.”

            Stiles didn’t seem overly serious but Scott had a puzzled frown on his face as if he was considering the suggestion. Derek watched as Stiles shook his head fondly before turning his attention back to the ditch. He managed a few more scoops before Scott spoke up.

            “They’d probably have to come out and scent mark it pretty often,” Scott said. “And how do werewolves even scent-mark stuff anyway?”

            “Dunno,” Stiles said. His heart was pumping too fast from the exercise to really tell if he was lying but Derek thought that maybe he was. “Maybe if they just came out and like pissed in a circle around the garden.”

            “Every day?”

            “Sure,” Stiles said, grinning. “Save on plumbing too.”

            Scott did laugh at that and Derek would have found the boy’s open, honest chuckle more endearing had he not also leaned over to snag the second plate of food, which must belong to Stiles and grab the sandwich off that as well. Derek didn’t understand it. Why was Scott stealing Stiles’ food? And why was Stiles stuck digging the trench for the fence? He thought these two were supposed to be best friends. 

            “I’d like to see you propose that idea to Harris,” Scott said. “Apple?”

            “Yeah, sure,” Stiles said and Derek was slightly relieved to see Scott toss him one which Stiles bit into before tossing it back and turning back to his work. “And, psh, Harris? A great idea like this has gotta go straight to the big dog herself. This is an Alpha-idea, Scotty. Talia needs to know.”

            Derek’s hackles had twitched at the dog reference and then raised fully to hear his mother referred to so casually. To family, she was Mom and maybe close friends called her Talia but everyone else, even Deaton, always called her “Mistress Hale” or “Alpha” at the very least.

            “Dude,” Scott said, glancing around as if he had caught Stiles’ disrespect. Stiles merely grinned at him, unrepentant.

            “Anyway, I’m just saying it would be easier than building a new fence every time you make the garden a little bigger,” Stiles said. “Probably cheaper too. They wouldn’t’ve had to buy you. And feeding you can’t be cheap either. Look how fat you’re getting.”

            “Hey!” Scott sounded offended as he looked down at himself. “I’m not getting fat! This is all muscle.”

            “Mhmm,” Stiles hummed.

            “You’re just freakishly thin,” Scott muttered, sounding a bit worried for a moment. Then he turned and chucked the apple at Stiles head. “Here. Eat your apple.”

            Stiles laughed as he dodged but didn’t manage to avoid the second one that Scott threw his way.

            “Hey! Stiles said, carefully placing both to the side. “Stop ruining my lunch. And I’m trying to get some work done here! Ungrateful little prick.” Derek could see that Stiles wasn’t serious but the words still reminded Derek that he was angry. Jennifer was all worried that Stiles wasn’t gaining weight and it turned out there might be such a simple reason for it.

            “Isn’t that your job?” he asked, striding into their line of vision.

            It was only after both boys jumped, Scott literally jumping up and dumping the plate and its contents from his lap to the ground, Stiles flinching and spilling dirt all over his pants, that Derek realized he probably should have made some noise before his arrival. And maybe he shouldn’t have opened with a question that sounded so much like an accusation.

            “M-Master Derek,” Scott finally said, heart still beating way too fast. He seemed to remember abruptly that he might be expected to bow but when he went to do it, he realized he was still holding a sandwich. Stiles’ sandwich. Quickly, he bent down and flipped the plate over and shoved it onto it. “Uh- what are you- I mean, can we help you with something?”

            Stiles didn’t say anything. He just stood there, heart pounding way too fast, the scent of fear and anger radiating from him, hands clenched tightly around the shovel he hadn’t yet put down.

            “What’s he doing here?” Derek asked, trying to sound calmer. Given the worried look Scott gave Stiles, he didn’t think it worked.

            “It’s his lunch break,” Scott said quickly. “He asked Jenn- Ms. Grant for permission. She said it was okay. Really. He’s not doing anything wrong.”

            Scott wasn’t lying, which was a relief.

            “Does she know he’s doing your work?” Derek asked, frowning.

            “Uh, no,” Scott said, glancing around uncertainly. His eyes flicked up to meet Derek’s before landing on the ground again. “Probably… not. He’ll stop, Master Derek. Right away.” Scott smelled only of nervousness and tension. No defiance. No guilt.

            “It’s my lunch break,” Stiles said suddenly and he wasn’t even pretending to look at the ground. The scent of fear intensified, but the cool smell of anger still outweighed it. “Isn’t it- Well, don’t I get to pick what I do with it?”

            “Stiles,” Scott started, voice tense and pleading. “Don’t-”

            “It’s just a question,” Stiles said and then his eyes dropped to the ground briefly in a show of completely fake deference. “I just want to be clear on the rules. Sir.”

            “He’ll stop,” Scott said firmly, glaring at Stiles.

            “No,” Derek said, feeling out of his depth. This hasn’t gone as expected. He expected Stiles to be grateful for the intervention or Scott to offer some excuse or- or he had no idea what to expect really. He was making a mess of this. “No, that’s- it’s your break,” he finally said out. “You can do whatever you wish.”

            Stiles flashed a grin at Scott, lightning fast and proud even though Scott just rolled his eyes.

            “But you should be eating your lunch,” Derek insisted. Surprisingly, this time both of them tensed. Scott smelled terrified for an instant. Which didn’t make any sense. “Jennifer said you should be gaining more weight.”

            He meant it to come out more concerned and friendly. Instead, Stiles stood even straighter.

            “It hasn’t affected my work yet, has it?” he asked. Scott didn’t give Stiles a glare of warning this time. Instead he was watching Derek intensely, face working into a frown. Mutely, Derek shook his head. Stiles nodded at him. “Well, then, I think I can choose what I put into my own body.”

            Derek almost growled. That wasn’t what this was about. This wasn’t some weird control thing he wanted to have over Stiles. This was him trying to make sure Stiles was okay. This was him trying to be a good… owner or whatever. How did anyone manage slaves without coming off like an asshole?

            “Unless you’re ordering me to eat it?” Stiles asked and it was a challenge. Stiles didn’t even pretend to be anything other than defiant. More surprisingly, Scott took an instinctive step between them, still focused entirely on Derek. He smelled… taunt. He smelled like he would act if Derek said yes. Thought what he would do, Derek had no idea.

            “No,” Derek ground out. This was a disaster. He was pretty sure this was a power play that he was losing but he didn’t know how to win without being a monster. “Look, I’m just trying to make sure you’re okay. Health-wise.” His shoulders had hunched instinctively. He felt like he did when Laura and Cora ganged up on him and forced him to do something he didn’t want. And he felt bad because they clearly thought he was a dick. And he wasn’t. God, going to the slave auction had been such a mistake. He was never playing tag with Cora again.

            If anything, Stiles looked even more suspicious, not as defiant anymore, but oddly resigned. Scott, on the other hand, dropped his glare immediately and practically beamed up at Derek.

            “Oh,” Scott said, looking slightly surprised but mostly relieved. He smelled the same, which was odd. People rarely smelled exactly how they looked. “Well, that’s really nice, man! Uh- I mean, Master Derek. But, really, we’re fine. Promise.”

            If anything, Scott’s instant gratitude, as if Derek was a great guy just for making sure his slaves didn’t starve to death, made Derek even more uncomfortable. Especially when Stiles was now rolling his eyes at Scott’s back. Time to get out of here.

            “Well,” Derek said. “Have a nice lunch. Let me know if you need anything.” Then he turned and walked off. Though not far enough that he couldn’t hear when they started talking.

            “Dude!” Scott started first. He sounded angry. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

            Stiles didn’t say anything, thought Derek heard the sounds of dirt being scooped up with a shovel. Scott didn’t take his silence as an acceptable answer.

            “You’ve got to stop doing that,” Scott continued. “It’s- He seemed fine, Stiles. He just wanted to make sure I wasn’t like… bullying you into doing my work and giving me your lunch.”

            “He doesn’t know anything about us,” Stiles muttered back darkly. “He doesn’t know anything about you if he thought that you would bully anybody.”

            “Obviously!” Scott said. “That’s why it’s nice he thought to check on you!”

            “Nice?” The laugh that accompanied Stiles’ words was bitter and Derek felt his gut twist. “He’s not nice, Scott. He’s a fucking werewolf. He owns us. I guarantee you there’s nothing nice about it.”

            “Stiles,” Scott said and his voice was soft and sad. “Not every werewolf is like-”

            “Don’t,” Stiles interrupted. “Just shut up, Scott. Let’s not forget the facts here. They’re the masters, we’re the slaves, and at the end of the day, they’re in charge. Doesn’t matter how nice any of it seems.”

            There was a beat of silence. Then,

            “We should’ve asked him to pee as long as he was here,” Scott said casually and Stiles barked a surprised laugh.

            “Poop might be even more effective,” Stiles replied. “We’d have to try both I think. For science.”

            “Dude, gross,” Scott said and from the sound of it, he was back to eating Stiles’ lunch. “Even we would be repulsed by that.”

            Derek frowned as he walked away, understanding why Jennifer had been so careful talking about Stiles. He didn’t know what to do about the young man either. He seemed so different, so much harder than the boy he had met in the pantry those weeks ago. He didn’t smile or ramble or blush or try to be nice even when he was the one whimpering in the corner. Derek didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know how to get that person back.

            Hopefully time would work. It was the only idea he had.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles snapped awake for the third time around two in the morning and decided that enough was enough. His stomach was growling – it had been pad thai at dinner this evening, so Stiles had eaten exactly zero – and apparently, it was going to be one of those nights. Those nights where his subconscious enjoyed playing the greatest hits of “Worst Moments of Stiles’ Life” on repeat.

            Stiles’ subconscious sucked.

            But, over the past 18 years of life, his stealth skills had gotten pretty good. When he was relaxed, just hanging out with Scott, he could still manage to trip over his own feet. But, he knew how to focus. He knew how to control himself. He had learned fairly quickly. It was a necessity, really, sneaking around, making sure they had enough food, stealing what he could to make sure they had medical supplies for Scott. And, of course, keeping Scott unaware of some of the details of what he was doing. Because he loved Scott, but this was his job and Scott would try to stop him if he knew.

            Well, at this moment, since Stiles was off to steal food for himself, Scott would probably offer to come along. Which, while well-meaning, would also be horrible because Scott had the stealth skills of a large bear. Or some other type of large, bumbling woodland creature.

            Once his course of action was decided, Stiles was up in an instant, pausing long enough to make sure both Scott and Isaac remained deeply asleep. In this case, Isaac was the one to worry about. Scott could sleep through anything but Isaac… Isaac woke up with his own nightmares some nights. Stiles knew because if anyone so much as snored too loud in their room, he was up. So Isaac’s grumbles of distress were never anything he was going to miss. Stiles wasn’t close with Isaac but he and Scott got along famously and so Stiles had taken to sneaking out and grabbing him a glass of water when the younger boy snapped awake, gasping. It seemed like a nice thing to do; it’s what Stiles always wanted when he woke up, and Isaac always flashed him a grateful smile in the morning. Scott would be proud.

            Scott would probably also manage to actually say something comforting besides “Nightmares suck.” But, hey, it had only been two times in the three and a half weeks they had been there. Maybe Stiles would think of something better to say next time.

            He should probably ask what they were about, Stiles thought casually as he slowly opened the door and slipped into the hallway. In the interest of research and finally figuring out what the Hale family was hiding. But not even he would push that hard. Nightmares were private. They should stay that way.

            Stiles moved through the house quickly, staying alert and cautious even though he knew from previous experience that no one should be awake right now. Jennifer stayed late in the kitchen often enough, but she was usually gone a little after midnight. Harris had a private office next to his bedroom closer to the family’s suites and so, even though he worked late, he wouldn’t be around. The only other slaves he’d seen wandering during his late-night escapades were one of the gardeners who he didn’t recognize, Deaton, who had actually seen him and merely given him a nod like he wasn’t surprised or concerned, and Heather.

            Heather had been with Cora. Luckily, the two were too busy giggling to each other as they ran towards Cora’s suite to even notice him. At least Heather seemed happy.

            Stiles shifted uncomfortably at the thought, straining his ears to listen as he got closer to the kitchens. Werewolves were practically famous for their appetites. It wasn’t that he didn’t want Heather to be happy. It was just that it didn’t make sense.

            Stiles hadn’t been beaten in three and a half weeks. Not only that, he hadn’t been pushed or shoved or punished at all. Sure, he’d had to stay late and re-wash the dishes a few times but he had done them poorly on purpose so he couldn’t really blame Jennifer for that. When he purposefully starting chopping vegetables at half-speed, Jennifer had made him skip his lunch break to finish. When he’d broken three plates in a day, she’s merely sent him to Harris for extra chores to make up the cost during lunch and dinner.

            These were consequences, yes, but not real punishments. Hell, she had even had a piece of bread sent up to him so that he didn’t miss dinner completely. Like missing one meal would have any effect on Stiles. Their third master used to make a game of seeing how long they could last before passing out.

            Jennifer’s looks had gradually shifted from concern to disappointment to disapproval to downright annoyance but if she thought any of those were going to deter Stiles, she was wrong. She would break at some point. Because, nice or not, there were always limits to what slaves could actually get away with. And it was Stiles’ job to find them.

            Stiles told himself it was so that he would know them and keep Scott well away from them. And that was certainly part of it. He couldn’t just forget the times when Scott had used the bathroom without permission and been forced to sleep outside for three days. So Stiles tried to do all the stupid shit first.

            Of course, it was also because Stiles always was curious. The more you knew about a place, the less you had to be afraid of. Even if the punishment was awful, if it was consistent, at least you didn’t give them the satisfaction of surprising you.

            And, most importantly, if werewolves assumed you were still trying to pull the little stuff, they never suspected you of breaking the bigger rules.

            Stiles had already found three ways to sneak out of the Hale estate. He had already used one once and wandered the nearby areas of the city. He could do it again in a heartbeat if he had to. 

            Stiles grinned a little at the information, taking one last look around before he opened the heavy door the kitchen and stepped inside. It wasn’t even locked. The smell hit him almost immediately and his stomach rumbled in response.

            “Alrighty,” Stiles breathed as the door swung shut. “Time to eat.

            Stealing from werewolves was always tricky. Of course, at least this time he had a good excuse for his scent to be lingering around the place, but unfortunately stealing from Jennifer was probably even worse. He’d only had to watch her for a few days to realize that she was incredibly organized. She knew almost exactly what leftovers were available and how much should be in the fridge and who had used what ingredients last. It made sneaking food during the workday nearly impossible.

            But night, well, night was a different story. And no one person could remember exactly how much food was left.

            Stiles moved through the kitchen with practiced ease, snagging little bits and pieces of things that no one could possibly notice was missing. The Hales kept enough bread on hand that no one would note if the amount of sandwiches made didn’t add up to the right amount and stealing one slice of every lunch meat available made for an impressive pile. Then it was a handful of two different types of chips, a spoonful of fruit salad (Stiles may have actually risked sneaking a few bites of watermelon while he was chopping because… c’mon it was watermelon) and it was just as Stiles was stretching towards the top shelf for the finishing touch (cookies, always chocolate chip cookies) that the door suddenly  swung open with a bang.

            “Motherfucking shit,” Stiles gasped, unable to stop himself from being surprised. He had gotten way too excited for this sandwich. He had forgotten to fucking listen. Then it got worse as he turned to see, not Jennifer as he had sort of hoped but goddam Derek Hale.

            He was dead. He was so dead.

            Well, this was one way to find the limits. Christ, Stile was going to be lucky if he got out of this with a simple beating. This was a flogging offense. Or starvation. Or maybe both, thrown in with some time in solitary.

            Despite himself, Stiles shivered. He hated solitary. It was the drive to avoid that that drove his head down.

            “Master Derek,” he said, still a bit breathless from his shock. “Uh-”

            “What are you doing?” Derek asked, blinking sleep from his eyes. He was sleepy, Stiles realized. Maybe he could use that to his advantage.

            Maybe he could drop to his knees and offer a quick blowjob and Derek would agree to forget all about this.

            “It’s- uh- for you?” Stiles heard himself say. Dammit, Derek wasn’t the only one not operating at full capacity. He could come up with a better excuse than that. But, hell, maybe if he took full advantage of Derek’s lack of awareness, he could just leave. He smiled in what was supposed to be a pleasant and helpful expression and pushed the plate across the counter so it was resting in front of the werewolf.

            “There you go, Master. Glad I could help,” Stiles said, inching towards the door well out of arm’s reach. He could get out of this. Just had to stay calm and not freak out and he could go back to his nice bed and catch some sleep and it would all be okay. Well, there was no way he was sleeping now but he was almost to the door and-

            “Stop,” Derek grunted, rubbing a hand over his face. Stiles tried to ignore how his heart started pounding again. He shouldn’t be this nervous. Just because he had been there three weeks and had no idea what the Hales’ preferred method of punishment was didn’t mean it was going to be anything he hadn’t experienced before.

            If the way Derek’s intense gaze flicked up and down was any indication, Stiles knew exactly what the punishment was going to be. He had even given the werewolf the perfect opportunity- it was two in the morning and they were alone. His stomach turned but he made himself walk back into the center of the kitchen.

            “Why are you stealing food in the middle of the night?” Derek asked, frowning.

            “Can I really steal food?” Stiles said, trying to keep his voice casual. “I mean, technically you own the food and you own me so can a possession steal another possession when both are owned by the same person? It’s more like simple… relocation.”

            Stiles had tried this exact argument with their master right before Matt. The werewolf wasn’t very smart so he liked to think it failed because Edward had simply failed to see the brilliance of it. It also could have been that he didn’t get to finish his argument. Right around this point was when he got backhanded across the face and then kicked until he was vomiting up all the stolen food and some blood.

            But Derek just blinked at him and Stiles wanted to keep talking because talking meant they weren’t doing anything else and it’s not like he could make this situation any worse so he might as well keep going.

            “I mean, if you wear a coat and a scarf and some of the scarf’s threads get left behind on the coat, then did the coat actually steal parts of the scarf? I don’t think so. Or- or if you owned a tree and a horse and the horse ate part of the tree. Can’t really arrest the horse for stealing, can you? Well, that might be more because you can’t actually arrest a horse- but you can’t arrest me either. No justice system required. But-uh-”

            “Fine,” Stiles was almost grateful Derek had cut him off. He was rapidly losing traction with that argument. Plus he had just compared himself to a coat and a horse. “Why are you eating food in the middle of the night?”

            “I wasn’t,” Stiles said. “I was just preparing it!”

            “You shouldn’t lie to a werewolf,” Derek said and he sounded… amused? Maybe? Oh, great he was one of those that liked to toy with his slaves first.

            Matt liked that too.

            “I know that,” Stiles said. It came out sharper than he intended because it was late and he was tired and he didn’t need any more comparisons to Matt happening at the moment. “Look, I stole it ‘cause I was hungry and we both know it so let’s just… get this over with.”

            He waved a hand in Derek’s general direction. Derek’s face turned stony again.

            “Maybe you wouldn’t be so hungry if you didn’t give your lunch to Scott.”

            Stiles didn’t even bother hiding his groan. Not that again. Scott was practically saving his life every time he ate one of Stiles’ sandwiches which, in some kind of horrific twist of fate, were almost always slathered with peanut butter. One bite and Stiles’ eyes, face, and fucking throat would swell up until he was wheezing and on the verge of death.

            If anything, his allergy had only gotten worse as he got older. When planning their escape from Matt, he had actually blacked out with Scott’s face frantically calling his name above him. He honestly didn’t even know if it was safe to use that particular trick again.

            But he certainly didn’t plan on telling Derek any of this. Weak slaves weren’t kept around. It was a fact of life that he and Scott relied on as they grew up.

            “Look,” he said, not bothering to hide his frustration. “Scott needs the food more than I do. He’s stuck working outside all day, which is not a suitable job for him and so I chose to give him my lunch. You can try to stop me, but you probably won’t.”

            There. All true statements. Because Derek was wrong about lying to werewolves. It was something you should do as often as possible. And, if there was one thing that Stiles knew how to do, it was lie to a werewolf. It’s all true statements that avoid what you want to avoid. There were other ways too, but that was the easiest. It was the best he could do on such short notice.

            “I don’t want to stop you,” Derek growled. He sounded about as frustrated as Stiles felt. Moving with enough werewolf speed that Stiles instinctively flinched back a step, Derek grabbed the plate of food and deposited it at Stiles’ edge of the counter. “Here. Eat it.”

            Stiles didn’t move. He knew this was a game of some type, he just didn’t know what the end goal was. Have him eat it and then force him to throw it up? Force him to keep eating until he threw up?

            “That’s okay,” he started. “I’m really-”

            “It’s an order,” Derek said, glaring at Stiles.

            You’re pushing too far, a voice in Stiles’ head said. It sounded suspiciously like Scott. You can’t get sold. This place is the best you can hope for.

            “Yes, Master,” Stiles said, dropping his head. Derek sat down in one of the high stools Jennifer kept expressly for the purpose of feeding people at the counter and used his foot to push the one in front of the plate out as well. Stiles followed the implicit order and sat down. At least Derek had left a seat in between the two of them.

            “Wait,” Derek said suddenly and Stiles snatched his hands away from the plate faster than he thought possible. Then Derek was up and moving and digging into the fridge.

            “Do you like chipotle mayo?” the werewolf asked, holding up the nearly empty container.

            “Uh-” Stiles was honestly confused by the question. The last time he had been asked what kind of food he preferred was over six years ago. Not even Jennifer had time to worry about everyone’s personal preferences for the food she cooked. Stiles didn’t even know the answer to the question. Food was food. It was a necessity that he worked hard to get and he didn’t particularly care what it tasted like, as long as it didn’t kill him. He looked at his sandwich. He couldn't even really say what was on it to begin with. Then he glanced back at the bottle. “No, no- don’t. It’ll finish it and Jen- Ms. Grant will know-”

            His protests were cut short as Derek reached over, lifted the top piece of bread and squirted the rest of the bottle on his sandwich.

            “I’ll handle Jennifer,” Derek said, mouth quirking into what could be a smile if the rest of his face didn’t still look so unhappy. “Go ahead.”

            Stiles took a bite and was relieved when Derek turned away and began rummaging through the fridge for his own snack. Stiles tried to eat as much as he could before Derek turned back around. This encounter needed to end. Plus, he admitted, the chipotle mayonnaise was good. If this was some sick game where Stiles food got snatched away halfway through, Derek was severely underestimating how fast Stiles could eat. By the time Derek turned back around with the bowl of fruit salad, Stiles only had a few bites left.

            Derek looked suitably impressed. Or maybe disgusted. Whatever, Stiles was hungry.

            But, Derek simply raised his eyebrows and grabbed a fork and started digging into the fruit salad. Stiles did his best to ignore the werewolf. He finished the sandwich and switched to the chips. Finally Derek broke the silence to say:

            “Here,” and pass Stiles a fork for his own fruit. Stiles stared at it for longer than was probably sensible before taking it.

            “Thanks,” he said, suspiciously. Then, since he should probably attempt to keep Derek in a happy-food-sharing sort of mood, he added: “Master.” Even though he always hated that. Derek grunted and the two went back to eating in silence.

            It wasn’t normal, Stiles told himself. The last time he’d eaten in front of an owner, he’d been on his knees, hands tied above his head, trying not to choke as Matt poured slightly burning hot fudge down his throat.

            Stiles half gagged on a strawberry as the memory rose to the forefront of his mind. He swallowed sickly and realized he didn’t want to eat any more. Partly because he was full and he had probably overdone it, partly because he felt like he had to vomit, and mostly because he was done with this. The adrenaline from being startled by Derek was wearing off and it was past two in the morning and he was tired.

            Still, he couldn’t very well throw out the food he had rightfully stolen so he took a breath and focused and finished his plate.

            “You can always eat whatever you want,” Derek said as he stood and put the food away. “I mean… Jenny will just assume it’s me probably. Or I’ll let her know I said it was fine. I mean… as long as you don’t completely devour the kitchen, it’s okay.”

            “That’s fine,” Stiles said, grabbing the dishes and going to wash them. “This was a one-time deal. Promise.”

            Derek frowned, doubtless at being lied to so blatantly, but Stiles turned away and quickly rinsed the plates. When he was finished, Derek was looking him up and down and chewing on his bottom lip.

            Stiles cringed and took a step back.

            “You’re still too thin,” Derek said and he was frowning again. Apparently he didn’t like his boys too scrawny. Stiles had never been more grateful for years of malnutrition. He would never eat again if it kept Derek off him. Derek’s face grew even more pinched, as if he could sense Stiles’ resolve. With his freaky werewolf powers, maybe he could. “You should come back,” Derek declared and then he walked out of the room.

            Stiles stared in shock for nearly a minute before he realized he was breathing too shallowly and his hands were shaking ever so slightly. He should get out of there. If Derek decided to come back, he should at least give the werewolf something like a chase. He should move. He should go back to his bed and pretend this weird encounter had never happened, that Derek had never looked him over and decided to wait until he wasn’t such a skinny runt.

            Stop it, he told himself firmly, taking a few deep breaths. He wasn’t this pathetic. He wasn’t going to stand here and have a panic attack when nothing had even happened. He was fine. He had been fine for years and just because this stupid place didn’t appear to have any rules, didn’t mean that he couldn’t figure it out somehow.

            He should be happy. Well, he was still a slave so not happy, but happier than he was. He should at least be more relaxed. He knew that, somewhere, deep down, that he shouldn’t be this tense, shouldn’t be constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop when he had no proof that it ever would. He should stop holding himself so tightly that his muscles ached at the end of the day and focusing so hard on everything around him that he got headaches. He should try to stop snapping awake at every noise in their room, instead of feeling relieved that he was still impossible to sneak up on.

            But he couldn’t do it. Scott had smiled and charmed his way into life at the Hale household and that was perfect. But Stiles had other things to worry about. That was his job. It was this knowledge that finally caused him to calm down. He had things to do. He didn’t have time for whatever weird delayed breakdown his brain was trying to have.

            Stiles headed back to his bedroom, deciding that it was time to get serious. Tomorrow night, he would try another exit and get to work.

End Part II.

Chapter Text

Part III

 

            Jennifer clenched her jaw, flexed her hand, and seriously considered slapping the boy in front of her because that was clearly what he wanted.

            In her head, she had, for some reason, thought that after a month of testing the limits, Stiles would settle down and get to work.

            She was wrong.

            If anything, as the month deadline passed, Stiles had stopped holding back. He had still managed to avoid doing anything openly rude or disrespectful, anything that he couldn’t claim was an accident but she wasn’t an idiot. And he wasn’t an idiot so he knew that. No matter how much he dropped his head and apologized, they both knew what game he was playing.

            Stiles had spilled, broken, burnt, or destroyed nearly everything in her kitchen. Twice he had spilled large quantities of liquid on her. One time, it was hot liquid. Not hot enough to burn, but it hadn’t been comfortable. That’s to say nothing of the damage he had managed to cause to himself. She had tried to tell herself that when he cut his finger and bled all over the salad he was cutting that it was an accident, but he’d looked entirely too proud. She would like to believe that he was running out of ideas, but she didn’t think so.

            “Go sit over there,” she growled, pointing to the corner. He opened his mouth, perhaps to mumble an excuse again, but then caught a glance of her face and went silently. She swore he smiled to himself as he sat.

            She looked again at the ruined batch of biscuits. She suspected he had messed with recipes before this, but these weren’t just messed with. These were ruined. And he had apologized and claimed he must’ve accidentally switched the salt and sugar. But his eyes had danced while he said it and if anything, her anger was feeding his happiness.

            She had to calm down before she did something she was going to regret.

            He’s just a kid, she told herself as she tried to calculate whether she had time to make another batch. She didn’t. He’d probably timed that. He wants to goad you into action because he thinks that’s winning. He’s just a kid. Everyone knows that. It’s not personal.

            Jennifer had been surprised as Stiles gradually made a few more friends among the slaves. She wasn’t included in that category as she held too much authority but she had seen him finally break and talk to someone else besides Scott. When Isaac was sent in on an errand from Harris nowadays, he swung back to talk to Stiles and the two would chat and laugh for a bit. At first, Jennifer thought that Isaac was just being nice, making sure Stiles was okay. But from the way Stiles relaxed, Jennifer figured the two must actually be friends. Stiles once asked to be excused when Heather walked by the door and though he was only gone for a few minutes, he was chuckling to himself as he re-entered.

            The next day, Cora and Heather had pulled a particularly good prank on Harris that Jennifer was positive hadn’t been either of their idea.

            Even the other kitchen staff didn’t hate Stiles. He was careful to keep his trouble-making to himself, never ruining any food that anyone else made and careful that his disaster-zones were limited to his space and hers. Jennifer suspected that a few of her staff actually found the situations quite funny. Well, really, she didn’t even have to suspect. Simon and Dee had openly laughed when Stiles had managed to split the bag of flour open and dump it all over himself.

            “Alright,” she said, feeling marginally calmer and walking over holding the plate of biscuits. She tried to ignore how Stiles leaned away from her at her harsh movements. “You’re not moving until you’ve eaten these. Consider them your dinner for tonight.” She put the plate down with more force than necessary and found herself being scrutinized. She glared back, frowning deeper at what she saw. Stiles looked equal parts frustrated and gleeful. He took a bite of one and seemed to make a point of not reacting at all to the taste. She wanted to slap him again.

            Luckily, at that moment, Scott made his appearance. So far she hadn’t kept Scott from the kitchen, not even when Stiles himself was kicked out of it as Scott helped earnestly with whatever he could and everyone loved Scott.

            “Hello, Ms. Grant,” Scott said, smiling at her.

            “Ah, Scott,” Jennifer said, turning with an overly broad smile. “Your friend here just ruined a batch of my biscuits.

            Scott’s smile dropped instantly and he looked at Stiles with such a look of disappointment that he didn’t even need to say anything. To her surprise, Stiles dropped his head and looked properly chastised for the first time.

            Huh, Jennifer thought. This was the first time that Scott had been there while she was still angry. And while her disappointed face had no power over Stiles, Scott’s appeared to be some form of magic.

            “He’s staying there until he eats all of them,” Jennifer continued, watching as Stiles’ shoulders slumped further. “So I think you should probably-”

            “Can I help?” Scott cut in smoothly, turning to her.

            “No!” Stiles yelped, half-standing. “No, he can’t, right, Jennifer? My mistake, my gross biscuits.”

            Jennifer paused. She had been planning on punishing Stiles by kicking Scott out, but this seemed to work better.

            “Be my guest,” she told Scott. “But that means no regular dinner for you either.”

            Stiles was out of his chair now, even as Scott sank into the one next to it.

            Stiles glared at her and it occurred to her that she had never seen Stiles angry before. Scared, tense, annoyed, frustrated and a whole realm of things in between but not truly angry.

            “Don’t let him help,” he said. “It’s not his fault!”

            “It’s no one’s fault,” Jennifer replied. “I thought it was an accident.”

            Stiles looked stumped for all of a second before he recovered.

            “It wasn’t an accident,” he grumbled flatly. “I did it on purpose. It’s my fault. There. Can you make him go away now?”

            It was the first time he had ever admitted that he did things wrong on purpose. And his reasoning behind it had Jennifer smiling fondly. He was a good kid, under all the edges.

            “Thank you for admitting that,” she said. “But he volunteered. He can help you if he wants to.”

            Stiles gaped at her, looking downright comical in his shock.

            “Dude,” Scott piped up from behind them. “They’re not that bad.”

            Stiles seemed stuck between glaring at her and Scott at the same time. Finally, after he had given her a look that managed to convey at least three different emotions, none of which were positive, he sighed and went and sat down next to his friend. As Jennifer watched, the two of them seemed to have some kind of silent communication in which Stiles went from angry to guilty to exasperated to grateful to grudgingly happy all in about thirty seconds.

            “They actually kind of remind me of something,” Scott continued once the glaring and hand waving was over.

            “Susan?” Stiles asked. “Because they remind me of the shit she used to feed us.”

            “Yeah, maybe that’s it,” Scott said. He took another bite and made a face. “It tasted better back then.”

            “Well, it must be an acquired taste. If we ate only this for a few months, I’m sure we’d love it.”

            “Paul used to swear they were better if you chewed only on the left side of your mouth,” Scott offered. The two boys looked at each and then, Jennifer watched as, in unison, they both shoved wads of food into one side of their mouth. She turned back to her cooking, fighting not to smile.

            Two hours later, when the boys had finished, almost choking down the last ones, making horrific gagging noises that she suspected were just for her as everyone else had gone to their own dinner, Jennifer took a breath and told Scott to leave Stiles with her for a moment. Both boys tensed and it was only after she told Scott that Stiles would just be a minute that he relaxed enough to actually leave the room.

            “Look,” she told Stiles, whose eyes were flicking between her face and her hands. “I can’t put up with this foolishness in my kitchen anymore. To my knowledge, the no slave of the Hales has ever been beaten or flogged before in this household.”

            Stiles looked doubtful but not disbelieving.

            “Therefore,” she continued. “If I hadn’t caught those biscuits before they were fed to the Hales, you wouldn’t have been either. Mistress Hale would have asked me about it and I would have told her and you would have been sold. She is not one to play games.”

            She didn’t want to make it a threat but from the way Stiles’ eyes widened and his fists clenched she knew he had taken it as one. But she couldn’t help that.  

            “So, consider this your warning,” she said, risking putting a hand on Stiles shoulder. He jerked but didn’t step away. “No more fooling around in the kitchen. We clear?”

            “Yes, ma’am,” Stiles said softly, not quite holding her gaze. But he wasn’t lying. He seemed relieved, like he was glad someone had finally just told him outright what the consequences of his actions were.

            “Good,” she said, allowing her voice to be kind and fond. “Now get out of here before Scott thinks I killed you or something.”

            “He’s probably eavesdropping anyway,” Stiles muttered and then looked a little shocked he had that aloud.

            Jennifer just rolled her eyes and was pleased to see Stiles give her a small, hesitant smile back.

 

*^*^

 

            They had made it almost two months, 54 days at Stiles’ count, when he looked up, saw Scott already moving away from the doorway and knew.

            He didn’t bother asking permission before leaving the kitchen, didn’t even think about it actually.

            Scott’s breathing was already wheezing and gasping as Stiles wedged his shoulder under Scott’s arm and tried to take as much of his friend’s weight as he could. He forced himself to keep up a slow but steady pace, jaw clenching as he heard Scott’s breathing get worse and worse.

            Neither of them said anything. Not in the hallways. Not where anyone could hear. Not that they had to.

            Scott’s asthma was usually fairly predictable. He could feel when he had started to over exert himself and he knew to stop and rest. Generally if he moved slowly enough and took enough breaks, he was fine.

            But then sometimes, an attack just hit. And they were terrifying.

            “Almost there,” Stiles muttered softly, not knowing if Scott even heard him over his shallow gasps. “You’re gonna be okay.”

            Stiles threw open the door to their bedroom and deposited Scott on his own bed, grabbing pillows from three other beds and leaning Scott back on them so he was still upright. Lying down made it worse. They had learned that the hard way.

            “Inhaler?” Stiles asked, trying to sound calm. Scott’s eyes were filled with panicked tears as he continued trying to suck in breath but he waved a hand at his pants pocket.

            “Think. It’s. Empty,” Scott managed between gasps. And his voice was scared. And Stiles thought his chest was going to cave in.

            “Well, let’s use it anyway,” Stiles said, grabbing it out of Scott’s pocket. “Might be fumes left.” Scott nodded.

            But as Stiles held it and pushed the button, he could hear that nothing was coming out of it and from the way Scott’s panic increased, he knew that his friend realized that too.

            “Alright, okay,” Stiles said, taking a deep breath. He threw the inhaler on the ground and grabbed Scott’s wrist again, feeling his friend’s racing heartbeat. “We don’t need it. We’ve done this before, Scott. You’re gonna be okay.”

            “Stiles, Jennifer sent me to- What’s wrong?”

            Stiles didn’t have time for Isaac’s terrified concern. He hadn’t even heard the other boy come in. He didn’t bother looking over at him.

            “You. Sit down over there and shut up,” he said, waving a hand away from the door. He couldn’t have Isaac going to get anyone. He couldn’t deal with him right now. “Don’t move.”

            Scott’s eyes had closed and if anything, his breathing sounded worse. He knew what would happen if Isaac went and got someone.

            “Scott, hey, hey, look at me,” Stiles said, voice even. Thankfully Scott obeyed. “We’re gonna get through this. Just like always, okay? So, just calm down and match your breaths to mine. See, like me. You can do this.”

            Scott jerked his head in a nod.

            “Alright, we’re gonna start with three, okay. In for three, hold for three. It’s all gonna be okay. You’ve got this.”

            It took a long time- too long. But gradually, they moved from three seconds to five to finally, finally long deep breaths that evened out on their own. Stiles waited until the rattling and then even the wheezing had stopped before finally rising and starting to move pillows.

            “Okay, there we go,” Stiles muttered. His mouth was dry, partly from talking for almost twenty minutes straight, partly from containing his own panic. “You go to sleep, okay? I’ll handle everything. Don’t worry, okay? Sleep now. I’ll bring you food later.”

            Scott’s eyes, which were already sliding shut on their own, blinked up once gratefully at him and then slid closed. Stiles stayed there, hand still curled around Scott’s wrist as his own body sagged in relief. Scott was okay. He could feel his heart beating steadily. He was okay.

            Stiles took a few deep breaths of his own before raising his head to look at Isaac.

            “What was that?” Isaac whispered. His eyes were wide and terrified and Stiles should be panicking but he was still too strung out and exhausted.

            “Asthma attack,” he said dully, reaching down for the discarded inhaler. “Scott has asthma.” He glanced up at Isaac’s confused face and continued. “It means that sometimes he can’t breathe.”

            Empty, he thought. He should’ve known. He knew it was old. He needed to get another one. Soon. The fucking thing was empty.

            “We need to tell someone!” Isaac said, standing from his bed and glancing around the room as if someone might appear. “Deaton! Or Jennifer! Or-”

            “No!” Stiles said, jolting out of his chair and grabbing Isaac. Before he even knew what he was doing, he had the other boy pressed against the wall. His hands were fisted in his shirt with more force than he meant to use. “No. No one can know about this. Not ever. You have to promise.”

            Isaac looked scandalized.

            “But he needs,” Isaac waved a hand at Scott. “Medicine or help or someth-”

            “And you really think the Hales are going to get it for him?” Stiles asked, spitting out the words with as much hate as he could.

            “They’re- They would,” Isaac said, but he suddenly didn’t sound positive. “I mean, they’re nice. They never hurt anyone or-”

            “That doesn’t mean they’re gonna let sick slaves hang around,” Stiles said, not letting go of the front of Isaac’s shirt. “Werewolves don’t keep useless slaves. Think about it- are there any slaves here that don’t do any work? Any other sick slaves? What about old ones, huh? The Hale family goes back generations, you don’t wonder why there is nobody here older than 65?”

            Stiles watched as the realization hit Isaac. The kid went from shaking his head to sort of gaping at him.

            “That’s-” Isaac started and then stopped. Stiles almost felt bad for ruining his perfect picture of the Hales.

            “That’s just the way it is,” Stiles said firmly, loosening his grip ever so slightly. “The Hales can be as nice as they want to their slaves, and they are. They are decent. But, slaves don’t get to live here for free. That’s not the way things work. So no one finds out about this.”

            After a beat, Isaac nodded slowly and Stiles released him, heading back to sit next to Scott. Hopefully he would sleep and recover for the rest of the day.

            “Has anyone ever found out before?” Isaac asked quietly. He moved to sit on Scott’s other side, twisting his hands in his lap.

            “Five owners have found out about us,” Stiles said, mouth twitching up into what could be smile. “We’ve been put up for sale Five times. Usually by the end of the day.”

            “Us?” Isaac echoed. “Do you have-”

            “Nah,” Stiles said. “I got something else. I can control mine.” There had only ever been one mistake. One time when he had realized the bread he shoved in his mouth had some kind of peanut oil in it. It had cost them.

            “There was a retirement party,” Isaac said after a moment. Stiles glanced up to see the boy looking down at Scott and chewing on his lip. “For one of the old housekeepers. There was a cake and everything. The Hales even made an appearance. But I never saw her again.”

            Stiles didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything to say.

            “I just assumed- How could I have not realized? I didn’t even think about it,” Isaac mumbled. “She was just… gone. And I didn’t even question it.”

            “Hey, don’t feel bad,” Stiles said. “You had a- this is a real nice gig here. Work’s not too hard, no beatings, no starvation-”

            “No being locked in old freezers at night,” Isaac added with a rueful smile.

            “Yeah,” Stiles said. “Exactly so… I wouldn’t want to look at it too closely either.”

            “I just feel like an idiot,” Isaac said.

            “You are an idiot,” Stiles teased, trying to make the boy feel better. He wasn’t lying. He didn’t blame Isaac for not paying attention to things like that. Sometimes he thought he should stop noticing these things. He’d be a whole lot happier.

            But he couldn’t. He couldn’t stop from immediately looking for elderly people when he was bought by a new owner and wondering where they were. He couldn’t help but notice that there was an entire locked corridor near the Alpha’s quarters that none of the slaves were allowed to clean or enter. He couldn’t help but be concerned that Derek had taken to coming into the kitchen randomly. And then he couldn’t help but ask around and realize that this was a new habit for Derek. He knew the only thing to change in the kitchen had been the arrival of yours-truly. Stiles was pretty sure he knew what that meant.

            For a moment, the two sat in silence before Stiles took a breath. It was time to do some damage control.

            “Alright,” he said, straightening. “You go back to Jennifer and tell her I’m sick in the bathroom. Stomach bug. I’m going to head down and finish Scott’s work. Hopefully he’s doing the same thing as yesterday.”

            “Why don’t we just tell them Scott has a stomach bug?”

            “Because if someone checks on Scott, he’s not healthy enough to fake being sick,” Stiles said, once again grabbing the empty inhaler and shoving it into his pocket. “I, on the other hand, can force myself to throw up if someone gets suspicious.”

            “Oh,” Isaac said. “And he’s going to be okay?”

            “Yeah,” Stiles said. “He just needs to rest for today. Should be fine by tomorrow.” Of course, that relied on the fact that he wasn’t stuck doing whatever caused the attack again. Maybe he was allergic to some kind of flower or plant he was working with? Hopefully he had just overworked himself. Or it was random. These attacks wiped him out and Stiles needed time.

            “Is there medicine he’s supposed to be taking?” Isaac said.

            “Yeah,” Stiles replied, patting his pocket. “He ran out. That’s why this was so bad.”

            “How do we get more?”

            “We don’t do anything,” Stiles said sternly. “I know how to get some. But it’s- you don’t need to do anything. I’ll handle this.”

            He looked at Isaac until the younger boy nodded. Thank God. The last thing he needed was Isaac poking around or ruining the kid’s relationship with the Hales. Well… more than he already had.

            “And you’ll let me know if there’s anything else I can do?” Isaac said.

            “Yup,” Stiles replied. “For now, make sure to tell everyone that I don’t want visitors and play up how disgusting it is so no one wants to visit. And see if you can swing by and make sure he’s okay. He should just sleep for most of the day. Let him know where I am if he wakes up. And tell him not to move.”

            “Got it,” Isaac said and to Stiles’ relief, he looked like he was grateful rather than overwhelmed. Stiles really did like him.

            “Alright, go,” Stiles said. After Isaac rushed out, Stiles took a moment to arrange the blankets and pillows so anyone who just glanced in might think it was Stiles in his bed rather than Scott.

            He ran a hand over Scott’s head, for a moment feeling all the panic he had pushed down try to rise to the surface. This couldn’t happen again. They needed an inhaler. Quickly.

 

*^*^*^

 

            “Hey, Derek!” Cora called from her room as he passed it. “Have you seen that necklace with the flowers that I got for Christmas?”

            “Uh- no,” he said, stepping into her room. If she was looking for it, she wasn’t trying very hard. His little sister was currently sitting on her bed, tossing a ball up in the air before catching it. She looked bored. That was never a good thing. “I thought you hated that necklace anyway.”

            It had been a gift from an older distant relative. Clearly someone who didn’t know Cora at all since no one in their right mind would give Cora such a girly piece of jewelry.

            “I do hate it,” Cora said, throwing the ball into the air once more. “But Mom said I could pull out the emeralds and put them in something else and then Heather is down in the kitchens and I got bored and realized I haven’t seen it in a while so I figured I’d ask.”

            “Well, sorry, I don’t keep track of your jewelry,” Derek said. How Cora managed to orchestrate such elaborate pranks while simultaneously losing almost everything she owned was beyond him.

            “I thought maybe you took it,” Cora said, looking away from the ball to frown suspiciously at Derek.

            “Why would I do that?”

            “I don’t know,” Cora admitted. “You like the outdoors. And flowers. You’re weird enough to do it.”

            “I don’t like flowers,” Derek muttered.

            “Liar.”

            “Look, Cora,” Derek said. “You probably just lost it. You wore it to that costume party a few months ago. Did you put it back when you got home?”

            Cora frowned and Derek knew he was probably right.

            “I think Harris took it,” Cora said. Derek groaned. “He’s mad at me for the whole toilet incident last month.”

            “There’s no way Harris took your necklace,” Derek said. “Though, if he was, you would deserve it. You put saran wrap over his toilet seat three days in a row. You’re luckily he didn’t report you to Mom.”

            “You’d think after the second day, he’d think to check in the morning,” Cora said, smiling. Derek wasn’t even sure where she’d gotten that idea. “Regardless, this is a mystery, Derek. Let’s go search his rooms. I still have some fake spiders we can leave lying around!”

            “No way. Find someone else to go with you.”

            “I can’t! Heather is working in the kitchens for the whole day. And Isaac is really busy too. I already asked,” Cora whined. “You can’t expect me to go without backup.”

            “Why is Heather stuck in the kitchens?” Derek asked. She and Cora had become thick as thieves. There was no way Cora willingly gave her up for a day.

            “Ask Jennifer,” Cora said. “Something about someone being sick. Heather had to help cover.” Derek frowned.

            “I’m gonna go make sure everyone is okay,” he said, heading for the door. “Read a book or something.”

            “No! Books are stupid!” Cora called as he left. “Derek! You’ve gotten stupidly responsible these last few months! Derek, at least go get Laura for me!”

            Derek rolled his eyes. Doubtless she would sit there and yell for Laura until Laura was annoyed enough and came over. Or she would enlist Isaac’s help. Or she would wreak destruction on her own room. With Cora it was always hard to say.

            When he arrived at the kitchens, Jennifer was busy making bread and didn’t look up. A few weeks ago, his arrival would have caused enough of a stir that she would have realized right away, but now the kitchen staff was more used to his presence, most only giving him nods of respect and slight smiles before ignoring him completely. Swinging down to the kitchen about once a week had that effect on people.

            He hadn’t caught Stiles stealing food from the kitchen again, though Jennifer had told them that a few times she suspected he had been at it. Failing to talk to the boy alone, he had taken to wandering into the kitchen at points and chatting with Jennifer. Jennifer, of course, saw through his act immediately (as he suspected the rest of the kitchen staff did as well) but seemed to think his strategy was a good one. Sometimes she even gave him something to chop and sent him to sit in the corner to do it- the corner which happened to be by where Stiles was often working.

            His less-than-subtle plan to ensure Stiles was settling in was not going well. In part because he was absolutely terrible at small talk (or any kind of talk) even with Jennifer so his contributions to the brief conversations they had were limited to grunts and awkward shuffling. However, the problem mostly resided in the fact that Stiles appeared to alternate between despising him and fearing him depending on the day. He had considered stopping his experiment entirely, especially when Jennifer had told him that Stiles was finally settling in and the others were getting used to his sense of humor. But when he had stayed away for nine days in a row, Jennifer had frowned at him over his midnight snack and said “We’ve missed you in the kitchens, you know,” which he took as an order not to stop. Though he did start listening for when Isaac was already hanging out there because Isaac generally chilled by Stiles as well and seemed content to fill the awkward silence with stories about whatever drama was happening in the Hale Household.

            It was during these tales that Derek had actually seen Stiles’ face flick into a smile. He thought that if he could only get Stiles to do that when they were alone, he would have his proof Stiles was okay and would stop worrying. He also told himself that he really should stop worrying about this slave so much.

            Jennifer finally glanced up as he approached and smiled as if she knew he would be arriving. She waved him over, but didn’t stop kneading dough with her hands.

            “I’m afraid your boy came down with a stomach bug,” Jennifer said. “Ran out of here early this morning like his hair was on fire. Isaac said he’s been stuck in the bathroom all day.”

            “Yeah. It’s pretty gross,” Isaac piped up from the doorway. “Really gross.”

            “I would worry it’s something he ate,” Jennifer continued. “But no one else has gotten sick so hopefully it’s just a random accident.”

            “Huh,” Derek said, frowning. He didn’t know how human sicknesses worked. Every once and a while someone came down with a cold and stayed in bed for a few days, but he didn’t know what to do with a stomach bug. “When will he be better?”

            “Well, he’ll be pretty shaky for a few days, especially if he hasn’t been able to keep down liquids. Isaac’s been keeping an eye on him so hopefully he’ll be up and running soon.”

            “I’ll go check on him too,” Derek said. He was positive this was one of the things his mother would expect him to handle. Plus, if he could see Stiles, he could assure himself that it was nothing serious. Though, Jennifer seemed unconcerned so this must be common in humans.

            “Make sure he’s drinking water,” Jennifer said.

            “Sure,” Derek replied, turning. “Also, Isaac, if you have a minute, Cora is going to-” He stopped as Isaac was gone.

            “That boy’s been running around all day,” Jennifer said. “Remind me to make sure Harris isn’t working him to death.”

            “Cora wouldn’t let him,” Derek said, smiling. Then he gave Jennifer a last nod and headed for Stiles’ room.

            When he arrived, Isaac was just walking out of the room. Huh. The kid must’ve gone to check on Stiles right before Derek said he was going to go. He smelled faintly of panic.

            “Is it that bad?” Derek said, concerned.

            “Uh- well. He’s throwing up now,” Isaac said. “Gotta go. Check in with Mr. Harris.” And then he was gone again. Jennifer was right; someone should make sure Harris wasn’t going too crazy with his very own apprentice.

            Derek opened the door slowly, not wanting to disturb Stiles if he was resting. But as he opened it, Stiles was just coming out of the bathroom, clearly having just finished vomiting. He was pale and shaky and smelled… well, frankly he smelled awful. Derek wrinkled his nose a bit.

            “Hey, Master Derek,” Stiles said and it was almost friendly. Derek blinked, a little confused as Stiles seemed much more comfortable than he normally was around werewolves. Maybe he was too sick to be worried? “Afraid I’m not going to be much help today. Feel pretty rotten.”

            “No, that’s-” Derek stepped into the room and noted that if the scents of sweat and panic coming off Stiles’ bed were any indication, he had had quite a rough day. “Just making sure you’re okay.”

            “I’ll be fine by tomorrow,” Stiles assured, moving to stand next to his bed. He seemed to be waiting for permission to sit so Derek gave a jerk of his head and was thankful when Stiles understood. And shot him a smile. Sickness must really bring out the best in humans. “Must be a quick 24 hour thing. I felt kind of off last night but ignored it. Then this morning… well, there was no ignoring that.”

            Stiles had never talked this much to him unless it was in somewhat of a panic. Maybe he was slightly delusional. Or just too weak to keep up his customary distrustful glare. His heart rate was too jacked up from just throwing up, beating rapidly and uneven so Derek couldn’t say for sure if he was lying but he didn’t seem to be. If anything, Stiles seemed completely relaxed, despite being sick.

            “Oh,” Derek said, looking for something to say. Werewolves didn’t get sick. The only time he’d throw up was when he ate too much before going for a run and then tried to beat Laura in a race. It hadn’t been pleasant. Maybe Stiles was used to it though. That would explain how he was so calm about it. His eyes snagged on a body in the far bed, asleep despite the fact it was only just after four in the afternoon. “Is that Scott?”

            “Yeah,” Stiles agreed easily, reaching to pull the blankets up. “Idiot skipped lunch and finished all his work extra fast so he could come help me. Of course, he passed out almost immediately but it’s the thought that counts, right?”

            He was smiling again, inviting Derek to agree with him, as if they were sharing in their own private joke. Derek couldn’t keep up with this.

            “Uh, yeah,” he said, trying to fight off the confusion. “I mean, that’s-”

            “I think he’s got the right idea, though,” Stiles said, shifting his legs around in the bed. “Sleep sounds pretty good at the moment.”

            He wants me to leave, Derek realized. So he can go back to sleep. Right. That would probably be a good thing. Sick humans probably needed lots of sleep.

            “Jennifer said you should be drinking a lot,” he said, feeling as if he’d been played somehow. Stiles nodded at a glass that was next to his bed.

            “Scott managed that before he passed out,” Stiles said. “Don’t worry, I don’t feel too bad. I’ll be up and at ‘em tomorrow same as usual.”

            “Jennifer said it might take a few days to clear out,” Derek replied. He didn’t want Stiles to rush back into work.

            “Nah, this has happened before,” Stiles said. “My stomach sucks. But it’s usually over quick. Tomorrow. Day after at the latest.”

            Then he went silent, clearly waiting for Derek to leave. Despite the smell, Derek didn’t particularly want to. Not when Stiles was being so talkative. Not when, for once, he wasn’t glaring and challenging Derek at every turn. But he should. Stiles was sick. Stiles should be resting.

            “Alright, well, feel better,” Derek mumbled and then turned and left.

            The strong smell he got of relief as he left the room just made him feel worse.

End Part III.

Chapter Text

Part IV: Discovery

 

            “Did you say a teaspoon or a tablespoon?” Stiles asked, frowning a bit in confusion.

            “Teaspoon!” Jennifer yelped, almost snapping her neck from looking up so fast. “Teaspoon! You made this yesterday, Stiles!”

            “Right,” Stiles shot her an apologetic grin that was somehow entirely exaggerated and yet somewhat genuine. “I knew that. I was just double checking.”

            Jennifer breathed a sigh of relief and couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes. Though she didn’t interrupt as Stiles launched back into his story, which had Simon completely distracted from the burgers he was making. If she didn’t keep an eye out, he was going to burn all of them.

            It had been another few weeks and Jennifer was pleased to say that Stiles had fully settled into the kitchen. He talked and joked with the others, had taken to calling her “Missus Jenny” in various ridiculous accents, and while he still seemed less than sure whenever Derek came in, he no longer went completely silent at the werewolf’s presence. He was still rough around the edges, at times falling into dark moods that only Scott seemed to ease, occasionally telling barbed jokes directed primarily at Harris or werewolves in general, and some of the stories he told were distressing, especially when paired with his dismissive shrugs or slight smirk. But, generally, he seemed happier and the staff had grown to love him.

            Unfortunately, as Stiles’ relaxed, it had also become apparent that he was easily the most easily distracted person Jennifer had ever met. Almost as soon as their conversation about being sold had ended, Stiles had stopped watching every single thing that happened in the kitchen and starting making mistakes. Honest, unintentional, real mistakes. The first time he had accidentally knocked over a glass while wildly gesturing with his hands, he had whirled and looked so honestly scared as he frantically explained it was an accident that she had almost laughed. That wasn’t the last glass he had broken.

            A non-nervous Stiles, she had quickly learned was restless and jumpy and almost incapable of paying attention. At times, he would turn and talk to the others so much that he seemed to forget he was supposed to be actually helping in the kitchen. Luckily, a gentle nudge sent him off in the right direction. Almost the entire staff had taken to keeping track of what they were supposed to be doing and what Stiles was supposed to be doing so they could redirect him. The only time he truly seemed to focus was when someone would tell a story or fact that he found particularly interesting. Jennifer herself couldn’t tell you the basis for this. One day he had clearly ignored Dee’s latest gossip about the dinner Talia hosted with some other alphas, which Jennifer thought he would pay attention to. But the next day, he had listened with rapt attention as a farmer making a delivery described the entire life cycle of various vegetables. Including soil conditions. Stiles had been the only one sad to see him go, in the middle of asking about different rain patterns when the farmer had looked at the time and realized he had to leave.

            Stiles had actually been silent and still for a time when the man left, chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully as if recording everything to memory. It had lasted all of twenty minutes before he was moving again, drumming his fingers along the counter as he stirred, eyes flicking around the room at impossible speeds. Then he was asking everyone what they knew about plant growth and seemed quite put-out that no one really had anything to add.

            Jennifer would almost be worried about Stiles’ jumpy behavior, except every time Scott came in to see his friend thrumming with energy, he seemed happier.

            “It’s not his fault,” Scott assured her one day, when Stiles all but dashed out to grab some vegetables from Deaton. Jennifer had taken to always sending Stiles on the errands that required a lot of movement and lifting. The others didn’t mind the reprieve and Stiles needed to be let out of the room every once and a while. “He’s supposed to be like this. All hyper and stuff. Well,” Scott frowned. “Not supposed to but it means he’s… he’s not giving himself headaches every night anymore, you know?”

            Jennifer had smiled and nodded, letting Scott know that Stiles wasn’t going to get in trouble just for being a bit hyper active. She wasn’t a human doctor, she’d been serving just werewolves for too long, didn’t even remember most of the human diagnoses that had largely been forgotten, but she suspected that Stiles’ lack of attention wasn’t his fault. And if trusting her enough to relax meant occasionally having to be sent outside to run around a bit and talk to Scott, then she thought it was a fair trade.

            “Look, the guy was fat,” Stiles was saying, almost stabbing himself as he indicated a huge stomach while still holding a knife. “Like easily 300 pounds. Like a pumpkin. Or a watermelon!”

            “Fatter than the guy who delivers the bread?” Dee asked.

            “Oh yeah,” Stiles assured them. “Anyway, first week Scott and I are there, we figure out that he is actually too fat to get into the laundry room. Like, he could reach in if he went sideways, but if we hid in the space between the machines and the wall, there was literally no way for him to grab us. We were both like twelve at the time so we could squeeze in there and not even be seen. He must’ve guessed that’s where we were, though, because everyone once and while, he would come stomping in and sort of wave his hand around, trying to grab us.”

            Stiles always included motions with his stories and Jennifer thought they were often the best part. At this point he we waving his hands uselessly as a squealing Dee. Jennifer smiled. She had also learned that with Stiles, it was best not to focus on the sub-text of his story. Best not to wonder why two young boys had to hide from their master on a regular basis and best not to worry about what happened when the boy’s eventually had to come out. Almost all the Hale slaves had been bought years before, and she herself came from a very similar family but she had been a little surprised to note that some of the others could also tell similar stories when prompted. It was a rough sort of humor and always stopped the moment a Hale (or Harris) arrived at the kitchen. Jennifer still smiled softly as Simon launched into his own tale of once using pepper to mask his scent as he snuck over to see his girlfriend in the girl’s quarters. She couldn’t help but feel that she knew her staff much better now. They were hard stories, but true stories and she admitted that she felt as if she had been naïve about the lives of her staff. Maybe this kind of discussion was something she should have started earlier.

            Isaac had even shared a story about tricking his old master into thinking he had already locked Isaac up, hiding in the freezer, and thus not having to do work for a night. As far as she knew, Isaac had never openly talked about his previous master in the ten years that she’d known him. He’d told the story quickly and quietly, as if he couldn’t quite believe he was doing it. And then he’d looked around at everyone as if expecting judgment.

            She hadn’t known what to say to that, couldn’t manage to pull up the same pleased, you-won-that-round, congratulatory smile everyone else had on their face.

            “Werewolves, man,” Stiles had said, slinging his arm around Isaac proudly. “Sometimes it’s awesome how freaking stupid they can be. Tell me you got away with it more than once.”

            “A few times, yeah,” Isaac said, looking a bit smug.

            “Genius,” Stiles declared. Scott nodded enthusiastically next to him and Simon passed him a celebratory cookie. Isaac grinned.

            Harris had walked in shortly after, which was probably for the best as Jennifer wasn’t positive that she was supposed to allow talk about how stupid werewolves are in her kitchen. And somehow her kitchen had ended up the hot spot for more blunt conversations.

            Still, it made cooking more enjoyable, she conceded. Simon was currently acting out his story, completely with creeping around the kitchen and pretending to lay down paper. The others were laughing and Stiles was idly chopping something while nodding his head along and smiling broadly. It was a good day-

            “You,” Harris’ voice was an angry snarl that had everyone freezing immediately. Even Jennifer tensed. Harris wasn’t popular among the other slaves, but he was usually cordial to her. Especially in her kitchen. But now Harris was completely ignoring her, eyes completely focused on-

            Stiles. Stiles, who had gone utterly and completely still in a way that he hadn’t been in weeks. Stiles, who looked pale and terrified, but not at all surprised. Stiles, who was already calmly putting down his knife and moving.

            “You’re coming with me,” Harris finished. Stiles took a breath, nodded, and didn’t argue.

            “Now, wait a minute,” Jennifer said, feeling truly alarmed. “What’s going on?”

            “The Alpha wants to see him,” Harris said, clamping a hand around Stiles’ arm and ignoring Stiles’ flinch. “Right away.”

            “But why?” Jennifer said. She didn’t like this. It wasn’t right. Stiles hadn’t said a word and he looked resigned and since when did Talia send Harris to fetch slaves for her in the middle of the day? Right before the dinner rush!

            “Personal items of the Hales have gone missing,” Harris said. “And have turned up at a pawn shop a few miles away. Mistress Talia believes that Mr. Stilinski here can tell her more.”

            “Well don’t be ridiculous,” Jennifer said, even as she felt a sinking sensation in her gut. “Stiles is here every day there’s no way that he could have had anything to do-”

            Stiles finally looked up at met her eyes and Jennifer felt the words die in her throat. She knew that face. That was the calm, certain, defiant face he had given her when he first broke a glass.

            “Stiles, you didn’t…” she said.

            The shrug he gave her was somehow worse. It was a hopeless little jerk of his shoulders, paired with a thin, sickly twitch of the lips that looked more like a grimace than a smile. But neither the shrug nor the shoulders could hide the terror in his eyes.

            I didn’t have a choice, he seemed to say. Sorry.

            “But-” Jennifer didn’t even know how she was going to finish that statement. But he couldn’t have?  But he’s been doing so well? But we love him? But why? Dear God, why would he be so stupid?

            “C’mon,” Harris told Stiles, roughly propelling him forward. Stiles glanced back at her one last time, moving his head in what could have been a nod before quite, suddenly they were gone.

            Simon was still standing in the corner, hand still making the form of an invisible pepper shaker. Dee was the first to move, tears already in her eyes.

            “He didn’t really?” she said, sounding much younger than her almost forty years of age.

            “We’ll find out soon enough,” Jennifer said and even to her, the words sounded wooden. But she couldn’t think about it right now. She couldn’t figure out whether she was feeling scared or angry or betrayed. She didn’t know how to answer her primary question: Why and so she didn’t how to feel. Around her, she suspected everyone else was feeling the same way.

            “Back to work,” she snapped, turning her attention to the food in front of her.

            There was nothing to do but wait

 

*^*^*^

 

            Derek forced himself to sit still, ignoring Cora’s questioning glances and the fact that the chairs in the formal reception room were ridiculously uncomfortable. He wanted to squirm or just leave but his mother had called for a formal audience and was currently sitting in her own high-backed chair at the top of the dais, looking both regal and terrifying.

            She didn’t look openly angry, but Derek knew she must be. The setting alone was indication of that. He didn’t even remember the last time his family had used the reception room. It was an old tradition to have one, to accept visiting alphas and betas in a room designed to flaunt your own status but most modern werewolves had long done away with such traditions. Certainly his family had.

            He still couldn’t quite believe it had come to this. He had casually mentioned a few days ago that he thought one of his dress watches had gone missing, expecting someone to tell him it had been taken to be cleaned or something. Instead, Cora had again piped up about her necklace, which she still hadn’t found and to his surprise Laura had mentioned she was missing a pair of earrings as well. His mother had frowned and said she would look into it.

            Then suddenly three different pawn shops had been contacted and all together eight items were recovered. To be honest, most of them were things that no one had worn or even seen in years. But still it was Hale property. It had to be dealt with.

            And then all three shop owners had given the same description. Skinny, teenage slave with pale skin and dark hair. Kept his number covered up, but looked to have the beginnings of a scar near his neck. There was only one slave that could be.

            Two of them said Stiles had assured them he was on business for the family (a fairly ridiculous lie as they should have asked for written confirmation) and the third hadn’t even bothered with an explanation. All three had insisted they didn’t know the goods were stolen and insisted they didn’t need payment, but Talia had smiled and assured them that they weren’t to lose business on her behalf.

            All told, Talia had spent close to $700 getting their items back. It wasn’t a large amount of money. It was nothing, really, but Stiles had stolen from them. It was unheard of.

            It made no sense.

            Derek had told him he could eat whenever he wanted. He had clothes and a bed and regular food and why would Stiles do this? It made no sense.

            Across the room, Peter and his wife, Christine sat, looking outwardly indifferent. It had been decided that the twins, only five, did not have to attend this meeting. He could smell the anger coming off Laura and Cora, sitting on either side of him, but he wasn’t angry. He was confused. Confused and concerned. Not even he could say what would happen to Stiles now. He wondered if his mother had already decided.

            Harris walked in with Stiles, who looked up only long enough to flick his eyes around the room and take note of where everyone was before dropping his head to the ground. He looked… nervous and tired and resigned, but not sorry. And not hopeful. Harris put a hand on his shoulder and pushed and Stiles went to his knees without protest. His hands sort of flailed for a moment, before he took a breath and clasped them behind his back.

            “Slave #101539, Alpha,” Harris intoned, bowing at the waist. Then he stepped back and the room was silent.

            To his credit, Stiles didn’t move as the silence stretched. He didn’t squirm or risk looking up or start protesting his innocence. He just stayed there, carefully staring at the ground, taking deep even breaths. Derek couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the boy so still. He didn’t like it.

            “Three different shop owners were identified as selling Hale property,” Talia finally started, voice steely. “They in turn have identified you as being the one to sell it to them.”

            Silence fell again. Finally, Stiles gave in and peeked up for just a moment.

            “Uh, yes,” he said and his voice was hoarse and tight with fear. “Yes, Mistress. That’s… true.”

            “You’re not going to proclaim your innocence?”

            “Not much point in that, is there?” Stiles asked bitterly, his submissive demeanor cracking. Harris took a step forward, probably to smack him but Talia raised her hand to stop him.

            “So you have no defense?” Talia asked, arching an eyebrow. “No explanation? No reason for stealing from the family that feeds and provides for you?”

            That got Stiles. Derek could see from the way that Stiles’ hands twitched and his jaw clenched that he was angry. He didn’t need to be close enough to smell it.

            “No, Mistress,” Stiles said, his voice not quite even.

            “So there was no purpose for your actions?” Talia pressed. “You were just… what? Bored? Greedy? Stupid?”

            “I had a reason,” Stiles said, eyes flashing up in anger for a moment. “I had a good reason.” Then he bowed his head and was silent once more.

            “You’re not going to tell me, are you?” Talia said and it wasn’t a question, though it came out slightly curious. Stiles said nothing. Derek wanted to rush over and shake him. His mom was reasonable, they were reasonable. Surely if he had a good reason, they would understand. Why wouldn’t he just admit why?

            “I’ll assume you are also not going to return the nearly $700 you’ve stolen.” Stiles winced.

            “Well, I definitely can’t do that, Mistress,” Stiles said, hints of a dark smile on his face.

            “You’ve already spent it?”

            “No, Mistress, they didn’t give me that much,” Stiles looked like he found it a bit funny. That either he had gotten ripped off or she had when she was buying back the items. Talia’s frown deepened.

            “Slave #101539,” Talia began formally. Derek felt his stomach clench. This was it. He was going to be sold. Derek shouldn’t be so upset by this. Stiles was a thief. He didn’t belong here. “You have stolen precious goods from this family-”

            Stiles snorted. Talia stopped. Harris looked scandalized. Stiles seemed to be choking back laughter.

            “Something funny, slave?” Talia asked. When Stiles looked up, it was with the eyes of someone who had nothing to lose. He knew he was about to be sold as well.

            “You said that I stole ‘precious goods,’” Stiles drawled, shaking his head. “Some of those… goods, I stole four days after I arrived here. That’s almost three months ago. And you’ve just noticed they were missing. Doesn’t seem that precious to me. You probably don’t even care about them.”

            This time there was no stopping Harris from reaching over and smacking Stiles on the side of the head hard enough to jerk him to the side. It gave Derek a chance to glance to his sisters. Cora still looked furious but Laura looked… thoughtful. As did his father. Maybe he wasn’t the only one to realize that Stiles had a point.

            “Alpha, I must apologize for him,” Harris started. “It’s unaccept-”

            “Ten lashes,” Talia interrupted. “As punishment. This evening.”

            Derek whipped his head to stare at his mother. He had expected Stiles to be sold, quickly, maybe even that same night but… whipping? The Hales had never whipped a slave. Derek had never even heard stories of it happening among the Hale pack. He didn’t even know they owned a whip.

            He couldn’t help but remember when he’s first seen Stiles, bloodied and alone in the pantry, oozing belt marks down his back. A real whip would be even worse, he knew. A real whip would break the skin instantly. He felt dizzy- both with horror and with relief. Stiles wouldn’t be sold. He almost missed when his mother started talking again.

            “It will be lowered to five lashes,” she said, still calmly. “If you agree to return the money you do have.”

            Take it, Derek thought desperately in Stiles direction. Give the money back.

            “I’ll take the ten,” Stiles said and his voice held too much fear to be a challenge but he still didn’t sound beaten either. At least not yet.

            Talia nodded as if that’s what she expected. Then-

            “He didn’t do it! He didn’t do it!”

            It was almost comical how fast Scott came running into the room- he almost missed stopping completely and careened into the far wall before managing to skid to a halt. He didn’t kneel, but that may have been because he bent over, put his hands on his knees and seemed to focus on breathing for a moment. He was practically wheezing, Derek noted. He must’ve sprinted over as soon as he heard.

            “Scott!” Stiles sounded panicked. “What the fuck are you-”

            “You are not permitted to be in here,” Harris started at the same time. “How dare you enter-”

            “Silence!” Talia said, eyes flashing red. Scott must’ve missed it because a moment later he was straightening and meeting her glare head-on.

            “He didn’t do it,” Scott repeated. Talia glared at him. Everyone could hear he was lying. Even with his heart racing, it still spiked when he said that. “Alone,” Scott amended. “He didn’t do it alone. I helped.”

            He was still lying. Derek didn’t think he was even trying to hide it. Scott seemed to think that Talia would punish anyone who confessed, lying or not. To be fair, it made sense. What kind of idiot would confess to a crime he didn’t commit?

            “No, you didn’t,” Talia said, sounding faintly… amused? “I can hear you lying.”

            Scott frowned, looking put out. Behind him, Stiles let out a sigh of relief.

            “Okay, well, still,” Scott said. “You should sell me too. I would’ve helped. Had I known.” He wasn’t lying about that.

            “He’s not being sold,” Talia informed Scott and Derek watched as Scott sagged in relief.

            “Oh, oh, okay, then,” Scott said. “That’s-”

            “His punishment is ten lashes,” Talia finished.

            Scott’s face drained but instead of falling to his knees or begging, Scott was suddenly standing perfectly straight, meeting Talia’s gaze head-on.

            “No, he is not,” he said, and his voice wasn’t high or terrified or begging. He spoke firmly. He was clear and unafraid and Derek didn’t think he even realized that he had just given an order to an Alpha. Not even Derek’s father had ever quite spoken to her with that tone before. Derek saw his mother’s eyes flash red, and felt the surge of authority that she suddenly emitted, but apparently that had no effect on humans. Scott didn’t even flinch. “He had a good reason.”

            “I believe I’d like to be the judge of that,” Talia said. “Feel free to tell me this mysterious reason and I will take that into consideration.”

            There was a moment when Derek thought Scott would actually do it. He took a breath as if he might but then Stiles reached forward and grabbed Scott’s calf. Derek saw Scott look down at his friend, saw Stiles firmly shake his head, and saw Scott give in.

            “I can’t,” Scott finally replied and Derek felt his own frustration mirrored in his mother’s sneer. “But…” he paused for a moment, perhaps trying to think of some new strategy. “Can I take half?”

            Scott spoke surely and calmly and Derek saw Stiles start to sputter protests but-

            “No,” Talia said immediately. “Stiles has already refused a deal to lower his sentence. His punishment will be his alone.”

            Scott clenched his jaw, almost growling in fury. Next to him, Stiles just looked relieved.

            “If that is all,” Talia said. “We will convene at 5pm-”

            “This is wrong,” Scott interrupted, still staring at her, furious.

            Derek couldn’t help it. He was impressed. Scott spoke as if right and wrong should matter, even though they were slaves, even though Stiles was a thief. Scott spoke as if the force of his will alone should change the outcome. Scott spoke as if-

            Scott spoke as if he was an Alpha and Stiles was his Beta and he had final say on what happened to him.

            Derek couldn’t help but stare. He’d come to associate Scott with wide smiles and an easy laugh. He was the one who thought the best of everyone, he was the one who trusted while Stiles glared, who thanked people while Stiles just looked suspicious. Scott was the goofy kid who bet Isaac that Stiles could win a race where Stiles was carrying him and Isaac was carrying Heather. He was the kid that asked earnestly enough that Stiles had somehow agreed to carry him. He was the one who turned the whole thing into an event last Saturday and had gotten two more teams to participate.

            He was Scott, loveable, easy-going Scott who called everyone “man” or “dude” and generally thought the world was an awesome place, despite all evidence to the contrary.

            He wasn’t supposed to be the man who was currently staring down his mother with such a look of disapproval that Derek felt himself flush.

            “I’ll need thread and a needle,” Scott announced, after a moment, still not looking away. “I’m sewing him up the moment you-” Scott somehow looked Talia up and down in disgust as he thought of the word- “finish.

            Scott didn’t wait for Talia react. He merely reached down and grabbed Stiles, who was looking about as gob smacked as Derek felt. Then, never letting go of Stiles’ arm, he turned and marched the two of them out of the room.

            There was a stunned silence at their exit.

            Harris looked completely flummoxed. He started to sputter something, then simply bowed and left, leaving the Hale family alone.

            “Mom?” Laura broke the silence first. It was probably that as the future Alpha she was completely confused as to why their mother didn’t appear to be reacting.

            “Interesting,” Talia finally said slowly. She was frowning a little bit, but not in anger. More in curiosity. And maybe a touch of concern.

            “I liked him,” Peter said, smiling. Derek rolled his eyes. Peter was irreverent at the best of times. He was surprised he had made it through the whole meeting without saying anything. “Not the second one- too holier than thou, but the thief- he made some good points. It’s not like we really needed this crap anyway. Tell him he can have my letter opener back. Finders keepers and all.”

            “Peter,” Talia said, warningly. Peter grinned wider but obediently tilted his head to the side, submitting before leaving the room, pulling, as usual, an embarrassed Christine behind him. God help them all if the twins picked up even half of their father’s love of mischief.

            “Everybody out,” Talia said, effectively cutting off any future discussion, at least one that the younger generation would contribute to. Derek had no doubt that his father and mother would be having a longer talk about the events of the afternoon. “Though I do expect you to be in the outer courtyard in an hour.”

            Derek waited until Laura and Cora had left, still shooting confused and slightly angry glances around the room. Then he quietly asked the question that had popped into his mind and refused to leave.

            “Mom?” he asked, making sure she was listening. He only wanted to ask this once. “Do I have to- I mean, do you want me to- uh,” he waved his hand, hoping she knew what he meant. Was he the one who had to actually whip Stiles? Because Stiles was technically his responsibility and it was probably his fault that Stiles was going around stealing for some reason and-

            “No, Derek,” his mom said, smiling at him fondly for a moment before her face settled into grim determination. “It’s my punishment so it’s my job. Never sentence someone to something you would not carry out personally.”

            Derek blinked a little at the advice. That kind of statement she usually saved for Laura, the future Alpha. But still, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, relieved more than he was comfortable admitting.

            “It’s not your fault, Derek,” Talia continued, softly. “I don’t think there’s anything that you could’ve done to stop him.”

            Derek nodded, even as he acknowledged that that was only part of the reason he felt guilty. He also couldn’t help but recall that it was his complaint about the missing watch that had set the whole investigation in motion. And Stiles was right, one of Derek’s pair of cufflinks had been returned and he hadn’t even noticed it was gone. Probably never would have. Heck, he didn’t even care about the watch either.

            “Thank you,” he said.

            “Now go on,” Talia said. “Make sure Isaac gets medical supplies to Scott.”

            It wasn’t until he had tipped his head and left the room that he realized what that meant. His mother, the Alpha, was listening to Scott. Through both Derek and Isaac to cover her tracks but still… she was listening.

            He didn’t know what to make of that.

 

*^*^*^

 

            There was something singularly awful about having to wait for your punishment. Stiles absolutely hated it. He much preferred when masters just lost their temper and had at it rather than told him what they were going to do and made him just… wait. And think. And feel sick.

            He was grateful that Scott didn’t release his arm after they left the room. His was quite content to let his friend pull him unerringly towards their room. The relief that he wasn’t going to be sold was wearing off. Even the complete shock over Scott’s bizarre and frankly suicidal display of authority couldn’t hold his attention for long. He was consumed by a sort of breathless terror.

            Figures he would manage to piss off the nicest family enough that they would use the one kind of punishment he’d never experienced before.

            Whippings were rare these days. Beating with a belt was fairly popular, probably because belts could break the skin, but primarily they left bruises. Actually whipping your slave caused too much damage, made them all but useless for at least a few days which simply wasn’t a good use of your money.

            Maybe he should try explaining that.

            Scott opened the door to their bedroom with a bang and Stiles saw Isaac leap off his bed as he sank onto the edge of his.

            “What happened? What’s wrong? Is he going to be sold?”

            Stiles shook his head dumbly, wringing his hands together. Oh God, this was bad.

            “Not sold,” Scott growled and to Stiles’ surprise, he was still angry. Usually, Scott’s anger had the life span of a few minutes at most. “Whipped. At 5.”

            “What?” Isaac gasped. “That’s not- The Hales don’t-”

            “It’s true,” Stiles mumbled. His stomach was rolling but he was more concerned about taking long, deep breaths. Not panicking. He would be fine. It probably wouldn’t even be that bad.

            “How- how many?” Isaac stuttered.

            “Ten,” Scott said.

            “She offered to bring it down to five,” Stiles muttered. “But I had to give all the money back.” Above him, Scott went still at the news.

            “Well, do that!” Isaac sounded panicked. “Just give it back!”

            “How much do you have?” Scott asked, and now he was looking at Stiles with that same look of authority he was directing at Talia Hale a moment ago.

            “Almost 500,” Stiles said, looking up from his hands long enough to meet Scott’s eyes. “But, the cheapest I found was still 800 and we’d- I’d never be able to get this much again and we can’t give it back, Scott. We can’t.”

            “800?” Scott sounded shocked. “That’s- they’re getting more expensive.” Stiles nodded miserably. It was true.

            “What’s 800?” Isaac asked, glancing between the two. “What could possibly be that expensive?”

            “My inhaler,” Scott said darkly. “It’s rare to bother making human medicine anymore. It’s expensive. Maybe I don’t-”

            “You need it, Scott,” Stiles said. “It’s not safe for you to not have one. Last time was… you need an inhaler. Soon.”

            “You were rushing,” Scott said with sudden understanding. “That’s why you were caught when you never have been before. You were stealing more expensive things.”

            Stiles looked back at the ground, not wanting to see the disappointment or dismay in Scott’s eyes.

            “How will you get the rest?” Isaac asked and Stiles clenched his hands together.

            “I’ve got some other tricks up my sleeve,” he said, trying for casual. He had ways Scott didn’t even know about. He could never risk stealing from the Hales again but… but there were other things he could sell. “Don’t worry. I’ll get it, Scott.”

            “I wish you would let me help,” Scott said, but it was an old argument between them. One that they had already had a hundred times that Scott had long since given up any hope of winning. Scott just had simply no eye for stealing or selling or any less than reputable aspects of life. He also trusted Stiles enough to listen to his arguments. And to agree that the less he knew about it the better. Less chance of being caught by a werewolf lie detector. Plus plausible deniability.

            Thank God, Stiles thought dimly. He couldn’t have Scott digging around into how exactly he went about making money. Especially now that he was probably going to have to-

            Not now, he told himself. God, he had to focus on one fucking thing at a time. First, deal with this afternoon. Then he could deal with-

            “Are you okay?” Isaac asked softly. Apparently he was not doing a very good job of keeping his breathing under control.

            “Gonna vomit,” Stiles mumbled, which might actually be true. He flashed a thin smile at the two boys and then dashed to the bathroom.

            He avoided the mirror and opted to just sit on the toilet seat, grabbing his head in his hands and trying to calm down. He wasn’t going to have a panic attack over this. It was just ten hits. It would be over in a minute. Physical pain was nothing new and it just didn’t fucking matter. That was the main point. It really didn’t matter so he should just get over it.

            It didn’t matter. At the end of the day, they could do whatever they want and he would still be Stiles and Scott would still be Scott. They’d be together and Stiles would get Scott his medicine because that’s what he did. That was his job and they could try to make him feel guilty or punish him or make him stop, but he wouldn’t. They wouldn’t win.

            He took a few more deep breaths and told himself it didn’t matter and soon, he felt better. Like he wasn’t on the edge.

            He walked back out to the room and wasn’t surprised to see Isaac gone and Scott, sitting on the floor against the back wall, waiting for him.

            It was natural to slide down next to him so that Stiles was sitting on the left, close enough that their shoulders and legs were touching. This was their spot. In cells or cages or laundry rooms or dungeons, they sat like this. When they didn’t have beds or chairs or even a fucking room to themselves, this was still their spot. It made him feel better in a way that not even the softest seat could.

            “You know what sucks?” Scott asked after a moment. Stiles hummed to show he was listening. “Being a slave.”

            Stiles looked up at the vehemence in Scott’s voice, a bit surprised. Scott was the optimist between them. He was the one to focus on the positive, to nod but not contribute when Stiles went on his rants about how much their life sucked.

            “I really fucking hate it,” Scott said, fists clenching. “It’s just… wrong and stupid and no one seems to care except you and me.”

            Scott looked over and his eyes were so earnest and filled with righteous anger that Stiles felt better. About everything. He hadn’t even realized it but this was what he needed. Proof that Scott wasn’t as happy here as everyone else, proof the Scott hadn’t fallen head over heels in love with the Hales and forgotten he was a slave, proof that it was still Scott and Stiles against the world.

            “Yeah,” he said and his voice was rough. “It’s pretty fucking miserable.”

            “Always,” Scott agreed. “I mean… I’m a gardener with asthma. I spend all day worrying I might breath in the wrong plant and kill myself. Or that you are forced to like… taste something with peanuts and then you die. It’s freaking stupid.”

            “We really should’ve switched,” Stiles said.

            “And you told them that!” Scott cried, still looking honestly confused as to why they weren’t listened to. “People should listen to us.”

            Stiles nodded.

            “We should leave,” Scott said and it was softer but with just as much conviction.

            “Run away?” Stiles asked, smiling wryly.

            “Yup,” Scot nodded as if he were agreeing to something. “One of these days, we should just up and leave. Live in the woods.”

            “You’d heal hurt animals,” Stiles said. This was an old game between them. Old wishes tossed back and forth when they were hurt and alone and scared. They had bothered to play in years.

            “You’d figure out how to feed us,” Scott said. “And all the other important stuff, probably. But I’d stitch you up if you got hurt.”

            “We would never take orders from anybody,” Stiles added, grinning. “Never do anything we didn't want to do."

            “We’d find our parents,” Scott replied gently and Stiles' heart twisted even as he nodded roughly in agreement. There was a reason they didn’t play this game anymore. It got to the point where it hurt instead of helped.

            They were both silent for a time and then Stiles took a breath and broke the tension that was mounting, not wanting Scott to tell his next wish because he knew what it would be and he couldn’t handle that right now. Not on top of everything.

            “Wonder if they’ve hooked up by now,” Stiles said, joking but not really because his mom had been dead for years now and even at twelve, he had seen the way his dad sometimes glanced at Mrs. McCall. He would like that. Being actual brothers with Scott.

            “Dude! Gross!” Scott said, laughing a bit. “Don’t even say that.”

            Stiles laughed but obediently went silent. They should check on the time. Head over at some point. He wasn’t going to make them come grab him.

            “One day, we’re getting out of here,” Scott said, looking over again. “Promise.”

            Stiles shrugged, and nodded, and fought the urge to roll his eyes, and for some reason, though he told himself not to, he believed it.

            The two sat in silence then and when Isaac came back, holding what looked to be medical supplies, he seemed to sense the quiet was important because he put them on Stiles bedside table without comment. Then he came and lay on the bed closest to them and stared up at the ceiling, content not to break the stillness, until-

            “We should go,” Isaac said softly. Scott’s hands clenched again and Stiles heart skipped more than one beat but he nodded stiffly and both stood up.

            Isaac led the way while Scott remained a solid presence beside him and all Stiles really thought on the way over was that maybe he should have vomited when he had the chance.

            “Dinner will be served late tonight,” Isaac offered softly as they passed the kitchen. It was empty. “Everyone refused to work until after. Harris nearly had a fit but Jenny informed him she was leaving and she wasn’t stopping anyone else and he could cook if he wanted to.”

            Stiles nodded. He didn’t know if that meant they were all going to support him or because they thought he deserved it. He didn’t dare ask.

            “They’re worried,” Isaac added. Stiles nodded again. He wasn’t sure that answered his question.

            They arrived too quickly. The outer courtyard wasn’t used much anymore from what Stiles could tell, but it had a pole that someone could be tied to and everyone was already there, standing in a rough semi-circle around it. It was clearly divided- the Hales on one side, the slaves on the other. Stiles glanced briefly to see Jennifer, Simon, Dee, and the others standing and then slammed his eyes down before he could see the looks on their faces. He wished this could be in private, but he supposed that wasn’t the point. Couldn’t make an example out of someone if people weren’t allowed to watch.

            They slowed as they reached the edge, Scott coming to a halt.

            Oh fuck, Stiles thought dimly. Fuck, I can’t do this.

            He had to. It didn’t matter. He had to.

            He took a step towards the pole, wishing he could hear something besides his own heart hammering in his chest.

            He made it two more steps before suddenly he was spun and wrapped in a hug that was both too tight and not nearly tight enough.

            “Scott,” Stiles choked, dropping his head instinctively to Scott’s shoulder, squeezing his eyes shut. He could feel tears sliding out of them anyway. He was so scared. He didn’t even pretend not to cling, somehow hoping that if he could just hold on hard enough, everyone else would just disappear. It could just be him and Scott.

            “It’s gonna be okay,” Scott was chanting, his own voice thick. “It’s gonna be okay. I promise. I’ll be right here. You hear me? Right here.”

            “Okay,” Stiles said after a moment. He had to do this. Everyone was watching. There wasn’t a choice. He could do this. He loosened his hold slightly. “Okay.”

            Scott leaned back as well, but only so that he could look into Stiles’ eyes, their foreheads almost touching.

            “You’re gonna be okay,” Scott repeated. “I say so.” Stiles took a deep breath. Believed his friend. Scott reached over and wiped Stiles' face, though he didn’t bother to hide the tears on his.

            “Remember, give ‘em nothing,” Scott said, grinning a hard grin that Stiles knew was often on his face, not Scott’s. “Fuck werewolves.”

            Stiles’ surprised laugh faded into sort of a sick cough.

            “You’re gonna get yourself killed,” he muttered. The Hales were right there. Doubtless they could hear everything. Scott shrugged, unconcerned.

            “They can’t kill us,” he smirked and Stiles smiled. That was their line. After asthma attacks and allergic reactions and beatings and whatever else werewolves threw at them, that’s what they assured each other. That they were invincible.

            “Yeah,” Stiles said, nodding, forcing himself to grin widely at Scott, not caring who saw or heard him. “Fuck ‘em.”

            He pounded Scott’s back on more time and then moved before he could think about it. He set his jaw and turned and glared at the Hales as he took off his shirt. His back was already ruined. He knew that- there were old scars, and Matt’s claws that started just beneath his shoulder blades and wrapped all the way up and around and the Hales couldn’t do anything to him. He didn’t even flinch as Harris came over, forced him to his knees and tied his hands above his head.

            “Slave 101539 has stolen property that belongs to the Hales,” Talia’s voice suddenly cut through the silence. “He took it knowingly and to make a profit and thus has been sentenced to 10 lashes of the whip.”

            There was a shifting of the crowd, maybe a murmur and that’s all the warning Stiles had.

            The first lash hit and all thought emptied from his mind.

            He could only gasp in pain soundlessly as fire raced across his back.

            Then the second hit.

            Oh shit, Stiles thought as he instinctively jerked closer to the pole, trying to get away. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

            The third and fourth hit in rapidly succession and Stiles was dimly aware that he had to breathe.

            He forced himself to not scream, to take a breath and then bite down. Give ‘em nothing. Oh shit.

            He thought he heard someone cry in the crowd but he couldn’t be sure because two more strikes happened and he couldn’t really be sure of anything. Maybe it had even been three.

            Blood was spilling down his back. He knew that in the same distant way he knew that it had to be over soon. But he’d lost count somehow.

            The whip came down again and he let out a little choked sob before he could help himself. He wanted to scream. He wanted it to stop.

            No, he thought firmly. Shit, no.

            He was hit again, he knew but at this point he couldn’t even tell where the lashes hit. His whole back was on fire.

            Then suddenly, a lash hit but Scott was at his side the same moment. He must’ve been moving before Talia even finished.

            Thank God someone kept count, Stiles thought weakly.

            “I got you,” Scott was saying, untying Stiles quickly. Just bringing his arms down made Stiles groan. “I got you. C’mon, let’s go.”

            Go, yes. He wanted to leave. He wanted to go far away. He struggled to stand, grateful that Scott was there to wedge himself under Stile’s arm.

            “Shi-,” Stiles mumbled, trying to get his legs to work. His whole body felt disjointed. His mouth was numb. He must have bitten his lip at one point.

            “I got you,” Scott said but Stiles could tell he was struggling to help while also having to avoid touching anything.

            “Scott?” It came out as a terrified question. His teeth were chattering. It hurt. He hurt.

            “Let’s go,” Scott repeated and Stiles blinked and realized that he wasn’t standing yet. “On three.”

            “No,” Stiles tried. Moving was bad. Even his short pants of breath hurt. Scott should just leave him here. “Don’t- shi’ please.”

            Scott ignored him. Or maybe Stiles missed the count completely because suddenly they were rising but they weren’t going to make it far. Stiles knew that even as he tried to focus, tried to help. He wanted to go home. But they weren’t going to make it.

            Then suddenly Isaac was on his other side, grabbing and lifting and Stiles thought dimly that Isaac probably shouldn’t be seen helping them before mercifully passing out.

End Part IV.

Chapter Text

Part V: Aftermath

            Derek knew, he fucking knew he shouldn’t go anywhere near the boy’s room tonight.

            He knew Stiles was most likely still passed out, he knew Scott was doubtless by his side, he knew he wasn’t welcome.

            But he was still awake and it was after midnight and he had to do something. He couldn’t just lie there and pretend to be sleeping. He had to at least make sure that Stiles was still alive.

            So he got out of bed and went.

            He passed the kitchen and peeked in, thinking maybe Jennifer would be there to give him an update, but she was gone. For the first time that Derek could ever remember, there were still dirty dishes in the sink. He blinked stupidly at them for a moment and then kept walking.

            He halted well before the bedroom, sickened to realize that the smell of blood and pain had permeated this far.

            He shouldn’t be surprised. He had been there. He had seen how awful it was. He had smelled the blood instantly and heard Stiles’ gasps of pain and-

            And he’d stood there and done nothing, despite every instinct that seemed to scream for him to run out there and stop this.

            He should really turn around and go back to his room.

            He turned and looked down the hallway anyway.

            Scott and Isaac sat on opposite ends of the hall, legs spread out in the middle, facing each other but both looking down. Their hands and shirts were still stained with blood and Scott had streaks of it on his face and the back of his neck. Derek could almost see the movements that had put it there. Isaac was cleaner, but only because he was currently holding a damp rag limply in his fist.

            They were both just sitting, stinking of exhaustion and sweat and sadness and Derek didn’t want to disturb them. But he had to see Stiles. He wasn’t even sure why.

            He took two steps closer to them and then they were up, Scott leaping to his feet faster than Derek could follow; Isaac only a beat behind. They both stood glaring at him, Scott seemingly ready to launch himself at anyone who came too close.

            “It’s just me,” he said, raising his hands. He hadn’t meant to startle them.

            “What do you want?” Scott demanded and he hadn’t relaxed at all, not even knowing it was Derek. Derek opened his mouth to reply but Scott continued. “Come to make sure your mother did a good enough job?”

            Derek could only stare, speechless. Scott didn’t sound like Scott. He sounded cold and furious and… and something Derek couldn’t even properly name. Derek didn’t know Scott could sound like that. Like hatred.

            “Cause she did,” Scott continued, taking a step towards Derek. His voice was rising. He smelled like hysteria. “We fucking just finished stitching him back together and if you think for one second I’m going to let you in there so you can report back to your fucking alpha-”

            “No,” Derek gasped, shocked by the implication, shocked by the hatred in Scott’s eyes. It had been one thing to hear it as the two boys hugged, to hear the utter truth in his voice when Scott told Stiles to ‘fuck werewolves’- that had been shocking. But Derek had assumed it was in the heat of the moment. His mother must have as well because she didn’t so much as blink. But to see the anger up close, to feel it directed at him it was… “Look, I just wanted to see him-”

            “You stay the fuck away from him,” Scott growled, still coming closer. Derek actually took a step back. His eyes cut to Isaac, who he knew, who he’d known for years, who knew Derek would never do anything like that but-

            But Isaac’s eyes were cold and unwelcoming.

            “I just want to see him,” Derek tried again. He could take some of the pain too, not that Scott would know that. But he could. He would. “To make sure he’s okay.”

            Scott had punched him before he even had time to react.

            “Scott!” Isaac cried, reaching for the other boy even though Scott had already stepped back. He looked like he hadn’t even realized what he had done. Isaac still grabbed him and pulled him away, watching Derek rise warily.

            “He’s exhausted,” Isaac started, standing between them, eyes terrified again. “Please, he didn’t mean to- please, don’t-“

            “No, it’s- it’s okay,” Derek said, feeling his cheek dumbly. The sting had already faded. This was a mistake. He knew he shouldn’t’ve have come.

            “You want to know if he’s okay?” Scott said dully. The anger had gone out of his voice, leaving it hollow, lifeless. “He’s- He’s fucking not.”

            To Derek’s horror, Scott’s voice caught and the boy seemed to collapse, turning away from Derek to cast an agonized look at the door to the bedroom. He took another breath but the catch in his throat was worse, not better.

            “He’s not okay,” Scott repeated, one hand coming up to cover his face as tears spilled out of his eyes. “He’s hurt… fucking ruined a-and it’s my fault.”

            Scott slid down the wall, both hands covering his face, sobbing in earnest now, breath coming in short gasps.

            “He’s not- goddammit,” Scott choked hopelessly. Any other words he said were lost.

            “I think you should leave, Derek,” Isaac said, sounding just as devastated. Derek nodded but Isaac had already turned, sitting next to Scott and pulling the sobbing boy into his arms.

            Derek fled.

            He made it to the kitchen, grabbed a wooden spoon and broke it in half and still had too much energy, steal felt the need to destroy something. He thought about going for a run, thought about just shifting to wolf form and running or hunting for hours.

            But there was a sink full of dirty dishes and maybe he should try being fucking useful for once in his life.

            So he turned the water on too hot and used entirely too much force and focused on the dishes. He didn’t replay the scenes from earlier today in his head, didn’t smell Stiles’ blood over everything, didn’t hear Scott’s choked sobs from down the hall.

            He just did the fucking dishes.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Looking around the kitchen, at the piles of vegetables that still needed to be cut up, at the spices and herbs that hadn’t been put away, and, of course, the veritable mountain of dirty dishes, Jennifer thought that maybe she had let the rest of her staff go too early. But finally, only a little past seven, she’d told them all to put out the slaves’ dinner early and go enjoy it. Not that any of them would.

            It had been three days and Jennifer knew that everyone was trying to act as if nothing was wrong. Casual conversation was upheld, there were short bouts of laughter, people went about their work and yet it was wrong. It was all wrong.

            It wasn’t just that Stiles wasn’t there to tell horrible jokes or that Simon hadn’t told a story since it happened or that Dee sometimes cast worried looks at Stiles usual spot as if afraid it might stand empty forever. That, Jenny had expected. Even if Stiles was guilty and people were angry for his betrayal of the Hales, they would still miss him. They would still want him back. She knew that. When Harris had gotten sick last year and had been laid up for a week, she had been surprised at how much people wanted him better. Even she had been glad when he had returned, pompous and pretentious as always. Simon and Dee had baked him a cake. He’d yelled at them for wasting resources. They’d grinned and served him a slice anyway. He’d eaten it.

            No, like it or not, the Hale slaves were a family and she’d always known that everyone would miss Stiles.

            No, what surprised her, what shocked her actually was how angry everyone was. And their anger wasn’t directed at Stiles.

            “He didn’t deserve that,” Dee had sniffled when they arrived back at the kitchen after… after the punishment. And Jennifer had nodded, but Dee had sobbed into Simon’s shoulder throughout the whole thing so she didn’t quite pay attention to the sentiment behind the words. She hadn’t realized that people – her people – were going to grab hold of the simple conviction that Stiles didn’t deserve that and get angry about it.

            She hadn’t even noticed it right away. But then she’d gotten a headache from the noise Dee was making from how hard she was slamming her knife down as she cut ingredients. And she’d noticed how large and uneven the pieces were. Nothing like the neat, even sections she’d grown used to for the past twenty years. From there it was easy to see the rest. Simon had taken to overcooking the meat. Not badly enough to be sent back, but enough that Jennifer had noticed when she thought to look for it. Enough that the Hales would notice too. She had watched as Dee informed Harris that they were out of Talia’s favorite kind of tea even though she knew for a fact that they had some in the back.

            Yesterday, Grace and Frank, who made the desserts, who worked on the other side of the kitchen, who barely even knew Stiles, had pulled burnt cakes out of the oven and shrugged to each other. “Eh, whatever, Just cover it up with frosting,” Grace had suggested. Silently, Frank had nodded.

            Jennifer knew she should put a stop to it. It was unprofessional and disloyal and Stiles had stolen from the family and she should say something. Talia was within her rights to punish him. He hadn’t even pretended not to be guilty. She should stop it. But she didn’t. In fact, that’s when she realized that she had subconsciously planned the next week’s dinners to be all ones that she knew the Hales didn’t particularly like, based on the amount of leftovers that were often available.

            Because she was angry too. Not for the same reason as everyone else, but she was mad and-

            The door opened and that was probably a good thing as her diced onions were starting to look as awful as Dee’s.

            To be honest, she was expecting Derek, who had been noticeably absent from the kitchen both during and after regular work hours. So she couldn’t help but raise her eyebrows in surprise when it was Cora who stomped in the room and flounced dramatically on a stool.

            “Can I have some ice cream?” Cora asked and she sounded… unhappy. She didn’t flash her usual cocky grin or launch into a story about her day. She just sort of glared around the room, muttered a soft “thank you” when Jenny put the bowl in front of her and started eating.

            Cora was angry. By now, Jennifer could read the signs pretty well. Unlike with Derek, Jennifer also knew that with Cora, she didn’t have to bother asking.

            “This is stupid,” she muttered darkly after a moment, stabbing into her ice cream bowl.

            “What is?” Jennifer asked neutrally, years of experience keeping the smile off her face.

            “Everything!” Cora declared, waving her spoon around. “Just everything is all dumb and messed up and-”

            She cut herself off and took another angry bite. Then she just stared into her bowl for a bit and when she looked up again, Jennifer thought that maybe she had been wrong. Cora didn’t look angry, she looked upset. Hurt.

            “I think Isaac is mad at me,” Cora confessed. “He’s… He’s acting all weird and different and I think he hates me.”

            Jennifer felt her heart soften. Sometimes she forgot how young Cora still was. She was only fifteen. She was a teenager and unlike Isaac, or Scott, or Stiles, she hadn’t had a reason to grow up as fast. Thank God.

            “Different how?” Jennifer asked gently.

            “He…” Cora seemed to struggle for a second. “He always calls me ‘Mistress Cora’ now. And he won’t stop! Even when I told him not to! Yesterday he said he ‘wouldn’t want to get in trouble.’ Like he would ever get in trouble for calling me my first name! He’s been calling me Cora for years.”

            “Well, everything’s a bit… tense right now,” Jennifer said. She went for understatement. She didn’t know how much of the slaves’ anger was actually getting through to the Hales. Didn’t know if they’d realize their sub-par dinners were purposeful. And who knew what the gardening or household staff was up to.

            “Even before this!” Cora insisted. “Even before… a few days ago, he hasn’t been hanging out with me as much. He’s always busy or hanging out with… you know, them.

            “Scott and Stiles?” Jennifer asked.

            “Yeah,” Cora’s eyes had dropped to her bowl. “I mean, we’ve been friends for forever, and now he just doesn’t even care.” Cora’s head was still firmly down, but she made a noise that could have been a sniffle and Jennifer went and sat next to her. Even she sometimes forgot how close the two of them were. Cora obviously loved her family but Derek was seven years older than her, and the twins ten years younger and the moment Isaac had come into the house, Cora had claimed him. He was her playmate, her friend above all else. And she loved him fiercely and the world could see he adored her the same way.

            “Sweetie, I know Isaac still loves you,” Jennifer said, searching for words. How did she explain to a teenager that, like it or not, this issue was always going to come up. Even if Scott and Stiles had never arrived on their doorstep, eventually the fact that Isaac was a slave and Cora was a werewolf was going to test their friendship. “I think these past months he was just excited to meet people more like him.”

            “Like slaves?” Cora asked. “He’s known other slaves his whole life!”

            “I meant more like other teenage boys,” Jennifer said. “But, yes, I think Scott and Stiles have reminded him of the… differences between you two.”

            That was putting it lightly. Stiles had been doing nothing but reminding people of the inequalities between humans and werewolves since he’d got there. At first through his nervous and suspicious presence, then by telling and encouraging stories in which humans were always the good guys and werewolves explicitly the bad guys, and finally… well, justified or not, there wasn’t a human alive who could watch the events of a few days ago and not be reminded of the power werewolves held over them.

            Life at the Hales was good. Jennifer loved the Hales, she really did and she knew the others did too, but… but no one liked to feel powerless over their own life. That’s what people were truly angry about. That’s why Isaac was avoiding Cora and lashing out.

            But she couldn’t explain that to Cora. She wouldn’t even know where to begin.

            “The differences aren’t new,” Cora said stubbornly. “He’s just mad about the Stiles thing. Which I don’t understand because Mom had proof. He stole things and then refused to give the money back. Even when she said she would give him only five lashes if he did!”

            Jennifer blinked. That was new information. To be honest, she had assumed along with everyone else that Stiles had been forced to return the money. Cora took her silence as agreement.

            “Yeah! So it’s not like he was even sorry about it. He didn’t leave her a choice but everyone – even Heather! – feels bad for him. And it’s not like my mom made a mistake by deciding to…” Cora swallowed sickly.

            “Are you mad?” Cora asked after it was clear Jennifer wasn’t going to say anything.

            Jennifer shook her head even though it was a lie.

            She was angry. But she wasn’t angry because she was a slave. She was almost 50. She had long since accepted that. She had accepted it and grown to love her life and she would choose it even if she had a choice.

            She was mad because Talia had made her a liar. She was mad because she had looked Stiles in the eyes and said he was safe, that he wouldn’t be tortured as long as he was with the Hales and Stiles had believed her. But it wasn’t true.

            If Talia had sold Stiles, she would have been disappointed and heartbroken. Disappointed in Stiles and heartbroken for Scott. But at least she would have understood it. Talia’s decision to whip Stiles but not sell him went against everything she thought she knew about the Hales. And it had made her lie to someone who she knew had been lied to his whole life.

            So, yes, she was angry. But again, that was nothing Cora needed to know.

            “I’m not mad at you,” Jennifer said evenly. “And neither is Isaac. He’ll come around. I’m sure of it.”

            “She wasn’t wrong,” Cora echoed and her eyes flashed gold for a moment. Jennifer nodded. There were werewolf dynamics at work here. Cora’s mother was the Alpha. The Alpha couldn’t be wrong.

            “Don’t worry,” Jennifer said. “Everything will settle down. Including Isaac. You’ll see.”

            “Okay,” Cora sighed, seemingly resigned to waiting it out. Silently she finished her bowl of ice cream and stood. Jennifer watched as she visible pulled herself together, taking a breath and pulling up a smile.

            “I’ll just be extra annoying until he remembers we’re friends,” Cora declared. “I know all the things he’s secretly freaked out by.” She nodded her thanks and turned to go.

            “Don’t hurt him!” Jennifer called after her. She got a wave in return.

            Jennifer took a breath and stood. She really did have to get to work. Maybe she should call it for the night. She was pretty sure Scott had been sneaking in and handling any dishes she left in the sink overnight. Someone had been doing them.

            “Hello.”

            The soft voice had her whirling around again, hand on her heart. Werewolves needed to be freaking louder when they entered a-

            Oh. It wasn’t a werewolf.

            Well, this was certainly a night for rare visitors.

            “Alan,” Jennifer breathed. “You scared me.”

            “I’m sorry,” he replied with his slightly disconcerting smile. Jennifer found Deaton to be an incredibly nice man, always making sure she had the vegetables she needed, asking her permission before he planted anything new or officially stopped trying to grow a certain plant for the winter. He was just a bit… strange.

            “No, no,” she said, waving towards a seat. “I was just surprised. How can I help you?”

            “I just came to check up on Stiles,” Deaton said, opting to stand next to the seat rather than sitting down. “I haven’t heard how he’s been doing.”

            “Scott didn’t tell you?” Jennifer said, surprised. She would have assumed Scott would keep all the gardening staff informed on Stiles’ progress.

            “Oh, no,” Deaton gave a little chuckle and looked pleased. “No, Scott informed me he would not be returning to work until Stiles was better.”

            “He informed you?” Jennifer repeated, aghast. She didn’t think slaves were allowed to simply decide not to work. She’d thought that Scott would maybe ask for a few days but… but Scott really did seem to be determined to take up Stiles’ slack on defying the rules.

            “Yes,” Deaton still sounded completely calm. “To my knowledge, he hasn’t left Stiles’ side.”

            Well, Deaton didn’t sound offended by being ordered around by a teenager. And Jennifer had to assume that he would have updated Talia on the situation.

            At least, she thought he would. Then again, this was Deaton. He had an unusual sense of what was and what wasn’t important.

            Oh well, it’s not like she was going to go running to Talia with this information.

            “Well, I normally drop by after my work here is done,” Jennifer said. “Both times he’s been asleep but Scott says there’s no sign of infection yet.” Last night, Scott had actually let her see Stiles for a moment. He was covered in blankets from three different beds so she hadn’t actually seen anything. He could have been merely asleep. Except he wasn’t.

            “Good,” Deaton said. “That’s good.”

            “Scott seems to be on top of it,” Jennifer agreed.

            “So, do you know the reason?” Deaton asked a moment later. There was no doubt as to what “reason” he was referring to. It was the question on everyone’s mind. Why? Why would Stiles have done such a thing?

            “No,” Jennifer replied, shaking her head sadly. “I have no idea. Isaac does though.”

            Isaac had been the one to come tell them all.

            “He’s getting whipped at 5,” Isaac said softly, looking at the ground. It didn’t matter. Everyone could hear him. The kitchen had gone absolutely silent the moment he entered. “Ten lashes.”

            “What?” Dee gasped. “That’s not- No, they-”

            “He was stealing things and selling them,” Isaac said. “It’s his punishment.”

            “Stealing?” Dee said. “But, he-”

            “He has a good reason,” Isaac said, finally looking up and looking desperately around at everyone. He sounded young and terrified and frantic to make them understand. “I promise- it’s not- He’s not bad. He had to.”

            “Why?” Jennifer asked, a bit breathless despite herself. “What reason?”

            “I-” Isaac shifted. “I can’t tell you. I promised Sco- I can’t. But it’s good. He’s… helping.”

            That was as much as they’d gotten out of him. A moment later he had dashed off to get medical supplies and any later attempts had been met with even less information. If asked, he even denied it had anything to do with Scott, though an idiot would be able to tell that was a lie.

            Jennifer shrugged at Deaton again. “All I know is it’s a good reason. He’s… helping somehow. I would guess helping Scott with something.”

            “Yes, that’s what I assumed,” Deaton said, sounding disappointed she didn’t know more, but not surprised. “Ah, well, I’ll keep an eye out. He’s important.” Then he went silent, staring into a corner of the kitchen.

            “Scott or Stiles?” Jennifer asked. Deaton blinked at her as if he had forgotten they were talking.

            “Oh, both,” Deaton replied, smiling. “Isn’t that obvious?”

            Then he turned and left. Jennifer just shook her head. The boys were interesting, yes, loveable and important to each other and to the other people at the Hale household. But somehow she got the feeling Deaton meant “important” in a different way. She couldn’t see how that could be true.

            She couldn’t worry about it. She had other things to worry about. Like making sure her staff didn’t get themselves in trouble, or the fact that her kitchen was a mess, or the-

            She told herself to stop thinking and get to work for a few hours. She told herself she was going to finish it all, going to be professional about the whole thing since the rest of her staff was a heartbeat away from a full-on mutiny. She was going to remain calm and in control and-

            Aw, fuck it, she thought. She knew what she wanted to do.

            She wanted to see Stiles.

            She didn’t even bother putting things away. Maybe she would swing back afterwards and at least stick the vegetables in the fridge. But, if not, they could survive a few hours.

            She knocked quietly on the door when she arrived, used to Scott yanking it open a moment afterwards, eyes wild and distrustful until they recognized her. But this time, maybe because it had been three days and even Scott McCall couldn’t stay awake forever, no one came. She hesitated only briefly before sliding the door open.

            It took a moment for her eyes to adjust and then she just stared, not even bothering to hide the smile that stretched across her face.

            She had known that the bedside table to the side of Stiles bed had been moved, had seen that two beds were pushed together to make one big bed, but she assumed it was just to give Stiles more room than their narrow beds allowed.

            It wasn’t.

            Scott was occupying the second bed, sleeping on his side, one hand reaching out to wrap around Stile’s wrist, pulling it closer to him so he was almost curled around it. On the other side of the room, Isaac had moved the placement of his pillow so that his head was in the middle of the room. Closer to Stiles. She wasn’t sure what bed he normally slept in, but she thought he might have switched beds to be closer as well.

            All three boys were asleep. Scott was frowning slightly, as if he didn’t want to be, but he didn’t even twitch as she came to Stiles’ other side.

            Not thinking about it, she reached up to touch Stile’s forehead, smile dropping from her face and he twitched away and then muttered something.

            “Shh,” she said softly, trying to rub away the frown lines that appeared. “Shh, you’re okay.” It was hard to see his face, since he was obviously still lying on his stomach and it was half pressed to the mattress, but she waited until she could see his neck relax before removing her hand.

            She had to see them, she suddenly realized. And if Scott were awake, he would probably never let her. So she glanced around again, noting that Isaac had rolled over, but still seemed to be dead to the world and then went for it.

            She eased the blankets off Stiles slowly but firmly, folding them back carefully before turning her attention to his back.

            Tears sprang to her eyes instantly.

            She tried to tell herself that they looked healthy, that there was no sign of redness or inflammation, that the small, dark stitches were holding and looked clean and professional. She tried to tell herself it wasn’t that bad.

            She couldn’t though. All she could see was that fact that Stiles, her Stiles had been cut open. Ten times. The lashes were long and thick and wrong and she should’ve listened to Scott when he shook his head and told her they were nothing worth seeing. She should not have looked.

            Stiles stirred more purposefully now, definitely waking up. She pulled the blankets back up, easing them down gently and wanting to tuck them in but too afraid to do so.

            “Shh,” she said again, stroking his head once more. “Go back to sleep.”

            His eyes opened for a moment, blinking at her but not focusing.

            “Mom?” he asked, voice hoarse and doubtful. Jennifer froze, mouth hanging open for a moment.

            Then he was gone again, seemingly content with no answer at all except for the feel of a hand across his forehead.

            She stayed for a while longer, stayed until she was afraid her crying would get too loud and wake up the other boys.

            She left as quickly and silently as she came, stopping briefly after she closed the door to wipe tears from her face. She didn’t know why she bothered.

            As she passed the kitchen, she heard someone doing the dishes angrily, even violently. And she looked in and saw the familiar tense line of Derek’s back and she knew that she should go and say something. Assure him that Stiles was healing and that she didn’t blame him. She loved him and should say something to let him know he was welcome.

            But it had been a long day and a longer night and she just… couldn’t right then.

            So she kept walking.

 

*^*^*^

 

            “You’ve been avoiding me.”

            Derek didn’t flinch when his mother’s voice suddenly came out from behind a tree, but it was a near thing. He had just gotten back from a run and it was too early for this. Well, actually it was well past 8am but his run had started at almost 6 so maybe he just felt like it was too early for this.

            He didn’t say anything, using pulling on his pants as an excuse to look away.

            What was he supposed to say?

            You couldn’t lie to your Alpha. But he was also pretty sure you weren’t supposed to avoid your Alpha either. So he didn’t know what to say. So he said nothing, merely shrugged and hoped that would appease her.

            She passed him his water bottle wordlessly. He took it and drank deeply.

            “We have to talk,” she said, sitting down on a nearby tree stump. Even sitting, she held herself regally.

            “About?” Derek asked flatly.

            “Don’t be stupid,” she said, glaring. “You know what.”

            “There’s nothing to talk about,” Derek replied, grabbing his towel and starting to wipe himself down. He was disgusting. He wanted to go take a shower.

            “There’s not?” Talia said.

            “No,” Derek grunted. And he wasn’t lying.

            There wasn’t anything to say. Stiles had stolen from them. Stiles refused to give the money back. Stiles refused to even apologize. His mother had punished Stiles. It was simple. There was nothing to talk about. Except…

            Except he’d hated it. He hadn’t been able to sleep properly since it happened and he thought that if he didn’t see Stiles soon he was going to go crazy and he couldn’t understand why this mattered so much.

            “Then why are you avoiding me?” Talia asked.

            “I’m not,” Derek mumbled. “I just-” want to snarl at you every time I see you. Think that you were wrong to hurt Stiles. Don’t know what to do about the fact that I’m so fucking angry at you I can barely stand it.

           He shouldn’t be so furious. He shouldn’t be mad at all. His mother was the Alpha. The Alpha made decisions. He wasn’t meant to question those decisions. It went against every instinct he had.

            Except for the instinct that wanted him to step in front of her and protect Stiles.

            “Is it Stiles?” His mother asked, tilting her head to the side.

            “No,” Derek growled, hoping he wasn’t lying. It wasn’t Stiles. It wasn’t like Stiles was special or they were close or they were even friends. Derek tried to look out for him and Stiles still hated him.  Now Scott hated him too. There was nothing unique about Stiles. He just couldn’t stop replaying the whipping over and over in his head, hearing the whoosh of a the whip being pulled back and Stiles’ frantic gasps, seeing and smelling the cuts that ran with blood. It wasn’t Stiles, it was just the… torture of it. He just hadn’t been ready for that level of violence. He hadn’t known his mother was capable of something like that.

            “Why didn’t you just sell him?” He asked. That’s the question that hadn’t left him. The Hales didn’t do that to their slaves. Whenever there was a real… conflict of personalities before, that’s how it had been handled. Why the change?

            “I didn’t want to lose him,” Talia said simply. She frowned at him. “Do you want me to sell him?”

            “No,” Derek said quickly. He didn’t want to sell Stiles. He just didn’t know why his mother didn’t seem to want to sell Stiles. Her answer was vague and Derek knew she was the Alpha, it was her right to be vague but it still had him clenching his jaw in anger to stop himself from yelling.

            He just wanted to know if he was the only one who felt so compelled to keep Stiles safe. Or if there was some type of explanation. Some pull that his mother felt too that explained everything. He just didn’t know how to ask that.

            “Do you think I was wrong?” Talia asked quietly.

            Derek lifted his head to stare at her.

            No was the answer. She was the Alpha. She could ask for opinions before she made a decision but once it was made, it was done. There was no questioning. You trusted your Alpha. It was instinct. Of course she wasn’t wrong. She was his mother. She was his Alpha.

            “We should have waited to hear his reason,” he said, feeling odd. “He had a reason.”

            “Perhaps,” his mother allowed, standing slowly. “But do you think I was wrong?” Her words echoed Scott’s and her eyes glowed red. Derek took a step back, fighting the instinct to cower.

            “He had a reason,” he said again, shocked at himself. This was defiance. He was being defiant to his mother, to his Alpha. It should have been impossible. He was breathing too hard, he realized. Practically gasping. He felt like he might throw up.

            He whined in the back of his throat, unsure what was happening.

            Suddenly the red eyes were gone and his mother was hugging him, reaching up to tuck his head into her shoulder.

            “Oh, Derek,” she said, softly, all traces of anger gone. He nestled deeper into her neck, smelling pack and family and safe. “I’m so sorry.”

            A whine rose again from his throat. He had a headache.

            “I’m sorry,” his mother said again, rubbing his back in slow, careful circles. “Don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay.”

            Eventually, she stepped back and released him, ducking down to catch his eyes when he kept them firmly on the ground.

            “Go back to sleep,” she ordered, making it a formal command by gently resting her hand on the side of his neck. “You’ll feel better after you’ve rested.” He nodded dumbly.

            “I promise it will all make sense one day,” Talia told him, briefly squeezing his neck before released him. “Okay? I promise. Hang in there.”

            She kissed his cheek gently and then turned and walked back into the woods.

            Derek stared after her, feeling confused and empty.

            Then he went back to his room. And his Alpha was right. As soon as he lay his head on his pillow and felt sleep grab him, he did feel better.

            For the first time in a week, he didn’t dream.

 

*^*^*^

 

            “Go on,” Stiles said, waving his hands at Scott. “Get out of here.”

            “Are you sure?” Scott asked, eyebrows pinched together. “I could stay the whole day. I’m sure Deaton wouldn’t mind.”

            “Scott, it’s not like Jennifer is going to start making me lift heavy pots the moment you leave,” Stiles replied, rolling his eyes. “It’s time. To work with you!”

            It was eleven days since the whipping and Stiles really was feeling better. In the scheme of his life, it hadn’t been that bad. It was quick and efficient and he couldn’t even bring himself to be that angry about it. Okay, well it’s not like he was ready to shake Talia’s hand or thank her for teaching in the error of his ways, he’s wasn’t a fucking moron, but overall, he was fine. He hated admitting it, but really, he was used to worse. He was used to Matt. With Talia, it was only pain and no one had been around to try and force him back to work. He probably could have gone back a few days ago but Scott seemed to have decided that he was personally responsible for Stiles’ health and wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, they had spent the last week “easing” back into work. That was Scott’s slogan nowadays: We’re easing into it Stiles; Stiles, stop rushing, you’re easing into it; Stiles! Stop! That’s not easing!

            It had started about four days after the “incident” with Stiles finally being allowed to walk down to the kitchen just to say “hello” and prove he was alive. Scott hadn’t let go of his elbow the entire time. At the time, Stiles hadn’t minded as every step pulled at pains he didn’t know he had. They’d gradually built up to Stiles sitting and helping mix for part of the day, each day working for longer and longer stretches. Scott hadn’t left him alone yet though. He had somehow convinced Deaton to let him only work in the afternoons. Stiles wasn’t sure how he’d pulled that off.

            He was grateful. Really, he was. But he also know that if Scott didn’t stop hovering around him and constantly asking if he was okay, he was going to go nuts. He was also starting to go a little stir-crazy. As he got his strength back, he had also gotten restless again and there was absolutely nothing to do when sitting alone in their room. Except think. And thinking was something Stiles’ wasn’t ready to do quite yet.

            Not that he should be thinking about it. He knew what he had to do. He just had to wait another week or so and just go do it. And he would. As soon as he was better.

            “Alright,” Scott said, nodding. “Just remember: take it easy. Ease back into it.”

            Stiles barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes. He had never “eased” back into work after a beating before in his life. It was always do what you had to do to pull yourself together as soon as possible, get back to working as hard as possible, and pray that your master at least made some allowance for your injuries while deciding whether or not you deserved a few more rounds. Of course, Scott knew that. Scott had experienced his fair share of working through tears or black eyes or hunger so bad it made you dizzy every time you turned your head. Not quite as much experience as Stiles, but enough. This “easing back into it” was a novelty. For Scott, the novelty hadn’t worn off yet.

            So, Stiles kept that in mind when nodding to his friend and promising to take it easy.

            “Okay, and remember we’re taking the stitches out tonight.”

            “Ugh,” Stiles said, frowning. “You had to remind me.”

            In Stiles’ opinion, taking stitches out was worse than getting them put it. The slight tugging and the knowledge that thread was coming out of your body was disgusting. Plus it helped that usually when he was getting stitches put in, he was generally unaware of it.

            He didn’t even remember getting these stitches put in. He had been blessedly passed out for the entire ordeal. Maybe he could recall some of it if he put his mind to it, but he wasn’t an idiot.

            “Day 11!” Scott chirped, finally walking off. “Can’t mess with good luck!”

            Stiles did roll his eyes, but he waved as Scott walked away. Scott swore by the Day 11 rule. 11 days after you put stitches in, you took ‘em out. Scott claimed that any less and the wound wasn’t healed enough, and any more and skin had started to grow over the thread. He had just explained it in detail to Isaac last night before Stiles had begged him not to stop. Most of the trial and error had been on Stiles and he didn’t need the reminder.

            Scott ignored him in favor of showing Isaac the scar on his own leg where he’d left the stitches in way too long. Isaac had looked fascinated the whole time. Stiles had almost thrown up.

            Stiles pushed the door open to the kitchen, mouth open and ready to say something witty, perhaps about finally ditching Scott, but he didn’t get the opportunity.

            “You’re back!” Dee cried first, moving forward as if to hug him before realizing what a bad idea that was. She settled for hugging Simon.

            “And for the whole day!” Grace piped up from the far side of the kitchen.

            “Yeah,” Stiles said, and dammit, he might be blushing a little bit. “Finally got Scott to let me.”

            “That’s wonderful,” Jennifer said, sounding like she meant it even if she didn’t bother looking up. “Now, let’s get to it.”

            The others seemed a bit put out that Jennifer had gotten things back on track so soon, but Stiles was relieved. It still… confused him. How excited everyone was to see him.

            Stiles didn’t remember much of the first three days after his punishment. He knew that Scott stayed with him, he remembered being helped to the bathroom, and Isaac bringing him food that Scott helped him eat. On the fourth day, when he was finally awake long enough to start assessing the situation, he had bluntly asked Isaac if everyone hated him. It was information he needed to have. If he was going to have to start watching himself in the kitchen again, he needed to get ready for that sooner rather than later.

            Isaac had assured him that everyone was worried and everyone knew that he must’ve had a good reason. Isaac had said that everyone was on his side, that everyone missed him.

            He hadn’t believed it until Scott had actually taken him there a few days later.

            “Oh, Stiles,” Dee had whispered upon seeing him in the doorway.

            “Hey,” Stiles said, trying to smile even though his lip was still bruised from where he had slammed it against the pole. He tried to look around, wondering if he should apologize for missing work, or if they thought he should apologize for stealing from the Hales because he wouldn’t do that, not ever, but he also didn’t want-

            Dee had burst into tears the next moment, coming forward and grabbing his hand as if he couldn’t bear not to be touching him.

            “Oh, you’ve lost weight,” she said while Stiles had gaped at her. “It’s awful. I just can’t believe that this happened and you must be so hurt and I-”

            “Alrighty there,” Simon had said, coming up and pulling Dee away. “Let’s let the boy sit down before we all start crying on him.” He meet Stiles’ gaze over Dee’s head and rolled his eyes but Stiles could see the relief in them.

            Scott maneuvered him onto a stool and Stiles finally risked looking over at Jenny.

            Her eyes looked suspiciously damp and that hit Stiles harder than he thought it would.

            Jennifer was always so calm and no-nonsense. She was sweet and caring, yes, but not in an obvious way. She was the one content to let conversation flow around her, smiling more with her eyes than her mouth and now she was looking at Stiles and smiling. Like she was happy he was back. Like she wasn’t mad at him.

            “How are you feeling?” Jennifer asked, and Stiles could hear her get herself back under control.

            “Fine,” he said. It wasn’t true. His back hurt and he was exhausted just from the walk over but there was nothing to be done about any of that anyway. And besides, that what you were supposed to say when people asked you if you were okay.

            “Hm,” Jennifer said, looking at him and Stiles knew she didn’t believe it. Still, once she had glared long enough to make her point (Stiles didn’t quite know what that point was), she turned to the rest of the staff.

            “There, see Simon,” she said, small smile on her lips. “He’s going to be fine. So you can stop burning all the meat on purpose.”

            Stiles turned to Simon, confused. The older man was grinning at him.

            “It’s not my fault if I keep forgetting to take it off,” he said, winking at Stiles. “We’re short staffed at the moment.”

            The smile that stretched across Stiles’ face was much more genuine this time. Simon was ruining the Hales’ dinner for him. Scott laughed openly.

            “Well, that excuse has gone on long enough,” Jennifer said and she was still smiling but her voice was laced with the quiet steel that made her an incredible head cook. “And, Dee, you’ve got to tell Harris that we found some lemon and ginger tea.”

            “What?” Stiles said, snapping his head to look at Dee who was now wiping her face and looking pleased with herself.

            “Well, it was- I was just,” Dee waved around as if that explained it before glancing at Jenny. “I’ll tell him tomorrow.”

            “Excellent,” Jennifer said. “Now, Stiles, you are in no condition to help so just sit until you feel strong enough to head back. Scott, stir that as long as you’re just going to stand there.”

            Stiles didn’t like thinking about how much it meant to him that the kitchen staff didn’t hate him. People weren’t supposed to like him. He wasn’t Scott. It made him feel like he owed them something.

            But they had been ruining the Hales’ dinner. And it had been a long, long time since anyone besides Scott had ever stood up to a werewolf for him.

            He didn’t know what that made them.

            As he settled down to work, he was happy to note that apparently being away for over a week meant that Dee had plenty of gossip to catch him up on. Most of it was about people he didn’t really know or werewolf politics he didn’t really care about, but for once he found himself utterly content to let the conversation swirl around him without looking for clues or wondering about hidden meanings.

            The day moved quickly – at least more quickly that the afternoons spent sitting, staring at the blank walls of the bedroom. Jennifer gave him easy work to do and when a few hours had passed and he started to shift uncomfortably, she waved at Simon to pull up a chair so he could sit while he stirred or chopped.

            He was looking around for a bowl, only half listening to Dee and Simon’s banter when suddenly it cut off as if someone had doused them with water.

            It had gone just as silent when Harris came in.

            Despite himself, Stiles froze for a heartbeat, wondering dimly if there was something else had could have done wrong in the past eleven days. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to take eleven days off, maybe he-

            “You’re here.”

            It would have been impossible to mistake Derek’s growl for anyone else’s. As it always did, it came out slightly accusatory and more than slightly annoyed.

            Stiles’ heart started pounding.

            “Yeah,” he mumbled, voice dry.

            Before… everything, he would have said that he was almost used to Derek’s presence. He was never happy to see Derek come into the kitchen as it was abundantly clear that Derek only came there for him and he didn’t need that. But Derek seemed content to sort of lurk nearby and just let Isaac do the talking (or Scott, if he was around). A few times, usually after a stretch of long, awkward silence, Derek had asked Stiles a few direct, short questions and then grunted at whatever answer Stiles gave. Mostly, he stuck to asking Isaac about Cora and Heather or unsubtly prompting Isaac to tell stories about Cora. More like ordering Isaac to tell stories, actually.

            One time, Isaac had started to tell a story in which Cora had beaten Derek in a race and Derek had grunted: “You’re telling it wrong.” Isaac had told Derek he was free to tell the story if he wanted and what had followed was the shortest, most stilted story Stiles had ever heard. It was basically:

            “It wasn’t a normal race. We had to hunt down a deer in order to win. Cora cheated. That’s the only way she won. I think Laura helped.”

            Then Derek had glowered and glared so much that Scott (who, thank God, was there at the time) took pity on him and changed the subject. Derek left shortly after.

            Anyway, the point was, that while he didn’t trust Derek, he had at least convinced himself that Derek wouldn’t try anything while everyone else was around. He could put with Derek’s weird possessive staring thing once or twice a week as long as it was in public.

            But that was before.

            Now it was after. After Stiles had blatantly stole from his family and refused to give the money back. After Derek’s mother and Alpha had whipped him and then he hadn’t come to work for over a week.

            It was after. As far as Stiles was concerned, all bets were off. Any Hale family morality clause clearly no longer applied to him. Derek could probably drag him away right now and Talia or the other Hales wouldn’t care. If they ever did.

            If the glances that were part concern, part anger that Dee and Simon were giving Derek were any indication, he wasn’t the only one who realized this shift.

            “Shouldn’t you be resting?” Derek asked. He hadn’t taken his eyes from Stiles, seemed content to pretend that the other people in the room didn’t exist.

            “Even humans gotta heal sometime,” Stiles said, trying to sound casual rather than bitter. He wasn’t sure he succeeded. If the way Derek sort of… jerked was any indication, he definitely didn’t.

            “Dee, the soup isn’t going to make itself,” Jennifer said calmly. It was a reminder to get back to work, maybe a plea for everyone to stop staring. Stiles was grateful He didn’t need the whole kitchen staff watching as Derek sniffed around him.

            The normal sounds of the kitchen started up again, Stiles also looking back down. He refused to look up as Derek came closer.

            “Are you okay?” Derek finally asked and when Stiles glanced up, he was standing awfully close. Stiles forced himself not to jump back. Scott would kill him if he ripped the stitches now. Not when they were supposed to come out.

            “Yeah, great,” he said, lying through his teeth. “Never been better.”

            He didn’t even care that Derek would obviously know it was a lie. He really didn’t.

            “I’m sorry,” Derek blurted and Stiles actually looked at him. Then looked around to see if anyone else had heard that. Apparently not. What was happening?

            “About… everything,” Derek continued. “I’m sorry that- I wish my mom hadn’t-”

            Derek cut off suddenly, almost seeming to choke. For moment, Stiles thought his eyes flashed gold.

            “I should go,” he said roughly and before Stiles could say anything, Derek was gone.

            Simon and Dee cast confused glances his way and he shrugged.

            Jennifer just frowned at the door.

            Stiles went back to cutting and found himself wishing he could go back to his empty bedroom.

            At least things made sense there.

 

End Part V.

Chapter Text

Part VI:

            “Dude!” Scott’s voice made him jump and he had to bite back a yelp. “You locked the door!”

            Stiles muttered a curse to himself, grateful Scott didn’t have werewolf ears and thus couldn’t hear him. He had thought he’d woken up early enough to avoid getting ready in front of Scott, but apparently not.

            “Sorry!” he said, wincing when his voice still came out a little breathless. “Gimme a second!”

            “But you never lock the door,” Scott whined. “I gotta pee! Just let me in!”

            Stiles glanced at himself in the mirror, gaze flicking down to his chest. There was a cut along the ridge of his collarbone, multiple dark bruises… everywhere, and – fucking shit – actual bruised claw marks around his hips.

            No way Scott was seeing him like this. Not when he looked like a cheap goddamn whore.

            He threw on a shirt as quickly as he could, which he admitted was not very quickly as the deepest bruise, caused by a kick after it was over, wrapped around his left side and fucking hurt. Still, he got it on and managed to shift it around a little, checking to ensure that no one had broken his “no marks where they can be seen” rule.

            “Stiles!” Scott sounded desperate now. “I had three mugs of hot chocolate before we went to sleep!”

            Right. Jenny had taken to making a huge vat of hot chocolate every night and putting it in the slaves’ dining room every night. Simon and Dee claimed it the best winter tradition. Scott loved it. He also loved the huge down jacket that all the slaves had received even though it was black except for the word “HALE” emblazoned across the back.

            Stiles didn’t need any more reminders that it had been five months since they had been bought and that winter was now upon them. He already had the fact that Scott was almost always sitting, wheezing when he came out for lunch. He had the fact that Scott had now asked him twice about getting a new inhaler and if there was anything he could do to help.

            Scott had never directly asked about getting his inhaler before.

            Of course, Scott had never been forced to work outside all day before either so they were all having wonderful new experiences. Nice jackets, wool socks, and new boots didn’t do Scott any good if the fucking air he was breathing was too cold and shredding his lungs.

            And after winter was spring which meant allergies and Stiles had to get this done. He had to.

            “Three!” Scott called. “Just let me-”

            Stiles opened the door, pulling a smile to his face as he did so and hoping he looked casual. Or like he slept more than two hours the night before.

            Luckily, Scott didn’t even have time to look at him, pushing past him for the toilet.

            “Finally!” his friend said. “What were you doing with the door locked anyway? We never lock the door.”

            Stiles shrugged. It was true. He had been best friends with Scott for about eighteen years now. They’d been living in each other’s laps for six. They had shared beds and meals and bathrooms and stitched each other up more times than Stiles’ cared to remember. Modesty between them was a thing long of the past.

            Which was a problem when he was actively trying to hide things from Scott. He had found the downside of living in a household where beatings were all but nonexistent. No valid excuses for bruises. Even the ones that weren’t blatantly hickeys.

            “I had to take a crap,” Stiles said, staying in the bathroom to brush his teeth. He had already brushed them three times since he’d gotten back but he still felt the urge. “You wouldn’t have been able to pee anyway.”

            “The sink!” Scott replied, smiling. “I could’ve used the sink! Or the shower!”

            “You’re disgusting,” Stiles said, grateful that Scott didn’t seem to be looking too much into the issue. Not that he would. Stiles was just being paranoid. No one was going to find out. He was being careful.

            He didn’t go out every night, he needed at least a few nights off to rest and recover. When he did go out, he made sure to sneak out of the room well after midnight, only when he was certain both Scott and Isaac were completely asleep. Then, no matter how much Brunski assured him that he could handle two in one night, or at least one plus a blowjob, he went home. He usually got back early enough to grab a shower and snag a couple hours of sleep. Then he usually got up first to take another shower and assess the damage of last night.

            He had a system. It had been a little over a month – 11 times, his brain helpfully supplied – and he had it all under control. No one was going to find out. He was fine.

            “Bathroom’s all yours,” Stiles said, spitting one last time. “Don’t pee in the shower.”

            Scott grunted something that could have been disagreement. Stiles let the smile drop from his face and walked over to flop back onto his bed. Well, not flop. Lay. Carefully.

            You’re almost done, he told himself. Almost have enough.

            It was true. He had $735 saved now, hidden throughout the Hale Household. But it had taken too long. It shouldn’t have taken this long. Even with Cora finding one of his stashes during one of her pranks and turning the money into her mother, it shouldn’t have taken this long.

            Except it did. He had learned quickly that trying to whore himself out was doomed to failure. Werewolves knew he was a human. They knew he had to belong to someone. Most were unwilling to risk another werewolf’s wrath if he was being used without permission. And no one was going to pay a slave directly. Not when they could just take what they wanted for free if there was no one there to stop them.

            So he’d gone to Brunski, the shop owner who hadn’t even bothered pretending that the goods Stiles’ gave him weren’t stolen. He’d seen the way the werewolf looked at him. He’d figured Brunski was greedy enough to do it.

            He’d been right. For 60% of the profits and free services whenever he wanted, Brunski had agreed to pose as Stiles’ master, making money in the seedier areas of town by renting his slave out to anyone who could pay.

            Originally, Stiles had wanted to stick to blowjobs but then Brunski had called in the second part of his agreement and Stiles had realized that it wasn’t anything new. Nothing he couldn’t handle. He’d been owned by Matt for over a year. It wasn’t a big deal. Plus, there wasn’t enough money in blow jobs. Scott would be dead before he earned an inhaler that way.

            But he was almost done, he assured himself. He looked up at the ceiling and swallowed sickly, wishing he could believe it. But, doubtless Scott would be using the inhaler a lot since he was stuck outside and he’d have to get another eventually. And he never made it a priority, but he probably should pick up a few EpiPens. Because whipping or no, the Hales were a good deal. He didn’t want some stupid accident to get him and Scott sold.

            So… probably not almost done. But it didn’t matter. He was okay. Really, he was.

            He was just exhausted. That’s what had his heart beating too fast and tears pricking at the edge of his eyes. His side ached and there were claw marks on his hips and it had been a rough night. He hadn’t gotten much sleep. That’s all.

            He hadn’t slept well the night before either. Or the one before that.

            He was having nightmares again. Bad ones. Nightmares that had him scrambling at his sheets and choking back screams so he wouldn’t wake up Isaac or Scott. Nightmares that made it impossible to go back to sleep.

            “Hey, dude, you going back to sleep?” Scott asked, striding back into the room, still toweling his hair dry.

            “No,” Stiles said, sitting up. “Just waiting for you.”

            Scott looked over and frowned. “Maybe you should. You look kind of… rough.”

            “Nightmares,” Stiles lied smoothly. Scott may be slightly oblivious but he wasn’t an idiot. Stiles had to give him something to explain why his face looked so haggard and he was losing weight. Besides, it was partly true.

            “Oh,” Scott said and he was too good of a friend to ask what they were about but Stiles watched as his face went stony and angry. Scott probably assumed they were about the whipping. Which, again, wasn’t a complete lie as that did tend to make some guest appearances. It just wasn’t the main show.

            The main show was Matt. With a healthy side of Brunski. With some reoccurring roles of werewolves whose names he didn’t even know.

            “Don’t worry about it,” Stiles said, waving a hand as he stood. “They’ll blow over.”

            Scott didn’t look convinced. It was a good thing Stiles was planning on staying in for a few nights anyway. Scott had been known to keep himself awake all night to be there when Stiles’ started thrashing. It might actually be nice. Having Scott wake him up before the nightmares got really bad. Maybe he’d even manage to go back to sleep.

            “I could tell Jenny and you could go back to sleep,” Scott suggested as they moved towards the door.

            “Dude, relax,” Stiles said. “I got a couple hours. Worst case scenario: I fall asleep in the soup.”

            “You should try some of the hot chocolate,” Scott said. “It’s delicious.”

            “You peed for like 5 minutes straight,” Stiles replied, shaking his head. “I don’t need that in my life.”

            “Worth it,” Scott replied. “Totally worth it.”

            Silently, Stiles told himself he agreed.

 

*^*^*^

 

            “Are you sure, Jennifer?” Dee asked, even as she grinned and moved towards the door. It was 6:30, a little early for her to be letting everyone go, especially as there was plenty of work still to be done. But, Jennifer didn’t mind.

           In fact at this point, she almost preferred it.

           “Yes, yes,” she said, waving them out. Scott was at the head of the group, no doubt racing towards the hot chocolate, leaving even Stiles behind in his haste. Simon and Dee were close behind, Simon shouting that she was the greatest person in the world as he stumbled out of the door.

           Stiles gave her a small, tired smile, not even bothering trying to keep up with the group.

           Jennifer finally let the sigh that she was holding in all day out and felt her face form into the frown it wanted to. That was the real reason she needed her staff to leave early today. Sometimes, acting calm and trying to pretend everything was normal was too exhausting to maintain for a solid twelve hour work day.

            Because something was wrong. Something was dreadfully wrong. And she had no idea what to do about it.

            Stiles had flinched away from her today. He had been cutting something up, had gone still, had clearly zoned out still looking dully down at the cutting board and she had gone to snap him out of it. But when she placed a hand on his shoulder, he had all but leapt away from her, gasping, eyes wide with terror before they blinked and cleared. Then just as suddenly he was shaking his head, embarrassed, grinning at her and telling her not to sneak up on a guy and scare him half to death. Then he went back to chopping. Silently.

            Three weeks ago, Stiles had spaced out under similar circumstances. He jumped slightly when she touched his arm, paused, and then launched into a ten minute monologue about whether or not spiders or bees would win in an all-out war.

            The subsequent debate had lasted three days and involved every type of bug imaginable. Jennifer had even heard Cora and Isaac arguing the finer points of the protective shields of ladybugs. The only person who seemed to lose interest as the debate went on was Stiles.

            Everything should be back to normal. Everything had been back to normal. Within a few days of returning, Stiles had been back to talking and laughing. Within a week or so, he had lost the cautiousness in his movements and was back to flailing around the kitchen, narrowly avoiding injuring himself and others. For a while, it seemed as everything was good again. Scott had stopped frowning and was back to his overly-excited, happy self. Simon and Dee continued to dance around each other as if they were teenagers instead of both almost 40. Isaac had even settled down and started hanging out with Cora again. Harris’ outcries about the various pranks that erupted had proved their reunion to be successful. Life moved on and balance was restored.

            Then, something had happened. Well, not something. It wasn’t one big event, Jennifer would have noticed that, could have pinpointed it exactly and maybe put a stop to it.

            It was more that Stiles had… faded. Gradually, he’d stopped flailing around quite so much, stopped spurting out random thoughts, or laughing loudly at anything he found particularly funny. Now, Stiles was reduced to tired, sluggish movements and smiles that had stopped reaching his eyes. The only time old Stiles seemed to come back was when Scott arrived in the evenings and Jennifer suspected that was mostly for show.

            Something was wrong. Jennifer could feel it in her bones. But she didn’t know how to fix it.

            Maybe she should have expected it. Maybe she should have looked back at Stiles’ fairly rapid recovery and known that it was too good to be true. Instead, she had chalked it up to Stiles’ previous experience with abuse or his ability to compartmentalize or his clear relief that at least he hadn’t been sold. But Stiles had come back and all but written a sign on his forehead that said he did not want to talk about it and so they hadn’t. It hadn’t become one of the stories of the kitchen. Probably because the human hadn’t won.

            They hadn’t talked about it and it had been fine until it wasn’t and Jennifer didn’t know what to do. Maybe this was some sort of delayed reaction?

            Asking Stiles would doubtless be a waste of time. She could tell Scott but from the concerned looks he was giving Stiles when Stiles wasn’t looking, she suspected he already knew something was wrong. Obviously, she wouldn’t tell Talia about anything that concerned Stiles.

            Which left Derek. Derek, who-

            Had just walked into the kitchen. He must’ve been listening and waiting for the others to leave. He also must’ve left the dinner table as soon as he was done eating in order to be down here already.

            He didn’t say anything to her, just nodded but Jennifer didn’t really expect him to. He made his cursory walk around the kitchen, nominally to grab some errant plates or knives, though he lingered briefly by Stiles’ station (she was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to notice that) and then started on the dishes silently.

            Derek was the one thing that had never gone back to normal. The last time he’d come to the kitchen in the daytime was on Stiles’ first day back. He’d run out after five minutes and had stayed away for a week. Then he’d returned at night and had gone over and done the few dishes Jennifer had just put in the sink.

            He did them every night now. The few times there hadn’t been any, he’d seemed disappointed, frowning and eyebrows flattening to a straight line before quietly requesting a snack and sitting down.

            He never asked about Stiles. Jennifer had offered information at the beginning, content to tell a mute Derek that Stiles was doing fine, that Stiles and Scott had invented a secret handshake, that Dee had taught Stiles bits of the waltz that she learned from watching the werewolves dance upstairs before Simon had cut in. Jennifer had watched as Derek’s face softened into a slight smile with every new bit of information. She had thought that eventually he would come and sit in the kitchen once more.

            Instead, after two weeks of what little snippets Jennifer managed to sneak in casually, he had told her to stop.

            “Stop…. Telling me stories,” he said, scrubbing at a plate as if it had personally insulted him. “I know what you’re doing and I can’t- I don’t need to hear them. Stiles is fine.”

            She had been shocked. But she’d stopped. What else could she do? She’d asked Isaac if Derek seemed okay otherwise and Isaac had reported back that Derek actually seemed better than okay. He was completing some project with Laura and hanging out with Cora a lot more, even helping teach the twins how to control the shift in his spare time. According to Isaac, Cora thought he’d never been happier.

            If he wasn’t coming in and doing her dishes in silence every night, Jennifer might be more inclined to believe that statement.

            “How are… things?” Derek suddenly grunted. Jennifer jumped. Derek had been remarkably taciturn during their nightly meetings.

            “Uh,” she said, wondering why Derek chose today of all days to finally break and ask her questions. Had he seen Stiles recently? Had he noticed-

            “The kitchen smells wrong,” Derek informed her, glancing quickly at Stiles’ spot. She wanted to ask what that meant because her kitchen smelled fine, thank you very much. She was fairly certain that Stiles had stopped hiding bits of cheese and waiting for it to go bad months ago. But before she could ask, Derek clarified. “You smell worried. So… what’s wrong?”

            Oh. Right. Werewolves could smell emotions somehow.

            “Well,” she hesitated. Derek had all but directly stated that he wasn’t concerned with Stiles any more. And, really, what good would come of telling Derek? The two never spoke any more, not that they spoke that much before. According to Stiles, Derek was the enemy. He was probably the last person Stiles would open up to. Assuming Stiles would open up to anyone. It would probably be completely useless to tell Derek.

            But she had to tell someone. And despite everything, she thought Derek still cared about Stiles. At least enough to be concerned.

            “Something is wrong,” she said, turning from her work to look at the tense line of Derek’s back. “Something is just… wrong.”

            “With Stiles,” she added after a beat. “Something is wrong with Stiles.”

            Derek glanced over his shoulder and saw her glaring at him. Slowly, he finished the plate he was scrubbing and turned to face her.

            “What is wrong?” His tone was flat and tense but he didn’t question it. He didn’t tell her to stop talking.

            “I don’t know!” she said, waving her hands. “If I knew I would fix it. He was fine after the… well, you know. He was doing okay. And then, he just… stopped being okay.”

            It was such a relief to say it aloud.

            “He’s quiet and tired all the time,” she continued, gaining speed now. “And not like he’s sick. I would know if he were sick. He’s not coughing or sneezing or anything! He’s not sick- he’s just not himself. He doesn’t smile or laugh and he flinched today, Derek. Because of me. He’s never flinched away from me. Not even at the beginning. Not even right after.”

            Turning, she went back to pounding the chicken for tomorrow’s lunch. It was a good job for her right now, hitting something until it flattened out.

            “Did you tell Scott?” Derek asked. He sounded a bit angry, but he walked over so he could look at her as she answered.

            “Of course not,” she said, taking a breath and feeling herself calm down. “Scott already knows. He’s been giving Stiles his concerned puppy eyes whenever he thinks Stiles isn’t looking. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Or if he does, it’s not working.”

            Though, it would be just like those stupid boys to refuse to ask for help and try to handle something on their own. Scott probably thought he could fix Stiles without letting anyone else know something was wrong. Teenagers.

            “Maybe you should talk to Scott about it,” she suggested. Heavens knows she wasn’t going to. It just wasn’t her way. She had to tread a very thin line between the staff and the Hales. If Stiles was up to something illegal or dishonest again, she couldn’t know about it. If Scott wanted her help, he would come ask. But maybe Scott needed someone even higher up on the food chain. Maybe he would be grateful for Derek’s help.

            “I don’t think Scott will talk to me,” Derek muttered, looking down at the table.

            “Don’t be ridiculous,” Jennifer said, rolling her eyes. “Scott will talk to anybody.” She had seen him stop and talk to Cora and Isaac when she was delivering tea the other day. He wasn’t chattering away as he would have been if Cora wasn’t there, but he was smiling and seemed at ease.

            Derek shrugged noncommittally.

            “He’ll talk to you if he knows you’re there to help Stiles,” she insisted. “Maybe not even Scott knows.” She sighed. “I don’t know, Derek, but something has got to be done.”

            “Okay,” Derek said, standing straighter. “I’ll fix it.”

            He said it with simple conviction.

            “Alright,” Jennifer replied, feeling better even though there was still no plan of action. But Derek was the steady one in the family. Laura would order someone else to do things for her, Cora would trick others into doing things for her but Derek was simpler. Given a task, he either refused to do it outright and didn’t do it, or he said he would do it and he did it. So even though Jennifer failed to see how on earth that moody, silent, unsmiling Derek was going to fix a sarcastic, untrusting, strung-out Stiles, she didn’t doubt it.

            Derek nodded at her, meeting her eyes and then turned back to the dishes.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Derek took one last loop around his room and then forced himself to lie down in his bed.

            It was three o’clock in the morning. He was supposed to be sleeping. He was supposed to be asleep so that he could go running at 7 and then eat breakfast with Laura at 8:30 and then take care of the twins while Peter and Christine went into the city for their anniversary and-

            He was supposed to be doing a lot of things.

            He was supposed to be figuring out what was wrong with Stiles and fixing it. That’s the stupid promise he made to Jennifer five days ago.

            That had been a bad idea. Primarily because for the past two months he had done his best to forget about Stiles. He had stopped going to the kitchens during the day, had stopping swinging outside around lunchtime in the hopes of maybe catching Stiles and Scott together. He had stopped subtly asking Isaac for updates about Stiles.

            He had even bluntly told Jennifer to stop telling him stories about Stiles. Not because he didn’t want to hear them but because he wanted to hear them too much. It wasn’t right. He shouldn’t be spending portions of his day hanging in the kitchens for no reason other than to be near Stiles, he shouldn’t be snapping at his little sister when she complained about Isaac hanging out with Stiles and Scott instead of her, and he certainly shouldn’t be defying his Alpha for a slave. It wasn’t right. And he had promised himself he would stop.

            He did stop. He stopped everything. Almost.

            He couldn’t stop himself from going to the kitchen almost every night and walking around, inhaling deeply, hoping to catch just a whiff of the scent that was completely and utterly Stiles. He told himself it was just his way of making sure Stiles was still okay, following the order his mother had laid out all those months ago. Of course, actually scenting emotions from someone who had left the room hours ago was impossible.

            So he told himself that he went to help Jenny.

            He didn’t think about the days when the need to see Stiles itched and so he spent his entire dinner straining his ears to hear when she let the staff go and rushing down as soon as he heard the all clear. He certainly didn’t think about the days when he would wander a bit closer to the kitchen and listen in just to try and catch Stiles’ laugh.

            It was ridiculous and crazy and he had more important things to focus on. He had Laura and Cora and pack and that’s how it was supposed to be.

            Only now he had made this idiotic promise to Jennifer. Which, again, was pretty much the exact opposite of what his plan was. And also, he had no idea how to go about actually keeping his promise.

            It had been five days and so far all he’d manage to do was ask Isaac if Stiles seemed okay. Isaac had gone quiet, frowned, and said that he should probably ask Scott. Which Derek took to mean “No, Stiles is not okay but I’m not going to tell you anything unless Scott says I’m allowed to.”

            The whole “talk to Scott” advice was getting old, particularly because the last time he had talked to Scott, Scott had punched him and he’d caused some sort of emotional breakdown. Laura might tell Derek near constantly that he was an emotionally constipated loser but he knew enough to avoid doing that again. Of course, that meant he was pretty much out of options. Because he knew if there was anyone who hated him more than Scott, it was Stiles. Which pretty much left him with no idea of what to do.

            Derek shifted angrily, annoyed at himself and at Stiles. If the kid would just trust someone, if he would just communicate what was wrong, then Derek could fix it. Then his mother wouldn’t have had to order him whipped and Derek wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it and he wouldn’t have to spend so much of his time fucking confused.

            Stiles was a stubborn idiot and Derek should just-

            The slight thud of a window opening and closing nearby was only audible as Derek had been lying, unmoving, wide awake at 3:07 in the morning. He stilled further and focused. For a moment there was nothing and Derek had himself half convinced that he hadn’t actually heard anything.

            But then there was a slow intake of breath and the shuffling of feet and Derek was up and down the hall before he even realized he was moving.

            Stiles was just turning away from the window when Derek arrived. He was still looking away, one hand still resting on the glass, the other curled around something in his fist. Then he turned and saw Derek.

            His face drained of color completely.

            “Der- Master,” Stiles sort of choked. The scent of fear and desperation hit Derek like a wave. Stiles glanced back at the window and then back at him, eyes round and huge in his face. “This isn’t what it looks like. I’m not stealing. I promise. I-”

            Stiles’ voice was too loud, even though it was supposed to be a whisper, panic was making it rise. He was going to wake someone else up. Derek couldn’t protect him if anyone besides him caught him stealing again.

            “Shut up,” he growled. Without thinking about it, he reached out and grabbed Stiles’ arm. It was ice-cold. He wasn’t even wearing his jacket. And there was pain too. He could feel it, waiting to be pulled out if he so desired. “Come on.”

            He all but dragged Stiles’ back to his room, keeping his ears open to sounds that anyone else had woken up. It was difficult when all he could hear was Stiles’ heartbeat thundering away. It was going too fast. Even for a scared human, it was beating too quickly.

            He released Stiles in the middle of his room, unaware of how much of the boy’s weight he had been holding until Stiles sort of stumbled when he let go. He ignored it in favor of making sure the door was closed.

            “Please,” Stiles said, eyes jumping to the door as it swung shut. “Master, I swear, I wasn’t stealing. I wasn’t. I didn’t- please.”

            Derek took a step closer, frowning. Stiles smelled different. And it wasn’t just because his emotions were jacked up. Stiles smelled like pain and blood and sweat but there was something else, something sticky and -

            It hit him in a rush what it was.

            Stiles smelled like other werewolves.

            The wrongness of that hit him and he growled, eyes flashing gold against his will. Stiles smelled like pain and sex and that was wrong. Stiles was his slave and he should never smell like he had been used by someone else, by other werewolves. He was going to kill them, he decided. He was going to find them and make them pay-

            Stiles dropped to his knees, holding out his hands.

            “P-please,” he gasped again, breaths coming in short pained pants. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t stealing. Please don’t. I-”

            “What’s that?” Derek said, eyes snagging on the thing clenched in Stiles’ fist He saw Stiles’ eyes widen impossible further, heard the jump in heart rate that told him Stiles was about to lie, felt Stiles move to put it away.

            Derek snatched it before Stiles had the chance.

            “No!” Stiles yelped, reaching for it but Derek had already stepped back a pace. “Please- it’s nothing.”

            “What is it?” Derek said again. He managed not to growl but it was a near thing. It didn’t seem like much- just a mixture of plastic and metal. Why was it so important? What did it have to do with Stiles running out in the middle of the night to have sex with other werewolves?

            “It’s nothing,” Stiles repeated. The terror radiating off of him was almost a physical presence but Derek felt months of frustration rise up to meet it. He was done with Stiles’ secrets and always feeling a step behind. He was going to figure this out. Right now. “Useless to werewolves, I promise. It’s nothing.”

            “Tell me,” Derek ordered. “Or I’m snapping it in half.”

            “Don’t!” Stiles’ voice was too high, it was a yelp. “Please, don’t. Please, I need it.”

            “What. Is. It?” Derek said and he squeezed it in his hand hard enough that Stiles could see his muscles flex.

            “Inhaler!” Stiles gasped. “Please, it’s an inhaler. For Scott.”

            “Inhaler?” Derek asked, feeling some of his anger diminish at the answer. He glanced at it again.

            “It’s medicine,” Stiles clarified. “Scott has asthma. It- it means that sometimes he can’t breathe right. This helps. That’s it. I promise. He just breathes it in and it helps. Please don’t break it. I just- please.”

            “Scott’s sick?” Derek repeated dumbly. Scott didn’t seem sick. He was more muscular than Stiles, he was energetic, and as far as Derek knew he’d never missed a day of work aside from when Stiles’ was healing.

            “No!” Stiles cried, shaking his head furiously. “No, he’s not. It’s only sometimes. And once he has this, it’s not even a big deal. You don’t have to sell him. He’ll be fine. He is fine. He can still work. He’s been a little slow because it’s winter and winter is bad for asthma but this will help. He can work even more now. You don’t have to sell him. Please, just-”

            Stiles paused only briefly to take a breath but all Derek could do was stare. Stiles was talking too fast. This wasn’t making sense. Scott was sick but only sometimes?

            “Please don’t sell him,” Stiles repeated. “And- and let him have it. I’ll- I’ll do anything. They’re expensive but I could keep working and make the same amount and give it to you. Or more! I could make more. It- it takes a while but it would work. He’ll need another eventually but I could pay that off too. I promise. Just- please.”

            Derek had sort of stopped listening. Things were coming together. Scott was sick. He needed medicine. The medicine was expensive. That’s why Stiles had been stealing and selling their old crap for money. That’s why he refused to give the money back. That’s why he was out… working?

            Oh God.

            Derek was going to be sick.

            “Stop,” he said, aware that Stiles was still talking. He needed a moment. He needed to think. Stiles said it got worse in the winter. Scott couldn’t be outside. He needed an indoor job. And Stiles needed-

            Stiles needed to never set foot near… wherever he was earlier tonight. Stiles needed to be safe.

            “Stand up,” he said, suddenly realizing Stiles was still kneeling. Stiles stood quickly, taking a step closer even though it made him stand even more tensely.

            “Here,” he said, thrusting the inhaler back into Stiles’ hands. The slave fumbled it for a moment, staring at it as if he couldn’t quite believe it.

            “Th- thank you,” Stiles breathed and Derek could detect no sarcasm or lie whatsoever. Just raw relief. “Thank you, Master. I promise I’ll pay you back. I will- a little every night until- until you say it’s enough-”

            The implication of that had Derek’s eyes flashing gold again.

            “No,” he bit out, unable to control his tone even as Stiles flinched back. “You’re not… going- working. You’re not working ever again.” The thought of Stiles out there selling himself for money made him physically ill. The thought that another werewolf would do such a thing was…

            He had to see it. He was going to see the damage and find the biggest bruise and he could leech all the pain out and it would be better.

            “Take off your shirt,” he said, belated realizing that Stiles probably wouldn’t be comfortable with that. But when he opened his mouth to say so, Stiles already had his shirt over his head. He met Derek’s eyes steadily, a question there that Derek didn’t know the answer to. So Derek didn’t bother saying anything.

            Instead, he looked down and snarled before he could stop himself. Stiles’ chest was riddled with bruises, most looking more like bites. They trailed down his collar bone, to his rib cage. There was a bigger one caused by something other than a mouth wrapped around his side, claw marks at his hips, and scratches and-

            It looked like one of them had taken pleasure in clawing open the old scars on Stiles’ chest. They were open cuts again. Derek felt his fangs lengthen in his mouth.

            Stiles had closed his eyes and Derek wanted to do the same but instead put his hand on the biggest bruise, the one that curled around his side and onto his back and concentrated until his veins ran black. The ache focused him a bit, gave him something concrete to do. He felt his fangs ease back to normal.

            “If I request for you to be my valet, then Scott could take over your job in the kitchen,” Derek thought aloud. His voice came out tight from the pain rushing through his veins. “The rest of the staff wouldn’t have to know he’s sick.” He’d never wanted a valet, had argued against it when his mother suggested taking on Isaac but it seemed important to Stiles that no one know about Scott’s illness. He had to tell his mother, obviously but if Stiles wanted to hide it, it was a good excuse. Plus, it’s not like being his valet would be an extensive job. Stiles could probably still hang out in the kitchens most of the day if he wanted to.

            “Okay,” Stiles said quickly, nodding. The scent of relief was almost too strong. And under it all, he still smelled strongly of at least two other werewolves. The scent of one of them pricked at Derek’s awareness, like maybe he had caught the edge of it before. Derek felt his jaw clench as he removed his hand from Stiles’ side. Stiles’ eyes opened again. “Okay, yes, thank you. Do you want me to-”

            “Go take a shower,” Derek cut him off. He couldn’t take it anymore. The scent was disgusting and wrong. Everything about this was wrong.

            His mother had been wrong, he realized. Stiles had a good reason for stealing. Oh God, she was wrong and he had stood by and let it happen. It couldn’t happen again. It wouldn’t. He would make sure of it.

            “Yes, Master,” Stiles said tonelessly. Derek wasn’t paying attention.

            “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, raising an eyebrow at the surprised look that crossed Stiles’ face. Surely Stiles didn’t think he would start right now? “Harris will probably need a day to get the switch all organized. Scott can make it through another day, right?”

            “Yes,” Stiles replied, gripping the inhaler tightly. “Of course.”

            “Alright then,” Derek said, nodding. “Tomorrow it is.”

            He didn’t wait for Stiles’ response, if there was any. Instead, he turned and walked out. He had to see his mother. He had to tell her the truth and tell her he wanted Stiles’ as his valet and start looking into who had done this to him. Then he could kill them.

            He was going to fix it.

 

*^*^*^

           

            Stiles had assumed that he wasn’t going to get any sleep that night. He assumed that stress and dread and thoughts would keep him up and awake until he deemed it late enough to pretend to wake up and get moving.

            Apparently, he had underestimated how exhausted he was. Apparently, sneaking out to have sex with a werewolf who got off on bruises and scarring and then having to do it again just to get your cut of the money and then having to run to practically the other side of the city to finally, finally get an inhaler from a dealer and then coming back to be discovered by your master who pretty much blatantly offered to give you back the aforementioned medicine and move your friend indoors in exchange for being his own personal pet- apparently all that really took it out of you.

            So he had taken a shower and collapsed into bed, pathetically grateful that Derek seemed uninterested in starting tonight as he honestly wasn’t sure if his body could take it. And then he must’ve fallen asleep.

            At least that’s what he had to assume, as Scott was gently shaking him awake. Stiles blinked up at him, noticing that his hair was dripping, which only magnified the concerned puppy look he was giving Stiles.

            “Stiles?” Scott was saying, voice high and tight. Probably because the last time Scott had had to wake Stiles up was when they were six. “Are you sick?”

            “Wha-?” Stiles muttered, squinting in confusion. How had he slept in? How late was it? What it time for Scott to go to work already?

            Scott! Work!

            He snapped awake instantly.

            “Scott!” He cried, sitting up too fast but ignoring the stretch and pull of pained muscles in favor of diving for his bedside table. “I got it!”

            “Got what?” Scott asked, frowning and leaning back.

            “The-” Stiles waved a hand useless, still too groggy to think of the word. He tried to form the shape of it and then gave it up and just pulled it out. “The thing- here!”

            He presented the inhaler to Scott who stared at it for a moment, shock all over it his face.

            Then he broke into a smile so wide and relieved and grateful that Stiles didn’t even care about the events of last night. Or the months before.

            “Dude!” Scott said, fingers curling around the inhaler. Then he was standing, pulling Stiles up with him. “You got- dude!” He was still sort of gaping at the object in his hand, lifting it up to stare at it while the other hand was still firmly around Stiles’ shoulder.

            “When did you? How did you?” Scott’s eyes were jumping back and forth from Stiles’ to the contraption in his hand and Stiles couldn’t help but smirk a little. He’d got it. “I thought I was screwed after you were caught. I can’t believe you-”

            “Hey, I told you I would,” Stiles said, his smirk softening into something lighter.

            “You- I just,” Scott had pulled him into a hard hug the next moment. It should hurt his aching body, especially as there were open cuts on his chest but it didn’t. It didn’t hurt at all.

            “Thank you,” Scott whispered and Stiles’ nodded wordlessly even though Scott didn’t have to thank him. It was worth it. It would always be worth it.

            “Wha’s going on?” Isaac had woken up at the movement. Or at least he had opened one eye and was sitting up to stare at them, curls in complete disarray.

            Scott released Stiles to bound over to Isaac.

            “Look!” he said, shoving the inhaler under Isaac’s nose. “Look! Stiles got it! My inhaler!”

            “Oh,” Isaac said, sounding completely disinterested. Then- “Oh!” He sat up straighter and took it from Scott, looking at it.

            “It’s awesome!” Scott said, still practically vibrating with excitement. “Now I don’t have to work so slowly or be careful when I walk outside or worry about how my chest is feeling every five minutes!”

            “How does it work?” Isaac asked and Scott snatched it away.

            “Like this,” he said. “If I start feeling wheezy, I just pop this end in my mouth-” He did so. “And push this button and- that’s it!”

            “Don’t push it now,” Stiles cautioned, moving towards the bathroom. He still wanted his second shower. “No wasting it.”

            He didn’t know when he would be able to get another. That inhaler had to last for at least six months. He would have to see how things with Derek worked out. He frowned briefly before determinedly putting it out of his mind. He couldn’t worry about that right now. Not yet.

            “I won’t,” Scott said, eyes wide and earnest. “I promise I won’t, Stiles. Only in emergencies.”

            Stiles waved a hand. He knew Scott wouldn’t.

            “Is that why you’ve been so tired lately?” Isaac asked. Stiles was glad he was facing away from them, almost to the bathroom. It gave him a moment to get his face under control before he glanced back.

            “Yeah,” he replied. “Just had to track one down. Took some late nights.”

            “But you can take a break now,” Scott said and it wasn’t quite a question. It was more like a suggestion. A Scott suggestion, which basically meant that you didn’t have to follow it but if you didn’t, he was going to give you concerned and disappointed looks until you listened to him. It was an effective strategy.

            “Yup,” Stiles said. “No more sneaking out for a while. Climbing out windows is exhausting.”

            Scott beamed happily at him and Stiles smiled weakly back before turning and entering the bathroom. He wasn’t lying, exactly. Derek had made it abundantly clear that he would not be sharing Stiles with anyone. So there would be no more sneaking out. More like… working from home.

            He shut the door firmly and locked it, wondering why as he woke up, he started to feel more and more nervous.

            He shouldn’t be nervous. This deal was about 1000% better than his previous plan. He didn’t have to sneak out, didn’t have to deal with Brunski or other exceedingly violent customers, didn’t have to risk Scott or anyone finding out about it. Plus, Scott would get to work inside. In the kitchen, which Stiles had pretty much decided was the best job he’d ever had. Jennifer was nice, Simon and Dee were hilarious. Stiles could swing down and visit, hopefully. Frankly, he should be thrilled.

            He should be and as he pulled off his clothes and stepped into the warm shower again, he tried to convince himself he was. This couldn’t possibly be worse than Matt. Derek was angry and possessive but he didn’t seem cruel. He didn’t have Matt’s cold, intent gaze or his joyful yet heartless smirk. At worst, he could see Derek being a bit rough and animalistic, but he actually would prefer that to Matt’s contained, precise danger.

            He knew all that. So he couldn’t figure out why he was so nervous.

            Or he could and he just didn’t want to admit it.

            He had been through this before. Working throughout the day, trying to act normal, secretly dreading the moment when Matt would show up and demand he complete some chore in his room. Or worse, when Mat just waited until he was alone and just grabbed him, shoving him down and-

            He shook himself roughly. He shouldn’t think about it.

            He shouldn’t admit that it was so much worse because he had actually felt safe here.

            He had relaxed here, more than he should have, more than he had in years. And not just when he was alone with Scott and Isaac in their room. He had relaxed into the gentle rhythm of the kitchen, into Jennifer’s calm looks, into Simon and Dee’s welcoming banter. Hell, he had even stopped tensing every time another gardener like Greenburg came to hang out while he was eating lunch with Scott. Despite the whipping, he had thrown caution to the wind and let himself just… be.

            At one point, he had even relaxed around Derek. Not entirely, not all the way but he’d thought-

            That was all going to go away now. Derek could take him at any time and it would be back to making sure Derek was pleased so he wouldn’t go too far. Back to frantically trying to make sure Scott didn’t get suspicious, didn’t find out and make them leave again.

            He had started to equate the Hale Household with safety without meaning to.

            He was an idiot.

            Still, he told himself, forcing himself out of the shower, there was no need to be nervous. He’d done this before. He could do it again.

            He dried off and took a deep breath. Then he headed back out, enduring another back slap from a still overly excited Scott. It made him feel slightly better at least.

            The rest of the day passed in a tense blur.

            He smiled and chatted and tried to act normal and when Harris came in around seven, after dinner was over, he managed  not to flinch.

            “Ah, good,” Harris said after nodding politely to Jennifer and looking over at Scott and Stiles. “You’re both here.”

            “How can we help?” Jennifer asked, looking warily at Harris. Apparently no one had forgotten the last time Harris had barged in and demanded to talk to Stiles.

            “There’s been a few personnel changes,” Harris said. Scott was frowning, rising and Stiles tried to put some curiosity in his face, tried to pretend he didn’t already know exactly how this was going to go.

            “Changes?” Jennifer repeated. “Like what?”

            “Master Derek has decided that he would like a personal valet,” Harris said. “He has requested that Stiles here come work directly for him. Mr. Deaton has agreed that with winter upon us, he no longer requires Scott’s service so Scott will be taking over Stiles’ spot in the kitchen.”

            There was a sort of stunned silence in the kitchen. Scott was frowning deeper now, looking at Stiles in open suspicion.

            “Stiles, what is he-” Scott started.

            “Dude,” Stiles cut him off, smiling at him. “That’s awesome. Gets you out of the cold!” If anything, the knowledge made Scott tense further.

            “But,” Scott said. Luckily, this time Harris cut him off.

            “You boys can catch up later,” the man said, sounding about as happy about the turn of events as Scott looked. “For now, Master Derek has requested Stiles attend him at once to be overviewed on his new duties.”

            Stiles’ heart may have skipped a beat at that but there were no werewolves around to hear it so he kept the easygoing smile plastered on his face.

            “Yeah, cool,” he said, handing Scott the sponge he’d been using. “Looks like you’re stuck with the dishes, buddy. Be back in a bit!”

            Then, it was almost easy. Give Scott a playful slap too the shoulder and a cocky grin; tell Simon he would be back to make sure he hadn’t burned down the kitchen; give Dee a quick hug and tell her he would miss seeing her beautiful face every day; smile at Jennifer and tell her to watch out for Scott’s face when he was cutting onions. Salute Harris with a smirk and tell him to lead the way out.

            “Look,” Harris started angrily as soon as they were out of the kitchen. “I don’t know why Master Derek selected you of all people to be his valet but being a valet is a huge honor and I expect you to take this job seriously.”

            “Yeah,” Stiles said, smile fading. Huge honor. Of course. He caught Harris’ glare and suddenly didn’t feel like antagonizing the man even further. “I mean, yes, sir.”

            “Master Derek has argued against having a valet for years,” Harris continued. “Therefore, he is used to doing many of the jobs that you should be doing on his own. It is your duty to take over. Tidying his room, cleaning his quarters, ensuring his laundry is delivered to Violet and the girls downstairs, picking it up and folding it correctly, ensuring that Master Derek has all he needs on a daily basis.”

            Stiles nodded mutely. He was having trouble focusing.

            “And those are just the basics,” Harris said. “It will also be your duty to ensure he is eating properly- Master Derek has been known to skip meals. It concerns his mother at times. See to it that that doesn’t happen. Also, if you can assist with his research or preparing for outings or just- Anything, Stiles. I expect you to assist with anything Master Derek requests or requires.”

            “Yes, sir,” Stiles muttered. Anything. He would do anything. That’s what he’d said.

            Harris looked at him before huffing a little, scowling. He made it a few steps in silence before he continued.

            “Also, I shouldn’t have to tell you this but Master Derek is a very private person. If I find the details of his personal life become the subject of kitchen gossip, I will be very displeased.”

            “No,” Stiles said and for once he and Harris were in perfect agreement. “No, sir. I wouldn’t.” No one was finding out about Derek’s activities. Not through him.

            “In fact,” Harris didn’t seem to hear Stiles. “Consider your kitchen gossip days over. I expect you to continue to work full days. If Master Derek doesn’t give you anything to do, find something. You can always make your master’s life a bit easier. No lazing about and then socializing in the kitchen with your… friends.”

            They were getting close now. Normally, Stiles would be excited for Harris’ ridiculous monologue to end. But he was feeling a bit lightheaded. He would be content if Harris wanted to take another lap around the house and lecture him some more. He would be totally okay with that. Maybe he should say he needed more advice.

            “Loyalty,” Harris said, turning to glare at Stiles. “That’s what I expect. Loyalty.”

            Under any other circumstances, it would have been funny. Harris, a slave, talking about loyalty to your werewolf masters. It would have warranted a crack about buying loyalty or at the very least an exasperated sigh and an eye roll. At the moment, it just seemed like a sick joke that not even Stiles could laugh at.

            He wondered if you could be loyal to someone while also hating them at the core of your being. If so, he was ready to be loyal. He would obey and keep secrets and give anything. He would be loyal. Just like he was loyal to Matt. Right up until the werewolves clawed him open for the fun of it and laughed as Stiles limped away and passed out.

            “Yes, sir,” he said and his voice didn’t come out natural. It came out more… breathless and terrified. Harris looked over and for the first time since Stiles’ had known him his frowned shifted into one of concern rather than annoyance.

           “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Harris said, tone a bit less brisk than before. “As long as you work hard.”

            They were at the door now. Stiles was grateful only in the sense that Harris attempting to be kind was supremely uncomfortable. For both of them.

            Harris knocked politely and there was a grunted “Come in!” from the other side and then they were inside Derek’s room.

            It was as Stiles remembered it from last night and his brief trysts into it to steal things from earlier. Not as messy as Cora’s but cluttered with books, clothes and odd knick-knacks that Derek clearly never used. An unmade king-size bed took up most of the room and a desk dominated the far corner, although Stiles knew Derek spent most of his time in the library, not his room.

            “Here is Mr. Stilinski, as requested, Master Derek,” Harris said, bowing and then was suddenly gone.

            Silence descended. Derek was sort of frowning at him, staring openly and Stiles wondered what he was supposed to do.

            Did Derek want him to take his clothes off now? For a while, Matt had instituted a policy where Stiles had to take off his clothes every time he entered his bedroom but that was after he had gotten bored of stripping Stiles roughly himself so… Stiles sort of fidgeted with the hem of his shirt, trying to read Derek’s reaction or hear some kind of sign over the buzzing in his head.

            “Okay, uh,” Derek said, shifting from foot to foot. He looked… nervous? Maybe he wasn’t used to this sort of arrangement either. He didn’t have to worry. Stiles wouldn’t go running to the other slaves. “So, anway, I really don’t- can you stop that?”

            The nerves had faded to annoyance and Stiles flinched. Five seconds and he was already doing something wrong. He was still playing with the edge of his shirt and he snatched his hands away. Was that annoying him? Derek was still frowning at him. He glanced around. Maybe there was something obvious he was missing? Maybe Derek wanted him to kneel? He could do that. That was a good idea-

            “Being scared,” Derek explained, waving a hand. “Stop… Fear smells…” He faded out, grimacing.

            “Oh,” Stiles said. Derek: not one for the smell of fear. Okay. Bit different from Matt then. “Yes, Master.”

            He took a breath and tried to focus. Don’t be afraid. He could do that. This wasn’t a big deal, he reminded himself. He took another breath. He had done this all before. No big deal. He would be fine. There was no way Derek could be worse than Matt. Not if he didn’t even get off on terror.

            He felt himself calm down somewhat. He didn’t feel quite as panicked anymore. It must’ve worked because Derek seemed to relax before glancing around the room.

           “So, sorry about the mess,” Derek said, sounding a bit embarrassed. Stiles just blinked in confusion. “I meant to clean up but I got… distracted.”

            “Uh, I think that’s my job anyway,” Stiles said, trying to keep his voice light. Derek didn’t like fear. He could do this. Maybe Derek wanted him to pretend to… want it? He had done that before but he didn’t think with the whole “hearing lies” thing it had been very effective.

            “Right,” Derek said, sounding unhappy. “Uh, also, I told my mom and she’s-”

            Derek flailed for a moment, jaw twitching unhappily as if he wasn’t sure what to say.

            “She’s already ordered Scott extra inhalers,” he finally settled on. “So… you don’t have to worry about that.”

            Stiles’ brain short-circuited for a moment. Derek had already talked to Talia? She had already ordered more inhalers? More than one?

            Relief flooded him for a moment and he was moving forward.

            Nothing was free and Stiles needed to start paying. He couldn’t have Derek changing his mind. Not when he had already gotten the inhalers. Not when he had made it so easy.

            Stiles could keep him happy. They would never have to leave the Hales. Not if he could help it.

            Derek sort of jerked as Stiles moved into his space but he didn’t move back and Stiles took that as all the encouragement he needed. He dropped to his knees in front of Derek, hands sliding up to unbutton his jeans. He wasn’t hard yet, Stiles felt, but that was okay. Stiles would fix that. He would make it so good for him, he was good at blow jobs. Everyone said so. Even Matt had been impressed by his abilities. Stiles would make this so good and Derek would keep them and Scott could use all the inhalers he wanted and he could do this-

            “What are you doing?” Derek yelped from above him. He took two steps back, staring at Stiles with something like horror on his face. Stiles slammed his eyes to the ground before he got punished for looking. Matt didn’t like when you looked.

            “Uh,” he said and he felt panic start to rise in his chest once more. Derek didn’t like blowjobs? He didn’t want Stiles to be so willing? “You don’t- I-”

            He took a breath and risked glancing up. “Master, what do you want?” Matt didn’t allow questions, not ever, but Derek seemed different. “Do you want me to take off my clothes or just get on the bed or-” Stiles waved a hand, trying to somehow encapsulate everything. He could get on all fours and just take it or he could try to fight and get away, some werewolves were into that, or he could moan that he wanted it, that he needed it, loved it even. He could beg for it.

            He could do all those things but he couldn’t make himself say all that and to his shame, he felt tears prick in his eyes. He had to calm down. Derek didn’t like fear.

            “I can-” he started again, trying desperately to sound casual. He bowed his head again, trying to seem more submissive. “I- just tell me what you want, Master.”

            He could do it. He knew he could.

            “Nothing,” Derek sort of croaked above him. “I don’t want- please get up. That’s- please get up.”

            Stiles looked up, blinking back tears that he hadn’t meant to let gather in his eyes. Derek’s face was horrified and desperate and wrecked and Stiles didn’t know what that meant. He blinked in confusion for too long. Derek took a step towards him but then stopped himself abruptly.

            “Please get up,” he repeated, sounding even more frantic. “There’s been a misunderstanding. I don’t- I wouldn’t-”

            Stiles stood up slowly, his brain feeling fuzzy. This wasn’t making sense. Derek looked upset but he didn’t seem angry and he wanted Stiles to stand up but there was a misunderstanding? What misunderstanding?

            “Stiles,” Derek said and his voice was less shaky but just as soft. He was looking at Stiles as if Stiles might break at any moment. Stiles couldn’t understand why. “You need to calm down. I don’t want- that from you. I don’t want anything from you.”

            Without meaning to, Stiles glanced downwards, fully expecting to see the evidence of Derek’s lie in the outline of his jeans.

            He didn’t. Derek was still watching him with nothing on his face but concern.

            “But,” Stiles started, and he was out of breath somehow. “The inhalers- I gotta pay for the inhalers.” That grounded him. Gave him something to focus on. “I have to pay you for the inhalers.”

            “No,” Derek said. “No, you don’t. That’s not- You don’t have to do anything. They’re just- you don’t have to do that.”

            Information was gradually making it through Stiles’ mind.

            Derek didn’t want anything. He didn’t have to. He could just have all the inhalers he wanted. For nothing.

            He didn’t have to do anything. He didn’t have to.

            “But-” it came out a sort of terrified sob. Oh God, he had just gotten on his knees and tried to- he must’ve looked so eager and he-

            “Stiles,” Derek repeated. “I promise you don’t ever have to do…. Anything like that again.”

            It’s over, a small part of Stiles’ mind said. It was all over. He didn’t have to. He didn’t have to worry about stealing or getting caught or dealing with Brunski or letting someone- letting lots of werewolves- just take him and-

            “You don’t want-” Stiles managed.

            “No,” Derek said and it was firm and almost angry.

            Oh God. Derek didn’t want to use him. He didn’t want anything. He said Stiles could have the inhalers. For nothing. He could just have them and he probably could have had them months ago and he didn’t have to do any of it. He didn’t have to deal with Brunski or the one last night or- It was all for nothing, he realized. He didn’t have to do any of it. He didn’t even have to.

            “You’re safe, Stiles,” Derek said. He looked calm and sincere and Stiles fucking believed him.

            That’s when the panic attack hit.

 

End Part VI.

Chapter Text

Part VII

 

            Derek stared in horror as Stiles looked at him for one last moment, blinked, and then broke.

            He suddenly was gasping, choking for air, eyes screwed shut, tears running down his face, stinking of pure, unadulterated panic and for a moment all Derek could do was stand and gape.

            “Stiles!” He said, waving his hands uselessly. He didn’t want to touch, knew that he was supposed to keep his distance, but-

            But Stiles seemed to be on the verge of collapsing, stumbling a step backwards and somehow his breathing had gotten faster and Derek didn’t have time to worry about boundaries.

            He grabbed Stiles by the shoulders and pushed him back until he was sitting on the edge of the bed, and then stepped back. Stiles leaned over, holding his head in his hands, fingers tangled in his hair.

            Oh shit, Derek thought. Oh shit.

            He had no idea what to do. No idea at all.

            His breathing was all wrong. He couldn’t be getting enough air. Maybe he had asthma too? Maybe he needed an inhaler?

            “Stiles!” he tried again. “What’s wrong? Do you need an inhaler? Should I get Scott?”

            Scott was definitely going to punch him again.

            Why was he always the worst at everything? He couldn’t even tell Stiles he was safe in a way that didn’t somehow cause raw terror!

            “No!” Stiles gasped hoarsely. “No Scott. Not- inhaler.”

            “Okay,” Derek said, trying to keep his voice even. He glanced around his room, though he didn’t know what he was looking for. “What’s wrong? What do you need?”

            “Nothing,” Stiles gasped. His eyes were still firmly closed as he shook his head side to side. “Just- panic. Attack.”

            Panic attack? Derek didn’t know what that was. But he knew he had to do something. Stiles was still breathing too fast and too shallowly. He was going to pass out at this rate.

            “Stiles!” he said, trying to make himself sound like an authority. “You need to calm down. Just… relax.”

            For a moment, Stiles looked up and shot him such a glare that Derek almost smiled. It was just raw Stiles. Then he saw Stiles’ eye roll back into his head and realized that if he didn’t do something soon, Stiles was going to faint.

            “Stiles!” he said, coming around to grab Stiles’ shoulders again. Then, hating himself, he moved to grab where he knew there were open cuts.

            Stiles sucked in a breath of pain and Derek grimaced but grabbed harder, watching as Stiles inhaled wordlessly.

            After a beat, longer than he would have liked, longer than he wanted, Derek slid his hand to the side of Stiles’ neck, focused, and pulled.

            Usually taking someone’s pain was a gradual thing, you let it slide into you slowly until it had faded to nothing or you couldn’t take any more. Derek wasn’t entirely sure there was another way to do it.

            But he went on instinct, willing himself to yank all the pain out of Stiles in one short moment.

            The burst of agony that broke over him took him to his knees in front of Stiles let him know it probably worked. Stiles collapsing bonelessly against him told him it definitely did.

            For a moment they stayed there, Derek kneeling before Stiles, hand stills cradling the slave’s neck, Stiles slumped forward onto Derek’s shoulder. Both were breathing hard now, Derek riding the wave of pain that he knew would stop momentarily, Stiles’ breathes gradually slowing to a normal rate.

            “Wha’ didyou jus’ do?” Stiles slurred, sounding like he’d just been hit hard in the head. He was relaxed now, Derek could feel, but it wasn’t entirely natural. Derek should move. He would, he told himself. Soon. In just a second. Stiles’ scent was calmer now, confused without being panicked. It was nice.

            “Took your pain,” he replied, voice tight. “Thought it might help with the whole-” His left hand, the one not curled around Stiles fluttered in the air for a moment. “Panic attack.”

            “Oh,” Stiles said and he was recovering quickly. He would be himself again in a moment.

            Derek took one last deep breath and forced himself to step away. Stiles head hung forward limply for a second without Derek’s shoulder to support it but he took a deep breath and seemed to gain more control of himself. Derek sniffed the air, trying to figure out if Stiles would be angry for being subjected to something done without his control. He didn’t know the rules for these things.

            “Can all werewolves do that?” Stiles said and all Derek could smell was curiosity. Well, curiosity and a vague fuzziness that told him Stiles was still riding the effects of his panic attack. Still, there was no anger. Either Stiles didn’t mind having all his pain yanked out of him or hadn’t processed it.

            “Umm,” Derek said, rubbing his forehead as a headache grew. A side effect, he suspected. “Yeah though usually it’s… calmer.”

            “Just by touching someone?” Stiles asked and Derek knew that voice. Stiles had used this voice when Isaac had mentioned he’d once seen a parrot that had been trained to sing on command. This was Stiles’ fascinated voice. His “I want to know everything about this because it’s exciting voice.” He’d never used it with Derek before. Derek told himself it would go away as soon as Stiles realized who he was talking to again. He told himself that that didn’t matter.

            “Only if the person is in pain,” Derek said, more than willing to give up information if it meant Stiles would continue to look up at him unguardedly for the first time since he’d known him.

            “So if you touch someone in pain, you feel pain too?” Stiles asked, and he was frowning a little bit, as if that didn’t make sense. Derek squirmed as he tried to explain better. He was bad with words. Worse when his head was starting to pound.

            “Not exactly,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt, it just feels like… it just simmers under the surface. There to take if you want to.”

            “Oh,” Stiles said and then went silent. Derek tried to keep the disappointment off his face. Stiles’ scent had gone… dimmer somehow, less curious and more regretful.

            They stayed in awkward silence for a moment. Stiles looked down again, taking deep even breaths but seemed to be waiting for Derek to say something. Derek had no idea what to say. It had been such a brief amount of time and so much had happened. He had completely forgotten what he had meant to say to Stiles in the first place.

            His mother had remained serene as Derek told her the news of why Stiles was stealing from them. She hadn’t questioned how he came about this knowledge and he hadn’t provided details about his discovery. As her Beta, he probably should have volunteered it but… but even knowing that she would not punish Stiles for sneaking out and selling himself to other werewolves to make money, he hadn’t wanted to tell her. He wanted to keep that information private. So he did. And she hadn’t asked. She had also accepted Derek’s idea to have Stiles’ as his valet and to move Scott inside immediately, though with a small, sad rueful smile that Derek hadn’t understood.

            “He’ll be truly your responsibility now,” she said, sounding formal even though she was dressed in a nightgown and had just been woken up ten minutes ago by her near frantic son. Derek opened his mouth to say something but her hand had come up to rest on the side of his neck and he had gone still. “Take care of him, Derek.”

            It was an official command and Derek moved to tilt lift his chin and submit formally. But she held him and continued: “Teach him what he needs to know.”

            She held his gaze and he tilted his head and then she was gone. Before he could ask her what exactly she meant. Before he could ask her why he felt she had figured out something he hadn’t.

            He hadn’t even gotten a chance to ask more practical questions. Like what exactly a valet was supposed to do. Like how exactly he was supposed to keep Stiles busy all day.

            He had a speech prepared. About how Stiles was free to go to the kitchens whenever he wanted, if he could just bring back some food on his way back so Derek didn’t have to bother anyone else for lunch. About how if he wanted, Stiles could move anything in his room around and organize it because Derek had decided he really didn’t care where everything was put. About how if he could please actually not touch the plants on Derek’s balcony and windowsill because they were very particular and Derek liked to water them himself.

            It had been mostly suggestions. Derek didn’t feel comfortable ordering Stiles. Couldn’t imagine having anything important enough that he would have to order Stiles to do it. He didn’t want to.

            “So,” Stiles finally broke the silence that Derek was just now realizing had stretched too long. The curiosity had faded from Stiles, leaving only embarrassment and slight nerves. “You really don’t want to- me to… do anything?”

            “No,” Derek said somewhat evenly, again feeling the spike of anger that came with the thought of Stiles being abused like that. “Not ever.”

            “Okay,” Stiles said quietly, barely audible even to Derek’s ears. “You never wanted that, did you? Not even before?”

            “No,” Derek repeated, praying that Stiles’ believed him. He looked back at his actions, at hanging out in the kitchens for no reason, at just popping up during his lunch break to ask awkward questions, at fucking ordering him to take off his shirt the night before and realized how they must’ve seemed to someone like Stiles. Someone used to being singled out and used and- He swallowed. “No, I was just trying to make sure you were okay.”

            “So you just want me to actually… be your valet?”

            “Yes,” Derek said. “Though, I don’t really need one, to be honest.”

            Stiles barked a short laugh that was only bitter on the edges. The rest of it seemed like genuine amusement.

            “That’s basically what Har- Mr. Harris said you would say,” Stiles explained, glancing up at Derek. He wasn’t relaxed but he wasn’t terrified. He was…

            He was just Stiles. Not ready to trust but not shutting down. It wasn’t quite neutral but it was as close as Derek knew he was likely to get.

            “Yeah, well,” Derek said, shrugging. Stiles smiled a little and Derek didn’t pout exactly but his face formed something that made Stiles’ grin a little wider.

            Silence descended again and Derek realized that he was oddly content with just the fact that Stiles was still sitting on the edge of his bed, that he felt comfortable not to move for a moment.

            Then his scent turned sour and embarrassed and Derek had tensed before he even asked the question.

            “You won’t,” Stiles stopped and wrung his hands, flicking his eyes up only briefly. “You won’t tell Scott, will you?”

            “He doesn’t know?” Derek asked, blinking stupidly. He hadn’t really thought much about it but he couldn’t imagine Stiles keeping anything from Scott, couldn’t see how Scott could just not notice something so huge. He assumed Scott had argued but Stiles had insisted, assumed that Scott was at least there to put Stiles back together after a bad night.

            “Are you crazy?” Stiles said, looking at Derek as if he were an idiot. “Scott would kil- Scott would freak out if he knew about…. Everything. He can’t know.”

            “He doesn’t know,” Derek repeated. He felt anger rise in him. How could Scott just not know? Stiles was sneaking out at night to be raped and Scott somehow just didn’t notice. “He doesn’t know that you’ve been selling yourself for him?”

            Stiles flinched at the question but then he was glaring at Derek.

            “Of course not,” he said. “He doesn’t need to know that. He already feels guilty enough for the whipping. He doesn’t need more of it.”

            “Maybe he does,” Derek growled, hating to see Stiles like this. Hating that Stiles, for some reason, thought he was worth less than Scott. “Maybe he should know what his best friend is out there doing so he can get his medicine.”

            Stiles was up, one hand shoving Derek back before Derek even finished his sentence.

            “Don’t you dare talk about Scott like that,” Stiles snarled. “You don’t know the first thing about us. You-”

            “I know that every time I turn around, I see you giving up things for him,” Derek replied, voice rising to meet Stiles. He had no idea why he was getting like this. He just knew that there was something about Scott that made Stiles self-destructive. He just knew it made him furious. “You steal for him, get whipped for him, fucking go out and prostitute yourself for him. Why is it always you, huh? Why are you always the one to-”

            “Shut up,” Stiles ordered and he hadn't yell but his words were soft and dangerous. He stood ready to spring, fists clenched by his side. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You have no fucking clue what Scott has given up for me. He’s given up-”

            Stiles cut himself off and for a moment the smell of guilt overwhelmed the smell of anger. Derek felt his own anger die off at the sudden difference.

            “Don’t ever talk to me about Scott,” Stiles finished, his voice quiet but firm. He was breathing hard. Dimly, Derek realized he was too. “You don’t- you don’t know anything about us. So just… don’t. Not ever.” Then he turned and wiped his hand across his face. He was shaking slightly.

            “You’re right,” Derek said, feeling the truth of it. Derek didn’t know about enough about Stiles and Scott to judge. He shouldn’t have said anything. It wasn’t his place. “I’m sorry. I won’t say anything.”

            Stiles was looking at him, surprised and something softer.

            “Thank you,” he said. Then, after a beat, as if he had almost forgotten. “Master Derek.”

            Derek’s mouth twisted. He had been called “Master Derek” his whole life, by all the slaves, by Jennifer and Harris, by Isaac. Usually it felt more like a nickname. Dee from the kitchen had taken to saying it with a bit of a melody as if announcing his arrival. Back before the whipping, Scott had managed to say it in the same tone that he said “man” or “dude.”

            With Stiles, it just felt wrong. It felt like it was forced out of him. It felt like a reminder of all the things Derek was starting to wish weren’t true.

            “Don’t-” Derek paused, realizing he had no idea how to verbalize all that. Plus, he was fairly sure slaves had to call him that. Isaac dropped titles every now and then, almost always with Cora but that was different. That was his choice. Derek didn’t think it was something that you could force. “Worry about it.” He finished lamely.

            “Let’s just go over things tomorrow,” Derek said. He suddenly felt exhausted. His head hurt and too much had happened. They needed a fresh start. He had to remember his speech. “I should be back from my run around 8 or so.”

            “Alright,” Stiles replied. “I’ll be back then.”

            “Good,” Derek said and then winced at how curt that sounded. He tried again. “Have a nice night.”

            Stiles sort of quirked his mouth at that but he nodded at muttered a “You too, Master Derek” before leaving.

            Derek sank on to the bed, which smelled like Stiles now and groaned.

            He never should have played tag with Cora.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles was bored.

            He turned, staring at the room once more, trying to assure himself that there must be something he could do.

            It had been four days. The first day, Derek had given him an incredibly stilted list of things he needed done. The list wasn’t extensive: keep the room clean, bring food around lunch time, don’t touch the plants. Then Derek had shifted awkwardly for a bit, all but telling him he was free to just hang out in the kitchen if he wanted and ran into the bathroom. Considering their last interaction included Stiles' trying to suck his dick, having a panic attack, forcing Derek to yank all his pain out, and then yelling at the werewolf, Stiles considered it a vast improvement.

            Stiles had been tempted to take Derek up on his offer of chilling in the kitchens but he wasn’t an idiot. Harris would be watching to make sure he was actually doing something useful. So, he’d gotten to work.

            The first day he’d deep cleaned Derek’s room. He’d dusted and vacuumed and washed the windows and tried to organize Derek’s desk to some degree. The second day he’d tackled the bathroom, grateful that it took him almost a full day as it was huge. Then the third day he’d brought laundry down and reorganized the closet and drawers.

            Now it was the fourth day and he had nothing to do. He’d already had breakfast waiting when Derek returned from his run, he’d made the bed, he’d brought the dishes down and then stuck around to do the morning dishes and chat with the gang and now…

            Now he was standing, staring at Derek’s spotless room, wondering how on earth he was going to stop from going crazy. Even the cleaning of the past four days had left him feeling anxious as he’d purposefully worked slower to take longer. Frantically, he ran through Harris’ list of chores again in his head. Nope, there was nothing. The problem was Derek didn’t get dressed up to go on outings and he certainly didn’t need or want Stiles’ help getting dressed. Usually the werewolf just pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt.

            He officially had nothing to do. He could clean Derek’s room again but he would literally go crazy if he just cleaned the same room every day.

            He glanced at the clock hanging on Derek’s wall again.

            It was too early to go for lunch. Much too early. Like fucking three hours too early.

            He was going to die.

            You could go ask him for a job, a helpful voice rose in Stiles’ head. He frowned at it.

            It went against everything he believed in. His life was spent trying to get out of doing work, not volunteering for more. It was pushing the boundaries and fucking things up just to see how far he could get without being caught. It was being caught and then always having too much work to do. It wasn’t being helpful or nice or giving in.

            Plus it would mean seeking out a werewolf. Like, going to find one. Of his own free will. A werewolf. Him. Him talking to a werewolf.

            Granted, Derek wasn’t like regular werewolves. Derek had spent the last four days avoiding Stiles almost entirely. He got back from his run around 8am, grabbed a shower, thanked Stiles for the food while shoveling it in his face, and then was gone. Stiles had seen him once on his way to the laundry room, wrestling with the twins and once when he was in the kitchen as Derek walked past talking to Cora. Derek usually stopped in before dinner, awkwardly shuffled, gruffly informed Stiles he didn’t have to stick around and then Stiles left.

            Stiles couldn’t get a read on him. He frowned more than was necessary but somewhere along the way Stiles had stopped associating his frown with anger. At least, if it was anger, it didn’t seem to be directed at Stiles. He also seemed fanatic about staying well out of Stiles’ personal space. Yesterday, he’d opened the door and went to grab a clean shirt while Stiles’ was half-in the closet and practically tripped in his haste to get away fast enough when he realized Stiles was there.

            That, paired with the look of concern and the tense way he froze, had told Stiles all he needed to know. Derek was clearly afraid that he was going to set off another panic attack. Stiles could have told him that wasn’t likely. He had already had multiple freak-outs about how fundamentally unfair it was that he hadn’t realized he could just ask for an inhaler. But, he couldn’t go back. He couldn’t have known that. So he was just not thinking about it. He was good at that. He didn't think about a lot of things. He didn’t plan on having one again. He wasn’t some broken little thing who was going to go to pieces anytime a werewolf came within ten feet of him.

            But obviously, there was no way to tell Derek that. And, Stiles admitted, it was sort of… not nice, but- it was…

            It was different, Stiles decided. It was just… weird and new and different and it hadn’t quite gotten old yet. At least, not totally.

            Stiles walked around the room again, trying to find something out of place. He couldn’t. This room was as clean as it was going to get.

            Fuck it, he thought. He wasn’t going to stay here and die of boredom. That was a particular brand of torture that he was keen to avoid. And it was in his power. He would just go to Derek and ask for something to do. Even if Derek said “no,” at least he could tell Harris that it wasn’t his fault he was hanging out in the kitchen all day. He marched over to the library before he could change his mind.

            Thankfully, Derek was alone. Stiles had seen Laura in there working with him before, and sometimes Peter or Talia ordered food to be brought to the library but this time Derek was at his usual table, hunched over a pile of books, scribbling down  notes of some kind.

            Stiles took two steps closer, then frowned and decided to just find something else to do and was about to turn away when-

            “Stiles?” Derek looked up and over at him. Right. Freaky werewolf senses. Stiles should’ve guessed. “What’s wrong?”

            “Nothing!” Stiles said, hating that his heart was beating faster just talking to a werewolf. What had he been thinking? This was the dumbest idea he’d ever had. And he was including a whole life time filled to the brim with shitty, shitty ideas. “Uh, I just, er.”

            Stiles took a few steps closer despite every instinct that was telling him not to.

            “Nevermind,” he tried. “It’s nothing. I’m gonna just-”

            “What is it?” Derek said, sounding more annoyed. Right, probably because he had just interrupted the man when he was trying to work. He was pretty sure Harris would say that that was the opposite of being a good valet. Not that that was necessarily Stiles’ goal but Derek had been good to him, good to Scott and he should probably attempt to be civil back.

            “I sorta don’t have anything to do,” Stiles admitted, trying to stand still and realizing how impossible that was. He was so bored. “So, I figured I’d come check in with you. See if you had some secret project you needed done.”

            “Oh,” Derek’s face went pinched. “Uh, well, no, not really.”

            Stiles tried to keep his face from dropping. Derek must’ve sensed it anyway because he sort of growled to himself.

            “Hey, hey,” Stiles said, putting up his hands. “No worries. I’ll figure something out. You just go back to reading about… whatever it is you’re reading about.” Then he turned to leave. This had been an awful plan. Annoy Derek with questions about a job he had only given Stiles to try to help Scott. By far, his worst plan.

            “Plants,” Derek blurted and Stiles halted his retreat. “Deaton and I have been researching the different theories as to why most chemicals, especially man-made, fail to affect werewolves but most organic material does.”

            “Oh,” Stiles said, surprised. That actually sounded interesting. And useful. In his head, Derek was just up here reading about… deer hunting or something all day. “Is that the one that Lau- Mistress Laura is helping you with too?”

            “No,” Derek replied. “This is a lot of boring science articles. She and I are working on a complete history of the Hale family. Or at least attempting one.”

            “Gotcha,” Stiles said.

            “You could stay here,” Derek offered, sounding almost hopeful. “You could help me research. Or, not. It can be boring. But you could grab something else to read. We have lots of books.”

            “No,” Stiles said, feeling the old jolt of bitterness though he tried to bite it back. “No, I can’t.”

            “Sure you could,” Derek said. “No one would mind.”

            “No,” Stiles repeated, taking a breath. “No, I mean I can’t.”

            “You can’t?” Derek said and Stiles couldn’t help but be annoyed. It wasn’t Derek’s fault, Stiles knew that, he did it was just-

            “I can’t read, Master,” he snapped, flushed and embarrassed. “Slaves don’t get taught how to read.”

            No one he’d grown up with had known. Even his father and Mrs. McCall, who were still in Stiles’ opinions, the smartest people he knew, had been the product of generations of institutionalized slavery.

            His mom had known the basics, some of the names of the letters, some of the sounds they had made and she had tried to teach him, he remembered. She had tried but he was always a hyperactive kid and then she’d gotten sick and then she’d died. He barely remembered what little she’d taught him. He barely remembered her.

            When he was younger, he’d tried to teach himself but everything was just scribbles. And then he and Scott had been sold and there wasn’t time for attempting to learn to read. It wasn’t a skill he’d ever need. Even when they’d come here, when it became clear that both Jenny and Isaac could read, and Simon and Dee at least knew enough to get by, he hadn’t even thought to ask. Reading was beyond him. It always would be.

            Derek was staring at him and Stiles suddenly didn’t have the energy to try and figure out which brand of frowning was currently occupying his face. He’d come in here to ask for more work, like a good little fucking slave and somehow he wound up still being insulted. It was stupid, this whole things was fucking stupid and he-

            “I could teach you,” Derek said.

            Stiles didn’t need to be a werewolf to hear how his heart stopped.

            Reading was… reading meant knowledge and books and being able to send fucking letters and research and-

            No. Reading was too good to be true.

            Reading took time to learn and Stiles was supposed to be helping Derek, not the other way around. He wasn’t going to make the nicest werewolf he knew babysit him while he stuttered and mumbled his way through children’s books. He wasn’t that much of an asshole.

            “No,” he said, feeling his face flush. “No, that’s okay. You’re busy and I should get back to… stuff.”

            “Stiles,” Derek said, sounding exasperated. “I have plenty of time. I can teach you.”

            “That’s okay,” Stiles repeated weakly. “I’ll probably be shi- bad at it anyway. I’m-” Not good at focusing. Not good at sitting still. Not comfortable with this. With being even more in your debt.

            “Do you want to learn or not?” Derek asked, like it was simple. Like it was Stiles’ choice.

            “Yes,” Stiles said, hating that it came out a little desperate. That hadn’t been what he’d meant to say. He’d meant to say no. To insist he was fine.

            But it was reading. It was-

            He had to try.

            “Great,” Derek said and his face had formed into a small, genuine smile. “Let’s do this.”

            “Now?” Stiles sputtered, taking a step closer despite himself. “You don’t have-”

            “Yes, now,” Derek interrupted. “Come over.” He pushed out the chair next to him and started rearranging books to clear a space.

            Abruptly, Stiles realized what he had signed up for. To sit with a werewolf. Probably more than once. Probably for hours. To be taught something by a werewolf. A werewolf who was already easily annoyed and seemed calm and steady in all the ways that Stiles wasn’t and who would probably lose his temper within five minutes and-

            Who was looking up at him expectantly, holding out a pen.

            Stiles went and sat down before he could think about it.

            Derek handed him the pen and Stiles held it awkwardly while Derek reached to the back of his notebook and ripped out a sheet of paper, slapping it down in front of Stiles.

            “This works for now,” Derek mumbled. “I’ll grab you your own notebook tomorrow.”

            “Thanks, Master,” Stiles said, trying not to seem tense. Derek shrugged and continued moving things.

            Hesitantly, Stiles reached out and pressed the pen to the paper, making a small line at the top. Writing. He was writing. With a pen. On paper.

            “Wait,” Derek suddenly said and Stiles nearly jumped out of the seat, dropping the pen instantly. “Scott doesn’t know either?”

            Stiles shook his head wordlessly, heart still beating way too fast.

            “We should probably get him too then,” Derek muttered, sounding a little put out.

            “No,” Stiles said, shaking his head. “Jenny needs the help in the kitchen. Plus, Scott…” He stalled, not quite knowing how to say that his friend had never seemed as concerned or indignant over his state of illiteracy as Stiles. He would be more happy for Stiles than happy to learn himself. “I’ll teach him at night. I know how his brain works.” It would be lots of positive reinforcement, making sure Scott saw it as a social event rather than a chore. It would also be making sure Scott realized that he had to learn himself and not just rely on Stiles to read everything.

            “Okay,” Derek said and he sounded pleased again. “If you’re sure.”

            “Yeah,” Stiles replied and suddenly he realized that Derek had just offered to teach Scott as well. Just because he didn’t know how to read either. He found himself sort of smiling. “Yeah, he’ll like it better coming from me.”

            “He probably still hates me,” Derek said, looking down. Stiles frowned at him.

            “No he doesn’t,” Stiles said, confused. Scott didn’t hate anybody at the Hales. Except perhaps Talia but even that wasn’t true hatred. Scott more thought that Talia was selfish and greedy and wrong and he’d probably forgive her in a heartbeat if she admitted those things. And while Scott had been largely silent in regards to Derek since the whipping, Stiles figured that was more because Derek had all but disappeared.

            Derek huffed as if he didn’t believe him.

            “Well, let’s get started,” Derek said, effectively ending the conversation. “Now, there are twenty six different letters…”

            Stiles took a breath. This was it. He was learning.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Derek fought to keep his breaths even and focus on his book.

            They were having a bad day.

            It had been two weeks since he had begun teaching Stiles to read and it seemed like there were generally more bad days than good.

            For almost the entire first week, Stiles had seemed to eat up the idea of reading. He learned the alphabet quickly and seemed to grasp the different noises they made and smelt more and more pleased as it was clear he was progressing. They were days spent calmly repeating himself and trying not to stare when Stiles’ chewed on his pen as he thought and then reassuring Stiles’ that he wasn’t mad at Stiles for chewing on the pen. It ended with Derek just buying Stiles a pack of pens for himself and enduring a few minutes of suspicious glares – as if Stiles still couldn’t quite believe a werewolf was capable of treating him decently – before Stiles relaxed once more.

            They were days spent smiling fondly back when Stiles looked up to grin proudly at him and trying not to focus on how much he loved the scent that had taken over their corner of the library, the scent of him and Stiles together. Trying to pretend that he wasn’t inordinately happy that the scent of fear and suspicion that constantly radiated off of Stiles had faded to primarily tones of interest and content.

            Then, after a week, he’d made the mistake of letting Stiles glance at one of his science articles. Stiles’ scent had gone embarrassed and frustrated and he’d thrown himself into studying with a desperation that Derek knew was counter-productive. They had their good days, but more and more Stiles seemed to spend his days twitching restlessly, and staring into space before jerking himself and glaring at whatever was in front of him.

            It was a bad day now. Derek could tell from the fact that Stiles was chewing on his lip so hard it must be moments away from bleeding, hands clenched around the pen, leg jumping up and down. He smelled angry and restless and Derek knew from experience that he would continue in this vein until he started rubbing his head and the smell of pain radiated off him.

            He couldn’t do it anymore. He couldn’t sit here and just let Stiles work himself into a headache.

            “Alright,” he said. “We’re going out.”

            “No,” Stiles said, not even looking up. “I can do this- I just need to focus.” He sounded desperate.

            Derek didn’t bother replying, didn’t bother pointing out that some days Stiles could focus, some days he could sit in silence and not move for hours. And others he just couldn’t. He could glare and frown and force himself into stillness and it just wouldn’t work. But Derek knew Stiles didn’t need to hear that. He needed to go outside.

            He reached over and snatched the pen out of Stiles’ hand and then stood up, pulling Stiles up by the elbows as he did so. Gently enough that Stiles could pull away if he really wanted to.

            It meant more to him than it should that Stiles’ stiffened but didn’t flinch at the contact, didn’t pull away, his heart didn’t jump in his chest.

            “Outside,” Derek repeated. Stiles glared at him but there was no heat in it. Then they were off, Derek carefully releasing Stiles as soon as it was clear he was going to follow him out. Already Stiles smelled more relaxed than he had all morning.

            Derek just wished he could say it had been his idea.

            Instead, it had been Scott’s.

            He was putting books away in the library, something he should have done earlier but Stiles had managed to write his first sentence after six days (which he had declared to be some kind of record) and Derek had been distracted by the smells of pure pride and joy that had radiated off him and then it was time for dinner and he had forgotten all about it.

            So he was doing it now, frowning at the bookshelf where he was certain this book was supposed to go and idly wondering whether or not Laura had been messing with his system when suddenly he turned and Scott was standing right in front of him.

            “Scott,” Derek said, startled despite himself. Then he took a careful step away. Scott didn’t look angry, but he looked… oddly thoughtful. “Stiles already headed down to dinner,” Derek supplied, slightly concerned that he was going to be yelled at for something.

            He and Scott had managed not to talk since the night of Stiles’ whipping. When Derek had caught sniffs of Scott the past few months, the boy had gradually faded to smelling like his normal self but he didn’t wasn’t about to push the boundaries. He couldn’t forget that it was his fault Stiles had been caught, couldn’t forget that he was the idiot who had to rub Scott’s face in it that very same night. So while Scott might be back to his old, relaxed self, Derek had carefully avoided him.

            “So you’re really teaching Stiles to read?” Scott said and it wasn’t quite a question. It made it even more difficult to figure out how to answer it.

            “Yes,” Derek said. “He wanted to so…” He shrugged and again had the insane idea that Scott was Stiles’ Alpha and he probably should have checked before keeping Stiles away from the kitchen for such long hours.

            Then Scott’s face broke into a small smile too sweet to be categorized as a grin.

            “That’s-” Scott seemed to flounder for a moment. “That’s great. Thanks, man. He’s always wanted to know how.”

            Derek shifted uncomfortably. He wasn’t doing anything special. Slaves were always taught how to read in his family. Isaac had simply learned along with Cora. If anything, he should be in trouble for not realizing they couldn’t read sooner and working to fix the situation.

            “I said you could come to,” he started, wondering if that’s what Scott was trying to ask. But Scott was already shaking his head.

            “No, no,” Scott said, waving his hands. “Stiles is the brainiac. He’ll learn way faster if I’m not there to slow him down.” Scott didn’t smell like jealousy. If anything, he seemed proud. “He’ll catch me up later.”

            “Oh, okay,” Derek said. He looked back towards the bookshelf, desperately trying to think of something to say. He thought that maybe, just maybe Stiles was starting to like him a little. Well, not like but at least not despise him. Logic said he should be trying to get Scott to not-hate him too. But being around Stiles seemed to make him relax whereas being around Scott just made him feel oddly tense.

            “Just,” Scott said, looking serious for a moment. “Don’t let him be too hard on himself, okay? He gets headaches pretty easily and he can be a bit-” Scott frowned in obvious concern. Derek tried not to look like he was hanging on every word. He wanted Stiles to be happy. Scott knew how to do that.

            “Outside,” Scott finally finished. “He’s calmer when he can move around a bit.”

            “Sure,” Derek said. “I can do that. I promise I’ll-” He’d stopped abruptly. Take care of him sounded too formal. Everything he could think of to say sounded too formal. Luckily, Scott was openly grinning at him now, concern fading.

            “Awesome, that’s it really. I just wanted to say thanks. You know, it’s pretty cool of you to teach him.”

            “It’s nothing,” Derek said and Scott frowned in disapproval. Derek felt his face heat up.

            “It’s not nothing,” Scott replied firmly. Thankfully, he quickly moved on.

            “Also about the…” he faded and gestured to his fist. “Uh, punching thing.” Derek was already shaking his head no, he did not need Scott apologizing for that.

            “I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Scott finished, frowning a bit at himself. Then he looked at Derek, head tilted to the side ever so slightly. Derek was beginning to see why Jennifer always said Scott was like a puppy dog. “You were never going to hurt him, were you?”

            “No,” Derek said honestly, hoping that Scott could hear the truth in the words. “No, but I shouldn’t have- You couldn’t have known that. You were right to-”

            “Yeah,” Scott said, grinning again. “That’s why I only said ‘probably.’” Then he was moving away, leaving Derek standing there stupidly. He had just sort of stared as Scott walked off and was about to start up again when Scott poked his head back in the library.

            “You should come hang out in the kitchens sometime,” Scott said, voice warm and welcoming. “We’ve only been getting Cora’s side of the stories from Isaac.”

            Then he was truly gone and Derek had been even more confused as to what had just happened in his life.

            He only knew that it seemed like a good thing.

            It had been raining for the past few days, but now, while it was still chilly, at least the sun was out. He could finally follow Scott’s advice.

            “I’m swinging to my room to grab a jacket,” Derek said. “Want to grab yours and we’ll meet at the backdoor?”

            “No,” Stiles said shortly, sounding even more annoyed. “Don’t need it.”

            Derek frowned. It wasn’t freezing out but it wasn’t warm and the men slaves’ shirts were traditionally sleeveless. In fact, he was surprised Stiles wasn’t cold in the library. In the kitchens, sleeveless made sense but the library wasn’t that warm. Stiles really should be wearing at least a sweatshirt in there.

            “It’s cold out,” Derek said.

            “That’s okay,” Stiles replied, looking away. “I don’t feel like wearing it.”

            Derek stopped walking to focus. He took a deep breath. Stiles smelled embarrassed and unhappy and… bitter?

            “Don’t do that,” Stiles grumbled suddenly. “Don’t try to figure out how I feel by smelling me.”

            Derek flushed for that was exactly what he was trying to do but refused to back down. “I’m just trying to figure out why you refuse to wear a jacket when it’s cold out.”

            “I just don’t like it, okay?” Stiles said, exasperated. “Can we go now? I thought you wanted to go outside.”

            Derek didn’t move. Stiles didn’t like his jacket. Why? They weren’t a bad color, basic black except for the Hale name stamped across the-

            Oh.

            Stiles seemed to hate any and all reminders that he was a slave. Having the name of his owners across his back was probably not something he appreciated.

            Derek smiled to himself. At least that was easy to fix. He nodded to Stiles as if he were giving in and then continued to head to his room. Once he’d grabbed a jacket for himself, he reached into his closet and grabbed a hoodie he knew for a fact didn’t fit him. It was too lean. Also it was red, which he would never wear but-

            “Here,” he said, shoving it into Stiles’ hands. It wasn’t quite thick enough but it was better than nothing. He could order more non-monogrammed Stiles-sized clothes tomorrow. Then he started moving again. He didn’t need Stiles or anyone making a bigger deal than this was. It wasn’t a weird ownership thing or a way of marking his territory. It was just giving Stiles’ a sweatshirt so he didn’t freeze to death. Luckily, Stiles followed him silently, pulling on the sweatshirt as he walked.

            Derek told himself his heart didn’t give a little lurch at the sight.

            Stiles was still a slave and Derek was a werewolf and Stiles had been abused by werewolves all his life and Derek was certainly not going to admit that he had maybe, sort of, a little started to think about Stiles in ways that were not 100% appropriate. He wasn’t.

            It was just hard not to notice certain things now that they were spending so much time together. Not about Stiles’ face or body or hands- he’d already noticed all of that. But other things. Like the way Stiles absentmindedly tapped out tunes against the desk as he worked, or the way he smiled in satisfaction when he read a word without help, or the way he hadn’t quite stopped being shocked every time Derek brought him a new notebook or new pens or different books to read. But he had stopped being suspicious. At least, mostly.

            But still, all those were normal things to notice about a person you were working with. That was all.

            Derek walked a little faster. He really needed to stop thinking about this.

            Luckily, they were outside soon enough and Stiles remained half a step behind him, his face still frowning. Derek didn’t say anything. He wasn’t good with words. Instead they just walked around the gardens, Derek leading the way into the woods. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore.

            “Spell tree,” he grunted, tapping one as he passed it.

            “Look,” Stiles said, bristling. “Just cause I have the fucking concentration of a five year old doesn’t mean I need to be taught like one.”

            Derek just lifted an eyebrow. Stiles rolled his eyes.

            “T-R-E-E,” he said. “There. I knew that one. Now can we go back inside where I can try to get some real work done?”

            “Log,” Derek said, continuing to walk steadily.

            “This can’t be fun for you,” Stiles muttered. Derek shrugged. Stiles groaned. “L-O-G.”

            “Leaf.”

            “L-E,” Stiles suddenly halted and his smell turned even more frustrated. “L-E- uh, I don’t know. Fuck it. This was a stupid idea. I’m too fucking stupid to learn-”

            “Stiles,” Derek said, stopping to glare at him. “You’re not stupid. You’re learning. Just relax, enjoy the walk, and try.”

            Stiles went silent, mouthing the word a few times. “L-E-F?”

            “You’ve gotta make the E sound like itself,” Derek prompted. “How do we do that?”

            “Add an E at the end,” Stiles said, frowning in concentration rather than annoyance.

            “Or?”

            “Add an A after it,” Stiles answered. “So L-E-F-E? Or L-E-A-F? How are you supposed to know which is right? This is a fucking stupid language.”

            He didn’t sound truly angry anymore so Derek nodded in agreement.

            “L-E-A-F,” Derek said. Stiles picked one up to big ripping it apart idly. He smelled better. He looked better.

            “Bug,” Derek said, starting walking once more.

            “B-U-G,” Stiles said, lengthening his strides to keep up with him. “You know, if we only learn like this, I’m gonna have a pretty limited vocabulary.”

            Derek shrugged. “Root.”

 

*^*^*^

            “See! See! This is why we can’t do work in here!”

            Stiles’ voice was indignant but entirely too happy to even pretend to be truly upset. Next to him, Derek shrugged, a small smile on his face as well. Scott was the only one frowning and attempting to clean up the liquid that had managed to spill all over the corner of the counter where he and Derek were working.

            It literally made Jennifer’s chest hurt, she was so happy.

            “It’s filled with hooligans,” Stiles continued, shaking his pen at Simon who was pointing and laughing. “The lot of them. Ruffians.”

            “I really am sorry!” Scott said, waving the spoon and managing to fling more sauce on Stiles. Apparently when Scott had swung around excitedly moments before to answer a question (incorrectly, Jennifer might add) and dumped a large amount of sauce in Stiles’ general direction, he had quite gotten all of it off.

            Even she was having difficulty keeping a smile off her face as some of it slowly rolled down Stiles’ nose.

            “That was on purpose,” Stiles insisted. Whatever else he was going to say was lost as both Simon and Dee erupted in laughter.

            “We can’t work in here,” Stiles repeated, turning to Derek. “This is why we need to stick to the library.”

            “Scott needs the extra help,” Derek replied calmly and, as expected, Stiles closed his mouth on any future argument.

            Jennifer looked away before her face could truly give her away. She highly doubted that helping Scott was Derek’s true motivation for coming back to the kitchen.

            It had been over a month since she had told Derek that something was wrong. And, like always, true to his word, Derek had fixed it. She didn’t know the details, didn’t really want to. All she knew is that one day Stiles was suddenly Derek’s valet, Scott was in the kitchen and then, Stiles was better. Not instantly, but after a few days of hanging in the kitchen, still seeming edgy and caged, he’d suddenly disappeared. Then word came that Derek was teaching him to read. Then Stiles spent his evenings teaching Scott. And he was happy and laughing and had stopped flinching and gained weight and Jennifer thought that life was about as good as it could get.

            And then, almost two weeks ago, Derek had returned to the kitchens as well. It was awkward at first, everyone stiff and stilted, but Stiles had set the tone by acting like his usual self and Scott had beamed at Derek as he walked in and now it was tradition. Every night, after the Hales’ dinner but before the kitchen slaves were released, Derek wandered in. He took up residence in the corner where either Scott or Stiles was typically sitting (the other one working on dishes) and attempted to teach.

            With her kitchen staff, it generally didn’t go very well. Once they were used to his presence again (which took all of two hours), Simon and Dee had gone right back to being their talkative, slightly crazy selves. Scott was much too encouraging of others to ever truly focus on learning himself and Stiles simply didn’t have the willpower to ignore all the commotion around him.

            So the actual learning environment was pretty awful. She wouldn’t say it aloud if Derek wanted to still insist that’s why he came every night but he didn’t fool her for a second. She’d seen the way Derek seemed to bask in Stiles’ presence. He seemed to have given up his permanent frown for a softer smile of fondness, though he tried to school it from his face whenever Stiles or Scott looked over at him.

            He wasn’t fooling anybody else either. That was never going to get past Dee. The woman had taken to practically giggling whenever Derek interacted with Stiles at all. Even Simon had glanced at her with raised eyebrows a few times in the past week. Jennifer had given him a blank look in reply. It was certainly not their business if Derek wanted to come and enjoy some time with Scott and Stiles. She was not about to allow gossip to seep out of her kitchen. She’d given both Simon and Dee firm enough glares to convey that.

            “That’s it,” Stiles said, wiping his face with the sleeve of the red hoodie he had taken to wearing. “Switch Scott. You’ve actually got to learn this.”

            “But you’re much better at it than me,” Scott whined as Stiles took the spoon and shoved Scott towards the table. “You can handle the reading.”

            “Nope,” Stiles said. “You’ve got to learn too. Now get to it or I’ll hit you. With the spoon.”

            Scott pouted but obediently picked up a pen. “As long as it’s not dirty,” Scott muttered loud enough for everyone to hear. “I wouldn’t want to look as sloppy as you.”

            “You did not just-” Stiles started, whirling. Then he put the spoon back in the pot, scooping some out. Simon grabbed a bottle of barbeque sauce. Dee was already squealing and ducking behind the island.

            “The person who starts a food fight in my kitchen will regret it until the end of their days,” Jennifer said calmly into the heartbeat of quiet. In an instant, everyone had resumed something like normal positions. She just then noticed that Derek had actually grabbed a handful of the candies sitting by his elbow.

            Thank goodness Cora and Isaac were outside terrorizing someone else. She wouldn’t have been able to stop it if they were here as well.

            “He started it,” Stiles said, pointing at Scott.

            “It was an accident!” Scott repeated. “Look, it’s my notebook that got ruined!”

            “I’ll get you another tomorrow,” Derek said and Jennifer could tell he was trying to sound exasperated. It didn’t quite work.

            “Don’t bother,” Stiles said, stirring the pot without looking. “He deserves it.”

            Scott held it up, frowning. It was dripping. He gave Stiles his best puppy dog eyes. Jennifer could see Stiles soften.

            “And those don’t work on me,” Stiles said. “So you can just-”

            “Derek.”

            Silence dropped like a stone over the kitchen. Jennifer didn’t need to glance over at Stiles or Scott to know that their faces had probably drained in terror. She wasn’t feeling too steady herself.

            Talia Hale had just walked into her kitchen.

            If the Alpha came down for late night snacks like the rest of her family, she did it when Jennifer was gone. Jennifer couldn’t remember any time, in the thirty years that she had run this kitchen that Talia Hale had stepped foot in it.

            Hurriedly she glanced around. It was not a good time. Dee was at the far end of the island, hair slightly mused from all the running around. Simon had frozen in the process of packing up the leftover burgers for the next day. Stiles still had sauce smudged across his face, Scott was holding the notebook up where it was dripping a mess onto the counter and floor and Derek was-

            Derek was already moving, stepping up and forward, placing himself firmly between his mother and Stiles. He reached out to push Scott back slightly as he did so.

            “Mistress Hale,” Jennifer said, impressed by how even her voice was. “How can we help you?”

            Talia looked away from Derek long enough to blink once at her before looking away.

            “Oh nothing, Jennifer, thank you,” she said, eyes sliding around the kitchen. Christ, she was probably noticing that Simon and Dee had spelled curse words out with celery sticks as their contribution to the boys’ education. “Just wondering where my son has been disappearing to every night.”

            “I’m teaching Stiles and Scott how to read,” Derek said and his voice was… tense. Not rude or defiant but… wary. Defensive almost.

            “Are you?” Talia asked and to Jennifer it sounded like simple curiosity but Derek flinched. Behind him, Stiles inhaled sharply. Scott moved to step forward and Jennifer saw he was frowning, glaring at Talia as if he was about to tell her to get out.

            Derek neatly stepped in front of his path, effectively blocking Scott from Talia’s view. It left Stiles visible and Jennifer watched as Talia raked her eyes over the slave. Stiles tensed further but didn’t more.

            “Yes,” Derek said, more firmly. “I am.”

            There was another beat where the strange tableau held and then Talia nodded.

            “Excellent,” she said and she did seemed pleased. If Derek’s sudden frown of confusion meant anything, he had no idea what was going on either. “Well, please come up to the library when you’re finished. We’re having a pack meeting tonight.”

            “I can come now if y-” Derek started.

            “No, no,” Talia said, waving a casual hand and bestowing a small smile to the room. “Finish first. This is more important.” Then she was gone.

            There was a stunned silence at her departure.

            Then, surprisingly, it was Stiles who recovered first.

            “Dude!” he said, sounding a bit breathless and shaky. “You hadn’t told her?

            “No,” Derek grumbled, still staring after his mother. “It wasn’t her business.”

            “Not her business?!” Stiles was incredulous. And a bit panicked. “Of course it’s her fucking business! She owns us. She has some say over whether or not we’re- we-” he faded, waving his hands, still breathing too quickly.

            Jennifer agreed. Talia should have been consulted. What if she had taken offense to Derek teaching a known thief to read? She would have been well in her rights to have Stiles beaten again. Or sold. Teaching slaves to read wasn’t exactly common practice for most werewolf households.

            “You’re my valet,” Derek said, frowning. For a moment, Jennifer thought his eyes flashed gold but she must’ve been mistaken. “And she didn’t care.”

            “Yeah, luckily, or else I’d be-”

            “Stiles,” Scott said suddenly, cutting through his friend’s panic smoothly. He sounded utterly calm. “Derek’s right. It wasn’t her business.”

            His tone allowed for no further conversation on the topic and Jennifer couldn’t help but stare. For a moment, Scott was older and wiser than she knew him to be. Even more surprising was that Stiles sort of flailed for a moment but Scott’s expression didn’t change so he swallowed any further protest and turned back to the sauce. Scott settled himself back into his seat and then calmly waited for Derek to do the same.

            “Guys, I think she saw the celery,” Dee confessed in a stage whisper after the silence had stretched too long.

            "Maybe she didn't know what the words meant?" Simon suggested helpfully.

            Scott’s laugh was so loud and earnest that the others couldn’t help but join in, even Stiles breaking and Derek chuckling a bit.

            Jennifer smiled a bit but didn’t pay attention as the conversation rose around her once more. She was too busy wondering if Derek even realized what he had just done.

            She was too busy wondering where exactly this all would lead.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Derek glanced up from the book he was reading, frowning slightly to himself.

            He glanced at Stiles, who was looking down, reading the short novel that he had started two days ago. Stiles wasn’t fidgeting or glaring or clenching his jaw- he didn’t look like he was having one of those days where he needed to get out of the library but…

            But something wasn’t right either.

            Derek inhaled slowly, trying to figure it out. It had been two months now and he considered himself somewhat of an expert on Stiles’ different frustration levels. Only he didn’t smell frustrated. He smelled… wary? Nervous? Derek shifted, glancing around for some threat, something he had missed maybe? Was is the book he was reading? It was a short chapter book that he had stolen from Cora’s room, probably a little bit girly and young for Stiles but he hadn’t thought Stiles would be offended by it. After all, he was still learning and-

            “I’m allergic to peanuts,” Stiles suddenly said, though he spoke softly and didn’t look up from his book.

            “What?” Derek said, blinking. Stiles took another deep breath before continuing.

            “Peanuts,” he repeated, and he finally glanced up then but looking firmly back at his book. “If I eat peanuts, my face and hands and eyes and everything will swell up. It’s really bad.”

            “Oh,” Derek said stupidly.

            “Yeah, so, I’m fine if I don’t eat peanuts but,” Stiles clenched his fist. “it’s- I’m supposed to have this medicine called a epinephrine just in case. It comes in these EpiPens things.” Stiles’ eyes met Derek’s for another brief moment before they skittered away.

            That’s when it finally hit Derek. This was Stiles asking for something. This was Stiles opening up and admitting a weakness and asking for something.

            “I’ll get it,” Derek said quickly. There wasn’t even a question he would. Of course he would get it. He would get a hundred. He would get more. “I’ll get it myself. I won’t need to tell anyone.”

            “There’s no rush,” Stiles said, smelling… actually Derek couldn’t quite figure out how he smelled. “I mean, I probably don’t even need one since I’m careful but… yeah. If you get a chance.”

            “That’s why you didn’t eat the sandwiches,” Derek realized aloud. “In the beginning. That’s why you weren’t gaining weight.”

            “Yeah,” Stiles said, a wry smile twisting his mouth. He was looking up again, meeting Derek’s gaze with a casual shrug of his shoulder. “I was pretty sure Jenny was trying to kill me.”

            His eyes invited Derek to laugh with him but Derek was already frowning, remembering other conversations, remembering Stiles’ concern that Scott would be sold if he were sick, remembering his own questions of how Stiles and Scott had managed to stay together…

            “That’s how you did it,” he said slowly. “You and Scott. If he got sold because of his asthma, you would…” He faded out, feeling a little ill but the smile on Stiles’ face twisted into something darker and he shrugged.

            “Pop a few peanuts and ride it out,” Stiles finished. He was trying so hard to look casual but Derek could see the lingering fear in his eyes, could smell the faint echo of pain and desperation. Awkward silence descended, Stiles turning back to his book.

            “At least it made it easy for you to stay together,” Derek said and he knew the moment he said it he’d made a mistake.

            Stiles barked a cold laugh that made him sound older than Derek knew he was.

            “Easy?” Stiles asked, voice hoarse. “It wasn’t fucking easy. It was-”

            Stiles looked up and seemed to realize who he was yelling at and cut himself off. Derek just stared, flushing, wondering how on earth he always managed to say the wrong thing. He was like a-

            “Have you ever heard Scott talk about Allison?”

            The question was soft and sad and all Derek could do was shake his head mutely. There was another moment of silence before Stiles continued, purposefully looking up from his book. Though his eyes only stayed on Derek for a moment. Then they were skirting around the room, focusing on nothing.

            “It was our fourth placement,” he started. “Two before you. It was good. I mean- not like here,” he glanced over and his hand twitched as if it wanted to wave around. “But it was fine. The rules were clear and everything was structured and the punishments weren’t terrible and- it was fine.”

            Derek had never doubted a sentence more in his life. His own hands were squeezed into fists and he was glad when Stiles looked back down so that he wouldn’t see Derek struggling to keep it together.

            “The Argents had been owned by this family for generations. Most of them were kind of jerks, to be honest, but Allison was…

            “Scott saw Allison on our first day and was in love with her by the second and he never shut up about her. She was all he talked about for weeks. And then she-”

            Stiles struggled for a moment and Derek felt his heart constrict.

            “Then she loved him back,” Stiles said, his voice so low Derek thought if he weren’t a werewolf he might have missed it. “And they were so happy and if anything he talked about her even more, even when she was standing right next to him, and-”

            Part of Derek wanted to stop Stiles. Wanted to beg him not to continue because he already knew the ending.

            “I was serving dinner when I swiped some bread,” Stiles said and his voice had gone tight. “That wasn’t a big deal, everyone did it, it was the only way to get something that didn’t taste like shit but-”

            “But I ate it right there, in front of everyone, like a goddam idiot and there must’ve been some fucking peanut something in it and-”

            Stiles stopped again, his fist clenching so hard that Derek was sure he was breaking the skin on his palm open.

            Then he looked up and his eyes were bright with unshed tears.

            “Scott didn’t even fucking hesitate,” Stiles said, his voice tight with awe and guilt. “He just heard them say they were selling me and ran out and sprinted until he gave himself an asthma attack and made sure they found him and-”

            Stiles cut off, breathing hard and Derek couldn’t take it anymore. He reached over and put his hand on the back of Stiles’ neck, wishing there was physical pain that he could take away.

            “I don’t even think he got to say goodbye,” Stiles said, agonized, and Derek’s heart twisted.

            “That’s not your fault,” Derek said and his voice came out rough. “It wasn’t your fault.”

            Stiles didn’t say anything but Derek knew Stiles didn’t believe it. He knew that Stiles would probably never believe it.

            “It wasn’t your fault,” he repeated anyway. Needing to say it. Needing Stiles to at least hear it. “It wasn’t.”

            “Yeah,” Stiles said but it wasn’t agreement. It was a conclusion. He was already moving away, ducking away from Derek’s hand, taking a few shuddering breaths and looking back towards his books as if nothing had happened.

            “We only talked about it once,” Stiles admitted softly. “Right after. I tried to tell him he shouldn’t h- I tried but he just said it was the right choice. He said he would do it again. He said I shouldn’t feel bad.”

            A beat.

            “But he never talks about her anymore.”

            Stiles went silent and Derek didn’t know what to say.

            So he didn’t say anything. He just turned back to his own reading to give Stiles privacy and mentally added the name Allison Argent to his list.

End Part VII.

Chapter Text

Part VIII

 

            “Don’t eat any,” Derek said as he put the bowl of trail mix on the table. It was primarily peanuts. Across from him, Stiles rolled his eyes.

            “Dude, you’re worse than Scott. Relax.”

            Derek shrugged. It had been a month since Stiles had told him about his allergy and it had become second nature to warn Stiles about any and all peanut products in the area. Stiles might roll his eyes and tell Derek it was unnecessary, but Scott’s grateful look and sincere smile when he had turned up one night with three Epipens was all the confirmation Derek needed to reinforce that he never wanted to see Stiles have a reaction.

            Derek had also taken to carrying one around in his pocket. Which was probably crazy. But it was something that Derek could finally protect Stiles from and he was surprised himself at the relief that gave him.

            There was still plenty he couldn’t protect Stiles from. He couldn’t do anything about the days, still too common, when Stiles came in exhausted and tense and Derek knew he’d had nightmares. He couldn’t do anything about the fact that sometimes if Stiles spaced out and Derek tried to touch him or moved too quickly, Stiles still flinched back, gasping. He couldn’t do anything about the days when Stiles got frustrated and smelled of anger and bitterness.

            And the scar that was just visible across the base of Stiles’ neck was proof of all the things that Stiles had gone through before he even knew Derek. And Derek knew there were ten more scars across his back that Derek couldn’t see that were Derek’s fault.

            But he could keep him away from peanuts. And so he did that.

            “Derek,” Stiles said, waving a hand in front of his face. “Stop glaring at the peanuts. They didn’t do anything to you.”

            Derek blinked, realizing that he had, in fact, been frowning in the general direction of the bowl. Then he had to fight the urge to smile because after a long period of time where he was still “Master” or “sir”, and then another block of time where direct address was simply avoided, Stiles had finally dropped titles and started calling him just Derek.

            That was two weeks ago and Derek should probably stop getting a little thrill every time Stiles said it.

            But it meant something to him. Scott had started using his name the moment Derek had stepped foot in the kitchen, but Stiles was more careful, more cautious and Derek knew he would never just let it slip out. Which meant that Stiles had thought about it and decided to do it. Which meant he was comfortable.

            Which meant Stiles liked Derek. At least a little. They were probably friends.

            It had only taken three months.

            “Peanut allergies can develop, you know,” Derek said, keeping his face neutral. “Maybe they will hurt me.”

            “Werewolves don’t have allergies,” Stiles replied, looking back towards his book.

            “It’s organic material,” Derek said. “It could happen.”

            “I’d give you one of my Epipens,” Stiles said, waving his hand casually. Since Stiles wasn’t paying attention, Derek let himself smile.

            “Okay, so what’s this?” Stiles asked, reaching over and putting his book down in front of Derek. “It’s not in the dictionary.”

            Derek glanced down at the book. Stiles still spent most of his time reading novels meant for younger readers, but every once and while he demanded to be challenged and picked a random book from the library to struggle through. He sat with a dictionary next to him and slowly and painstakingly sounded out the words and Derek thought it was quite possibly the cutes-

            “It’s Latin,” he said, clearing his throat and leaning back to turn the book over. Apparently Stiles’ random pick was a book about werewolf culture. “Translated it means… Joining Ceremony. Or ritual.”

            “Okay,” Stiles said, squinting at the book. “So what is it for?”

            “It’s when a werewolf officially joins the pack,” Derek said. “It’s mostly just tradition now as almost everyone joins their family’s pack. But back in history it used to be a very political and possibly dangerous decision.”

            “Wait, so werewolves aren’t born into their pack?” Stiles asked, frowning.

            “No,” Derek replied, shrugging. “It has to be a conscious decision. The twins will do it when they’re ten.”

            “They’re not part of the pack right now?” Stiles said.

            Derek shook his head. “No, they are, they’re just not… official. They haven’t submitted to the Alpha yet.”

            “So you don’t have to belong to a pack?” Stiles asked. “You don’t have to… submit or whatever?”

            “No,” Derek frowned. He had never really thought about it. The idea of not having a pack was wrong. He couldn’t imagine it. “No, I guess not. But you’d fall to Omega status.”

            “Omega status?”

            “A lone wolf,” Derek said. “You’re weaker and… alone.” It seemed like a silly way to describe it. It would be so much worse than that. It would be not having your pack.

            “But you could still shift? Still heal?”

            “Yes,” Derek said, stomach still twisting at the thought. “But-”

            “Well, screw it,” Stiles said decisively. “That’s what I would be. Totally worth it not having to ‘submit’ to anyone.”

            Derek was struck dumb at the thought. Stiles wasn’t understanding.

            “No taking orders or obeying or-”

            “That’s not what an Alpha is,” Derek interjected. “Submitting to an Alpha isn’t about having to obey them. It’s like-” He cut off, frustrated. Having an Alpha was having a purpose. Having someone you trusted to make you a better person. Having someone who would look after you and look after the rest of the pack. Having something to fight for.

            “So you don’t have to do everything your mom tells you to do?” Stiles challenged.

            “No,” Derek said. “Well, yes, if it’s a formal command but those are rare and it’s- you get a say. And your Alpha takes care of everyone. It’s not-” He stopped again, almost growling.

            “Sounds like a bad deal to me,” Stiles said.

            “You have an Alpha,” Derek blurted, trying to make Stiles understand. Stiles’ eyes flashed.

            “Talia Hale is not my Alpha,” Stiles snarled.

            “No,” Derek said, raising his hands. “Scott. Scott is your Alpha.”

            Stiles blinked at him but his anger had disappeared. “No he’s not.”

            “Yes he is,” Derek said. “You would do anything to protect him, even if he didn’t want you to.” Stiles didn’t deny it. Couldn’t. They both knew how true that statement was. “You trust him with anything. You know he looks out for everyone else.”

            “Well, that’s Scott,” Stiles said, but he sounded like he wasn’t as sure as he had been a moment ago. “Scott’s my brother but I don’t take orders from him. I don’t submit.”

            “So if Scott ran in here right now and asked you to do something, you’re telling me you wouldn’t do it?” He cocked one eyebrow and saw Stiles scrunch his nose up into a frown.

            “Well, yeah, okay, I would,” Stiles replied. “But, I would question it.”

            “Werewolves can question too,” Derek said. “When there’s time or when a decision hasn’t been made yet but if there wasn’t any time or if Scott just told you to trust him…”

            Derek faded out and Stiles was silent, clearly considering it.

            “He’s Scott,” Stiles said after a long moment. “He always does the right thing.”

            “He’s an Alpha,” Derek said, shrugging his shoulders. He was telling the truth. Scott was a natural leader. The other slaves followed him instinctively and he led them the same way. He had seen Scott get people to follow him using techniques that he knew for a fact his mother had to teach Laura. “He’s your Alpha.”

            Stiles didn’t deny it. Just went silent and stared off into the distance for a while. Derek went back to reading. Stiles would start talking again when he was ready.

            “So once you’re in, you can never leave?” he asked after about ten minutes.

            “No, you can,” Derek said. “I mean, you have to if you get married. You can only be in one pack. The Release Ceremony and then Joining Ceremony takes place at the weddings though, so you’re an Omega for all of five seconds.”

            “Huh,” Stiles said. “How do you decide who has to leave their original pack and join another?”

            Derek shrugged. “It depends on a lot of things. Obviously my dad left his pack because my mom was the future Alpha. Laura’ future mate will do the same. Peter is my mother’s Second so Christine joined.”

            “Second?” Stiles interrupted.

            “Second-in-Command,” Derek said. For a brief moment, he wondered if he was supposed to be giving so much away about werewolf dynamics. But Stiles was practically glowing with curiosity and Derek couldn’t see how it would hurt. “He’s in charge of protecting the Alpha. And challenging her the most. He would take over if the Alpha died without an heir. Or if the heir was too young.”

            “Your dad’s not the Second?” Stiles asked.

            “No, Seconds usually grow up with the Alpha. Siblings.”

            “So you’ll be Laura’s?”

            Derek considered. He would assume so though the job could just as easily go to Cora or the twins. “Most likely. Though Laura will decide when she takes over. She can technically pick anyone. Even someone who joins the pack later.” It would probably be him though. He and Laura got along well. They balanced each other nicely. Working on the Hale project with her was actually more fun than he thought it would be.

            “Okay, so Alphas and Seconds don’t leave their pack. What about if it’s two just regular pack members?”

            “Then it’s a bit more complicated. Which family has more influence, if one of the packs needs more members, if one of them feels very strongly one way or the other. It’s different for everyone.”

            “Sounds like a recipe for disaster,” Stiles muttered. “What if two Alphas want to get married?”

            “That’s rare,” Derek replied. Alphas generally didn’t get too along very well with other Alphas. Both were too used to being in charge. “But I guess they would join their packs. Though one would have to step down. It would be a nightmare. Other packs in the area would probably feel threatened.”

            “Crazy,” Stiles said. “That would stink if you had to give up your pack though.”

            “It’s not like you can never see them again,” Derek said. “You’re allowed to visit.”

            “Oh, right,” Stiles said but his voice was subdued and his scent had gone muted with sadness. Then he took a breath and seemed to force a smile back onto his face. “Well, it still seems like a weird system.”

            Derek shrugged. Maybe it was from a human’s perspective but it was all he’d ever known. It made sense to him. Pack made sense to him. If he concentrated hard enough he could roughly feel where everyone was, knew that no one was in danger (though as always, Cora felt excited in a way that signified she might soon be in trouble), knew that his mother had felt his attention to the bond and had become suddenly aware of him. It was comforting and comfortable and it made no sense to him that humans didn’t have that experience.

            “Alright, back to work,” Stiles said, more to himself. “Scott said Grace and Frank were making cupcakes, which means he’s going to starve himself all day and then try to eat like twelve. We have to be there early enough to stop him.”

            Derek rolled his eyes. Scott and Stiles seemed to do just fine without any “freakish werewolf powers” (Stiles’ words) so maybe they had their own methods.

 

*^*^*^

 

            “Package for you, Master Derek,” Mr. Harris said, bowing slightly as he entered the room. For a moment, Derek simply blinked in confusion. He never got packages. Still, he accepted the thin envelope, nodding in thanks. He opened it carefully and two smaller envelopes and a piece of paper fell out.

            Got the information you wanted, Derek read and then he froze.

            He didn’t bother reading the rest, instead looking at the numbers scrawled over each envelope.

            Oh God, he thought dimly. He had it. He had them. It had worked.

            He had to tell Scott and Stiles.

            He was standing and moving before he even thought about it, he didn’t even take the time to read the rest of the letter from his contact. He was at the slaves’ dining room where he knew Scott and Stiles must be because it was 8pm and that’s where they always were and-

            There they were. Sitting in the back corner, laughing about something and Derek didn’t even try to stop the smile from spreading across his face. He had done it.

            “Stiles, Scott, I need to talk to you,” he said, only dimly aware that the room had gone silent as he barged in. The kitchen staff was obviously pleased to see him but the household crew was staring at him in surprise. “Right away. In private.”

            Stiles was sort of frowning at him and Scott looked confused but he didn’t have time for this. He waved a hand, relieved that Scott stood and pulled Stiles along with him.

            Derek led them back to his room where he knew no one would disturb them and then he practically burst with the effort of not telling them.

            “Here,” he said, shoving the letters into their hands. “These are for you.”

            Scott continued to just stare at him but Stiles looked down, frowning at the envelope. Derek saw the moment he realized it, saw Stiles’ face go white.

            “What is it?” Scott said, frowning now.

            “It’s your parents,” Derek blurted. “I tracked them down.”

            Scott’s face froze. Stiles was still staring at the paper in his hand, heart pounding.

            “I’m sorry it took so long,” Derek said, wondering if maybe he should have told them he was looking. “But I didn’t want to get your hopes up if I couldn’t find them.”

            He also hadn’t wanted to ask questions. He hadn’t wanted to even ask for their numbers or previous master’s name because doubtless that information would have been useful but he didn’t know if they even knew that information and even then it still would have taken time. Records of slaves weren’t very well kept. Certificates of ownership were supposed to be kept by owners but they were often lost or destroyed and-

            It had been a process. It had taken him over four months. But he had done it.

            “Oh my God,” Scott whispered, clutching the paper harder. Then suddenly it was being shoved back to Derek. “Here. You read it. I’m still too slow a reader.”

            “Yeah,” Stiles echoed and his voice was shaky. He handed the envelope back as well. “Yeah, you do it. I’m not- I can’t.”

            Derek suddenly found himself holding two envelopes and he stared, not knowing which to open. Scott seemed to realize his predicament and turned big eyes to Stiles.

            “Do you want to go first?” Scott asked. It was a sincere offer but there was no doubt what Scott wanted the answer to be. He was practically vibrating with excitement.

            “No, no, you go first,” Stiles said, smiling. He took a deep breath. He seemed calmer now. Stiles was good at that, pushing emotions down even when they were positive. Usually, it would have Derek frowning but right now there was too much to do. He had done it.

            Derek didn’t make them wait. He tucked Stiles’ letter under his arm, opened Scott’s and-

            There she was. Melissa McCall, age 42, height, weight, skills- he skimmed faster, glad that he hadn’t let the boy’s read this. It was all very impersonal. But it had the important information.

            “She’s okay,” he said. “She was never sold. Still owned by the Levy’s.”

            “She’s okay,” Scott repeated, dumbly. The smiles that was on Stiles’ face was too bright to really be classified as a smile. “She’s okay.”

            “I can buy- er, arrange to bring her here,” Derek said and he was smiling too. Scott’s face did something Derek couldn’t follow and then suddenly Scott was hugging Stiles and Scott was hugging him and then he was hugging Stiles again and it was-

            “Do Stiles,” Scott said, waving a hand. “Do Stiles.”

            He carefully put Melissa’s file on the desk and reached for the second envelope, still sort of grinning as he opened the second letter.

            The he froze.

            He was an idiot. He never should have done this without reading the letters. He should have been more careful. This was a mistake. It was all a mistake and oh God, what was he going to do?

            “What is it?” Stiles’ voice was quiet and Derek knew that his face was probably hiding nothing because he wasn’t ready for this, didn’t know how to do this.

            “It’s,” Derek voice was hoarse. Part of him wanted to just give the letter to Stiles because there was no way he could be the one to tell him but-

            But he didn’t know if Stiles would know the word: DECEASED right away and it was right there. At the top of the letter. Huge and black and… oh God.

            “He’s,” he stopped again and risked glancing up. Scott had gripped Stiles’ arm hard. “I’m so sorry,” Derek said. “He’s- He died.”

            He flinched as he said it and Scott’s face had already crumpled into one of despair and Stiles-

            Stiles was standing perfectly still, mouth pressed together, looking… blank.

            “When?” Stiles finally asked, and anyone could tell he was trying to sound casual.

            “Three years ago,” Derek said, talking around the lump in his throat. He was such a fucking moron. He shouldn’t have done this. He should have just left it alone or at least read the letters before so he could have told them separately. He did this all wrong.

            “Stiles,” Scott choked, taking a step towards his friend, clearly going in for the hug.

            Stiles stepped away.

            “No,” Stiles said faintly. “That’s okay. It’s- I’m… I’m okay. That’s okay.” His voice was carefully calm, flat and Derek thought that maybe he was going to throw up.

            Stiles looked down for a second, taking a breath before stepping forward and grabbing the letter from Derek’s limp hand. Then he stared at it as if he were reading it.

            “That’s really okay,” Stiles repeated. “I mean I hadn’t seen him in years so it’s really not a big-” He stopped himself abruptly. Scott took another aborted half step towards him.

            “Thanks,” Stiles finally said, looking at Derek and his face flickered into an awful imitation of a smile. “For finding out. Yeah, that’s… good to know. Yeah.”

            “Stiles,” Scott said again. “You don’t have to-”

            “No, no, it’s fine,” Stiles said, waving the hand that wasn’t clutching to the paper. “I’m just gonna- I have to go.”

            Then he turned and was gone and Scott and Derek were left standing there.

            “I’m so sorry,” Derek said, hating himself. “I should’ve checked, I just didn’t think that-”

            “It’s not your fault,” Scott said though it was clear his attention was still on Stiles. “You couldn’t have known.” They stood in miserable silence.

            “Shouldn’t you…” Derek waved a hand in Stiles’ general direction, surprised that Scott wasn’t following. “Go after him?”

            “No,” Scott said sadly. “No, I think he doesn’t want to see me right now.”

            Derek thought that the idea that Stiles wouldn’t want to see Scott was insane yet… it made sense.

            “What do we do?” Derek asked.

            “Give him space,” Scott said. “He needs… he’ll be okay.” Then Scott blinked and turned to focus on Derek for the first time.

            “Thanks for doing this,” Scott said seriously. “It was a great idea. It was- Thank you.”

            “I looked for Allison too,” Derek said, eyes turning to the letter that he hadn’t bothered to finish reading.

            “You know about Allison?” Scott’s voice was rushed and surprised. Derek flinched. He was probably doing this all wrong too but he wasn’t hiding information from Scott or Stiles any more. It just didn’t work.

            “Stiles told me,” he replied honestly, hoping Scott wouldn’t mind. “But… there’s no record of her.”

            “No record of her?” Scott repeated. “How can that be?”

            “That’s what I asked,” Derek said. “Apparently, it’s common practice when someone escapes. There’s no record of any of the Argents.”

            “Escapes?” Scott’s voice was soft. “She escaped?”

            “That’s what my source says,” Derek replied, scanning the letter again to be sure. “It’s an embarrassment to lose a slave and to lose a whole family… that’s probably why all the records were wiped.”

            “They all escaped?”

            “I’m sorry,” Derek repeated, wondering if maybe he should have just kept this information to himself. “I can’t find her now.”

            “No, that’s…” Scott was suddenly smiling. “That’s awesome!”

            “Awesome?” Derek repeated. It didn’t sound awesome. It meant they had no way of finding her, if she were ever caught she would be questioned ruthlessly on how she managed to escape and would probably be labelled a troublemaker and sold to only the strictest of werewolves. Plus even if she didn’t get caught, where was she living? What was she eating? They would never even be able to tell if she was okay.

            “That’s the dream, man,” Scott said. He shook his head slightly at Derek’s obvious confusion, face sliding into something softer. “You wouldn’t-  Look, that’s really cool. Thanks for letting me know.”

            Derek was still frowning but Scott was nodding and moving away.

            “I’ve got to go make sure Stiles is okay,” Scott said.

            “I thought you weren’t going to talk to him?”

            “Of course not,” Scott said, looking like he thought Derek was a bit slow. “But you pulled us out in front of everyone and if my mom is really coming here-” he stopped for a moment, shaking his head in wonder and breaking out into a delighted smile before continuing. “Then people are going to figure it out pretty quickly and start asking questions. They should hear it all at once from me before rumors start flying. Plus they’ll need to know that Stiles probably won’t want to talk about it. And I should probably warn Jenny that Stiles will probably be avoiding the kitchen and-”

            He cut off as he realized he was rambling and waved a hand. “There’s a lot to do,” he finished.

            Derek was just staring at him in awe. It was a hundred little details that he would never think to worry about. It was all the politics and skills of running a pack successfully. It was responsibility and leadership and wisdom.

            And it was all coming from a boy who still struggled to read and laughed the loudest at the stupidest jokes.

            “I probably handled this all wrong,” Derek admitted, looking down as his face burned with embarrassment.

            “Hey, no,” Scott said, coming back and grabbing Derek’s shoulder. “It was an awesome idea. You were excited. I would’ve done the same thing.”

            Derek highly doubted that but for some reason he felt better anyway.

            “Don’t worry about the rest of it,” Scott said. “I’ve got it. You just watch out for Stiles.”

            Derek tilted his head to the side without thinking about it.

            Then he froze as he realized what he had done.

            Scott couldn’t know what that meant but he seemed to take Derek’s silence as agreement because he gave him one last pat on the shoulder, a nod, and then was gone.

            It was just a mistake, Derek thought to himself frantically, pushing down the strange buzzing that filled his head. Didn’t mean anything.

            It didn’t. It was just that Scott’s command was practically the same one as his mother’s and so it had been natural to accept it formally. That made sense. That was all. Scott wasn’t actually an Alpha. Couldn’t be. He wasn’t a werewolf. So Derek shouldn’t freak out about this.

            He didn’t have time to freak out about this. He had to worry about Stiles. Stiles wouldn’t want to talk about it, that much was obvious, but Derek should still try to do something nice. Something subtle. Maybe get a hold of those lemon drops that Stiles liked so much? Or something like that. Or maybe just ask Stiles what he wanted?

            He would figure it out. Somehow. Those were his orders.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles wasn’t an idiot. He knew that everyone was talking about him. Had been talking about him for the past four days. He had caught the concerned looks Jenny and the others gave him when he walked in the kitchen. He had noticed that the past three meals had been ones that previously he had openly and loudly declared to be his favorites. He had heard Scott and Isaac cut off their conversation abruptly when he walked into the room.

            Derek was holding himself so tensely as they sat in the library that he was practically vibrating with the effort. He was also finding any excuse at all to touch Stiles, which was interesting as Stiles realized he didn’t feel threatened by Derek. The touches – a pat on the shoulder, knocking their knees together gently, a gentle hand on the back his neck – were so clearly designed for comfort that Stiles hadn’t protested. At least Derek wasn’t trying to get him to talk about it.

            He was pathetically grateful that Scott had been the one to tell everyone what had happened. He was also grateful that Scott must’ve told people that he didn’t want to talk about it because while he could see the concern in everyone’s eyes, the most anyone had said was “I’m sorry about your dad” and then moved on.

            The forced smile and shrug he gave people probably helped them move on.

            He just didn’t want to talk about it. There was nothing to talk about.

            His dad was dead- had been dead for years and that was all there was to it. Really though, he hadn’t seen his dad in over six years and a part of him had expected he would never see him again so…

            So it didn’t matter. His dad had been dead for years and Stiles hadn’t even known so it’s not like this should really affect him.

            It didn’t. He was fine. He had been telling himself that constantly for the past four days.

            For some reason, it was getting harder, rather than easier to believe it.

            Today, it was almost impossible.

            Mrs. McCall was arriving today. The whole house was abuzz with the information. Jennifer had made twice the amount of food yesterday so that everyone could just eat leftovers today and the Hales had decided to all go to another pack’s estate for most of the day.

            Derek told him that it wasn’t because of Mrs. McCall, that other packs invited them over fairly regularly, that it was actually unusual that they hadn’t gone to more these past few months. Stiles still thought it was awfully suspicious. But he also didn’t believe that Talia Hale would clear out of her own house so that a kitchen slave could have complete privacy when reunited with his mother. That didn’t fit either.

            Still, the Hales were gone and a holiday had been declared among the slaves. Most were scattered around, simply chatting or resting or catching up on sleep. A few were risking the pool even though it was barely spring out and the water was freezing. So it wasn’t swimming. More daring people to jump and then running immediately into the showers. Isaac had organized some kind of card game in their room and Stiles had passed the laundry and household staff planning different ways to cheat so that they would win.

            The only one who seemed put out by the whole thing was Harris. He seemed to be furious at the turn of events, especially when Talia herself made the whole thing official. Word had it he was prowling the hallway by the Hale’s living spaces, ensuring that no one thought to set foot in there while the Hales were gone.

            Stiles was just happy that Mrs. McCall was due to arrive in the morning. He didn’t think he could take it if he had to be around people all day. This provided a good excuse to just sit in the front entryway with Scott, who knew enough to not ask questions.

            “You’re probably taller than her now,” Stiles said. He was trying to be relaxed. Trying to feel happy, to let Scott have such an exciting day. It was just… hard. It felt as if his emotions had been hollowed out and he knew Scott could sense it.

            “Yeah, I guess so,” Scott said and he sounded… different. And then he fell into an uncharacteristic silence and Stiles realized that his friend was nervous.

            “Dude, relax,” Stiles said, mouth twisting into a smile despite everything. Figures the one thing to make Scott nervous wasn’t werewolves or Alphas but being reunited with his own mother. “She is gonna be so psyched to see you.”

            “To see us,” Scott correctly automatically. He was still staring at the door pensively. Stiles felt a short rush of warmth at the statement and knew it was true. Mrs. McCall had been there for his whole childhood, had held him when his mother died, had run to get his father when he had his first allergy attack, had tucked him into bed with a kiss when he slept over at their cottage. She wasn’t his mother, but his mom had died when he was only seven and sometime when Stiles tried to picture her, he could only see Mrs. McCall face, curled up into a part-amused, part-exasperated smile.

            The door opened then. Suddenly and quickly and Scott was standing and Stiles was standing with him and then there she was.

            Melissa McCall looked exactly like Stiles’ remembered, dark hair wavy but pulled away from her face, eyes intelligent and sharp and okay, maybe she was shorter than he remembered but that was probably because they were taller now.

            She took one step into the room, dropped the small bag she had with her, covered her mouth with her right hand while reaching out with her left and-

            “Scott,” she whispered and she was already crying.

            Scott launched himself at her and the two met in the middle and-   

            It hit him then. His dad wasn’t coming.

            Stiles had never been jealous of Scott, never resented Scott. Not when he left his dad to follow him the first time, not when Scott’s insistence to do good resulted in punishment, not when Scott fell in love with Allison and walked around for seven months being happier than Stiles’ thought was natural. He hadn’t resented Scott when he was 15 and they were at an auction and one of the guards had told him he had a pretty mouth and put it to use for the first time. Not when Matt shoved him over after they’d been there for only 2 weeks and ripped his clothes off while singing to himself. Not when he was out working for Brunski and he didn’t even have a name to use when he wanted to beg them to stop.

            Scott was his brother and Stiles would rather see himself hurt than Scott. That was how it was. That was who he was.

            But something splintered when he saw Scott run into his mother’s arms and drop his head to her shoulder and manage to tuck himself into her even though he was taller and-

            And suddenly Stiles hated Scott.

            Hated him with a dark, ugly passion that had almost a physical presence in his gut. It reached up to claw his throat shut and it scared him and he couldn’t stay there.

            He should say something. A part of him knew that. In a moment, Melissa would turn and she loved him, she would hug him too, and Stiles loved her. She was practically his mother as well.

            But she wasn’t his dad and his dad was dead and he would never see him again and somehow, watching the two of them, that was just hitting him and-

            And he turned and left while they were still embracing, unable to stand watching their happy tears for a moment longer.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Jennifer had told the others to give the boys their privacy, had strictly told everyone to go enjoy their day off and that they would meet Melissa McCall soon enough. She had all but made it an order.

            Of course, she didn’t have to follow her own commands.

            She had been subtle about it, hanging in the wing where she couldn’t easily be seen.

            But she could see them.

            She had seen Stiles’ face go stricken for a moment and seen him rush off and hadn’t hesitated for a second.

            She burst in to follow him, watching as Scott’s head popped up instantly as if he could sense when Stiles left the room.

            “Stiles?” Scott asked and Jennifer already saw that he was going to follow his friend, already untangling himself from his mother’s arms.

            “Give me a minute,” Jennifer ordered. “Stay here. He’ll be back.”

            Scott looked shattered for a second but he nodded at her advice and Melissa whispered something Jennifer didn’t catch because she was already moving.

            She didn’t quite know how she knew Stiles would go to the kitchen but some instinct led her there and there he was.

            He was standing in the middle, staring at the stove as if there should be something for him to do, breathing too fast.

            “I’m okay,” he said, turning to her. Jennifer didn’t even bother to hide the fact that she was already crying. She just kept coming closer, slowly and steadily, ignoring that he shook his head at her and took a half step away.

            “I’m okay,” he repeated hopelessly. “I am. It’s just… I-

            “It’s not fair,” he whispered and his breath hitched and thank God she was there to catch him because he finally broke.

            “It’s not fair,” he repeated, choking, hands clutched into fists as he curled them into the front of her shirt. She didn’t say anything, just wrapped her arms around him and nodded so he could feel it. “It’s not- I want my-”

            He cut off, sobbing too hard, shaking.

            “I know,” she said and her own voice was rough and tight and she didn’t even know if Stiles could hear her. “I know. It’s not.”

            “He’s dead,” Stiles said, like he was finally admitting it. “He’s dead and I’m never going to s-see him again.”

            “I know,” Jennifer repeated, trying to hold Stiles closer somehow. “It’s not fair.”

            “I want my dad,” Stiles said, and Jennifer couldn’t hold back her own sob at the words. “I want my dad.”

            “I’m so sorry,” she said, cutting him off because she couldn’t bear to hear his broken plea. “I’m so sorry.”

            Stiles stopped talking, just stood and cried and Jennifer stood there and held him. His sobs had slowed but not stopped when she heard someone else enter the room.

            “Stiles?”

            Melissa McCall was shorter than Jennifer had imagined, small and dainty almost and she didn’t hesitate for a moment to come in. Jennifer felt Stiles try to take a deep breath, try to get himself under some kind of control.

            “I’m sorry,” he told her, wiping his eyes, as if that would help. Jennifer stepped away only because she knew there would be no stopping Melissa McCall from getting to Stiles.

            “Oh, Stiles,” Melissa said and Jennifer saw her run her eyes over the boy, saw them snag at the scar visible on his neck and then she was throwing herself at him with the same intensity she had thrown herself at Scott.

            Stiles melted and Jennifer took another step back, knowing her job here was done.

            “You did it,” Melissa whispered over Stiles’ cries. “You stayed with him. You-”

            She was forced to stop as her own throat closed but Jennifer watched as she pulled herself together and forced herself to continue.

            “You kept him safe,” Melissa said, running her hand through Stiles’ hair. “You- thank you.”

            “I’m sorry,” Stiles choked out. Jennifer didn’t know what he was apologizing for. Melissa just shook her head.

            “Thank you,” she said again. “Oh, Stiles, your-”

            Stiles stiffened and Melissa held him tighter.

            “Your father would be so proud of you,” she said and Stiles whimpered as if the knowledge hurt. Melissa didn’t stop. “He loved you so much, Stiles. He- We both- He was so proud of you. He missed you every day and he never stopped talking about you- not ever and he-”

            Stiles was shuddering apart in her arms, but Melissa was keeping him together through raw force of will. Scott’s power lurked behind her eyes, even as she cried.

            “He loved you so much,” Melissa repeated. “He would be so proud of you.”

            She stopped talking then, just rocked Stiles back and forth and Jennifer made to leave. For the first time, Melissa’s attention turned to her briefly and there was a flash of recognition, a moment of thanks and then she was ignored once more.

            As she left, Scott rushed in, clearly having been told by his mother to wait. His eyes were red and he didn’t bother looking at her. Instead, he launched himself at his mother and brother, sliding so that he could tuck himself under Melissa’s arm and curl his own around Stiles. Stiles moved over for him and the three stayed there, hugging and crying and Jennifer knew they would be okay.

            “Oh, my boys,” she heard Melissa say as she left the room, the relief in her voice raw and heartbreaking. “Oh my boys.

 

End Part VIII.

Chapter Text

Part IX

 

            It had been a very long day.

            He was never one for parties or social events anyway but today’s had been especially awful. He was worried about Stiles, worried about Scott, worried for some reason that the car he’d sent to pick up Mrs. McCall had gotten lost or crashed or-

            Needless to say, even hanging on the outskirts of the party felt like the ultimate test of his patience. Laura had bluntly asked what was wrong and even Cora had frowned hard enough in his general direction to let him know that she sensed something as well.

            He didn’t know what to tell them. They knew he was helping Stiles learn to read, they knew he had tracked down their parents and that Stiles’ father was dead. They knew that Scott’s mother was arriving today and probably suspected that it was the reason Talia had dragged them all out of the house and given all the staff a day off.

            But they didn’t know why it was such a big deal. They didn’t really know Stiles. Sure, Stiles sometimes helped with Cora’s pranks and Laura had met him when she’d come to do her own work in the library but with them Stiles was still shy and closed off. Derek knew they didn’t know how close to the two of them had become, how much Derek cared about Stiles.

            To be honest, he didn’t know how to explain it either. He just knew that when Stiles’ smiled, he had to fight not to smile back. He knew that Stiles’ made him laugh more than any other person could. He knew Stiles was the strongest, most loyal, most incredible person he’d ever met.

            He knew that the past four days, smelled the muted sadness and denial that wafted off Stiles and hearing the hollowness in his voice had been torture.

            But he couldn’t say that. So he’d mumbled something about hating parties and they’d both known it was a lie but couldn’t press him too much on it. So they left him alone.

            It had been the longest day of his life, but he’d made it through and managed to put Stiles out of his mind long enough to attempt to be social and now he was finally, finally home and he could make sure Stiles was okay.

            He headed immediately to the library, noting in an offhand way that there were shouts of playful anger coming from the boy’s room and that some of the staff must’ve risked the pool but honestly he didn’t seem to see much.

            “Scott insisted we attempt to light a fire,” Stiles was saying as Derek entered the library and headed to the back corner. “Never mind that we were inside with no matches and no wood. And really nothing to burn.”

            Something eased in Derek’s chest as he heard Stiles’ casual voice and he was in view within moments.

            Melissa McCall shot to her feet in an instant, effectively cutting off all conversation, taking a step and putting herself firmly between him and her boys.

            “How can I help you, sir?” she demanded, voice a mix of anger and submission and Derek could only blink stupidly at her.

            On some level, he was expected Scott’s mother to be like Scott. Happy and outgoing and trusting of everyone.

            But the glare she was giving him was all Stiles. Distrustful, challenging, and ready to fight him if she thought she needed to.

            “No, I,” Derek floundered hopelessly.

            Luckily, Stiles was suddenly standing, stepping around Mrs. McCall to be between her and Derek. Derek guessed he wasn’t the only one who thought Mrs. McCall looked ready to kill him.

            “No, Mrs. McCall,” Stiles said, holding up his hands. Behind him, Scott had started to laugh. “This is Derek. He’s…” Stiles waved a hand in Derek’s direction. “He’s one of the good guys.”

            Derek couldn’t keep what he was sure was the stupidest smile imaginable from flashing across his face for an instant.

            “He bought us!” Scott piped in helpfully. “And he’s the one that found you!”

            “Oh,” Mrs. McCall said and the blatant distrust dropped from her face, though she still looked confused. And wary.

            “Nice to meet you, Mrs. McCall,” Derek offered, trying to seem nonthreatening. He had forgotten how awful it was to be automatically viewed as the enemy. He stuck out his hand to shake and she stared at it for a beat but then took it.

            “You bought them?” she asked, taking it and her grip was firm and her hand calloused.

            “Yes,” he said and he suddenly felt like he was being scrutinized in a whole new way. He wondered how much she knew about Stiles, if she thought those were his intentions as well.

            “Just happened to pick both of them?” she pressed and Derek flushed.

            “Uh, yes, well,” he glanced hopelessly at Stiles who for the first time was kind of squinting, as if he hadn’t thought to question his good luck before now. Scott was frowning.

            Aw, hell, he thought. He couldn’t keep it a secret forever. He probably should have told Stiles months ago.

            “I actually met Stiles before the auction,” he muttered quickly. “And he talked about Scott so that’s how I knew to get them both.”

            “What?” Stiles asked, frowning. “You did not! Pretty sure I would have remembered that. You’re not exactly forgettable.”

            Then suddenly Stiles was sort of flushing and Derek didn’t know what that meant but Mrs. McCall was staring at him, her face inching closer to a frown and Derek nearly groaned. This was like talking to Laura. Or his mother.

            “Er, you didn’t know it was me,” Derek said. “Do you- uh, do you remember Miguel?”

            Stiles frowned deepened for a moment and Derek could see there was no flash of recognition. He sighed. He was going to have to tell this whole embarrassing story. Even Scott was paying full attention.

            “I was playing-” he stopped. He didn’t have to tell that part. “For reasons, I had to hide in a pantry by the auction. Stiles was in there, blindfolded, and he mistakenly thought I was another human. I didn’t correct him.

            “I’m really sorry,” he said, shifting and trying to catch a scent to see if Stiles was angry. It was such a breach of trust. Oh god, he’d been lying to Stiles for months by not telling him this and to be honest, he hadn’t really even thought about it…

            “Oh my God,” Stiles didn’t seem angry. He seemed… amused? “That’s right! Miguel! I thought you were the stupidest slave on the planet.”

            “Yes, well,” Derek shrugged. He wasn’t even a slave! He should be excused for being an moron!

            He probably shouldn’t be excused for being such a naïve idiot but that was a different point entirely.

            “He offered to grab a water bottle from the pantry and give it to me,” Stiles said in explanation. Even Scott rolled his eyes. “He didn’t even know how to-”

            Stiles cut off abruptly and Derek knew Stiles had remembered what else he had helped with. He was blushing furiously as well. Who knew what Scott and his mom were thinking.

            “You were really nice,” Stiles said and his voice had gone soft. He was sort of staring at Derek and Derek was still blushing from remembering what he helped with and it was suddenly very hard to concentrate and-

            “So you just met him and left?” Mrs. McCall asked.

            “I passed out,” Stiles admitted. “I was a little… worked over at the time.” Mrs. McCall’s face went stony but Stiles ignored it, instead turning back to Derek. “You were gone when I woke up.” A hint of a shadow flicked across his face and Derek suddenly remembered how desperate Stiles was to have someone to talk to, how disappointed he was when he learned he would be alone for three more days.

            Derek didn’t even know how to frame that apology though so he just continued.

            “So I knew who Stiles was and he had managed to mention Scott a hundred times in ten minutes so…” Derek shrugged.

            “So you bought both of them,” Mrs. McCall finished and her eyes were suspiciously moist. Derek was suddenly acutely uncomfortable. They didn’t owe him anything. It’s not like he planned to be a good person. He hadn’t even done that great of a job.

            “Uh, I,” he started and then it was Scott to take pity on him.

            “That was really cool, dude,” Scott said but it didn’t come out grateful. More like a statement of fact. Derek had done something cool, but not earth shattering. “Look how nicely it all worked out!”

            Derek’s mouth twisted. Not perfectly nicely. Stiles had still been whipped. Stiles had still thought he had to sell his body to pay for Scott’s inhaler. Stiles’ dad was still dead.

            “Alright, well, I’ll see you later,” Derek said, ready to leave them alone. They were fine. Stiles smelled tired and still tinged with sadness but he looked alive again, like a weight had been lifted. He would be okay, Derek realized. Melissa McCall had fixed something. “It was nice to meet you.”

            “You can stay,” Stiles said, almost casually and Derek froze. Scott flicked his eyes over in what might have been surprise but he backed Stiles up instantly.

            “Yeah,” Scott said. “I mean, you got us all back together again.”

            “No,” Derek said, shaking his head. They were trying to be nice but it was Mrs. McCall’s first day back and it would be too weird. They didn’t really want him there. “That’s okay.”

            “Stay,” Mrs. McCall said and her eyes were cutting into him. Shit, she probably knew everything. She probably knew that from the first moment he met Stiles, Derek had felt drawn to him somehow, she probably knew that Derek was happiest when Stiles was around, that he spent large portions of his days just thinking about Stiles’ smile.

            She probably knew what Derek only suspected: that he might be a little bit in love with Stiles.

            Which was wrong. He shouldn’t be. He wasn’t.

            “Okay,” Derek said because saying no to Mrs. McCall wasn’t an option. He went and sat in the far corner, across from Scott and next to Stiles.

            Thankfully, he didn’t have to say much.

            For the next few hours, he was content to sit back and listen as Scott and Stiles caught Mrs. McCall up on some of their crazier adventures of the past six years. He had already heard some of them when sitting in the kitchen but most of them he hadn’t. An alarming amount of them had him fighting to keep his claws from popping out and hoping his eyes didn’t flash gold.

            And that was despite the fact that even he could tell they were only telling the stories that ended at least semi-happily.

            From the sharp looks Mrs. McCall gave Scott and Stiles when they passed over certain details or the way she frowned when Stiles’ smile seemed inappropriate told Derek he wasn’t the only one noting the omissions. They didn’t mention the various times they were forced to risk being sold or the whipping or the scar that wrapped along the base of Stiles’ neck, even though he saw Mrs. McCall’s eyes catch on it more than once.

            But she didn’t ask directly. She seemed content to listen to whatever the boys were willing to tell her. At least for now. Derek had no doubt that that would change.

            Finally, Scott yawned and stretched and offered to show his mother to her room and Derek stood along with Stiles. She gave Stiles a warm hug and Derek a calculating look and a short nod and then she and Scott were gone.

            Stiles hadn’t moved to follow them and so Derek didn’t either.

            “So you,” Stiles stopped and cleared his throat, still carefully looking towards the doors instead of towards Derek. “You really bought Scott and me just cause you met me in the pantry?”

            Derek almost sighed. He had hoped they were done with this particular brand of embarrassment.

            “Yes,” he grunted. “I just, uh, liked-” He fumbled for a moment.

            “What you saw?” Stiles’ said and it wasn’t a challenge. He sounded amused, glancing over and raising one eyebrow, inviting Derek to remember what a mess he was when they first met.

            Derek still didn’t like the implication.

            “No,” he growled, perhaps more harshly than he meant to.

            “Dude,” Stiles said, putting up his hands. “Just a joke. I know you.”

            Derek relaxed but not very much. He didn’t like that joke. He didn’t like that wasn’t the first time he’d heard Stiles casually refer to himself in such a way. A part of him knew it was just Stiles’ rough form of humor, making light of all but the most serious of things but…

            To Derek, what had happened to Stiles was too serious to joke about. It would never be funny.

            “You were alive,” he answered honestly, for the moment ignoring Stiles’ attempt to make this a more casual conversation. Normally, he’d be more than willing to forego any emotional or serious conversation. But… but this was important. It was Stiles knowing he was important. “Even with… everything, you were there telling me stories and trying to make me feel better. You hadn’t given up.” Stiles sort of stared at him for a moment before looking away and Derek told himself he was just imagining the blush that rose to Stiles’ face.

            “Blame Scott,” Stiles said after a moment. And he was going for casual again even though Derek could smell a hundred different emotions in the air. “He would never let me. He’s annoying that way.”

            Derek rolled his eyes, resigned to Stiles refusing to take his praise seriously. He wouldn’t really expect him to anyway. They were closer now, but he’d heard Stiles’ respond to Scott the same way and Derek knew he didn’t have Scott’s earnest-eyes super power to make Stiles stop. That was okay. He knew Stiles was listening.

            Besides, the next moment, Stiles was offering him a small, almost shy smile before nodding and heading to bed.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles took a deep breath and reminded himself that he loved Mrs. McCall.

            He did. She was the perfect mother. She was patient and kind and somehow even more of a badass now than she had been (and she had single handedly framed her own husband for a crime so he would be sold so she had pretty much always a badass when it came to protecting her family).

            But she was also a mother. A mother who hadn’t been allowed to care for or protect her child for six years and so she was currently going a little overboard.

            Mrs. McCall had technically been assigned to work with Deaton in the gardens, but it was still too early to start planting anything and there’d been no rush to get her out there as soon as possible. So, she had declared that she was giving physicals to all the human staff.

            Stiles had remembered that Mrs. McCall was the person to call when someone was sick in their pseudo-village with the Levy’s. She had been the one to diagnose Scott with asthma and figure out that it was peanuts that caused Stiles’ attacks. But generally, she was good in a crisis because she knew the basics, was good at looking for sources of the problems, and stayed almost supernaturally calm. Even figuring out what type of inhaler Scott needed to have with him was a stroke of dumb luck rather than her medical knowledge. But apparently, she had thrown herself into it when they were sold, getting her hands on an old medical book and teaching herself to read it. She know knew about a hundred different warning signs, not just for injuries but for diseases and illness and whatever else could go wrong with the human body. Armed with Derek’s promise to secure any medicine she saw fit, she had at first offered and then practically demanded people to get a check-up. Almost the entire staff had agreed.

            Stiles was sure that Scott’s wide-eyed requests also went a long way to getting people to sign up. Jennifer and Deaton’s endorsements were the final push most people needed. Mrs. McCall had been busy enough for a week that Stiles had managed to avoid it.

            Until now.

            “Stiles,” Mrs. McCall said and she sounded exasperated. “You’re getting a check-up.”

            “No, thank you,” Stiles said, shaking his head, glad that they were alone except for Scott. Scott would back him up on this. He hoped. At the moment, Scott was just staring back and forth between them, looking torn. “I’m really fine. Feel fit as a fiddle.”

            “Maybe it would be a good idea,” Scott offered but he sounded conflicted. Stiles felt his heart clench.

            He wasn’t doing it. He wasn’t taking his shirt off in front of Mrs. McCall and letting her see him. There were scars from dozens of belts and a line of burns and cuts and that wasn’t even mentioning the big ones: the whip wounds and Matt’s claw marks that had been reopened more recently than Stiles cared to remember by another werewolf whose name he didn’t even know.

            Plus he didn’t know if there were other… signs of what he had been through. He didn’t need to know if she was somehow going to find out his secrets. He certainly wasn’t going to talk about it.

            And he knew she would ask. She had come out of Scott’s physical looking both angry and devastated and even Scott had looked exhausted and been oddly quiet for the rest of the night. There was no doubt in Stiles’ mind that she had wanted to know every detail about what her son had been through in the past six years. She would want to know everything that had happened to him.

            Stiles knew that Mrs. McCall loved him, that she was just worried and angry that she had been forced to miss all this time. She wanted to make sure he was okay.

            But there was no way he was talking to her about this. He was never talking to anyone about this.

            “I had one like six months ago,” Stiles said. “When we first came here. I was fine.”

            Mrs. McCall huffed. “Stiles, that was hardly a thorough physical.”

            Stiles fought to keep his face neutral. He had had to take off his clothes and let a werewolf push and prod at half open cuts and bruises. Then there were questions. All impersonal questions about if he had seen any blood when he went to the bathroom or how often he got headaches or what he ate on the average day, but still they were questions. And all the while, the werewolf had stared at him and touched him and forced him to cough when he commanded and-

            It had felt plenty thorough to him.

            “It was,” Stiles said and he was trying to remain casual, trying not to snap at Scott’s mom who had only been back for a week but-

            But he wasn’t doing it. He wasn’t.

            “Please,” Mrs. McCall said and she sounded heartbroken already. Stiles clenched his fist where she couldn’t see it. “Stiles, just let me take a quick look.”

            “No,” he said and that was too short. It was rude. But it wouldn’t be a quick look. It would be a long look and then sadness and questions and it would be followed by even longer looks, pitying looks and he refused.

            He just refused.

            “Mom,” Scott said and his tone had her glancing over in surprise. “He doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to.” Mrs. McCall sort of blinked at her son.

            Stiles could have tackled Scott in relief. Instead, he just shot him a grateful smile and was happy to see Scott flash a grin back at him. He had this.

            “I stitched him up from the whipping,” Scott said, his voice firm. Mrs. McCall's face went pinched. She had not appreciated hearing that particular story. Stiles was just glad that they hadn't told that one when Derek was around. He highly doubted the werewolf would have made it out alive. “I did them just like you taught me. I checked them every day for two weeks. They’re fine.”

            “But,” Mrs. McCall said but then she glanced between the two of them and seemed to deflate.

            For all of a second. Then she was grabbing her bag that she had dropped by the door and moving forward.

            “Alright,” she said, sounding annoyed but not entirely surprised. “If you’re going to be stubborn about this, there’s nothing I can do. But, here,” she started pulling things out of her bag and slamming them on Stiles’ bedside table.

            “I told Derek I would probably need lots of these and he’s already gotten them. Here’s something you can take for headaches, I remember you used to get those sometimes. This is a lotion for scarring- I already gave some to Scott but you’ll need your own bottle. You should be putting it on every night. And maybe in the morning too. Scott will help you get the places you can’t reach. Oh, and I don’t think you really need vitamins with how Jennifer cooks but take a bottle of those as well. Scott said you sometimes have trouble sleeping so here are some sleeping pills though I don’t know their full effect on nightmares so maybe cut one in half at first and-”

            She came to a halt. Probably because both Stiles and Scott were staring at her as if she had five heads.

            “I just want to make sure you’re okay,” she said, sounding half-embarrassed and half-defiant. Stiles felt a warmth in the pit of his stomach that he didn’t quite know what to do with. “Just promise me you’ll tell me if you start feeling sick. Or if you change your mind.”

            “I will,” Stiles said honestly even though the second was never going to happen. “Promise.”

            “And, Stiles,” Mrs. McCall said, catching his eye. “If you ever need to… to talk about anything, I’m right here, okay? I promise I’ll listen.”

            Stiles nodded wordlessly. That was definitely never going to happen.

            There were some things you didn’t need to talk about. You didn’t need to even think about them except on the nights where you’re subconscious forced you to relive them. And those were getting… well, not rare. But they were manageable.

            “Okay,” she said, patting him gently on cheek and then leaning in to kiss his forehead. At least his instincts were good enough not to flinch away from that. “Okay. I’ll leave you two alone.”

            They was the same words she used to say when she went in to cook and left them to play. Or when she came out to check on them because Scott had screamed but it was only because Scott had seen a spider (or Stiles had dropped one on his face). Or when Stiles slept over because his dad was forced to work nights and she put them to bed. 

            “Dude,” Scott said as his mother left. “I think she gave you even more medicine than me. And she gave me burn ointment ‘just in case’ I somehow burned myself in the kitchen.”

            “She likes me more,” Stiles replied, sweeping the various pill bottles into his bedside stand with his EpiPens. Goodness, this medicine must be costing Derek a fortune.  

            “You could talk to me too,” Scott said suddenly and Stiles looked over incredulously. “If you wanted.”

            “Uh, yeah,” Stiles said, rolling his eyes. “I know that, man.” Because if there was one thing Stiles would never doubt it was that Scott would listen to him. That was something that never needed to be clarified.

            “Or Derek,” Scott said and Stiles froze. Scott wasn’t looking at him, seemingly focused on the book he held in his hands and his tone was somewhat casual but- but

            What? What was happening?

            “He would listen,” Scott continued and sure, that was probably true but… Stiles didn’t understand why Scott was telling him this. “He’s really cool.”

            Scratch that, Stiles wasn’t sure he even knew what Scott was trying to tell him. But Scott went silent, seemingly content with leaving it at that.

            “Uh, yeah,” Stiles said, feeling like he was a thousand steps behind wherever Scott thought he was. “Yeah, alright.”

            The idea of talking to Derek about things was laughable. The only reason he wasn’t laughing at Scott right now was because Scott was his best friend, his brother, (his fucking Alpha if Derek was to be believed) and laughing at Scott when he was clearly trying to be serious wasn’t nice.

            Stiles turned back to his own book, mentally shaking his head. Scott sometimes had really weird ideas.

            Is it? A voice in his head suddenly asked and Stiles frowned at it. It even sounded like Scott somehow.

            He went to continue reading but… but now he was thinking.

            He had already told Derek things. He had told Derek about his peanut allergy. And about Allison. And how it was his fault they’d had to leave.

            He’d even told Derek about his dad. That Mrs. McCall had told him he’d died three years ago of a heart attack, that it was no one’s fault, just an accident and that he had gone quickly and painlessly. But he hadn’t told Derek because he wanted to talk about it. He just told him because… it just felt like Derek deserved to know. Derek was the one who had searched for months and months to find him. He should know how it ended.

            Derek was a good listener too, Stiles admitted. He didn’t try to make Stiles feel better or tell him he was sorry or that he wished he could have done something. He didn’t even ask Stiles any questions. He just sat quietly and let Stiles tell him at his own pace and then nodded solemnly, his mouth twisted with the effort of not showing too much grief. Which Stiles appreciated. He appreciated that Derek didn’t expect him to say too much, that when he turned back to his work, Derek turned back to his. Even if Derek hadn’t written anything down for almost half an hour afterwards. At least he had pretended. That’s what Stiles needed. Someone to listen but not try to make it better. There was no making it better.

            He even already knows, the voice piped up again and Stiles frowned. It was true. Derek knew what Stiles did for money. He was the one who had ensured it had stopped. Who proved that werewolves could be different. He knew more than even Scott.

            But he knew only the broad story. He didn’t know the details. And yeah, Stiles had heard that sometimes talking about things made it better and maybe, maybe it would be nice to be able to describe his nightmares to someone if it meant that maybe they would go away and Derek probably would listen so-

            What was he thinking? He blinked and shook himself.

            No. Absolutely not. He didn’t even know why he was still entertaining this option.

            Talking about it wouldn’t make it better. Not with things like this. With this stuff, talking about it only made it more real. Only made him relive the experiences again. And, nope, once was enough, thank you. Talking was an awful idea. Telling Derek, another werewolf was probably an even worse idea. No.

            He shook his head once more and turned his full attention to the book. Maybe he should take one of the pills Mrs. McCall had left him because he was pretty sure he felt a headache coming on. But then again, she had left him like four bottles and he didn’t feel like figuring out which was the right one.

            Honestly. The McCall’s. Both of them were crazy.

 

*^*^*^

 

            The boys were up to something.

            Jennifer knew that they were trying to hide it, to act natural but really they were doing an absolutely terrible job. The past three weeks had been a mess of whispers, muffled giggles, and pointed looks that fooled literally no one. She actually hoped they weren’t bothering to try that hard. Otherwise, it was just pathetic.

            Anyone with a brain also knew that whatever they were planning, their headquarters was their own room. Stiles, Scott, and Isaac had taken to eating dinner as if it might disappear if it wasn’t gone in three minutes and then rushing off, smiling and waving at everyone as if everything was normal.

            A few nights ago, Isaac had tried to tell her that Harris had decided he needed to know how to knit and so he had to practice. It was an insultingly stupid excuse. Then Stiles had informed her that he was just making sure he got a proper night’s sleep so that he could be of greatest assistance to his werewolf masters.

            When she’d tried to bully Scott into confessing, he’d merely grinned at her and then walked away.

            Never mind that it had it been in the middle of the day and he had come back five minutes later and pretended he’d never been gone. Simon and Dee had thought it was funny enough that they’d gone along with it.

            “Jennnnny,” Stiles sing-songed, actually going so far as to flutter his eyelashes at her. “You don’t need that jar of olives, do you?” Next to him, Scott was giving her his full force, wide, ‘please, doing this would make you just the most wonderful person in the world’ eyes.

            “Why do you need it?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips and trying to look stern. For a moment both boys looked stumped. As if she had asked a truly ridiculous question. Honestly, at this rate, they really would be better off just stealing them and hoping she didn’t notice.

            “We’re going to eat them,” Stiles offered, squinting a bit as if he realized how dumb that sounded.

            “A whole jar? Just you boys?”

            “It’s a dare?” Scott suggested, though he sounded like he was asking a question. Stiles dropped his head in disappointment. Scott blushed.

            “Okay, okay, you got us,” Stiles said, looking up and seeming to recover from his previous confusion. “We’re going to plant an olive tree. In the backyard. It’s symbolic. A metaphor, if you like.”

            Jennifer didn’t say anything. Stiles had been reading for some five months now and recently he had discovered an English textbook. Claiming things were metaphors or symbolic was his latest trick. She also knew that when confronted with silence, Stiles would fill it.

            The results could be entertaining.

            “A metaphor for peace,” Stiles said after a moment. Scott was nodding earnestly in the background. “Like the Ancient Greeks. We figured if we had our own olive tree we could then extended branches. To others. In a few years. But before that if we think about the… symbolism.”

            “No way,” Jennifer said, shaking her head. It was time for her to go grab dinner. “I know for a fact you guys have been stealing other stuff from the kitchen when I’m not around. You’re not getting my olives.”

            “Borrowing!” Scott piped up. “We’re going to give it all back.”

            Jennifer lifted an eyebrow. She failed to see how the boys were going to give any of the supplies back. Frankly, she couldn’t have even said what they needed them for in the first place. They seemed completely random.

            “But we need the olives in order to give it back,” Stiles said and he made a complicated hand gesture that she couldn’t even begin to interpret. “It’s a… process.”

            “Oh, just take it,” she said, rolling her eyes. She couldn’t handle their fumbling explanations and Scott’s eyes anymore.

            Besides, she knew that if she didn’t give it to them, Derek would just go buy it.

            Oh, yes, Derek was smack dab in the middle of all the tomfoolery. His tutoring sessions in the kitchen continued but it seems the boys had gotten more focused, frowning at books and taking notes. At one point, Jennifer thought there were drawn diagrams but Derek had snapped the book shut when she’d gone to take a closer look. At times, Derek was the one who took over the dishes so that both Stiles and Scott could sit and whisper about… whatever it was they were whispering about.

            Derek had also taken to simply heading to the slaves’ dining room with the others, though obviously not eating for a second time. Instead, he seemed content to sit and listen to the others and point out certain dishes to Stiles, though Jennifer noted that Stiles never ate any of the ones he indicated. She couldn’t put much effort into figuring out what that was about.

            “Awesome!” Stiles said and he and Scott high-fived.

            “Guys?” Derek popped his head in, frowning. “Did you get them?”

            “Yup!” Scott said as he casually pushed Stiles towards the pantry. “She said yes!”

            Derek’s face flickered into a smile. “Cool.”

            “You’re not supposed to be encouraging this,” Jennifer informed him and at least Derek had the grace to look guilty. “You’re supposed to be responsible.”

            And it was true. For twenty two years, it had been true. Derek was quiet and respectful and serious, letting Cora and Laura talk circles around him, following their lead in terms of what activities would fill the day. Derek loved his sisters, Jennifer knew that. It’s not that he had been unhappy.

            But now it was as if Derek suddenly realized he had missed out on his immature, boyish teenage years and decided he wanted to have them. Or at least he was going to help Stiles, Scott, and Isaac have them. Outwardly, he was still relatively quiet, content to sit back and listen rather than contribute to conversations but… but she saw the difference. When he did see fit to interject in Stiles’ and Scott’s conversations, more often than not it was a deadpan statement belied by a small smirk. Derek was different now. He was relaxed and funny and happy. She wondered if anyone else noticed the change.

            “We are being responsible,” Scott told her when Derek sort of just blushed and looked ready to stammer an explanation. “We’re being very careful and we did most of the construction outside and-”

            “Scott,” Derek growled, rolling his eyes. “It’s a surprise.”

            “Right,” Scott said and was saved from any questions from Jennifer by the return of Stiles, holding the olives.

            “Did he almost give it away again?” Stiles asked, eyes glancing between Scott’s embarrassed flush and Derek’s fond annoyance. “I honestly can’t believe he’s managed this long.”

            “I can keep a secret!” Scott insisted.

            “No, you can’t,” Stiles corrected. “Bye, Jenny! See you later tonight!”

            And then all the boys had cleared out of her kitchen before she could even say goodbye. Or ask how exactly they would be seeing her later tonight.

            Luckily, at that moment Melissa entered, retying her ponytail as she walked in.

            “They are up to something,” Melissa said, frowning in the general direction of the boys. “I know those faces. I can guarantee you it’s nothing good.”

            “They just ran off with the last of my olives,” Jennifer replied. “I don’t think it can be that bad.”

            “They once tried to keep a snake as a pet,” Melissa countered. “In my house. They went around trying to catch mice to feed it.”

            Jennifer couldn’t help but laugh. “Did they manage it?”

            “Yes,” Melissa said. “But then Scott felt too guilty about killing the mouse. After trying a few days to force the snake to be a vegetarian, they let it go.”

            Melissa was smiling fondly by the end of her story though it faded to something softer and sad after a moment.

            “Dinner?” Jennifer asked, cutting through whatever regret was rising.

            “Sounds lovely,” Melissa replied.

            Jennifer didn’t quite know what she had been expecting when she had heard that Scott’s mother was going to be moving in. Perhaps, like everyone, she expected Scott’s open, trusting nature or his overly warm personality. She had been surprised when she met Melissa. Not that Melissa wasn’t warm or kind, she was, but she was more quiet and reserved that Jennifer had expected. And there was a hardness in her that Jennifer knew traced its origins to being separated from her son.

            Jennifer had respected her instantly. Now, a month later, she could honestly say that she liked her as well. While Melissa was closer in age to Simon and Dee, she seemed content to sit with Jennifer at dinners, sometimes casually discussing the boys or a million other topics, sometimes in silence.

            Most importantly, Melissa had never tried to pump her for information about Stiles. And, having heard the rumor that Stiles’ refused to get a physical done, Jennifer respected that more than she could say. His secrets weren’t hers to give (even if she knew them) and Melissa’s respect for his boundaries told more of her character than anything else could.

            So they went to the dining room and sat together, grabbing food and laughing at the fact that the boys had already cleared out. Though, Jennifer thought darkly, they had better be taking the time to eat. She had just gotten Stiles up to what she considered to be a healthy weight.

            They were about halfway through, Jennifer enjoying a sip of the hot chocolate that she kept meaning to stop making when the boys made their grand entrance.

            “Hear ye! Hear ye!” Isaac called, standing straight and regal. He needn’t have bothered. The entire dining room, packed with both the kitchen staff who was still eating and the household and garden staff who were still sitting around chatting as had become commonplace (it didn’t used to be like that, Jennifer remembered idly, but everyone seemed to have followed Stiles’ and Scott’s example), had gone silent at their arrival.

            Probably because they had not arrived empty handed.

            No, each boy was carrying a tray of glasses.

            “Misters McCall and Stilinski,” Isaac continued, doing what seemed to be an excellent impression of Mr. Harris. “With the assistance of Derek Hale and yours truly-” Isaac broke character long enough to wink at the crowd. “request your aid in celebrating this fine occasion!”

            There was a cheer at that, small only because most people were craning their heads to try and see what was in the glasses. All Jennifer could make out was clear liquid and…

            An olive.

            Oh God.

            They didn’t.

            The boys were already passing out glasses. There was no stopping it.

            “What’s the occasion?” Greenburg asked into the silence.

            “This is not an appropriate time for questions,” Isaac responded, one Harris’ favorite lines and even Jennifer laughed.

            “First order of business,” Isaac continued. “A toast!”

            Then suddenly Stiles was putting a glass – a very full glass – in front of her and another in front of Melissa, not even having the dignity to act embarrassed.

            “Holy shit!” Simon’s voice was hoarse. Apparently he hadn’t waited for the toast. “That’s alcohol, boys.”

            “Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” Melissa muttered under her breath but somehow it was too late.

            “To the recreation of old technology!” Isaac cried, raising his own glass which Jennifer was just noticing was half empty.

            Then everyone was raising their glass and Jennifer knew she shouldn’t but… well, one sip couldn’t hurt. She raised hers and Melissa gave her a shocked look before doing the same.

            The staff shouted and Jennifer took a drink and-

            She was wrong. She was so, so wrong.

            One sip could kill her. It tasted foul and it burned her throat and she was trying to cough it up the moment it went in her mouth.

            But the time she could see again, she noticed Melissa frowning at her own glass. Then,

            “Not bad,” the other woman shrugged. Then she took another swallow.

            Jennifer still thought she was going to die. But she appeared to be the only one having that reaction. The others were already digging in, inquiring whether there was more, asking how on earth the boys had pulled this off.

            “Well, that explains where all my potatoes went,” Alan Deaton said by way of a greeting, sliding in the seat across from her. He looked both highly amused and proud.

            “It’s awful,” Jennifer said, gaping as Deaton also took a sip. Alcohol hadn’t been popular for generations, probably because it didn’t work on werewolves and had simply stopped being manufactured, but she was fairly certain it wasn’t supposed to taste like this.

            “It is awful,” Melissa agreed next to her as she took another sip. “Where are those boys? I’m going to give them a firm talking to. Completely unacceptable.”

            As if on cue, Scott appeared next to them and Jennifer noted that his face was flushed and his smile was even more lopsided than usual. The boys had clearly started earlier.

            “What do you think?” he asked. “Pretty cool, huh?”

            “Scott, this is ridiculous,” Melissa said. “How did you do this?”

            “Stiles read about it in a book,” Scott answered, gaze darting unerringly to his friend who was in the corner assuring people that there was more available in their room. “The first few tries didn’t work and we had to do a bunch of research but eventually we got everything we needed. Derek helped.”

            “He knows this won’t work on him, right?” Jennifer asked.

            “Oh, no,” Scott waved a hand. “Deaton had that covered. Apparently low doses of certain plants can have the same impact on werewolves. Don’t worry. We didn’t leave him out.” Yes, because that’s what she had been worried about.

            Jennifer turned her shocked gaze to Deaton.

            “They asked,” he said, smiling and drinking. “It seemed only fair.”

            She was also horrified to see that a large portion of the staff was already through their first glass and Derek was returning with two huge jugs. People immediately went over to him. This was a disaster.

            “Don’t worry,” Scott said, catching her gaze. “Derek actually cleared this with his mom. No one is going to get in trouble. But don’t tell anyone. It’s more fun if people don’t know.”

            His eyes twinkled with some of Stiles’ mischief and rebellion.

            “Remind everyone to drink water,” Melissa said and then she was standing to get a second glass as well.

            Jennifer was fairly positive that she was supposed to put a stop to this. But from the look of it, that would be no easy feat. And Talia had apparently been informed and approved. And across the way, Isaac and Heather were rigging up some sort of sound system and Dee was dancing with Greenburg of all people, and Stiles was laughing as something Simon was saying and… and it simply wasn’t worth stopping.

            Well, alright, she thought and took another sip.

            It tasted just as awful as the first one.

*^*^*^

 

            Derek frowned at Stiles, currently struggling to lift the jug of alcohol and pour himself another glass.

            Derek thought that maybe the jug was actually empty. He squinted at it. He was a werewolf. He should be able to tell.

            “I think it’s empty,” he declared, jumping at how loud his voice was. Next to him, Stiles didn’t jump just sort of frowned.

            “No,” he said and dear God, he was pouting now. Stiles was pouting. He looked unhappy. “No, I don’t want it to be.”

            “Okay,” Derek replied, nodding. “I’ll fix it.” He was good at fixing things. He’d been the one to fix the copper tubing when Scott had broken it. And he’d fixed other things. In his life. Lots, actually.

            He stood up. Then he looked around the boy’s room and abruptly realized that alcohol took time to make and it was all gone. This would take a very long time to fix. He looked around again. It was really all gone.

            Everyone else was gone as well. At least, all the people that shouldn’t be in the room. Isaac was curled up already asleep in his bed, having passed out… a while ago. Scott was humming to himself as he attempted to get ready for bed. And Stiles?

            Stiles was lying on the ground, one hand uselessly wrapped out the neck of an empty jug. His shirt had ridden up and revealed a portion of his stomach right where his hipbone jutted out and-

            Derek looked away. He was supposed to be fixing… something? He didn’t have time for distractions.

            This night had been a bad idea.

            It had seemed fun, all those weeks ago, working on a secret project to produce human alcohol. And it was fun. It was fun pouring over research and trying to draw diagrams and working together to build the still and having a secret that was just theirs. He had enjoyed it. Maybe more than he should have.

            No, the bad idea was the drinking. Well, wait, he was a werewolf, that would have been fine.

            The bad idea was smiling stupidly when Stiles’ appeared at his elbow and told him they’d talked to Deaton about making sure he could get drunk as well and pinching a drop of something in his drink. The bad idea was letting him do it three (or four?) more times after that. But Stiles was smiling at him and he couldn’t very well say “no.”

            However, Derek was pretty sure that the worst idea was deciding to involve everybody else. If it were just the four of them, it could have been contained, calm even. But, no, Scott had insisted it would be a great way to get everyone to know each other and blow off steam and he’d made it sound like a great idea.

            It was not. It had led to a string of embarrassing moments that Derek was fairly sure he was never going to live down. He had danced with Jenny. He had confessed to Mrs. McCall that he carried an EpiPen with him at all times. He was pretty sure he had asked for a tutorial on how to properly administrate it. He had arm wrestled with Simon and lost.

            It all just seemed sort of funny right now but Derek knew it was going to look dumb in the morning.

            That was a very mature thought. Maybe he was sobering up.

            Derek smirked. He knew he could beat whatever plant Stiles put in his drink. He was a werewolf. A strong one.

            He totally could have beaten Simon at that arm wrestling contest except he didn’t want to hurt the man. And Simon was trying to impress Dee. And Dee had been dancing with Stiles at the time so it made sense.

            Derek straightened, pleased with himself. Yes. It made sense.

            “I think we should go to sleep,” Derek announced. He nodded. Maybe he should make it an order. He could do that. Except Scott was an Alpha. And Stiles was his Second. So, actually no, he couldn’t. But look! Isaac was already listening to him. “Good job, Isaac.”

            Apparently he’d said something funny because Scott was suddenly cackling and Stiles was giggling.

            “Dude,” Scott said, still chuckling. “We decided that like five minutes ago. And Isaac has been asleep for years.”

            “He has not been asleep for years,” Derek replied. That would be impossible. People couldn’t sleep that long. Unless…

            He frowned. Could humans sleep that long? Like hibernation? Bears could sleep that long.

            Derek shook his head. He had to focus.

            “We didn’t decide to go to sleep,” Stiles said, sitting up too quickly and then sort of gasping. “I thought we were going to drink more.”

            “We don’t have any more,” Scott replied. “Plus I think it would be a bad idea. I mean… it would, right? It seems like one.”

            Yes, it would be. This whole thing was a bad idea.

            “You’re a bad idea,” Stiles muttered, but he was standing and stumbling towards his bed.

            Derek had to stop smiling. He had to. He wasn’t meant to smile this much in one night.

            “Guys,” Scott’s voice was suddenly serious and worried and Derek found himself flashing his eyes. “Guys.”

            Then Scott went silent. Derek stayed perfectly still, trying to listen for something.

            “What is it?” he asked finally, when it seemed clear that Scott had stopped speaking. His words had Stiles looking at him. “What’s wrong?”

            “Is something wrong?” Stiles slurred, reaching for something beneath his pillow.

            “I,” Scott started and then he was looking at them, eyes wide and concerned. “I can’t feel my feet.”

            Stiles burst out laughing. Derek was still trying to figure out if it was serious. He felt like maybe the answer should have been obvious. But it wasn’t at the moment. Scott needed feet. For… Alphaing.

            “Like at all,” Scott said. Stiles laughed harder. “Seriously! I think… they might be gone.”

            “Do you want me to check?” Stiles offered. Scott nodded wordlessly at him. Stiles sighed and pushed himself up and managed to walk over to Scott’s bed. Once there, he lifted Scott’s blankets and patted each foot.

            “There,” he said. “They’re right there. You have feet.”

            Derek let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

            “Okay,” Scott said and then his eyes were sliding shut. Derek told himself it was time for him to leave. He knew where his room was. It was up and to the… left.

            “Hey!” Stiles called. “You have to put your lotion on your leg. And your arm. Supposed to do it ev’ry night. Can’t forget. Mom will kill us.”

            “Oh God,” Scott groaned. “She’s gonna kill us anyway. A lot. Like… super death.”

            “Proba’ly,” Stiles agreed. “But let’s not let her kill us twice.” Stiles leaned over and rooted through Scott’s bedside table before dumping a bottle on his chest and moving back towards his own bed.

            His path brought him right next to Derek for the briefest instant and Derek was supposed to be leaving. He was going to.

            “Lotion?” he asked.

            “Human stuff,” Stiles waved a hand at him, almost catching him in the face. “For scars. Makes ‘em less tight and ache-ing-y.”

            “Actually works!” Scott piped up from his bed and Derek could see he was coating his hands and then reaching to rub some on his leg. There was a scar there, long and jagged and Derek hadn’t even known that. “Hey! I do have feet!”

            Stiles whipped around to nod encouragingly at him. “Told ya!” He turned to Derek, smirking. “I’m a genius.”

            Derek nodded wordlessly. Stiles was a genius. He was totally awesome at reading and had done most of the work on the still and when he concentrated his lips sorta pouted out. Right now, he was red in the face and was staring at Derek openly, eyes wide and slightly unfocused and-

            And about to have to put on scarring lotion because he had scars and some of them were Derek’s fault because he was a fucking werewolf and Stiles had been hurt. By werewolves. Derek was a werewolf, he remembered unhappily. He usually didn’t even mind it.

            Now Stiles was taking off his shirt. Right there. Right in front of him. He pulled it up and over his head, getting tangled in it for the briefest instant before it was off and on the ground. And Derek could see his bare chest.

            It was different than the last two times Derek had seen it. The scar was still there, but it had faded and there was no bruising and instead of scrawny skin and bone, there was lean muscle. There were no bruises or open wounds, just smooth skin that had a healthy glow to it and suddenly he could smell Stiles, stronger than before and-

            “I have to go,” he said, hoping it came out somewhat naturally. But he didn’t move.

            “Oh, okay,” Stiles said and did he sound disappointed? No, no he did not. Or did he? Derek could smell it. Should be able to at least. His nose seemed to be broken. Was he even a werewolf anymore? All his instincts were wrong. But Stiles definitely seemed disappointed.

            He must’ve been mistaken because the next moment, Stiles had turned to look at Scott. “Come do my back, bro!” Stiles called, digging through his own drawer and producing a similar bottle.

            And that was Stiles’ back. And the claw marks did start beneath his shoulder blades, wrapping up and around his shoulder and there were ten long lines and Derek should feel angry or ill or something at the sight of them.

            But he couldn’t focus. It was Stiles’ back. His back which led right down to his-

            He had to leave right now. He turned to go when Scott’s voice stopped him.

            “I can’t,” Scott groaned. “I can’t feel my hands either. I think I’m… I’m gonna be sick.” Then Scott was up and rushing towards the bathroom and Stiles blinked, his face scrunching in concern.

            “Alright,” Stiles announced after a moment. “You’ll have to do it.”

            Derek suddenly found himself holding a bottle of lotion. Stiles moved away and sat down on his bed, back towards Derek.

            Derek gripped the bottle tightly. The world seemed to be moving very fast. He was not keeping up. Stiles wanted him to put lotion on his scars. Scars which covered practically his whole back. Stiles wanted him to touch him. His back. With lotion.

            No. The thought was the first clear thought he had had in hours. No, he was not doing that. Stiles was drunk. That was the only reason he was asking and Derek would not breach his trust like this. Absolutely not. Stiles would never want Derek to touch him if he were sober. He would skip a night and wait for Scott. Derek would put money on the fact that Scott was the only one who had ever done it. That wasn’t going to change tonight. Not like this.

            “No,” Derek said, tensing when Stiles craned his head to look at him. “No, Stiles. This isn’t-” he frowned, annoyed that his voice was still coming out a little slurred. This was important. He was being serious. “I can’t. You don’t want me to.”

            “Dude, I’m asking you to,” Stiles replied, frowning. “It’s not a big deal.”

            That was a lie. It was a big deal. Derek could still remember when Stiles had flinched when he’d had to pull down his pants when they first met. He remembered when he’d forced Stiles to take off his shirt to pull the pain from his bruise and Stiles had been practically quivering with fear. He knew that even though it had been months, Stiles still sometimes jerked away from him.

            It was a big deal. Stiles would regret this. Derek knew it. It was the one sober thought that he was clinging to.

            “No. You should wait for Scott,” he said again, taking a step forward to hold the bottle out. Distantly, he heard Scott retching in the bathroom. “Or Isaac. I could wake up Isaac.”

            His eyes flicked towards the boy who still appeared dead to the world.

            “Derek,” Stiles said and suddenly his hand was on Derek’s, not grabbing the bottle away but forcing it back. “Just do it.”

            “No,” Derek said again, his voice coming out too high. He considered just running out of the room. That would fix this problem. He could run pretty fast. Stiles probably couldn’t catch him. “No, you won’t-”

            “Derek,” Stiles said again and his voice was sharp and angry. “Look, just because I’ve done... I mean, shit has- fuck, I’m not broken.”

            Derek’s heart lurched to a stop. That wasn’t what he had been trying to say. He was just saying that Stiles’ was sensitive. And that he was drunk. And that he shouldn’t be forced into this situation.

            “I’m not broken,” Stiles repeated, clearly focusing on each word so he didn’t slur them together. He sounded determined and less drunk and he was glaring at Derek. Derek wanted to do a thousand things at once. He wanted to say that he never thought that, he wanted to growl and go find whoever had ever even looked at Stiles wrong and kill them, he wanted to somehow make it so that Stiles never frowned like this again. He wanted Stiles to just be happy all the time. Forever. Constantly happy.

            God, he wanted to be sober. This night was such a fucking mistake.

            “I’m not,” Stiles repeated. If he were a werewolf, his eyes would be flashing gold. Or maybe even red. “So don’t ever- stop acting like I am.”

            “Okay,” he heard himself say. He would be quick about it. Quick and professional. He wouldn’t break Stiles’ trust in him. Not for one second. “I promise I won’t… I’ll be really fast.” Werewolf fast. Super speed fast. Freakish werewolf power fast.

            “I sleep with a knife under my pillow,” Stiles said, but he had relaxed and turned back around. “Try anythin’ and I’ll stab you.” It came out too fond and flippant to be a real threat. Still, it made Derek feel better. Doubtless Stiles would stab him. He wasn’t weak.

            Stiles had let things happen to him because he was protecting Scott. But he didn’t have to protect Scott now. Stiles was making his own choice. He was choosing to trust Derek.

            Derek would have been smiling if he wasn’t suddenly so nervous he thought he might die.

            Still, he sat down on the bed next to Stiles, twisting so that he was facing him and squirted a glob of lotion into his hands. Then he hesitated.

            “You're overthin', man,” Stiles said helpfully. “Just slab it on and then rub it in. It’s impossible to mess up.” His hand motions were back, a bit slower and wider than usual, proof that his flash of sobering anger had passed, that he was still drunk. But Derek knew that if he asked again, he might be stabbed for an entirely different reason.

            Quick and professional, he reminded himself as he reached forward. Quick and professional.

            He kept the chant going the whole time he worked, trying to keep his hands moving and not revel in the fact that Stiles didn’t flinch. He didn’t tense up. He may have even relaxed a bit.

            Though that was all very hard to tell as Derek’s moment of clarity has faded into what seemed to be an even higher level of drunkenness.

            At least, that was the only explanation he could come up with as all his awareness shrunk to simply his hands on Stiles’ back. He couldn’t quite believe it was happening but he was touching Stiles. He was touching him and he could feel the raised skin of every scar. Even the little ones. The ones he hadn’t even known existed. There were old faded slashes and burn marks that looked only about two years old and Derek wanted to kiss every single one.

            He was trying to take away pain, he realized abruptly. His veins had turned black, but it was only a slight pain from Stiles’ knee that he could fix. Stiles must’ve bumped it at some point this evening because it was faint and already gone and he hated that he couldn’t take the rest. Couldn’t take whatever pain the scars had inflicted and-

            Lingering, he realized abruptly, staring at his hands. His hands were definitely lingering. The lotion was all rubbed in and now his hands were fucking lingering.

            He managed to move his left hand, but his right sort of just stayed where it was, idly wrapped around Stiles’ shoulder. Right where his neck met his shoulder actually. And his thumb was sort of... moving. Rubbing up and down as if to rub in lotion only it had all already been rubbed in.

            It was definitely lingering. Derek frowned at it, at himself.

            “Scott thinks I should talk to you,” Stiles said suddenly into the silence. Derek could not have said how long it had been. But Stiles’ voice, exhausted and ever so slightly slurred, had him blinking as if from a deep sleep.

            “Oh,” he said and finally, finally his hand moved. Stiles twisted so they were facing each other, eyes… unreadable. Derek couldn’t focus.

            “About… stuff,” Stiles said. Derek’s heart lurched in his chest. This was serious. Stiles was being serious. He had to listen to him. He was trying. Very hard. But if he looked at Stiles’ eyes, he seemed to only be able to focus on them and if he looked away his eyes went to Stiles’ chest and that was inappropriate but he certainly couldn’t look away. God, why were his thoughts not shutting up? He was supposed to be listening.

            He had to remember everything. So he could fix it.

            Unless he couldn’t fix it. That was a possibility.

            No. It was Stiles. He could fix it. He would. He could at least make it better.

            “I don’t think it would help though,” Stiles confessed, shrugging one shoulder. Derek blinked. Stiles didn’t think he could fix it either. “Like… talking wouldn’t magically make it all go away, right?” He face slid back into its semi-real smile and he was grabbing the lotion from Derek and moving away to rub in on the part of the scar that was on his chest.

            “My mom wouldn’t let me kill them,” Derek said honestly. That was the real problem. He didn’t know about talking but maybe if Stiles knew they were dead, if he knew he was safe then that would help.

            But he hadn’t been allowed to. Not even one of them. Not even fucking Brunski with his shitty little shop and his fucking smirk.

            “Dude, you did not ask to kill them,” Stiles was sort of grinning. Derek frowned. Stiles thought he was joking.

            He was not joking. He had figured out it was Brunski, had managed to match the scent of Stiles with the scent of one of the shop-owners from when Stiles was caught stealing and had done enough research and information gathering to know Brunski’s part in the whole thing. He had figured it all out and his mother had said he wasn’t allowed to kill him.

            It was totally unfair.

            But certainly not a joke.

            “Yes, I did,” Derek said, frowning harder when Stiles’ laughed openly. “I mean, not all of them because I hadn’t found all of them but I could’ve at least killed one. Made him tell me the rest.”

            “You’re ridiculous,” Stiles declared and he was done with the lotion and pulling the blankets over himself.

            “Are you going to sleep?” Derek asked. He didn’t want Stiles to go to sleep. He wanted to stay up and talk. Or at least he wanted Stiles to talk about whatever Stiles wanted to talk about and he would be really, extra good at listening.

            “Yeah,” Stiles said, blinking sleepily at him. “There’s no more alcohol.”

            Derek frowned. He had failed to produce more.

            “Plus, ‘m so tired I probably won’t even have nightmares,” Stiles said.

            “I’ll make sure you don’t,” Derek declared, standing and glaring around the room.

            “ ‘s not how it works,” Stiles muttered. He waved a hand in the direction of the back corner. “Go make sure Scott’s alive.”

            “Okay,” Derek said, happy to have something to do. He felt very awake. How was everyone not this awake? Maybe he should go for a run. Maybe Scott would go with him since Stiles was falling asleep.

            Scott would totally help him kill Brunski if he knew. Maybe they could go do that.

            But Scott was sitting with his head on the toilet, curled up and asleep. Derek huffed a sigh and then picked him up easily and deposited him back on his bed, absentmindedly listening to his heart and making sure all was well.

            Alcohol clearly effected humans differently than werewolves. No one was going to go running with him.

            “Scott okay?” Stiles asked, jerking himself up for a moment.

            “Yeah, he’s asleep,” Derek muttered unhappily.

            “You should go to sleep too,” Stiles informed him. “Sleep is good.”

            “No,” Derek said. “No, I’ll stay up and…” he glared around the room. Then at the door. He was pretty sure there wasn’t a lock on it. Anyone could just come in. Anyone at all. That’s probably why Stiles still had nightmares.

            “I’ll make sure no one gets in,” Derek vowed. He could do that. Protect Stiles. Make sure no one got in. He was a werewolf. He would probably be really good at that.

            “No killing,” Stiles chuckled and his voice was fading. “It’s against the rules.”

            “It’s a stupid rule,” Derek mumbled but Stiles was already asleep.

            Good, Derek thought. Humans needed sleep. But werewolves didn’t. He could probably stay up all night.

            He let his eyes turn gold so he could see better and then turned off the lights.

            Then he waited.

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles woke up, he supposed, but it wasn’t like he normally did.

            Normally, he snapped awake, opening both eyes and scanning the room, gripping his knife tighter for a moment before relaxing and realizing all was well.

            That was not how he woke up this morning.

            This morning, he opened one eye, groaned, closed it and then tried the other one.

            It wasn’t any better but he figured he should try to figure out what was going on. Why his head was aching and his stomach was rolling and the world felt so very, very bright.

            Maybe he was dying.

            “Scott?” he called, flinching both at how hoarse his voice was and how loud it sounded.

            He was definitely dying.

            Still, he had to make sure the others were okay. Well, maybe not okay. Surely no one was okay. But he should make sure they weren’t dead.

            He sat up slowly, one eye still closed, holding his head in an attempt to keep the world from spinning too much. It failed, for the record.

            He blinked slowly at Isaac, who was somehow still asleep. Stiles vaguely remembered Isaac crashing the earliest, curling into bed while Scott, Stiles, Derek, Simon, and Dee still laughed and chattered around him. He was alive, Stiles noted after a moment. He would be okay. He might even be more okay that the rest of them when they woke up.

            He shifted his attention to Scott, who was also asleep but stirring as if he had sensed Stiles’ movement.

            “Stiles?” Scott called, blinking slowly.

            “Are you alive?” Stiles asked.

            “Yeah,” Scott replied after a moment. “But… it’s not good. It’s not good.”

            “Me neither,” Stiles said. He was so thirsty. But getting out of bed seemed like too much. This was the worst day of his life.

            “Dude,” Scott said. “That was…” he floundered for a moment.

            A terrible idea, Stiles mentally finished for him. Their recipe had worked too well. It had been too effective. The night was a blur of talking and laughing and playing increasingly ridiculous games. There was an arm wrestling tournament (he thought that maybe Melissa McCall had beaten Simon in the final round). Heather had dared him to attempt to jump from the kitchen counter to the island at one point (it had resulted in a banged knee and damaged pride). He had spent over half an hour arguing the benefits of corn with Deaton. He thought it may have almost come to blows at one point.

            “Awesome,” Scott breathed even as he lifted one arm to shield his eyes from the light of the room.

            “We’re dying,” Stiles pointed out. “You spent the end of the night puking in the toilet.”

            “Doesn’t matter,” Scott said. “It was still awesome.”

            “You lost the cake eating contest,” Stiles said. “And Heather spilled the entire container of hot chocolate and your mom made you clean it up.”

            “Still fun,” Scott replied.

            Stiles was about to protest when suddenly there was a banging at their door.

            It was all he could do to cover his ears and pray he died quickly.

            “Boo-oooys!” The call was loud and too happy and-

            “Your mom’s here to kill you,” Stiles informed Scott.

            “Us,” Scott corrected automatically. The knob of the door turned but the door didn’t open.

            “Time to wake up!” Mrs. McCall announced. “What’s blocking your door?”

            Stiles frowned. There shouldn’t be anything blocking the door. He and Scott had been stupid enough to try that trick exactly once when they were first sold. The lesson had been clear and lasting: You did not try to keep your master or others out of your room in any way. Scott was actually a bit fanatical about opening and shutting the door to make sure before he went to bed usually.

            Stiles turned, about to tell Mrs. McCall to just push harder when his eyes fell on-

            Derek.

            Derek was sleeping across the doorway on the ground, frowning even in sleep, hair sticking up in the back and suddenly the end of the night came rushing back.

            Derek informing them to go to sleep. Derek looking honestly concerned that Scott had lost his feet. Derek not wanting to help him and then nodding seriously and believing him when Stiles insisted he wasn’t broken and then putting lotion on his back. Derek announcing that he would keep anyone from getting in.

            Derek was just waking up, stirring and twitching slightly and Stiles realized he had slept there all night. Making sure no one could get in.

            His chest was doing some sort of weird overheating thing that was becoming a little bit too common when Derek was around.

            “Boys!” Mrs. McCall yelled again and it helped Stiles fight the grin off his face. “Let me in! I need to make sure you haven’t killed yourself.”

            “We’re alive!” Scott said, sounding anything but.

            “I’m checking anyway,” Mrs. McCall hollered and that was enough to wake Derek up completely.

            Stiles saw him snap awake, eyes flashing, standing crouched like he was ready to attack before blinking around.

            Melissa McCall was in the room the next moment, looking surprised but not shocked to see Derek there. Her eyes cut to Stiles for the briefest moment and he realized he was still shirtless. Surely she didn’t think that he and Derek had-

            “You couldn’t even make it back to your own room, Derek?” she asked, rolling her eyes at the werewolf in what Stiles knew to be an extremely fond manner. “Or a bed?” Stiles let out a breath, relieved she seemed to have figured out the situation.

            “Uh, I,” Derek’s voice was just as hoarse as Stiles and he looked just as confused. Stiles couldn’t say for sure if Derek even remembered what his original goal had been to sleep there. “I was… making sure no one got hurt?”

            “Well, it doesn’t look like you did a very good job,” Mrs. McCall said. “Did any of you boys drink water? I told you to!”

            “I forgot,” Scott said, sounding truly pathetic. Even Stiles could tell he was playing it up for his mom. “Will it help if I drink it now?”

            “Oh, alright,” Mrs. McCall huffed. “Though I should be giving you three a lecture. Derek, don’t just stand there- go lay on one of the spare beds. You look to be as bad as the others.”

            Derek obeyed without comment because that’s what you did when Mrs. McCall ordered you to do something. Then she was bustling around, grabbing glasses and going to the bathroom to fill them with water and opening drawers. Stiles thought she was making too much noise to be strictly necessary but he was too happy that she might be getting him something to drink to care.

            “You boys are lucky you are all big saps when you’re drunk. Otherwise, I would not be helping you,” Mrs. McCall announced. Stiles frowned. What was she talking about? She must’ve seen his face because the next moment she continued. “You,” she said, leaning down to ruffle Scott’s hair and give him a kiss on the forehead. “Spent almost a full hour telling me how wonderful I was. At one point you attempted a poem.”

            Stiles snickered. He hadn’t been there but Scott totally would. Hopefully someone remembered portions of it. This was gold.

            “Oh, don’t laugh, Stiles,” Mrs. McCall said, heading his way with a glass. “I heard you telling Jenny that how I was the most badass mom ever and that I could probably kill someone by glaring at them. You also went on for quite a long time. With demonstrations.”

            Stiles was fairly positive his face was burning off. God, this had been a terrible idea.

            “And you,” she turned to Derek who went completely still as if that would somehow help. Her eyes had gone softer. “You asked me three different times for a detailed tutorial on how to-” Derek’s eyes went impossibly wide and he looked truly scared. Mrs. McCall noticed and cut off abruptly.

            “Well,” she said, as if that could cover up the fact that she had clearly just stopped herself from telling a certain story. “You guarded the door.” Derek was still blushing but he didn’t seemed panicked. Stiles made a mental note to figure out what that was about.

            Later. When he felt like he could breathe without hurting his head.

            “Alright, drink water, take the pills I put next to you and try to go back to sleep,” Mrs. McCall ordered. “Tell Isaac to do the same if he ever wakes up. I’ll check on you in a bit.”

            “Thanks, Mom,” Scott said. Stiles limited his response to a nod in favor of drinking the water. Water, what a great thing. Best thing. Maybe in the world.

            “Thank you, Mrs. McCall,” Derek echoed, sounding embarrassed yet sincere.

            “You boys,” Mrs. McCall said, shaking her head. “So stupid.”

            She left, closing the door gently behind her.

            “Dude,” Scott said into the stillness. “So fun. Totally worth it.”

            Stiles found himself sort of smiling, looking from Scott to Derek, who was now across from him looking a bit confused still.

            “Yeah,” he said, taking a last gulp and stretching out again. “Worth it.”

            Across from him, Derek quirked his mouth into a smile.

 

End Part IX.

Chapter Text

Part X                                        

 

            Derek wasn’t quite asleep when he heard someone enter the library, but his legs were extended and resting on the chair across from him and his right arm was draped along the back of Stiles’ chair since Stiles was leaning forward and doing work and the sun was shining directly on his face so his eyes were maybe a little bit closed.

            He really was going to start reading again in a second. Laura had all but given up on finding out any information on their dad’s side of the family for their Hale History but he was certain he could find some.

            It just meant digging through really old, boring genealogies, and since Stiles had never showed any interest in the Hale Family History, he was stuck doing it by himself.

            So he was taking a short post-lunch break. Resting his eyes.

            “Mr. Stilinski,” Harris’ voice was too loud for the library. And, as usual, it was dripping with disapproval. Derek was already opening his eyes and glaring up in anger. He didn’t want Harris there. It was just him and Stiles in the library and Stiles seemed calm and peaceful and hadn’t had a nightmare the night before which was becoming worryingly unusual and he didn’t need fucking Harris ruining it. “You’ve forgotten to pick up Master Derek’s laundry from the washroom.”

            “Uh huh,” Stiles said, nodding absentmindedly. He wasn’t listening, Derek could tell. He probably hadn’t even heard Harris at all. Hopefully he would stay like that. Derek could fill him in later. Not that his laundry was at all important.

            “If you don’t get it soon and hang it,” Harris continued primly. “It will wrinkle.”

            Derek saw Stiles finally pay attention: he sort of snapped his head up and then frowned as the last few moments finally registered.

            “Right,” Stiles muttered. “I’ll get it, sir.”

            “See that you do.”

            Thankfully, Harris left and Derek looked up to try and catch Stiles’ eyes. He expected to see Stiles’ grinning and rolling his eyes, content to ignore Harris. He and Stiles were usually in sync like that lately.

            They’d never talked about what had happened that night three weeks ago. Probably because nothing had happened, Derek reminded himself. But Stiles had watched him carefully for a few days after, frowning in thought when he assumed Derek wasn’t looking and Derek had accepted the scrutiny, making sure to try to act normal. Soon, balance had been reestablished. But perhaps it hadn’t been reestablished in quite the same way. They might have sat a bit closer now, laughed a bit more, gone to the kitchens a bit later than they had before.

            Of course, that was probably because they didn’t have a new secret project that involved Scott and Isaac anymore. So they were both more content to sit in the library alone. Talking more. Not about serious things, not about what Derek thought Stiles was referring to that night but about anything else. Opinions on books they had both read. Gossip on the latest pranks Cora was pulling. Pseudo-arguments over almost any topic imaginable.

            There were… moments too. Moments where they both stopped laughing and stared for a beat too long and Derek thought that maybe, maybe something was going to happen but just as quickly, Stiles was practically flinching away, looking troubled and-

            Derek couldn’t make sense of it. Didn’t particularly care to try as he would probably have to ask Stiles if he were to attempt to get any real answers. And he knew he couldn’t do that.

            So he’d accepted their slightly closer friendship and told himself it was still a friendship and followed Stiles’ example in ignoring everything else.

            Still, he assumed that Harris’ latest interruption warranted a shared joke.

            Instead, Stiles was slamming his book closed, smelling of frustration and annoyance. And there was something else too. Something that had been wafting off of Stiles and Scott for weeks. Months even. Something he hadn’t been able to quite pin down.

            “Stiles,” Derek said, frowning in concern and sitting up. “You don’t have to go get it now.”

            “You heard him,” Stiles said, waving a hand. “If I don’t get it soon, it will wrinkle.”

            “I don’t care about that,” Derek said, feeling a tendril of warning in his gut.

            The fact that Stiles was still technically a slave was something he and Stiles didn’t talk about. This was one of the topics that Derek had understood instinctively was off limits. Like the whipping. Or Stiles’ previous masters. Or Stiles’ father. Or Talia Hale. Or Stiles' nightmares. Or... a lot actually. But it was something they both avoided. They both knew this could go nowhere good.

            “Well, that doesn’t matter,” Stiles said, still too busy quickly straightening up to look at Derek. “Harris cares.”

            “Just leave it,” Derek said, hating that the smells of frustration were getting stronger. “No one cares about Harris.”

            “I can’t just leave it,” Stiles snapped. “He’ll just come back in a few minutes.”

            “I’ll tell him it’s not your job anymore,” Derek replied. He didn’t’ want Stiles to do this. He didn’t want Stiles folding his laundry and resenting him and smelling angry and bitter. “You don’t have to do laundry if you don’t want to.” You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, he added mentally. That was his promise to Stiles. The promise he was too scared to ever say aloud.

            “Then he’ll just make Violet start doing it again,” Stiles said, pushing himself to his feet. Derek put his feet on the ground, though he didn’t follow. “I can’t just not do any work. Just ‘cause we’re-” His hand flailed for a moment. “Friends or whatever. It wouldn’t be fair. Slaves are supposed to work.”

            Derek was stunned to silence. In part because he recognized that Stiles was right. If Stiles stopped doing it, another member of staff would have to pick up the slack. However, it was more the completely dismissive tone that Stiles said the word ‘friends.’

            Stiles was just angry, Derek told himself. And his scent matched that. It was all anger and resentment and-

            He finally figured out the last smell, the smell that had hovered around him and Scott for weeks, the smell that was usually too faint to identify, as if they themselves didn’t know they were actually feeling it:

            Restlessness.

            That’s what the smell was. It had been building. Even before the alcohol project, he had caught whiffs of it and then it had been muted by their secret as if having something to focus on helped. But now… now it had been almost three weeks and it was back and that’s what Stiles and Scott smelled like: Restlessness.

            “You’re not happy,” Derek realized aloud. A sort of despair was washing over him. He was sure he didn’t sound natural.

            “What? No,” Stiles said, seeming to realize for the first time that Derek was there. “No, I am. It’s just-”

            He stopped for a moment and Derek didn’t realize he had looked away until Stiles’ hand around his shoulder got his attention.

            “I am happy,” Stiles said and Derek didn’t let himself listen for whether or not that was a lie. He was too busy trying to be comforted by the words, trying to accept what Stiles was telling him so he didn’t have to think about anything else. “This is awesome. It’s just… I-”

            Stiles was silent for a moment, smelling like too many different emotions for Derek to follow. A part of him hoping Stiles would stop talking. That they could just leave it at that. Stiles could be happy and Derek could make him happy and they could just stay like this. They could research in the library and hang out in the kitchen and stay after everyone else talking just to each other.

            “Do you know that Mrs. McCall put Simon on medicine for his heart?” Stiles finally asked. Derek’s eyes widened in alarm. Simon was sick? Why hadn’t he been informed? “No, wait, it’s completely precautionary,” Stiles quickly continued. “It’s hardly even necessary, but I can’t help but think if my dad were here…”

            “I would have gotten him the medicine, Stiles,” Derek said even though it was a useless statement.

            “I know that,” Stiles sighed. “That’s not the point. I just…

            “Not everyone can be here, Derek,” Stiles finally said, voice hard.

            “I can get anyone else you want,” Derek tried, though even he knew it was a desperate attempt.

            “No, I mean,” Stiles sounded and smelled frustrated again, dropping his hand from Derek’s shoulder to run it through his hair. “Not just people I know. Just… everyone. People are out there being forced into things and we’re just… here.”

            He paused for a moment, looking away and shaking his head roughly.

            “Look, whatever,” Stiles muttered, slamming his books into a pile. “Never mind. You wouldn’t underst- It doesn’t matter anyway.”

            “Stiles,” Derek said slowly, trying to somehow work out what he wanted to say.

            “No, sorry, it’s just… a bad day,” Stiles said, waving him into silence. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you in the kitchen later. Gotta go get your laundry.”

            He was gone a moment later.

            Derek sat dumbly for a moment, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his gut. It was like Stiles had said, it was just a bad day. This was just a moment, a fleeting moment that they could ignore and not talk about, just like they didn’t talk about a lot of things and he could just stop thinking about it and they would move on.

            They could move on. Stiles and Scott could stay here and read books and be happy and Scott could keep helping in the kitchens, even though anyone could see he was completely uninterested in cooking and Stiles could keep doing his laundry and cleaning his room, even though Derek could see that he hated it.

            Derek stood slowly and started walking.

            He didn’t want to do this. He wanted Stiles to be happy. He wanted to be enough for Stiles to be happy. He wanted Stiles to be happy with him.

            But he wouldn’t be. With every step, he was more and more certain of that fact.

            “That’s the dream, Scott had said, all those weeks ago. That’s the dream. Being here with him… that wasn’t the dream. It would never be good enough.

            And it made him feel slightly sick and sort of like he was panicking but he kept walking anyway.

            And when he reached his mother’s study, where he knew she was, she looked up immediately, like she had been expecting him, like she had been expecting this.

            “Mom,” he said, hoping she could hear his quiet voice over the ringing in his head. “I think we have to let them go.”

            Talia Hale didn’t look surprised or shocked or indignant so he thought maybe she hadn’t heard him.

            “Scott and Stiles,” he clarified. “I think we have to let them go.”

 

*^*^*^

 

            Stiles was glad Derek hadn’t offered to help with the laundry.

            He probably would have. If Stiles had teasingly whined about it or informed Derek he was helping or even had just calmly went to go do it, he had no doubt Derek would have helped. Really, if he had done anything but sort of yell at Derek like he had, he would have help right now. It could have even been fun: Derek folding everything awfully because he’d probably never had to do his own laundry before, Stiles having to show him and trying not to laugh at Derek’s particular brand of concentrated frowning.

            Plus, Derek had just been practically asleep in the library so it would have actually been a mix of concentrated frowning and Derek’s version of just-waking-up frowning which Stiles had only seen a few times and so hadn’t lost its comedic charm. It could have been a perfectly nice afternoon.

            But at the moment, he was happy to be alone, content to fold things messily and slam drawers shut while muttering curses under his breath.

            He knew he should calm down. He knew Derek was going to somehow arrange for him to never have to do laundry again.

            But this wasn’t about fucking laundry.

            This was about…

            Stiles didn’t know what this was about.

            He just knew that as the weeks passed, he felt… itchy. And he shouldn’t. He had everything he’d ever wanted: food, safety, medicine, a bed that didn’t require him to clear out of it the moment a werewolf was done with him… No, scratch that. He had more than he’d ever wanted. He had things that he’d never even dared to hope for. He still had Scott. He had Mrs. McCall. And friends.

            He had Derek. And he didn’t even really know what that meant because Derek was… Derek. And things had remained almost exactly the same except they sort of hadn’t. And Stiles was having dreams. Weird, awful dreams that started with Derek but ended with Matt and he didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to think about the fact that they were happening more and more frequently. Or the fact that he wouldn’t even mind the first part if the second part wasn’t so completely horrific.

            He wanted to just relax and be happy for once. He should be happy. He was happy.

            He was just also fucking annoyed at everything. Harris had become unbearable. Even Jenny’s gentle directions were irksome. And he had just practically yelled at Derek who was like ridiculously perfect and definitely did not deserve to be yelled at.

            The only thing that made him feel slightly less like a huge fucking jackass was that he knew Scott was feeling the same way. Scott had taken to frowning into the distance at odd points. He’d gone to bed early a few nights last week, only when Stiles checked on him, he wasn’t asleep, simply staring up at the ceiling as if it held the secrets he was looking for. Just yesterday, Scott had snapped  at Isaac for making what he deemed to be an inappropriate joke.

            Scott. Snapping. At Isaac.

            True, he’d apologized profusely within seconds but it had still happened.

            Stiles knew what that meant.

            This was what Scott did when he was in the process of making a big decision. He went quiet and a bit testy and then he came out with his idea. Usually, he was making the decision to try some bigger form of rebellion that he would need Stiles’ help to plan: stealing a big stash of food for all slaves to share rather than just picking at the leftovers, creating a system for slaves to use to warn each other when their master was drunk and on the move, deciding that it was time to plan an asthma/allergy attack and risk being sold.

            Stiles just hoped that Scott’s new project was announced soon because he needed something to do. He needed to plan something or research something useful or-

            “Mr. Stilinski,” Harris’ voice jolted him out of his angry thoughts and he turned, still in the process of ramming one of Derek’s shirts onto a hangar.

            “I’m doing the laundry,” he grunted, waving it at the man. He was not in the mood for Harris right now. “See! Good little slave hanging the clothes!”

            Harris’ lips pursed but all he did was shake his head.

            “Well you can stop that for now,” Harris said. “Mistress Hale wishes to see you immediately.”

            “What?” he asked, frowning. That didn’t make any sense. He hadn’t done anything wrong in weeks.

            She wouldn’t just decide to sell him, would she? Like… that wasn’t a thing that she could just do. He really hadn’t done anything wrong. Derek had even technically asked if they could do the alcohol thing.

            “Immediately,” Harris said, waving a hand.

            “But,” Stiles held up the hangers he was holding. “The laundry! I’m doing it! The wrinkles are coming fast at this point. Dangerous wrinkles. Deadly even.”

            He wasn’t quite panicking. But he also was suddenly very content to stay in the relative safety of Derek’s room and fold clothes.

            “Oh, come on,” Harris said, rolling his eyes. “If it helps, I’m supposed to tell you that Isaac is getting Scott and Master Derek is already with her.”

            Despite it all, Stiles did relax at that news. Derek wouldn’t let anything too bad happen to them. And even if it was bad news, at least he and Scott were in it together. That had always been the basic necessity anyway.

            “Alright,” Stiles said, dumping the supplies on Derek’s bed. “But it’s not my fault that half of his clothes are going to be messy. I won’t be blamed for it.”

            He smirked at Harris’ pinched look just because, God, Harris was annoying and then was grateful Harris turned to lead him so he was free to let the worry cross his face.

            If you didn’t count his mini-rage at Derek this morning, he really had been behaving quite well. He honestly couldn’t think of a reason why Talia Hale would suddenly want to talk to him.

            Maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe he and Scott had become suspicious in their lack of rebellion. Maybe that’s why he felt so annoyed all the time.

            At least this was something different, Stiles realized as he followed Harris without really paying attention. He was nervous, yes. No one could quite forget that the last time Talia Hale had sought him out, he’d been trapped in a horizontal position for almost a week but that was months ago and along with the nerves was a tendril of excitement. Something new was happening.

            When they arrived at Talia Hale’s study, Stiles was relieved to see that Scott and Derek were already there, though Talia herself was missing.

            “What’s going on?” Stiles asked as soon as Harris had shut the door behind him.

            “No idea,” Scott muttered, glaring around the room. He looked even more on edge than Stiles was.

            “Derek?” Stiles asked and then froze when he saw the door in the back corner open and Talia Hale step in. “I mean, uh, Master Derek?”

            Both Scott and Derek frowned at him but, hey, they weren’t the ones who went ten rounds with a freaking whip last time so he maintained his right to be more formal in front of Talia Hale if he wanted to be.

            “Oh, I hardly think that’s necessary,” Talia Hale said and she was… smiling? Stiles couldn’t be sure as the expression was gone in a heartbeat. “Considering my son has just asked me to free both of you.”

            Stiles blinked. Then he blinked again.

            He was positive he hadn’t heard correctly.

            He looked to Derek, hoping to figure out what was going on. But for the first time in months, Derek’s frown seemed to be completely unreadable.

            “If you would follow me,” Talia said, waving a hand. “There is a lot I have to tell you.”

            She was walking away before anyone had really reacted. Scott was the first to recover, eyes cutting to Derek for an instant before following. Stiles was still in some state of shock.

            It took Derek gently grabbing his wrist to get him moving.

            “What’s she talking about?” Stiles whispered, grateful she and Scott were a good five paces in front of them.

            “I don’t know,” Derek grunted. Stiles frowned at him. He must know something. Apparently he had asked his mother to free them. As if that were possible.

            That wasn’t possible. It’s not like free humans actually existed anymore. Everybody knew that. The brief and brutal war between humans and werewolves had ended almost two hundred years ago and any rebellion was done away with fairly soon after and…

            This wasn’t making any sense.

            Stiles hadn’t really been paying attention to where they were going. But suddenly he and Derek had caught up with Talia and Scott because Talia had stopped to unlock a door and Stiles realized that they were at the locked corridor. The one right by the Alpha’s quarters that he had discovered in his first few weeks at the Hales and then was forced to ignore. He had assumed it was some kind of torture chamber or something along those lines, envisioning only dark, dank dungeons with little light and unexplained stains.

            However, as Talia opened the door, Stiles could see that it looked much like the rest of the Hale household. Perhaps it was a bit more dusty and less decorated, but, generally, it looked the same: high ceilings, cream colors, neat, organized, normal.

            Aside from the fact that it was locked to others at all times.

            Stiles took two steps closer to Scott.

            Talia led them to a small room, a study of some kind, dominated by a large table in the middle absolutely covered in papers. Stiles had to fight every instinct he had not to walk over and start reading. Instead, as Scott came to a halt on one side and Talia walked around to the other, Stiles stayed at his elbow.

            “Well, there’s really no simple way to explain this,” Talia said, looking at both of them calmly. “So I’ll just come out with it: The Hales are intimately involved with the human abolitionist movement.”

            If Talia thought that that statement was going to explain anything, she was dead wrong. Stiles’ head felt as if he had just been hit and judging from Scott’s frown, he wasn’t doing any better. Derek looked just as lost.

            “What?” Scott asked.

            “Human independence,” Talia continued, still unreasonably calm in Stiles’ opinion. “There is a… well, not a movement per se, but a contingent of werewolves who are dedicated to fighting for human rights. This is our headquarters.” She gestured to the table, having the grace to look a little embarrassed that their headquarters appeared to be a single, if overflowing, table. “We try not to keep too much information in one place.”

            “Werewolves are fighting for human rights?” Stiles said incredulously. That made no sense. Why would werewolves care about human rights? As it stood now, they were getting a great deal. A free labor pool with little to no chance of rebellion as werewolves were unarguably the stronger species… there was no good reason for this.

            “Yes,” Talia said. “Humans were once equal with werewolves. Not all of us have forgotten.”

            “But…” Stiles floundered for a moment. Sure, he knew intellectually that humans hadn’t always been slaves, that back before werewolves made themselves known, humans thought they were running things. But that was a long time ago. The world had changed since then, molded itself to fit werewolf needs first. Just saying that humans were equal at one point didn’t change anything. “How?” Stiles finally settled on. That was the question that mattered. How? How did they think they were actually going to change anything?

            “Slowly,” Talia said, scowling a bit. “And carefully. Our biggest goal has been to set up a community where humans can live freely. The hope is that one day it will be a safe haven that slaves can flee to but…” She shrugged tightly.

            “It’s hard to hide too many people in one place without werewolves picking up their scent. Even though there aren’t official patrols like there were in the past, there are still those who are distinctly opposed to this idea. Dangerously opposed.”

            “There are about twenty packs working with us now,” Talia continued. “But many of them are small and less influential. The core packs, led by a werewolf called Duecalion, are almost entirely pro-slavery. And they are using their power to threaten and manipulate anyone who they deem suspicious.”

            Her eyes met Stiles and for the first time he saw true regret pass over her face.

            “That’s why I had to have you whipped, Stiles,” she said softly. “Too many other Alphas had heard about what happened. I couldn’t sell you but… I had to make a public statement. We’re not strong enough to challenge them yet. Not openly.”

            She paused for a moment.

            “I am truly sorry,” she finally said, eyes cutting from Stiles to Scott and back again. “I hope that one day you can forgive me.”

            “That’s…. okay,” Stiles said lamely. He wasn’t sure he meant it. But he wasn’t lying either. This was a lot to process.

            Talia’s chin jerked up for an instant before she was nodding in acceptance. Stiles didn’t quite know what that meant but from behind her Derek’s face had fallen into complete disbelief. Stiles was just happy that she continued speaking almost immediately.

            “We’ve been trying to spread our influence, to sway some of the more neutral packs to our side but it’s- there have been attempts to infiltrate our pack,” Talia said. “In the past few months, we’ve had to slow down our attempts considerably-“

            “Infiltrate?” Scott interrupted, taking a step forward. Stiles cut his eyes to his friend, who was standing straighter somehow. He seemed taller at least.

            “Twice now, slaves who we would normally purchase and then immediately move to the village have been found to be lying. Research proves that they were at one point owned by Duecalion or one of his associates. We suspect he’s trying to catch us red-handed, so to speak.”

            “Wait,” Stiles said, frowning. “Go back. Where is this community exactly? How many people are there? When was it started?”

            Talia seemed somewhat relieved to have clear questions to answer, her shoulders relaxing just like Derek’s did when Stiles hit him with a thousand questions at once.

            So it came out. In shorter, clipped phrases that were still somehow formal. Deep in the woods, a five or six day hike from Hale property there was a small group of freed slaves living without the knowledge of most werewolves. She spoke little of its inception, only saying that it had been started just over thirty years ago and now housed almost a hundred people.

            One hundred people. Living in freedom.

            It was unfathomable.

            It was incredible. Stiles felt a rush of excitement finally pierce through the haze of disbelief. Freedom was possible. The dream, the one that he and Scott always talked about where Scott was free to learn how to cure animals and Stiles was free to do... whatever was possible. He could almost see it. Scott healing animals and Mrs. McCall healing sick people and Stiles could make sure everyone was happy and there would be no orders or commands and they could be happy. And free.

            “How do you decide who gets immediately ‘moved to the community?’” Scott finally asked as Talia faded into silence. Stiles glanced over at his friend and fought not to smile. For once, he was the one basking in the glory of the idea and Scott was already thinking ahead, focusing on future problems and probably already figuring out how best to run things. He would be great at it. Scott could have a real- well, not pack because they weren't werewolves but... family. Or something close to it. Stiles shook himself and tried to focus. Tried to complete the complete giddy disbelief off his face. He didn't know how Scott was doing it. Scott looked as if he had somehow knew that this existed, as if Talia was simply confirming something he already knew to be true.

            “We have to be careful,” Talia admitted, frowning a bit. “Some slaves have unfortunately been… abused to an extent that they would be uncomfortable with the idea of freedom. Additionally, if word spread too widely among the enslaved population, chances are the werewolf elements I spoke of earlier would be made aware.”

            Scott didn’t say anything, but his frown of disapproval spoke volumes. Talia sighed and continued.

            “Generally, we seek out those at auctions who we think would benefit from being free. Those who are still openly rebellious or used to living in more independent settings. Aside from that, we offer the option to all of our staff when they reach the age of retirement, or sooner if they seem truly unhappy.”

            “That is unacceptable,” Scott declared firmly. Stiles felt himself refocus, wanted to put his hand on his friend’s arm to calm him down, or maybe step between the two but… well, Derek claimed Scott was an Alpha. And if Scott was an Alpha, then he could challenge another Alpha and all Stiles could do was send his own glare at Talia Hale while also glancing around to see if there were any another exits he might have missed.

            “Unacceptable?” Talia’s voice was cool and perhaps a bit surprised.

            “You don’t get to make that choice for people,” Scott said. “If you claim that you are fighting for human freedom, then you can’t just assume someone is happy and wait until you think they want to retire to free them. Everyone needs to be given the choice right away.”

            “And if there are spies among them?”

            “You really think that humans would report you to other werewolves?” Scott asked, sounding disbelieving. Stiles frowned. A part of him wanted to agree with Scott, hating to think that there were slaves who could betray their own kind like that. But… Stiles had seen the damage that years of abuse could do to people, could see how it would be easy to sneak a spy into the Hales if werewolves got too suspicious. Scott might not be able to imagine it, but his friend always had been too trusting.

            “There can be a waiting period,” Stiles said, trying to seem calm when both Alphas’ eyes flew towards him. “But it should be only around three months. Six months at the most. You should be able to tell if there is any danger in that amount of time.”

            “You can also explain to them the benefit of staying here if they are happy,” Scott allowed, nodding. “So people don’t get too suspicious if all your slaves disappear after three months.”

            “Fine,” Talia said after a moment, inclining her head. “That seems fair.”

            Idly, Stiles wondered when this had become a negotiation.

            “And a human must be part of the decision process in deciding whether or not they are trustworthy,” Scott added. “It can’t just be you deciding whether or not you think someone may be reporting to their previous master.”

            “Of course,” Talia allowed and an almost fond smile skittered across her face for a moment. Apparently Scott was doing a good job being an Alpha. At least, that’s what Stiles hoped that meant.

            “Now, how much knowledge do you have about this community?” Scott asked, stepping forward to look at the piles of papers Talia had indicated earlier. He picked one up and frowned at it for a moment before passing it wordlessly to Stiles.

            Luckily, Stiles could read Scott’s glances better than anyone. And the slight shrug and tense shoulders clearly meant: Figure out what this is for me so I don’t have to ask her what it means. Stiles kept his face absolutely neutral, but made a mental note to get on Scott about practicing reading again. They had been slacking these past few weeks, busy first with the alcohol and then just letting it slide but Stiles wouldn’t always be there to do this for him.

            “You supply them with food,” Stiles said, skimming the paper in front of him. “And clothing.”

            “Among other things,” Talia said, gaze flicking between the two of them as if she had realized what just happened. “In return, I do get fairly regular updates on how everything is going.”

            “That will have to stop,” Scott muttered, still looking down at the piles of papers.

            Stiles saw Talia’s jaw clench and thought that maybe Scott had finally gone too far.

            “Now, look here,” Talia said, voice tight with anger, her eyes flashing red. “I was the one to start this camp and many of the people living there are my friends. If I’m going to be supplying it then I deserve-”

            “You can’t keep supplying it,” Scott interrupted, meeting her eyes easily. “That’s what I mean. If this is supposed to be fighting for human independence than it has to be just that: independent. You can’t keep giving out food and supplies and whatever else and then expect progress updates in return.”

            Talia frowned but didn’t say anything and Scott’s eyes softened for a moment.

            “That doesn’t mean you can’t get letters from your friends there,” he said, eyes wide and understanding, as if he knew exactly what she was truly mad about and was going to make it better. “You can. But they will be personal letters. Not formal reports.”

            A beat.

            “You won’t be in charge anymore, Talia,” Scott said firmly.

            Stiles felt Derek tense from across the table, eyes flashing gold for a moment at the casual ease with which Scott said his mother’s name.

            But Talia was already nodding, looking, well… not entirely happy but not offended. Stiles let out a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding and saw Derek do the same, though the confused frown stayed on his face. Stiles didn’t blame him. This was all a bit confusing for him as well.

            He had known Scott was a leader, had come to agree with Derek when the werewolf had claimed Scott was an Alpha but to see it in person, to watch his best friend take on Talia Hale was still… alarming.

            “Well, then,” Talia said. “I assume you two will be leaving soon.”

            “Yes,” Scott said, almost absentmindedly.

            Then he stiffened, eyes flying up to meet Stiles’. Suddenly he wasn’t Scott the Alpha anymore, but just Scott, his best friend. Scott, his brother.

            And he looked unsure. Like he didn't know if Stiles would want to come which made absolutely no sense because why on earth would Stiles not go with Scott except-

            Oh.

            “I mean, I am,” Scott amended quickly, sounding embarrassed and apologetic. “I don’t know if-”

            “Don’t be ridiculous,” Stiles said, keeping his voice light, reaching up to grab Scott’s shoulder. “Of course I’m coming with you.”

            There was never a question of that. They stuck together. Through everything. Through anything. Scott didn’t even have to ask.

            Stiles decide to ignore every instinct he suddenly had to look over at Derek. He decided to ignore the rush of doubt that suddenly filled his brain and the way his stomach sank at the thought of leaving Derek and the fact that the reassuring smile he was shooting at Scott was horrifically, undoubtedly fake.

            It shouldn’t be. He was happy to be leaving. In so many ways it felt right. Being free, helping other humans, fighting werewolves… it was right.

            He just hadn’t considered that it almost meant leaving Derek. Not that leaving Derek should really matter. Derek was a werewolf. Okay, he was also their friend and he was funny and kind and decent and hilarious when he was drunk but he was a werewolf.

            For almost nineteen years, werewolves had been, at best, distant and neglectful owners and, at worst… well, “Fuck werewolves” had been their unofficial slogan for a long time. Werewolves were the enemy. And even if it wasn’t true anymore, even if Derek had proven that there were good werewolves out there…

            Stiles certainly couldn’t stay for him. And he knew he couldn’t ask Derek to come with them.

            So he shoved those feelings down and grinned at Scott. This was what they'd always wanted.

            “Excellent,” Talia Hale said. “Well, we’ll meet to discuss details later. For now, I’m sure you want to tell your mother and the others. If you could provide me with a list of those who would like to leave with you, I can start to make the arrangements.”

            It was a dismissal and Stiles was relieved when Scott accepted it with a nod.

            It was getting harder not to cut his eyes to Derek. He just hoped that Derek understood. It wasn’t about him or about not being happy. It was just… what he had to do right now.

            He was Scott’s Second. It was what he had to do. And he wanted to do it. He just also wanted…

            He didn’t know.

            He was grateful when Scott tossed his arm around him and pulled him out.

*^*^*^

 

            Derek didn’t move after Scott and Stiles left. Couldn’t really. A lot had just happened. Too much to process all at once.

            He took a breath and fought down the rising panic that Stiles was leaving. He couldn’t handle that right now. He didn’t want to think about the scent of excitement that had rushed out of Stiles as soon as the disbelief had faded that not even the other million other scents could disguise. He didn’t want to think about the fact that Stiles hadn’t even glanced at him, had just grinned at Scott and then followed as Scott pulled him out.

            He couldn’t think about that right now.

            So he focused on something else.

            Like the fact that apparently his family was intimately involved in a human abolitionist movement and he had had no idea.

            Luckily, his mother hadn’t moved for her spot except to turn to him.

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” he finally asked and he didn’t know if he was more angry or hurt that she hadn’t thought he was trustworthy enough to know. Did she think that he wouldn’t want to help? That he would disagree? That he would side with werewolves like Deucalion? Or Brunski? Did she really think so little of him?

            “Derek,” his mother started, taking a step towards him and then stopping. “We… your father and I decided a long time ago that this was a choice you children would have to make for yourself.”

            Derek shook his head, not understanding. The Alpha made the decisions in a pack. That was what was expected.

            “Fighting for a cause like this… it’s dangerous,” his mother said. “It’s dangerous and there’s no easy answer. Sometimes we lose. Sometimes we lose a lot.

            “So we decided to let you kids come to your own decisions. Obviously, we would teach you to respect humans and care for them properly, but as for… as for actively fighting in this battle, we couldn’t command you do to it. Not even I could.”

            “So… Laura and Cora?” Derek asked slowly.

            “Not yet,” Talia said. “Laura has started asking questions though. And doubtless both of them will have to be made aware if Scott convinces enough of the slaves to leave with him.”

            A small smile crossed her face, soft and sad and she looked away for a moment.

            “And I suspect he will. I think he’ll get a great many of them to leave with him.”

            “That’s a good thing, right?” Derek said, trying to convince himself. “I mean… they’ll be free.”

            “Yes,” his mother said, even as she turned to him. “But nothing is ever entirely good or bad.”

            “Some things are,” Derek said, frowning. Slavery was evil. It hurt Stiles. “Like slavery. There’s nothing good about it.” Except it had brought Stiles to him. Which he hated himself for even thinking.

            “I agree,” Talia said quickly and then she was closing the distance between them.

            “I’ve been so proud of you these past few months,” she said, reaching to grab his shoulders. “I almost told you months ago, when you first came back from the auction and were so upset. But… but I wanted you to be sure. And then even when it was obvious, even when you- the whipping happened and when you befriended them and found their parents and you…

            “I wanted to tell you but I couldn’t,” she whispered, pulling him into a hug that he hadn’t even realized he needed. But he buried his head into her neck and relaxed more than he had since Harris interrupted them in the library. “You had to choose for yourself.”

            She pulled back for a moment and Derek was shocked to see that her eyes were wet with unshed tears.

            She was silent for a long time and Derek thought she was done talking. But, then, suddenly and softly she spoke: “Humans used to be part of werewolf packs, you know.”

            “What?” he asked, a bit confused. His mother tended to do that, skip forward or continue a conversation completely different from the one you thought you were having.

            “It was acceptable to add humans to your pack. Same as werewolves,” she said unhelpfully. “They don't feel the bond in quite the same way but it is there. It’s possible.”

            Derek wondered if his mother was implying what he thought she was. If she would welcome Stiles to the pack officially. If he asked. If he wanted her to. For a moment, he could picture it. Being with Stiles forever. Officially.

            But as soon as it formed, the picture was gone.

            “He would never say yes,” Derek said, fighting to keep his voice even. “And I couldn’t… I couldn’t ask him to.”

            “I know,” Talia said, pulling him tighter again. “You’re letting him go.”

            Her words made it more real somehow and suddenly he was shuddering, choking back emotions that he didn’t want to acknowledge.

            “You’re doing what not even I could do,” Talia said, rocking him even though he was focusing all his efforts into not crying. For the briefest moment, he questioned what she could possibly mean by that but she didn’t pause long enough to give him time to ask.

            “I’m so proud of you,” she repeated softly. “I’m so proud.”

            It was the ultimate compliment from an Alpha to her Beta and her heart was steady and he knew without looking that her eyes were red and firm and Derek wondered why it didn’t make him feel any better.

 

*^*^*^

 

            “So… you’re really not coming?”

            It was late, she was alone, and Stiles had managed to slide into the kitchen without her noticing. Still, she wasn’t particularly surprised. She also knew that he had probably been waiting to talk to her alone for the past four days.

            It might be why she had decided to stick around and prep food for two days in advance, but Jennifer didn’t feel the need to admit that.

            “No,” she replied, setting the knife down so she could give Stiles her full attention. She wasn’t leaving but he was. Soon. “Someone has to watch over Simon and Dee.”

            “You know they would come if you came,” Stiles replied, but Jenny could see that he wasn’t really trying to convince her.

            She was glad. She had thought about it, about leaving to follow Scott to live freely with other humans but in the end she had decided to stay. She had told Stiles and Scott and then was incredibly grateful when Simon and Dee had announced they were staying as well, even after she told them they should go if they wanted.

            She just couldn’t do it. She was happy here and… and the Hales were already losing so many people. Scott and Stiles and Melissa obviously, but also over half the gardening staff. Grace and Frank had decided to go. And, in probably the biggest twist of all, Deaton had informed Talia just yesterday that he would be leaving as well.

            She had seen Talia’s face yesterday when she went up to serve the Alpha her afternoon tea. It was soft and sad and older and Jennifer couldn’t help but tell her that she was staying. And no one could have missed the relief and gratitude that filled Talia’s face.

            There were others that were still in the process of deciding. Heather was in that group. Jennifer hoped for Cora’s sake that she stayed. Cora had already been in her kitchen twice, oscillating between angry, hurt, and understanding that Isaac had signed up to follow Scott without a moment’s hesitation.

            Isaac was trying to make it up to her, Jenny knew. He’d spent the past four days practically glued to Cora’s side, telling old stories and pulling new pranks and had volunteered to lead the last group out but… but Jennifer still prayed that Heather decided to stay.

            “One day,” Jennifer replied and she realized she might be lying. She couldn’t see herself retiring any time soon and Laura and Cora would still be here. Derek would still be here. Someone had to look after him, especially now that…

            “Are you excited?” she asked purposefully changing the subject as Stiles sat down on one of the stools, slumping over, clearly exhausted. Both he and Scott had been working themselves half to death over the past few days. Scott was running around, talking to everyone individually, making sure they knew their rights, their options, the risks entailed with both. It had been an alarmingly fair speech, Jennifer had to give him that. But it had also been fairly lengthy and he refused to stop even when you told him your answer within the first five minutes. Then he’d switched to taking volunteers as to who would leave in the first, second, and third wave, seemingly intent on getting the order and different groups of people just so.

            That had left much of the planning to Stiles. From what she’d heard, Stiles had mostly been trapped reading up on the village as it was now, estimating how what supplies were most suited to achieving independence. He had pulled her and Deaton into a conference on food supply two days ago and spent the entirety of the two hour meeting scribbling furiously into a notebook. Eventually, she’d had to leave to go set up dinner, sending some over when it became clear that Stiles and Deaton were going to miss the evening meal completely.

            He looked haggard and pale and not nearly as happy as Jennifer had assumed he would be.

            Though whether that was because of the amount of work he was doing or something else entirely was a completely different issue.

            “Yes?” Even Stiles made it a question when he finally answered. “I mean, yes. Yes, it’s good. It’s… it’s just happening very fast.”

            That was true. Scott had declared that the first wave, which included himself, Stiles, Deaton, and four or five other people from the outdoor staff were going to leave in a week. And that had been four days ago. Which left them three days.

            “Scott could push back leaving for a few days,” Jennifer suggested mildly. “You boys are going to be lucky you don’t collapse on the journey out there.”

            “No,” Stiles said, shaking his head and making an effort to sit up straighter. “No, it makes sense. We have to start planting soon if we want crops to be ready for summer. He’s right to push forward.”

            “You could always leave with the last group,” Jennifer said and Stiles snorted a laugh at her.

            “And leave Scott trying organize the planting?” Stiles shook his head. “Even if he weren’t busy introducing himself to everyone and convincing all these people that he should somehow be in charge even though he’s nineteen and just arrived, that would still be a disaster.”

            “Is that his plan?” Jennifer asked. She obviously had no idea how the current community was set-up or how it handled day to day challenges. Maybe they didn’t even bother with a leader at all.

            “Of course not,” Stiles said, looking partly proud and partly exasperated. “But he’s Scott. He’ll go around being nice and suggesting things and that’s what he will end up doing anyway.

            “Plus, he obviously already has the backing of everyone here who’s coming and from the sound of it, the community as it stands now is almost entirely comprised of retirement age people. It’s going to be a change. He’ll help everyone see it’s for the best.”

            Stiles waved a casual hand, dismissive both of any doubts about Scott’s ability and his own insights into the situation. Jennifer wished he didn’t do that sometimes. For all that Scott led others naturally and without much forethought, Stiles was just as skilled at thinking, at reading people and minimizing threats, at least threats to Scott. She had no doubt that he would be there, behind the scenes, making Scott’s rise to power easier without Scott ever knowing.

            “You two will certainly have your hands full,” Jennifer replied neutrally.

            “Yeah,” Stiles agreed. “Yeah and even if I did trust Deaton or Scott to handle it without me, I… I should still want to go, right?”

            He wasn’t looking at her, content to stare at his own hand as he rubbed something unseen on the counter. When she stayed silent, his eyes darted to her, confused and uncertain, before flying back down.

            “I mean…” he continued, even more softly now. “It’s not like there’s any reason to… to want to stay or anything.”

            “I think only you can answer that,” Jennifer replied, wishing that she had better advice to offer.

            This was the first time that Stiles had ever acknowledged, however broadly, whatever was happening with him and Derek. Derek’s feelings about Stiles were obnoxiously obvious to anyone who had known Derek before. Or even if you didn’t know Derek before. Melissa McCall had thrown enough contemplative looks Derek’s way that Jennifer knew there was no way the woman didn’t know exactly what was going on. Of course, Derek had then drunkenly asked her how to administer an EpiPen no less than three or four times so…

            There was no doubt about Derek’s feelings. Maybe not the complete extent of them or where Derek wanted them to go but… the entire kitchen staff knew something was up. But everyone also knew enough never to talk about it. Because the one person that seemed happily oblivious was Stiles.

            Or at least, Jennifer thought he was happily oblivious. But while Derek tried to act like a closed book, Stiles actually was a closed book. Yes, anyone could see that over the past six months, he had relaxed around Derek, had grown comfortable and certainly liked Derek at least as a friend. But beyond that?

            It was impossible to say. And Jennifer knew that there were clues there, that it didn’t make sense that a teenage boy would be so unaware and uncomfortable with any romantic attention. A few weeks ago, Scott had broken a soft silence around the dinner table to talk about a girl named Allison, all soft smiles and warm eyes and the entire staff had adored their love story even though it ended with Scott and Stiles being sold. The conversation had naturally turned to Stiles and Jennifer knew that it must mean something that Stiles’ smile had frozen and gone stilted and uncomfortable when Dee had asked if he’d ever fallen in love. She knew it must mean something more when Stiles became impossibly more uncomfortable when Simon tried to make a joke about at least getting some action at some point. Jennifer knew that Stiles’ intense dislike of being touched when he wasn’t ready for it and tendency to push people away with a joke and a smile when they tried to get too close were clues to something.

            She just didn’t think that she really wanted to put those clues together.

            “There’s not,” Stiles said, frowning. “I mean, there’s not a reason. It’s impossible. He’s a… you know. And I’m- not.”

            “It wouldn’t be easy,” Jennifer allowed. He was right. If human and werewolf relationships happened, they were kept quiet. She only knew of one and… well, that wasn’t her story to tell. It would be hard. There was no denying that. “But it wouldn’t be impossible. Your friends would support you.”

            For a moment, Stiles stayed silent, absentminded chewing on his lip before shaking his head and snapping out of it.

            “No,” he said but it came out too fast. Rushed. Almost panicked. “No, it is. I shouldn’t even want to- I’m not- He doesn’t.”

            He met her eyes finally and her heart broke at the emotions there.

            “I’m not... right,” he said slowly, a darkness and shame crossing over his face that Jennifer wanted to wipe away instantly. She knew it didn’t belong there. Knew it in her bones. “He deserves- This is for the best.”

            “I think that’s something that you should be asking him,” Jennifer said, hating that she could sense he was already moving away, though he stayed sitting. “Have you two talked at all?”

            “No,” Stiles frowned, some of the certainty fading as his face morphed into concern. “No, I think he’s avoiding me.”

            Jennifer sighed. She missed the days when she tried to remain uninvolved with the personal lives of her staff. Somehow she had ended up smack dab in the middle of the two most idiotic boys on the planet.

            “Stiles, I’m sure-” she started but then he was standing.

            “No, no it’s okay,” he said. “Just… you’ll look after him, right?”

            He wouldn’t listen to her, Jennifer realized. He wouldn’t let himself.

            Maybe it was for the best. She had no idea what to tell him anyway.

            “I will,” she said accepting the change in conversation. She would. She would have even if Stiles never asked her to.

            “Thank you,” Stiles said and then he was wrapping her into a careful hug. Jennifer stiffened before grabbing him tighter. She hadn’t realized this was goodbye.

            It made sense, she supposed. He was leaving in three days and he would be busy. She would be busy. It made sense to do it now.

            “For everything,” he added unnecessarily. “You were always- yeah, just, thank you.”

            “Be good,” she told him, telling herself that if she didn’t blink, she wouldn’t technically be crying. “No getting into trouble.”

            “Me?” He asked, pulling away to grin at her, all smiles and false innocence and it made her smile. “Trouble? Never.”

            “Oh, yeah right,” she scoffed, swatting him playfully on the shoulder. Then she pulled him in again because she hadn’t meant to, but she had fallen in love with him anyway.

            “Bye, Jenny,” he said softly, even though doubtless he would see her between now and when he left.

            “You better write,” she said, trying to make herself sound firm instead of desperate. “Often. Or I’ll have Scott yell at you.”

            “I will,” Stiles said.

            “And keep eating,” she continued. “You’ve already lost weight.”

            “I will!” Stiles was laughing at her now. This is why she tried not to be so emotional.

            “And no drinking.”

            “Well, now you’re just being ridicul-”

            “Stiles.

            “We won’t right away. We’ll be busy!”

            “You’re awful.”

            “You love me.”

            Jennifer paused, knowing she was supposed to smile and joke and deny it. But who knows when Stiles had heard those words last.

            “Yes I do,” she said instead and was rewarded with Stiles freezing, apparently stunned into silence. She could practically feel him searching for something to say. “So be good.”

            He nodded wordlessly against her and she released him, turning back to her work so he could pretend he wasn’t touched and she could pretend she wasn’t crying. He moved towards the door wordlessly and she waited until he was almost gone before she gave her final piece of advice:

            “And talk to Derek.”

            He didn’t say anything, but the pause in his step told her he had heard.

 

*^*^*^

 

            The week had passed too quickly for Derek to follow.

            Or maybe it had moved too slowly.

            He wasn’t sure. It all seemed to blur together into just one long, miserable day spent sitting in meetings between his mother and Laura that he couldn’t even pretend to pay attention to, trying to comfort Cora when she came into to cry about Isaac while secretly hating that she could just come out and say she was upset, and, above all, avoiding Stiles.

            He knew where Stiles was all week, knew he was holed up in what his mother had called their “headquarters” working and writing and planning and Derek knew he would probably appreciate help. He knew he should go and help. That’s what a friend would do.

            But helping Stiles to plan his departure had seemed like too much.

            And then even when Stiles had looked for him yesterday, wandering silently into the library and hovering around their spot in the back, running one hand along the table as if trying to memorize it… Derek had still stayed out of view.

            But he couldn’t miss this. He couldn’t just hide in his room while Scott and Stiles left.

            They were leaving Hale property through the back gardens, trekking through the woods for almost a week before finally arriving at the village. Talia had assured Derek that there was a trail, that Deaton had actually been there before and knew where he was going. Derek had seen the maps and knew that each group leader (Scott, Mrs. McCall, and Isaac respectively) had studied it extensively, had been informed of a hundred different ways to avoid detection by Talia herself, and he knew that people had made the journey before.

            That didn’t stop him from being absolutely terrified.

            He was currently standing in the last clearing of the Hale property, watching as Greenburg and a few of the other gardeners walked into the woods, led by Deaton and waved forward by Scott. He was putting all his efforts into trying not to embarrass himself by blurting out something ridiculous. Like it had been raining fairly regularly so maybe they should wait a month. Or they really were cutting it close with planting season so maybe they should just wait until next year.

            “Good luck,” Talia said serenely, shaking Scott’s hand formally. She and Derek were the only ones there. Everyone else had said goodbye in the house.

            “Thanks,” Scott replied and his smile wasn’t as open or friendly as it was with the other Hales but it was still wider than Derek would have expected.

            “And to you as well, Stiles,” Talia said, taking his hand as well. Then she held it for a beat as she continued. “You are both welcome any time.”

            “Thanks,” Stiles echoed, sounding a bit more stilted than Scott. Talia nodded and then turned go to, catching eyes with Derek for a moment and sending a message he couldn’t interpret. But she left them alone, walking away quickly enough that Derek didn’t even think she was sticking around to eavesdrop.

            “Thanks for everything, man,” Scott said, grinning widely at him as if Derek hadn’t been avoiding both of them for the past week. Then he was throwing down his backpack and pulling Derek into a brief hug. “You’re the best.”

            “No,” Derek said, gripping Scott harder for a moment. It was strange because he had always connected with Stiles, had focused on Stiles leaving all week that he was only now realizing how much he would miss Scott as well. “Pretty sure, that’s you.”

            Scott released him with a happy smile and a self-depreciating shrug and roll of his eyes and Derek couldn’t help but smile back.

            Then Scott stepped away and picked up his back, swinging it over his shoulder.

            For a moment Derek panicked, thinking that Scott was going to leave and Stiles was going to just follow him and they weren’t ever going to say anything and he would just be gone but then Scott grabbed Stiles’ bag as well, pulling it across his other shoulder and sort of shoving Stiles forward.

            “We’ll meet up with you in a bit,” Scott said and then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he walked away.

            Derek blinked at him, for a moment not understanding at all what was happening.

            But then, it was just the two of them. Stiles’ hand was still sort of hanging in the air, groping for the bag that Scott had snatched out of his hands before either of them could say anything.

            The moon wasn’t full, but it was clear and the stars were bright and Derek didn’t have to change his eyes to gold to see him perfectly. Or maybe he just had Stiles memorized.

            Either way, he could see him: his tall, lanky form, his eyes almost amber in the fading light. Stiles’ head turned to follow Scott for a moment but then he was looking at Derek. Hand dropping to fiddle with the string of his sweatshirt-

            He was wearing the sweatshirt. The red one Derek had given him ages ago. Even though everyone else was wearing black or blues, darker colors meant to blend into the night. He was wearing the red one.

            Derek had to say something, he realized. He had avoided him all week and suddenly he felt so stupid because they could have had a whole week but instead he’d been an idiot. A goddamn moron. With nothing to say. He hadn’t even planned on saying anything, on seeing Stiles alone. Scott had forced this and this was a disaster because he didn’t know what to say.

            “So,” Stiles said, shifting from foot to foot. “Uh. I guess this is it.”

            Derek forced himself to jerk his head in a nod and then silence descended. He watched as Stiles sort of shifted and then maybe started to turn away, to leave and finally, finally Derek’s voice started working again.

            “Take care of-” It came out sort of gruff and too soon, Derek had to stop, throat closing.

            “-of Scott,” Stiles finished for him, one side of his mouth twisting into a smile. “I will, don’t wor-”

            “No,” Derek interrupted, suddenly desperate. “No, Stiles, take care of yourself. Don’t-”

            He had to stop again. There was too much he wanted to say. Don’t get hurt. Don’t let anyone hurt you. Don’t forget you’re important.

            Don’t go, his brain supplied. Please don’t go.

            He wasn’t ready for Stiles to hug him, arms wrapping around his neck fiercely, head burying into his shoulder but he somehow knew what to do anyway. His arms came up to cling to Stiles’ back and his head went down to Stiles’ neck and he just breathed in, trying to memorize everything about Stiles, trying to just hold onto-

            “Order me to stay.”

            Stiles voice was muffled against his shoulder and hoarse and Derek froze. Stiles must’ve sensed it because he leaned back only far enough to meet Derek’s eyes.

            “I’d do it,” he said and they’d never kissed, never even came close but it was all Derek could do not to just stare at his lips. They were so close. He wanted to do it. He wanted to tell Stiles to stay and kiss him and keep him here forever and-

            “No,” he said, shaking his head and squeezing tighter. Stiles dropped his head back down and his body sagged and he smelled like both sadness and relief. “No, I’m not ordering you to do anything. Never again.”

            “I’m not sure you ever did in the first place,” Stiles said, laughing wetly into his neck.

            Derek frowned. “I made you eat that sandwich that one time.”

            “Yeah,” Stiles agreed and he was smiling. Derek could feel it. “You’re such an asshole.”

            Derek laughed and then let go. Because he had to.

            “Alright,” he said, stepping back. “Your choice.”

            Stiles took a breath and his smile was both grateful and regretful.

            Then he nodded, one shoulder twitching up into a shrug.

            “Goodbye, Derek.”

            And then he was gone.

 

The End.