“Puppy alert,” Erica said.
Stiles barely glanced at her as he bounded past. “Not a puppy,” he replied, automatic, and raised his voice to call, “Hey, Derek!”
The black-furred wolf turned at his name and stood up, raising his tail high. A growl rumbled in his throat. “Oh, for the love of…” he muttered. “Stiles.”
Stiles skittered to a stop in front of Derek, sending a spray of snow across his paws and adding to the wolf’s already snow-speckled coat; flakes of it still clung to his sides and the fur along his belly from when he’d been laying.
Stiles grinned, and Derek looked down at him, teeth bared in a snarl. Stiles ignored it.
“Hey!” he said again, tail wagging so furiously that his body was practically shaking with it. “What’s up?”
Derek’s hackles rose, and he ignored his question in order to meaningfully enunciate, “Go. Home. Stiles.”
“That’s. Not. Threatening,” Stiles mocked. He bumped his head against Derek’s leg and backed up again, stretching out his front legs and raising his rump in a play bow. “C’mon, let’s play!”
Stiles peered up at him with wide, soulful eyes, tilting his head ever so slightly. “Why not?”
“I’m busy,” Derek said tightly.
Stiles snorted, abandoning the ‘cute’ tactic. He straightened up and made a show of looking around the clearing at the other four wolves lying around. “Yeah, I can see you guys are real busy, just lazing around and doing nothing.”
Off to the side, Isaac snickered, and Derek swung around to glare at him before turning back to Stiles.
“We’re going hunting,” he said.
“Ooh, I can do that!” Stiles hopped up and down a little. “I am a hunting dog, you know. I mean, my breed mainly hunts foxes, but I’m good with, like, rabbits and things, too.”
“We’re going hunting,” Derek repeated, “and you’re not invited.”
Stiles paused. “Why not?”
“Because you’re not part of the pack.”
“Wow, rude,” Stiles said. “You let Scott in the pack, and we’re practically littermates.”
“Scott is a wolf. You’re a mutt—”
“Purebred Jack Russell Terrier, thank you very much,” Stiles corrected, drawing himself up proudly to his full height—which wasn’t very impressive, even ignoring the fact that Derek was more than twice his size. But he was bred to be this small, okay? It was an advantage.
Except Derek didn’t see it that way, apparently.
The wolf leaned down and pushed his muzzle roughly into Stiles’s side, knocking him off his paws and sending him down into the snow. Derek stepped over him, looming, and Stiles rolled onto his back in mock submissiveness to Derek’s dominative behaviour.
“Ooh, scary,” he said, tucking his paws to his chest, though his tail still flicked from side to side, swishing through the snow. “You want me to piss on you, too?”
Derek growled, but that was all he did; Stiles had learned long ago that Derek’s bark (or growl, as the case may be) was at least ten times worse than his bite. Case in point: Derek was now backing off and allowing Stiles to jump back to his paws, shaking snow from his tan-and-white pelt.
“You’re not a wolf,” Derek reiterated, but his tail had lowered and he seemed more relaxed. Or, it was more likely that he’d simply given up on trying to assert his dominance over Stiles for today, because it really didn’t work. Ever.
Well, not after the first few times, at least.
“But since Scott and I are basically brothers—and we are, shut up—that means I’m at least pack-adjacent, right?” Stiles prodded. “Because, you know, if my owner hadn’t taken in Scott when he was just a poor little orphan pup and took care of him until he was old enough to survive on his own in the wild, he wouldn’t be here. So, there!”
And, besides, Stiles didn’t say out loud, it wasn’t like Derek’s pack was in any way traditional. Erica, Isaac, Boyd, Scott—none of them was Derek’s blood kin. But Derek was okay with that because, deep down in his cold, wolfy heart was something very warm. Stiles had glimpsed it a few times himself. Rarely.
The point was, if none of them were related, then Stiles totally had a shot at joining the pack.
“Speaking of your owner,” said Derek, and oops, maybe he shouldn’t have gone into Unnecessary Exposition Mode to rub it in Derek’s face, “won’t he be looking for you?”
Stiles cocked his head, the picture (he hoped) of innocence. “Nooo? He knows I go out. Well, I mean, I’m pretty sure he knows that I dug a hole under the fence.”
“What? He’s been busy, okay? With his job? Which pays him, which allows for him to provide me with food and shelter?”
Derek wasn’t impressed. “Yet here you are, in the wild, far from safety, food, and warmth, even though you don’t have to be.”
“And you can only run so many laps around the backyard before you get bored, you know,” Stiles continued in an aggrieved tone, ignoring Derek, even though, yeah, he had all that and yet he still wanted to spend time with Derek’s pack out here in the unforgiving wild. “Well, I suppose you wouldn’t know, but, yeah.”
So maybe Stiles was lonely despite the comforts he had at home. He also had way more energy than he knew how to deal with by himself.
“I’ve been driving my owner up the walls lately, I’m so hyper,” he said. “I kind of felt bad about that, because he works a lot and then he’s really tired, so I figured, why not go see my buddies in the woods? Right? ‘Cause it’s been a few days!”
His whole body wiggled in some attempt to shake off his excess energy and he let out a strangled, yappy noise.
Derek stared at him for a minute. Then he huffed and said, “We’re going running. My pack has energy they need to burn.”
“‘We’?” Stiles repeated hopefully. “As in, including me?”
Derek almost seemed to smile. “If you can keep up.”
He called the other wolves, beckoning to them to start running.
They set off immediately, Erica quickly pulling into the lead, and Isaac’s jaw closed around air as he tried and failed to grab her tail. She waved her tail playfully in his face and pranced forward, Isaac in pursuit. Boyd and Scott followed, Boyd taking long, easy strides and Scott, with his smaller body, working harder to keep up.
Of course, it was nothing compared to how hard Stiles had to work to keep up. Even with his legs propelling his little body forward as fast as he could manage, he couldn’t match the pace of the wolves.
“S’alright!” he called after them. “I’ll just keep the rear.”
Stiles caught a last glimpse of the others’ tails streaming behind them as they disappeared from sight, and he sighed, pumping his legs harder.
A few minutes later, he spotted Derek ambling along down the middle of the crisscross path of pawsteps the others had created.
“Hey,” Stiles said, slowing to a trot beside him. His tongue lolled out of his mouth as he panted, trying to recover from his impromptu mad dash. “Where’re the others?”
“I told them to go on ahead.”
“Oh. Yeah, I’m not doing a very good job of keeping up,” Stiles said ruefully. “It’s not my fault you guys are freakishly fast and large. But, uh, I’ve got good stamina! That counts for something, right?”
“You’re keeping up,” Derek said, surprising him. “With me, right now.”
Stiles rolled his eyes. “Yeah, ‘cause—” He broke off. “Because you’re letting me,” he finished slowly without scorn. A grin was creeping onto his face. “You’re letting me! I knew you cared!”
At that, Derek snorted and broke into a run.
“Hey, wait!” Stiles yelped, following.
Derek slowed down a little, maintaining an easy pace, and Stiles caught up and ran beside him at a slightly less easy pace. Even Derek’s kindness had its limits.
But it was nice, running through the forest, Derek loping along beside him. No words needed to be exchanged. They were just enjoying a simple pleasure on a clear winter day, and Stiles loved it.
Later, when the others were tired of chasing each other and Stiles had expended all of his excess energy for the first time in a week, they all collapsed back in the clearing, worn out and content.
“That was nice,” Stiles yawned, flopping over to face Derek. “Think I’m gonna take a nap.”
“You should go home,” Derek told him.
“Mmn.” Stiles covered his face with his paws. “Later.”
“I can drive him out,” Erica offered. “Make good on all those threats you never go through with.”
“Shut up, you know you like me, too,” Stiles muttered. “You all do.”
“Seriously, though, if you’re really tired of him hanging around, you can chase him off for good,” Erica said. But she didn’t say it in a mean way, like she wanted Stiles gone. She said it like she was making a point.
Derek growled softly, but otherwise didn’t respond, and Stiles said, “Hah. Told you.”
Because they could. But they didn’t.
A few minutes passed in silence, and Stiles shifted restlessly.
“Hey,” he said, pressing his paws into Derek’s side to get his attention. “Derek.”
Derek grunted. “What?”
“If I was in your pack—uh, hypothetically, of course, let’s say I was a wolf, too, or something—what rank would I be?”
“The Omega,” Derek said right away. “The one we all pick on and let out our aggression on.”
“Oh, so I’m basically that already. For you, at least. Perfect. You should totally just formally induct me into your pack now.”
Derek sighed. “If you’re not going to go home, then at least shut up and go to sleep.”
Stiles decided to indulge Derek for once, smiling to himself and content with the fact that Derek hadn’t actually said anything against him being part of the pack for once.
He shifted around some more, curling up and getting comfortable. As he was drifting off, he heard Derek say quietly above him, “You wouldn’t be the Omega.”