"So, I'm thinking of taking the GC exam."
Scott stumbles to a halt, catching Stiles by the elbow. Stiles pulls a face at him, half-turning and taking the opportunity to lean over his knees and catch his breath for a moment. He's always been told he's built for running, but his body just hasn't gotten the memo.
"No way, dude. Ground Crew? Everyone makes fun of Ground Crew. We make fun of Ground Crew. Greenburg is Ground Crew."
"I'm aware," Stiles sighs, standing upright again and pressing his fists into his lower back to try and push away some of the ache. "I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to do. In a month I age out of Intake and I want to stay with the program."
"There's gotta be something else," Scott says, forever optimistic which is one of the things Stiles loves about him.
"I'm all ears," Stiles invites, and he waits, watching Scott shuffle mentally through options and discard them. Stiles knows the feeling, he's done the same brain dance himself. When Scott starts looking upset that he can't come up with anything, Stiles claps him on the shoulder with a rueful grin. "It's fine, really. I'm sure I'll get used to Harris screaming at me and shoveling dragon shit. I'll be... contributing."
Stiles swallows hard, not wanting Scott to see just how disappointed he is but they've been friends since coming into the program together and Scott is scarily astute when it comes to reading people. His face crumples a little more and Scott fists a hand in the bottom of Stiles' shirt, tugging like a kid wanting attention from their parents.
"Maybe they could bend the rules, just this once," Scott says. "We were picked up late. We didn't get the three seasons to try like everyone else."
"Eighteen's the cut-off," Stiles sighs, plucking the bottom of his shirt out of Scott's grip so he can wipe over his sweaty face with it.
"I checked already. In about a week I'm going to be given my marching orders unless I can find another slot."
Stiles and Scott had become fast friends when they'd both ended up at the DRP facility under pretty much the same circumstances. They'd both taken the PCR test in high school when they were fifteen like everyone else, and had both had negative results. It took a mandatory college re-screen as part of the application process and a more sensitive protocol for the guys to turn up on their doorsteps.
Stiles had been like any other kid growing up in the era of dragons. He'd watched the cartoons, the news stories, had the lunch box. When his screening at Beacon Hills High had come up negative, he'd been disappointed but unsurprised. His positive results were returned three years too late for it to be in any way convenient or cool, but Stiles had still been hanging on to the hope that in some, still to be discovered way, he was special and for just a moment, it had seemed like that was true.
Except he'd attended three hatchings and hadn't sparked with a single dragon.
Scott had been luckier than he was.
Scott eases his backpack off his back carefully and unzips it, digging Mika out of her dark hiding space. Scott has to keep in constant contact when Mika is this young and they'd found she hadn't minded being toted around in the bag at all, in fact went promptly to sleep whenever the backpack was involved. Scott proffers the small dragon to Stiles now, probably in an attempt to cheer him up.
Stiles kind of wants to cling to his morose mood, but he can't quite manage it when he's got Mika cuddled against his chest, rubbing her rough snout against the underside of his jaw. Stiles won't be able to touch her when she's full grown because of the Rider bond, but as a hatchling she's fair game for anyone that wants a snuggle and Stiles has been taking full advantage of it.
"Oh, I almost forgot! I totally taught her to fist-bump!" Scott says, eyes sparkling with excitement. He makes a clicking noise that gets Mika's attention and then holds his fist out to her. She uncurls one paw from where it's tangled against Stiles' belly and reaches out to tap her claws against Scott's fingers.
It's freaking adorable.
"Yeah, that's cute now, but it might be a different story when she's the size of a Winnebago."
"Oh yeah," Scott says, frowning for a beat before he rallies. "I totally taught her an attack already! She'll fist-bump our enemies to death." The bond between Scott and his dragon is still in the fledgling stages, but excitement seems to be something that carries quickly and Stiles struggles to hold onto the tiny dragon as she unfolds her wings, chirruping and squirming.
"Calm your roll before I get clawed to pieces," Stiles complains, handing the struggling bundle back to Scott. He holds Mika up in front of him and makes kissy faces at her, Mika batting her paws at Scott's cheeks and squeaking happily.
"I'm sorry I'll miss it," Stiles says and Scott tucks Mika under his arm like a football so he can put a hand on Stiles' shoulder and squeeze.
"Look, don't sign up for GC yet. Maybe Rider Hale can do something?"
"That guy hates me," Stiles says morosely. It's unfortunate that Derek Hale is about as hot as he is scary. Stiles hasn't had this many confused fear boners in his life. He's pretty sure Derek somehow knows and it's one of the reasons he has no patience for Stiles. It's not like he's started rider training yet because he hadn't sparked, but the guy had seemed to take a disliking to Stiles just from their few passes in the hall and Stiles hanging out waiting for Scott after tutorials.
"He's just a little... terse. He's a good guy, really. I'm sure if I asked-"
"Scott, just..." Stiles sighs, scuffing his sneakers on the tiled floor beneath his feet. He's worn a hole in the toe of his left one and it's depressing to think that he'll more than likely be back home in Beacon Hills before he gets a chance to replace it. "Leave it, okay? Maybe it just wasn't meant to be."
"You're my best bro and we were going to ride together," Scott says. Mika's now looking between them, making a low distressed whining noise. Stiles reaches out to scratch her under the eye fan where she likes it the most.
"I might be stuck on the bench, but that doesn't mean anything for us, okay?"
"Okay," Scott says, but he still looks a little cagey so Stiles endeavors to keep Scott as busy as possible and make their last week together awesome to distract him.
"Hey, maybe I could become an instructor. What's that saying, those who can't do, teach, right? Look at Harris."
"Maybe," Scott says glumly.
"Yeah, I know. I've missed you," Stiles says, pausing in tossing socks towards his open suitcase to press his face to the webcam to make his dad laugh.
"So, the Ground Crew thing didn't work out?"
"I missed the cut-off for this year and Director Argent told me I was welcome to apply next year but it's... surprisingly popular. They get a few thousand applicants and they only have a few slots."
"Surely you'd get a leg up knowing the program?"
"I thought you wanted me back?"
"I want you to be happy," his dad says and Stiles has to draw back and press his face into a t-shirt for a moment so his dad can't see that he's getting a little teary.
Stiles startles badly, flinging shirts and underwear in every direction. He spins around to see a red-haired girl in his doorway, drumming her nails against the jamb. She looks annoyed and Stiles has no idea why, but what's strange is that he recognizes her.
"Lydia?" Stiles splutters, completely thrown. He's not the only one, because Lydia freezes and pins him with a narrow-eyed stare.
"We were in grade school together. You got scooped up by the Advanced Placement program. Rumor was you were working for the CIDD by the time you were fourteen."
"Thirteen," Lydia sniffs and then her face clears of suspicion. "Oh god, Stilinski. I knew that name was familiar."
"Yeah, uh, Stiles?" he says, holding out a hand and then taking it back again when Lydia just looks at it with a raised eyebrow.
"What's going on?" his dad demands from the laptop on his desk. Before Stiles can answer, Lydia breezes past him to lean down in front of the monitor.
"Hi, you must be the elder Stilinski," she says.
"That'd be me, yes," his dad agrees.
Lydia looks back at Stiles, raises an eyebrow at him. "He's handsome. Did it skip a generation with you or something?"
"Don't get me wrong, you're cute and all, but your dad is a-"
Stiles launches himself across the room, disconnecting the call and slamming the laptop lid shut. "I don't want to know how that sentence ends!" he shrills.
"You just hung up on your dad."
"I'll have plenty of time to apologize later."
"That's where you're wrong and brings me back to why I'm here."
"What did I do?" Stiles complains, because while he recognizes Lydia from school, he definitely doesn't remember running afoul of her since he'd joined the program and doesn't know why he'd warrant a personal visit when he was leaving peacefully.
Lydia says with an eye roll that involves her entire being, "The people that run the intake program are dumbasses."
"So I was negative all along? That... doesn't make me feel better," Stiles says, scrunching up his face.
"Oh sweetie, no. You have a fairly... unusual marker that was missed by the labs. You never would have sparked with a hatchling."
"I don't see how what you said and what I did are any different."
"You have the potential to do something that not many other Riders can."
"What's that?" Stiles asks slowly.
"You can bond with a full-grown dragon."
Stiles is happy to trail in her wake, gawking openly as they move through the Rider halls and past training rooms and older, more ceremonial centers before they get to a set of lifts at the end of one stark corridor that has a single symbol above them.
"Stiles," Lydia snaps when he fails to follow her in after she again waves her passcard, gets a green light and thumbs the down button which is the only available option.
"I don't think I can... move," Stiles squeaks.
"Don't be silly-"
"No, it's totally a self-preservation thing," Stiles says, flailing his hands, breathing going shallower. "I'm just a Candidate. I'm not allowed anywhere near here."
"You're with me, it's fine," Lydia dismisses, actually flicking her passcard at him using the retractable cord and managing to catch him in the nose. It stings, but Stiles doesn't so much as flinch.
"No, it really isn't."
"You're taking me to the Hale stables," Stiles says in a wheezy, disbelieving whisper.
"Where did you think we were going?" Lydia asks, the well, duh obvious in her tone.
"Why are you taking me to the Hale stables?" Stiles asks, very reasonably he thinks. If he's going to die a very messy death, he'd like to at least know the reason.
"Just how many unbonded adult dragons do you think we have?" Lydia asks, and when she says it out loud, it's obvious. The words sting like a slap to the face and Stiles finally jerks, but backwards away from the open lift and not towards it. Stiles had been caught up in the excitement, in the prospect of maybe not having to leave and to have that hope dashed so quickly is almost more cruel.
"No," Stiles says, lifts his chin and crosses his arms when Lydia's eyes narrow at him. He knows she's someone used to getting her own way and she tilts her head at him when he plants his feet more firmly. "Not without Rider Hale giving the okay."
Stiles knows he won't, knows his last best hope of staying with the program just vanished, but he's also not willing to go around Derek on something like this. Everyone knows what happened with the Hale family, the Hale dragons and Stiles' own ambition can't come before that.
Lydia's looking at him like he's a particularly dense pet that's suddenly done an interesting trick she didn't teach him. "It's not up to Rider Hale," she says slowly but without much conviction, like she knows that line of argument isn't going to get her anywhere.
"I'd say it's partially up to me and I'm not budging unless he gives the okay," Stiles says. He's pretty sure he's going to be back to packing his bags in an hour but suddenly it doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world, not when he thinks about what Derek has gone through. "I don't want you pressuring him either, or telling him he doesn't have a choice about it."
Lydia lets out a resigned gust of air and then shrugs, stepping back out of the lift and hooking Stiles' elbow with her hand. "Fine, you can come with me to ask so you can't accuse me of pressuring him," she says, voice no-nonsense.
"I'd rather just get back to packing," Stiles says and Lydia pauses.
"You don't think Derek will say yes?" Lydia asks, but it's not really a question.
"I'd just prefer not to be in the fallout zone when you do ask him," Stiles says. "He's grumpy on a good day. I can't imagine what this will look like."
Slightly delayed but still coming home.
Stiles doesn't think it's premature to send the text, but then there's a sharp knock at the door and Stiles fumbles the phone before he can hit send. It bounces on the floor and under the bed and Stiles scowls at the door before answering, knowing it's only going to be Lydia telling him what he already knows.
Except it's not.
Stiles startles when he swings open the door and Derek is on the other side looking hotly furious and just, well, hot. He's in his instructor leathers but the vest is pulled open like he yanked it free on his way to Stiles' room, like maybe his clothing couldn't contain his rage. Stiles thinks he should've just messaged his dad with a simple goodbye because he's pretty sure he's about to die.
"Can I come in?"
Stiles fish-mouths at Derek for a moment, before he steps aside. He quickly darts over to his bed to sweep the pile of underwear off the covers, feeling his cheeks heat in embarrassment and Derek watches him fuss with unreadable eyes for as long as he apparently can before he grabs Stiles by the shoulders and forces him to sit. Stiles goes limp at his touch, nearly slides right off the edge of the bed and only saves himself with an awkward flail of his whole body.
"Look, I didn't ask-" Stiles starts to defend as Derek says, "I told Doctor Martin you could try."
"I'm sorry, what?" Stiles asks after a silence that stretches between them. Derek's tense, jaw clenched and muscle jumping under the skin.
"I mean, it won't work anyway, so I don't see the point but what the hell, right?" Derek gives out this bitter little laugh Stiles has never heard and never wants to again.
"Did she ask you or tell you because-"
Derek holds up his hands. "She asked. She made it very clear that it was a request and it was completely up to me. She was actually polite about it which I think was more disturbing than when she just gives orders."
Stiles scrolls mentally back through their conversation, says, "You don't think it will work?"
"I know it won't," Derek says flatly.
"Why did you agree?"
"You're not the first candidate they've tried this with. I'm hoping you'll be the last." Derek's hands are clenched by his sides, so tight his knuckles are almost bloodless.
"Rider Hale, I really don't think-" Stiles starts, because this is awful. The only context he's had for Derek up until now is that he's the hot older instructor with a tragic back story that can't stand him and to see him almost laid bare like this, Stiles doesn't want that at all.
"Hell, maybe one of them will eat you and then they'll really stop asking," Derek says and Stiles huffs, indignant.
"Do you want to, um, be there?" Stiles asks after another uncomfortable beat of silence.
"I couldn't imagine anything I would rather not do actually," Derek says and Stiles nods, because he can understand that.
"Not even to watch a dragon swallow me whole?" Stiles asks.
"Beatrice wouldn't be able to, she's too small. She'd have to rip bits off. Jura on the other hand..."
"Wow, very reassuring."
"What gave you the impression that I would try to be reassuring?" Derek's face remains completely straight and when Stiles smiles, Derek just keeps staring at him and he realizes that Derek wasn't being funny, or at least not on purpose. Accidentally hilarious, Stiles adds to the tiny list of things he knows about Derek.
Derek nods then like they've come to some agreement, a curt up-down of his head and he spins on his heel. He hesitates at Stiles' doorway though, throws a look over his shoulder and says, haltingly like it costs him something to admit, "I appreciate you making them ask me first though. No one's ever done that before."
"Maybe we should try tying a rope around you and lowering you down there," Lydia says like it's an actual thing she's contemplating. Stiles looks at the dragon, squished as far into a corner of her stall as she can get, letting out mournful chirrups every now and again and shakes his head.
"I already feel like an asshole about this without forcing the issue. She's not up for bonding with anyone."
Beatrice belonged to Cora Hale, youngest member of the Hale family and youngest activated rider in the history of the program. She was a sight to see on the newsfeeds, zipping around the larger, flashier Hale dragons. Cora was only active a year but she made a name for herself and with good reason.
Lydia makes a disappointed noise, but doesn't argue and they move down the suspended walkway to the next stall along. This one houses Derek's black and while Stiles won't be trying to bond with it, he can't help but crane over the handrail for a look. "That's a good way to get your head bitten off," Derek says from a little further up the walkway.
"Hey," Stiles says, grimaces a little when Lydia casts him a raised eyebrow and clears his throat. "I mean, Rider Hale," Stiles amends, nodding. "I thought you didn't want to see this?"
"I haven't seen someone get eaten by a dragon in a while. Thought maybe it would be worth a look."
"Despite the rumors, no one in the program has ever been eaten," Lydia says, sounding like she's repeating something she learned off a prompt card.
"Don't you remember Candidate Morris?" Derek asks and Stiles turns on Lydia, who is busy rolling her eyes and looking completely unfazed.
"He was brought right back up again. He was barely ingested and he's fine now."
"Yurgh," Stiles says, turns back to Derek just in time to see him folding away a smile.
"Let's get this over with," Derek snaps, back to business, motioning for Stiles to join him at the last stall. Stiles knows it's where Laura Hale's silver is, Jura. She's bigger than Derek's black, although the smaller dragon is known to be more ferocious in battle. She's also the only silver in existence, now or ever.
Stiles sidles up next to Derek, at least slightly reassured that with a Hale there, he's less likely to lose a leg. "Maybe I should hold you over by your ankles-" Derek starts to say but his words choke off because there's a giant, silver dragon head between them.
"Uh," Stiles squeaks. He can hear the patter of Lydia's heeled feet backing up fast and he's about to do the same when from the other side of the dragon's head, he hears a low, calm, "Don't move."
Jura's head pulls back a little so she's no longer over the walkway, but she also moves sideways until she can regard him with both large, golden eyes. This close, Stiles can see that she's not actually pure silver, but her scales are tipped with blue. She lets out a gusty breath that pushes Stiles' hair back and has an icy edge to it, Stiles' skin immediately breaking out into gooseflesh.
"When I say, I want you to move slowly to me," Derek instructs, voice still damnably calm and even. Jura's attention diverts to Derek for a second but then is back on Stiles.
"I really don't want to be eaten right now," Stiles says out of the corner of his mouth as Jura pushes her head forward until her snout is almost touching Stiles' sternum. "I don't think my dad would understand."
"You're not going to be-" Derek starts to say and that's when Jura opens her mouth, head tilted sideways. There are teeth like large, jagged icicles on either side of Stiles' body, barely inches from his skin. He looks down because he can't help it and there's frost forming on his t-shirt and jeans from her breath.
"Oh god," Stiles moans, knowing that this is it, this is how he's going out. He's closed his eyes, hoping it's at least quick and... nothing. There's a minute, then two and Stiles opens one eye, then the other. He's still caged in by Jura's mouth and teeth but then she pulls back slowly, carefully, until she can delicately close her maw and only catch the front of Stiles' t-shirt and tug gently. At least Stiles thinks it was meant to be gentle, but he's tugged against the handrail hard enough to bring tears to his eyes.
"What's happening?" Stiles croaks out when Jura releases him and nudges her snout against his stomach again, almost winding him. He's going to be bruised, definitely, but that's better than being masticated. When Derek isn't forthcoming with anything, Stiles risks a glance at him and sees he's standing with his mouth hanging open, looking dumbfounded. "What?"
Derek slowly raises his hands, makes motions in the air Stiles doesn't understand at first, but then he does and, "You've gotta be kidding me, no," Stiles says.
"I think..." Derek says, but he seems to run out of words, just making the gesture again.
"Fine, but if I lose my hands you're holding my junk when I pee for the rest of my life," Stiles grumbles and reaches forward. Jura makes what can only be described as a pleased burring and immediately pushes into Stiles' hands. They slide past her snout and to the fine scales beneath her eyes, impossibly delicate and smooth. Stiles takes a chance and draws on what he's learned about Mika, edging sideways so he can reach the ridge at the back of Jura's jaw, scratching as he goes. Jura's eyes slide shut and her contented noise increases, so enthusiastic that the entire walkway Stiles is standing on vibrates beneath his feet.
Mine, Stiles hears, clear as a bell in his head and he's not sure if it's him, the dragon, or a combination of both.
"It happened like, five minutes ago," Stiles says. He's feeling almost hungover which is patently unfair because he hasn't touched a drop since he was forcibly recruited. One thing he'd been looking forward to heading home was getting uproariously, illegally drunk and now his time stretches out before him, dry as the desert and confusing besides.
"Hours. It happened hours ago and everyone knew-"
"Before me, your best friend and someday wing-first." Mika claws her way up onto the table and lets out what sounds like a chirp of disapproval like she's agreeing with Scott. Stiles takes a moment to notice that she's gone through a recent growth spurt, her tummy rounded and eye ridges more pronounced. She's almost too big to fit in the backpack and Stiles sighs, because that will be a sad day.
"I don't really know what it means yet."
"It means you're staying," Scott enthuses, reaching across the table to sock Stiles in the shoulder. Stiles whines and rubs the spot while Scott continues to almost vibrate in glee. "Wing-bros for life."
"Can we turn the enthusiasm down to a nine? My head is killing me."
"Oh, bond-transfer kickback. That was a not-fun three days," Scott sighs, almost sounding wistful.
"Three days?" Stiles groans, pushing his cereal bowl aside just enough that he can replace it on the tabletop with his head.
Gently. Oh so gently.
"You should be more excited," Scott says, poking at the top of Stiles' throbbing skull. Stiles smacks at his hand, mostly ineffectually and moans.
"I will be on board the excitement train as soon as I stop feeling like my brain is trying to escape."
"A silver, man. Completely unbelievable," Scott enthuses and Stiles offers him a weak fist-pump. It is pretty thrilling, if it works out and also if he survives Derek's anger. To be honest, he's not sure how Derek is feeling about the whole thing since he took off before Jura saw fit to release Stiles.
Lydia was the one left behind to explain that the whole mouth thing was a sign of trust, Jura letting herself be vulnerable and seeing if Stiles would do the same.
"I felt way more vulnerable than her," Stiles had pointed out.
"A dragon's only soft place is inside their mouths."
"What was I going to do? Punch her in the tongue while she swallowed me?"
Stiles had felt something though, as well as hearing Jura in his mind. He knew dragons were able to communicate with those they were bonded with but he'd always kind of figured it was the same way people communicated with, for example, cats. A lot of one-sided conversations and the cat, or in this case, dragon, mostly getting its way.
"No, no, no," Scott says and Stiles risks rolling his head upright enough to see what he's doing, only to see Scott pluck Mika off the table and hold her away when it looked like she was making for Stiles.
"Oh, c'mon. Don't deny me my Mika snuggles," Stiles says, flopping his arms up onto the table and making grabby hands.
"Dude, no!" Scott says in much the same tone as he refused Mika. He drapes her across the back of his neck and she flops there, rubbing her head along the underside of his jaw. "You're bonded to an adult-"
"I don't know if I'd go that far yet."
"Fine," Stiles grumbles, taking his arms back and letting them drop to his sides again. "This bites."
"Better this than your dragon," Scott says, holding up his own arm to show off the small indented circle of a bite on the fleshy underside. "I'm pretty sure if your silver did this to you, you wouldn't have an arm."
"I think I wouldn't have an anything. She's pretty big."
"Yeah, a silver, man," Scott says, face gone dreamy.
"I don't think being swallowed by a dragon is my most immediate problem," Stiles says as he spots Rider Hale enter, see Stiles and about-face, stalking back out. Scott cranes around, sees Hale's retreat and then blows out a breath.
"Okay, yeah. That's a whole other thing, I guess. He likes you though."
"What gave you that impression?" Stiles asks, bemused. "His total dismissal of me or the way he actually drew an angry face on my paper on thermals when he was marking them for Petridge?"
"He printed that paper out and handed copies to everyone, said we could all learn something."
"Yeah, what not to do."
"I don't think-"
"I think I'm going to go back to my room and try not to, like, die or something," Stiles says. He puts his hands on the table, meaning to push himself upright but then just groans and lowers his head back to the table. After a moment, he feels Scott's fingers gently push his face up and then a folded over hoodie is being pushed under it.
"You're a good friend," Stiles says, voice mostly muffled by the hoodie.
"I'll get you a soda. Sugar helps."
Mika is hanging over Scott's shoulder and she bats lazily at Stiles whenever he's close enough, Scott arresting her paws every time like it's a new game they've developed. Stiles slides a smile to his best friend as he's shoved down into a chair and then he leans forward to mirror Scott who is practically hanging over the balcony railing.
Below is a room with a half circle of chairs, all but a couple filled with Riders in full tac. Before them is Derek, sketching out a plan of attack for a Level Two breach. Head Instructor Deaton is sitting off to the side, looking disinterested but obviously paying attention as his eyes snap up whenever one of the Riders raises a hand with a question.
"You think Rider Hale will stay retired now...?" Scott leaves his whispered question unfinished.
"Now what?" Stiles prompts. One of the other bonded, a girl with long blonde hair and a dark blue dragon sitting up alertly on her lap gives them a dirty look. He thinks her name is Reyes but there'd been a lot of candidates and not many people that sparked so Stiles isn't sure he's not confusing her with someone else.
"Now that you're going to be taking up one of the Hale dragons?" Scott finishes.
"Dismissed!" Derek snaps from down below. There's the sounds of a room full of people gathering to shuffle out but above it, Stiles freezes from his own retreat when he hears, "Stilinski, down here now."
"There's going to be retribution if I've just gotten in trouble for you talking," Stiles warns Scott as he makes for the opposite door to the exit, the one that leads down to the briefing room. Reyes knocks a shoulder into him on the way past, smirking and humming the death march under her breath.
Everyone is already gone when Stiles makes it down the stairs, including Deaton. He's left with an empty room and Derek with his back turned, scraping together papers and a tablet. "I'm sorry if I disturbed-" Stiles starts to preemptively apologize.
"How's your bond-ache going?" Derek surprises him by asking.
"Oh, um, I'm forcing my way through with Red Bull and pixie sticks."
"That's a good way to have a bad crash."
"Any better suggestions?"
"Meditation," Derek says and for a moment Stiles thinks he's joking, but he just looks mildly back at him like always and Stiles snorts.
"Uh, thanks but I think I'll just bully my through with the help of the processed food group."
"Your funeral," Derek says ominously and then hands Stiles a sheet of paper. "Also, your training schedule."
"Neat, thanks," Stiles says, scanning it quickly and then frowning.
"Problem?" Derek prompts, reading Stiles' expression.
"It says I have Rider Harris. I just figured..." Stiles flails a little, isn't sure why he thought now that he was bonded, Derek would give him the time of day. Being handed off to Harris though, who'd never been in a squad and who puts the sour in sourpuss seems like an extra little kick in the gut.
"You need one-on-one tuition and Harris is the only one with the time free. Is there someone you'd prefer?"
Stiles makes a gesture that encompasses Derek's entire being and then raises his eyebrows. "I just figured with a Hale dragon I'd get a Hale."
"You just figured," Derek says flatly and Stiles feels like he's wandering into dangerous territory but can't stop himself stumbling forward.
"Harris gives me the heebies."
"I'm glad you have a good, solid reason."
"No, you look," Derek interrupts. "Do you really think I'd waste a second on you? Everyone is going to be impressed that you bonded with an adult, you'll get cocky, feel like you have something to prove and get yourself killed on your first time out."
"You saw Beatrice, right?" Derek practically growls, leaning into Stiles' space. He holds his ground even though inwardly he'd like nothing more than to curl up into a tiny ball and escape the anger in Derek's expression. "You saw how she was. She's that way because she's lost two riders. She's small so if she gets out of control we can handle it, but what do you think we'll be able to do when it's Jura?"
"That won't happen."
"If I had my way, you'd be stuck doing press junkets with Jura until you retired. I think this whole thing is insane and only if we're very lucky, it'll just be you that gets killed and you won't take anyone with you."
Stiles had balled his schedule up in his fists, but he carefully unfurls it now, smoothing it against his chest. Stiles takes a full breath, then another one for good measure. Derek's anger has given way to a careful neutrality and Stiles nods his head once. "Harris is fine," he says, hoping that his voice doesn't sound as tremulous as he feels.
"I don't want to see you unless you have your face buried in a book or are performing formation drills."
"Yes, Rider Hale," Stiles says levelly.
"I guess I must bring it out in him," Stiles says, picking up a bottle of water from his side table and upending it on the shoe and Mika's head. She squawks indignantly and Scott grimaces.
"Sorry, she's supposed to be able to control that by now and she hates the fireproof crate. She was crying when I tried to leave her in it before."
"It's fine. My life is ashes. It's appropriate that my footwear's the same."
"Harris isn't that bad," Scott offers because he's made of sunshine and puppies and doesn't hate anyone, even if they deserve it.
"Harris is a bigger douche than Derek, and that's saying something," Stiles says, flopping back on his bed and dropping his arm over his eyes.
"Still got the headache?"
"Just in my skull," Stiles grumbles.
"I can't get into the Hale stables and I doubt Derek would be willing to escort me after he just yelled at me for no reason."
"Didn't you say Doctor Martin had access? She'll take you. She wants this to work."
"True," Stiles says, levering himself back upright. Approaching Lydia is only the tiniest bit less scary than approaching Derek, but after the day Stiles has had, he'll take his chances.
Lydia has a lab full of people and no time for Stiles when he gets down to her area, but that's fortunate because she just huffs and throws an access pass at him when he's left hovering miserably in her doorway. "Don't get eaten!" she calls after him as an afterthought.
Stiles swipes the access pass against the panel set next to the door, mostly hoping that it won't admit him but it lights up green and there's a click. Stiles carefully pushes the door open and a snout almost shunts him back out as he eases his way through.
He puts his hands up and out automatically, landing on either side of Jura's large nose ridges and the headache that had been cooking the back of his brain and the muscle aches that had meant every part of him hated just being upright melt away. The relief is so palpable that Stiles leans his whole body weight forward without even thinking about it.
He lands against the warm scales of Jura's neck just below the hinge of her jaw and lets out a gusty sigh as not only does the pain float away, but something tingly and good spreads through his extremities. He almost feels stoned with it, managing to hook his arms in between two of her blunt neck spines and to hang off Jura like a rag doll. Her throat vibrates underneath his chest, the same pleased burr sound he'd gotten used to hearing with Mika whenever she was draped over Scott completely. Stiles can't help the almost hysterical giggle that he lets out and the visual, picturing himself as small as Mika curled on Jura's lap as she sits like a person.
The word is muffled, almost sounds like someone speaking through a pillow but it upticks at the end in query and Stiles peels himself free to stare at the scales underneath his palm and then look back at the head tilted at him at an unnatural angle. Stiles moves back around Jura, keeping a hand trailing along her, over ridge and scale and bump until he's back where she doesn't have to contort to see him. She's hunkered down, curled into herself so she can rest her head flat against the ground and regard him solemnly.
"Was that you?" Stiles asks slowly. Scott had told him about getting what he described as inklings from Mika, knowing what she needed without any kind of verbal communication. He'd heard other riders speak of being able to commune with the dragons when they were riding, but he wasn't sure if anyone actually regarded it as speaking. Stiles supposes he can't know for sure, but it feels like this is something different, something unique.
Jura raises a scaled eye ridge at him, as if asking who else would it be dummy, and Stiles snorts, reaching out to scritch the smaller scales just under her lower lid. She rumbles in pleasure, pushing forward against his hands and nearly flattening him against the wall of the stable.
"Hey, gentle. I'm basically a tube with squishy filling, you don't want to squeeze me out like toothpaste," Stiles says and Jura whuffles, but she pulls back. There's another word that pings through his mind, more fuzzy and indistinct so Stiles can't make it out, but at a guess he would say it was sorry.
Except, it wasn't Jura. She crab-walks backwards and Stiles cranes up to see Derek on the flyover, resting on his forearms and looking down. "What was that?" Stiles asks, squinting up at him.
"I said, I'm sorry I was such an asshole," Derek repeats, huffing like it costs him something to apologize.
"Uh, thanks?" Stiles watches, amused, as Jura raises to her full height so her head is level with Derek and pokes him with her snout.
"Ow, god, I said sorry, alright?" Derek snaps.
"Wait, what's happening here?"
"Maro wouldn't let me touch him until I came and apologized. Apparently you were sad or something."
"How would you know that?" Stiles asks, turning and stepping back so he can look at Derek without straining his neck and also rest against Jura who paws at the ground beside him.
"They... talk," Derek says, waving a hand at Jura, vaguely in the direction of Beatrice and beyond.
"Seriously?" Stiles gapes, amazed. "Wait, but Jura's down here and-"
"They don't need proximity. Dragons that have bonded or been in squads together for a while are able to do it."
"Fascinating," Stiles enthuses, reaching up and behind himself to pat his hands against Jura's already reassuring bulk. He can't believe how attached he's become in such a short amount of time. If he ever had to give this up...
Stiles shudders and then beams at Derek. "Does this mean Maro won't let you yell at me, like, ever?"
"I don't know," Derek groans. "He's been extra touchy the last couple of days."
"Did you seriously bond with a grouchy dragon?" Stiles snorts and at Derek's glare he holds up his hands and says, "Just, y'know, appropriate."
"Don't make me take back my apology."
"No takebacks," Stiles says, then twists his hands together, looks up at Derek with his expression sobered. "I'm sorry, too. I understand... I mean, I can appreciate why you're worried."
"Their dragons, it's all I have left of my family. Beatrice and Jura, I like to think that a tiny part of Cora and Laura live on while they're safe. I feel... protective."
"So... does this mean...?"
"You still have Harris. There's reasons I shouldn't... I mean, I can't take you on."
"Oh," Stiles says, looking at his shoes, disappointed.
"It's nothing personal, but you bonding with an adult doesn't mean you get to skip out on any of the training before you get registered."
"No, I know," Stiles says quickly, hating that Derek still thinks he expects special treatment.
"Here," Derek says and drops something flat and plastic over the railing. Stiles fumbles it three times before he manages to catch it properly and then looks at the security pass in his hand.
"Oh, wow, thanks," he says, genuinely relieved that he won't have to bug Lydia or Derek himself whenever he wants to come down and visit Jura.
"That's for you only. No traipsing your little friends down here," Derek warns before he disappears, the sounds of his footsteps on the flyover fading away.
Stiles pushes his spoon through his soup, stirring it with no real appetite. Scott's in a lab so he's stuck by himself and he's desperate enough to crack the hefty textbook that Harris handed over with a gruff quiz on Friday as his only response to Stiles' greeting when someone drops down opposite him.
It's Reyes and she sets her lunch tray down, picks up a box of juice and shakes it while regarding him. Her dragon has grown, about the size of a large dog now and Stiles has to swing his legs sideways awkwardly as it pushes underneath the table to curl around Reyes' feet.
Her face sets like she's sized him up and come to some kind of decision and she says, "I'm Erica."
"I know," she interrupts in a way that makes Stiles wonder if this is going to be a friendly lunch or if she's just sat down to have a go at him. Her eyes fall on his giant book and she winces. "Harris, huh?"
Stiles drums his fingers on the Mechanics of Flight book and grimaces. "That bad?"
"I didn't have him buuuuut..." Erica cranes around, seems to spot someone and yells, "Hey, Isaac!"
There's a tall guy with curly hair ambling away from the food pickup area and he heads over when he hears Erica's bellow. He sets his tray down, folds himself into the seat, spots the book and says, "Harris, huh?"
Isaac's wearing a flight uniform, so he's at least registered but he's also still wearing the bronze pin that means he hasn't been picked up by a squad yet. When Stiles nods, Isaac pulls the book towards himself, produces a pen from somewhere that must mean the flight suit has a hidden pocket and then twirls it in his fingers as he pages through the book.
"Uh, that's a loaner. I don't think I'm supposed to write in it," Stiles says, making grabby hands at the book.
"Trust me," Isaac says, which is pretty nonsensical because Stiles doesn't know him, and then he's holding the book open at the index, crossing out whole sections and writing crabbed notes in besides others. "You can skip chapters twenty-four through thirty-eight, Harris doesn't understand them himself so he won't use them in a test. One through eighteen he regards as too easy so he won't bother so you gotta concentrate on nineteen through twenty-three."
"I've got a quiz on Friday. I assumed it would be on the first few chapters," Stiles argues.
Isaac just raises an eyebrow, his expression saying plainly, you trusting fool. "You'll get a smack down about being unprepared if that's all you study. The guy loves to yell. He copies the graphs from these pages so learn how to label them." Stiles watches Isaac dog ear a couple more pages before he slides the book back.
"Thanks," Stiles says, figuring he can study the first couple of chapters as well as the stuff Isaac's marked just to cover his bases.
"I thought you'd have Hale," Erica comments, stealing Isaac's pudding cup from off his lunch tray brazenly. Isaac watches her do it with the good humor of someone who is used to such treatment. He proves this by producing another pudding cup from yet another hidden pocket and smirking as he peels it open and makes a show of licking the lid.
"He doesn't want me to get a big head, what with my new found popularity and all," Stiles says, gesturing at the space around him expansively and then waggling his eyebrows.
"Most people don't know what to make of you, or they're jealous," Erica says, shrugging.
"What about you?" Stiles asks, curious as to why Erica made the approach.
"Ugh, you just looked so forlorn," Erica says and Isaac snorts.
"She wants your dragon to bone hers," Isaac says.
"Whaaat?" Stiles splutters, choking on the bite of sandwich he's just taken.
Erica elbows Isaac in the sternum and it looks like it hurts because Isaac's eyes water, but she also doesn't deny it, instead twirls a lock of hair around her finger and says, "The thought did cross my mind."
"Whaaaaaaat?" Stiles is left to repeat again.
Erica dips down under the cafeteria table, struggles to bring her dragon out from underneath and up onto her lap, and it is a struggle until the dragon is finally situated, looking a little perturbed. It's ludicrous, Erica might as well be trying to hold a spiky Saint Bernard like a lap dog. "Blitzen and Jura would make the cutest hatchlings."
"Blitzen?" Stiles says, raising his eyebrows.
"Yeah, like the flying reindeer?"
"No, I get it. Just... I'm not exactly sure-"
"Spawning rates are way down, and Jura's the only silver. Everyone knows that a blue is not a Dominant so we'd probably end up with a clutch of silvers and we'd be heroes. As opposed to say, Jura spawning with a black," Erica says archly.
"Why would you think that... woah. Woah, woah, woah!" Stiles says, actually putting up his hands and holding them out. There are other blacks, but Stiles doesn't need pretend that he doesn't know exactly whose black Erica means. "Gross. Jura and Maro are like... siblings."
"No, they're not. They would never have spawned with two bonded riders who were siblings, but that's not the case anymore."
"Well, Derek can't stand me and I'm pretty sure that matters," Stiles says and then is left frowning between Isaac and Erica who snort simultaneously and roll their eyes.
"Don't be dense. Everyone knows that-" Erica starts to say but then she freezes, her eyes widening and the hairs on the back of Stiles' neck stand up.
He knows, without looking, that Derek is standing behind him.
"Everyone knows what?" Derek asks. One of his hands lands on Stiles' shoulder and squeezes, almost painfully. Stiles closes his eyes, offers up a silent prayer to whoever might be listening because he's pretty sure Erica is about to spill the beans about his hopeless, pathetic crush on Derek, his crush that he didn't know that people were horrifyingly aware of and therefore probably laughing themselves silly behind his back for being so deluded.
"I think I'm late for... something," Erica says, standing with difficulty because she's still holding onto Blitzen. She seems to remember she doesn't have to carry him and drops him, Blitzen letting out a yip of surprise.
"I'm late for that exact same thing," Isaac rushes to add, hooking a hand into Erica's jacket and letting her tow him up and away, Blitzen stomping behind them, grumbling.
"Are you late for anything?" Derek asks with a raised eyebrow and Stiles looks mournfully at his still half-full lunch tray but he knows when he's being dismissed.
"Sure," he sighs, getting up, pushing his books into his bag and scooping his tray into his free hand to upend over the trashcan behind his table. Derek opens his mouth, wearing an expression Stiles has never seen before and with his own lunch tray balanced beautifully on one hand.
"I didn't mean-" Derek starts to say but Stiles just bobs his head at him and makes a break for it before he can do anything else mortifying today.
Stiles and Scott get in the queue with the other unregistered candidates after bolting breakfast for their day passes. The queue is a lot shorter since the unbonded candidates were dismissed and they only have to wait about ten minutes before they're clutching laminated pass cards and are in the lift on the way to the surface.
When they get to the pickup area, they spot Scott's mom first. She opens her arms, beaming and Scott runs to her, lifting her off her feet and spinning her around. As soon as she's got her feet back on solid ground, she reaches for Stiles to give him a squeeze and rub over his hair affectionately.
"Where's Mika?" Melissa asks, hooking an arm through Scott's when she's released Stiles so he can crane around for his dad.
"I couldn't get a pass for her, she doesn't fit in her backpack anymore. I had to crate her."
"I want photos," Melissa demands, pressing a hand to her chest and looking disappointed.
Stiles spots his dad a few minutes later, making his way over from a parking spot further back. His dad clutches Stiles to him extra hard when they reach each other, says into his ear, "I know this is what you wanted but I miss you, kid."
Stiles takes a moment to press his hot face into his dad's shoulder and breathe deeply before he steps back so that his dad can clap Scott on the shoulder and greet Melissa warmly. They've been a foursome since Scott and Stiles decided they were instant best bros and Stiles knows Melissa and his dad Skype regularly.
"Do you want to take our car into town?" Melissa offers, indicating the much closer parking spot she'd managed to find and his dad nods, so they pile into Melissa's old station wagon, Stiles and Scott in the back and his dad riding shotgun.
There's a diner in town that's become their regular. It's rowdy with other candidates and their families but Scott manages to snag them a booth in the back and they all slide in, Scott and Stiles elbowing each other good-naturedly as they shuffle around to leave enough space for their parents. A waitress buzzes by and they order quickly, the woman looking grateful that their order is uncomplicated, four burgers and fries, coffee for Melissa and his dad and chocolate shakes for Scott and Stiles.
"So, tell me what's happening with you?" Melissa says, reaching across to tap her knuckles against Stiles' forearm.
"Apparently a Stilinski can't do stuff the normal way, no matter what," Scott says and both Stiles and his dad sock Scott on his shoulders gently.
"It's, uh, pretty wild, I guess?" Stiles says, recounting how the bonding happened, leaving out any mention of Derek and his crush and also about being sort of, kind of, maybe propositioned by Erica.
"It's happened before?" Stiles' dad asks, pulling a face when Stiles holds his hand over his coffee when he goes to put a third sugar in.
"Cora Hale bonded with a dragon that had already lost one Rider when it was an adult. That's the only one they know of in the program's history," Stiles says.
"Such a pity what happened to the Hales," Melissa says.
"Bad business," Stiles' dad agrees soberly.
"They were attacked when they were grounded, right?" Scott says, face serious and solemn.
"You boys have to promise to be careful when you're out there. Evil doesn't only come through a breach. There's a roaring trade in black market scale at the moment. Riders think they're invulnerable but those girls died defending their dragons from run of the mill thugs."
"We'll be careful," Stiles reassures, reaching out to pat his dad's hand and getting a tight smile in return.
Up until then, opportunistic traders would be scouring the ground after a battle, hoping to snag a piece of scale or claw knocked free during melee. They'd stayed on the fringes, classed as a nuisance rather than a real danger and the GC had usually been able to chase them off, but as the trade became more lucrative, the purveyors became more bold until they'd risked mobbing two riders and their dragons after they'd set down.
Stiles pauses the feed just as the shadow of another dragon passes over the struggling crowd, knowing it's Derek's black, that he'd been too late. Stiles reaches for his laptop, swipes the video file into his trash and feels belatedly guilty about downloading it.
"I am happy," Scott says in a tone that totally isn't. "I mean, I guess I am but..." He makes a helpless gesture at Stiles who rolls his eyes.
"Seriously. We're wing-bros. We'll still see each other all the time, even if we're not on the same squad."
"But that was the plan," Scott says with feeling, clasping his hands together.
"No, the plan was that I was about to get my ass slung home without so much as a and all I got was this lousy t-shirt. Big picture here, Scott. Work with me."
"I was going to be your wing-first."
"Why are you always wing-first in these scenarios? Why don't I ever get to be wing-first?" Stiles blinks a few times and then adds, "Wow, we say wing a lot in this place."
"There can only be one Batman."
"Ugh, fine. I'm only admitting that you would make wing-first before me because you got scooped up by Alpha which is-"
"Only because Mika's a red and they have a gap in their line."
"Don't do that," Stiles scolds and Scott looks immediately contrite.
"To be honest, I'm terrified. I'm not even flight certified yet. What if I'm terrible?"
"You won't be."
"What if I fail?"
"What if I fall off and break my head the first time I go up?"
"I'm just going to stop you right there. None of the awful things you're imagining are going to happen, and if they do, except for breaking your head maybe, you can get through them. How? Because you have me and I'm awesome and if you get dropped from Alpha Wing we can always form our own squad."
"Y'know, they'll probably want you too when you're certified. You have the only silver."
"Derek has to sign off on all the squad assignments."
"So, I'm totally going to end up on the equivalent of a janitorial squad. Milk runs only. He'd never agree to me being Alpha."
"Why do you think that?"
"I don't think, I know. He'd have me doing press tours if he could, but he can't so he'll find a way to wrap Jura in the flight equivalent of cotton wool some other way."
"Yeah," Stiles sighs, slumping down on his desk chair. Scott is on his bed, tossing a replica egg up and down, Mika watching with avid eyes and looking like she'd like nothing more than to snatch it out of the air but she's pretending she's too dignified for that. She's got two more growth spurts before she becomes full sized which will probably happen over the next five days and she'll have to be stabled permanently.
There's a knock at his door and before Stiles can get up to answer, Erica's pushing it open and breezing in. She's followed by Isaac and another tall, broad guy with a gold pin which puts him on Beta Wing. "Hey losers," Erica greets, dropping down on the bed next to Scott, careful to step around Mika. She doesn't have Blitzen with her which means he's been stabled or is in a timeout, the latter as likely as the former but it's rude to ask.
"I'm not pimping Jura out," Stiles blurts and he's left with four people blinking owlishly at him before Erica snorts and waves an airy hand.
"Relax, Stilinski, I'm not here for that," she dismisses.
"Why are you here?" Stiles asks slowly.
"Blitzen's getting fitted for his harness. I have some time to kill and apparently you have a friend on Alpha wing," Erica says, her attention switching to Scott as she shoots finger-guns at him.
"Probationary only until I get flight certified," Scott says, leaning away from her when Erica leans forward with a predatory grin.
"Do Probies get to use the A-wing gaming room?" Erica asks, walking fingers up Scott's chest. He looks freaked out and is saved by the big guy saying, "Erica, stop frightening the poor guy."
"Boyd," he supplies.
"I haven't had the orientation yet," Scott says, tossing the imitation egg at Erica's head. She plucks it out of the air neatly and sighs.
"Lame. Hey, Stilinski, you could show us the Hale stables then?" Erica says, turning on him and Stiles shakes his head vigorously, even goes so far as to swipe the pass card off his desk and jam it under his butt cheek.
"For-get it," he says, enunciating each syllable crisply.
"Movie?" Scott proposes, waving a hand at the small flat screen and DVD player Stiles had begged, cajoled and wheedled his father into supplying to save his sanity. Most rooms didn't have their own television, you had to fight with whoever got to the group entertainment room first for remote rights.
"What have you got?" Isaac asks, perking up visibly.
Later, Stiles surveys his room, at Scott and Erica piled together on his bed with Isaac and Boyd sprawled across his floor and he feels warm. He kicks a socked foot at Boyd when the guy is creeping a hand towards his bowl of popcorn and laughs when Boyd just grabs his ankle and uses the other hand to steal a fistful.
"I suppose this is okay," Erica sighs dramatically when they're queuing up the second movie of the night. Stiles thinks that he hears a gentle tapping on his door, but it coincides with a burst of everyone's laughter and when he gets to it, no one's on the other side. Stiles shrugs it off and charges at Isaac who thought he could steal Stiles' desk chair when he was up.
"Hale will have to take you on, now," Erica says with a shrug.
"He might think I did it on purpose just for that," Stiles groans. Isaac is looking unrepentant, even though he's basically responsible for Stiles' current problem, even though technically he's done nothing wrong, at all.
"What, you purposely passed a quiz set by a guy that wanted you to fail because that's how he gets his jollies? You monster," Boyd says drily and Stiles sighs into his sandwich.
"Oh god, he's coming over," Stiles says and then watches, horrified, as Boyd, Isaac and Erica all rise in unison like they choreographed it and beat a hasty retreat. "Traitors," Stiles grumbles, poking forlornly at his still unfinished half of his sandwich and wondering if he'll ever get to eat his entire lunch again.
Derek braces his hands on the table when he reaches it in front of Stiles, eyebrows drawn down. "Harris has passed you on," he says flatly.
"We just didn't click?" Stiles tries.
"He says you cheated-"
"I didn't cheat!" Stiles explodes, standing and smacking his own hands on the table. The whole cafeteria goes silent, everyone turned to stare at him and Stiles feels his cheeks heat. He's going to have bright red blotches across his face and down his throat and while mortified about it, there's nothing he can do now. "I studied."
"The exact chapters he was quizzing you on?" Derek probes, craning behind himself to sweep a glare over the gathered Riders that has most, if not all of them, becoming suddenly fascinated with their own food again.
"Apparently he's predictable."
Derek's silent for a few beats, his face doing something funny which Stiles would swear is Derek fighting back a smile if he wasn't sure that wasn't what it was. "That is true," Derek acknowledges, dropping onto the bench opposite Stiles and indicating with a waves of his hand that Stiles could resume his seat.
Stiles does, slowly, suspecting a trap of some kind. He's suddenly acutely aware that his place in the program isn't guaranteed despite everything, that Derek could make a case for Stiles getting booted out if he really wanted to. It wouldn't necessarily happen, Lydia was probably too determined for her plans to come to fruition to let it, but Derek could certainly make the program a lot more difficult for Stiles, leave him in uncertified limbo for the foreseeable future.
Stiles drops his eyes under Derek's regard to his hands. Derek has Rider's hands, callused and scarred from his harness. Stiles looks at his own hands, long fingered and baby smooth. He has his dad's chunky watch on, the last thing his dad had pressed into his grip when he'd been leaving for the compound. His dad wears a cheap, plastic one in its place these days and Stiles rubs over the metal band of his dad's watch now for comfort.
"There's no other grounded riders at the moment, so I guess I'll have to take over your training," Derek finally huffs and Stiles looks at him, trying to read his expression but Derek's face is as carefully neutral as ever.
"I'm a quick learner and a hard worker," Stiles promises in a rush.
"You'll have to be," Derek says. "You're bonded to an adult. There's no babysteps for you."
"Okay?" Stiles says, watching Derek rise again.
"Stables at three," Derek throws over his shoulder.
"Uh, what?" Stiles blurts. He's already visited Jura that morning.
"We've gotta get you up in the air sometime," Derek says and Stiles swallows against a suddenly dry throat.
"Ugh, I know," Stiles says, plucking at the flight suit he's got on that's about two sizes too small for him. A girl named Kira was manning the uniform stores and she'd looked far too amused when she'd handed over the suit and swore up and down that it was the biggest they had. Stiles didn't believe her for a second, mostly because she'd had a completely different suit in hand until Stiles had told her that he was training with Derek and he'd heard they were friends.
Apparently everyone's out to embarrass him in front of Derek, like he can't manage that on his own well enough.
"The one I was measured for isn't ready and it was either this or my dragon riders do it in the air t-shirt," Stiles adds, watching Derek flush a dull red in what he assumes is either frustration or anger and stalk away, towards the far end of the open space.
Stiles hasn't been in the launch arena before. It's accessible from all the stables and Jura and Maro are already down the far end, bumping snouts and growling. Stiles has seen Maro on newfeeds before, but never up close and he kind of stumbles forward, entranced by the black. It's also the first time he's seen Jura outside her stall, curled lazily around and digging into the soft red dirt that covers the floor, bigger than Maro by half again.
They're both harnessed, Jura tethered to Maro with a guide rope. As Stiles watches, Maro nudges Jura with his eye ridge and Jura nips him on the shoulder plate.
"I thought they liked each other," Stiles says, thinking that the two dragons being tied together is going to be uncomfortable if not dangerous if they're snapping at each other.
"That's not... it's affection," Derek says, but his words are slow and he looks a little troubled so Stiles figures he's not completely convinced. "Do you know how to mount?"
When Stiles raises his eyebrows at him, Derek rolls his own eyes and snorts, "Oh my god, shut up. You know what I meant."
"I've watched D-Tube videos," Stiles says, hesitant and Derek lets out another snort.
"Oh, well, then you'll be an expert at it."
"Just show me," Stiles grumbles.
"You're lucky. Jura's big enough that you can sit right behind her head. The Riders with smaller dragons have to sit further back, it's a real core workout. Your position should do all the work for you." Derek steps up to Maro, just behind his eye fan, puts his left foot into the modified stirrup closest to him and in one graceful push, swings up and over Maro's neck, settling at the join of head and neck. His face says tada as clearly as if he'd spoken it aloud.
"Right, fine. Prepare to be amazed, or at least amused," Stiles says, making a show of stretching before he remembers the overly tight suit. Derek's eyes have widened and Stiles grimaces. He can just imagine how stupid he looks.
Stiles copies Derek, sparing a moment to run around to in front of Jura's head and wrap his arms around her snout to give her an affectionate squeeze. She rumbles in what he's starting to recognize as her pleased or possibly indulgent noise and he pats her once more before jogging back to her neck. "Don't embarrass me," he whispers, as much to himself as his dragon and she leans and tilts her head so he doesn't have to push himself up as high as Derek did and actually manages to get situated with a minimum of awkward flailing.
"How did you get her to do that?" Derek asks when Stiles turns to him, hands raised in his own version of tada.
"Uh, do what?"
Derek frowns, but also shakes his head. "Never mind. Take your foot out of the mount stirrup and put both in the natural cavity at the back of her skull."
"I don't leave my foot in the thing made for my foot?" Stiles asks.
"No, it's just for mounting." Derek's eyebrows drawn down and he adds in an exasperated voice, "Is your face going to do that every time I say the word mount?"
"I think it might," Stiles wheezes.
"You have to tell her where to go with your whole body. If you leave your feet swinging free you're not going to be able to steer and you'll probably fall off."
"Isn't there some kind of safety rope or seat belt?"
"There used to be as part of the harness, but it caused more injuries than it helped. One of the first parts of flight training is teaching your dragon how to catch."
"Catch? As in, catch me as I'm plummeting to my death?" Stiles says, hoping his voice doesn't sound as shrill outside his head as it does inside.
"Again, you're lucky. Jura already knows how to do it. You just have to trust that she will."
"That's one hell of a trust exercise."
"Look, when a dragon hits the ground, if they do, they're not always going to land upright. You need to be able to jump clear. That's something you'll have to learn."
"Tuck and roll, huh?"
"Part of your training regime will be strength and agility. Trust me, you'll need it. You might think you're just passive, but riding is one of the most exhausting things you'll ever do, you'll hurt in places you never thought possible. If your dragon hits the ground, believe me, you don't want to be under her."
"I think we're done for today."
"What? I thought we were getting me in the air?" Stiles protests. He hadn't realized how much he'd been looking forward to it, about as much as he'd been terrified of it, which surprises him.
"I get the feeling getting on and not immediately falling off is a big step for you. We should take it as a win."
"Spoilsport," Stiles grumbles, drumming against Jura's eye ridges with his fingers. "Fine, how do I get down? Same way?"
"Yeah, just be careful not to squeeze the sensitive part of her neck with your knees when you do," Derek says, probably belatedly considering that's exactly what Stiles does as he raises up, preparing to dismount.
He feels Jura's muscles bunch underneath his thighs and he instinctively clamps down. He hears Derek yell at him right before Jura rears back and just throws herself upwards towards the open roof of the launch arena. The guide rope tethering him to Maro snaps as Jura surges up and out into bright light, blue sky and nothing.
Stiles clings to her neck desperately. To hell with being able to jump clear, if he ever does this again he's going to duct tape his entire body to Jura's neck, head to toe. He feels every second like physics is trying to peel him free of Jura, fling him into the sky like an untethered doll. He's lying as flat against Jura's neck as possible, legs out behind him and arms desperately clinging around. He hadn't found the natural cavity for his feet, doesn't at this point believe it exists.
He catches movement out of the corner of his eye, sees it's Maro with Derek at his neck, not looking like he's going to fall off at any moment. Derek is leaning almost completely sideways so Maro follows, angling towards Jura. Stiles instinctively leans away, because he's sure Maro is going to crash into them and Jura darts sharply sideways, following the angle of Stiles' lean.
He gets it then.
Stiles risks prying one hand from around Jura's neck, feels around until his hand finds the harness. He grips it, other hand joining the first as fast as possible. This means he's hunched over painfully and Stiles, swallowing down his fear, uses his grip on the harness to swing his legs from behind to in front of him, which also puts him mostly upright. He shoots his feet forward and they do fall naturally into a divot at the back of Jura's skull like they were made to go there.
Suddenly it's working. Stiles is cradled in, holding on in the right places and as he pulls back, Jura angles down. He risks leaning just the tiniest bit to the right and she follows, left and the same again. Stiles lets out an almost hysterical whoop and Jura joins him, roaring in chorus.
It's the most exhilarating thing Stiles has ever done in his life, so of course that's the moment Stiles realizes that he's flying straight towards a building. He yanks upwards on the harness and Jura tilts almost vertical in response. Stiles doesn't move with her so he ends up with nothing underneath him and only a very tentative grip on the harness that he loses quickly.
He's falling. He's a complete moron and he's falling to a squishy, horrible death and-
Stiles' descent stops abruptly and somewhat painfully. Stiles looks up above him and can only see a silver scaled belly. He pats the claws that are circling his midsection, thinks good catch and then promptly passes out.
"He was showing off."
There are people yelling very close to Stiles and he wants to tell them to stop because his head hurts, but his mouth feels like it's full of cotton when he opens it and nothing comes out.
Stiles has only heard Jura's gentle, mental voice a few times, but he recognizes it anyway. Her question is threaded with worry and Stiles thinks as clearly as he can, I'm okay, hoping she's reassured.
There's a feeling of contentment and warmth that flows over him and Stiles almost groans with it, because it chases back the various aches and pains that have woken up with him. He must move, or draw attention to himself in another way because someone gently touches him on the shoulder and Stiles opens his eyes, even though some inconsiderate bastard turned all the lights up way too bright.
There are three people leaning over him when Stiles does crack his eyes open. Derek and Lydia, who are both frowning, and another older man that has the same grizzled spareness to his features that Stiles associates with people on those wilderness survivalist reality shows. It takes him a moment to recognize him, because he's only ever seen this man from a distance but after a beat it clicks that he's looking at Director Argent.
Stiles groans and closes his eyes again, because if Director Argent is at his bedside, it means he's in the kind of trouble that ends with being kicked out of the program. He can't be removed from his dragon since they've bonded, but it seems that Derek has gotten his wish after all and Stiles will be stuck grounded, on glad-handing duties for the rest of his career.
Stiles opens his eyes again just to see if Derek is looking as triumphant as he should since he's gotten his way, but Derek's face is now ducked down, fists clenched.
Stiles clears his throat and says croakily, "What's happening?"
"You gave us all a heart attack," Lydia says, using the hand she's already got on him to squeeze his shoulder.
"No, we're the ones who are sorry, aren't we?" Argent says, throwing a pointed glare at Derek who nods mutely.
"Uh, what? Why? How much trouble am I in?" Stiles asks, the questions all crowding out of him in a mess.
"You're not in trouble," Argent says. Even though his face is a stern one, his pale blue eyes are kind. "You were put in a situation you weren't trained for by someone that should have known better."
"Oh, no, wait," Stiles says, risking a glance at Derek again who is still currently finding his own boots fascinating. With horrible understanding, Stiles knows what's happened here. Derek's taken all the blame, falling on his proverbial sword.
"Rider Hale let you on a dragon without the requisite simulator time clocked and with no real instruction. He's lucky you or your dragon weren't killed."
"Rider Hale has already accepted responsibility. His flight bars have been stripped for a term to be decided. He'll still handle your theoretical and simulator training, but you'll be assigned a new instructor once you have the proper fifty hours flight sim under your belt."
"I want to keep Rider Hale for my entire training. Don't I get a say?" Stiles protests.
"Not in this. I'm surprised you do still want him considering the jeopardy he put you and your dragon in."
"It was just as much my fault," Stiles says and Derek looks up at that. He's standing a little behind Argent and he gives Stiles a thin little grimace and shakes his head.
Don't do this.
"Stilinski, I understand wanting to defend Rider Hale. It's admirable, but he's in a position of authority over you and I'm sure-"
"Look," Stiles interrupts and Argent blinks, obviously not used to someone doing so. Stiles thinks it might help his case a little that he's momentarily derailed. "I'm headstrong enough to not do something I don't want to do if that's what you're implying."
"I see," Argent says, looking bemused.
"I know there's a fifty hour sim prerequisite for flight but you've gotta admit, you only have that much because most riders have to wait for their dragons to grow to full size to get on them so they have some time to kill. My bonding was accelerated and so Rider Hale saw the need for my training to respond to that."
"I see," Argent repeats.
"Plus," Stiles says, raising a hand to his forehead where his fingers touch on a bandage. He must have cracked his temple against something because he still has a headache and he's in the infirmary, plus he was unconscious. "I'm sorry if I didn't mention this before considering the head injury and all," Stiles continues, opening his eyes wide and pasting on the smile his dad always claims he's unable to resist. "Rider Hale gave me proper dismount instruction and I just forgot it in all the excitement. I'm sure if he didn't mention it that's only because he feels responsible for me."
Argent shoots a glance over his shoulder at Derek, who is looking at Stiles with his mouth hinged open. Lydia's hand dances up Stiles' head and ruffles affectionately, albeit gently, through his hair.
"Is this all true Rider Hale?" Argent asks, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes," Stiles overrides whatever Derek is about to say.
"Fine. I'll take this into account when deciding the term of your flight status suspension," Argent says to Derek and then turns back to Stiles. "You might feel like you can skip protocol because of your unusual circumstances, but we have these procedures in place for a reason."
"Yes, sir," Stiles says demurely, pressing his feet together to stave off the full blown grin he wants to let out.
"Thirty hours sim training," Argent decides, "Before you so much as step foot in the stables again or even think about flying. Your bond should be strong enough that you can handle the separation."
"Yes, sir," Stiles says a little more glumly. Then he brightens, because he's been a gamer since he was old enough to hold a controller. Knocking over thirty hours of anything will be cake. Just give him a case of Red Bull, one of those Costco-size tubs of sour gummy worms and a couch for fifteen minute power naps and he'll get it done in two days.
"Not all at once," Argent instructs, like he's read Stiles' mind.
Fine, three days it is then.
He goes, Lydia following after she gives Stiles a final pat and he's left alone with Derek.
"Why did you do that?" Derek asks quietly.
"What? Tell the truth?"
"But you didn't," Derek asserts. "I didn't show you the dismount procedure before you got on Jura. The Director's right. I screwed up and you could've been killed. You shouldn't be covering for me."
"If we were in a squad, we'd have each others backs, right? Hell, our dragons are practically family," Stiles says. Derek's face does a funny little clench at that that Stiles doesn't really understand, but figures it's because he used the word family, basically rubbing it in that Derek lost his.
"Still," Derek says, making a helpless gesture with his hands.
"Derek," Stiles says and Derek's eyebrows go up at the use of his first name, but he doesn't say anything. "How long do you think it would have been before I climbed on up by myself anyway? At least with you there I didn't die. I'm pretty sure you saved me."
"Jura saved you," Derek corrects.
"Oh really? Did she bring me back to the compound and gently carry me down to the infirmary? I'm pretty sure I was unconscious for all of that."
"It wasn't..." Derek's face does the same funny clench thing and Stiles really wants to know what it means.
"Alright, fine. You want to make it up to me? Get me a flight suit that fits."
Derek looks away quickly at that and if Stiles didn't know any better, he would swear Derek was blushing. "Kira's a troublemaker," he huffs.
"Makes sense that she's a friend of yours, then," Stiles says, offering Derek a cheeky grin and he sighs and drops into the chair by Stiles' bedside. Stiles blinks at him, a little surprised.
"Do you want me to go?" Derek asks and he looks painfully hesitant. Stiles isn't sure what's going on here.
The infirmary is not the cheeriest place though. It's borderline bleak and there's a guy three beds down with a nasty looking burn who's still in the remnants of his flight suit, flipping through a magazine despondently. A water cooler burbles at the end of the long room but it's otherwise silent and Stiles says, "Whatever. I mean, if you have nothing better to do."
"Go Fish?" Derek proposes, pulling a deck of cards out of... somewhere and Stiles has had it.
"Okay, where are all these pockets? I swear my flight suit didn't have any."
"Custom. It's the only way to go. I bribe Kira with cupcakes," Derek says with a level look, before his mouth quirks upwards.
Erica's brandishing what is clearly a handmade card that she presents proudly. Stiles laughs out loud when he sees Sorry you took a nosedive scrawled across the top of the card in green glitter pen and then a crude stick figure him falling through a sky of fluffy, cartoon clouds just under that. At the bottom of the card is what he assumes is a stick figure Derek if the over-abundance of scribbled eyebrows is anything to go by, looking grumpy and holding up a score card with a big red '2' on it.
"Scarily accurate," Stiles muses, waggling the card in approval, and then sets it aside carefully, taking a moment to tap a fond finger against the grouchy stick-Derek.
Isaac is poking through the remnants of his lunch tray as Erica bounces onto the corner of Stiles' bed and Boyd takes a more sedate post on the other side. "When are they springing you?" Boyd asks.
"I think later today. My ribs are a little tender but nothing's broken, I just have to be careful and I'm not getting any nausea or light sensitivity so they've stopped worrying about a concussion."
"I wish I'd seen it," Isaac muses and when everyone frowns at him, Scott even going so far as to kick him in the shin, Isaac grunts and says, "Not that I would have enjoyed seeing you fall. I just... they train us for the catch basics but-"
"It'd be reassuring to see someone actually do it?" Stiles presumes, remembering his own hesitance when Derek had explained why they didn't strap themselves to the dragons and the alternative.
"I bet it looked impressive," Erica agrees.
"Well, it's scary as shit. I wouldn't recommend it," Stiles says.
They all bustle out shortly after, Scott included because they have class but Stiles isn't alone for long. Kira appears by his bedside, holding what looks like a new flight suit cradled against her chest. "Thought this might make you feel better," she says, offering it.
"Is it going to fit me?" Stiles asks, poking at it dubiously when she sets it on the little table with wheels that sits at the end of his bed.
Kira grimaces. "Sorry about that. I just couldn't resist when you said..." she shrugs then rather than finishing the sentence. Stiles figures she feels bad about making him look like a dumbass when he almost died shortly after that. "Oh, but, I gave you five secret pockets. If you can find them all, which I doubt, I'll give you the last of my Breach Charms cereal."
"Seriously?" Stiles perks up.
"I swear I won't even pick out all the marshmallow monsters first," Kira says, giving him a complicated hand signal that involves crossing fingers over her heart and then twisting her hands and waggling her fingers.
Stiles makes his way back to his room and flips on the television to a news station, watching shaky amateur video after shaky amateur video being televised of a patch of sky the tell-tale bruised purple that means something is about to be belched out that doesn't belong in their reality.
They'd been extremely fortunate, as a population that wanted to survive, that the initial breach had resulted in a pile of eggs that became the very first dragons to fight against what came next. There hadn't been a breach since that hadn't produced some kind of horror. Perhaps the dragons would have been destructive if it had been full grown adults they first encountered.
"It'd be nice if we caught a break and it was, like, Thor that came through next or something," Stiles says to Scott who's skidded to a halt in his doorway. "But no, it's always gotta be giant venomous spiders or humungous frog monsters that spit acid."
"Yeah, why can't a rip in the fabric of reality give us cute fluffy bunnies or kittens?" Scott agrees mournfully, dropping onto the end of Stiles' bed.
Stiles' door is still open when Derek appears in it, looking hesitant. Stiles waves him in without looking, eyes still glued to the television showing the patch of sky now surrounded by hovering dragons. The news station obviously got a camera crew close enough now that they're no longer being subjected to whatever's been shot on someone's cellphone.
"Anything come through yet?" Derek asks. His face is a little wistful and Stiles studies his profile as Derek pulls up his desk chair to sit. Derek would've been in the thick of it once and it must kill him to have to sit on his hands when breaches happen.
Erica, Boyd and Isaac are all in his room by the time a long, black something eases its way out of the rip in the sky. "Ugh, why's it always gotta be tentacles?" Isaac laments as the black thing uncurls to indeed show itself as a giant, slimey-looking tentacle with rings that look to be about the size of Stiles' room. Another five similar tentacles ooze their way out of the breach before the dragons advance, Director Argent's daughter Allison's gold at the head of their formation.
"She's so amazing," Scott breathes, smiling in the smitten way Stiles has been getting used to ever since Scott got drafted to Alpha wing and met Allison in person. Stiles had gotten, while still in the infirmary, a blow-by-blow account of that first meeting that went into too much detail about her dimples and not enough about how she or her dad would probably kick Scott's ass if he ever did something about his apparent crush.
"A red and a gold. I don't think even Director Argent could argue about that kind of pairing," Erica muses and Stiles kicks at her thigh with a socked foot.
"Stop match-making based on dragon baby viability. It's disturbing," he scolds and then looks at how glassy-eyed Scott has gone. "And it'll give him ideas. Earth to Scott, step away from the white picket fence and future hatchlings you're picturing."
"Shut up," Scott grumbles, stealing Stiles' pillow so he can hide his blush.
"It's not a bad way to think," Derek pipes up quietly and Stiles just stares at him as Erica pokes out her tongue. "A dragon-rider bond can be-"
"I get the feeling I'm about to hear something out of a textbook," Stiles interrupts.
"That doesn't matter if it's right," Derek huffs, hunkering further down in the desk chair and crossing his arms. He looks so adorably belligerent that Stiles has to actually fight the impulse to get up and ruffle his hair. He's so doomed.
"I'm not picking my future boo based on dragon procreation is all I'm saying," Stiles huffs.
"I already tried," Erica sighs at Derek and he looks hilariously surprised at her.
"There were only eight hatchlings in the last season. If a rider and a dragon are mated to another bonded pair, it can increase a single clutch by four," Boyd says and everyone turns around to stare at him. "Am I the only one that's read Doctor Martin's book?"
"It's not required reading," Isaac shrugs.
The others drift out when the footage becomes a looped two to three minutes of the dragons and their riders proving victorious over the giant, disembodied tentacles but Derek stays back, standing and fidgeting like he's working up to something.
"What?" Stiles prompts when he pulls the pillow off his face to see Derek hovering.
"I just... it's stupid, never mind."
"No, you can't do that. Now I have to know," Stiles whines as Derek makes for the door. He turns back, still looking tentative but pulls something gently out of his pocket.
"I just thought you might like to have this, since you didn't get to see Jura when she was a hatchling," Derek says and offers over a small square of card. Except, it's not a card. Instead, it's a photo, creased in the middle and gone thin with handling. Stiles sits up to smooth it out carefully on his knee and then traces the lines of a tiny Jura, being held close by what looks like a girl in her twenties with Derek's pretty eyes and strong jawline.
"Is this Laura?" Stiles asks, his voice mostly just a reverential whisper.
"That's the day she sparked. She was so happy. She and I were in the same intake. I went to three hatchings before I sparked with Maro but Laura sparked her first time. It was typical."
It's a much-handled photo, obviously treasured and Stiles holds it back out to Derek even though he desperately wants to keep it. Jura is ridiculously cute and tiny, smaller than Mika as a hatchling in the picture. "I can't take this from you."
"No, it's fine," Derek says, reaching out to push the photo back towards Stiles, his big hand wrapping around Stiles' own for a moment, calluses catching. "I want you to have it. I have other photos of her."
Stiles takes the photo back, only because Derek's face looks like it's on the verge of crumpling and might very well do so if he presses. "Thank you," he breathes instead, knowing those two little words can't quite encompass how grateful he is.
Derek just nods, his mouth flattened out into a thin little line like if he makes any other kind of expression, it'll break him. He leaves without saying goodbye, just silently backing out of the room and Stiles watches him go, at a loss as to what to say.
"Did you feel that?" Stiles asks Jura, who cranes her head around, blinking at him. There's another shudder and Stiles drops the book he was reading to grip the flyover railing as there's what sounds like a squawk of indignant dragon protest from the next stable over that holds Beatrice. Stiles gets up carefully and crab-walks until he can peer into Beatrice's pen and then stands up, mouth hanging open.
There's a large hole in the wall of Beatrice's stable and Maro is edging his way through, shaking off debris and dust as he goes. Beatrice is hissing, backed into her usual corner.
"No, uh, bad dragon!" Stiles calls, at a loss. He has his phone but there's no reception this far down in the belly of the compound and he's a tiny fragile bag of bones and rippable flesh compared to the giant determined lizard now making a beeline for the wall separating him and Jura.
Maro's whole body waggles, like a cat preparing to spring, and then he opens his mouth and belches out what can only be described as liquid blue light. Stiles now knows what the boom was, as the blue substance hits the next stable wall and punches through. Jura roars and dances sideways out of the spray and then Maro is leaping through the next gap he's made and onto Jura.
It's ridiculous. Jura is twice Maro's size but he still gets her behind the neck fan, his jaw widening and clamping on. Stiles is horrified to think that he's going to be stuck helplessly watching Derek's dragon kill his but then another kind of feeling punches through him, taking his legs out from under him and filling his body with heat.
Not an attack, Stiles thinks, mystified as he buckles to his knees and Jura makes the pleased burr she normally does when he's scratching her just right. Stiles hits the floor, shaking. The sensations are too much, overwhelming everything in him and turning him to helpless jelly. His heels thrum against the floor and his hands scrabble uselessly under him, failing to find any purchase.
"Stiles!" someone calls, the voice indistinct and fuzzy. For a moment all Stiles can see is a blurry blob of tan and black in front of him, and then Derek's face resolves itself and Stiles reaches out, swiping at Derek with limp hands, arms feeling like noodles.
"Wh-h-h-h-at's h-h-h-hunh...?" Stiles can't form the right words to demand to know just what's going on. Derek is flushed, his eyes glassy but at least he's upright and mostly functional. He reaches down and picks Stiles up bridal style, struggling a little with the weight but managing, just barely.
"Gotta... get... further..." Derek huffs out. He's breathing like he's run a marathon, skin burning up wherever he's in contact with Stiles and crazily Stiles thinks he wants more contact. He thinks he might even say that out loud because Derek staggers and says, "God, not now. Not like this."
Stiles gets a little of his own feeling back in his hands and he uses it to reach up and drag his fingers against the grain on the stubble on Derek's jaw. Derek staggers again, groans low in his chest. "No... you don't want..."
Stiles wants to scream at the top of his lungs, I do want, so much but obviously Derek doesn't and Stiles should keep his sweaty, questing hands to himself. He curls closer into Derek's chest because right now he's weak and he can't resist, but also tucks his hands under his armpits so they don't go wandering again.
Derek pauses, lifting a leg to kick at a wall and Stiles realizes belatedly that Derek has kicked the lift button with his boot. It's a spectacular display of multi-tasking. There's a muted ding and then Derek mostly falls forward, dropping Stiles as gently as he can once they hit the quietly air-conditioned space. When the doors slide closed the sensations dull down enough that Stiles can drag himself away from Derek, who's slumped in the opposite corner.
"Sorry, I-" Stiles starts to apologize but Derek waves him off, shaking his head.
"Not your fault."
"Derek," Stiles says very seriously when he's managed to scrape his wits and the shredded tatters of his dignity together. "Are our dragons boning right now?"
"Yes," Derek says, face equally serious but also searching, like he's waiting for his cue to how to react from Stiles.
What Stiles does is collapse sideways in helpless giggles, burying his face in his hands. He must sound a little hysterical because Derek scoots forward again, patting at the air around Stiles, not trusting himself to touch apparently after what had just happened. "Are you... are you laughing?" Derek demands, but his lips have started to twitch too.
"Erica's going to be so disappointed," Stiles gets out between sobs of laughter.
"Lydia's not," Derek says, sitting back again, hands hanging loosely between his propped up legs. "This is what she wanted, propagation."
"She's a romantic, alright."
"That's one word for it."
"Isn't it kind of weird. They're related."
"Stiles, they're really not. It's true, they wouldn't have done this with Laura and I as their bonded riders but Jura's link with Laura was severed completely when she died. Maro and Jura would have created a whole new relationship."
"Maro better treat her right, all's I'm saying," Stiles says. "There better be dragon-sized candy and flowers."
"Stiles, I'm pretty sure Jura could eat Maro if she was unhappy with him."
"You bet she could," Stiles says, chest puffed up and proud smile in place.
"Are you alright with the, uh, feedback?" Derek says. He makes a gesture with his hands to emphasize his point, turns a hilarious shade of pink when he realizes what he's miming and tucks his hands under his butt hastily.
"Yeah. I mean, close up it, uh, sucked," Stiles says, although that's not exactly what he'd call it, but he doesn't really want to explain to Derek that when he was picked up, he was pretty close to coming in his pants like a teenager. "The further away we got, the better though. Now it's just a nice little buzz."
"We might have to stay out of the stables for a few days. We'll have to let someone else come down and give us the all clear," Derek says and Stiles smirks.
"Few days, huh? You think Maro has that kind of stamina?"
"Please don't enjoy this. It's weird," Derek groans and Stiles' good humor about the situation deflates like a popped balloon. Derek is mortified. He probably can't imagine anything worse than being linked to Stiles in this way and from what Stiles understands about the bond, they will be linked as long as their dragons are.
Whoever is bothering him this early can just deal with his boxer shorts and his weird, knobby knees.
He opens the door, gets out a, "Hey, Lyd-" and then Lydia is hugging him.
Lydia is hugging him.
"Um, you're hugging me," Stiles says weakly, unsure what to do with his own arms and hands so they hover around Lydia without touching down anywhere. This is such an unprecedented event that Stiles' tired brain can't really process it.
"Jura's clutching!" Lydia almost squeals into his ear and Stiles winces and leans away. She chooses that moment to release her grip on him so Stiles, true to form for his morning so far, goes flailing backwards and ends up on the floor on his butt. "Oh, sorry!"
"That's alright," Stiles sighs, figuring it's probably safer to stay on the floor at this point and merely shuffles around until he's propped against the bed. "I've just been having a little trouble getting going this morning."
"That's pretty normal," Lydia agrees and surprises him again by lowering delicately to her knees and then curling sideways, legs tucked underneath her primly and hands resting in her lap. Her journey to the floor was a lot more graceful than his and Stiles is just staring at her.
"Normal for what? Wait, Jura's doing what?"
"Clutching!" Lydia says, regaining some of her enthusiasm, enough to thump Stiles on the knee.
"You're very..." Stiles flails his hands at her, unable to put into words just how jarring it is to see Lydia so happy and excited. "Wait, clutching? As in-"
"We've already done an ultrasound! She's carrying fifteen eggs, Stiles. Fifteen! A clutch of that size is unprecedented. It's going to revitalize the program."
"My Jura's having babies?" Stiles says, feeling overwhelmingly choked up. Lydia's looking at him with something warm and sweet on her face and Stiles waves his hands at her, because if she keeps looking at him like that he's going to do something embarrassing, like burst into tears.
"Stiles, this is major. I don't know if you can even fathom how major this is."
"I'm trying to fathom, I swear. I just... babies, really? Wait, didn't her and Maro just-?"
"Dragons have an accelerated conception and gestation period. Silvers apparently are even faster. We had no idea because Jura is the only one we've ever had. We're estimating that she'll birth in about sixteen days."
"Sixteen days?" Stiles repeats, shocked. As a candidate he'd had to read a lot of pretty boring theoretical stuff and dragon biology was part of it. The normal gestational cycle of a dragon was between thirty-six to fifty-seven days.
"Sixteen days," Lydia repeats, sounding thrilled.
"Are they going to be all silvers?" Stiles asks, needing to concentrate on small parts of Lydia's news because the whole is just too overwhelming. He'd known Lydia and all the other science guys had been worried about the low clutch rate in recent years. A dwindling number of dragons and an increasing frequency in the reality tear events did not add up to anything good by anyone's estimation. He remembers Erica saying something about silvers being dominant of blues at least, but Stiles didn't know about blacks.
"We just don't know," Lydia says, clasping her hands under her chin.
"Does Derek know?" Stiles asks.
The last time he'd seen Derek was down in the stables and Derek had made himself scarce right after that. Stiles hadn't exactly sought him out, telling himself that it wasn't just embarrassment but that it was because he'd been busy trying to cram his simulator training.
Lydia's gaze flits away from him and Stiles leans forward, frowning. She finally returns her eyes to his and grimaces. "Look, the way you're feeling right now, it's because you're getting feedback through the bond."
"Okay," Stiles says slowly.
Lydia clenches her hands in her lap and she gives him a grim, tight little smile. "When a dragon is clutching, they become unpredictable."
"Like what, mood swings?" Stiles asks. He remembers his dad telling him about when his mother was pregnant, how she'd been sweet and homicidal in turns. His dad had always talked about it with a smile on his face and a warm, fond shake of his head and the pregnancy stories were some of Stiles' favorites about his mother. Apparently his mother had gotten it into her head when she was eight and a half months pregnant to take Stiles' dad's squad car for a spin to go get ice cream and had ended up pursuing a guy who had run a red light.
"Sort of. Especially towards the end of the gestation period. Jura will become increasingly aggressive and protective. She's so much bigger than Maro that she could hurt him, even kill him."
"It's happened, Stiles, trust me," Lydia says.
"Okay, but, so I still don't know what this has to do with Derek?" Stiles says, shrugging.
"We separated Maro from Jura but he was... determined. We had to crate him," Lydia says.
"Oh," Stiles says.
"You're getting feedback from Jura, Derek's getting feedback from Maro. He's... Maro's..." Lydia obviously doesn't know how to describe what's happening exactly.
"Would it help if I saw Derek... or would it make things worse?" Stiles asks.
"I honestly have no idea. Your bond with Jura and Derek's with Maro, it's all new territory. I really think I need you both to start wearing monitors for me so I can see what's..."
Stiles closes his eyes then as Lydia talks, reaching out to Jura. He feels along the length of the bond carefully, mindful of Lydia's words, that maybe Jura isn't herself. All he gets back though is a sudden spike of warmth, a gentle sigh of mine that surges with something Stiles can't even describe before it ebbs away.
"I guess you could say that," Stiles sighs.
Stiles contemplates crawling over to it but finally girds himself and pushes to his feet with a heartfelt groan. It takes him so long that there's another knock, this one a little more tentative than the first and then the sound of footsteps shuffling away.
Stiles pulls the door open and leans out, sees it's Derek and yells, "Hey!"
Derek turns around and Stiles wonders if this is how he looked to Lydia. Derek looks terrible. He's wearing sweats and an undershirt, his hair is a mess and he's got dark circles under his eyes. He kind of flails his hands and says, "Sorry, I didn't... I'm not sure why I..."
"I was coming to see you," Stiles blurts when it looks like Derek's getting ready to flee. Derek raises his eyebrows, probably at the way Stiles is barefoot, still only dressed in boxers and a Pixies t-shirt that has a massive hole at the collar.
"I mean, it was probably going to take me a while, but the intention was there," Stiles adds with a rueful grin.
"I just wanted to see you... I mean, see how you were," Derek says, pushing his thumbs into his eyes for a second with a wince.
"Would you just get in here? It looks like you're about to pass out in the hallway," Stiles says, pushing his door open further and waving Derek in. Derek looks painfully uncertain for a moment before he slumps and nods, making his way into the room and dropping onto Stiles' desk chair with a grateful groan. Derek is wearing fuzzy, leopard-print slippers and when he notices where Stiles' attention has caught, he groans again, this time in what sounds like abject resignation.
"I'm pretty sure Kira put these on me when I was sleeping and it was, y'know, effort to take them off."
"I'm choosing to believe that they're yours. That at night, when you're alone in your room, you put on your animal slippers, a cucumber hydrating face mask and dance around to Backstreet Boys."
Derek snorts out a laugh and then misses completely when he moves to lean his elbow on his knee so he almost pitches face-first off the desk chair. Stiles rolls his eyes, pushes off the door which he doesn't remember slumping against and goes over to Derek, picking up one of his hands and tugging while Derek blinks owlishly around the room like he's forgotten where he is.
"What are we doing?" Derek asks, sounding confused when Stiles manages to get him to his feet after tugging fruitlessly for an embarrassingly long amount of time.
"Bed, now, before you break your face," Stiles says, pushing Derek towards his bed when he finally manages to get him on his feet. Derek opens his mouth, probably to protest, but then his knees hit the side of the bed and he just crumples forward. Stiles doesn't mean to flop right after him, but that's what happens and Stiles ends up awkwardly prostrate across Derek's back and legs, trying to right himself and probably looking like a flipped turtle with all the success he's having.
Derek seems to figure out what he's trying to do and uses an elbow to shunt Stiles sideways so he slides off Derek and onto the bed properly. It's not the most comfortable position in the world, Stiles' legs from the knee down are hanging off and he's still canted at a weird angle, but righting himself seems like a herculean task that is currently out of his grasp and even though he's not now on Derek, they're still pressed together and Derek's comforting warmth and bulk are making Stiles feel sleepy and languid in a way he can't explain or want to fight.
He gets a kind of contented feeling of approval from Jura when he gives up and admits that he's probably going to sleep another few hours just like this despite the horrendous crick in his neck he'll wake up with if he does.
"I'm sorry about all this," Derek says when Stiles' eyes are sliding shut and Stiles startles a little because despite how drugging his presence is, Stiles had almost forgotten for a second that Derek was even there.
"'s'not your fault," Stiles says, bringing up a hand and flopping it across his body. He means to give Derek a reassuring pat, but he only manages to bonk Derek on the nose. Derek grabs his hand and he twines their fingers together, probably to stop Stiles hitting him in the face again.
"Maro didn't think I was moving fast enough. He didn't understand," Derek says.
"That you don't, y'know," Derek says, making absolutely no sense to Stiles whatsoever. He blames the weird funk he's in and waggles his hand, still attached to Derek's to get his attention.
"Finish your sentences. I'm not up to extrapolating."
"You're up to saying the word extrapolating, though?" Derek asks, sounding the tiniest bit more alert and also amused. Stiles still feels sleepy as hell, but the dragging fatigue has ebbed a little, enough that he can wriggle his way up onto the bed more fully and tilt his head so it's not at such a weird angle. Derek shifts to accommodate his movements so they're still mostly pressed together, but it's more comfortable now.
"My dad always said I'd still be talking even if I was in a coma," Stiles says, shrugging, his shoulders making a gentle shush-ush noise against his comforter. They're on top of it and Stiles wonders if it would be crossing a line to propose they get underneath.
"I can believe that," Derek says and he's sounding steadily brighter.
"Yeah, yeah," Stiles huffs.
"I just meant that this is all pretty much my fault. I should've handled it better."
"I still have no idea what you're talking about," Stiles says.
"Maro couldn't understand that the way I felt didn't mean that you would feel the same. It was fortunate that Jura was receptive and he got a little carried away with that-"
"A little," Stiles snorts, but then something Derek says catches up with him. "Wait, what was that about you and feelings?"
"It was nice of you to ignore it. God knows no one else did."
"Stiles, I nearly got you killed because I was trying too hard."
"Back up a second. I think I'm getting lost," Stiles pleads, rolling away a little so he can look at Derek properly, who's flushing a dull pink across his cheekbones.
"I'm talking about my humiliating, awkward crush on you. I know you'd probably prefer it didn't exist but-"
"Your what?" Stiles squeaks.
"-that's not really an option since our dragons bonded with each other."
"I'd prefer you didn't have a crush on me?" Stiles' voice is a touch high and he's left thinking he's suffering from some kind of hysterical auditory hallucination because Derek can't have just said what he did.
"Well, yes. As I said-"
"I'd prefer you didn't have a crush on me?" Stiles is stuck on that concept, like a record caught in a groove because it's so amazingly, unfathomably wrong.
"You... had to know," Derek says slowly, sounding uncertain. There's a line between his brows, made deep with confusion. "Everyone knows."
"Everyone knows?" Stiles splutters.
"Are you telling me you didn't?" Derek asks, looking incredulous.
"No!" Stiles says, flailing so hard that he nearly pitches himself off the bed. Their joined hands come apart with his explosive motion and Derek practically skitters off the bed himself, only stopping because Stiles shoots out both arms and grabs him around the middle, pressing his forehead into Derek's collarbone and just breathing for a moment, listening to the rabbit-quick thump of Derek's heart.
"Oh my god," Derek says, sounding mortified. "How did you not know? I practically swallowed my own tongue when you came down to the launch arena in that tight flight suit."
"I looked ridiculous. I thought you were trying not to laugh at me," Stiles says, voice muffled because he's still pressing his hot face into Derek's chest.
"What is happening right now?" Derek asks, sounding bewildered.
"I'm trying to fathom something," Stiles says. He lets out a squawk of protest when Derek physically unwraps Stiles' arms from around him and pushes him back enough that they're face to face again. "You have a crush on me?" Stiles repeats, because it bares repeating a hundred, thousand, million times.
"I thought you were being nice about it," Derek says, plainly thrown.
"When, in your experience, have I ever been nice about anything? I'm an asshole. I'm funny and loyal so it kind of makes up for it, but I'm not nice."
"So, if you'd known...?" Derek says, leading.
"I would've told you I had an enormous, dweeby crush on you too."
"How did you not know?" Stiles says, throwing Derek's words back at him.
Derek blinks at him for a second, before he's pushing their mouths together. It's simultaneously the worst and best thing that has ever happened to Stiles. Worst because Derek misjudges completely how close they were together and so it kind of hurts when Derek just pitches his face at Stiles' face, but best because Derek is kissing him.
They pull apart at the same time, both breathing heavily and with large, startled eyes. "Wow, we-"
"-are idiots," they say in unison, and then dissolve into what can only be described as helpless giggles against each other. They're curled together like closed brackets and Stiles grabs the hand of Derek's he was holding before and hugs it to his chest, leaning down to gnaw on Derek's knuckles happily.
"You're so weird," Derek huffs, sounding, now Stiles is listening for it, hopelessly charmed.
"I thought you didn't like me, like, at all," Stiles admits after Derek kisses him again properly, gentle and sweet and lingering this time.
"There's no way you thought that," Derek denies.
"I mean, yeah recently we'd become almost-friends, but you just seemed really... unimpressed with me."
"I saw when you came in with the last candidate intake and I..." Derek grimaces and rolls his eyes. "Kira called it being smitten and she laughed at me, a lot."
"You always seemed really annoyed whenever I was around."
"I was... overcompensating. I didn't want anyone to know, but apparently I'm pretty see-through. Lydia knew-"
"Lydia knew?" Stiles huffs, incensed.
"She knew the moment I asked her to take another look at your candidacy paperwork when you were about to be bounced out of the program."
"You... seriously? You're the reason I got to stay?"
"I'd already talked to Argent about letting you stay on as GC, perhaps even allow you to go through another hatching cycle because you'd been picked up late but he's a stickler for the rules."
"You didn't want it though. You didn't want me anywhere near the Hale dragons."
"I wasn't expecting... it threw me. I didn't know how to react to what happened, especially since it was basically my doing."
"Probably didn't help that Lydia tried to sneak me in without you knowing, huh?" Stiles says.
"You put your foot down, demanded Lydia ask me, though. You were willing to give up your last chance at staying with the program just because it might be hard for me. If I wasn't in love with you before-" Derek says, stops abruptly, blushing almost fire-engine red.
"Love? You love me?" Stiles says, awed.
"Am I wrecking this already?" Derek asks.
"No, I'd say you're doing pretty awesomely," Stiles says, wrapping himself around Derek, giving him a full-body hug. "I think I've been in love with you since you sat by my bedside in the infirmary. No, scratch that, I've been in love with you since you cheated playing Go Fish with an invalid in a hospital bed."
"I did not cheat," Derek says on a startled laugh.
"You so did. You had a two in your hand when I asked for it."
"I picked it up after you asked for it."
"You are such a bad liar," Stiles crows.