The wolf woke up.
The wolf woke up in a cage.
The wolf woke up in a cage and he didn’t like it.
The cage was locked, as cages usually were. A line of mountain ash surrounded it, a near perfect circle… except for that tiny little gap in the line back in the darkest corner of the room, where a mouse was having itself a nice dust bath in the finely ground powder. It was enjoying the hell out of it, too. The wolf watched it frolic and his belly twisted with hunger (come closer, mousey, mousey) and joy (almost free, almost free, oh yes!). He thought—as much as he ever did think; dimly, impulsively, with occasional flashes of something distressingly lucid—that it must’ve been the pulse of magic that came with breaking the circle that had woken him.
It wasn’t enough, but it felt good, that lack of pressure. Iron alone wouldn’t hold him. Whoever had put him in this prison was going to come back and eventually open the door, because the wolf knew, deep down, in the still slumbering part of his heart that preferred to walk on two legs, that cages were for storage. Cages were for later use, for waiting for pain. Cages weren’t meant for forever.
Each breath brought with it the scents of his surroundings and painted a picture about what was now and what had been before.
Piss and dried feces.
Death happened elsewhere in this place.
The wolf flopped down on his side and stretched, paws against the bars, back bowing. The sudden movement sent the mouse scrambling for cover, tiny claws skittering across the stone floor, wee heart thrumming like insect wings on a hot summer night. His belly rumbled in disappointment, but it wasn’t too bad yet. He could go a long time without eating, if need be. His kind didn’t die easily.
He’d been badly hurt; he could tell from the lingering burning in his bones, the occasional involuntary twitches beneath his skin that spoke of lightning sparks and blue bitterplant, blades and blunt instruments. His was a body used to punishment, though. The wolf healed fast and he’d long learned how to speed the process along, so he stretched it all away with slow, careful movements. Left hind leg, right foreleg, back. Ohhhh. Lower back twinged. He twisted, tucked his tail, arched his spine, arch-arch-arch... Something popped. The wolf panted happily. Good. Good. Right hind leg, left foreleg, toesies, paws.
Footsteps from behind the door on the other side of the room made him lift his head, ears perked. Heavy boots, heavy cloth. Sweat, bitterplant smoke, gunpowder, metal. Hunter-human. Pain-bringer. The wolf bared his teeth at the door, twisted around into a better position, and lay back down.
Hunter-human came in and brought with him cold white lights on the ceiling. The wolf closed his eyes. The wolf waited. He tracked hunter-human’s path across the room until he heard hunter-human stop in front of the cage and felt the weight of his stare. Hunter-human’s right hand was clutching a metal-shooter—gun, they called it, gun—that stank of blue bitterplant. The wolf could hear his fingers clench and unclench around the grip nervously, callouses rasping over rubber.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” hunter-human muttered on a foul breath. Fish tacos and beer. Smoker. Developing ulcer. “That’s gonna make one big-ass rug.” He kicked the bars, making them clang. “Come on, doggy. You awake? Come at me, big guy!”
The wolf breathed quietly. In another life, he had fought back uselessly. He had snarled and raged, and he had been punished for it. He had fought so hard, so often, and he’d lost all the time, because back when he’d been hairless and walking on two legs, he’d never really believed he could win. He’d thought too much, had been too sloppy, too afraid, because he’d always been Derekbabysweetie, the softheart in his pack, the keeper of obscure knowledge, the cuddly sweetsmile runt. This now, this was better. This was Wolf. This was Fuck You All. This was safer.
Hunter-human pulled a flat little machine from his pocket, a talk-machine, and—as people did with talk-machines—talked into it. “Looks like it’s still out cold, ma’am. Want me to bring it up?”
Is it still fully transformed? a woman-voice asked from the talk-machine, tinny and flat, but the wolf recognized it anyway. Pack leader of the hunter-humans. Cruel-eyes. Stab-pain bringer.
“Yes, ma’am,” hunter-human said. “Didn’t even twitch when I came in.”
Then it’s out cold, stab-pain bringer declared. They don’t fake well when they’re animals. Muzzle it and strap it into the skinning bench. Make sure it’s properly stretched out this time, will you.
“Yes, ma’am,” hunter-human said again. Hunter-human was very deferential. Well-trained. He shoved the talk-machine back into his pocket and pressed a few buttons on the box by the cage door. Deet-deet-deet-doot. Up left, up left, up left, down right. Lazy. The wolf heard a hum and a click from inside the box, and then the door swung open. Hunter-human stepped into the cage and right into the jaws of death.
The hunter-humans’ den was a warren; a stinking slaughterhouse with metal walls and concrete floors. The taste of suffering and death was thick on the wolf’s tongue as he trotted through the maze, his claws clicking treacherously, his breath too loud, his heartbeat a deafening drumroll. He trapped the whines of distress in his chest, choked them with all those terrible smells so he could focus on the trace of fresh air he was following.
Down, over grated stairs, the thick soles of his feet aching with the sharp press of steel edges. Horribly exposed, he hurried across connecting structures and past open doors that led to rooms occupied with hunter-humans. He kept low to the ground there, peeked around corners, waited, waited, slunk smoothly when nobody was looking. Down, down, down, until he reached the big space at the bottom that was filled with cars and crates full of metal and gunpowder and much worse things.
Some of them were gut-wrenchingly small.
He found a big door, which was booby-trapped to all hell, and a smaller door to the side, which was locked. A keypad was attached to the doorframe, similar to the one on his cage, and the wolf didn’t think, didn’t let himself think, because thinking had always gotten him in trouble before, so he wouldn’t, not this time. He rose up on his hind legs and pressed buttons with a claw; very, very carefully.
Up left, up left, up left, down right.
Hot damn. This not thinking thing was definitely the way to go. He was gonna stay on four legs forever, this was awesome.
With a wide, toothy grin, the wolf slipped out into the glaring summer sunshine and ran as fast as his paws could carry him.
Things got hairy for a while there when the hunter-humans swarmed out after the wolf, the whole pack of them, which he estimated was about a shitload. He didn’t know where he was, other than that it was at the edge of a huge city near the ocean—he could smell the smog peppered with sea salt and the general racket humans made all the time wherever they settled. He was far away from home, was all he knew.
The concrete was hot and gritty under his paws as he ducked and sneaked and ran and jumped and hid and then did it all over again, as often as it took. The sun beat down on him and the heat caught in his thick black coat until he was panting desperately in an effort to cool down. He wasn’t made for this type of weather. He was a creature of the forest, damn it, and a creature of the night. Only coyotes could thrive in this climate. He wanted his woods back and his little stream, even though it creeped him out when the fish tried to get between his toes to nib at the soft skin there. Fish were weird.
In the end, it was fish that saved him, because that was his life. Dizzy with heat and dehydration, loopy from running circles around way too many hunter-humans, and thoroughly fed up with it all, the wolf caught the faint scent of rotting fish and followed it, because, at this point, why not. The stink led to what appeared to be one of the last few loading docks still in operation in whatever industrial wasteland this was, and he didn’t hesitate to climb into the back of a truck when nobody was looking. The trailer was one of the old models that were still covered with canvas instead of huge metal boxes, which fit with the rest of the sad fleet getting ready for departure. Some of the trucks reeked of imminent disaster—brittle rubber, leaking fluids, stressed metal—but at that point, anything seemed better than playing tag with the hunter-humans. The wolf only wanted to rest and get his breath back.
The truck was loaded with bales of toilet paper, wrapped in plastic and then sealed in yet more plastic, to keep the environmentally friendly plastic covers of the individual packets nice and dry. The wolf grumbled under his breath in disapproval. So much trash, and where was it going to end up, at least some of it? In his woods, that’s where. Stinkin’ humans. He crawled over and between the towers of shit-wipers and hunkered down in a corner, his dark fur blending in with the dirt and the darkness.
The workers outside tied down the canvas and yelled the all clear to the driver. The engine started with a cough and settled into a metallic rumble that made the floor vibrate. The driver wasted precious minutes searching for a radio station and then finally, finally, the old behemoth rolled forward with a jerk and a squeak and the hiss of releasing brakes.
The wolf could hear the hunter-humans outside as they drove, but they didn’t come close, they only whizzed past like angry hornets a few times. It felt like an eternity, but eventually they disappeared in the distance, left behind in their mad search for a quarry that was no longer there. The wolf stopped chewing nervously through layers of plastic so he could tug out endless streamers of bleached paper. He plopped down on his mountain of tattered merchandize and sighed deeply. Now all he had to do was find the way home.
Funny fact about werewolves: they could find their pack no matter where they were and how they’d gotten there. The wolf knew the truck was going in the right direction. He lay in the gloom and dozed, lulled into happy relaxation by the monotonous hum of the tires and the absence of danger. He didn’t get bored; he was too much animal right then to feel anything but content. The air streaming in through the gaps and eyelets in the canvas cover cooled him down, he was steadily getting closer to home, the hunter-humans were a distant memory, and his bed of toilet paper was actually pretty comfortable. Sure, he was hungry and thirsty, but it wasn’t a serious problem yet. He was used to doing without.
The taste of the sea in the air grew fainter and fainter until it all but disappeared to be replaced first with brittle-dry desert grit and then, eventually, with the scent of sun-warmed mountain earth and trees. The sun went down and the moon came up, round and full way up in the sky. The road wound up and down in long, gentle curves that rocked the wolf in his dark, secure cradle until he fell asleep. He dreamed of his woods and his pack, the fish in his stream, the wistful whisper of tree-magic in the ground, and eventually the creeping terror of losing it all because... because...
…because the truck was headed the wrong way.
The wolf woke with a start. This wasn’t just a curve. He needed to get off, he needed to backtrack. He scrambled to the tail end of the trailer, claws scratching and ripping up plastic and paper in his hurry to get out. The canvas was tough on his teeth, the fastenings on the other side and out of reach, but the wolf had sharp fangs and he was determined. He tore up his mouth on the metal edges of the eyelets and one of the elastic ties snapped and lashed across his face when he bit through the knot, but once he had made a hole, it was comparatively easy to rip the fabric apart.
The road behind the truck was empty, which was a good thing, because when the wolf jumped out he broke both his front legs and his jaw. His body bounced and rolled, bones snapping and muscles and tendons tearing, until he came to rest at the side of the road in a heap of trembling fur. He shook and whined, hurt, hurting, and then he started to heal and for a while that was even worse, the pain of splinters pushing out and bone knitting together, frayed nerve endings reconnecting, ruptured organs reassembling. The blood spilled internally seeped out through the pores of his skin to make room for healthy tissue until his pelt was sticky and wet with it.
When he could breathe again, he stood on shaky legs and focused on that sense of home, of pack, a warm beacon calling to him. Yes, yes, there. There. He looked left and right before he dashed across the road, not eager to repeat his almost-roadkill experience, and then he set out at a brisk trot, tail wagging in excitement. He was going home.
Closer than before didn’t necessarily mean close-by, but the wolf didn’t mind the long journey. He was aware of time passing, but it didn’t have the same meaning for him as for human-people. He found a pool of rainwater in a rock crevice and drank his fill and that tided him over for most of the day. When his paws bled because he was going too fast over broken stones or cut himself on trash or—on one not-so-pleasant occasion—jumped right into a hidden cactus patch, he lay down on his side and waited until he had healed before he continued on his way. When the hunger really twisted its gnarly claws in his belly, he side-tracked onto a campground and stole a dozen hamburger patties out of a cooler. They were too spicy and the onions gave him indigestion, but food was food. It was bitterplant-free, that was all that counted.
The sun went down again. Somewhere in the mountains behind him, a couple of coyotes started to serenade each other. The wolf grumbled and trotted faster. Coyotes courting were almost as bad as cats fighting. He would’ve been so much smoother at it. Then again, he vaguely remembered the time when he’d been Derekbabysweetie and later Derekdudeasshole. Maybe he hadn’t been so good at courting after all. He couldn’t recall details and he didn’t want to, but his hackles were up and his tail had grown stiff and his balls were trying to crawl back into his body, so he probably shouldn’t be so hard on the coyotes.
He pissed against one of their border markers anyway. Just because.
On day two, he stepped into a bear trap.
It took him two hours to figure out how to open it without losing his leg and almost as long to heal the damage.
He pissed on that, too.
The land was beginning to smell familiar. He was still at the outer edges of his territory, but he was starting to recognize things. The old hunting cabin on the ridge. The tree scratched up top to bottom by the playful claws of a pack that was long gone. The stinky pond framed by pine trees. The nearly faded scent marks of his dead alpha-mother. Those made him stop and sit down for a minute, crying softly. The whines soon stretched into long yowls and they tugged and tugged at him from deep inside until he gave in and tilted his head back and let out a deep, mournful howl.
The release felt so good that he did it again; long, drawn-out, ululating howls that carried through the heavy evening air and climbed molasses-thick rays of sunlight toward the gently blushing sky. He missed his momma and his daddy and his siblings, all of them, even the annoying ones. He missed games of tail-tag and mud-tracking and squirrel hunts and puppy piles and moonlight runs and ear tugs. He missed his auntie’s god-awful mushroom stew and his daddy’s back scratches and his cousins’ weird Lego-hiding habits. He missed his momma. His missed his momma.
He was so lost in his misery he almost overheard the answering call from down in the valley, but then the alpha added some oomph and that shook him right out of it. The wolf raised his nose into the wind and sniffed agitatedly, but the alpha—new alpha, Scott-alpha—was too far away yet to smell and he’d never been this far out to leave his marks. That was his voice, though, and that deep roar was a welcome and an order to come, come, come, now.
The wolf’s tail started to wag, ears perking right back up from where they’d been drooping with sadness. As quickly as he’d descended into grief and loneliness, he snapped out of it again. This, too, was a good thing about being wolf. Past was a distant pain, easily shoved aside for present joy. He had lost one pack, his blood-pack, but he’d found a new one, he wasn’t alone. He was home. Almost.
The wolf positively bounced down the hillside toward the sound of the alpha’s roar. He crossed the hiking trails he’d run as a pup, climbed down his favorite shortcut ravine, splashed through the stream with its terribly forward fishes, and almost got run over by a car when he forgot to look left and right before crossing the road that led up to his family’s burned-down den. The tip of his tail got clipped by the bumper, making him tuck it in with a yelp as he tumbled into the ditch ass over teakettle.
Behind him, brakes screeched.
The wolf came to an abrupt stop in a patch of weeds that made him sneeze convulsively. Ragweed. Of course it was ragweed. He was still trying to extricate himself between sneezes and shudders caused by his body’s immune system fighting off the effects of his allergies when someone human—two someones—came sliding down the incline after him. One managed a reasonably smooth descent, the other started windmilling his arms halfway down, ended up on his ass, hollered, and skidded to the bottom with all the dignity and grace of an intoxicated baby giraffe.
The wolf finally got his feet under him and stumbled out of the weeds, burrs and pollen clinging to his fur, tail going like a propeller. He yipped a hello, fully intending to pounce on his pack-mate and share the pollen, but the other human stepped between them before he could get close. Stop right there, the human’s body language said, loud and clear. Back off.
The wolf stopped obediently and backed up, blinking, not sure what was going on. He couldn’t yet smell the human, but he’d met him often enough to know him even with his nose full of ragweed. Sheriff was part of the pack. Did Sheriff want to be greeted first? Why did Sheriff have a hand on his gun?
“Stiles, stay back. That’s not Derek. That’s a wolf. A freaking huge wolf.”
Sheriff was new to this, the wolf remembered. Easily rattled yet, and fiercely protective of his cub. Always willing to accommodate his pack-mates, the wolf dropped to his belly and tried to make himself look smaller. The sneezing helped. Fucking pollen. On the bright side, Stiles was pretty much trying to climb over his father to get to him.
“Are you kidding? There are no wolves in Cali, dad. Werewolves, yes. So many werewolves. Ridiculously many werewolves. But no actual wolves. I bet you a hundred bucks that’s Derek.” He huffed indignantly when his father caught him by the scruff and pulled him back before he could get within reach. “What? Oh my God, dad! We hit him with the car. He could be hurt!”
“If that’s a werewolf,” Sheriff said, unimpressed, “it’ll heal. And if it’s not, this is a hurt animal. Stay back.” At least he’d taken his hand off the gun. A sneezing wolf lying flat on his belly was apparently not quite as scary as a sneezing wolf crawling out of a patch of weeds.
Sheriff squinted down skeptically. The wolf squinted back and wagged his tail, both to demonstrate his goodwill and the fact that, see? Tail all healed.
“You’re probably right. This can’t be Derek,” Stiles sighed. “I mean, look at him. This puppy is ten kinds of adorable. Actually, where’s my phone?” He slapped a hand down against his pants leg, then the other, dug out his flat little talk-machine and fiddled with it.
The wolf wasn’t entirely sure what that was about, but Stiles kept pointing the thing at him and moving it around and it clicked. That was curious, so the wolf sat up and tilted his head this way and that, trying to figure out if the clicking was caused by his movements or Stiles’ incessantly tapping fingers. If he focused, he’d remember—he knew a lot of things when he let himself remember—but it wasn’t important enough to risk the bad that always came with the good.
Stiles chuckled. “Wow, this is gold. That shit’s right out of a Disney movie.”
The wolf had no idea what a Disney movie was and he didn’t really care. He was home, two friendly humans were right there—though not being particularly helpful—he was mostly rid of the pollen, and the grass at the bottom of the ditch was nice and soft. He didn’t mind waiting for Scott-alpha to arrive and explain to Sheriff that everything was fine.
“Derek?” Sheriff tried again. “That you, kid?”
The wolf woofed, because humans appreciated sound, always jawing away, always yapping. They were worse than foxes. Couldn’t blame them, though. Poor things didn’t have tails or proper noses, and they were hard of hearing, too. You had to spell stuff out for them very clearly and slowly and often repeatedly. The wolf was used to it and happy to oblige. Human pack members were precious things. They needed protection and patience and care, which wolves were all too happy to provide, and they loved back so fiercely. Well, the ones who knew what was happening did. The new Beacon Hills pack was still a work in progress.
“Was that a yes?” Sheriff asked Stiles.
Stiles shrugged and finally put away his talk-and-click-machine. “How should I know? I don’t speak wolf. But if he wasn’t Derek, I figure he’d have eaten us by now.” He stepped a little closer, which made Sheriff twitch unhappily, and then both Sheriff’s and the wolf’s jaws dropped when Stiles bent down and crooned, “You would’ve eaten us, wouldn’t you? Who’s a ferocious werewolf?” in what had to be the most annoying baby-voice ever. “Is it you? Are you a big, bad wolfy, huh? Noooo. You’re a good wolfy, yes, you aaaare!”
How this kid had survived this long was a mystery. The worst thing was that the wolf had to sit on his tail to keep it from wagging at the praise. Must be because that singsong tone sounded so much like the verbal equivalent of friendly tail swishing and the way the kid had tilted his head and showed throat. Stiles had no self-preservation instinct. The wolf grumbled at him, mildly, no teeth.
Stiles jumped back hastily, tripped over his own feet, and had to make a wild grab for his father’s jacket to keep from falling over. “Sounds like Derek, all right.”
Sheriff shot him a look. His eyebrow was very eloquent. It was calling Stiles an idiot. “You think?”
The wolf was not riding in the back of Sheriff’s car. He was not. Uh-uh. No way. It was a cage, it stank, and the windows were up and couldn’t be rolled down, he’d checked. He was not going in there.
“Come on, what?” Stiles complained, looking between the wolf and the open door. “You’d rather walk all the way to Deaton’s?”
The wolf wasn’t sure what or where exactly Deaton’s was, but he didn’t doubt he could indeed walk there. Or run there, as it was. He had plenty of miles in him still. He was a fine runner, especially on four legs. He proved it by running around Stiles, pawing open the door, and planting his butt on the passenger seat before Stiles had completed his confused what-the-fuck-follow-the-wolf circle. Sheriff barked out a laugh. Stiles cursed. The wolf wiggled proudly.
Stiles immediately bitched and complained and tried to physically remove the wolf from his chosen seat. Good luck with that; the wolf was heavier and had four big paws to fend off Stiles’ two.
And that was how Scott-alpha found them when he came racing out of the woods barefoot in a pair of dirt-spattered jeans—Stiles with his hands buried in the wolf’s thick ruff, grunting as he struggled to get a better grip, most of his face covered by one of the wolf’s big paws, Sheriff hovering close by, clearly torn between amusement and worry for his cub’s safety.
“Oh my god,” Scott-alpha said, in between panting breaths. “Derek?”
The wolf would’ve loved to greet the alpha properly and respectfully, but if he gave Stiles an inch, Stiles was going to drag him off the passenger seat like a disobedient puppy and claim victory. The wolf wasn’t opposed to submitting as such, but his submission damn well had to be earned. He huffed in irritation. Stiles wasn’t letting go. Stiles never let go, once he’d latched on to someone. He was a goddamn pit bull in that regard. The only way out of this, the wolf realized, was to either do what Stiles wanted or hurt him… and hurting him wasn’t really an option. So he stopped pulling against Stiles and jumped into his arms instead.
“Holy shit!” Stiles yelled as he toppled backward, fingers still clutching the wolf’s fur, and then he shrieked again when the wolf spun them so Stiles was on top when they hit the concrete.
They landed with a sound smack, boy on wolf, boy’s face and squishy bits cushioned by wolf’s body, wolf’s back taking the brunt of the impact. Not quite what the wolf had planned, but then things rarely panned out the way he intended. He’d learned to roll with it. This wasn’t submission, it was play; it was protecting a human member of the pack. It was all good. Except for the elbows. Stiles had the pointiest elbows ever and he was digging them into the wolf’s ribs with a vengeance.
“Dude! What the hell?”
The wolf craned his neck until he could look at the alpha upside down. Scott-alpha was staring at him wide-eyed, mouth hanging open a little, disbelief in every line of his body.
“I know, right?” Stiles said from his position on top of the wolf, elbows easing up but fingers still clinging to the thick pelt, dried blood and mud crackling under his grip. He didn’t seem to mind. Stiles wasn’t the type to care about a little dirt. “You gotta pet him, Scott, this is awesome. It’s like touching a bear. Also, probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” He didn’t let go, but he rubbed his knuckles over the wolf’s skin, tugging lightly on the fur in his hands. It felt nice. Stiles seemed to think so, too, because he buried his face back in the soft, mostly clean tufts of hair between the wolf’s forelegs and groaned. “He’s so fluffy I wanna die.”
“No,” Sheriff said sternly. He walked up and stood beside the alpha, arms crossed. “Oh, no. No, Stiles. We’re not having this discussion again.”
Stiles whined, so much like a disgruntled pup the wolf would’ve licked him had the angle not been so awkward. “But he’s cuddly.”
Long fingers tightened their grip on the wolf’s pelt, nailing him right in the pack instincts. He huffed breathlessly and squirmed until he could lick Stiles’ ear and snuffle against his head, taking in great gulps of Stiles-scent. Not a pup. Not even quite a teenager anymore. Right on the cusp of adulthood, this one, with lots of interesting, musky notes sneaking into his core scent. The wolf ducked down a bit and laved the soft, vulnerable skin of Stiles’ throat, both tasting him—saltywarmStiles—and testing him. Stiles laughed and let him, tipping his head back without hesitation. That did things to the wolf. Good things.
“Dude,” Scott-alpha yowled, sounding appalled. “Oh my God, stop it! Since when are you on snuggling terms with Derek?”
The wolf didn’t need to see Stiles to know he was pouting. “I’m not,” he claimed. “This isn’t snuggling. This is celebrating the continuation of a precious life here, Scott. Aren’t you glad Derek’s not dead? I thought we were past this. Derek friend, not foe. I’m just… speaking a language he understands right now.”
“You’re cuddling a huge-ass werewolf,” Sheriff corrected, “because your brain stops working when you’re around the occasionally furry.”
“No offense, Scott.”
“I resent that,” Stiles grumbled, still on top of the wolf, hugging him aggressively. “I’m in no way influenced by all this fluff. I’m impervious to fluff.” His fingers were scritching, perfectly, up over the wolf’s sides and into the baby-soft fur beneath his elbows, pausing occasionally to crumble clumps of dirt and tug on a small cluster of burrs. The wolf’s eyes rolled back in his head, it felt so good. “Who’s a big cuddle-slut? Who is?” Stiles crooned, and the wolf knew he should at least nip at him for it, but if he did, Stiles might stop what he was doing and that was so much worse than the wolf’s current loss of dignity. Stiles’ fingers were magic. They made the wolf’s paws curl and twitch in the air as though he was trying to swim through a river of pure pleasure. “You are,” Stiles praised, and he sounded delighted by it and barely mocking at all. “You are the biggest cuddle-slut, yes, you are.”
“You know he’s going to throttle you for this when he’s back to himself, right?” Scott-alpha asked, resigned.
“Totally worth it,” Stiles declared, and started in on the wolf’s chest in tight, rhythmic circles. “This is the softest fur to ever furry. Forget bunnies. This is the ultimate petting experience.”
Sheriff must not have liked that, because he raised his arm, fast, as though he was about to strike, and the wolf snapped back to attention instantly. He’d been hit before, slapped and stabbed and hurt by enemies and allies alike, but this time it wasn’t only him, it was human Stiles, vulnerable Stiles, packmatesmellsgood Stiles, so the wolf reared up and tucked the boy into the curve of his body before he ducked down, rolled over, and flattened them both against the ground. It presented Sheriff and Scott-alpha with his broad back and neck, Stiles safely hidden under his sturdy form, squawking in indignation. It was a memory move more than a wolf move, something he’d have done before, when he’d been Derekbabysweetie, but it was effective and that was what counted.
The mood switched from playful to tense so quickly it made the wolf’s heart trip over itself. He could feel Sheriff and Scott-alpha staring at him, their shock a bitter tang between his defiantly bared teeth, and he realized he’d done something wrong, but he didn’t know what. Stiles squirmed, confused but unconcerned as he poked long fingers into the wolf’s side to get him to roll off Stiles. The wolf didn’t—couldn’t, not right then, not when he still half expected a kick or a clawed swipe at his back. He didn’t move, lay quietly on his side, submissive, ears pinned back and hackles raised, his paws keeping Stiles wedged into the shelter of his body.
Scott-alpha breathed in sharply and started to smell more wolfish again. More fur, more scent. The shift of his bones was a faint creak in the wolf’s ears, the stretch of skin over the new structure a hushed slide. Scott-alpha stepped forward, keeping Sheriff back with a commanding, “No. Let me.”
The wolf shivered. So claws and teeth, then. This was gonna hurt.
“Scott?” Stiles asked, suddenly wary. “What did you do? What’s wrong?” His hands flattened out against the wolf’s broad chest and he grew still. “Jesus Christ, are you having a heart attack? Scott, is he having a heart attack? Did the cuddling break him? Should I start CPR or something?”
“He’s scared,” Scott-alpha said, and he sounded weird, somewhere between disbelieving and uncomfortable. He was also lisping slightly due to the different shape of his teeth and the way his jaws had adapted to fit them. “I don’t know what happened, dude, but he, like, went from happy-happy to DEFCON 3 in point five seconds.”
Stiles blinked; the wolf could feel his long lashes flutter against the fine hairs of his fur. “Why?” he asked, faintly accusing. “What did you do? Are you wolfed out? If you’re wolfed out, stop it, dude. Like, now.”
“I’m not wolfed out,” Scott-alpha lied, and quickly shifted back with a quiet pop of bone compressing and fangs blunting down. It didn’t help much. He was an alpha almost on top of the wolf, and he was agitated. The wolf squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the inevitable. Instead of punishing him for whatever offense he’d committed, though, Scott-alpha sniffed the air with a downright rude lack of subtlety and then stepped back again, slowly. “Wow,” he said. “Uhm. I’m not gonna hurt you, dude. Derek. Derek? It’s okay.” He huffed out a frustrated breath. “Seriously, since when are you this twitchy?”
“Aw, crap,” Sheriff muttered. “It was me.”
“What?” Stiles tried to sit up, then sighed when he found himself securely stuck. He patted the wolf’s heaving flank with a big hand and then let it rest there, warm and reassuring. “Okay. Okay. What happened? What did you do, dad? Pull your gun on him?”
Sheriff huffed in exasperation. “No, I did not pull my gun on him. You were being ridiculous and I…” he cleared his throat, “…I facepalmed.”
“That’s it?” Stiles sounded skeptical.
The wolf was starting to feel a bit silly. Everybody was talking calmly, nobody was trying to touch them or behaving aggressively, and Stiles seemed unperturbed. He also kept petting the wolf, soothing strokes against his bristled fur, and that more than anything convinced the wolf that the danger had passed and punishment wasn’t coming right then. He uncurled slowly and let go of the human, who immediately sat up so he could look at Scott-alpha and Sheriff.
The wolf rolled around until he, too, was facing the two of them, though he was careful to stay on the ground and radiate docility. He did not want to fuck up his place in the pack. Being an omega sucked even worse than being an alpha. He wasn’t going back to that, no way, no how.
“That’s it,” Sheriff confirmed. “Fast movement and a slap. I must’ve spooked him. He looks like he’s been through the wringer.”
Sheriff sounded neutral, but he was looking at the wolf with different eyes now. It was not at all how Scott-alpha and Stiles looked at him; his gaze was more aware, prying, a look like a too-smart, too-curious nose. Sheriff saw too much, always had. It made the wolf uncomfortable, but he couldn’t tell why and he didn’t want to understand because to do so he’d have to remember, and he knew instinctively that other-him, two-legged him, was too fragile to handle this kind of scrutiny. The wolf didn’t bruise so easily. That was why the wolf was going to handle things for the time being.
“Jumpy, huh?” Stiles teased, and started up the petting again.
The wolf relaxed into it. He didn’t know when he’d last been touched without the intent to hurt or deceive and Stiles had a knack for hitting all the good spots. Right behind the ears and under his chin, firm against tense shoulder muscles and kneading down the long line of the wolf’s spine. Those long, strong fingers combed through matted fur and untangled it carefully, brushed out gravel and dried blood with surprising patience, picked out all the little twigs and burrs that had tangled in the thick pelt. The wolf could get used to this. He wanted to get used to this.
His skin was so starved for touch it confused his stomach into rumbling. Well. That, and the actual hunger. He hadn’t wanted to lose time hunting, so the last thing he had eaten since those terrible raw hamburger patties had been a bunch of grasshoppers that had panicked and jumped left when they should’ve jumped right. They’d been crunchy, but not particularly filling.
“Sounds like someone’s hungry,” Sheriff noted dryly. Something had changed; he didn’t seem worried anymore that his cub was sitting right next to a hungry predator. His stance had eased, his eyes softened, and that, in turn, soothed the wolf and made him pant contentedly. He hadn’t liked the suspicion. Pack shouldn’t be afraid of pack. Bad enough he didn’t quite dare to trust Peter-deadnotdead. The human members should know they were always safe with the wolf.
Stiles chuckled and rubbed one of the wolf’s ears gently between two fingers, cleaning off dried specks of mud. “We could hit the drive-through before we head to the clinic, get him a few burgers. I could go for some curly-fries.” He smirked; the wolf could hear it in his voice. “They have a new salad special, too.”
Burgers sounded… pretty bad, actually. Cooked meat. Cooked, spiced meat. In a bun. With slimysauce and tasteless greenstuff. Joy. Then again, food. Food with pack. Good, good, excellent. Pack meals were great for bonding.
Unfortunately, Scott-alpha had other ideas. “Oh, no. No, no, no.” He waved his hands around, but the motion was flaily and non-threatening, very clearly only for emphasis. “No detours. Every time we deviate from the plan, bad shit happens. This time, we’re going straight to Deaton’s.”
“Will Deaton be able to turn him back?” Sheriff asked, interested and worried.
Stiles pulled a face. “Maybe. Or maybe he’ll dunk him in a vat of ice water and tell us to hope for the best. Might as well have dinner first.”
“I’m not having the salad,” Sheriff declared, eyes narrowed. “Nobody told me werewolves could turn into full-on, four-legged wolves. From now on, every time you keep me in the dark like that, I’m getting a burger. If it’s evil monster related, I’m getting steak and fries. And I swear to God, you ever try and hide shit concerning your health and safety again, I’ll hit Yao Fei’s Sunday grease-fest buffet with a vengeance.”
“You wouldn’t! I never agreed to that,” Stiles protested heatedly, clambering to his feet. He managed to knee the wolf in the back when he did, so the wolf got up, too. It seemed to be the safer option. “Also, we didn’t know for sure it was a thing.”
“I can’t turn into a wolf,” Scott-alpha threw in, trying to be helpful.
“And you can bet we tried,” Stiles agreed. “He’s got the howl down pat, but we’ve never gotten him past the Spock-ears and the nasty old-wife claws.”
“How did you—” Sheriff stopped and reconsidered. “On second thought, I don’t want to know. Get in the car, all of you. We’ll swing by the burger place on fifth on our way to the clinic. That shouldn’t count as a detour.” The wolf obediently hurried back to the cruiser and jumped on the passenger seat. Sheriff gave him an unimpressed look. “Werewolves ride in the back.”
But… stinky. And cage. And no open windows. The wolf whined pitifully.
Stiles had no mercy. “You heard the man. Backseat, fur-face.”
Reluctantly, the wolf slunk back down and followed the alpha, who was already scrambling into the car. He paused by the door. The rubber mat on the floor smelled of marijuana-flavored puke. Someone had pissed on the passenger-side seat cushion at some point. The headrests were smeared with the oily residue of a hundred different unwashed heads. The wolf didn’t know how Scott-alpha could stand it, though he suspected Scott-alpha to be quite proficient at turning off his sense of smell.
The back of the cruiser shouldn’t have bothered the wolf, considering he’d woken up in a cage ringed with mountain ash not so long ago, on a floor soaked with terror and misery, old piss, old blood, bitterplant-laced sweat, and sickness. The car was comfy in comparison. It was. It was also a prime example of humanity at its grossest. For a real wolf, smells were just smells. In general, they weren’t good or bad, they simply relayed information. Werewolves, unfortunately, were cursed with more of an imagination and a clear idea of what was neutral data and what was disgusting and unsanitary and should be avoided.
“Come on, get in,” Scott-alpha called, patting the seat next to him.
Skin crawling with revulsion, the wolf crept into the car and tried not to breathe. Failing that, he pressed his nose against the partition cage as close to Sheriff’s neck as possible and focused on the man’s scent. Sheriff smelled good; not quite as good as his son, or maybe simply not as familiar, but quite nice nonetheless. It was a healthy scent, dominated by sweat, male musk, leather, gun, and Stiles. His heartbeat was strong and steady, though it sped up a bit when the wolf puffed out a sigh that ruffled the fine hairs on Sheriff’s neck.
“This is like riding with a K-9,” Sheriff grumbled. “I think I’m having a Gonzo flashback.” He started the car and glanced in the rearview mirror to check the wolf’s reaction before he eased the big car onto the road.
Stiles looked back at the wolf, a speculative glint in his eyes that turned into a smirk when he saw the look on the wolf’s face. “Yeah, except that Derek’s more likely to barf instead of bark. You need a bucket, dude?”
“No barfing!” Scott-alpha ordered, and scrambled away from the wolf as far as the backseat would allow. “Bad Derek!”
If he’d had anything in his belly, the wolf would’ve yacked it up out of spite at that. As it was, all he could do was glare. He had a feeling this was going to be a long drive.
What was it with these people and obnoxiously smelly places? Deaton’s, it turned out, was not only full of sick animals, bitter medicine, and eye-watering cleaning agents, it also reeked of magic. A mountain ash barrier had been built into the reception desk, a line of booby-trapped floorboards lay beyond, the walls contained hex bags, at least three different drawers held dried bitterplant, and several containers made from old-magic-wood were stacked up right next to glass bottles filled with all kinds of suspicious herbs. Come to think of it, yes, he’d been here before and he hadn’t enjoyed it much then either.
Scott-alpha had called the rest of his pack—as much as you could call it a pack—on the way over, because apparently all of them except for Peter-deadnotdead had helped search for him, and the room was chockfull of hunter-humans, werewolves, a kitsune, and a death-magic girl. Pack and pack-adjacent and pack-orbiting, in no particular order or configuration. They were staring down at the wolf in astonishment as though they didn’t know how rude and intimate it was to make direct eye-contact with someone on four legs.
The kitsune smelled of ozone and overheated power cable, which made the wolf’s nose tingle with the desire to sneeze. He didn’t dare let loose, though, because he was still the center of attention and closing his eyes seemed like a bad idea. He also strongly suspected she was going to coo at him if he sneezed and the thought alone was enough to make him squirm.
Even worse, the death-magic girl was studying him with interest. Frankly, not the kind of attention a smart wolf wanted. The flat, weirdly echo-y smell of her—earth, emptiness, and something faintly flowery—punched him in the nose every time he took a deeper breath, which he tried to avoid. It turned into an unpleasant sort of circle: clinic stench was overlaid by kitsune-tickle was smacked down by death-magic girl.
The hunter-humans added the final touch to the already impressive level of discomfort. The wolf knew they belonged to this strange pack-cluster, but their family-scent made him ache with the memory of lightning sparks and biting blades. He kept thinking he smelled smoke, too—wood smoke, plastic smoke, meat smoke—but this was another bad thing from his past that he refused to let resurface. He endured their hard stares for a short while and then went to hide behind Sheriff and Stiles, where he dropped to his belly and tried to become invisible.
Everybody was talking; over each other, at each other, so many words the wolf lost track and it all became so much noise to him. Lots of excitement all around—not the good kind—and it made him a little edgy, but Sheriff stayed calm and unruffled through it all and Stiles’ full-body way of communicating kept the others at a safe distance. All of Sheriff’s and Stiles’ excitement was aimed outward, not at the wolf. It helped a lot. He’d rather trust them over the alpha anyway, which… huh. He hadn’t realized that before.
He glanced at Scott-alpha with this newfound insight. Scott-alpha was a nice alpha, a comparatively gentle alpha, but he wasn’t doing much to control the diverse mix of pack and not-quite-pack. He was splitting his focus between Stiles, the dark-haired hunter-cub, the beta, and the kitsune, and though he gestured at the wolf now and then, the wolf knew he wasn’t Scott-alpha’s priority. Scott-alpha would sacrifice or cast him out in a heartbeat if something more important came up or if he doubted the wolf’s dedication. Scott-alpha had made that very clear several times in the past and though the wolf might not recall the exact circumstances (didn’t want to, thanks), the lessons had stuck. It was easier to trust Sheriff’s deep-rooted authority and general goodwill and Stiles, because Stiles had fought for him before, had come back for him when nobody else had. The wolf had faith in Stiles.
Time passed; not very much, not a little. The wolf adjusted to the chaos around him and learned several things while sitting in his Stilinski-guarded corner: he had been taken forcefully when he’d visited the burned-out den, the pack had lost the trail quickly and had been about to give him up for dead, and also cooked burgers were worse than raw patties. The spices had left a disgusting aftertaste on his tongue, a strand of greenstuff was stuck between his back teeth somewhere, and the onions were doing a number on his poor tummy. Trying not to draw attention, he farted as discreetly as possible a few times, which helped a bit. Luckily, nobody noticed. They were too busy squabbling about whatever it was that was currently riling them up. Something about hunter-humans and their shitty habit of breaking their own codes.
Stiles was not happy with Scott-alpha, and even less happy with... fear-biter, lost-cub... Isaac-beta. There was resentment there on both sides, old jealousy, rivalry, and bad memories. It probably didn’t help that Stiles didn’t do well with waiting. “So where the hell is Deaton?” he asked finally, voice sharp.
“Right here, Mr. Stilinski.”
The wolf ducked down lower, nose twitching nervously. He hadn’t heard this one come in, he hadn’t smelled him. His scent was faint, muted, hidden among all the bad place-smells. Deaton-creepysneak stepped closer, staring, staring, so tall, why did so many two-legs loom constantly? They didn’t have to, it wasn’t a size thing; Sheriff didn’t do it and neither did Stiles and Scott-alpha. It made the wolf bristle defensively and utter a low grumble of a growl, a warning to stay away, back off, fucking stop staring.
“Always going for the grand entrance,” Stiles complained, even as he moved a step to the side, blocking Deaton’s view. “What, do you have a secret trap door installed back there?”
“Yes,” Deaton-creepysneak said, bone-dry. Stiles immediately craned his neck trying to spy the trap door in question. Deaton huffed in exasperation. “It’s called a service entrance. I use it when my exam room is,” he eyed them all with a reproachfully raised eyebrow, “crammed full of uninvited visitors.”
Stiles subsided with a miffed look and a sullen, “I knew that.”
“I had to let the others know Derek was back,” Scott-alpha piped up, “and that he was—uhm.” He gestured at the wolf. “Like this.”
The wolf’s nerves were pretty frayed by that point. He couldn’t run, because he had nowhere left to run—he was home, for better or worse—and there was nothing to fight, so he crawled a little closer to his human shields and gnawed surreptitiously on the nearest pair of shoelaces. The chewing helped calm him down and soothed the animal part of his mind. It also successfully distracted him from the growing urge to yip hysterically and hide under the storage trays. He glanced up guiltily when he felt the combined weight of the pack’s disbelieving stares.
Sheriff sighed and carefully lifted his foot, which absolutely failed to dislodge the wolf. “Oh, for Christ’s sake. This is pitiful.” He straightened up and let his voice drop into the deeper register he used when assuming control of a situation. “Everybody out. Give the poor guy some space before he starts in on my pants.”
The hunter-cub nodded tersely. “Keep me posted,” she told Scott-alpha, then grabbed the kitsune—who had been trying to surreptitiously point her talk-machine at the wolf for clicking purposes—and dragged her out of the room.
“I’m staying,” Scott-alpha declared, unsurprisingly.
Sheriff looked down at the wolf. The wolf didn’t meet his gaze, because he had it with all the staring, and he didn’t stop chewing fretfully on Sheriff’s shoelace, but he moved a leg so he could curl a paw around Stiles’ ankle. Stiles could stay. Stiles wasn’t always the wolf’s biggest fan, but he was reliable and familiar. Better yet, his scent—muskmedicinesexpaper—carried just the right notes to cover the more disturbing smells.
“Yep, I’m staying, too,” Stiles said, sounding smug. He was forgiven, because he shifted closer so the wolf didn’t have to stretch out his leg so far. Not close enough for the wolf to latch on to his laces, though.
“Why does he get to stay?” Isaac-beta protested.
“Because I give awesome ear-rubs,” Stiles deadpanned. “Bye, Isaac. Don’t forget your scarf.”
Isaac-beta sneered at him, but he didn’t fight back. He smelled angry and a little cowed, outranked by a human without realizing that’s what had happened. “See you at home, Scott,” he said, but he was looking at Stiles as he did, so it was a dig. As such, it would’ve been more impressive if he hadn’t hurried out before Stiles could shoot back a reply, all but running after the hunter-cub and the kitsune.
They didn’t get very far. The kitsune somehow managed to trip over air, almost went sprawling, then let out a high-pitched squeal of delight.
“Oh my God, baby kittens! Allison, Isaac, look!”
At least they were out of the room. He could ignore the baby-talk that started up in the kitty-nursery. Let the cats deal with it. Cats were very good at maintaining their boundaries, after all, probably because they were adorable, bi-polar, slash-happy little psychos.
“Call us when he’s human again,” the older hunter-human ordered with a final glare at the wolf before he went to retrieve his cub from the nursery. “I have questions.”
It could’ve been a threat, but the hunter-human’s body language and smell didn’t back it up; hadn’t even at the beginning. He was concerned, grudgingly fond, and relieved. More part of the pack than outsider. More friend of the wolf’s than enemy.
“If all else fails,” the death-magic girl added, already on her way out the door, “we’ll put him in a pink princess harness. That’ll give him incentive to change back.”
“Now that’s what I call cruel and unusual punishment,” Sheriff muttered.
The death-magic girl tossed her hair and stuck up her nose. Catty. Figured, what with that mean piece of advice. “Whatever works. Excuse me, I have a life to get back to.”
“Thanks for your help,” Stiles called after her. “We appreciate it!”
She glanced over her shoulder at that. “Of course you do,” she said, but she did smell pleased and she marched out with her head held high in a way the wolf associated with proudly raised tails. She walked straight into the kitty nursery. The wolf assumed that the meowing that followed was the cats hailing their queen.
Sheriff waited until the slow-moving door had closed behind her, then moved his foot again, nudging the wolf’s jaw gently. “Come on, kid. I still need those.”
Reluctantly, the wolf let go and sat up between father and son, hoping for some body contact. He wasn’t disappointed. Both Stiles and Sheriff immediately put their hands on his head; Stiles to play leisurely with his ear—he really did give awesome ear-rubs—and Sheriff to cradle the back of his head with a big hand, warm and reassuring. The tension seeped out of the wolf and left him droopy-eyed and panting contentedly. This was all right. This was fine. All they needed now was a den and some real food and they’d be all set.
Scott-alpha pulled out his talk-machine and aimed it at them, clicking away with a stupid smile on his face. “Man, I gotta show these to my mom. She thought I was kidding when I told her.” He looked at the machine and frowned. “Wait. That’s weird. Why’s there no eye-flare?”
Deaton-creepysneak glanced at the picture. “I believe it might have something to do with how deeply he has hidden the human part of him.”
“You mean… there’s nothing left of Derek?”
Scott-alpha sounded so horrified the wolf almost wished he could tell him out loud what a bullshit theory that was. Of course Derek was still there. They weren’t separate. The wolf was Derek and Derek was the wolf. Derek was two-legs and thinkingfeeling-too-much, the wolf was four-legs and simple-basics. Sometimes the edges blurred. Sometimes there was more of one than of the other, but you couldn’t lose either one of them. One soul remained one soul even if it happened to be somewhat battered. Flipping from one end of the spectrum to the other was chiefly a reordering of priorities. The angle of the eye and all its layers, on the other hand, shifted drastically between two-legged form and four-legged form, which accounted for the difference between dramatic flare and mere reflection.
It wasn’t worth getting back up on two legs to explain this, though, so the wolf only scoffed and gave Deaton-creepysneak an unimpressed look. He could absolutely judge somebody with his eyebrows in this form. Wolf eyebrows were every bit as eloquent as human eyebrows. You just had to know how to use ‘em.
Deaton-creepysneak frowned down at him. “I’m not saying he’s gone. I’m saying that, right now, the wolf is in charge.”
“So how do we get Derek back?” Sheriff asked. “He can’t stay like this forever, right?”
“I don’t see why not,” Stiles grumbled, and rubbed the wolf’s ear between two fingers with exactly the right amount of pressure to make the wolf’s eyes roll back. Scott-alpha huffed. Stiles flailed with the hand not currently doing lovely things to the wolf’s ear. “What? It’s totally an improvement. He’s not scowling, or dating bad guys, or slinking around in unsanitary places. Still a bit paranoid, but what can you do. At least he’s a lot easier to get along with when you can buy his affections with ear rubs.”
“And you always wanted a dog,” Sheriff added wryly.
“And I always wanted a dog.”
Stiles was an asshole. The wolf would’ve nipped him in the butt for it, but Stiles was also massaging the very tip of his ear and the wolf didn’t dare move lest he stop. Turned out it was all right, because for once, Scott-alpha was satisfyingly outraged on his behalf.
“He’s not a dog, Stiles! You can’t keep him.”
“He might have to,” Deaton-creepysneak noted. He’d been staring at the wolf the entire time, which was rude but not quite as intimidating as half the pack doing the same. “At least for a while. The ability to shift into a full wolf is rare. There is very little documentation about the pitfalls involved. I will have to make some calls. Until then, I suggest you keep Derek close.”
Scott-alpha pulled a face, but seemed agreeable enough. “He can stay with me, I guess.”
“No, he can’t, dude, you already have Isaac around. Your mom’s gonna flip if you saddle her with another furry freeloader,” Stiles interrupted, because Stiles had zero respect for pack hierarchy and absolutely no inhibitions when it came to talking right over his alpha. That was how badass Stiles was. “We have more room. He can sleep on the couch. It’ll be like when we had that K-9 trainee with us last year. If we could deal with Gonzo, we can deal with Derek.” His fingers dug into the wolf’s fur possessively.
“Oh, come on,” Sheriff whined. “Gonzo was a pain in the ass. There’s a reason why we don’t have a dog.”
“But he’s not a dog,” Stiles declared triumphantly. “He’s a werewolf. In need. A needy werewolf, currently stuck on four legs. Who has nowhere else to go.”
“Yes, Stiles, because that’s so much better.” Sheriff sighed, but his hand was still a warm, steady weight on the wolf’s head, thumb rubbing gently over the soft fur in the dip between the wolf’s ears. “How long are we talking here? A day? Two? Or should we start forging paperwork for our illegal wolf hybrid before some asshole decides to tattle on the sheriff?”
“I can set you up with the necessary paperwork,” Deaton-creepysneak said. “And a pair of dog tags. You can pick them up tomorrow. Bring Derek; I’ll need to do some tests.”
“Tests?” Stiles’ grip tightened.
Deaton-creepysneak shrugged. “There are ways to prevent a wolf from shifting back to human form. I can determine if that’s the case here, but I need to get supplies first. That will take a few days at least. In the meantime, I suggest you get him a collar and stock up on wolf-appropriate food—I’ll give you a list.”
Sheriff’s hand stilled. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable putting a collar on a werewolf. Isn’t that degrading?”
“I’m afraid he’ll have to endure it.” Deaton-creepysneak locked eyes with the wolf again. The wolf curled his lip to show a hint of teeth. Unsurprisingly, Deaton-creepysneak wasn’t cowed. “Consider it a safety measure. Not for your safety, but for his.”
“Okay.” Sheriff was pulling himself up, dealing with it. “Give me the rundown. How do we do this with minimal trauma?”
“This was not on the list,” Sheriff noted doubtfully, two hours and a grocery run later. “You sure this is a good idea?”
Stiles barely looked up from where he was bent over the bathtub, pouring some soapy, flowery-smelling concoction into the water. “You were the one who said he stinks. And, boy, does he ever. So we can either do this or we hose him down in the garden.”
The wolf whined at the thought. No, no. Cold water in the dark was not his idea of a good time. He was fine with bubbles and artificial flower-smell as long as it came with warm water. He could be a flower wolf. Also, the bubbles looked like fun. He looked up at Sheriff plaintively. No garden hose. Please.
Sheriff pulled a face. “I’m sorry, kid. I don’t speak wolf. If this isn’t okay with you, you don’t have to get into the tub. We’ll figure out something else. Something a little more dignified.”
“Hey,” Stiles complained. “I take baths. Baths are plenty manly and dignified. Also, relaxing. You want him relaxed, don’t you? Sure you do. Nobody likes a high-strung werewolf.”
“He’d probably be less jittery if you’d let him eat before dunking him.” Sheriff sounded resentful, which was sweet, except Sheriff wasn’t getting dinner either until the wolf was clean, so possibly his outrage wasn’t entirely unselfish.
Stiles turned off the water and tested the temperature with a finger before sitting back on his haunches with a satisfied nod. “No swimming for an hour after eating.”
“It’s not like he’s about to jump into a pool,” Sheriff grumbled.
“Yeah, no, I think we’ve had it with pools, both of us,” Stiles agreed. “But seriously, my nose can’t take that smell any longer. It’s like he rolled around in a carcass somewhere. I’m not having dinner with Stinky McStinkerton. Hey, Derek. Bath?”
Warm water. No hose. Yes, yes. The wolf quickly padded across the room, claws clicking against the tiles until he stepped onto the fleecy bath mat, which felt delightfully soft under his feet. The flower smell was somewhat eye-watering up close, but he clambered into the tub anyway, because bath. Bubbles.
This was bliss. Warm water, heaps of foam, and then, and then Stiles—after aiming the talk-machine at him once again and clicking away for a bit (obsessed much?)—took off his shirt, reached in, and started to scrub. And rub. And knead. It wasn’t long before Sheriff approached, too, apparently drawn by all the happy sounds, and helped. Sheriff had huge hands and gentle fingers, and they both had the magic touch. The wolf had definitely gone to heaven.
“Whoa.” Sheriff chuckled when the wolf’s legs gave out, and he cradled the wolf’s head in his hands and held him safely above the water. “Careful, buddy. Tub’s slippery.”
The wolf moaned, because he didn’t give a fuck about the slippery tub, not when Stiles was washing blood and dirt out of his fur and Sheriff was scratching lightly under his jaw while he held him up and everything was so, so good. He should’ve gone four-legged ages ago. Nobody had ever been this nice to him since… he paused. Nogood. Fearpain. Guiltweight. Dontthink.
Sheriff’s thumbs rubbed circles over the wolf’s cheeks and the badstuff went away. He licked Sheriff’s arm, which tasted ten kinds of gross—those bubbles were not for eating—and huffed gratefully.
Stiles shoved an armful of bubbles aside to check the water and uttered a sound of disgust. “This is nasty. What’d you do, bathe in the blood of your enemies?”
“Don’t even joke about that,” Sheriff groaned. “What if he did?”
“Nah,” Stiles sighed, and carefully plucked a burr from the wolf’s belly. “With Derek, chances are that’s all his blood.”
Sheriff frowned at that. He looked down at the wolf, who blinked up at him in a happy daze and clumsily licked his arm again. “How often does he end up covered in his own blood?”
“That I know of?” Stiles pulled on a knot of tangled fur, hard enough to make the wolf grunt. “Too often. He’s kind of a shitty fighter, all things considered.”
While that was somewhat offensive, it was also somewhat true, so all the wolf did was grumble and shoot Stiles a disgruntled glare. Stiles, because he was Stiles, retaliated with two handfuls of foamy bubbles that he smushed on the wolf’s head like a weird, weightless hat. Even Sheriff guffawed at the way the wolf’s eyes crossed when he tried to look at it. Seriously, those two had the worst sense of humor.
Spending time with the Stilinskis was fun. Mortifying at times, because they thought they were so funny, when mostly they were just very, very dorky, but their big hands were always gentle and their affectionate banter made them smell happy, which was contagious, and they made the wolf feel surprisingly safe.
Eventually, Stiles let out the water and washed the soap from the wolf’s fur with the shower hose, careful not to get soap in his eyes. He rinsed and repeated until the last suds were gone and the whole time Sheriff’s hand was warm and heavy on the wolf’s neck so he wouldn’t shake and share the wetness. The dominating touch distracted him enough for Stiles to grab a big, red bath towel and toss it over him. The towel was fluffy and warm. The wolf loved it. He loved the towel and the toweling, he loved the hair dryer (bite the wind! Bite it!), and he especially loved the extra paw drying (toe massage! Yes!).
He could tell that though they knew he was no dog, they slipped up sometimes and forgot. It was never for long and they tried very hard not to do it and to preserve his dignity and his modesty even when they did, but both of them called him ‘good boy’ once or twice and talked about him as though he wasn’t there or couldn’t understand.
The lapses didn’t bother the wolf, exactly. They irked him a little, in a hey-I’m-right-here kind of way, but it was also oddly relaxing. He wasn’t expected to provide input, give up secrets, or explain shit he didn’t know or didn’t want to remember. Nobody looked at him as though he was an outsider intruding on their turf, or a hot piece of ass, or a useless excuse for a werewolf. He didn’t have to maintain a careful distance between himself and everybody else, was touched freely and without violence or disdain, and for once, Stiles’ sharp tongue was aimed at other people. It was nice.
For the first time in a very long time, the wolf was allowed to share a family meal... albeit not the table. Sheriff would’ve let him, but Stiles took one look at the raw short ribs and declared that—new dinner rule—if it wasn’t cooked and it didn’t happen to be sushi, it didn’t go on the table. Sheriff argued in the wolf’s defense, because he considered it grossly impolite to have a guest eat from a plate on the floor. Sheriff was the wolf’s favorite at the moment.
“I don’t need extra sensitivity training to know that’s racist. Specicist. Whatever,” Sheriff barked. “We wouldn’t have him eat on the floor if he was in human form. I can’t believe you’d even suggest this, Stiles. I raised you better than that.”
Stiles pulled off an impressive full-body flail that ended with both of his hands waving at the ribs. “That there’s raw meat, dad,” he snapped. “It looks like body parts! Wait, those are body parts. Excuse me if I don’t want to look at body parts while eating dinner. If he was in human form, I’d have absolutely no objections to him eating at the table, because he wouldn’t be eating raw body parts. There’s a time and a place, okay?”
“I don’t want to look at sprouts at dinner, but guess what’s on my plate,” Sheriff shot back. “Yet there I am, eating at the table instead of out in the backyard.”
Gratifying as it was to have someone willing to fight for him over little shit, the wolf really didn’t like being the cause of any kind of conflict between those two. Also, he was so hungry he really didn’t care where he was eating as long as actual food was involved. Non-grasshopper food. So he snagged the bag with a fang and pulled it to the floor, then sat next to it and wagged his tail to demonstrate how okay he was with eating down there. Seriously. Not the worst place to eat. Definitely not the worst thing to eat. Way better than what was on the humans’ plates, to be honest. Sheriff had a point about the sprouts thing.
In the end, the Stilinskis ate their chicken salad like civilized humans while the wolf made himself comfortable under the table and crunched down on the ribs. They were very tasty. The way Stiles jumped every time a bone cracked between the wolf’s teeth was an added bonus. The wolf didn’t eat the bones—he wasn’t that starved—but he made a point of snapping every single one of them, because the running commentary from above was funny as hell.
That first night, the wolf tried to sleep on the couch. He did. The cushions smelled of Stiles and Sheriff and, to a lesser extent, of Scott-alpha and it was good, it was. It was just that the smells were absence-smells, not-here smells, so while they comforted the wolf and helped him fall asleep, they did little to ward off his nightmares. He probably should’ve expected those. He hadn’t slept much after his escape from the cage and what little rest he’d caught during his run home had been brief naps or the dreamless oblivion of pure exhaustion.
It wasn’t as though nightmares were a new thing as such. Sleep was the time when past and present met and hashed out their issues. Sometimes, when the wolf was lucky, it was general issues like the good old predator’s fallback of ‘oh, oh, chase that rabbit!’ or memories of pack cuddles and long summer days. Often, though, it was all the nasty shit he’d stuffed into a hole and buried deep that got restless and climbed out of its hiding place to haunt the blackened rooms and empty spaces left by the Fire.
The first time the wolf startled awake, he was halfway through a pillow, foam stuffing everywhere and fabric in shreds. It took him a panicky moment to get his bearings and remove his spasming jaws from the ruined material, another to beat down the gag reflex and keep his dinner down. No barfing on the couch. No barfing in this household, period. When not in crisis-mode, Stiles did not do well with most bodily fluids. He’d probably throw up, too, and then Sheriff would have to clean it up.
The pillow was done for, thoroughly destroyed. The wolf looked around guiltily, then collected all the bits and pieces and put them in an orderly pile under the coffee table where nobody would trip over them. At least he hoped so; you never knew with Stiles. He crawled back on the couch, buried his snout in the crack between arm rest and cushion where Stiles’ scent was strongest—probably because of the sock wedged in there—and fell back asleep.
The next time he woke up, it was because apparently he’d attempted to run away in his sleep, gotten his feet under him, and jumped head-first against the backrest of the couch. The only reason the thing didn’t topple over was that he’d bounced off and landed back on the cushions like a flailing sack of potatoes, head ringing, heart rabbiting, tail tucked firmly between his legs.
Two-legged him would’ve gotten up and spent the rest of the night reading or working out, but four-legged him didn’t much care for books and saw no use in moping about when he had other options. He rolled off the couch with a grunt and padded out of the living room and up the stairs, drawn inexorably by a pair of familiar scent trails. Both bedroom doors were closed but not locked and opened easily when he pushed down the handle with a paw. Technically, this was invading someone else’s private territory and could have severe repercussions in werewolf packs, but humans tended not to know this. He hadn’t been barred from any particular space either, so he felt safe enough crossing a few boundaries he’d have heeded otherwise.
The wolf peeked into Stiles’ room first and was met by a wall of Stiles-scent, layered and rich, soaked into everything. It was focused in one specific spot, so the wolf blinked past smell to sight and… yep: Stiles was sprawled across his bed like a cat laying claim to a doggy-bed; arms akimbo, legs kicked out, sheets tangled wildly around his restless limbs, head hanging off the mattress, mouth open and wet. It made for a strangely appealing picture, but it also meant there was absolutely no space left for a big-ass wolf.
Sheriff it was.
The wolf trotted down the hallway on silent feet and nudged open Sheriff’s door to find the man tucked in neatly on one side of a California king size bed. His den wasn’t quite as saturated with his scent, because apparently he used it almost exclusively for sleeping and jerking off. In a way, it was more private than Stiles’ room, but at the same time more impersonal. He wasn’t claiming the entirety of his bed either and he was sleeping deeply, radiating a sense of tranquility that was calling out to the frazzled soul poised on his threshold. Perfect. Sheriff didn’t even stir when the wolf hopped on the bed and snuggled down. Feeling safe and profoundly satisfied, the wolf drifted off pressed against Sheriff’s broad back.
The third time the wolf woke up that night wasn’t because of a nightmare, it was because he got kneed so hard he saw stars. He jerked up and around, wide-eyed and terrified that he’d offended Sheriff by crawling into his bed uninvited after all. Sheriff was the alpha in this house and alphas could be merciless when putting lower-ranked members of the pack in their place. The wolf was fully prepared to cower and present belly, maybe whimper a bit. He didn’t know the den rules yet. He’d only needed comfort. He was fully aware of his rank and in no way trying to rise up again. One stint at alphahood had been more than enough, thank you kindly. Not going there again.
Sheriff grunted, smacked his lips, and turned over again, slapping the wolf’s nose with a flopping hand as he went. Ah. An accident. Relieved, the wolf curled up, tucked his paws under his chest, and went back to sleep.
The fourth time he woke, it was because Sheriff rolled on top of the wolf, grabbed him like a teddy bear, and almost smothered him between the pillows while snoring sonorously into his ear. The wolf wormed out from under him gasping and disheveled, ear twitching irritably, and narrowed his eyes at the sleeping man. He didn’t look like a flailer. This had to be coincidence.
When Sheriff woke him the next time by elbowing him right in the chin, the wolf finally faced the facts. Sheriff was a terrible bedmate. Awesome when awake, but a total menace when asleep. Accepting defeat with a sigh, the wolf got out of the line of fire and slunk down from the bed to find a safer spot.
He ended up sprawled over Stiles’ back, because it was the only place on Stiles’ bed safe from knobby knees and big feet, pointy elbows and flapping hands. Once he’d gotten used to the constant movements, it was surprisingly comfortable. Kind of like a waterbed (big-city, Laura-claws, not-good), only bumpier and wheezier. With a sigh of contentment, the wolf rested his big head on Stiles’ firm little butt and slipped into a deep, restful sleep.
He dreamed of grasshoppers riding fishes across a river of curly fries.
Stiles was definitely a bad influence.
“Ooo-kay,” Sheriff said, looking down at the papers in his hands. His eyebrows had knitted into a frown and he was squinting in a very sheriff-y way. He smelled of suspicion and irritation, a sharp-bitter tang with peppery notes. It was a pretty strong scent even in the haze of unpleasant clinic smells. “I get that this is an emergency and that we did ask you for help—”
Even the wolf could hear the “but” coming a mile away. He leaned against Stiles’ leg—the best vantage point, because Stiles had a knack for picking the prime strategic position in any given room—and looked from Sheriff to Deaton-creepysneak and back.
Deaton-creepysneak was making a pleasantly neutral face, all innocent eyes and polite inquiry. “Yes, you did.”
Sheriff’s frown deepened. “When you said ‘paperwork’, I expected something like an adoption form or something. This is—” he waved the small stack of papers reproachfully, “—this is the full enchilada. You got a Kennel Club registration in there. Pedigree. ID number. Breeder’s business card. Everything. This is the dog equivalent to a full-service new identity.”
“Of course,” Deaton-creepysneak agreed with a shrug. “Can’t have anybody dispute your ownership, now can we? You can’t keep a wolf as a pet. It is, however, perfectly legal to own a husky. Especially one with such fine pedigree.”
The wolf was torn between preening at this and being insulted. On the one hand, yes, he had the finest pedigree, he was a Hale. He’d once been able to recite his ancestry by heart twelve generations back to when the pack had still been known as the Halkias pack from Arta, Greece. On the other hand… Kennel Club? Seriously?
Sheriff was hung up more on the existence of the papers than the content. “I’m not sure what worries me more,” he said. “The fact that you can produce perfectly legit-looking fake paperwork for a werewolf or the fact that it took you less than 24 hours to come up with this.”
“Oh, I’ve had the paperwork for years,” Deaton-creepysneak said dismissively. “It was merely a matter of updating the documents. The only reason you had to wait this long was that it took me some time to ensure all the information would check out with the official authorities.”
Sheriff stared at him for a moment, then turned to Stiles. “I thought you said—and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but—you said he’s only a druid. I distinctly remember him being on the chessboard as a druid. There was a little blue post-it and everything.”
Stiles sighed. “Yeah, Deaton lives to fuck up my labeling systems. You learn to roll with it.”
His father clearly doubted that, but was kind enough not to say it out loud. He gave Deaton-creepysneak the stink-eye instead. “You could’ve mentioned this criminal streak you have.”
“You’re the sheriff,” Deaton-creepysneak countered, completely unapologetic. “The less you know, the better. I need your signature here and here.”
With a very put-upon sigh, Sheriff set down the papers and added his John Hancock where indicated. “That all?”
Deaton-creepysneak smirked as he turned around and grabbed a bulky plastic bag from the counter. “Almost. Here’s some essentials. Collar, tags, leash. You can return everything when Derek’s back on two legs. Oh, and I’ve included a litterbox. It’ll be easier for him to use in this form.”
The wolf didn’t protest, though his ears drooped a little when he was hit by a wave of vague embarrassment, a product of his more human sensibilities. Then again, he had almost tipped ass-first into the toilet just that morning and had come uncomfortably close to shifting back to two legs in order to avoid getting stuck in that undignified position. The Stilinskis’ backyard was too small to forgive more than the odd use even if you buried the evidence and the woods weren’t close enough for a quick dash. All things considered, this alternative wasn’t a bad idea.
“Yeah, I’m gonna mock you forever for this when you’re back,” Stiles told the wolf, tugging on one ear until it perked back up, then grabbing the second one. Stiles had a bit of an ear-fixation, not that the wolf minded. “You could stop this, you know. Change back… no litterbox, no mocking. Sound good?”
Sounded like a cheap attempt at getting him to trade down. Going back to two legs meant going back to an empty den and thinking too much and being either afraid or resigned all the time. He’d happily stay on four legs and shit in a cat toilet if that meant staying with Stiles and Sheriff, constantly being petted and cuddled, sharing space, sharing warmth, being liked – if only for his fluffy fur. Less heartbreak, less doubt, less loneliness. Fewer opportunities to make bad decisions. Nah. Bring on the litterbox.
“Suit yourself,” Stiles said, thoroughly unsurprised and unbothered by the lack of cooperation. He stopped pulling on the wolf’s ear and started rubbing it instead, unknowingly proving the wolf’s point. Stiles would never have rubbed Derekdudeasshole’s ear. “Hey, maybe we can borrow a squeaky toy, too, huh?”
“No, you absolutely can’t,” Deaton declared, giving Stiles a stern look. “Try not to forget you’re dealing with a person. We’re trying to help him into a mindset that makes him become more human, not more animal. Hopefully, a bathroom aid will help. Squeaky toys certainly won’t.”
“About that. How long do you think before he changes back?” Sheriff asked, taking the bag reluctantly. He peeked inside and pulled a face. His scent was sour taffy, disgusted and wistful and embarrassed and worried and generally conflicted. “Is there a time limit? A point of no return?”
“There are cases of werewolves who went feral for good,” Deaton-creepysneak admitted. His gaze found the wolf’s and held it for a moment. His scent was still indistinguishable from the clinic scents, but after a moment he smiled without showing teeth. It was an unexpectedly kind smile. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near there, though. Derek’s not out on his own, he traveled God knows how far to return here and sought you out. That’s a very good sign. There’s a few things I can try to help him, so why don’t you bring him over in the afternoons during Scott’s shifts? I’ll see what I can do.”
“All right,” Sheriff agreed. “Anything else we should do or be aware of? When’s the next full moon? Will that be a problem? Does he need any kind of special shampoo or toothpaste? And what is it with the pillow chewing? I thought we left that shit behind us with Gonzo.”
Deaton-creepysneak raised an eyebrow. “Chewing can have several reasons, from anxiety to boredom. It’s a natural instinct, though, so it shouldn’t be a problem as long as he doesn’t start doing it compulsively. Was he sleeping near the pillow?”
“Yeah,” Stiles said, perking up. “Yes. He started out on the couch with the pillow.”
The eyebrow wandered higher. Deaton-creepysneak was radiating interest, more than the wolf liked. “Started out?”
“Yeah, at some point he decided it’d be more fun to use me as a mattress. And let me tell you, his furry ass is heavy.”
And Stiles’ back was bony. And Stiles twitched in his sleep, like a hyperactive puppy. And Stiles snored. Like a bear. So there.
“Hmmm,” Deaton-creepysneak murmured, staring at the wolf quizzically. “That’s interesting.” The wolf pinned his ears back and flashed fangs, quickly, because curiosity from Deaton-creepysneak felt a little bit like a threat. Deaton-creepysneak shook himself out of it and promptly smiled blandly. “Both dogs and wolves can dream vividly. It might’ve been a nightmare or the memory of a hunt. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“What about the other stuff?” Sheriff asked.
“Well, I’m hoping he will turn back soon,” Deaton-creepysneak said, “so bathing shouldn’t be necessary again. I put a few sample packages of an organic dog shampoo in the bag just in case. I also recommend that you brush his teeth every day. Any kind of toothpaste is fine. Dogs need regular dental care and special products, but Derek’s a werewolf. His body takes care of itself much more efficiently and he can rinse and spit. Mostly, brushing his teeth will make his mouth smell better.”
“I was about to suggest breath mints,” Stiles said helpfully. Since he hadn’t even been close to the wolf’s mouth recently, the wolf called bullshit.
So did Sheriff. “Please, compared to Gonzo, he’s gold.”
“Point,” Stiles conceded. “The lavender is a nice touch.”
Yeah, turned out bubble bath scents clung like the olfactory equivalent of baby possums. The wolf had noticed that morning that he smelled not unlike his grandmother’s closet… or rather, his grandmother’s closet and Stilinskis. The combination was a bit odd, because neither Stiles nor Sheriff had a particularly flowery core scent, but it did remind the wolf of his old pack and of hours snoozed away in aforementioned closet, curled up under his nana’s ratty old quilt. It was only a brief flash of memory, sweet and treasured, and he carefully tucked it away again when it threatened to waken the (black-ashes-pain) bad feelings.
“The moon shouldn’t affect him much, if at all,” Deaton-creepysneak said, before Stiles and Sheriff could pick up the Gonzo vs. wolf conversation once more. More was the pity; the wolf compared very favorably and he liked hearing how much they preferred him to the K-9 dropout. “He’s already shifted to a werewolf’s most animalistic form. If he’s still on four legs by the next full moon, take him for a long run before moonrise and get him a few bully sticks to chew.”
“Aren’t bully sticks made of—”
“He won’t care, Stiles.”
“You can always leave him here or with Scott, if you feel you can’t handle this,” Deaton-creepysneak suggested blandly.
The wolf was gratified for the instant shock-outrage-denial-possessiveness this provoked in both Stiles and Sheriff, who promptly replied in perfect unison.
“He’ll stay with us.”
The wolf woofed agreement and leaned more of his weight against Stiles simply to feel him plant his feet and lean back. It felt good to be wanted. No, he wasn’t going back to two legs, no way, no how. They hadn’t wanted two-legged Derek (well, Stiles had, but it had been a weird, reciprocal circle of irritation-lust-annoyance-lust-exasperation between them that they’d both known better than to address), but they were suckers for big paws, soft fur, and fuzzy ears. Maybe the non-verbal thing, too. Stiles certainly hadn’t liked most of the things Derekdudeasshole had said. Nobody had, really, not even Derekdudeasshole. His human voice was an easy thing to give up.
He knew he couldn’t quite maintain the deep-down-basic wolf way of not-thinking—he was engaged now, automatically shifting mental gears to facilitate interactions with these human members of his new pack—but he could resist the itch to stretch out, shake off the fur, and stand up. He could refuse to reclaim the name and the history, and remain hovering in the space between instead, clinging to the simple mindset that made him wolf. Be the not-quite-dog they wanted. And if he was good enough, devoted enough, if he was no trouble and didn’t draw attention, maybe they’d forget that he’d once been more (or less, depending on your point of view). Maybe they’d let him stay forever.
Sheriff eventually had to get back to work, though he did it reluctantly and only after ruffling the wolf’s ears about three times in goodbye. Then he came right back in to remind Stiles to go buy some more wolf food. And people food. And the good kitty litter, but not to tell anyone at the store that it was for the wolf, because that would probably embarrass the wolf. Oh, and bully sticks, because the wolf might want something to chew regardless of moon phase. By the way, did Stiles know that wolves could crack skulls with their jaws? Come to think of it, better get some deer antlers, too. That was about when Stiles bodily shoved him out the door.
“Try not to get kidnapped again,” Sheriff said from the porch, then left with a sigh.
Stiles leaned against the door for a moment, looking as though he’d slammed it shut on a slavering horde of orcs, and squinted down at the wolf. “Sorry ‘bout that. I think it’s the fuzz-and-button-eyes combo.” He cleared his throat. “Also, he, uhm, he kinda talked a lot with Chris about what werewolf hunters do with captured wolves and I think he really didn’t like what he heard.” His eyes skittered away and he pushed off from the door and headed for the kitchen. “I didn’t either,” he admitted under his breath.
This from the kid who’d once threatened to toss him out on his ass when he’d been dying. They’d come a long way since. Who’d have thought that the mouthy human with the attitude problem would one day be the wolf’s favorite?
He trotted after Stiles with a huff, tail wagging, and walked with him through the kitchen. He wasn’t quite sure what the hell Stiles was doing—he was randomly opening cupboards and drawers and the fridge—but he was determined to help. Were they going grocery shopping? He could carry bags. He had one of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom, Sheriff had said so himself. Oh, was Stiles looking for his car keys? ‘Cause those were in his jacket pocket and the jacket was on the couch.
The wolf trotted into the living room, rooted around in Stiles’ pockets until he found the keys, then had to sit down for a moment to clear his head. That had been a lot of Stiles-scent at once. Good, but dizzying. He shook his head, keys jangling and smacking against his snout, and then hurried back into the kitchen where Stiles was... rooting through Deaton-creepysneak’s bag. O-kay. He wasn’t after the litterbox, because they’d already put that in the guest bathroom, so what was he—?
Stiles pulled a thick leather collar from the bag and the wolf’s tail tucked itself firmly between his legs. Aw. No. He dropped the keys and plunked down on his belly with a whine. They could make him wear a collar, but they couldn’t make him do it with dignity. Thankfully, Stiles didn’t look thrilled either.
“I feel ya’,” he muttered, turning the thing over in his hand with a grimace. “I think I saw this on a seriously shady website once.” He fished his little talk-machine—phone, that was a phone—out of his back pocket and tapped it with a finger. “Scott?”
I’m on my way, I’m on my way! I’m sorry, mom needed me to move the bed for her.
Stiles pulled a face. “Wow. Again? Isn’t she getting enough morning sunlight yet?”
I think she gets a kick out of watching me lift the damn thing. But I’m on my way. Almost. I’m almost on my way.
“Whoa, wait,” Stiles called. “Can you stop at the pet mart and pick up a collar for Derek? A decent one? The one Deaton gave us looks like something out of a bondage catalogue.”
Stiles rolled his eyes. “Just get him something less kinky, will you? It’s not like he actually needs this shit.”
Okay. Fabric dragged against leather on Scott-alpha’s end and then metal creaked as weight settled on what was probably his dirt bike. I’ll see what I can do.
“Oh, and a dog brush! A good one. Not that plastic crap. I can pay you back when you get here—you got enough money on you?”
I can put it on Deaton’s card, Scott-alpha said. He gets a discount. Anything else?
“Bully sticks. Deer antlers. Cheetos.”
The sounds of movement from the other end of the line stopped. I don’t think you should be giving him Cheetos, Stiles. He’ll probably barf.
“The Cheetos are for me,” Stiles said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve earned them. One word, Scott: litterbox.” He paused, looked down at the wolf, and deflated. “Oh hell. You know what, get a bag of treats, too. I think the litterbox trauma goes both ways.”
The wolf sighed deeply and plonked his head back down on his paws. Life was hard.
“You could just change back, you know,” Stiles told him as soon as Scott-alpha had dutifully repeated the list of orders and then disconnected the call to go do Stiles’ bidding. Some alpha he was. “We could take a hammer to the damn litterbox and call it a day.”
Or the wolf could suck it up, learn how to use a toilet without going down the drain tail-first, and stay with the Stilinskis. If he could hold out for a few months or so, they’d become so used to him they wouldn’t mind keeping him. That was the plan and he was sticking to it. It was a decent idea, the best he’d had in years. Derekdudeasshole wasn’t good with strategy, but the wolf could work with a simple objective and wasn’t much concerned with holding on to his dignity. Dignity hadn’t ever gotten him anything but more damage. Fuck dignity. Give him ear rubs and company over that shit any day.
“Or we could sit in the kitchen until Scott brings over a non-kinky collar,” Stiles conceded when it became clear the fur was there to stay. “That works, too.”
So they sat in the kitchen and waited for Scott-alpha—or rather, the wolf lay on the cool floor and basked in the den-smells soaked into the house while Stiles went back to checking supplies and writing a grocery list, muttering under his breath about sugar and carbs and nutritional values, and occasionally bobbing along to some song he had stuck in his head. It was downright peaceful, at least until Scott-alpha’s bike pulled up outside.
The wolf maintained that it wasn’t his fault. He’d heard the bike coming and looked up, but Stiles was shoulder-deep in the fridge and didn’t see that. When Stiles finally did notice the bike, he wheeled around with all the grace of a baby deer trying to karate-chop a porcupine and headed straight for the front door, forgetting about the wolf chilling on his kitchen floor. The wolf had not anticipated to be steamrolled, so he failed to scramble out of the way in time and consequently got stepped on. Heel ground down on paw, bones cracked, and the wolf jumped up with a yip, which made Stiles shriek and overbalance, and then it all devolved into yelling and flailing limbs and blunt claws scrabbling uselessly over smooth tiles and they only barely managed not to kill themselves and each other.
Scott-alpha heard the commotion and misunderstood. He bulldozed right through the front door, taking it off its hinges, and was halfway across the room with red eyes and claws out before the top rail had hit the carpet.
The snarling alpha suddenly in his space scared the living daylights out of the already freaked wolf. Instinct took over, because his paw bones were still knitting back together and Stiles-packmate-human was clinging to the doorframe next to him, completely off-balance and helpless, and, well, a fang-faced cannonball of aggression right in front of him, so what was a werewolf to do?
Defend them, that’s what.
“Okay,” Sheriff said, towering over the bloody remains of his couch and staring down at the two teenagers and the wolf cowering between them. He smelled not unlike a burning fuse, which made the wolf duck down as low as he could without lying down. “Talk.”
Behind him, his deputy—a baby-faced cop whose scent was all chili-and-embers and who’d remained suspiciously impassive in view of all the blood spatters and destroyed furniture—was doing his best to pretend he wasn’t listening while he struggled to fit the front door back into its frame. He wasn’t having much luck. The hinges were only partially attached anymore and badly warped.
On the couch, Stiles’ fingers had found their way into the wolf’s ruff and were kneading nervously, which made the wolf sit up a little straighter to provide more of a barrier between Stiles and the—well. Between Stiles and Scott-alpha, who wasn’t really a threat, at least not to Stiles. The wolf was going to feel very bad about this when his adrenaline levels were back to normal. So, somewhere around next Tuesday, maybe.
“It was an accident,” Stiles offered, with a remarkable lack of sass.
Sheriff’s lips flattened into a straight line. The fuse was definitely getting shorter. “Try again.”
Scott-alpha shifted uncomfortably. “Ah… It was a misunderstanding? I… I thought… but, it turned out… we all kind of overreacted? And we’re very sorry? I will pay for the door? Please don’t call my mom?”
…and shorter. “It looks like someone was murdered in here. Mr. Kacskovics, who lives two doors down and is mostly deaf, called 911 because he thought Stiles was fighting off a goddamn mountain lion.” Sheriff’s voice, which had been getting progressively louder, dropped into a scarily low register as he pointed an accusatory finger at the scuffed entertainment center. “There’s a piece of human flesh stuck to the TV screen.”
“That... that would be mine,” Scott-alpha admitted meekly. “Derek kind of… ah… accidentally tried to… bite off my face?”
Sheriff pointedly looked from bloody but unhurt Scott-alpha to the wolf, who’d come out of the fight somewhat worse for wear. The wolf felt something ooze out of his nose and sniffed, which hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Sheriff’s jaw twitched. “Does he need medical attention?”
“I don’t think so.” Scott-alpha leaned over to get a better look at him and the wolf pinned back his ears and bared his teeth. His mouth was sticky with blood and terror. If he had to fight again, he’d probably lose, but thankfully Scott-alpha didn’t let things escalate a second time. He moved away slowly and pulled a face. “He’s… ah… he’s still a bit twitchy.”
“No shit,” the deputy muttered, finally giving up on the door and coming to stand at Sheriff’s right, slightly behind him. “That door is good and busted. Sorry, Sheriff.”
“Well, we did talk about having a security door installed,” Stiles piped up, desperately optimistic. “Right?”
His grip on the wolf’s fur was painfully tight, so the wolf shifted a little closer to him, providing shelter. Sheriff’s scent lost some of the pepper-and-cordite notes. His stance eased slightly, though he was still scowling down at them.
“Do you have any idea what could’ve happened if somebody had actually had the balls to walk in here before me? If they’d seen Derek rip chunks out of Scott? What the hell were you thinking?”
“It was my fault,” Scott-alpha said, and damn right, it had been. “I heard Stiles yell and Derek yowl and I thought… uh…” Scott-alpha lowered his eyes and cleared his throat. “I thought Derek had gone feral and attacked Stiles,” he mumbled. “I panicked and I came through the door and… and…”
“…and Derek suddenly had a face full of wolfed-out alpha and went ballistic,” Stiles concluded. “It wasn’t his fault, okay? It really was an accident. I stepped on his paw when I went to get the door, he yelped, I spazzed out, and then—boom—fangs and flying fur. Scott was trying to defend me, Derek was trying to defend me… in short, there wasn’t a lot of thinking involved. Like, at all.”
“So who won?” the deputy asked, curious.
Sheriff turned his head to level a glare in his direction. “Seriously, Parrish?”
“Well, we know how it started,” Deputy Parrish said placidly. “I, for one, would like to know how it ended, since they weren’t actively trying to kill each other anymore when we arrived.”
Yep, they were fucked. Stiles was especially fucked and the wolf was not going to jump in front of this particular bullet. He tried to slink off the couch, but Stiles had a death grip on his fur. Damn it. Now Sheriff’s attention was on him, too. The wolf whined and ducked down to bury his still bleeding nose under Stiles’ thigh. The lack of space made breathing difficult and it hurt, but at least he felt as though he was hiding. Wouldn’t make a difference for the couch anyway. Scott-alpha had taken a header right into it with half his face missing and had slashed it up with his claws.
“I can already tell you’re going to get grounded,” Sheriff said grimly. “Lay it on me, son of mine.”
Stiles’ whole body twitched in indignation. “Hey, I didn’t do anything! This isn’t my fault! Accident, remember? Mis-under-standing.”
“So why did they stop?”
“They… they got tired?” Stiles tried. Oh God, he was such a bad liar.
“All right, so I… I… might’ve hit them both with a rolled-up newspaper a few times.”
“What?” Sheriff barked.
“What was I supposed to do?” Stiles gestured wildly, one hand barely brushing the fur on the wolf’s back as it missed him narrowly. “Grab the Tasmanian devil here by the tail? We don’t have a hose in the living room, it was all that I could think of! And it worked!”
Sheriff sounded absolutely horrified. “You could’ve been killed!”
Stiles scoffed. “Please. We’re weeks from the full moon. They just needed someone to snap them out of it, that’s all. I didn’t even get that close.”
“If you were close enough to slap them with the paper, you were too close,” Sheriff snapped, and the wolf caught a whiff of his sour fear-scent even with his nose clogged and stuffed under Stiles’ leg. “This was a bad idea. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m gonna call Deaton. We can pay for his food and whatever he needs, but—”
“What?” Stiles jerked up so quickly he squashed the wolf’s face right into the cushion. The wolf whined and wriggled free, then regretted the decision immediately when he smelled Sheriff’s mood, saw the tightness around his eyes, the stark fear for his child. “What are you talking about?”
“This is the second time something’s set him off, Stiles.” Sheriff looked at the wolf and the wolf shrank back when he realized what was about to happen. Sheriff was going to cast him out. He had ruined stuff and scared Sheriff and thus he wasn’t wanted anymore. “It’s not his fault, I get that, but fact is Derek has been to hell and back several times and it’s left its marks on him. We’re not equipped to handle it when the PTSD kicks in. In case you missed it, there’s a piece of Scott’s face stuck to the TV. Scott can heal. You can’t. I’m calling Deaton.”
So this was it. The wolf felt sick. Sheriff thought he was so broken, so deeply damaged he might attack human pack members. He could stand up on two legs and try to defend himself, but what did he have to say? He was broken. He had failed so many times, made so many mistakes, that he had no defense. Derekdudeasshole had nothing going for him, not even soft ears and adorable paws. All he did have was money. He could pay for the damages and apologize, and then he could pretend everything was fine and go back to his empty den, his empty bed, the shards of an empty life.
The pack was talking, but he couldn’t understand a word they were saying over the ringing in his ears. He knew he should listen, it was his fate being decided, but he was paralyzed. Stand up and shed his fur, give up? Or hide away a little deeper? Maybe he wouldn’t mind being handed off to Deaton-creepysneak if he couldn’t think so much.
He breathed in, smelled years and years of Stiles and Sheriff soaked into the cushions; sweat, musk, Sheriff’s woodsy core scent, Stiles’ spicy core scent, spilled beer, Stiles’ old sock, a few forgotten coins, Scott-alpha, potato chips. The words flying back and forth over his head became background noise, meaningless. He drifted in a world of good smells, let it flood his head and push back the panicky thoughts, and, slowly, the words left him again.
At some point, he felt the weight of someone’s stare and when he looked up, the chili-scented not-quite-human was frowning down at him. The wolf flicked an ear and averted his gaze. Stiles started to pet him, long strokes down his side, over still healing ribs, and that both hurt and felt good. His frantic heart slowed down bit by bit. It was warm on the couch between Stiles and the alpha, so he let his tongue loll out to cool down and that was soothing, too. The air tasted like pack; new-pack, good pack. He breathed it in, made it part of himself, coasted lazily through the static in his head while pack talked and chili-scented not-quite-human talked.
At some point, they started talking at him, but it didn’t make much of a difference. He didn’t understand and didn’t bother trying. Stiles poked him with a bony finger; his flank, his belly, the side of his head. Maybe checking if he was all healed up? Not yet, not yet. But almost. The wolf licked his hand, tasted Stiles and ink and blood. Stiles was talking, too, saying the wolf’s name over and over, so the wolf lifted his head again and licked Stiles’ chin to show his affection, then put his head on Stiles’ lap.
The pack got upset, their scents sharp and salty. Sheriff-alpha was there suddenly, eye to eye with the wolf, on his knees in front of the couch. His big hands grabbed the wolf’s chops, lifted his head the better to stare at him. The wolf lowered his eyes and ears respectfully. Sheriff-alpha talked at him, urgently. The meaning of his words teased at the edges of the wolf’s mind, but he focused on Sheriff-alpha’s scent instead, leather-metal-sweat-Sheriff. Good smell.
The wolf-alpha roared at him then, a call to heel, but the wolf was already right there and he could not parse the wolf-alpha’s meaning beyond the demand for his presence, so all he did was slide off the couch and show his belly and throat, tail tucked in, eyes squeezed shut. And there he stayed, until Scott-alpha had left, and Sheriff-alpha had left with chili-scented not-quite-human, and it was only Stiles there with him.
Stiles smelled as though he might throw up.
The wolf didn’t do anything about it. He didn’t know how.
The wolf slept on the ruined couch that night, alone.
He did not remember his dreams.
Sheriff-alpha put a collar on him; soft, braided leather with a metal clasp. It wasn’t very tight and the wolf accepted it without a grumble. If they wanted him to wear a collar, he would wear a collar and he would not mind.
They clipped a leash to the collar and all three of them went outside together. The leash was unnecessary, really. The wolf stuck to Stiles’ side the entire time. He only hid behind a tree once, to do his business, and he tried to cover it up with earth and grass, but they pulled him away and scooped it up in a plastic bag instead. Couldn’t even get that right.
Time went by. The wolf couldn’t tell how much, nor did he care. He slept, he ate, he played with Stiles, he fetched things for Sheriff-alpha (careful, careful, never ever leave teeth marks), he guarded the house when the humans were asleep. He made sure to be meek and submissive around Sheriff-alpha, as quiet and small as nearly two hundred pounds of werewolf could be, because he knew it was imperative to show Sheriff-alpha how good he could be, how sweet he could be, even though he didn’t recall why.
Sometimes, the wolf spooked when Sheriff-alpha made a fast motion in his direction or came up behind him when the wolf was preoccupied, and each time the wolf’s jaws locked together like steel traps so he wouldn’t be showing even a little bit of tooth and he’d drop to his belly and offer his throat. Sheriff-alpha smelled ashy-bitter-salty a lot when he did that. The wolf knew that this was his fault, somehow, but he didn’t know how to be better.
Wolf-alpha visited and brought part of his pack-cluster—a female hunter-cub who smelled strongly of metal, a kitsune, a seriously insecure beta, and a death-magic girl. They were vaguely familiar, especially the beta, but he clearly belonged to wolf-alpha. The wolf made sure to be polite to all of them, keep his eyes lowered and his mouth closed, let them crowd him and touch him even when it made his skin crawl, because he lived by three simple laws now:
Stay with the pack.
The wolf knew—deep down, in that too-bright, too-dangerous part of himself he kept pushing down ruthlessly every time it tried to bubble up—that to please Sheriff-alpha meant to never show aggression, or anything a human might mistake for aggression; to be silent and obedient and not draw attention; to be useful and never underfoot. That this was absolutely crucial if he wanted to stay—and he wanted to stay so very badly.
Remaining calm and submissive wasn’t easy, though, when his ordered little world was so rudely disrupted by so many people. Wolf-alpha claimed Stiles as his from the first minute and barely paid attention to the pack dynamics, which sucked because everybody present would’ve benefitted from a bit more discipline.
Most notably, the beta and Stiles did not get along. They vied for wolf-alpha’s attention, jostling for position even though it was quite obvious that Stiles was the more dominant of the two. It worried the wolf, because the beta was jealous, afraid a lot, and physically stronger than Stiles. If he snapped or felt backed into a corner, Stiles could too easily get hurt. A good alpha would’ve stepped in already to clear things up so neither had to feel threatened by the other, but either wolf-alpha didn’t realize how dangerous the situation was or he didn’t care.
Hobbled by rule number one, driven to obey rule number two, all the wolf could do was stay between Stiles and the beta at all times and be prepared for trouble. If worse came to worst, he could still use himself as a shield. It didn’t matter if he got hurt. He’d heal. If there was one thing he was good at, it was taking damage. In another life, he’d have made an excellent punching bag.
The kitsune (more kit than anything; she still had a certain baby-clumsiness about her) turned out to be surprisingly sweet and unproblematic. She was definitely one of the pack-orbiters, unsure of her place, always watching everybody else for cues. Mostly, she was watching the wolf-alpha. Whenever she realized what she was doing, she’d do a muted panic-flail that made the wolf twitch nervously every damn time, glance apologetically at the hunter-cub, and hastily pretend to be busy doing something else.
Unfortunately, the wolf made a decent distraction. The kitsune kept petting him and holding his paw, though she dropped it like a hot coal every time someone addressed her. She also tried to tug on his ears a few times, but only Stiles was allowed to do that, so the wolf learned to spot the telltale tic of her fingers and ducked and weaved away when she reached out. She always made sad sounds when he did, which made him feel vaguely guilty, but even the lowest-ranking member of a pack needed some sort of personal boundary and this was it.
The hunter-cub and the death-magic girl were a terrible duo in a completely different way, poking and prodding the wolf with curious eyes and pushy fingers. The death-magic girl had brought a glittering, bright-pink harness and promptly attempted to buckle him into it, but the wolf squeezed under the bed and cried until she showed mercy and put it away. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. The death-magic girl kept doing bad things; she startled the wolf, brought out a bag of blue bitterplant to wave at his face, and then maneuvered Stiles into various dangerous positions until the wolf was howling in distress. He didn’t know what she was trying to accomplish, but she was hell on his blood pressure.
The hunter-cub was more interested in the wolf’s body, though always keeping an eye on the fox kit, too. Not really worried about either, but watchful just the same. She measured the wolf’s paws and his claws, shone a light into his eyes, and at one point pulled up his lips to look at his teeth, which was when Stiles wrapped a big, gentle hand around the wolf’s muzzle to protect it from the unwanted invasion. The wolf didn’t know what Stiles said, but he sounded seriously ticked off. He kept his fingers wrapped loosely around the wolf’s collar from then on, claiming him, which put a stop to the physical harassment. There was a reason why Stiles was his favorite.
It was all very confusing, even more so because nobody in the room came across as actively malicious. Frustrated, yes. Worried about something. Much too obsessed with trying to catch the wolf’s gaze. They caused him a great deal of stress, but they didn’t hurt him and they didn’t try to take him away, so he put up with it all and swallowed down every rumble of protest until his tummy hurt with it.
It was a relief when they finally left. Wolf-alpha lingered the longest and spent most of the evening with them, but at least he wasn’t doing anything to the wolf. Since he obviously wasn’t out to harm Stiles, the wolf took a chance and slunk down into the bathroom where the litterbox was so he could finally throw up. He guiltily covered the acrid mess with the smell-dampening pellet stuff and went back upstairs. He wanted to stretch out next to Stiles and sleep away the anxiety, but Stiles and wolf-alpha were on the bed staring intently at Stiles’ laptop-machine. They looked comfy and familiar and… and the wolf didn’t belong there with them. Hadn’t been invited. Hadn’t earned a spot yet.
Eventually, he lay down on the floor in a corner of the room, rested his head on his front paws, and patiently waited for wolf-alpha to go away.
That night, Sheriff-alpha was out patrolling his territory, so the wolf dared to sneak off the couch and into Stiles’ bedroom to curl up at the foot end of the bed. Stiles tended to wake up several times in the course of the night, sometimes screaming, always smelling of fear sweat and night terrors. The wolf had never dared run upstairs to comfort him before, because Sheriff-alpha always got there first and only a fool would get close to a parent in full protection mode, but what if Stiles woke up and nobody was there? Nogitsune scars were bad scars that needed constant care to heal.
With this in mind, the wolf padded up the stairs on silent paws, belly-crawled into the room, and eased onto the bed with all the skill and precision of an apex predator on the hunt, so smoothly the mattress barely dipped. He still half expected to be kicked out at some point, but Stiles merely grunted in his sleep, shoved his cold feet under the wolf’s belly, and then proceeded to flop all over the mattress like a tuckered-out pup. It was nice.
The dreams weren’t quite so nice.
Ironically, Stiles slept undisturbed through the night—it was the wolf who caught a full broadside of nightmares. He dreamed that Sheriff-alpha was chasing him in a car and siccing dogs on him, because he’d been bad, hadn’t followed the rules. He dreamed that an older version of hunter-cub had him strung up against iron bars and was doing painful, unbearably intimate things to his naked, defenseless body. He dreamed that wolf-alpha grabbed him by the neck and hauled him toward a grinning monster, then made him open his mouth and take the monster into his belly. He dreamed that he was drowning in a lake full of chemicals while a hissing, deformed crocodile-thing prowled along the shore. Stiles was with him in this dream, but he was drowning, too, because the wolf’s weight was dragging him down.
The wolf dreamed that death-magic girl blew sparkling-pink bitterplant dust in his face. The poison burned his lungs, liquefied them. She dragged him through a boneyard by the heel while he suffocated slowly, and then she dumped him in his burned-out den and watched as a rotting corpse slowly pulled him into its grave beneath the floor.
And in the small hours of the morning, when the wolf couldn’t even whine anymore and lay trembling in a heap, he dreamed of fire.
Bad dreams and a certain level of constant, low-grade panic aside (the wolf was used to that anyway), life was pretty damn good. He was spoiled with good food and better company, nobody was trying to kill him, and Sheriff-alpha had not smelled or felt fearful-protective around him once since the wolf had thrown himself into his role as the lowest ranking member of the pack. Sheriff-alpha still wasn’t happy with him—the wolf could tell, because Sheriff-alpha was sighing a lot and smelled sorrowful whenever the wolf dared sneak closer to him and carefully lick Sheriff-alphas hands to convey his regard—but the wolf was allowed to stay and that was awesome.
After a while, the wolf was even allowed on the couch with Sheriff-alpha when Sheriff-alpha was home. Sheriff-alpha would watch the moving shapes in the picture-box and rest a hand on the wolf’s neck, warm and oddly reassuring. Sometimes, he’d idly card his fingers through the thick fur, but more often, he’d play with the braided leather collar, turning it this way and that, tightening it a bit and releasing again, curling his hand around it like an anchor. This habit was something he had in common with Stiles, who’d also taken to hooking his fingers into the collar whenever he rested an arm on the wolf’s shoulders.
They didn’t seem to notice what they were doing, but the wolf was hyper-aware of these touches. At first it was an uncomfortable awareness, because they drew his attention to the unwanted object, but it didn’t take him long to begin to appreciate the feeling. It wasn’t a restricting sensation. It was affectionate, familiar, and grounding on a bone-deep level. It made the wolf feel welcome and wanted, especially when it came with a little tug that said, ‘hey, come closer, you’. Whatever he’d done wrong before, it wasn’t unforgivable. They wanted him by their side; they told him so with their grip on his collar.
Gradually, the wolf dared to relax into his new life. The Three Laws remained at the forefront of his mind, but Sheriff wouldn’t hold on to him so gently and securely if he intended to kick him out. An unintentional side effect of this loosening of tension was that the wolf had less of a grip on his thinking-side, but he figured this needn’t be so bad. It might help him understand how to be more useful. He let it happen, warily, not too much, not too fast.
The wolf was starting to associate wolf-alpha with traumatic events.
First the accidental attack, then the people-invasion, and then, when the wolf thought things had finally settled down, wolf-alpha caused Sheriff-alpha to blow a gasket. The wolf didn’t know what was said. He knew that one moment they were calmly preparing dinner and talking while the wolf fetched and carried whatever Stiles pointed at, and the next Sheriff-alpha was yelling at Stiles, Stiles exuded distress, and wolf-alpha was wringing his hands and making apologetic sounds at both of them.
The wolf stood in the middle of the kitchen, a bag of frozen vegetables dangling from his mouth, fur bristling at the almost electric tension in the room. His heart pounded, his belly hurt as though someone had stabbed him and was twisting the knife, and his paws felt weirdly cold, as though the tile floor had changed into ice. The sour-bitter-salty stress-scents were overwhelming, a punch to the nose. He whined helplessly, quietly, a tiny sound lost in the loud voices. Then Sheriff-alpha slammed a hand down on the kitchen table and that snapped the wolf out of it.
He didn’t dare drop the vegetables (careful, careful, don’t do damage, don’t show teeth), so he eased the bag down in a corner where nobody would step on it, and then backed out of the kitchen on legs that felt unstable and a bit wobbly. The living room was too close. He could hear everything and the waves of agitation that rose and fell with the twists and turns of the argument corroded the wolf’s frayed composure.
Desperate to get away from the fight, he climbed the stairs on numb paws, nudged open the door to the master bathroom, and hid in the tub. The tiled walls muffled the sound of angry voices somewhat, but not enough. Sheriff-alpha was livid. The wolf wanted to protect Stiles from the hurtful words, but above all, he wanted to stay with the pack. If he confronted Sheriff-alpha, he would most likely get kicked out. He was twitching with the desire to run away, but he was terrified he might not be welcome back if he did and he didn’t know where to go anyway.
His gums hurt with the need to chomp down on something, to lock his jaws and bite-bite-bite. The only thing in reach were the towels, though, and he couldn’t destroy stuff. Stuff belonged to pack, belonged to Sheriff-alpha, Sheriff-alpha could never be reminded that the wolf had teeth, teeth were bad, bad things were cast out, outcasts were alone, the wolf couldn’t bear to be alone anymore.
He wasn’t even aware he was chewing on his paws until a fang broke the skin. The pain startled him briefly, and then provoked an unexpected burst of inspiration. Oh. Oh! He could bite down on this, no problem. His paws belonged to him and they’d heal right up if he got overly enthusiastic. No damage except for possibly a little blood and that wouldn’t matter because he was in the bathtub. He could lick up the evidence before anyone noticed he’d made a mess. It was brilliant. He was such a smart wolf.
Groaning in relief, the wolf closed his eyes and lost himself in the simple pleasure of chewing.
Seeing as the wolf had never been blessed by Lady Luck, he got caught. Sheriff-alpha was not happy with the wolf’s excellent, non-destructive, and furniture-friendly coping mechanism.
Trying to hastily lap up the blood did not help.
The funny thing was—funny weird and not funny ha-ha—that instead of punishment, what followed the paw-biting episode was lots of attention. The good kind. The ear-rubs, belly scritches, couch-cuddling kind.
Sheriff-alpha checked his paws several times a day and made satisfied noises when he found them clean and undamaged. Apparently, the wolf had been mistaken and his paws did, in fact, not belong to him but to Sheriff-alpha. That was inconvenient. On the other hand, the inspections didn’t hurt and the man’s approval made the wolf’s belly warm and happy. He figured it was all right if Sheriff-alpha owned his paws. He was taking good care of them.
The two alphas and Stiles sat down to talk a lot. Mostly, Sheriff-alpha seemed to ask questions and Stiles answered, with the occasional input from wolf-alpha. Tensions tended to get high at least once during those conversations, but whenever the wolf tried to exit the situation, Stiles or Sheriff-alpha would grab his collar and keep him close until everybody was calm again.
This was incredibly stressful until the wolf realized his presence helped keep things reasonably harmonious. When he got agitated, they took a moment to reconsider their attitudes and then they talked with each other again instead of at each other. The wolf was the gauge. He was the mediator. He was useful. It was quite the revelation. It made him stupidly proud.
The new couch didn’t smell quite right. The old one had carried layers of scent, years of memories. All of it gone now. The cushions were comfy, the legs sturdy, but the couch needed something more, something to help it along, make it a good sleeping place.
The wolf was at a loss about how to fix the problem. He felt that it was his responsibility to do something, because he had a dim memory of ruining the old couch, but he couldn’t make Sheriff-alpha and Stiles roll around on the cushions.
Then Sheriff-alpha lost a sock on his way to do the laundry and the wolf was hit with a burst of inspiration. He knew what to do.
This den was going to be the best den.
It was going to smell fabulous.
In the afternoons, when the summer sunlight thickened and weighed down bodies and thoughts, Stiles brought the wolf to Deaton’s. The clinic was always cool, but the heat pressed against it from the outside and it stole into the rooms clinging to the animals’ pelts, their skin. Slivers of the world beyond the thick walls, scents that carried stories, little pieces of earth and dust.
Deaton-creepysneak would do his tests; powders and smoke, ashes and stone, perceptive eyes staring like an unwanted touch. Always in a circle, only the two of them, nobody else allowed. Scott-alpha remained close by, handing over supplies, cleaning up, taking care of the other animals while the doctor tried to cure what didn’t need curing. The exam room hummed with magic, always accompanied by the restless motion of Stiles’ fingers at the edge of it, his energy a fluttering, rock-solid thing, every bit as paradoxical as the rest of him. Whenever Deaton-creepysneak pushed, he pushed back, unnoticed, unaware; not magic but a different kind of power; protective, provocative, persistent.
The wolf watched them all from the center of the circle, wrapped in a blanket of residual summer heat, silent and interested. The rituals stirred up currents that washed over him, so thick at times it felt as though they should ruffle his fur or strike sparks against the metal of the table. Yet all the power in the world was useless when aimed at the wrong target, swatting at nothing.
There were so many things humans didn’t know about werewolves, none of them, because none of them had been born with a twofold soul. They didn’t quite understand that the beast was neither good nor bad; it was no condition but a state of being. There was no war inside, no need beyond the moment and the near future. It was a good way to be and so the wolf had slipped into it with all the relief and contentment of a tired person sinking into their bed at the end of a long day.
The exam table was cool to the touch no matter how long the wolf lay on it, smooth and hard. With nothing to fear but the usual and with nowhere to go, he stretched out on his side and dozed away the afternoons while Deaton-creepysneak spun his magic, the alpha stood guard, and Stiles circled around and around, restless and ever-observant. Stiles touched everything; cabinets and posters, the walls, the door, the places where runes had been drawn and then painted over, the places where objects of power were buried in the mortar. He opened drawers and containers, played with gloves and syringes, nudged things and moved them, muttered and snarked and absorbed.
He could not find true rest in that place, but light slumber was a good way to spend the slow hours of the day and as he dreamed—quicksilver dreams, there and gone—the wolf learned the secrets of the room through Stiles’ wanderings. And every time he woke and they went back home, he had learned some of Stiles’ secrets as well.
The first time Stiles spoke and his words made sense again, the wolf ran away and hid under Sheriff’s bed. He breathed in Sheriff’s scent in gasping gulps to remind himself why this was a line he shouldn’t cross back over, why it was better to be a dumb animal.
“What the fuck, dude?” Stiles said from the doorway, irritated-worried-confused. “What?”
The wolf whined anxiously. He liked understanding Stiles. He liked knowing that Stiles was quick-witted and funny, so good at crafting words. Now that he was closer to the tipping point, it seemed such a waste to give that up for the sake of ignorance.
“Was it the microwave?” He sighed, exasperated. “It was the microwave, wasn’t it. Totally scary ‘ding’ there. Jesus Christ on a pogo stick. You’re a wolf, not a poodle. Come on, get out from under there and face your fears like a big bad werewolf.”
All right then. The wolf crawled out from his hiding spot and trotted over to Stiles, who squinted at him in surprise. “Wow. It worked. It actually— Wait. Are you fucking with me?”
The wolf tilted his head and gave Stiles a look. He was absolutely unprepared for Stiles to stare back at him with wide eyes, then dart forward to… tap him on the nose? What the fuck?
“Boop,” Stiles said, like the weirdo he was.
The wolf sneezed and glared.
“Oh my god,” Stiles breathed, delight in every line of his body. The wolf hadn’t realized how subdued Stiles had been until he wasn’t anymore. “It’s really you, dude. Those eyebrows don’t lie, you’re back to semi-awareness. Progress!” He started to pat himself down in excitement. “Where’s my phone?”
Kitchen table, but the wolf didn’t go fetch it, because ‘boop’.
Not okay, Stiles. Not okay.
Sheriff didn’t boop him.
Sheriff gave him steak and a bully stick as long as his arm, and told him it was good to have him back and not to pull that sort of shit again.
“We missed you, kid,” he said, and he wasn’t lying.
Sheriff was the second-best alpha ever. (Momma had been the best.)
Their routine got more exciting after that, in a nice way. The wolf gained confidence with every approving nod from Sheriff and every enthusiastic Stiles-cuddle. He received lots of those. Apparently, Stiles assumed that because the wolf was closer to the human end of the spectrum again, he was going to be walking on two legs any day, so he had to get his fur-fix while he still could. The wolf could’ve told him not to worry. His plan to make them love him was still in motion. He was determined. Unlike two-legged Derek, four-legged wolf actually had one useful arrow in his proverbial quiver: he was cute. Furry. Huggable. Dorky. Sooner or later, Stiles and Sheriff would want to keep him. All he had to do was hang in there, be adorable, and keep his teeth to himself.
Mornings usually started with Stiles waking up to a big paw on his face, rousing him from sweet slumber with insistent patting. The wolf didn’t believe in sleeping in and preferred not to be awake alone, so when he was done resting, so was Stiles. The inevitable bitching was what woke Sheriff and then it was fun bathroom time with two men and a wolf bumbling around and tripping over each other as they went through their morning rituals. To everybody’s delight, the wolf finally figured out how to use the toilet. Fuck you, litterbox.
Sheriff made breakfast (apparently, if left to his own devices, Stiles started his day with pop-tarts and Hot Pockets), they ate, and then Sheriff either went to work or back to bed and the wolf made Stiles go on a run. Stiles’ definition of running was something along the line of ‘walking with sudden bursts of speed’, which was annoying in the beginning and then became the wolf’s favorite game. He could never tell when Stiles was going to start sprinting and for how long. The decision came between one breath and the next, and that forced the wolf to pay attention if he wanted to win. And, boy, did he want to win.
Staying ahead of Stiles should’ve been easy, but between the element of surprise and Stiles’ long legs, the wolf had to work for it. By day two, Stiles once again proved his determination to keep things organized by setting rules. The winner was whoever had won the most sprints by the end of the walk. The prize was thirty minutes of massage time or a sausage. For the wolf, that meant thirty minutes of bliss as Stiles’ long fingers dug into his muscles and kneaded him into a furry pile of goo. For Stiles, it meant thirty minutes of the wolf walking up and down his back, which apparently Stiles enjoyed a lot. Needless to say, neither of them ever picked sausage.
Playtime usually meant Lacrosse, either the two of them alone or the two of them against Scott-alpha, Isaac-beta, and Kira-kitsune who bounded across the green with a sort of manic glee that was contagious. The wolf quickly took to dashing right after her. He liked the chase, he liked the competition, and he absolutely loved the ball. It tasted like rubber, Stiles, and grass, and it made his teeth itch obsessively with the desire to chew it to bits. Stiles tended to snap him out of it by bouncing a pebble off his rump. Stiles could occasionally be an asshole. The wolf took to retaliating by making sure to ‘accidentally’ trip Stiles up as often as possible. The wolf could be an asshole, too—at least when Sheriff wasn’t in the vicinity.
After lunch was clinic-time, because the humans were nothing if not stubborn. Whenever Deaton gave up for the day, Stiles drove the wolf back home and left him somewhere to nap while he played around on his computer or studied Latin. His approach to language learning reminded the wolf of a code breaker attacking a particularly nasty piece of cipher. He couldn’t wait to see Stiles’ reaction when he discovered pig Latin.
Evenings, though… evenings were the best part of the day. They’d go for another walk-run and when Sheriff was home, he’d come along. Sheriff, he learned, was unfairly good at reading Stiles and had no trouble keeping up with his offspring’s insane running patterns. The wolf was seriously starting to doubt that the man actually had health problems. His pulse was much steadier than Stiles’ rabbit-heart-lion-heart and he didn’t smell like his body chemistry was off, either. He was in remarkably good shape for a human his age. It was a relief to discover Stiles’ paranoia about Sheriff’s diet seemed to be mostly precaution. Stiles was not good at losing people, so he set preventive measures. The wolf appreciated that.
Sheriff watched TV or read before he went to bed and Stiles joined him more often than not. They didn’t talk much, each doing their own thing, but they shared space and now and then took a break from whatever they were doing to bicker about anything from police procedure to candle making. These were the moments when they were most likely to forget the wolf was anything but there. They’d talk right over him, pet him absentmindedly, playfully tug on his collar to get him to pick a side, completely unaware of the way they were making room for him in their little pack.
The wolf basked in that backhanded affection, in the knowledge that he wasn’t expected to leave when the hour got late. That he was expected to follow them upstairs at some point, shadow Stiles when he paced around while brushing his teeth, trot through the house and double-check that the windows and doors were locked, then finally crawl into bed with Stiles, let him shove those damn cold feet against his fur-coated belly to warm them up, and guard his sleep against the nightmares. And if he missed reading sometimes, or his hands (opposable thumbs, so useful), or being a person in the eyes of others… well, it was worth it. It was.
“I can’t believe you’re letting him sleep in your bed.”
“Shut up, Scott. He’s super considerate and super comfy.”
“Dude, it’s Derek. You’re sleeping with Derek.”
“At least he doesn’t kick me out of my own bed.”
“That was one time, dude! One time!”
“It was twice, and I’m not even counting air mattresses. Now shut up and watch the damn movie, this is the good part.”
“But why are lone wolves called ‘omegas’? It doesn’t make sense and it’s confusing.” Sheriff was scowling darkly, endearingly annoyed by the lack of consistent terminology. “That’s Pack Hierarchy 101. Alpha, beta, omega. And why would the alpha power be something that can be stolen, inherited, or bounced around like a tin crown? That’s stupid.”
Scott-alpha was starting to look a bit wild around the eyes. “I don’t know,” he repeated for the nth time. He was sweating. Scott-alpha did not do well with cross-examinations. “This sh—this stuff doesn’t come with a handbook. Stiles figured most of it out, but if you want details, ask Derek.”
They all looked down at the wolf who had curled around Stiles’ feet and was chewing on a pig’s ear. The wolf interrupted his mission of destruction to look back and grin a happy wolf grin. Wolf here. No talking. Too bad, so sad.
“I’m starting to think he’s enjoying this,” Sheriff grumbled.
“Rikki-tikki felt his eyes growing red and hot (when a mongoose's eyes grow red, he is angry), and he sat back on his tail and hind legs like a little kangaroo, and looked all around him, and chattered with rage. But Nag and Nagaina had disappeared into the grass. When a snake misses its stroke, it never says anything or gives any sign of what it means to do next.” Stiles looked up from the text with a grin. “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a Peter flashback.”
“What are you reading?” Sheriff asked, poking his head into the room. He smiled when he saw Stiles propped up against the headboard, the wolf’s head resting on his legs, and then his grin widened when he spotted Scott-alpha leaning against the wall in a messy pile of Allison-hunter-cub, Kira-kitsune, and Isaac-beta.
“The Jungle Book,” Kira-kitsune explained, blinking a little as she shook off the daze they’d all fallen into while listening.
Sheriff was starting to smell sweet and citrusy, alarmingly similar to how Kira-kitsune had smelled when stumbling out of the kitten nursery. “And why is he reading The Jungle Book?”
“Because,” Stiles said sourly, clapping a hand on the wolf’s shoulder, “hipster Derek couldn’t take us watching the Disney version. There was yowling. He tried to bite through cables. It wasn’t pretty.”
“Pretty cute, though,” Kira-kitsune muttered under her breath.
The wolf ignored her. They were a bunch of idiot, uncultured pups. Disney. He was doing them a favor. They’d been missing out, wasting time with dumb computer games and vapid, by-the-numbers TV shows when such a wealth of rich, beautiful stories was waiting only the turn of a page away. Maybe he couldn’t lose himself in them anymore—reading while on four legs was a surefire recipe for the migraine from hell—but Stiles had perfectly good human eyes and a decent reading pitch once he stopped doing the voices.
“Did you get to the big snake fight yet?” Sheriff asked, and walked over to settle down on the bed next to Stiles.
“Seriously?” Stiles whined, but it was drowned out by Allison-hunter-cub’s excited, “Not yet.”
“Just stop it with the snake hiss,” Isaac-beta said. “You’re not doing it right.”
Stiles gave him the finger, taking the resultant smack from his father in stride, and pulled one leg out from under the wolf to rest it on the wolf’s back instead. “I hate you all. Where was I?”
“Nagaina got bitten by Rikki-tikki and ran like a little bitch,” Allison-hunter-cub said, and snuggled closer to Scott-alpha.
“Right,” Stiles said, and lifted the book again. “Rikki-tikki did not care to follow them, for he did not feel sure that he could manage two snakes at once…”
“No snake noises,” Isaac reminded him.
“Shut up, Isaac.”
One of the things the wolf learned while living with the Stilinskis—and that was no secret at all—was that Stiles was a lusty little fucker, and reassuringly unselfconscious about it. He gave the wolf a few days to acclimate and then he went right back to his usual jerk-off habits… which was to say, he kicked the wolf out whenever he wanted some ‘alone time’.
The wolf was absolutely supportive of alone time, except that it got him banned from the room and he didn’t like that at all. The Stilinski house was his den, too, now. He had his own toothbrush. And a spot on the new couch (which was starting to smell like all three of them thanks to the wolf’s tireless efforts and his growing sock collection). The house was where the wolf slept and ate and snuggled with his pack (whenever he could pin them down long enough to drop his head on their lap, anyway). His den. All of it. He slept in that room, damn it. What if he wanted to take a nap? Or just… be there? In that room. Right then.
At least Sheriff had the decency to do it in the bathroom or, well, in his bedroom. That was fine, the wolf didn’t sleep on that bed. He’d learned his lesson. Point was, Sheriff was considerate about it. He didn’t lock the door, not even after the first time the wolf had checked on him. He had thrown a pillow, the wolf had taken the hint, and that had been that. The wolf was still animal enough that he didn’t quite get what was so bad about being close when pack mates pleasured themselves—it was a perfectly natural thing to do, and also, it smelled fantastic. But, all right. No overt peeking. That was fine. The wolf could be discreet. Sheriff hadn’t spotted him once since that first time, and Sheriff was every bit as observant as his cub. Also, just as randy. Those two had plenty stamina. The wolf was impressed.
He would’ve been as tactful with Stiles as he was with Sheriff, but Stiles was stubborn and insisted on locking his damn door and it was driving the wolf nuts. What if something happened? What if Stiles was attacked when he was most vulnerable? What if he hurt himself? He could be so klutzy. The bed was old. The frame might break. Things might happen. Bad things. All kinds of unspecified bad things. Kanimas. Spells. Creepy stalker types. Kidnappings. If he’d only leave the door open, the wolf could make sure he was safe.
…and maybe get high off the scent. Talk about addictive.
Unfortunately, Stiles was utterly unreasonable and unsympathetic when the wolf tried to get his point across by sitting in the hallway outside and yowling at the closed door. He even threw a dildo once, when the wolf took a stab at picking the lock with his claws. Neither of them did that again, though, because the wolf almost broke his paw when Stiles wrenched the door open and then he ended up destroying the toy with his teeth. He accidentally swallowed a bit of plastic, which made him sick, but it was worth it. Apparently, those things were expensive. Served Stiles right. Throwing sex toys was rude.
When Sheriff was home, he usually dragged the complaining wolf away by the scruff of his neck, sat him down in the living room, and lectured him on privacy and appropriate behavior. The wolf agreed with him—personal space, boundaries, and consent were important, and everybody had better heed them or else—but he didn’t quite get what all that had to do with him and the battle of the closed door.
It wasn’t until the fifth time that Sheriff finally phrased it in a way that made sense to the wolf: “Goddamn it, Derek, I don’t need a heads-up every time my kid is choking the chicken!”
Fine, then. No more loud protests and demands to be let in, he could do that. He could lie there in the hallway, despondent and alone, bereft, locked out while Stiles was too busy to watch his own back. He could keep his whines to himself, bury them like all the bad memories, hold his shaking paws down with his heavy head, and try to keep watch the way he’d done it before, when he’d still been walking on two legs: from afar, unwanted, in the dark. When Stiles was done, at least there was a chance he’d trip over the wolf. Then they could be morose together. As it should be. The two of them together. Because of pack. Because of smell. Because. Because there shouldn’t be locked doors between them, ever, damn it, open up, stupidhead!
…so that was a work in progress.
“This doesn’t look like progress.”
Hunter-human Chris-graybeard liked to lurk, as in: he did it excessively. He’d been reasonably polite about it the past few days, but clearly he’d reached the limit of his patience and that translated into stepping out from behind the bushes he’d used as cover while pacing them. Stiles nearly brained him with the heavy karabiner at the end of the leash. Ah. So he hadn’t, in fact, known they had a tail.
It was probably a good thing it was Chris-graybeard who’d decided to approach them and not Isaac-beta, who’d taken to following them around every so often. Hard to say whether he was morbidly intrigued by the wolf, spying on the competition, or acting on Scott-alpha’s orders, but either way Stiles probably wouldn’t have checked the swing. He still wasn’t very fond of Isaac-beta. There’d have been blood, yelling, and quite possibly protection of the human required. Stiles did not have enough respect for fangs and claws for the wolf’s peace of mind.
“Oh my God, couldn’t you have called like a normal person?” Stiles gasped, his scent flooded with bitter-stress-adrenaline. He was clutching the leash so hard his knuckles were white. The wolf was grateful he wasn’t attached to the other end at the moment.
“I could’ve,” Chris-graybeard said, frowning irritably, “but you tend to lie to me over the phone.”
“I don’t lie,” Stiles protested automatically. The wolf and Chris-graybeard both looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Much,” Stiles corrected himself smoothly. “I don’t lie much. I’m trying to cut back on the whole circumventing the truth thing these days. Communication is important.”
Chris-graybeard was smart enough not to go down that particular conversational path. “It’s been three weeks,” he said instead, and glared down at the wolf. The wolf didn’t take it personally. Chris-graybeard glared at pretty much everything and everyone, but he very rarely smelled as aggressive as he looked these days. “He’s still a wolf.”
“Astute observation,” Stiles praised. “What gave it away? It was the tail, right? It’s always the tail. He just can’t keep it still, it’s like it has a life of its own. I never knew Derek had so many feelings until he grew that tail.”
The wolf grumbled a little, but quietly, because while Stiles was being snarky, he wasn’t wrong. The wolf had to admit he hadn’t been very good at expressing emotions before the tail indeed, mostly because it hadn’t seemed a good idea to let people know he was generally either scared, or clueless, or both. Anger had been easier. Safer. Derekdudeasshole had kept everybody at a safe distance or paid the price, because his instincts had been fucked up and his judgment had been for shit because of it. The wolf didn’t have to isolate himself. He could rely on his pack to make the decisions. He merely had to follow their lead and clamp down on those pesky fear responses. And, hey, he was getting much better at it. He hadn’t showed his teeth once since he’d regained some of his balance, even though he’d had to throw himself into total lockdown a time or two in order to be good. He was working on it.
Not that Chris-graybeard appreciated the wolf’s efforts. “The longer he stays like this, the harder it’ll be for him to shift back.”
No shifting back. Go away. Permanently four-legged, domesticated civilian here.
Stiles’ fingers clenched around the leash again, testily. He wound it around his hand distractedly, clip rings on the outside like improvised brass knuckles. “I’m aware of that. What do you want me to do? Annoy him back to human? ‘Cause let me tell you, this Derek is a lot harder to provoke than you’d think.”
“Maybe now, but the full moon is tomorrow.”
Stiles rolled his eyes so hard the wolf could almost hear it. “He spent a good ten days as feral as he apparently gets. You know the worst thing he did? He freaked out and chewed his paws bloody. His own paws. He didn’t even go for the fucking furniture, he was so scared we’d kick him out.”
That gave Chris-graybeard pause, but not for long. “So you want to keep him as a pet? Let him stay a wolf for the duration? For years? Maybe the rest of his life? What do you think will happen to his mind if he never changes back?”
The leather leash creaked under the force of Stiles’ grip. “Why? What do you think will happen?”
Chris-graybeard narrowed his eyes. “Anything could happen. We don’t know. That’s the point. He could be fine. He could actually become an animal. He could snap and kill everybody in sight.”
“Yeah, well, he won’t change back,” Stiles said, frustrated. “Deaton is running out of ideas. Or sources. Hard to tell with him. Your bestiary is useless. I now know, like, a million ways to kill or torture a werewolf, but it doesn’t say shit about how to help one. Nice legacy you got there. I’m starting to get why Derek used to be such a mistrustful bastard.”
Chris-graybeard sneered at him, but didn’t disagree. “I’m open for ideas. He can’t stay like this and you know it, Stiles.”
He looked down at the wolf and there was something in his gaze very close to concern. It surprised the wolf, but in a good way. Chris-graybeard cared if he lived or died. Who’d have thought?
“I know.” Stiles breathed out on a sigh and sagged a little. “I know, okay? We need to start thinking outside the box here. There’s got to be somebody who can help. I get that this is a super special werewolf ability, but it’s not, like, one-in-a-million rare. Deaton said his mom could do it, too.”
He stood silent for a moment, still as a statue, and then he perked up.
It was Chris-graybeard’s turn to tense up as though someone had licked his nose without permission. “No,” he warned. “Don’t even think it.”
“Too late,” Stiles said. “And I know it’s kind of a shitty idea, but, come on. He’s bound to have some info. He’s a Hale. And he might be a smarmy asshole and a pathological liar, but Derek’s the only family he’s got left, now that Cora’s gone. I’m gonna call him.”
Oh. Peter-deadnotdead. Blackfire. Bitterhurt.
This was a terrible idea. Peter-deadnotdead might actually figure out a way to make him give up his fur. He was tricky, was Peter.
“Don’t bother,” Chris-graybeard muttered. He smelled embarrassed. “He’s not gonna answer.”
Stiles’ eyes narrowed. “Why’s that?”
“He doesn’t have his phone on him.” Chris-graybeard’s lips thinned in annoyance. He huffed. Shifted his weight, slightly, barely noticeably. Huffed again, deeply irritated. “He slipped away before Derek came back,” he admitted finally, grudgingly. “I found his tracking chip in Scott’s backpack last week and he left his phone at Derek’s loft. God knows where he went. None of my contacts have seen him either.”
“Awesome,” Stiles said. “That’s what we need. Peter off the grid again.” He smirked and unwound the leash from his hand with an air of satisfaction. “Good thing I took precautions and tagged him, too.”
Chris-graybeard stared at him in disbelief. “How?”
Stiles’ smirk grew. There was little he loved more than taking a risk and coming out on top. “Spiked his drink with Deaton’s wolfsbane-based tranquilizer, cut open his back, and shoved one of your sweet mini-trackers under his skin. By the time he woke up, it was all healed up again.”
“And he didn’t get suspicious at all when he ‘fell asleep’ for no reason?” Chris-graybeard asked skeptically. “Peter’s smarter than that.”
“I might’ve drawn a dick or two on his face while he was out,” Stiles said cheerfully. “And tied his shoelaces together. There might’ve been itching powder involved… and a note telling him to apologize to Lydia for mauling and manipulating her, or else.”
Graybeard actually looked impressed. “Did he?”
“Surprisingly enough, yes. Apparently, they had a talk in a very public place. He bought her several pairs of ridiculously expensive shoes and pledged a favor, no questions asked, no conditions. She’s never gonna be a fan of his, but she’s stopped going for the mace every time they’re in the same room.” Stiles bounced on the balls of his feet, hilariously pleased with himself. “Win-win.”
“Impressive,” Chris-graybeard muttered, then tilted his head and looked Stiles up and down in a way that made the wolf decidedly uncomfortable. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… have you ever thought about becoming a hunter?”
“Yeah, I’d rather not actively seek out more things that’ll try to kill me, thanks. There’s a limit to how much stress I can take.” He pulled out his phone—the wolf knew it well, seeing as it was pointed at him several times a day without fail to take pictures of him ‘for posterity’—and started tapping away, muttering as he did. “Sick app, by the way. Totally illegal, but so useful. Sweet piece of…”
His voice trailed off. He stared at the screen, outwardly frozen, but broadcasting such a surge of outrage it made the wolf’s hackles rise like spikes.
“What?” Chris-graybeard asked, alarmed.
“He’s at my house,” Stiles bit out, and took off at a run, the wolf at his heels.
When Stiles burst into the house, the wolf already ducking around him to confront the possible threat first (because you never knew with Peter-deadnotdead), Chris-graybeard halfway to the back door, they found Peter-deadnotdead lounging in Sheriff’s favorite recliner, feet up, fingers steepled together, and a smirk on his handsome face. The wolf almost bit him on principle. Goddamn undead drama queen.
The thing that stopped him was Peter-deadnotdead’s scent. He might not have noticed it if he’d been walking on two legs, because Peter-deadnotdead had taken care to clean up and change clothes before making his grand entrance, was even wearing cologne, but the wolf’s world was much more scent-focused in his current form. He saw with his nose first, and the picture it painted was of hunter-humans-pain-bringers and death. The older wolf’s—alive-alive-not-dead—skin still carried the smell of heat-sea-concrete, cordite, acrid bitterplant, blood, sweat, grief, ruptured bowels, burning rubber, and a simmering, iron-tinged, possessive fury that receded only slowly when Peter laid eyes on the wolf.
Somewhere close by, Stiles was barking questions and demands at the intruder, one hand clutching the wolf’s collar for reassurance, but the words were meaningless; background noise. Chris-graybeard was sneaking up from behind, gun in hand, but he wasn’t about to attack without reason, and all Peter was doing was stare at the wolf with searing intensity. He wasn’t smirking anymore. He wasn’t posing. He just stared, spellbound, emotions hitting too hard and fast to properly identify, licking up and down his aura like St. Elmo’s fire and making the wolf’s fur bristle with sympathetic tension. Relief. Awe. Anger. Happiness. Envy. Need. Joy. Satisfaction. Flick-flick-flick like someone flipping through a picture book that contained a thousand different stories, and for once the wolf didn’t think it was deliberate.
And then it stopped as though cut off with a knife. Peter shut it down, hid it all, his entire personal scent. The wolf blinked, disoriented, suddenly forced to switch senses. Peter appeared a lot smaller when you looked at him with your eyes, even when he stood up and ambled closer; a fairy tale dragon folded down into human disguise. His face betrayed nothing but mild curiosity, but his unreadable eyes softened a little when the wolf’s ears perked up and his tail twitched into a hesitant hello.
Pack? the wolf’s body was asking, tail swishing a hopeful question mark. Family? Because they’d been enemies at some point and the sting of betrayal was still aching somewhere inside, but the smells had told their story, and they didn’t lie. Peter had gone looking for him. Peter had found the hunter-humans who’d caught and hurt the wolf, and Peter had made them pay for what they’d done. Peter was relieved to find the wolf alive, so relieved—a warm, gooey kind of feeling-scent that almost tickled, it was so nice—and the wolf… the wolf had missed him long before this.
“So you did make your own way back,” Peter said casually. His face didn’t betray anything but mild curiosity, but his body language opened a bit in reaction to the wolf’s greeting. “That explains a lot.” He walked around the wolf, inspecting him from all angles, which made Stiles edgy and his grip on the collar tighten until his knuckles were digging into the wolf’s neck, kneading it lightly. “Why are you still on four legs?”
“We think the hunters did something to him.” Stiles couldn’t take it anymore; he blocked Peter’s path and straddled the wolf’s broad back with his long legs, claiming him. “To keep him from changing back.”
“Ah.” Peter ceded the space nonchalantly, a tinge of amusement blooming in his scent only to wilt again in the space of his next breath. “That would make sense, seeing as they were fur traders. Nasty people. Hard to find.”
“What did you do, Peter?” Chris-graybeard asked, not so much a question as a demand for confirmation. He’d lowered the gun, but didn’t put it away. Smart man.
“Why, I killed them, of course,” Peter said mildly, but he didn’t feel mild, he felt like cold wrath and the giddy desire for violence. “What? Did you expect anything else?”
“Goddamn it, Peter—”
Peter turned to look at him and his face must’ve started to match his mood, because Chris-graybeard almost took a step back. “You know what fur traders do?” he hissed, venom in his voice, bitterblack in his scent. “They target full-shift bloodlines. Mostly go for pups and omegas. Or, you know, the only known survivor of a massacre.”
The smell of ashes was in the air all of a sudden, sooty with a greasy barbecue aftertaste, and somewhere in the depth of the wolf’s soul, Derekbabysweetie twisted in agony. He shivered and squirmed a bit between Stiles’ legs, deeply grateful for the young man’s steadying grip on his collar, the sheltering spread of his wide shoulders, the hard anchor points of his knees against the wolf’s sides.
“They force the shift with poison and torture,” Peter continued, still locked in his staring match with Chris-graybeard, who was starting to smell increasingly stressed. His tone evened out into something silky and icy, but his upper lip curled up in a hint of a snarl. He was angry. Viciously angry. “It’s a science. Needs precision and a particular lack of morals, because, see, even pups can take a lot of damage before instinct makes them shift. Once they’ve carved out the wolf, they wait until the fur has settled, so the pelt won’t go patchy. Takes an hour or two. And then they skin their victims alive, so they won’t change back before the pelt is harvested. They take the teeth and the claws, too. Rip them right out. If the wolf is lucky, they’ll receive a coup de grâce when it’s done—shotgun blast to the head, most commonly—but often enough, they’ll just sprinkle the body with wolfsbane and toss it somewhere to die.”
“Fur traders aren’t hunters,” Chris-graybeard said.
“Hunters burned my family alive,” Peter bit out. “The only difference is that they didn’t do it for profit. They did it for fun. Tell me again why I should care what you call yourself.”
He sounded furious and he was, but he was in pain, too, and the thread of stickysour insanity that twisted through Peter’s core scent like an invisible scar was pulsing in agitation. The awful knot of emotion echoed in the black hole the wolf carried in his heart.
The wolf whined, a high-pitched, fretful little cry, and before he could think about it, he’d tugged his collar out of Stiles’ grip so his feet could carry him from new pack to old pack. He circled around so he wouldn’t come between Peter and Chris-graybeard and nudged up against Peter’s elbow from behind with his head, trying to wedge his long nose into the space between arm and hip.
The borderline homicidal tension broke. Peter looked down at him in consternation. “What on earth are you doing?”
Why, providing comfort, obviously. The wolf rumbled quietly and moved closer, nuzzling and bumping his big head up into Peter’s armpit, tail lashing back and forth when Peter allowed him to jump up so the wolf could lick his chin. Peter’s skin carried the taste of unscented soap and, beneath that, sweat, blood, and something bitter, but a thorough tongue-washing got rid of all that. At some point, an arm came around him and pulled him closer. Peter buried his fingers in the wolf’s thick pelt and if they were trembling faintly, well. The wolf wasn’t going to tell.
Sheriff came home to find Peter, Stiles, and Chris-graybeard on his couch, staring morosely at the wolf who was ignoring them in favor of a rawhide bone. Or pretending to ignore them. He was way too familiar with this specific type of stare. It was the unspoken ‘why won’t you shift back to human, damn it?’ look that followed yet another fruitless attempt at finding a reason for the persistence of four paws. The best way to deal with it, he’d learned, was to play doggy dumb.
“Still not dead, huh,” Sheriff said, nodding at Peter with the air of a man resigned to his fate.
Peter raised an eyebrow. “No, but I am feeling a tad peckish.”
“There’s a bully stick under the couch, if you want it,” Stiles offered with a smirk. “But it’s Derek’s secret stash, so you might want to clear it with him first.”
Peter blinked. “I wish you hadn’t said that,” he muttered, and then promptly leaned down to check under the couch. When he sat back up, he looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. He cleared his throat and resolutely did not meet anyone’s gaze. The wolf appreciated it. It would’ve been awkward to try and explain his hoard of socks. He snuffled at Peter’s knee to convey his gratitude and then went back to his bone. He was almost through the knot at the end.
“I’m not gonna ask,” Sheriff decided, and turned around to make a beeline for the kitchen. “Any news from Deaton?”
“No, but he’s developing a twitch,” Stiles said. He nudged a toe against the wolf’s rump, then did it again. Poke-poke-poke. Before he knew it, the wolf’s chewing took up the rhythm. Poke-bite-poke-bite-poke-bite. It was oddly meditative. “He’s found nothing. Nada. Zilch. I think he’s starting to take it personally.”
Sheriff grabbed a beer from the fridge and wandered back into the living room to plonk down on his armchair and join the others in contemplating the wolf. “Huh. At least he doesn’t seem to mind.”
He stretched out a leg to prod the other side of the wolf’s rear with his foot, then forgot to stop. Every time Stiles’ pushed the wolf in his direction, he pushed back. It was easy to integrate into the pattern. Poke-bite-nudge-poke-bite-nudge-poke-bite-nudge. The wolf’s bottom rocked slightly from side to side, which made his spine sway gently, which felt really good and also somewhat hypnotic.
“I’ll be damned,” Peter whispered, so quietly the wolf wasn’t sure anybody but him heard. They did hear the laugh, though; the sharp bark of it made Stiles jump and thump his heel against the wolf’s hip bone.
“What?” Stiles asked, scooting further away from Peter on the couch. “Are you losing it again? I need to be warned before you lose it. Your losing it comes with a body count.”
The wolf’s head had come up at Peter’s laugh. He met his uncle’s gaze and felt his stomach drop. Uh-oh. What? What had given him away?
“A twofold soul cannot be bound,” Peter said, because he was incapable of keeping his big, fat mouth shut when he’d figured something out, the fucking showoff. “You can trick our brains into keeping our fur when we shouldn’t, for a while, but you can’t make us completely wolf or completely human. We’re both and we’re neither.”
“What are you saying?” Chris asked.
And, damn it all to hell, but Stiles was already there, always so quick to connect the dots. “He’s saying you can’t force a werewolf into one shape or the other permanently. So either whatever the fur traders did to him is going to wear off eventually—”
“—or it already did,” Sheriff finished the thought, pulling his leg back and putting down his bottle, the better to scrutinize the wolf.
Chris frowned. “So he could shift back if he… what? Wanted to?”
“If there was an enchantment on him still, Deaton would’ve found it by now,” Stiles said. “He even x-rayed him to make sure there’s no wolfsbane-shrapnel or whatever embedded under his skin. I mean, we assumed it had to be something else, but…” He shrugged, sharp eyes trained on the wolf, who was trying really hard to become invisible and failing miserably. “Could you shift back?” he asked, and there it was, the first hint of accusation. “Are you faking?”
No. No, he wasn’t faking, wasn’t… wasn’t trying to upset or harm anyone. He simply didn’t want to hurt anymore. Didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to be part of a pack again, even a tiny, mostly human one, even if it meant he was at the bottom of the pecking order, barely more than a pet. His intentions had never been mischievous or, God forbid, malicious—but he had been lying, in a way, and he knew it. Had known it. Hadn’t let himself think about it, because he hadn’t wanted to see all that affection and pleasure in his company turn to disappointment.
Stiles was reeking of disappointment now, and so was Sheriff.
The wolf whimpered, a choked, panicked sound that made everybody in the room smell sour-bitter-distressed. He was aware on some level that his tail was pressed so tightly against his belly he could feel it quiver. It might’ve been the only thing holding in his guts. Stiles jumped up, Sheriff stood up, Peter leaned forward, and Chris moved as if to get up, too. They loomed, their emotions pressing down, their shadows crowding in, until the wolf snapped out of it with a rattling gasp and did the only thing he could.
He ducked past Sheriff, barely evaded Chris’ hand grasping for his collar (not yours, not yours!), and darted out through the unlatched back door before Peter could clear the couch.
He ran flat out until his paws were stinging and his lungs burned with every panting breath, halfway across town. Peter followed him for a while, but four legs were faster than two and desperation was a brutal driver.
Eventually, he slowed down and veered off into an alley, where he cowered behind a dumpster and threw up the rawhide bone. The bile tasted a lot like shame.
It was a stupid idea to go back to the loft, but he had nowhere else to run and he couldn’t stay on four legs any longer. Suddenly, the soft whisper of his fur made him feel sick and the clicking of his claws against the hard ground made his toes curl in revulsion. The body that had become his sanctuary repulsed him now, because he’d used it to trick and manipulate people he cared about—just like hunter-liar-Kate had used her body to trick and manipulate him. Not that she’d cared about him. Not that she’d even liked him, but maybe she’d been right about one thing: he might’ve been useful sometimes, but he sure wasn’t lovable.
He snuck in through the basement window with the warped hinge, teased up the bolt with a clumsy paw and then squeezed his bulky frame through the narrow opening. It took some wriggling and he landed on the floor at an angle that fractured his right foreleg, but he barely felt it through the cold and the nausea. He limped up the many flights of stairs to the loft, leaving a trail of smudged paw prints in the dirt and the dust. Nobody had been up there in weeks. The building stood empty. When he’d bought the place, he’d intended to rent out the first two or three floors to people who couldn’t afford much but needed a home. He’d given up on those plans after the first few home invasions. No tenants meant no civilian casualties in the ongoing war that was his life. That was also why he’d shut down the elevators. If people wanted to attack him in his own home, they could damn well walk up the twenty-five floors to get there.
He let himself remember then. Remembered more and more with every floor he climbed, leaving behind the simple mindset of the wolf until—by the time he reached the loft—returning to two legs was merely a matter of stretching up and out of his fur. His wrist ached dully, but the bone was mostly healed and didn’t give him any trouble when he shoved the heavy sliding door open. His bare feet were silent on the concrete steps that led down to the main room. He stopped in the middle of the loft and looked around, trying to muster up some happiness at being back.
This was where he’d been held down and used to kill Boyd. Over there, Kali had impaled him on a piece of pipe in front of his sister, forcing him to kneel before an insane alpha. Cora had almost died on the bed where Jen—where the darach had fucked him. He’d been sleeping on the couch ever since, because every time he saw the bed, he felt her touch, and no matter how often he showered and scrubbed himself bloody, it never quite went away. To the left was the pillar he’d hit when the Oni had invaded the place and tossed him around as though he was nothing. The Nogitsune had flung him against the pillar right next to it, driving two of his ribs straight through his lungs. There was still a spot of his dried blood on the floor.
Home, sweet home.
On the coffee table, Peter’s phone started to vibrate. Derek jumped at the sudden noise, heart in his throat, then watched tensely as the damn thing did its bossy pick-me-up dance. It sounded like a trapped bug; a creepy big one. When, finally, it stopped, Derek took a shaky breath and walked away from it.
It took him a good twenty minutes to pull himself together enough to get dressed. He probably should’ve taken a shower, but wolves don’t sweat and he didn’t feel dirty on the outside. Positively filthy on the inside, but that was neither new nor could it be helped. His clothes rubbed strangely against his skin, tight and abrasive. Shoes were not an option. He couldn’t even deal with socks and he saw no reason to try. He was alone again. If he wanted to go barefoot, nobody was going to give a shit. Fuck it, maybe he’d start a new sock collection under his own couch. Using his own socks like a pathetic, packless loser.
The phone buzzed twice more while he dug listlessly through his drawers. He ignored it. It was probably for him—the timing was too good to be coincidence—but the idea of picking up and letting whoever (Stiles, probably) yell at him held zero appeal.
Everything felt off. Too loud, yet oddly muffled. His heart was thumping heavily in his chest, almost painful, disturbingly irregular; the kind of shocky drag-and-slur he associated with life-threatening injuries.
The only thing that felt like it belonged was the collar around Derek’s neck. He reached up to undo the clasp, but his fingers couldn’t seem to get a good grip and he didn’t really want to take it off yet anyway. It was the only thing right then that kept him from falling apart. He needed it desperately, this last remaining tether that connected him to Stiles and Sheriff. His tiny pack. His stolen pack.
The leather was saturated with their scent. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel the gentle tension in the soft, braided straps that came with a reassuring grip. He did unclip the tags, eventually, because he didn’t have the right to wear such an obvious mark. The collar itself could pass for a necklace, but he’d have to be careful about wearing it. Give it a little time. He could claim he’d lost it. Pay Scott back for it and maybe… hide it away somewhere. Proof that the past few weeks had actually happened.
He made a mental note to have money transferred to Sheriff’s account to cover the damage he’d caused and the cost of feeding and housing him for almost a month. More, if he could get away with it, because although he knew kindness didn’t come with a price tag in this case, he’d noticed money was tight in the Stilinski household. Handing the man cash (or leaving it on his doorstep, because Derek was nothing if not a fleet-footed coward) wouldn’t work, but you could send money anonymously, right? Stiles might sleep a bit better when he didn’t have to worry about debt in addition to all the other crap he was working through. Sheriff would be able to cut back on the overtime and spend more time with his son.
It helped, the thought that he might be able to pay them back in some small way, might be able to offer them at least a smidgen of the comfort they’d given him. Hell, he would’ve handed over his entire ill-gotten wealth—happily and without a second’s hesitation—for a chance to be a part of their pack for real. Figured, that all the things he really wanted couldn’t be bought.
Derek held on to his collar while he slowly walked around the loft, familiarizing himself with the territory again. Everything was exactly how he’d left it. The book he’d been reading was on the table, the few dishes he’d used bone dry on the drying rack. The air wasn’t stale only because the windows were cracked upstairs, but the whole place smelled abandoned. The last person who’d been here had been Scott, weeks before, probably sent by Stiles to make sure Derek wasn’t tied up in his own apartment.
The fruit he’d kept in the coolest corner of the kitchen had shriveled and rotted. The remains stuck to the bowl in brownish-greenish lumps, almost odorless after weeks in the summer heat. Derek reached for the fridge, then stopped. One of the things in there was a salmon steak he’d intended to pan-fry. He didn’t think he’d be able to smell decaying fish right then without flashing back to what had been done to him before the cage. He was no stranger to torture, but Peter had been right: the fur traders had it down to a science. Kate could’ve learned a thing or two from them and she’d kept herself and her cronies entertained for almost a week when she’d had him chained up in the old tunnels. This was another reason why he’d wanted to stay on four legs. Derek-the-wolf was better at letting bad things go. Not as good as a wolf-wolf, but compared to Derek-the-man, he was practically a Zen master.
That was the point when it really hit Derek that he was on his own again. He couldn’t hide from his nightmares in Stiles’ bed anymore, or stave off flashbacks and anxiety attacks by curling up next to the sheriff and letting him pet away the fear. His brilliant idea to insert himself into the Stilinski pack had backfired spectacularly, the way most of his plans did. He’d never been the tactician in the family. That had always been Peter’s job.
He should’ve known it wouldn’t work. He could get by on his looks if he used them on unsuspecting strangers, he could trade his body for favors, but it was never a long-term solution. Sooner or later, the real Derek peeked out and that’s usually when the shit hit the fan. The Stilinskis had invited him into their home and they’d been nothing but kind to him, but Derek had been greedy.
They’d been so disappointed.
The weight of their disapproval made Derek cringe, stagger over into the corner by the window, and collapse there like the fairy tale wolf with the stones sewn into his belly. One way or another, Stiles had been a constant in his life since Laura’s death, and after the whole alpha pack debacle, so had Sheriff. Not friends, not exactly. He’d had too many confused emotions about Stiles and too much wary respect for John Stilinski to dare label their relationship, but part of him had always felt drawn to them. Of course he’d had to go and ruin any chance he might’ve had at finding out where he might fit with them. Thanks, wolf-logic. Use your fluff. What the hell had he been thinking?
“Oh my God, you actually came back here. How on earth did you evade my dad for so long when you were a fugitive? You’re terrible at this.”
Stiles sounded normal. Exasperated. Faintly annoyed with Derek’s ineptitude. Unconcerned with the inherent danger of poking a natural born predator. Not that Derek was feeling particularly predatory right then.
The lack of a comeback seemed to throw Stiles; he cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, and stared so hard at Derek where he was wedged into his time-out corner that Derek could feel his attention like a weight against his skin. It only made him curl up tighter, legs pulled up and head resting on his knees. He wished Stiles would go away and leave him be until the worst of the shame and the rawness had scabbed over. He didn’t want Stiles to see him with his prickly armor peeled off and all his scars showing. He couldn’t defend himself when he was this fragile, not against Stiles’ sharp tongue. Stiles could be cruel when pushed and he didn’t hesitate to hit below the belt. Derek had never been afraid of him before, but the way he felt right then, he was fairly certain he’d shatter if Stiles got in one good hit.
“Hey,” Stiles said, softer than before, a hint of uncertainty threading through his tone. “You okay, buddy?”
Derek wanted to answer, knew exactly what he should answer, but he couldn’t make himself. He didn’t want the first words out of his mouth be, Go away, Stiles, no matter how badly he needed to buy himself some time. He couldn’t bear to see Stiles go and couldn’t deal with his presence; it was confusing. Part of him wanted to crawl over to where Stiles was fidgeting about, butt his head against Stiles’ legs the way he’d done when he’d been walking on four legs, and ask very meekly if they could go home, please. The rest of him was battling the urge to hide under the bed and hope somebody’d put him out of his misery. The way his life was going, it probably wasn’t going to be a long wait. His pathetic excuse for a den had never been anything approaching a safe haven.
“Are you even listening to me, dude?”
Please, go away.
“Okay. That’s it. Brace yourself, I’m coming over. Just… try not to freak out. No clawing up the human, got it?” Stiles took a deep breath. “Also, you better not be crying. I’m bad with tears. Ask anybody. I am not a comforting person.” He was moving across the room toward Derek, sneakers scuffing against the dusty concrete floor.
“I’m not crying,” Derek croaked, because those were acceptable first words, kind of, and his voice was so hoarse and quiet he doubted Stiles could hear him anyway.
Stiles, naturally, defied expectations, because that’s what he did. “You sound like you’re crying,” he accused, closer, standing next to the table probably. “Or like you swallowed a frog.” He paused. “I don’t know why people say that. I don’t know why I did. I don’t even know why I’m still talking, except that I have a feeling you are, in fact, freaking out over there and I—I’m not—I didn’t think—” he cleared his throat, fidgeted again, then huffed out a breath tinged with irritation. “Was it really that bad, dude?”
“What are you talking about?”
He could hear the indignant flail: the swish of arms cutting through air, the slide of fabric against fabric, the outraged little gasp. “What am I— you ran! Like a bat out of hell! The second you realized you could shift back, you were gone. Whooo! Off like a shot. Hasta-la-bye-bye. I mean, we knew you weren’t gonna stay forever, but we didn’t realize you were such a flight risk. If that door had been closed, there’d be a wolf-shaped hole in the wood now. What gives, man? You couldn’t even stick around to say thanks or, I don’t know, goodbye?”
Derek’s head came up at that, frown already in place. He squinted a bit in the rich sunlight, surprised to note it was late afternoon already. He’d lost a few hours there.
“I knew I could shift back any time, Stiles. I ran because—” his voice frayed, but he forced his chin up, made himself meet those angry amber eyes, “—because you realized I lied to you. I’m not proud of it, all right? I should’ve stayed to face the music. But I—I—”
“You freaked out,” Stiles finished for him, with a surprising lack of accusation and a certain air of revelation that made Derek highly uncomfortable.
The problem with Stiles was that Stiles was a perceptive little bastard. He was easy to distract, but once he’d caught a scent, he followed it to the source like a bloodhound. Unfortunately, the scent he’d caught was the stink of Derek’s weakness. Derek swallowed around the heavy knot of dread in his throat and fought the almost irresistible compulsion to fold his arms around his middle to try and protect his soft underbelly. It would’ve been a useless gesture anyway. Stiles could gut him without laying a single finger on him. All it’d take would be a single derisive laugh.
“I freaked out,” he confirmed anyway, because he owed Stiles that much. He held that curious, way too observant stare for another breath, then looked away, tilting his head instinctively to bare his throat to Stiles without being obvious about it. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” he added. “I meant no harm.”
“Hm,” Stiles hummed, and Derek could almost hear the gears turning in his head. “Peter says you were looking for a pack. No, wait. That you were trying to become part of our pack. Like, the Stilinski pack of two.”
Derek flinched and clenched his jaw so hard it hurt. Fucking Peter and his fucking big mouth and his fucking inability to mind his own fucking business. He didn’t say anything. What was there to say? It was true.
“What I don’t get,” Stiles said, once it became clear to him that Derek wasn’t going to dig himself any deeper, “is why us. Why not Scott’s pack? That’d make more sense. You have a total wolf-crush on him. In that he’s a werewolf. And an actual alpha. A true alpha, whatever the hell that means; thank you, Deaton, for the usual wealth of information.”
Don’t, Derek thought, frantically. He tried to pull up his walls, barricade himself, hide away, but he was burned out, his heart an open wound; no defenses left.
“Holy shit,” Stiles breathed. He moved, then, dropped to his knees beside Derek, and the scent of him was almost too much, muskmedicinesexpaperStiles. “You trust us. You trust me. You—woah. You like us.”
No defenses meant no denial, no sarcasm, no deflection. Derek nodded once, graceless and jerky; a puppet dancing on brittle strings.
Stiles, the asshole, fist-pumped and grinned like a loon. “Yes! I knew it!” Derek waited for the other shoe to drop, the mocking to start, but all that happened was that Stiles plopped down next to him with a contented huff. “Hey. It’s all right,” he said, bumping Derek’s shoulder with his. “We like you, too, you know. Face-biting incident aside. That one was Scotty’s fault anyway. I probably would’ve bitten him, too, if he’d pounced on me like that and I, like, had your set of pearly whites.”
It was reflex to lift his head and shoot Stiles a disbelieving stare.
“What? I totally would have,” Stiles insisted. He snapped his teeth playfully and winked at Derek.
Almost against his will, Derek felt a corner of his mouth tick up into a reluctant smile and his body relax against Stiles’. “You’re an idiot.”
Stiles’ grin softened. “Now that’s the Derek I know and lo—like.”
Derek sighed, but he couldn’t deny that he felt steadier, closer to normal. So, naturally, the past few weeks he’d spent on four legs bit him in the ass: he let himself tip over with a sigh until he was lying with his head in Stiles’ lap before his brain caught up with his instincts. He froze, but Stiles merely put a hand on his head and ran his long fingers through Derek’s hair.
“Chill, dude,” he ordered. “I get it. It’s okay. Wolf instincts and all that.” He scratched behind Derek’s ear in exactly the right spot to turn Derek’s muscles into goo. “There we go,” Stiles murmured. “Stop freaking out. I’m not mad. My dad’s not mad, either, but he wants you to know he’s confiscating your single sock collection. He’s been wearing two different socks to work for a week now. His deputies have started to place bets on the combinations. Parrish is disturbingly good at guessing. He’s making mad money.”
“Not human,” Derek mumbled, completely unable by then to do more than lie still and let Stiles pet him into submission. He remembered Deputy Parrish from the short nightmarish interlude before he’d slipped deep into wolf headspace, a scent heavy on chili and embers.
Stiles sighed and diligently smoothed down a cowlick. “Whatever he is, one of his talents seems to be predicting his sheriff’s choice of socks. Oh, and apparently he knits. Maybe that’s why. Maybe he can smell future yarn.”
“Your mind’s a weird place,” Derek muttered, eyes sliding shut.
Stiles’ scent was curling around him, soothing in its familiarity. The queasy feeling he’d carried since he’d bolted out of the Stilinski house eased and made room for a sweet, mellow kind of warmth that settled under his ribs and radiated outward in waves. The last thing Derek felt before he slipped into sleep was the gentle slide of soft leather over the skin of his throat and the reassuring weight of a hand gripping his collar tight.
The best and the worst thing when Derek woke up was that Stiles was still there, two fingers hooked loosely in Derek’s collar (choking him a little, because no more thick ruff to cushion the pressure), long limbs sprawled out, belly moving gently in time with his snores. One sneaker-clad foot was slowly ticking from left to right and back again, steady as a metronome, though irritatingly mismatched with the rhythm of his snoring. Stiles’ scent was wrapped around them both like a blanket, sleep-warm and comfortable.
Unsure what had woken him, mind still muzzy and caught in the space between Wolf and Derek, he sniffed the air. Stiles. Dust. Leather-metal-sweat-Sheriff-alpha. Mmmhhhh. All his pack in one place now. Good.
His eyes flew open.
No. Wait. Not good.
Night had fallen and the loft was dipped in moonlight and shadows. Sheriff was standing right at the edge of darkness, in civvies and unarmed. The lack of a weapon kept Derek from outright panicking, which wasn’t saying much, because he still felt like he was seconds from a heart attack. He hadn’t heard Sheriff come up the stairs. He’d slept through the man opening the heavy sliding door and walking across the bare concrete floor. Derek should’ve been wide awake the moment someone stepped on the creaky step between the second and the third floor. He was a failure as a werewolf. He was a failure as a home owner, too, because he hadn’t even bothered to repair his alarm system after the last intrusion.
At least Sheriff didn’t appear to be angry, but Derek had a hard time reading his expression, so he couldn’t be absolutely sure. Stilinski might’ve simply moved past outrage into the quietly seething red zone fury that preceded verbal flaying and banishment.
A wolf could’ve hidden his face under Stiles’ shirt and gotten away with it. Derek, as human again as he got, could do nothing but lie there, completely petrified, staring up at his alpha (not his alpha, not anymore, he’d stolen that, too) with his heart in his throat. Sheriff’s face promptly creased into a pained frown.
“Jesus Christ, kid. Quit it with the wounded puppy eyes. I’m not mad.”
No. Just disappointed, which was much, much worse.
Sheriff looked around, then turned on the desk lamp, grabbed one of Derek’s two chairs (bought cheap at a garage sale, because people kept destroying everything he owned) and sat down with a sigh. “In the time you spent with us,” he said, carefully, “did we do anything that humiliated or hurt you?”
Derek started, shocked out of his paralysis. “What? No!”
He sat up hastily, twisting instinctively so Stiles’ fingers slipped free from the collar without getting wrenched. Stiles grunted in his sleep, flapped a hand, and tilted sideways. Derek caught him before he could topple over and propped him up, all the while staring wide-eyed at Sheriff.
The smile on Sheriff’s face at Derek’s instant and vehement denial looked uncomfortably like relief. “Good. That’s good.”
“Why would you think that?” Derek asked, horrified.
“Well, for starters, you lit outta there like your tail was on fire,” Sheriff said dryly. “And it’s not like I could check while you were non-verbal. We did send you into a tailspin at least once. I was worried.”
There was absolutely no reason why these words, spoken so matter-of-factly, should make Derek’s eyes go hot and his throat close up. Must be a side-effect from shifting back to two legs after so long on four. He swallowed hard, trying to get the lump down and failing miserably. “I’m grateful,” he croaked, then cleared his throat, because, damn it, his voice sounded wrecked. “That you took me in. I—thank you.”
He hated that he was so awkward, incapable of expressing how much it had meant to him to be allowed so close, to be treated with such care. To be part of a pack again, if only for the blink of an eye.
Fortunately, Sheriff seemed to understand just fine. Judging from the wide smile that spread on his weathered face, he appreciated the sentiment. “You’re welcome.” He slapped his knees in a pleased all-righty-so-that’s-done-then gesture and looked around the loft. “So this is where you live.”
He’d been at the loft before, more than once, so Derek couldn’t keep one of his eyebrows from inching up. “Yes,” he said, wondering unhappily if this was when the small talk started. Had he gone from pack member to acquaintance that quickly?
“It’s… big,” Sheriff noted, sounding doubtful. “Very… spartan.”
What it was, was empty, impersonal, and saturated with bad memories, but that was pretty much Derek’s life, so he merely shrugged fatalistically (also, carefully, so as not to dislodge Stiles, who had sagged against him and was starting to drool on his shoulder). “I don’t need much.”
“Well,” Sheriff said, still with that troubled undertone, “I guess it’s better than the subway station.” He looked around some more, frown deepening. “Out of curiosity: how often were you attacked here?”
The sad thing was, Derek had stopped counting. “Half a dozen times?” he guessed.
“Uh-huh,” Sheriff huffed. His gaze landed back on Derek where he was wedged into his corner, Stiles kind of oozing over him like a sleeping cat. He breathed out and leaned back, nodding to himself. “I’ll give you points for trying, but, kid, your security system sucks. My secret Snickers stash has better protection. You live alone, there’s not a single personal touch to this place that I can see, and your couch is depressingly sock-less.” He pursed his lips. “This is not acceptable.”
What was it with Stilinskis and non-sequiturs?
“This whole situation is going to require some adjustments,” Sheriff said, waving a hand around in a gesture that mostly included Derek and Stiles, but also Sheriff, the loft, and presumably all of their combined issues. “You’re not on four legs anymore. I’m not lying, I’ll have to get used to that. On the plus side, we’re already familiar with your furry self, so I’m sure we’ll adapt quickly.”
Derek blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“I talked to Peter—”
“Never a good idea,” Derek interrupted, because even knowing what he knew about Peter now, thanks to meeting him from a different perspective, fact remained that Peter was a schemer. Always had been, always would be. He was wired to work at least three to four angles at any given time, which made taking advice from him dicey business.
“—and Chris Argent,” Sheriff continued, with a stern look that had Derek shrink back a bit and tilt up his chin just in case. “They both agree that you shouldn’t be on your own after what happened. You went through a traumatic experience and then you bonded with us. We can’t simply cut you loose—” his gaze softened, “—and, frankly, we don’t want to anyway.”
Hope reared its foul little head. Did that mean he was being invited back? He’d have to drop to four legs again, naturally, but he’d been willing to do it before. It seemed like a small price to pay. Maybe he could shift back occasionally, when the Stilinskis weren’t home. That way, he’d be able to read and use the bathroom and they could finally trash the damn litterbox.
Derek perked up eagerly, then realized he was going nowhere, because Stiles was draped over him like a rug. How many arms did that kid have? Felt like at least eight. He tried to disentangle himself, but moving only made Stiles cling tighter and start muttering under his breath about bucking cupcakes. Derek gave up with a sigh and leaned back against the wall with an apologetic glance at Sheriff.
“He’s a pain in the ass, sometimes,” he muttered.
Stiles tucked his head under Derek’s chin and snuffled contentedly, sweet as can be.
Sheriff was shaking his head when Derek looked back at him. “I’m not even gonna ask. Just so we’re clear, though, you’re sleeping in the guest room from now on.”
“Can I—” Derek cleared his throat, embarrassed but determined. “I’d like to spend some of my time on two legs. Sir,” he added hastily when Sheriff’s mouth did a weird thing. “And I can pay rent.”
“You want to spend time on two legs.”
“I—” Was that too much to ask? Was he being greedy again? Derek bit his lip and thought about never having hands again, or walking tall, or being able to read a book without getting the worst headache… and then he let himself feel the warm weight of Stiles resting against him and Sheriff’s gaze on him, and he thought about never having that again. “No. No, it’s all right. I can stay wolf. It’s fine.”
Sheriff rubbed both hands over his face. “You need so much therapy. Are there werewolf therapists? How do you even find—” He sat up straight again and dropped his hands. “No. You know what? We’ll hash that out later. Right now I want you to know this: you are welcome in our home, which has a first-rate security system, by the way, which will be beefed up to include supernatural threats. You are welcome on two legs or four legs, but I’d prefer it if you stayed upright for a bit so I can get to know this version of you. If you want to pay rent or share the cost of the security upgrade, that’s fine. If you try to pay money for affection, that’s not fine, and I will personally pelt you with quarters until you stop. Understood?”
He didn’t understand. He wasn’t sure he believed, despite having experienced Sheriff’s stern kindness before. Derek didn’t know how to deal with this—too much, too confusing, too good to be true—but Sheriff was looking at him expectantly, so what could he do but nod his head and say, “Understood,” as though he did.
“All right.” Sheriff smirked and rubbed his hands. “Do I get to take a sledgehammer to that goddamn litterbox or do you want to do the honors?”
That one was easy. “I’ll do it.”
“Good man,” Sheriff said approvingly, and the shiver that curled through Derek’s belly at the words was pure pleasure. John Stilinski might not know it yet, but—like it or not—he’d become the alpha of a very small, one-werewolf-two-humans pack and Derek was going to fight to keep them now. “C’mon, wake up Stiles so he can help you pack and then we’ll go home.”
“Christmas ate the scorpion,” Stiles said clearly.
They both stared at him, waiting for more, but Stiles only sighed despondently and rubbed his nose against Derek’s scruff.
“You sure you want to join this pack?” Sheriff asked, only half joking.
“Boomerang,” Stiles mumbled.
Derek’s mouth twitched up into a helpless smile. They were horrible sleepers, these two humans. They squabbled and they worked too hard and their sense of self-preservation left something to be desired. They could be irritating. They could be relentlessly nosy. They were also loyal, brave, and they loved fiercely, no compromise, no take-backs. There was no better pack alive.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sure.”