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Stiles comes back to Beacon Hills during a new moon in the spring, when cool, moisture-laden air is coming in off the Pacific Ocean and everything smells more like itself. Stiles though--Stiles doesn’t smell like himself. The base notes of his scent remain the same, they’ve been overwritten with the scents of new places, new people. Scott’s scent is distant now, and the smell of high school locker room’s been eliminated entirely. The Sheriff’s scent is still there, less present than it once was, but there, when the pack’s scent--the pack’s scent is gone. Of course it is.

Derek sees him--smells him--at the IGA on Center Street. He pulls in because he sees the Jeep, looking slightly worse for the wear, in the parking lot and decides he needs some eggs. He probably does, anyway; they always need something. Especially eggs.

Stiles is near the butcher’s counter, looking at the depressing cuts of meat in their styrofoam trays. He’s picked up something--pork chops, pink sale sticker.

“Do you know how long those were on ice?” Derek asks, and Stiles freezes and turns around on the spot, still holding the pork chops.

“Derek,” he says, and it sounds almost cautious. “Hi.”

His eyes are the same, a clear light brown, but some of the softness in his face has been sloughed off by time, and there are angles there Derek doesn’t remember, and the slightest suggestion of wrinkles around the corners of his eyes--smile lines, laugh lines, comfortable and happy, but still age worn on his face.

“Hi,” Derek returns. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”

Stiles nods, and his eyes flicker to the left.

“Yeah,” he says. “I guess you can see that. I mean--you’re in Beacon Hills, I’m in Beacon Hills, here we are, standing in the meat aisle--” Stiles huffs out a small laugh at an unspoken joke, then waves an arm at their surroundings. “By the coolers.”

“I wasn’t kidding, about those pork chops,” Derek says. He knows there are other things he’ll need to say to Stiles, if Stiles really is back, but he can’t quite bring himself to start that conversation now, in the grocery store. It’s not like Stiles will be able to hide from him.

“No,” Stiles says slowly, setting the pork chops down on top of the kielbasa. “I don’t suppose you were. See you around, Derek.”

“Sure,” Derek says, and it’s easier to say than it is to imagine: encountering Stiles around town, passing his Jeep on county roads, meeting him running in the woods. Probably because that’s not what it’ll look like: instead it will be Stiles, showing up in the middle of some pack business, inexplicably captured by some creature Derek has only heard of in passing. Derek nods. “See you around, Stiles.”

He ends up buying a package of kielbasa but forgets about the eggs. This is why Boyd says he’s supposed to make grocery lists--actually, this is why Boyd makes him grocery lists. Still, someone will be happy about the kielbasa. Probably.

Boyd works nights for the Sheriff’s department, so he’s at the house when Derek gets back, sleeping on the couch with his feet kicked up on the armrest. Derek leaves him there and goes into the kitchen to put together something that’ll pass for dinner when Erica and Isaac get back. He has potatoes, he has kielbasa, that sounds like a meal to him. He puts the potatoes in a pot of water on the stove and stares at it for a while, because everyone knows watching the pot doesn’t make a damn difference.

Derek doesn’t like not knowing things. He’s not an information junkie like Stiles, but he’s an Alpha, and absence of knowledge is the presence of threat, or can be, when he needs to protect his pack. So Stiles is back, and Stiles knows about them, and Stiles is a wild card if ever there was one, which means Derek needs to know what exactly he thinks he’s doing. And instead of asking him Derek followed him into the grocery store and accidentally bought kielbasa, which is kind of typical. Stiles always did have the ability to make Derek do things he didn’t want to do, just by virtue of being.

The water boils eventually, because the laws of physics only occasionally fail him. Derek sets the timer on the microwave and goes to check on Boyd, who is, as he expected, still asleep. Derek folds himself into one of the nearby armchairs and waits. Boyd will know what Stiles is doing back in town, or at least the party line about what Stiles is doing back in town, which will do for now.

When the alarm on the microwave goes off Boyd wakes up, cracking his neck and rolling over to look at Derek.

“Watching me sleep, boss?” he asks. “You’re getting creepier.”

“How long’s Stilinski back for?” Derek asks.

“As long as he feels like staying, I imagine,” Boyd says. “He’s writing his thesis.”

“What,” Derek says, drawing out the word over a few syllables for emphasis.

“His Master’s thesis?” Boyd says. “I told you this the last time he came back to town and you interrogated me. Man, it’s like you don’t listen at all. I should probably be offended.”

“This conversation isn’t over,” Derek says, then gets up and goes into the kitchen to take the potatoes off the stove. Boyd follows him and sits down on one of the stools along the counter.

“Stiles--name redacted--Stilinski is a Master’s candidate in folklore at UC-Berkeley. You know this.”

“Yeah, and I didn’t like that the first time I found out, either. Why’s he working on it here?”

“Beacon Hills is cheaper than Berkeley, I imagine,” Boyd says. “He’s renting a room on Oak. That’s all I’ve got for you, boss man.”

“Not living with the Sheriff?” Derek ask. “Seems like it would be the cheapest.”

“He’s giving the Sheriff and Barb space, I guess,” Boyd says. “Especially with the new kid--I mean, as far as I can tell they’re not on the outs or anything, but that house isn’t big.”

Derek nods. The Sheriff had remarried during Stiles’ senior year, and as far as Derek could tell Stiles had been comfortable with it--happy, even. The marriage, having Barb around, was what had freed Stiles to go halfway across the country for college, to some school in Ohio. What the hell Stiles wanted in Ohio Derek didn’t know; he couldn’t have imagined it had been easy, what with how close to his father Stiles was. He’d come home for Christmas, usually, but word was that he was working out there to pay off what his scholarship didn’t cover.

And then he came back to California, and now he’s back in Beacon Hills, and living on Oak Street.

“You know who will know?” Boyd asks, putting his elbows on the counter. “Scott.”

“Scott’s not here,” Derek says.

“He’s still pack. And he has a phone, you have a phone, it’s a match made in heaven.”

When Boyd gets snarky he’s worse than all the others put together. When Derek looks over him Boyd’s looking impatient, or as impatient as Boyd gets; like he’s tired of this line of discussion but is putting up with it as a favor to Derek.

“Okay,” Derek says. “We can stop talking about this.”

He gets out a pan and puts the kielbasa in it.

“When did you go to the grocery store?” Boyd asks.

“Today. On the way home.”

“Did you get eggs? Because we really--”

“No,” Derek says, and behind him Boyd lets out a low whistle.

“This is going to be even worse than I expected,” Boyd says.

“Stilinski could do at least much damage as the Argents if he wanted to,” Derek says.

“But he doesn’t, and neither do the Argents,” Boyd says. “Scott’s his best friend, and Scott’s still pack, even if he isn’t here.”

“Scott was his best friend,” Derek says. “When they were in high school.”

“They’re still friends, because phones exist, even though you don’t use them. Also the internet. Derek, just because--”

And then Isaac and Erica are back, stumbling in the door and laughing, and Boyd falls silent. Derek wonders how he was going to finish that thought--would really fucking like to know how Boyd planned to finish that thought.

“This conversation isn’t over,” he says, softly enough that only Boyd will hear, before Isaac and Erica are upon them.

“What’s for dinner?” Erica says, pushing open the kitchen door and sidling over to Derek’s side. “Oh, did you go grocery shopping? Did you get eggs? Because--”

“No,” Derek says.

“Grocery lists,” Boyd says, tapping a finger on the countertop. “They’re important.”

“I was coming back from a delivery, I didn’t plan to stop in, and the grocery list was still here on the fridge, wasn’t it?” Derek asks, and he doesn’t know why he’s getting into this argument again.

“You could’ve texted me to see if we needed anything,” Erica says. “It’s not like things at the coffee shop are so pressing.”

“That’s what you say,” Isaac says. “And then you make me a macchiato with way too much milk.”

“Are you still bitching about that?” Erica says, turning to Isaac and then back towards Derek and Boyd. “He’s still bitching about that. Too bad we can’t all teach struggling high school students shop. Guess who already has a chili pepper on RateMyTeachers.Com?”

“Just the one chili pepper?” Boyd asks. “Isaac, high schoolers these days clearly don’t appreciate your charms.”

Isaac scowls. Derek pats him on the back.

“Leave Isaac alone, you two,” he says. “We all know he never had much luck with the high school girls.”

“Oh, burn,” Erica says, laughing.

“Inappropriate,” Isaac says. “They’re my students now you guys.”

“Isaac,” Boyd says. “Chill. No one thinks you’d do anything untoward with your students. Also, you teach shop, if it’s anything like it was when we were there you have like--five girls in your class. On a good day.”

“Yes,” Erica says. “And we should all be more like Boyd. Chill.”

“Oh, are we ragging on Boyd now?” Isaac says. “Please say we are. I think he ate my Cheez-its last night.”

“I did,” Boyd says. “We’re pack. What’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. I just don’t have any Cheez-its.”

“That’s all I wanted in my lunchbox,” Isaac says balefully. “And you ate them.”

“I don’t think teachers are supposed to have lunchboxes,” Erica says. “Or at least call it something else, so I don’t need to be ashamed of you.”

Derek dishes up their dinners and distributes the plates, and then they all migrate to the long wood table on the far side of the room to sit down and continue bickering over dinner. Or, in Boyd’s case, breakfast.

“Stiles is back in town,” Derek says.

“Yeah,” Erica says around a mouthful of food. “We know.”

“You told them before me?” Derek asks, turning to Boyd.

“Because I knew they’d respond like reasonable adults,” Boyd says. “Unlike you. And I wanted to prepare them for the inevitability of--this.” Boyd flaps a hand.

Derek sighs and cards a hand through his hair, looking around the table. Boyd’s face is almost always inscrutable, Isaac looks distantly amused, and Erica is taking a potato apart with her fork.

“We’re going to talk about this again later,” he says. “Until then, don’t discuss any pack business with him.”

Derek,” Erica says. “You’re being weird about this. It’s just Stiles.”

“He thinks he’s some sort of free agent,” Derek mutters.

“He didn’t join, so you don’t trust him,” Erica says, leaning forward on her elbows. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to hurt the pack.”

“He’s not pack,” Derek growls, and Erica sighs and holds up her hands, exposing her palms.

“All right,” she says, like Derek’s the unreasonable one. “Discussion: tabled.”

Everyone’s quiet for a bit, chewing and not making eye contact.

“You couldn’t have made any cabbage to go with this?” Isaac asks, stabbing at a potato with his fork.

“Cabbage,” Erica says. “Really, Isaac? What are we, orphans?”

Isaac shrugs. Derek thinks that they are kind of orphans, this is kind of an orphanage, but he doesn’t say it--it’s just a flash of a thought that leaves him feeling uncertain and a little sad,

“I just think this meal could be more well balanced,” Isaac says.

“Well, you’re cooking tomorrow,” Derek says. “We can have as much cabbage as you like.”

Erica sticks a finger down her throat and makes a retching noise.

“Seriously,” she says. “Cabbage. We’re werewolves. Do we really need to eat cabbage to get our necessary nutrients?”

“I like cabbage,” Isaac mutters in the general direction of his plate.

“No one likes cabbage,” Erica says. “You’re deluded. You were held hostage by cabbage as a child and we have a Stockholm situation on our hands.”

Derek sighs and shoves more food into his mouth. His pack, ladies and gentlemen. His pack.

He drives into town the next day, takes a left on Center and drives two blocks over to Oak. Stiles’ Jeep must be parked in a garage or something around back, or else he’s out already, but Derek tracks Stiles’ scent to number 43, a slender, three-story building, painted green, with doorbells running 1 through 6. 3 is the only one without a nameplate, so 3 is the buzzer Derek rings.

Or--ringing the buzzer might be an overstatement. Derek picks the downstairs lock and goes up the stairs to 3, where he knocks on the door.

“What the hell,” comes muffled through the door. “Is that you, Dad? Do you know what time it is? You better have donuts.”

Through the door, there’s the sound of someone approaching, barefoot, and then it opens. Stiles is standing there, shirtless, plaid pajama pants slung low on his hips.

“Oh,” he says. “So not Dad, then.”

“Not so much, no,” Derek says.

Stiles scratches the spot low on his stomach where a trail of hair disappears beneath the waistband of his pajamas, not moving from the doorway.

“What do you want?” Stiles asks. “Or did you just decide to come visit before breakfast for shits and giggles?”

“I already ate breakfast,” Derek says, even though he doesn’t want to let himself get mired in this conversation.

“But I haven’t,” Stiles says. “So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got bacon on the stove, and it’s the good shit, not turkey, so I don’t want to burn it.”

“What are you doing here?” Derek hisses.

“I really think I should be the one asking you that,” Stiles says, shifting slightly on his feet so his hip is pressed against the doorframe and crossing his arms. “Seeing as you’re at my apartment at eight in the morning.”

Derek shoots one hand out and grips Stiles’ shoulder. He can feel his claws extending, but he can’t find it in his power to give a shit.

“Your apartment, my territory, Stilinski,” he growls.

Stiles looks at him, narrows his eyes, then lifts a hand to grip Derek’s wrist, his fingers puny and human but still enough to make Derek loosen his grip involuntarily.

“So, what, you didn’t want to confront me at the IGA so you followed me home?” Stiles asks. “I’m not a threat to your territory, Alpha Hale.”

“Why did you come back?” Derek asks.

“My Dad’s here, for one,” Stiles says. “What, you thought because I left I’d never come back? You left Beacon Hills, you came back. People do that, it’s a thing people do. Like how Amish kids go on rumspringa. I did my rumspringa, I decided Beacon Hills was alright, I came back.”

“Stiles,” Derek says.

“Didn’t Boyd tell you?” Stiles asks. “I’m writing my thesis. Cheaper here, less distracting than Berkeley, plus I can spend time with my Dad and the new kid can get to know his uncle Stiles. There’s a whole passel of reasons for me to be here, Derek, and none of them have to do with encroaching on your territory. Which, because I’m not a werewolf, I can’t really do. From what I recall you’re not an unintelligent guy, Derek, so I don’t know why you’re insisting there’s a game afoot here.”

Nothing suggests that he’s lying, although he still doesn’t seem quite right. Derek sighs.

“We need to discuss your relationship with my pack,” he says gruffly. “We at least need a verbal treaty.”

Stiles looks up at him, angles his head and studies Derek’s face, then steps away from the door.

“I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess,” he says, pursing his lips into a small frown that suggests he still is. “But not before breakfast. Come in, then--I’ll put on more bacon. I know you’ll eat it, wolfman. Things haven’t changed that much if you’re still physically accosting me over imagined threats. It’s sort of like I never left.”

Breakfast with the pack was pathetic because they only had half a dozen eggs and had to supplement with yogurt, and Derek doesn’t like the feel of yogurt on his teeth. That will be Derek’s explanation if anyone asks why he follows Stiles inside, staring at Stiles’ pale back, at the tattoo on Stiles’ left shoulder, which is new. It’s a snake drawn in thick black strokes, curving into itself to eat its own tail, the line of its back paralleling the knobs of Stiles’ spine. Derek’s never seen it, but it’s old enough to be completely healed over. Which is not surprising, given the length of time it’s been since Derek has seen Stiles, let alone seen him without a shirt on. The last time for that may’ve been the time with the werepanther.

If Derek looks closely, he can see the scars, places where Stiles’ skin is raised and shining.

The apartment is sparsely decorated, a few posters pinned to the walls and furniture that was obviously purchased used. It doesn’t just smell used, it looks used, worn on every edge. But the rooms are clean and the light is nice; there’s a big, crystal-clean window behind the small table in the kitchen where Stiles indicates Derek should sit.

“So,” Stiles says, tipping some bacon into the pan on the stove, his back to Derek. “I imagine that means I say that I won’t use my knowledge of your pack for nefarious purposes, and you say that it’s okay for me to be in your territory again. Derek, you do realize that I’m not a wolf, I’m not a hunter--”

“Exactly,” Derek says. “You’re unaffiliated. You only look out for yourself. Push comes to shove, what do you do?”

“This is about what happened seven years ago, then,” Stiles says, retrieving a spatula from the sink and rinsing it before wiping it off with a towel hanging on the front of the oven. He sounds resigned.

“This is about the fact that you’re back now,” Derek says through gritted teeth. “Nothing else.”

“No one was hurt,” Stiles says, because he’s obviously not listening, and if he wants to think this is about seven years ago, they can talk about seven years ago.

“Leaving hurts,” Derek says.

“Scott left.” Stiles still isn’t looking at Derek. “Crispy or chewy, on the bacon?”

“Scott was a member of the pack,” Derek says. “You weren’t; you refused to be.”

“It’s that simple for you,” Stiles says, and he sounds sad, in a distant way. “You realize Isaac and Erica and Boyd are still friends with me on Facebook and you never told me how you wanted that bacon?”

He says it like that: all one sentence, like being friends on Facebook is a reasonable rebuttal and could sensibly be paired with a question about the bacon. It takes Derek a good couple seconds to untangle the question, and he kind of hates how he can’t keep up with Stiles’ stupid tangents. Either they’ve gotten more complicated or Derek has lost that particular skill, and for some reason either of those options bothers Derek.

“Chewy,” Derek says.

“Closer to raw, then?” Stiles asks, and flips the bacon onto a folded paper towel. “I guess that makes sense. You like your steak still mooing? Not worried about salmonella?”

“I like my steak still moving,” Derek says dryly, and Stiles laughs--barks, really, an acknowledgement that it’s a joke paired with the suggestion that Stiles doesn’t really think it’s funny.

“Eggs over-easy, then?” Stiles asks. “Or sunny-side-up?”

“Scrambled, if you can,” Derek replies, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. Stiles reaches up to the cabinet above his head for a bowl and begins cracking eggs into it.

“Of course I can,” Stiles says. “As an aside: any chance we could stop with the baseless accusations until we finish eating?”

“Any chance you could put on a shirt?” Derek counters. He can’t believe Stiles isn’t getting spatters of bacon grease on his chest, but mostly he’s sick of staring at the tattoo on Stiles’ shoulder and resisting the urge to ask about it. Derek has a tattoo, he knows how rare it is that someone will actually want to talk about it--and here he is, staring at Stiles’ shoulder like he’s never seen ink before and contemplating asking him what it means like he’s stoned and wants to talk about the universe.

“Hey, my house, my rules,” Stiles says, whisking the eggs with some milk. “I’m pretty sure that even as Alpha you can’t force me to wear a shirt in the privacy of my own home. If you’re worried about being blinded by my pasty skin, you could always leave. Door’s open, now. Which, speaking of, should I be worried about paying Maisey--that’s my landlady, Maisey, she is exactly what you’d expect from a person named Maisey--for damage to the downstairs door?”

“I picked the lock,” Derek says.

“Cree-per,” Stiles sing-songs. “I guess I should just be glad you didn’t pick the lock on the upstairs door, too.”

Derek doesn’t bother replying. Stiles has dumped the eggs into the pan and is apparently focused on scrambling them; he doesn’t talk, either. There was a time when Stiles would’ve babbled incessantly, filling up the empty space with nervous energy, but now he seems content to let the silence lie.

Until he isn’t.

“I don’t know what I can do to convince you, Derek,” Stiles says. “I’m not the second coming of the Argents. I’m hardly even--”

“You’re training to become a folklorist,” Derek says. “Aren’t you? That’s something. You’re still involved.”

“Of course I’m still involved, just like Scott is still my best friend and called me to research shit when you guys needed help, don’t even pretend you didn’t know about that. You can’t expect me to spend my formative years marinating in this shit and then give it up altogether. But I’m not going to challenge you with my big bad thesis,” Stiles says. “Do you want to hear what it’s about? Because I have on good authority that it works as well as Tylenol P.M. Possibly better, Tylenol P.M. is kind of shit.”

“Stiles,” Derek says.

Stiles brings two plates to the table and sits down across from Derek.

“Okay,” he says, sliding a plate and a fork towards Derek. “What do you want?”

“After breakfast,” Derek says, and begins shoveling food into his mouth. Stiles does the same, but he gives Derek a strange, inscrutable look first. Derek wonders if he’s just lost the ability to read every expression that crosses Stiles’ face or if Stiles has gained the thought-to-face filter that his lack of previously made him so disconcertingly easy to read.

“What is it, then, Derek?” Stiles asks when their plates are both clean. “What do you want out of this?”

“You stay out,” Derek says, pointing at Stiles with a fork. “Don’t get involved with anything without consulting me first. Coven shows up? Tell me, don’t do anything. Shapeshifters? What the fuck ever, this is my territory, any supernatural dealings should go through me.”

Stiles sets his own fork down, but not before twirling it lazily in his long fingers.

“What if there’s a direct threat?” Stiles asks. “Should I just sit on my hands until you and the pack are ready to help?”

“How direct a threat?” Derek asks, and Stiles squints at him.

“Did you really just ask me that?” Stiles says. “How direct a threat? A direct threat is fairly--direct. That’s like you, threatening to tear my throat out with your teeth. Or a yeti dangling my new half-brother out a third story window by his ankle. Or--”

“The threat needs to be direct and immediate,” Derek says. “If there’s time to consult the pack, you will. And you won’t go around telling anyone about the pack.”

“The only person I ever told was my father,” Stiles blurts out. “Sorry I got sick of lying to my dad. Who was a huge help to you, in case you’ve forgotten. Still is, at that. Hired Boyd, furthermore.”

“You should’ve asked us first,” Derek says. “You should have at least asked Scott.”

“Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve,” Stiles says, tone suddenly light, eyes sharp. “Didn’t. Look, I don’t think that will be a problem again.”

“So you agree to the terms?” Derek asks, and Stiles shrugs.

“What will you do if I don’t?” Stiles asks. “Your threats have lost a bit of their bite over the years, Derek. You seem to lack follow through.”

Derek glowers, and Stiles shrugs.

“Sure,” he says. “Sounds fine. I only ran into a couple cave trolls and like five vampires when I was down in Ohio, so I figure I am mostly off the radar when it comes to--” Stiles waves a hand. “Whatever. And it’s been pretty quiet up here, right?”

Derek refuses to take the cave troll/vampire bait Stiles is dangling. It sounds interesting. It probably isn’t. Stiles can probably tell the story in a way that makes it interesting, though, but Derek refuses to give him the satisfaction.

“Sometimes we get delegations from other packs, or the occasional omega, but it’s mostly peaceful,” he says instead. After about five years, it’s started to feel a little less like they lived on the Hellmouth (Erica likes Buffy. A lot. And Isaac has a frankly disturbing crush on either Sarah Michelle Geller or David Boreanaz, it’s really hard to tell. Maybe both.).

“Okay,” Stiles says. “We’re okay, then? I’m not going to do anything to hurt the pack, you know--”

Derek doesn’t know that, actually--that’s why he’s here. But he knows if he says that Stiles will get defensive and he just--can’t, right now.

“We’re okay,” Derek says, and Stiles nods.

“We’ve reached an agreement and I’m not even dressed. Damn I’m good,” Stiles says.

Derek grins at him wryly, and Stiles goes into another room and emerges a couple minutes later, having traded his pajama bottoms for jeans.

“You’re still here?” he asks, tugging on a t-shirt. “Do you need me to walk you to your car, protect you from the mean streets of Beacon Hills? Oak is a particularly mean street, I hear.”

“Shut up,” Derek says, without venom.

“You didn’t even thank me for the bacon. Now seriously--” and Stiles takes a belt that’s hanging on the doorknob and pulls it on, because apparently Stiles dresses himself as aimlessly as he talks. “I have shit to do, so how about we both get on with our lives, okay?”

“I’ll do the dishes,” Derek says, collecting their plates and heading towards the sink. It seems like the least he can do, but Stiles’ lips turn down at the corners.

“You don’t need to,” he says. “I’ll get them tonight.”

“Consider it my thanks for the bacon,” Derek says. Stiles shrugs.

“Have it your way. Like Burger King.”

He disappears into what must be the bedroom, and emerges when Derek’s in the middle of drying, now wearing socks and carrying a satchel that jounces against his hip.

“Just put them in the drying rack, that’s what it’s for,” he says. “C’mon, let’s go, time’s a-wasting, daylight’s burning, etceteras, etceteras.”

Derek follows Stiles out, and Stiles locks the door behind them.

“A favor, dude,” Stiles says. “Don’t go around picking my locks.”

“What about the window?” Derek says. There’s a fire escape; he checked. Stiles physically turns around to look at Derek, furrowing his brow.

“You’re no good at jokes. You really, really aren’t,” Stiles says. “I hope you don’t need to use the window, is all I’m going to say on that point. The window’s available on a need to use basis, but if ‘need to use’ means you’re just paranoid that I’m going to undermine your special Alpha authority then please don’t show up ranting in my bedroom in the middle of the night, ‘cause I need my beauty sleep. Unlike certain other people I could name--but won’t, because I’m polite that way and my papa raised me right--I never got a super special werewolf makeover, so I take what I can.”

By the time Stiles finishes that monologue they’re out on the street, and Stiles heads towards an alley that leads to the back of the building. He lifts a hand as he turns.

“See you around, Derek,” he calls back.

“Sure,” Derek says. Just like when they were in the grocery store, then. This is how it’s going to be.

Derek drives home. Boyd’s done with work, but Derek figures he’s sleeping and immediately goes around to the back of the house.

They built the new house when it became clear the old one wouldn’t be worth salvaging, at least not as a house. Derek had the old building converted into a greenhouse; they took the top level down and inserted glass panels into the burned out hollows, and Derek brought in the plants. He got the metaphor; he really, really did. He tried not to think about it too much because it still made him wince: greenery from ash, new life from death, all paid for by life insurance. That wasn’t what this was about, not really; it was about his job, his greenhouse and his landscaping business, not some fucking metaphor. Not regrowth, just growth, financially, to sustain the pack.

He’s repotting today, moving some of the sapling fruit trees to larger containers. There’d have to be a pack discussion tonight, just to--let them know. About Stiles, and that Derek had been to see him. Luckily, Isaac was cooking, so no one would be skipping dinner.

There was a mutual, unspoken agreement that Erica would never actually have to cook. On her nights, everyone skipped dinner, or they ordered takeout--anything, really, to get out of eating pork chops cooked dry as scabs, or meat loaf that looked like vomit. How she did it Derek didn’t know, but Erica had never found a recipe she couldn’t ruin. Except dessert for dinner, but that was more of a once a month thing and didn’t involve much more than Erica buying ice cream and whipped cream in a can and magic shell at the grocery store, which didn’t really qualify as cooking, per se.

Isaac makes stuffed cabbage for dinner and glares at Erica when he brings the casserole dish to the table.

“That’s cute Isaac,” she says. “Real cute.”

“It smells good,” Boyd says.

“That’s because it is good,” Isaac says. “It’s not like I just boiled cabbage and called it a day like Derek would’ve.”

Derek would resent that, except it’s true. His default cooking setting involves putting water in a pot and boiling it, unless he’s confronted with meat.

“I went to see Stiles today,” he says.

“And he threatened the pack and laughed maniacally,” Erica says. “So now we have to kill him.”

“He’s agreed to stay out of our affairs,” Derek says. “But if you guys see him acting suspicious--Boyd, if he’s nosing around cases with the Sheriff--”

“We’ll tell you,” Erica says, rolling her eyes. “You’re kind of a freak sometimes, you know that Derek? It’s Stiles, we’re friends.”

“On Facebook?” Derek asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Erica says. “But also in general.”

She meets Derek’s gaze and frowns a little.

“I’m trying to keep us safe,” he says, and it comes out--it comes out just north of pathetic.

“We know,” Boyd says evenly, and after a moment Isaac nods. Everyone falls silent, eating placidly and looking at their plates.

“Scott and Allison will be back soon,” Derek says, after they’ve been quiet for what seems like too long.

“Just like old times,” Erica says, but there’s a wry twist to her tone. “We should all break into the high school and reminisce. Isaac, you have keys. And then we can get drunk behind the bleachers--oh wait we can’t.”

“It’s no one’s fault but your own that you never took the opportunity to get drunk before Derek bit you and cured your epilepsy,” Isaac says.

“I was a law-abiding teenager,” Erica says. “Too young to drink, and then the opportunity for drunken debauchery was cruelly snatched from me. Forever. I go on dates with dudes, and no matter how many Bloody Marys they buy me, they still look as unattractive as they did when I first saw them.”

“We all feel so sorry for you,” Isaac says. “You really aren’t missing anything. And Derek’s never been drunk either.”

“You always want what you can’t have,” Erica continues balefully. They’ve all heard this monologue before, but it’s kind of comfortingly insipid.

“Sort of like how I always wanted Pop-Tarts after you broke the toaster,” Boyd mumbles.

“You can eat Pop-Tarts cold,” Erica says, and Boyd frowns at her. Derek’s heard this one before, too--it’s at the point where one of them should probably buy a new toaster--but he just tunes them out, lets the easy back and forth of their three voices become a comforting lull. If he focuses, he can hear sounds further out, in the woods--not much of anything, just the ordinary creaking of trees. They’re the noises Derek focuses on at night when he’s trying to sleep. If he can hear things when they’re far enough away--it’ll be like hearing them before they happen. Or it could be. That was a lie he told himself when he was younger, but it had always been a comforting one.

It’s strange, now, to realize that had been in his head even then--even when he believed with absolute certainty that Laura would be the Alpha, that that particular mantle would never pass to him, and so, he should’ve, by all rights, had less to worry about. It makes him wonder about his betas who are now bickering about--whether or not Erica makes a decent macchiato. Again.

“You should start giving me discounts,” Isaac says.

“I already give you discounts,” Erica says.

“Better ones,” Isaac suggests.

“Better ones would come out of my paycheck,” Erica says. “And if you really wanted more, you wouldn’t have made cabbage for dinner. That cabbage was a declaration of war, Isaac Lahey.”

“And your next move is going to be to produce more of your terrible cooking,” Isaac says. “Or takeout from Lucky Dragon without an order of egg rolls? I would be so disappointed. Distraught, even. I might cry.”

Erica sticks her tongue out at him and Isaac gives her the finger.

“The future of America’s youth,” Derek says.

“Speaking of America’s youth--” Isaac grins toothily. “Werewolves are in vogue right now. All the kids are reading these werewolf books.”

“Is this like ‘Twilight’?” Erica asks. “Ugh, remember ‘Twilight’? I even read those books. They were big right before you turned me--so inaccurate.”

Isaac shrugs.

“I’m just saying, werewolves,” Isaac says. “We should have pack book club.”

“Sure,” Derek says dryly. “Pack book club with werewolf books targeted at teenagers sounds like a great idea.”

“It’s not like we ever finished ‘Moby Dick,’” Boyd points out.

“We never started ‘Moby Dick,’” Derek says, though he realizes that was the joke. “Pack book club doesn’t exist. Because it’s a terrible idea.”

“I want to read them,” Erica says.

“Teen Wolf trilogy,” Isaac says, then takes another bite. “The first one’s called ‘Omega’.”

“Seriously?” Erica asks, looking between the other three.

“Even a blind pig finds an apple sometimes. It’s probably still inaccurate,” Derek says, then takes his plate into the kitchen. “You can buy the book, but I’m not reading it.”

“Did you seriously just say that?” Erica calls after him. “About the pig? What the hell, Derek?”

Derek helps with the dishes and then goes up to bed, falls asleep while Erica and Boyd fuck two rooms over before Boyd’s Crown Vic pulls out of the drive. He’ll just--ignore Stiles. Until things inevitably go south, and then Derek will take care of it like he takes care of everything else, now. At least Boyd will be helpful.

And he’s not going to read that book.

Derek is kind of surprised when Erica shows up with a copy the next day, because Erica only follows up on about one-ninth of the things she proposes over dinner. That might be true for the pack as a whole, actually; they tend to talk a lot of shit over dinner. It helps pass the time. But the coffee shop where Erica works is adjacent to a bookstore, and so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise when she slaps not one but two copies of ‘Omega’ by N. D. Paul on the table.

“Isaac and I get them first,” she says, like Derek and Boyd are seriously going to try to stake a claim here. Derek eyes the books. There’s a silhouette of a wolf on the cover, backed by hazy blue trees.

“Inaccurate,” he says, jabbing a finger at the wolf.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Erica says.

“God Derek, have platitudes taught you nothing?” Isaac drawls in a poor imitation of the voice Erica uses when she’s deigning to bless them with her insight.

It’s a relief when Boyd comes out of the kitchen with pancakes and sets them in the middle of the table. Boyd has an inoperable condition where he only cooks breakfast food, and Derek’s going to be kind of grateful when Allison and Scott arrive so they can stop subsisting on dinners that are 25% breakfast food, 25% takeout, 25% boiled, and 25% actually okay. Maybe they should just have Isaac do all the cooking, but he’d probably pitch a fit, and if there’s one thing Derek has learned from being Alpha, it’s to pick the hill you want to die on. Derek does not want to die on the hill of making Isaac cook dinner every night. They have a system, it worked, changing it would only bring them grief.

Besides, Derek likes pancakes.

The next night Derek finds Erica sitting in the living room reading, legs slung over the side of an armchair.

“Where’s dinner?” he asks.

“I got delivery,” she says.

No one delivers out here,” he says, because it’s true. Erica looks up at him.

“Well, now they do,” she says. “So sit tight, and our food will magically appear--” there’s the distant clatter of a car coming up the long gravel driveway. “About now.”

The sound of the wheels--the car--makes a vague connection in Derek’s head. But a lot of cars sound the same, and a lot of people have the same car, so he doesn’t push it.

“Do you have a tip for the delivery guy?” Derek asks.

“Oh, he doesn’t need one,” Erica says with a sly grin. Derek had kind of thought Erica had outgrown the phase where she seduced people for favors, but apparently not. Which, whatever, it’s her prerogative and her sex life, and Boyd doesn’t really seem to give a shit, but was it really necessary to get out of picking up the food on the way home like she usually does?

Only then Isaac gets the door, and he’s slapping the delivery guy heartily on the back, and--it’s Stiles. Of course it is. Erica’s grin broadens, and she slides out of the chair and to her feet.

“One point for me, Derek,” she says, handing him her book and sidling towards the door. “Hey Stiles, got that food?”

Stiles holds up two bags.

“Derek asked if we should tip the delivery guy,” Erica continues.

“Nah,” Stiles says, looking past Erica to meet Derek’s eyes. “Just let me eat some and we’ll call it even.”

And, okay, point for Erica, because Derek’s not going to kick Stiles out when Derek can smell the General Tso’s chicken that someone finally remembered is his favorite, and even if that someone is Stiles--it’s General Tso’s chicken, Erica hates spicy food and refuses to order it.

“Kitchen’s through there,” Derek says, pointing.

“Okay,” Stiles says, going to walk past Derek. He stops short when he sees the book Derek’s holding, and Derek can hear his heartbeat quicken. “Are you reading those?”

“Pack book club,” Erica says, throwing an arm across Stiles’ shoulders. “You read them?”

“No,” Stiles says, too quickly. Derek raises an eyebrow, and Stiles shrugs. “My--uh--ex. Liked them a lot. So I just--um. It was a messy break-up. I cried. My face got all splotchy. And my chin wrinkled up. He took a picture and put it on Instagram. So I associate that with those books. Um.”

Behind Stiles and Erica, Isaac raises his eyebrows at Derek, who doesn’t really know what to do that, with any of it, really. Stiles is obviously lying. About werewolf novels directed at teenagers. Derek has no idea why he would do that, especially because--his ex-boyfriend put a picture of him crying on Instagram? Really? And Stiles has boyfriends now?

“Isaac and Erica are reading them,” Derek says, setting the book gingerly on the coffee table. Stiles heartbeat slows and he starts moving towards the kitchen.

“So Isaac can better relate to his students,” Erica says. “And by relate to, I mean seduce.”

“I am not,” Isaac says, but at least he stops making faces at Derek to defend his dubious honor.

“Well, we all know you never had much luck with girls in high school,” Stiles says, moving towards the kitchen.

“Why do people keep saying that? I totally got lucky in high school. More than you, Stiles,” Isaac whines, but he follows them to the kitchen, where Boyd appears, as if summoned, and Stiles starts extracting containers of food from the bags and laying them out on the table.

“Yeah, but everyone was luckier than me in high school. That’s like saying you’re better at target shooting than a blind kid--you might be, but why are you telling anyone? But I made out with Danny once. It was hot,” Stiles says somewhat wistfully before nodding towards the bads. “I just got a bit of everything. Mostly the usual. Where are the plates? And spoons to dish up?”

Erica helps locate the plates and utensils while Stiles continues to open containers of food, and apparently he ordered one of everything on the menu, because it seems like it’s all here. Boyd and Isaac immediately begin filling plates, but Stiles stands back, waiting. Derek goes to stand next to him.

“How’d Erica find you?” he asks, and Stiles looks up.

“I went by the Java Hut to get some coffee, and she gave me sixty bucks and told me to bring you guys dinner tonight,” Stiles says. “So, you know, I guess I found her. She lured me in with caffeine.”

“And feminine wiles,” Erica chirps.

“The real question, though,” Isaac says. “Was there too much milk in your coffee?”

“No?” Stiles says. “I just got a cup of drip and added milk over at the coffee shop equivalent of a condiment bar. So I’m afraid I can’t help you with whatever argument you’re trying to win.”

Stiles pats Isaac on the shoulder, and Isaac scowls and goes to the table to sit down, leaving Derek and Stiles with the food.

“You first,” Stiles says. “Isn’t that like, a pack thing, Alpha eats first?”

“That’s lions,” Derek says flatly. “And lions live in prides, not packs.”

“Yeah, whatever, I saw ‘Lion King’ too,” Stiles says. “And ‘Lion King 2.’ And ‘Lion King 1 ½.’ In case you were wondering. And I’m going to watch them all again with Joshua, ‘cause I’m going to be the best half brother ever. And ‘Lion King’ is kind of vital.”

“Right,” Derek says. “‘Hamlet’ with lions.”

“So much more than that, dude,” Stiles says. “So much more.”

Derek goes ahead and fills a plate because Stiles is still standing there like he’s waiting, and then they, too, go to sit. Stiles takes the empty chair at the foot of the table, between Isaac and Boyd and opposite Derek, and proceeds to sustain the dinner conversation with disconnected anecdotes. Derek’s grateful that, at the very least, they aren’t rehashing the macchiato argument, or the one about Erica’s ability to get drunk, or the one about who ate the Pop-Tarts or Cheez-Its or this week’s snack food of choice.

Derek doesn’t contribute much, but listening to the other four talk--Stiles wasn’t kidding about having kept up with the rest of the pack. He knows about Isaac’s ex-girlfriend Pamela. He knows about Erica’s job, and he seems to be aware of Erica and Boyd’s strange, undiscussed relationship. It leaves Derek feeling likes his axis has been tilted, wondering why Stiles kept up with them and not with him--and then he’s wondering why that bothers him, when it shouldn’t bother him at all. He was relieved when Stiles left, because if he wasn’t going to join the pack it was easier to have him out of town. And now here Stiles is, talking with his hands, bright and engaging and grown into himself. That’s what strikes Derek the most: Stiles has grown into himself. The last time Derek saw Stiles he was eighteen, and they just passed one another at graduation; Stiles had given Derek a sort of sarcastic salute, one of the more sarcastic gestures Derek had been subjected to in his lifetime, and Derek had nodded back. But the last time they had really spoken to each other was when Stiles was seventeen, loose-limbed and uncomfortable in his skin. He had flailed around a bit, and then gone very still and told Derek that he couldn’t join the pack. Not yet, not then, not while he was the only person his father had. Scott was still his friend, he was still Stiles, but he needed to protect what he had. He couldn’t commit, because he needed space.

Stiles had actually said that, that he couldn’t commit because he needed space. And Derek had accepted it, because of the way Stiles had suddenly spoken, direct and clear, and for a moment Derek had seen him, seen this person Stiles would become and respected that. It was a fleeting moment, but it lasted long enough for Derek to say, “Okay,” and after that, when Stiles severed ties--that seemed like the right thing to do.

But here he is, now, and damn if it isn’t weird.

When Stiles leaves he grins broadly at everyone, says he’ll have to have them all over for dinner sometime, and then proceeds to offer fist-bumps all around.

“You didn’t talk much at dinner,” Boyd says when he passes Derek in the hall, on the way out to his shift.

“I never talk much,” Derek counters. It doesn’t really work, because Boyd just looks at him in this way that took all the satisfaction out of getting the last word.

The next morning, Derek finds Erica sleeping curled up in the armchair, with the werewolf book splayed open on her stomach. He sits down on the couch and waits for her to wake up. When Isaac comes thundering down the stairs she rolls and startles, then looks up at Derek.

“What is it with you and watching people sleep?” she asks.

“You’re going to be late for work,” Derek tells her.

“This book,” Erica says, holding it up. “This book. Derek, it is so good. Isaac, how far are you?”

“Finished it,” Isaac says casually, and Erica swings around in her seat.

Finished it?” she asks. “That’s it, I’m calling in sick.”

“You are not,” Derek says. “Calling in sick over that. Thing.”

“It’s actually pretty good,” Isaac says. “And--uh--kind of close to right.”

“Right,” Derek says slowly.

“Not completely,” Isaac says quickly. “Not like it was written by a wolf, just not total crap, either.”

“What does that mean?” Derek asks, because most werewolf stories read like they weren’t written by a werewolf but aren’t total crap, either. They carry a grain of truth, just really strange and somewhat arbitrary grains.

“Just read it,” Isaac says. “I finished my copy, it’s upstairs in my room. On the bedside table. Not in the drawer.”

“Don’t look in the drawer, Derek,” Erica says ominously.

“Erica, you’re going to work,” Derek says. “And I’m not reading that book.”

“Derek,” Erica says. “But--pack book club.”

“You think Boyd’s going to read that book?” Derek asks.

“If you do,” Isaac says. “It’s good. Seriously, I know ‘Twilight’ was like a romance novel with vampires and werewolves instead of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks and a rich douche or whatever, but this is like--actual shit going down.”

“Actual shit going down,” Derek repeats. “You’re a teacher.”

“Read it,” Isaac says. “Bedside table, but not in the drawer.”

Derek is never going to look in the drawer. If Isaac is ashamed of it, there is something wrong there. Or they’re trying to trick him, and it’s empty. Derek occasionally regrets the bout of poor decision making in his early twenties that led him to have this particular pack, one that keeps dubious things in the drawers of bedside tables.

But on the other hand, now they’re his pack, and they’re kind of--well, they’re his pack. That’s the end of it, that’s all there is to say. Derek rests his wrists on his knees and looks between Erica and Isaac. If they like this book--if Erica wants to--

“Fine,” Derek says. “Erica, call in sick.”

“Wait, seriously?” Erica asks.

“Isaac, you still have to go to work,” Derek adds, because Isaac’s looking a little squirrelly.

Isaac frowns.

“You’re a teacher. Erica’s a barista.”

“Don’t belittle my work,” Erica says, but she’s already on her way to the kitchen for the home phone. Isaac trails after her and immediately begins scrounging for breakfast while Derek goes upstairs and gets Isaac’s copy of ‘Omega’ from the bedside table.

Once Isaac’s off to work Erica returns to the armchair, and Derek stretches out on the couch and cracks the cover of the book. Because, hell, he could use a day off as much as anyone, and if this book sucks--well, it’s still a break.

The book doesn’t suck.

It kind of surprises Derek how much the book doesn’t suck. Actually, scratch that, it completely suprises him how much it doesn’t suck. And that’s just the narrative, the writing itself. The werewolves--well, the characters fully transform into wolves, which is so typical--but the characters themselves are distinct and well drawn, people Derek wants to spend time with. And considering that Derek wants to spend time with about one in every fifty people, that’s not a small thing. Besides, Isaac’s right, there’s something there, in the pack dynamics especially, that just feels right. Derek doesn’t entirely know what to make of it.

Erica finishes the book with a satisfied sigh shortly before lunchtime, and Derek looks up and tells her to go make lunch and not to talk to him. Erica sits in her chair, staring at him for a few minutes, then shrugs and goes into the kitchen.

She ducks back in thirty seconds later to say, “You like it!” and run back to the kitchen laughing to herself.

“Make sandwiches!” Derek calls back, because Erica has been known not to fuck up sandwiches.

“Fuck you!” Erica replies, which is--unsurprising, really.

She does make them sandwiches. They are not bad. They are also peanut butter and jelly. Erica brings them into the living room on a blue plate and then perches on the edge of the armchair, staring at Derek.

“You like it,” she repeats. “It’s good, isn’t it?”

“I haven’t finished it yet,” Derek says flatly.

“Who’s your favorite character? I like Sara,” Erica continues, unhindered. “You know book two is already out? I would go get a copy now but I told work I was really sick and if I go to the bookstore--this asshole who works there will totally narc on me if I don’t, like, puke on his feet while I’m paying.”

“We can talk about it when I finished it,” Derek says, then eyes her. “There’s still some repotting that needs doing in the greenhouse.”

“Actually, that doesn’t sound bad,” Erica says. “I need to process, and if you aren’t going to talk to me--Okay. Which ones?”

Derek tells her and she heads out back, which leaves Derek with his half-finished book and a second sandwich.

The sandwich is okay, but drier and therefore worse than the first one. The book keeps getting better. It’s set in high school, which is what it is. Derek was sick of high school before his pack was even finished with it, because it started to feel like he was going through the whole thing a second time and he’d been fairly sick of it after he graduated himself. But ‘Omega’ dwells less on that than on the interactions of the pack over one summer, during which a human teen, Henry “call me Bishop” Bishop, is at the wrong place at the wrong time and becomes enmeshed with the pack’s ongoing battle with--and Derek thinks this part is ridiculous--tree sprites that live in the woods and, based on the descriptions, are something halfway between elves and ents. The tree sprites are, for the most part, marginally insane, but for generations they’ve hunted the wolves as inferior creatures, using arrows and, later, guns. It reminds Derek distantly of the Argents--there’s even the insinuation of a burgeoning romance between one of the sprites and one of the wolves. But the way everything happens, and the questions the book raises about loyalty to the pack--especially when another human is bitten by a rogue omega (another thing this N. D. Whatever got wrong) and joins the pack while struggling with his loyalty to his human family--well, Derek keeps turning the pages.

It’s been a long time since he’s let himself sink into a book so completely, and Derek had forgotten how refreshing it is to live life in a book, where problems arise and are inevitably resolved neatly instead of sloppily, where people die but the good guys never do, where you can kind of see what’s going to happen and you feel okay about that, because being able to see what’s going to happen means the worst probably won’t. All of that maybe explains why he finishes the book and then goes into the hall to get his car keys off the hook by the door (hooks for their keys: instituted by Allison, after Scott lost his for the twenty-seventh time) so he can drive into town.

The bookstore is adjacent to the Java Hut, like it’s always been, and it’s raining lightly when Derek slips inside. The cashier eyes him, and Derek wonders if this was the guy Erica was talking about before finding the wolf-shaped cardboard display that says “‘Alpha’ COMING SOON” and has--yes--copies of both ‘Omega’ and its sequel, ‘Beta.’ The titles, more than anything, make Derek wonder if it was written be a werewolf trying to cover something up--but. It’s hard to believe a pack would allow that; it could be an Omega, but Omegas so rarely settle that it’s hard to imagine one staying in one place long enough to write a book. Derek takes two copies of ‘Beta’ is about to leave when he smells something, and then--

“Derek.” It’s Stiles.

Derek turns around, and Stiles stares.

“You’re,” he says. “Uh--buying those.”

Derek looks at him.

“Yes,” he says.

“Stellar observation, Stiles,” Stiles says. “I was just--” Stiles jabs a thumb towards the coffee shop. “Writing and I saw you so I thought I’d say hi, you know, since Erica wasn’t working. Tell her hi, too.”

“Erica’s sick,” Derek says, slightly too loudly with a significant glance at the cashier. Stiles looks at him strangely.

“Right,” he says. “The other girl who works there told me. Sounds bad. I hope she gets better soon.”

“So I’m bringing her a book,” Derek says, and Stiles winces slightly when he holds up the copy of ‘Beta.’

“Do you really need two copies?” Stiles asks. “I mean, most people only read one book at a time.”

“One’s for Isaac,” Derek says.

“Oh,” Stiles says carefully. “I guess that will be good for the author’s royalties.”

“What’s your problem with these books, Stiles?” Derek asks, looking between Stiles and the book, which Stiles is--staring at. It cover’s fairly innocuous. Like the last one, there’s a wolf silhouette and trees, only this time the background is yellow.

“I told you, my ex?” Stiles says. “Splotchy face? Really miserable break-up? Like, we had to split up our friends miserable.”

“Is that why you came back to Beacon Hills?” Derek asks.

“Yes,” Stiles says, latching on to the idea like a drowning man grasping at a life preserver. “Yes, that’s it, terrible break-up, I hate those books.”

He’s still lying. Derek studies him.

“I know you’re lying, Stiles,” he says.

“You think I didn’t date?” Stiles asks. “I totally dated. I can totally get a date. This isn’t high school, people like the weird ones now, they think I’m cute in a dateable way. I bet--”

“No, about these books,” Derek says, holding up the two copies. “I don’t know why. Care to enlighten me?”

“Not really, no,” Stiles says. He looks down at the mottled carpet of the bookstore. “Would you believe me if I said it was because I just think they’re really, really terrible books?”

“No,” Derek says. “But let me know if you want to test another explanation out on me.”

Stiles looks up at him, and his heartbeat settles.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll let you know.”

“Do that,” Derek says. Whatever it is with these books, it can’t be--well, there are possibilities, but none of them quite fit in Derek’s head. It’s probably just some strange Stiles secret, and the thing about Stiles’ secrets--if it doesn’t have anything to do with the pack, it’s not Derek’s place to know. So. He’s trying to let that happen, give Stiles the privacy and freedom he insisted he needed when he left, to trust him--a little. With this. They’re just books.

“Well, I should get back to work before someone swipes my laptop,” Stiles says after they both just sort of stand there and--stare at one another?--for a moment. “Which is a piece of shit, but has a lot of very important files on it, and I’m terrible about backing up. Also, intellectual property rights. I don’t want anyone stealing my intellectual property. So. Good to see you. Tell Erica I hope she feels better.”

“I’ll do that,” Derek says. “See you around, Stiles.”

“Sure,” Stiles says.

When Derek gets back to the house Erica is sitting on the steps to the porch and when she sees him she stands up and puts her hands on her hips.

“Seriously,” she says. “Just--seriously, Derek. I go out back to work, and then you just disappear without saying anything, and we were supposed to have book debriefing.”

Derek tosses her a copy of ‘Beta’ and Erica catches it reflexively, then actually looks at what she’s holding.

“Oh, fuck you,” she says, and goes inside. When Derek follows she’s already curled up in the armchair, legs hooked over the armrest, ankles crossed, book open. Derek goes to the couch.

By the time Isaac gets home and Boyd wakes up, they’ve both finished. Erica finishes first, chucks her copy at Derek, and goes into the kitchen to make a lot of noise without actually doing anything.

“This is me getting even,” she says. “Also, you’re supposed to make dinner tonight, so you might want to consider getting on that.”

Which--Derek was supposed to go to the grocery store. He rolls over and looks at Erica, who’s come out of the kitchen to rebuke him.

“There’s some stuff in the freezer that could probably turn meal-shaped eventually,” she says. “Also leftover cabbage, which I can’t endorse.”

“I have one chapter left,” Derek says, and Erica looks vaguely gleeful about the potential for a late dinner.

He ends up making spaghetti and meatballs while Erica chatters away about the book, and how much she can’t wait for the next one. Derek doesn’t contribute much beyond a few nods and grunts of agreement, but he’s left feeling--confused. He’s never been good at labelling his emotions beyond anger, so he’ll settle for confused.

At the end of ‘Beta’, Bishop, the human protagonist, has been inducted into the pack. He almost doesn’t accept the offer to join out of loyalty to his single mother--but then he does, at the end of the book, in the last chapter, and it’s such a joyful thing, it’s hard to believe it’s the ending, because it seems like the second book in a trilogy should end with some sort of significant cliffhanger, not happily. But that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that all Derek can do is think of Stiles, and how he didn’t join the pack, the moment when his face went very still and he said he couldn’t.

Derek understood it, a little. Stiles had learned to lose people. Derek had, too, once, and once you learned to lose people it was a little easier to make the decision, to let a few people slide out of your life so you could protect the few you had, because more loss would be unbearable and more people were easier to lose.

After that conversation, Derek had done the same to Stiles. He couldn’t trust someone who wasn’t committed to the pack, so it was easier to ask Scott to ask Stiles for help and to pretend Stiles didn’t exist, except for that one time with the werepanther, and when that happened--well, of course Stiles would get himself kidnapped even when he was trying to ‘avoid entanglement.’ Derek had hauled him out of the panther’s den bodily and Stiles had just looked at his feet and said, “I guess I owe you one.”

Derek had said, “No, we’re probably even.”

Stiles had given him half a grin, one that didn’t reach his eyes, and then he was waving at Scott and talking too quickly about how werepanthers were even creepier than werewolves, he didn’t think that was possible, and did Scott see the tail on that thing? And also Stiles knew they shouldn’t trust anyone named Sebastian, ever.

When Isaac gets home, Erica pushes a copy of ‘Beta’ into his chest and says, “Look what Derek bought us.”

Isaac looks between Derek and Erica and says, “No shit. So you liked it.”

Then he plucks the book from Erica’s hand and proceeds to read throughout dinner, only occasionally looking up to contribute entirely irrelevant comments to the conversation.

“If I were my mother, I’d tell you no books at the dinner table,” Derek says flatly.

“Good thing you aren’t, then,” Isaac mutters. “Also good thing our dinner table conversation is dead boring ninety-percent of the time.”

“I resent that,” Erica says.

“You resemble that,” Isaac replies. “Also, you got to stay home from work, your opinion is irrelevant.”

Boyd is manfully ignoring them all, probably trying to pretend he doesn’t know and live with these people. Erica gives him a copy of ‘Omega’ before he heads out to work, and Boyd looks at it skeptically.

“Derek read it,” she says, and Boyd turns the brunt of his skeptical face in Derek’s direction. Derek shrugs.

“Just try it, Boyd,” Derek says. Boyd takes the book like he expects it to bite him.

“Also sex,” Erica says. “I’ll barter you reading this book for sex.”

“No sex until you write a book report, Boyd. You’ve been a very bad boy,” Isaac says, and Boyd shoots him a withering glare.

“See, school teacher kink already,” Erica says. “We’ll get you yet, Isaac, you giant perv.”

Scott and Allison are back the next day, come to the house late after they’ve visited both their parents and, from the smell of it, Stiles. There’s laughter, hugs, gifts, everyone permitting Scott to put them in headlocks and rub their hair because Scott thinks it’s hilarious.

Soon they’re all sitting in the living room, Allison and Scott close together, Erica’s head in Allison’s lap her legs up in Isaac’s, Boyd on the floor, leaning against their legs. Derek’s on Scott’s other side--and it’s kind of ridiculous when they all sit on the couch like this, but in a comforting way, all pack upon pack. There’s a lull in the conversation, and Scott twists towards Derek.

“Hey, Stiles invited us over for pizza tomorrow,” Scott says. “So. Um. If you guys want, I’ll text him how many.”

“Sounds good,” Isaac says. “As long as he goes to Sal’s and not one of the shitty places.”

Erica kicks Isaac in the side.

“Sounds good no matter what,” she says.

“It’s my day off,” Boyd adds.

“Derek?” Scott asks, turning to look at him.

“Yeah,” Derek says. “Sure.”

“Great,” Scott says, fishing his phone out of his pocket. “I’ll text him. I’m texting him now.”

“Thank you for that compelling narrative Scott,” Allison says, put she turns plant a kiss on his cheek and Scott grins goofily while tapping at his phone. When Allison turns back she notices the copy of ‘Omega’ on the coffee table and purses her lips.

“Did one of you read this?” she asks, leaning forward.

“We’re all reading it,” Erica says. “Pack book club. Which means you and Scott need to read it, too.”

“Uh,” Allison’s eyes flit towards Scott. “We already have. Pretty good, right?”

Scott elbows Allison and looks vaguely uncomfortable, but he kind of shrugs it off when Erica rolls into a monologue about how great it is, with Isaac contributing occasional well--not insight, exactly, but supplementary commentary.

“Boyd’s not done yet, so don’t spoil him,” Erica says. “Who do you ship?”

“Ship?” Scott looks confused, but that might just be his face.

Romantically,” Erica says emphatically.

“Oh, uh,” Allison pats Scott’s thigh. “Aria and Ryan, I guess.”

Aria’s a tree sprite to Ryan’s werewolf. It’s kind of an obvious one, when Allison says it out loud.

“They’re sort of like you guys, huh?” Erica asks.

“Sort of,” Allison says, obviously uncomfortable even without tuning in to her heartbeat. “Yeah.”

“I think Bishop’s going to get with the Alpha,” Erica says. Scott starts coughing, and Allison thumps him on the back.

“I hadn’t--uh--really thought of that,” she says. “There didn’t seem to be much build-up towards that in the first two books.”

Erica shrugs, “I thought there was. Subtly. Like they argue because they care, right?”

Allison glances at Scott, who still looks a little blue in the face, then changes the subject.

Part of Derek wonders if Allison and Scott’s strange behavior is tied to Stiles’ similar behavior about these books--actually, he believes they must be related, but he decides to write it off as a strange inside joke. Derek never really got inside jokes. Probably because he was so rarely inside which--sounds pathetic. Derek never wanted to be in the joke, anyway.

When he’s in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner, Allison comes in and leans back against the counter.

“Dad wanted me to tell you,” she begins, speaking carefully..

Derek turns to look at her. The pack’s relationship with Chris Argent is, at best, complicated.

“There’s some activity out by the coast,” she continues. “Sea otter shapeshifters. They function like selkies, pretty reliant on skins, and live in groups--rafts. Normally they stick to the sea otter form, though, but lately they’ve been out of the ocean as humans a lot more and Dad just thought it was something I should--mention. So you’re aware. Dad says they’re pretty harmless, unless you’re a sea urchin, so.”

Derek nods, turning the new information over in his head.

“How like selkies are they?” he asks. “Do they have the same problem, with people stealing their pelts and marrying them? Do selkies even really have that problem? What’s your family bestiary say?”

“Not much,” Allison says. “I think someone in the family way back couldn’t swim or something, because the Argents tend to stick to the land.”

Derek nods.

“Are there any identifying features if they’re in human form?” he asks.

“Other than looking like human otters?” Allison asks. “No, not really. I imagine they’ll smell like kelp or seawater or something to you, though.”

“Did you tell Stiles?” Derek asks. Allison looks slightly taken aback.

“Uh--” she says. “No, we went to Dad’s after we left Stiles’.”

“I’ll go tell him,” Derek decides. Allison stares at him and then shakes her head.

“If you think you need to,” she says. She pauses before leaving the kitchen, then reaches out one hand and squeezes Derek’s shoulder.

“It’s good to be back, you know that?” she says, deliberate. Derek knows a peace offering when he sees it. Or sometimes he does.

“It’s good to have you,” Derek says, and he’s kind of surprised when he realizes he that means it. Allison and Scott are a Hunter and a werewolf, which is strange, but they’re also fierce in maintaining an even keel, in their relationship and their lives, and although it would seem like that would make them suppressed or repressed or something, instead it makes them tempering.

Allison smiles at Derek cautiously before leaving the kitchen, and even once Derek’s done with the dishes he just stands there, leans against the kitchen counter and breathes for a moment.

Allison had agreed to join the pack because Scott did. Scott had joined the pack because there was nothing else for him to do; because he needed them and they needed him and that state of mutual necessity eventually demanded a resolution. Of the betas he’s always been the most withdrawn, but it makes sense--of the betas Scott is the only one with a shadow pack, with the support network of Stiles, Allison, and, weirdly, Jackson, Danny and Lydia. Sometimes Derek feels like he should pressure him to commit fully but--that would break him. Derek knows that, it’s all written in every action Scott’s ever taken. Scott’s presence as a member of the pack is contingent on his ability to maintain relationships with outsiders. He’s sort of like Stiles that way, except Stiles never needed the pack like Scott does, because Stiles was never a wolf. And not being a wolf--that’s something that’s beyond Derek, really.

Derek goes to Stiles’. It’s ten or eleven at night--the clock on the microwave is broken--but Stiles has never been the early to bed type, and Derek has trouble believing that changes.

Derek rings the buzzer for apartment 3, presses his thumb hard on the brass button until he finally gets a bleary response from Stiles--”What the hell? Now is not the time to be selling Girl Scout cookies.”

“It’s Derek,” Derek says.

“So not a Girl Scout, then.” Stiles sounds amused.

“Buzz me up, or I’ll pick this lock.”

Stiles buzzes him up.

“You know,” Stiles says when he answers the door. “Visiting hours are usually between nine and five.”

“What is this, a nursing home?” Derek asks, and shoulders past Stiles towards the kitchen. Stiles hurries to catch up with him, and, once they’re in the kitchen, slams his laptop shut. Derek looks at him.

“Well?” Stiles asks. “I’m not feeding you again.”

“Chris Argent says there are sea otters around,” Derek says.

“Sea otters,” Stiles repeats. “Chris Argent is concerned about sea otters now? Are they throwing sea urchins at him? Have they developed a catapult? Because that would be adorable.”

“Sea otter shapeshifters,” Derek says. “Chris says they’ve been taking human form more often than usual.”

“There are sea otter shapeshifters?” Stiles asks, then shakes his head. “Of course there are. Are they like selkies, then?”

“Yes,” Derek says. “How did you--?”

“Thesis,” Stiles interjects. “A comparative study of shapeshifter mythologies. The literature’s pretty dry, but a body picks a few things up. But--are they actually going to do anything? Did you really need to come tell me about this at eleven at night--after eleven at night? I have a phone.”

Derek shrugs. He kind of wants to pursue the subject of Stiles’ thesis, but Stiles is so obviously trying to change the subject that Derek knows he won’t get anything out of him but deflection and babbling and deflective babbling.

“I don’t have your number,” Derek says.

“I know Allison and Scott are at yours, they have my number, don’t give me that,” Stiles says. “Seriously, ‘I don’t have your number’ is like the I don’t know what of excuses. Something stupid. You’re checking up on me. Well, look, I’m safe at home. I was watching a movie on my laptop, okay, and that movie was ‘Watchmen’ because who watches the Watchmen, I do. Now you’ve warned me about the catapult-less sea otters, you can go home, see you tomorrow for pizza. You can tell Isaac I’ll get it from Sal’s, because I know Scott didn’t.”

Derek looks at him.

“You hated ‘Watchmen,’” Derek says. He doesn’t know how he knows this, but he does--he remembers, distantly, a monologue about it when they were on a stake out together.

“Okay, you caught me, I was watching porn,” Stiles says. “And you’re kind of blue-balling me here, so out with you.”

Derek leaves. He’s on the sidewalk before he realizes that it didn’t smell like Stiles had been watching porn.

Stiles lies a lot. To Derek. He’s surprisingly good at it, for someone who Derek can ostensibly tell is lying. Also for someone who used to be such a crap liar, and is still kind of a crap liar.

Derek would like an explanation, but he doesn’t think he’s going to get one, and right now any accusations he tries to make would be, well, baseless. None of the pieces are fitting together in his head--he has his suspicions, of course he has his suspicions, but he doesn’t actually know precisely how to frame them.

He drives home, headlights sluicing through the neon-lit streets of town and then the dark roads in the woods, the moon in the sky just beginning to take shape behind clouds. He wishes it was fuller--his wolf waxes and wanes with the moon, and things are so much simpler to the wolf, so much cleaner. The wolf says Stiles is lying. The wolf says he should stop. Derek thinks--Derek thinks it’s probably none of his business.

He sleeps in Boyd’s bed, because Boyd’s not using it and sometimes it’s just--better, to get out of himself and his space and his head, and sleeping in somewhere not his bed helps. A little. In the morning he remembers that they’re having pizza at Stiles’ and he kind of wants to fake sick, even as he acknowledges that would be ridiculous. His entire pack will be there, there will be plenty of buffer. Maybe Stiles will even stop lying. He seems to keep his lies for Derek, anyway.

Stiles has produced more chairs for the kitchen from--somewhere--his apartment might have a spare room, there’s a door or two that Derek doesn’t know where they lead. There’s a pile of pizza boxes, and there’s some mid-range beer in the fridge, neither especially fancy nor offensively cheap.

It is as Derek expected it to be--loud and raucous and silly, mostly. Stiles talks over everyone, everyone talks over Stiles, Erica tells bawdy jokes and Boyd tells stories laced with bone dry humor. Isaac makes fun of everyone and, in turn, everyone ignores him.

Derek doesn’t realize Stiles is next to him until an arm is thrown across his shoulders and Stiles is leaning into Derek’s space.

“You don’t really know how to have fun, do you?” Stiles asks. Derek turns slightly so he can get a better glimpse of Stiles. He’s still watching the others, his lips turned up at the corners.

“I have fun,” Derek says.

Stiles thumps him on the back.

“Well,” he says. “Let me know how that works out for you.”

Derek should’ve told Stiles that he’s careful, that he needs to be, that when he was in New York he did what he could to make himself feel and forget how to feel and then his sister died, and making sure the people around him stopped dying seemed more important. Instead he watches Stiles insinuate himself back into the center of the group. He watches Stiles and, again, finds himself trying to tease apart him, his motivations. Stiles wanted to protect people--protect himself--but now he’s outwardly free and easy, comfortable and unworried.

Stiles is functionally an omega, and Derek has never understood omegas. But Stiles is also functionally and fully a human, and humans believe they can be omegas without leaving everyone behind. They can take care of theirs without devoting themselves to it fully. Maybe. Derek’s never really understood humans, either. Sure, he can pass for one, but a lot of people can pass for a lot of things they aren’t, and, yes, his entire pack had been human once, but he hadn’t, had never been.

Still, this is his pack. Derek pulls up a chair between Isaac and Boyd. Stiles smiles at him--a slow bloom of a thing that spreads from his mouth to his eyes--but doesn’t stop talking until Scott interrupts him, says something that makes Stiles dissolve into too-loud, open-mouthed laughter.

“No inside jokes,” Erica says, reaching over to pinch Stiles in the side. Stiles paws at her hands, then turns and looks at her.

“It’s not,” he says. “It’s not even funny. It’s just--”

He starts laughing again, and Scott dissolves into giggles.

“You’re high, aren’t you,” Erica says.

“Wouldn’t you be able to smell it?” Stiles asks. “No, sorry--” he starts to compose himself, staunchly refusing to make eye contact with Scott. “It’s just. Um. This happens sometimes? Spontaneous laughter? Because the world is beautiful? Also, pizza.”

“Is there any more left?” Isaac asks.

“If there is, it’s probably in one of the pizza boxes,” Stiles says. “You know, where pizza lives until it gets into your stomach.”

“You’re drunk,” Derek says, taking in Stiles’s flushed cheeks, and Stiles has another minor laughing fit.

“Only a little,” he says, then he looks at Scott at starts laughing harder. “I am such a lightweight. Lydia can hold her liquor better than I can.”

“He is,” Scott pronounces.

“Though it’s really not a surprise about Lydia,” Allison says, leaning forward. “Also, she usually dumps about half her drinks out.”

“Everyone but me,” Erica says mournfully, looking at Stiles.

“It’s not that fun,” Stiles says. “Really. Also you probably don’t get hangovers, which are the worst. Nothing but headaches and shame. Headaches and shame.”

Erica pouts. Isaac rejoins the group with a slice of pepperoni.

“Don’t worry, Erica, you can still have the shame.”

She punches him in the shoulder, and Isaac shrugs.

“Derek, you’re still being a quiet creeper,” Stiles says suddenly.

“He just loses the plot sometimes,” Erica says. “Does this thing where he stops listening to us and listens to, like, the noise down the road.”

“Really?” Stiles perks up. “What’s going on right now? Are any of my neighbors having sex? I never took you for a voyeur, Derek--actually, that’s totally a lie, I always took you for a voyeur, and now I’d like you to share your voyeurtastic exploits.”

“I wasn’t--” Derek says. “I was just thinking, was all.” And--gods--Derek is so much better at talking when he’s training the pack, or discussing a threat, or doing anything other than what’s normal. “It’s been awhile since--since New York, I guess. And this reminded me of that, somehow.”

Stiles nods slowly, and Derek can see the pack looking at one another. He doesn’t talk about his past much with them. There’s a strange balance to being the Alpha, being part of the pack yet apart from it, an authority figure, and Derek’s still not sure if he’s figured out how to straddle that line quite yet. He’s better--he would probably be dead if he hadn’t gotten better--but some things never came easy to him.

“Oh,” Stiles says. He’s studying Derek closely, and Derek’s not sure what he’s seeing. Derek turns away, and catches the time on the microwave.

“Maybe we should go, actually,” he says. “It’s getting late. Wouldn’t want to keep you.”

“Oh, no, you aren’t,” Stiles says. “The party doesn’t end until I brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, you know.”

But it seems like time, anyway, and Stiles walks with them down to their car and waves, says they should do it again sometime. Derek feels like he should know his own mind better than he does, at this moment, but it’s late and as he navigates the car home--Erica in Boyd’s lap in the front seat, Isaac and Scott and Allison squeezed in the back--everyone’s quiet and his mind settles, just a little, mostly, he thinks, because it’s dark and driving at night is distantly like running as a wolf. Which he does, after they get home, until his mind is clear and empty and he knows the woods are safe.

He had felt human for a hazy period while they were in New York, when his territory was smoky bars and he and Laura had shared a studio the size of a shoebox, but that was partly by virtue of not feeling much at all, by pushing everything that was Derek--his family, his pack, and then the fire--into the furthest reaches of his mind and pretending to be someone else.

It didn’t really work, and then his sister died. Derek tries not to see it as causative relationship, but, well, sometimes that was hard.

The next day Derek runs into a sea otter when he’s at the hardware store buying potting soil. The sea otter’s in human form; a short brown-haired man with large, round eyes and sleek hair staring at the power sanders, thumbs hitched into the back pockets of his jeans. He smells of salt and fish and seaweed, so strongly that Derek would expect a human could smell it. He wishes everyone that showed up in Beacon Hills was this obvious about who they were.

“Any recommendations?” the otter asks when Derek slides into the space beside him.

“What are you looking to sand?” Derek asks.

“Surfboard.”

Of course a sea otter makes surfboards. What a fucking cliche. Derek glances at the otter sidelong.

“Rotex is usually good,” Derek says.

The otter hums noncommittally.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Derek says. “I’m sure an employee of this fine establishment might be better able to help you.”

“Better than the area’s Alpha?” the otter asks.

“For advice on sanders, yes,” Derek says. “And if you want to talk to me about pack business, I’d prefer we did it outside the hardware store.”

The otter shrugs in one liquid motion.

“Muir Douglas,” says the otter--and, seriously, otters pick the strangest names. “I’m from the Sunday Cove raft.”

“Pleasure, I’m sure,” Derek says.

Muir smiles at him, a slow curl of lips.

“If you want to meet with us, we’re normally there,” he says. “Around Sunday Cove. Thought we’d let you know.”

“Why?” Derek asks.

“Stop by, some time,” says Muir. “The elders want to talk to you. We have a bit of a situation and they think you--your pack--might help.”

“A bit of a situation,” Derek repeats, and Muir shrugs.

“You could say that, yeah,” Muir says.

“You just did,” Derek points out.

“Rotex, you said?” Muir asks, turning back to the sanders.

“I’d ask someone for help,” Derek says.

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Muir says, and after a moment of silence, both of them staring at the sanders, Derek nods.

“Okay,” he says. “Sunday Cove.”

“Thank you,” Muir says, and Derek would kind of like to know what he’s being thanked for.

He gets Boyd to go with him, because Boyd’s the one who’s good for this kind of thing, quiet and sharp and unlikely to do anything inappropriate, and while Scott is sometimes competent, he’s busy with his externship with Deaton. They take the Hale landscaping truck, because between that, the Camaro, and the Boyd’s patrol car the truck is the least conspicuous, which is maybe saying something about the pack’s ability to obtain inconspicuous vehicles. Erica wanted a red convertible, because she was about as subtle as a bludgeon to the head, but they really, really, did not need more cars. Pretty soon they were going to have some up on bricks in the yard, and it would just be downhill from there. Isaac’s already lobbying for a Winnebago for no reason Derek can fathom.

Sunday Cove is a slim crescent of rocks and sand nestled amongest the bluffs. It’s on the far southwest edge of town, not Hale territory, Derek’s not even sure if it’s Beacon Hills or part of the next town over or some weird piece of California that’s going to slough off into the Pacific soon enough and isn’t on the maps. But otters are known to gambol on the rocks there, and when Derek and Boyd arrive--well, no one’s there yet. They sit down on the algae-blackened rocks and wait.

“You sure about this?” Boyd asks. Derek has, in the past, tried to be offended at the frequency with which his pack questions his judgment, but he really can’t blame them given how bad the first few years were.

“No,” Derek says. “But I have a policy about granting favors to people who accost me in the hardware store.”

“Just the hardware store, then,” Boyd says.

“Yeah,” Derek says. “Just the hardware store.”

The ocean is blue-grey-green--the color of the ocean, Derek supposes, when his mind’s not quick to provide another descriptor--and there’s a wind coming in, the water’s peaking into whitecaps. The water’s too choppy and the scents too jumbled for Derek to be able to readily identify anything as a sea otter, but there are some dark spots to the south, near the curving edge of the cove, that could be them.

“You really read those books?” Boyd asks, and Derek knows what he’s talking about immediately.

“Yeah,” Derek says. “Pretty good.”

“Nothing about them seemed strange to you?” Boyd asks. He’s looking out at the water, not at Derek, and when Derek doesn’t respond for a moment he continues. “Too close to true.”

“There have been werewolf stories before, you know,” Derek says. “Even marginally right ones.”

“Too close to us,” Boyd says. “Details altered, obviously, but something about it just felt like someone else telling my story. Our story. With the struggling pack and everything?”

Derek turns to look at Boyd.

“You think?” Derek says sharply. “Who?”

“I don’t know,” Boyd says. “I don’t even, really--I mean, it takes place in Atlanta. It’s possible other packs have had similar experiences. It just felt familiar, and I wondered if you had noticed.”

Derek takes a breath, grips the rock he’s sitting on.

“It’s probably nothing,” Boyd says, but he doesn’t really sound like he believes himself, and Derek’s reeling his way through the plot of those books and--yeah, he can see it.

But then the otters are there.

The first one is an elderly woman with waves of grey hair, and she’s nude, exposing milk-pale, wrinkled skin. The others start to appear, in the water and on the rocks, until there are seven of them total, men and women, the youngest about Derek’s age. The first woman comes and sits in front of them, and someone gives her a blanket, which she pulls around her shoulders. The others are dressed--some of them, not all of them, and oddly.

“Alpha Hale,” says the woman. She has a strange, lilting accent, and speaks carefully, like she doesn’t do it much. Which she probably doesn’t--sea otters, like selkies, are notorious for using their human forms so rarely that many of them don’t even have human names, and, if they do, they make them up themselves. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with the Counsel.”

“Thank you,” Derek says, because apparently this is going to be a formal dog and pony show. “This is Beta Boyd.”

The woman smiles--she and Muir from the hardware store share a soft, curving smile that makes Derek wonder if they’re closely related.

“We’ve asked you to come here because of some trouble our raft’s been having,” the woman begins. “With an Anguilla.”

Derek does not actually know what that is.

“A--sort of--” the woman pauses.

“Snake,” says a man to her left, at the same time as another woman says, “Serpent.”

“That can take human form,” the first woman continues.

Of course it can.

“We wish to ask your assistance,” the woman begins. “And warn you, that this creature might be walking with you.”

“In the town,” provides one of the others, the man who spoke before. “The serpent has been gone for several days, we believe it’s moved to the town. It may be searching for larger prey. It has a lair in the rocks, it collects--things.”

“Bones,” says the woman. “It collects bones.”

Which is charming, really.

Derek glances between the seven, and they’re all watching him, serious and round-eyed.

“Where is this lair?” Derek asks.

“In a cave,” the man answers. “Beneath Beacon Point. It is not--you have to swim.”

Derek nods, and looks between the seven.

“Thank you,” he says. “We will do what we can.”

“We will assist you as we can,” says the woman. “But you must understand, we are--”

“Peaceful,” provides another woman. “We are peaceful.”

“We have contacted other rafts for advice,” the first woman continues. “And the grand council. We will convey what they say to you as soon as we know it.”

“We will do what we can,” says the man. “But--”

“You think this--” Derek pauses. “Anguilla is a threat to the pack?”

“It is a threat,” says the woman. “Otter bones are small. It seeks bigger bones.”

Derek doesn’t really know what to say to that, and he knows if he looks at Boyd Boyd will be quirking his eyebrows in that subtle, strange way that he does when he thinks they’re in another absurd situation.

“Okay,” Derek says. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” repeats the woman, and then the others, one at a time, a series of wavering echoes.

They nod and rise, and move independently yet as a group until they’re slipping into the water.

“I kind of expected otters to be more fun,” Boyd says when they get back to the truck. Derek gives him a questioning glance, and Boyd shrugs. “I used to like the otters at the zoo when I was a kid.”

“They don’t go human much,” Derek says. “Or--a lot of them don’t. It makes them sort of stiff and uncomfortable when they are. Even when they’re otters--sea otters don’t do well on land.”

“I noticed,” Boyd says dryly. “But didn’t you meet one at the hardware store?”

“A few of them are really enthusiastic about humans, and land,” Derek says. “It’s just that they tend to prefer the sea. They--from what I understand they’re closer to being actual otters than a werewolf is to being an actual wolf.”

Boyd nods.

“I’m not sure if that makes sense,” he says. “But it does a little.”

“You know, I usually think of you as the smart one,” Derek says, and Boyd just laughs.

“Speaking of,” he says. “You want my advice?”

Derek looks at him.

“You should probably talk to Stiles,” Boyd continues. “Because I know you had no idea what the hell that thing was when the naked lady first mentioned it.”

Stiles. Of course. The universe is doing its damnedest to throw Stiles into Derek’s path at every turn.

“You mean I should get Scott to talk to Stiles,” Derek says, and Boyd shrugs.

“I kind of thought you should do it, but your call,” Boyd says. “Get Scott to ask Allison about her family’s bestiary, maybe.”

Derek doesn’t reply, just drives and lets Boyd’s advice settle into him. It’s probably sound advice--Boyd’s ideas usually are, though it took Derek awhile to learn to accept good advice when it came to him, and not to cross-examine every motive for sabotage.

“You can’t talk to Stiles?” Derek asks Boyd with a sidelong glance. It’s halfway to being a joke. Boyd shrugs.

“If you really wanted me to,” he says.

Derek has nothing to say to that.

“I don’t trust Stiles,” Derek says.

“I know,” Boyd says.

“I can’t figure him out,” Derek says.

“I don’t think he’s much different from anyone else,” Boyd says. He’s watching the road. Derek’s pretty sure that was some sort of insult about Derek’s ability to read people, but maybe he was being paranoid. Circumstances were conspiring to reinstate his paranoia--Boyd thinking the books were about the pack, this brouhaha with the otters.

“You think those books could really be about our pack?” Derek asks.

“I think it’s something to think about,” Boyd says.

“There aren’t very many of us who could’ve written it,” Derek says. It’s really down to Stiles, maybe Scott or Allison or some ambiguous hunter. Mostly Stiles.

“Yeah,” Boyd says, like he knows what Derek’s thinking. “But I’m not sure. Don’t do anything rash.”

“When have I ever done that?” Derek asks, and Boyd chuckles a little but doesn’t dignify him with a response.

Derek goes to Stiles’ that night.

“Someday you’re going to interrupt something,” Stiles says. “I have people over.”

Derek looks at him.

“I could,” Stiles says. “I’m not at your beck and call.”

“I met with the otters,” Derek says, sitting down.

“Wow,” Stiles says. “You definitely could not have told me this over the phone.”

“They say there’s an Anguilla,” Derek says. “It was in the cove, but they think it’s come inland--”

“A--what?” Stiles asks. He drums his fingers on the table.

“A sea serpent,” Derek presses. “That can take human form.”

Stiles frowns.

“Maliseet,” he says, finally. “I would’ve thought you would find those more in the Atlantic.”

Derek looks at him.

“Everything’s everywhere,” Derek says, finally.

Stiles nods.

“The story--they have red hair, for one. Supposedly female, but they aren’t really supposed to be shapeshifters, either, so I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in that,” Stiles shrugs. “‘Twilight’ somehow got them associated with vampires, but they’re not. Vampires, I mean. That’s all I’ve got, though they’re really kind of outside my specialty. You’re lucky I remember this shit at all. I could check the databases--I’ve got access to some sweet databases now.”

“Do that,” Derek says.

“What’s the magic word?” Stiles asks. Derek remembers a time when he Stiles saying stuff like that made Derek want to punch him. It still kind of does.

Please do the thing with the databases,” Derek says, pointedly protracting the first word.

“Don’t take that tone with me young man,” Stiles says, but he goes into the bedroom and comes back with a laptop.

“So you’re going to sit here,” Stiles says, opening his laptop and beginning to type. “This brings me right back. Are you going to peer over my shoulder, too? Read the dictionary? There’s one on the bookcase in the corner. Also a thesaurus. Also a--no, there’s not an encyclopedia, that would be a lie.”

Derek pulls a chair around besides Stiles, leaning forward to look at the screen.

“Seriously,” Stiles says. “This is like advanced googling. It’s not cool to watch. If you want I can bust out the World of Warcraft, which I actually haven’t played since high school--er--college. But. Or Minecraft, have you played Minecraft?”

Stiles is clicking through a series of screens, typing again, and Derek can’t get a clear idea of what he’s even doing. His angle on the screen is bad, and so he watches Stiles from the corner of his eye instead: the freckling of moles across his pale skin, the upturned tip of his nose and the mouth he’s perpetually unable to keep shut cast in the weird, silvery glow of the laptop screen.

“Anything I find is going to be academic as shit,” he says. “Just so you know. And that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true to life. The Argent family monster book will probably be more helpful, since these people just chill in their ivory towers all day.”

“Yeah, Scott and Allison are doing that,” Derek says.

“Delegation, very nice,” Stiles says. “I have to admit, I’m kind of surprised you didn’t delegate this one to Scott, ‘cause that seemed to be your old m.o.” He pauses, “Okay, there are three articles that even mention Angu-whatever, and that’s after I tried two different spellings just to be safe. The abstracts are--not promising.”

“Not promising?” Derek asks.

“It’s a story to keep kids from going down by the ocean,” Stiles says. “Possibly to explain dangerous tides. Blah-di-blahblah. Nothing about killing it dead. Or--” Stiles pauses, and Derek leans forward to look over his shoulder, trying to get a better angle on the screen by aligning his face with Stiles’.

“Seriously, dude, personal space,” Stiles says. “It’s a thing. There’s something here, about associations with seaweed and ah--fire.”

“Fire,” Derek repeats, and Stiles points at the screen.

“Fire for killing,” he says. “Because, ‘The Anguilla may be a manifestation of sublimated fears, and while some have proposed a relationship to riptides--works cited et al.--an alternative may actually be seaweed, which, while usually benign, could entangle in much the same way a serpent might. This also explains a legend that has emerged suggesting that fire can keep the Anguilla at bay.’”

“Fire,” Derek repeats. It should probably surprise him more that they haven’t encountered something like this before, something they needed to kill by fire. Stiles turns to look at him, and it only takes a few moments for the pieces to click into place--Derek can see it happening on Stiles’ face.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh. Shit.”

Derek twists his mouth into a tight-lipped smile.

“Yeah,” he says. Stiles reaches out one hand and pats him gingerly on the shoulder.

“It’s probably--” he starts. “You have the rest of the pack, you know? I mean, of course you do, you’ve had them for years now.”

It’s such a strange cocktail of emotions, because--fire. He’s not afraid of it, exactly, but there have been times when he’s seen plumes of smoke rising on the horizon and felt fear or something like it running down his spine like a rill, visceral and quick. Thinking about it now, about a fire big enough to kill something--and there’s Stiles’ hand, still there, and Stiles’ arm hooked around his shoulders, as it wasn’t before, and Stiles is leaning against him, smelling more like Beacon Hills, like home, than he did when they first got back, and it’s--grounding. Derek soaks that in for a moment, that sense of calm, before he shakes Stiles’ arm off, shakes himself off.

“Yes,” he says.

“Maybe the bestiary will say something else,” Stiles says quietly. “I’d go with that over this nonsense. The references they used are from, like, ‘67, and no one’s referenced them, so they clearly aren’t reputable.”

“Stiles,” Derek says, and Stiles quirks his lips into a small smile.

“Worth a try, right?” he says.

“You aren’t a very good liar,” Derek says.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “I was actually kind of aware of that, after about the seventh time I spent fifteen minutes giving my father a really elaborate explanation for something only to realize he was just listening to see what shit I would come up with, because it was entertaining. And I am pretty entertaining, but, you know, I guess my nostrils do this thing, and my hand does this other thing, and you have your internal heart monitor, anyway, and, seriously, I have very little control over my nostrils.”

“You have very little control over your nostrils,” Derek repeats.

“That’s what you took away from that,” Stiles says. “Okay.”

“Speaking of, want to tell me about your special relationship with those werewolf books?” Derek asks, moving away from Stiles and putting his arms on the table so he can lean forward.

“Not particularly, no,” Stiles says. “I don’t feel that bad for you.”

“Boyd thinks those books are a little--suspicious,” Derek says.

“Blaming Boyd for your suspicions now,” Stiles says. “Cool. But I haven’t read them, so how exactly are they suspicious?”

“You haven’t read them,” Derek says. “You read ‘Twilight’ for ‘research.’”

“I did do that,” Stiles says. “A long time ago. Before the databases. Remember the databases, Derek?”

“Vaguely,” Derek says. “They live in the computer, right?”

Stiles laughs.

“Your jokes are funnier because they’re always such a surprise,” he says, grinning. “Except when they suck. Then they still suck.”

Stiles gets up from the table and shoves his chair in.

“Well, this has been fun,” he says. “Kind of. Weirdly. But life goes on--ob-la-di, ob-la-da--and I expect your pack’s going to want you home, and I actually wanted to get some more writing done tonight, so.”

“So,” Derek says, getting up himself.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “Drive safe, look out for soulless gingers of the shapeshifting variety. Not Lyds, obviously, but I think she’s still in Massachusetts, and as far as I know she’s still just a medium and keeps to her own shape.”

“Does she let you call her Lyds to her face?” Derek asks as they move toward the door, and Stiles grins.

“No. No she does not,” Stiles says. “Sometimes I use it over the phone and then she hangs up on me. It’s a fun game. Also a convenient way to end uncomfortable lines of questioning. Though she usually just calls me back.”

“Thanks Stiles,” Derek says. “For your--research.”

“Don’t say research so skeptically,” Stiles says. “Thanks for interrupting my evening and warning me about the shapeshifting sea monster.”

Derek pauses in the doorway and looks back at Stiles. He’s not small, he’s not really a small person, but he looks it sometimes, like Derek can see through him to his human infrastructure, all the breakable bits, the rate at which he won’t heal.

“You could come with,” Derek says. “Come stay at the house, with the pack. We have extra rooms. Just until we get this sorted.”

“I really don’t think it’ll come after me dude,” Stiles says. “I’m pretty sure--”

“Did you learn nothing from, what, four years enmeshed in pack business?” Derek asks. “These things--they go after anyone. We have no idea what this one wants.”

“Maybe it wants the pack, then, and I’d be less safe there,” Stiles says. “We don’t even really know what it can do, either.”

“Stiles,” Derek says. “I’m not asking you to join the pack or anything. Just stay in the house until we figure this out. There are more of us, it’s safer.”

“I have Scott on speed dial,” Stiles says, and there’s a stubborn set to his jaw. It’s one Derek has seen at one point on each of his betas’ faces. It took him a long time to learn how to deal with it.

“Okay,” Derek says, and shrugs.

Stiles pauses and looks at him like he’s trying to find the trap.

“Okay,” Stiles echoes. “Great, then. I’ll see you later.”

“Call Scott,” Derek says, and Stiles nods minutely, standing very still in the doorframe.

“You’ve changed,” Stiles says.

“People do,” Derek says. “People do that.”

“Yeah, I know,” Stiles says. “I just kind of expected you to put me in a headlock and drag me there.”

“I can still do that,” Derek says. “If you want.”

“I think I’ll pass,” Stiles says. “Thanks, though.”

“If you change your mind, you know where we are,” Derek says.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “I guess I do.”

Derek walks back to his car slowly, dragging his feet through the places where the streetlights pool up on the sidewalk. It only takes a few moments before there’s a clatter of feet on the stairs, and Derek doesn’t need to turn around to know Stiles is standing in the street behind him.

“I know you’re trying to play me,” Stiles says. When Derek turns around he’s shrugging on a jacket. “And I want you to know that you didn’t, really, but I kind of want to see what the bestiary had to say, and we really need to figure out what this Anguilla could possibly want in coming ashore, because now the thought’s in my head and I can’t just leave it there.”

Derek pauses, and Stiles looks at him.

“Well?” he says. “Where’s your car? You are giving me a ride, aren’t you?”

Derek shrugs and keeps walking, and Stiles catches up with him and matches his stride, keeping his hands shoved deep into his pockets.

“You don’t need anything?” Derek asks.

“Nothing but the clothes on my back,” Stiles says. “Seriously, one night, what am I supposed to bring? I can sleep in my boxers. You guys have extra toothbrushes? I bet you do. I bet you buy bulk packs of toothbrushes at, like, Costco, and have them all in a cabinet under the sink.”

Derek’s not entirely sure why that’s mock worthy, but it’s true.

“It was Boyd,” he says, unlocking the car while Stiles goes around to the passenger side. “He set up the Costco card. And bought the toothbrushes.”

“Boyd is a responsible adult,” Stiles says, sliding in. “It’s amazing you found one. I am shocked and slightly appalled, because I was under the impression that werewolves are supposed to make extremely poor life choices.”

“And that’s why a werewolf is your best friend,” Derek says. “That’s definitely a poor life choice.”

“Ouch,” Stiles says. “I feel so--insulted. I’m going to cry real tears tonight, Hale. So many that you’ll be able to smell them from down the hall.”

“I don’t want to smell any of your bodily fluids, Stiles,” Derek says.

“Aw,” Stiles says. “Don’t worry, I won’t jizz on the sheets.”

Derek chooses not to dignify that with a response, though he should’ve known that if he gave Stiles an opening he would take it and then take it a bridge too far.

“Brainstorming session,” Stiles says when they reach the edge of town and pull into the woods. “What would an Anguilla want in Beacon Hills?”

“To kill us,” Derek says.

“That’s hardly creative,” Stiles says. “The legends say it eats children. Maybe it to devirginize high school students. Maybe it wants to attend high school. Maybe it really enjoys watching lacrosse. Maybe it wants to buy a surfboard.”

“The otter I met at the hardware store made surfboards,” Derek says.

“You met an otter at the hardware store,” Stiles says. “And you didn’t think this was relevant information? Was it adorable?”

He was human shaped,” Derek says.

“And adorable?” Stiles asks. Derek gives Stiles a sidelong look that he hopes conveys his disinterest in answering that question, and Stiles says, “Eyes on the road, dude, precious cargo.”

“You’re precious cargo, now?” Derek asks.

“Or you might be,” Stiles says. “Don’t sell yourself short Derek, geez. Plus, if you die, who will be Alpha?”

“Boyd,” Derek says without really thinking about it.

“I’m telling Scott,” Stiles says. “Remember when you were all, ‘Scott, you aren’t joining my pack because you’re Alpha of your own pack, blah blah blah, Scott you’re an excellent leader, Scott please be my friend except I don’t really trust you at all?’”

“No,” Derek says.

“And then you were all, ‘Fuck you Stiles, why did you tell your dad about werewolves, and suddenly Scott was trustworthy because Stiles is the least trustworthy, Stiles is a traitor to all werewolfkind,’” Stiles continues. “That was a thing that happened.”

“That’s not exactly how I remember it,” Derek says stiffly, because after that he had still asked Stiles to join the pack and Stiles had said no. Stiles shrugs.

“Oh. Well maybe I’m mixing you up with another Alpha, then.”

They’re quiet, after that. Derek doesn’t know what Stiles doing--he’s turned away from Derek, so Derek can just see the curve of his neck and the rim of his ear, he’s got one arm against the window and he’s tapping his fingers against the armrest in a quick, staccato beat, and when they stop at a four-way Derek glances to his right and can see Stiles is facing forward and worrying his lower lip with his teeth.

Of course Stiles saw it differently; it’s really no surprise. But the way he talks about it--Derek had thought Stiles wanted to leave, refused to commit to the pack. Stiles makes it sound like he’d been pushed out. By Derek. Rejected. Also by Derek. That would explain the part where he kept in touch with everyone but Derek. Not that--Derek doesn’t have a Facebook. But has an e-mail address and, as everyone has been reminding him, a phone.

They pull into the drive and walk up to the house without talking. Stiles takes the porch steps two at a time, and Derek pushes the door open ahead of him. Scott, Allison, and Isaac are watching TV, and Stiles immediately plops down beside Isaac and says, “Oh, Firefly! this is my favorite episode.”

“Hey Stiles,” Allison says.

“What’re you doing here?” Scott asks, peering up.

“Staying the night,” Stiles says. “For important safety reasons.”

Derek steps in front of the TV.

“Did Boyd tell you about our meeting with the otters?”

“Was watching that,” Isaac says placidly.

“Yes, he told us,” Allison says. “The bestiary recommends fire, but says it’s unusual for Anguilla to leave the water wholesale.”

“We still need a motive,” Stiles says. “Means, motive, opportunity.” He ticks them off on his fingers.

“Yes, Stilinski, we know your dad’s a cop,” Isaac mutters, fishing the remote out of the couch cushions and pausing the DVD player or Netflix or whatever it is.

“Sheriff,” Stiles corrects. “So, anyone have any ideas?”

“We haven’t even seen the thing,” Isaac says. “Call me back when it starts eating people.”

“Isaac, is there anyone new at the school? New students? New teachers?” Derek asks. “Redheads?”

“Uh, no,” Isaac says. “Move.”

Derek sighs and moves, goes upstairs and makes up the bed in the spare room, then goes back downstairs and sits beside Stiles.

“Third door on the left,” he says.

Stiles turns to him and blinks.

“Okay?”

“Spare bedroom,” Derek says.

“Bathroom’s the first door on the left,” Scott says brightly.

“I have been in this house before guys,” Stiles says. “But okay, thanks everyone. Would anyone care to tell me which towels are the spares? Or about your hoard of toothbrushes?”

“Left drawer under the sink on the toothbrushes,” Isaac says.

“Towels are in the linen closet behind the bathroom door,” Allison adds. “Anything that’s there is clean.”

“Well,” Stiles says. “Now that that’s all taken care of.”

Isaac restarts the video. Derek doesn’t usually sit and watch this stuff, but it’s pretty good, good enough that when Stiles falls asleep and drools on his shoulder Derek doesn’t bother waking him. Derek’s enjoying this, and Stiles has already seen it, anyway.

When it is over and Derek nudges Stiles awake, he shakes a little and rubs his head against Derek’s shoulder before blinking blearily up at him.

“Oh,” he says, pulling back too quickly, and Derek’s side is suddenly void of warmth. “Oh, sorry. And I accused you of personal space invasion.”

Derek doesn’t respond, just gets up and says, “I’m going to bed.” Isaac smirks at him, another of those jokes Derek doesn’t understand or want to understand, anyway.

Derek wakes up to the smell of pancakes, and when he goes downstairs he finds Stiles in the kitchen, wearing yesterday’s clothes but showered and smelling like pack, like them as individuals and also like their soap, the cheap stuff Boyd buys at Costco. It is--Derek’s not sure how to articulate what it is, but somewhere in his chest his wolf is satisfied.

“I can lend you clean clothes,” Derek says, sitting down and watching Stiles’ back.

“So could Scott, and they would probably fit better,” Stiles says. “Or Allison, though last time we did that the fit was a little snug, especially in the pants. Thanks, but I’m good.”

“You making pancakes for everyone?” Derek asks because he’s not wondering when or why Stiles wore Allison’s pants. Stiles shrugs.

“That’s the plan,” he says. “If I run out, it’s your fault for not having enough eggs.”

“I’m sure it is,” Derek mutters.

“Seriously, how much do you guys spend on food a year?”

“Enough,” Derek says. “Do you really want to get into finances here?”

“No,” Stiles says. “Probably not.”

The rest of the pack comes tumbling downstairs, and the pancakes go quick. It’s not really a surprise. Stiles gets a ride back into town with Erica, but he promises to come back for the night--”And I’ll bring my own clothes this time,” he tells Derek. “And I’ll nose around about anyone new who’s shown up in town.”

It’s strange to have Stiles around again, home with the pack at night. He throws off the entire cooking schedule--throws off the entire point of the cooking schedule--by insisting that he’ll be cooking dinner on arbitrary nights. No one minds, though, because if Stiles isn’t precisely a good cook, but he’s at least on par with Isaac, and he’s a different cook, which is what really counts.

On the second day Derek runs into Muir at the hardware store, buying wood. Stiles is along--wanted to ride along for no reason Derek would fathom, and he’s looking at paint chips and trailing after Derek listlessly when Muir appears.

“Hello again,” Muir says mildly, and Derek gives him a tight-lipped smile. “I hear you spoke with my aunt and the rest.”

“Yes,” Derek says. “Yes, we did.”

“Well, good on you then,” Muir says, and Derek nods once before Stiles emerges behind him.

“Derek,” Stiles says. “Who’s this?”

“Muir Douglas,” Derek says, nodding. “Muir, Stiles.”

“Pleasure,” Muir all but purrs, and Stiles is looking between Derek and Muir strangely, but he stays behind Derek instead of stepping forward.

“Certainly,” Stiles says. “Good to meet you.” He coughs. “It’s certainly good to meet you.”

Muir nods, and Stiles nods, and you could cut the tension--what sort of tension Derek isn’t sure--with a knife before Derek finds himself guiding Stiles away.

“That the surfing otter?” Stiles asks, and Derek nods. “Not adorable. Weird.”

Derek shrugs.

It’s strange, the way none of this is coming together right or easy. The Anguilla should have done something by now, but it hasn’t--it isn’t, and they can’t just wander around Beacon Hills hoping to encounter a redhead person they’ve never seen before that smells of the sea. No one’s dying, the pack is living safe and easy. The only suspicious thing happening at the moment are those novels, and Derek has a pretty fair inkling as to who wrote them, if anyone associated with the pack wrote them. He just--can’t be bothered. Or, he probably should be bothered, but he figures it can wait until this Anguilla thing is resolved, which, at the rate it’s going, may be never. Maybe the Anguilla wants to live peacefully amongst them. Maybe the Anguilla has already left town and moved up or down the coast--and wouldn’t that be nice, a situation resolving itself for once.

Derek highly doubts the Anguilla has moved up or down the coast. Situations never resolve themselves. Neat and easy is for other people.

Which is why it’s kind of a relief when Isaac bursts into the house that evening and says, “We have a redheaded transfer student! She’s been homeschooled until now, and no one’s seen her parents.”

Finally,” Stiles says, rubbing his head, and Derek has to agree.

“What now?” Isaac asks, plopping himself down on the couch. “Nothing’s happened, so do we try to take preventative measures, or do we do...something else?”

Derek genuinely doesn’t know. If this girl isn’t the Anguilla they can’t do anything.

“Did you meet her?” Derek asks. “How did she smell?”

“Like seaweed,” Isaac confirms. “Really strongly.”

“Am I the only one who thinks this seems too obvious?” Stiles asks.

“Yes,” Erica says from her perch on the armrest of the chair Boyd’s sitting on.

“No,” Boyd says, and Stiles turns to look at him.

“You see it, too?” Stiles says, then turns towards Isaac and Derek. “No attacks, then we get a really, really, painfully obvious Anguilla. Or something that looks like one. Doesn’t that seem suspicious?”

“You’re more paranoid than Derek,” Erica says. “Seriously? Why?”

“Because,” Stiles frowns and looks at Boyd.

“A trap?” Boyd hazards.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “A trap. With bait.”

Derek looks between Boyd and Stiles, who are looking at one another, both obviously lost within their own heads.

“Did you get her address?” Derek asks Isaac.

“What do you take me for?” Isaac says, frowning. “Yeah, she’s out on Ocean Drive.”

“Obvious,” Stiles says ominously. “So obvious.”

“He’s right,” Boyd adds.

“And, seriously, how does an Anguilla afford Ocean?” Stiles asks. “Those houses are mad fancy, and has anyone moved away recently?”

“Maybe she has family money,” Erica says. “Like Derek. Some of the houses on Ocean are vacation homes no one really lives in, there could’ve been one in the family for awhile and no one would’ve really noticed.”

“Hmm,” Stiles hums thoughtfully. “I never really thought of Anguilla being a family thing, but--”

“I think we should go out to the house,” Derek interjects. “Boyd, Erica, Isaac, we’ll take the Camaro. Stiles, stay here.”

Stiles’ eyes flash to meet Derek’s, widening.

“But,” he says.

“We had an agreement,” Derek says. “Remember?”

“You got me involved in pack business!” Stiles says. “You have me living here. I have a toothbrush.

“He does,” Boyd says. “It’s purple. It smells like him.”

Derek knows.

“Thank you, Boyd,” Stiles says. “Boyd noticed.”

“It’s safer if you stay here,” Derek says.

“Unless the Anguilla knows you’re coming and circles back around,” Stiles says.

“Scott and Allison will be home soon,” Derek says. “We’re just going to check things out, we’ll be back soon.”

Stiles lifts his chin and flares. His eyes are such a light brown they’re practically gold, practically supernatural, and Derek fully acknowledges the irony of holding that thought in his mind when his eyes could, very easily, be flashing red.

“I could help,” Stiles says. “I’ve been helpful in the past. I could help.”

“It will be safer if you don’t,” Derek says. “For everyone. And this is just--a preliminary investigation.”

“So then it’s no big to bring me,” Stiles says. “For a preliminary investigation.”

Stiles,” Derek says, and Derek doesn’t know what was in his tone, but Stiles recoils as if hit.

“Okay,” Stiles says, and his own voice is quiet, there’s something that’s drained out of him. “Okay. It’s still like this. I see. I have work to do anyway.”

Derek doesn’t, not really.

“Boyd,” Stiles continues, turning to Boyd. “Represent for me here, alright? Don’t let them tear anyone or anything’s throat out with their teeth unless this girl transforms into a sea serpent before your very eyes and, like, tries to bite a chunk out of someone. Something’s weird about this and--I don’t know.”

Stiles gets up and goes upstairs, and Boyd kind of shrugs and looks to Derek, who is feeling a little--but maybe Stiles is trying to play him. But also like Stiles isn’t, like something just happened that is deeply, deeply, strange and confusing to Derek.

“Let’s go,” he says, looking at the others.

“Wait,” Stiles says, clattering down the stairs. “Give me the address so I know where to send Scott and Allison and my Dad when you guys don’t come back.”

Isaac looks at Derek, and Derek nods once. Isaac rattles off the numbers.

“Don’t follow us,” Derek says.

“Don’t worry, I don’t want to,” Stiles says flatly. “Really not interested.”

There’s an uncomfortable pause after that, and then Boyd gets up and walks to the door, and the others follow. When they get in the car Isaac gives Derek the house number but otherwise it’s quiet, and Derek knows something happened back there, but he’s not sure what.

“He could’ve come,” Erica says.

“He’s not pack,” Derek says. “If something had happened--”

“Except when you treat him like he is,” Erica says. “Which is most of the time.”

Oh. Oh.

It’s kind of obvious when Erica says it, which might explain why everyone goes silent after that. Probably also because they don’t want to talk about it, because Derek is on a thin blade’s edge between being okay and being not okay at all, after that conversation with Stiles, after the way Stiles had looked at him, all dark gold eyes and pink cheeks and righteous anger simmering just beneath the surface.

Erica’s right. If Stiles isn’t pack he doesn’t need to stay at the house with them, but--it had made sense, at the time. Stiles needed to be kept safe, because he was--

Derek didn’t know what he was. He didn’t trust Stiles, but he felt like he should protect him. And he didn’t know what that meant. Or he did, he could feel its meaning on the edge of his mind, but there was no time for that, now.

The Anguilla’s house on Ocean Drive is one of the big ones, nestled in along the cliffs just south of Sunday Cove, with a driveway that they drove past twice before actually seeing it. Derek parked along the road, in a gravel pull-out that people used to hike down to the beach. It would look suspicious, but less suspicious than the driveway, and if the Sheriff saw it and not one of his deputies he would probably turn a blind eye.

They shift and lope through the woods towards the house. The lights are out and the house looks empty, though when they nose around Derek catches the scent of seaweed, stronger even than the nearby ocean, commingled with something human. There have been at least two more people near the house in the past few days, as far as Derek can tell, but the real problem is that no one’s there now.

It’s Isaac who tracks one of the scents to a rickety staircase that leads towards the shore, and then they all follow him down. Stairs are clumsy on four legs, but everyone makes it down to the shore without tumbling, which Derek counts as a plus. The minus is that it’s high tide and the scent leads straight into the water. Even assuming whatever--whoever--it was hadn’t shifted, they could easily have walked below the tideline to where ever they were going.

Derek retreats back into the trees and sits down, and the others gather around him.

“Are we waiting?” Isaac asks.

“Yes,” Derek says.

“The glamorous lives of a pack of werewolves,” Isaac mutters, and lies down on his back. “Wake me up when something happens.”

Boyd and Erica go off to the side, presumably to make out, and Derek settles back against the trunk of a tree, watching the shore and the staircase as his thoughts wend their way, inevitably, back around towards Stiles.

This is what Derek knows about himself: he’s a werewolf, the Alpha of a small pack that has recently been kind of a disaster but is doing alright for itself, now. He owns a landscaping business. All his blood relations are dead, and that’s something he would rather not see happen again.

From here he can hear the heartbeats of his betas, quiet and present around him in the woods, steady as the lapping of the waves. But Scott and Allison are missing. And Stiles, Stiles is missing too, his heartbeat erratic and human and completely alive.

This is what Derek knows about how he feels about Stiles: he wants to make sure Stiles is safe. But Stiles isn’t pack, and Derek isn’t sure who a person is to him that he wants to keep safe but that isn’t pack--that isn’t already committed to him, to Derek, as their Alpha. Because anyone who isn’t could betray him, and by betraying him, hurt the pack.

And his pack trusts Stiles, but Derek--Derek’s not sure if he can, but he wonders if he does, already.

He listens to the heartbeats around him, listens to his own heartbeat, the steady line of himself that is so omnipresent he rarely hears it, and then he hears a fifth.

He shakes Isaac awake and gets to his feet. Boyd and Erica emerge from the woods to join them, arms loose at their sides, and the person--the other heartbeat--Derek can smell them, now, human and salt and sea, and they’re standing by the shore.

It is a red-haired girl, sixteen if she’s a day, and Derek signals for the pack to stay back while he steps out of the treeline. She turns around.

“Alpha Hale,” she says. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Have you?” he asks.

“I can see your pack back there,” she says. “They can come out of the woods. Little dogs can come out of the woods.”

Derek looks at her, and holds up a hand to signal the betas to hold back.

“What do you want?” he says, slowly.

She laughs, wavering.

“Didn’t the otters tell you?” she says. “Bones, of course. I’m something of a collector.”

“You haven’t done much collecting,” Derek says, the girl’s lips twist into a sharp-toothed grin.

“I’ve been waiting,” she says, stepping forward, and Derek is waiting for her to shift, for her to grab him and pull him towards the ocean, but she just--stands there, like she’s waiting, too.

Derek growls, and the girl’s smile widens. Derek can hear, behind him, his betas stepping forward--he trusts Boyd to hold them back.

“You’re a cute little dog,” says the girl. “With a cute little litter of cute little pups. Do you know any tricks?”

Derek’s still waiting.

“I can see why Kate liked you,” says the girl, and that--that was it what Derek’s been waiting for, and he is--he can feel his control stripped away, he can almost see the tattered vestiges of it, and he’s shifting and leaping, leaping and shifting, and the girl is starting to laugh, but she’s still human-shaped, which is wrong somehow. The human in Derek is skidding to a halt, is saying no, and Derek can hear Boyd saying something similar, but Derek can’t hear it over the roaring in his ears.

Derek doesn’t even know where Stiles comes from, just that he’s there, throwing himself in front of Derek before anyone in the pack can reach them, and Derek is slicing his side and Stiles is tumbling onto the rocks and there’s a--sound--when the side of Stiles’ head hits on the rocks and even Derek’s wolf feels guilty and Stiles is saying--something--and there’s blood on Derek’s claws, and it smells like Stiles.

“She’s an otter,” Stiles says. “She’s a--it’s a trap.”

Derek pulls back, pulls out of himself and into his other self. Stiles is clutching at his side, still talking. The girl--the girl is an otter, she’s already shifted and is rushing towards the water.

“Stiles, what the hell?” Derek asks, because he can’t help himself, even as he realizes he should be with Erica, who has rushed forward and is pressing her shirt against Stiles’ side and helping him to his feet.

“An otter--” Stiles says. “Muir Douglas. Came by the house. Wanted the pack records, territory maps, thought you’d be gone. They were--they were trying to get you to break truce, so the Argents could drive you out. Wanted--land. I called Dad, had him check land deeds, and this house belongs to the Douglas family and is listed as their primary residence.”

Derek is a little bewildered.

“They provoked me,” Derek starts to say. “They--”

“The otters--couldn’t attack, just needed something to say you’d harmed--peaceable creatures,” Stiles says.

“We need to get him to the hospital,” Erica hisses, lifting Stiles to his feet. “He’s a human.”

Stiles is human. Derek slides in against his other side, and with Stiles between them he and Erica navigate him to the steps.

“I can walk,” Stiles says, but he stumbles a bit, and Isaac says, “Obviously you can’t.”

“I couldn’t--” Stiles says. “Scott and Allison were too far away, wouldn’t make it on time, and I think if you touched her they would’ve had enough. There’s no Anguilla.”

“Yes, Stiles,” Derek says, mostly to humor him. If he’s talking, he’s alright, and Erica is pressing her shirt into his side, but Derek can smell the metallic scent of human blood, of Stiles’ blood, right there, and Stiles’ arm is heavier than it should be across Derek’s shoulders.

“She--” Stiles says. “Kate. Still?”

Derek doesn’t entirely know what Stiles is asking, or why, and he can feel the bodies of his pack pressed close around him, like they can stop this. Even if Derek did know what Stiles was asking, he’s not sure what the answer is.

“Let’s get you up these stairs,” Derek says.

“There’s a first aid kit,” Stiles says. “Under the passenger seat.”

There is a first aid kit under the passenger seat in Stiles’ Jeep, when they get to it. It’s parked in front of the house, haphazardly, the driver’s side door still ajar and the keys dangling in the ignition. Derek just hopes the battery’s live.

Isaac knows first aid, or enough first aid to wrap bandages tightly around Stiles’ chest once they’ve peeled his shirt off.

“They aren’t deep,” Isaac says.

“See?” Stiles mutters. “I’ll be fine.”

“Unless you have a concussion,” Erica gripes. “Quick, someone shine a flashlight in his eyes, don’t let him fall asleep.”

“I don’t,” Stiles mutters with the confidence of someone who--might have an concussion. “Boyd, call my dad and tell him I’m fine. See, I remembered that, I probably don’t--”

They have him lying across the back seat, and Stiles is trying to prop himself up to keep talking, but eventually he just slumps back while Boyd goes off to make the call. Isaac does actually find a flashlight in Stiles’ glovebox, and shines it in his eyes and claims his pupils are dilating normally, though Derek isn’t sure how Isaac knows this.

“Just take me home,” Stiles says. “To a bed.”

The cuts aren’t deep, and the keys are in the ignition, so Derek hands the keys to the Camaro off to Boyd and drives Stiles back to the house, carries him up the stairs and puts him into bed, helps him out of his pants and covers him over with blankets, then brings a spare chair into the room, props his legs up on the bed, and goes to sleep himself.

Scott shakes him awake, his head stooped over Derek in the dark room.

“What happened?” he asks. “Allison and I--Stiles called, but we were too far away.”

“He’s okay,” Derek says. “I’ll tell you in the morning.”

Scott looks at him for a moment, like he’s thinking, then shakes his head.

“I need to give him stitches,” Scott says. “I--called Isaac, I stopped by Deaton’s and brought the stuff.”

Derek vaguely thinks that they probably shouldn’t have a vet--not even a real vet, one in training--treat their human, especially not when Scott’s mother is a nurse, but he just shifts in his uncomfortable chair, trying to shake the sleep--the whole evening, really--from his head enough to think clearly.

“Okay,” he says.

Scott gives him a strange look, and Derek moves towards the bed to shake Stiles awake.

“Scott’s here,” Derek says. “He’s going to give you stitches.”

Stiles’ eyes, looking up at Derek, are huge and bright in the dim light that’s filtering in from the hallway, his lashes casting strange shadows on his cheeks.

“Oh my god, Scott, I’m not a chihuahua,” Stiles says, and laughs weakly. “Help me with these bandages, okay?”

Derek helps Stiles up and then sits on the bed with his hand on Stiles’ shoulder while Scott stitches him up, and every time Stiles winces it lances through Derek to somewhere buried inside his chest, somewhere that aches like a wound.

“Okay,” Scott says, and between the three of them they sit Stiles up and redo his bandages.

“I’m going back to sleep,” Stiles says, and forcibly flops himself back onto the bed. Derek returns to his chair, and Scott gives him one last cryptic look before leaving the room.

Derek wakes up twice in the night and again when light is slanting through the blinds and Stiles is blinking at him from the bed.

“Did you sleep here?” he asks.

“I cut you,” Derek says. “I--how do you feel?”

Stiles stretches and rolls himself over, pushing down the blankets and running one hand along the bandages on his side.

“Not great,” he says. “But alright. Probably could change the bandages. Or eat breakfast. Or some combination thereof.”

It smells like breakfast, Derek realizes.

“Downstairs, then?” he asks, and Stiles nods.

“There should be a clean shirt in the top drawer of the dresser, if you could grab one,” he adds, and Derek turns around and takes one out, tosses it to Stiles, who pulls it on before getting up. Derek looks at him questioningly, and Stiles shrugs.

“I’m really alright,” he says. “Enough to walk, at least.”

“What happened at the house last night?” Derek asks when they’re at the breakfast table. “With Muir?”

Stiles shrugs.

“He didn’t expect anyone to be here,” Stiles says. “And I--ah--have a gun.”

Everyone looks at him, at that, though Boyd, Scott, and Allison at least look unsurprised.

“I didn’t use it,” Stiles says. “I just had it. Did you guys--my dad’s the sheriff, I can shoot a gun. I’m licensed and everything. Boyd’s seen me at the range! And Allison!” Stiles pauses. “So I asked him what he thought he was doing, and then I told him to leave before I shot him. I may have implied that I had Argent bullets, which I don’t. And then I called Dad to ask about the house, and then Scott, and then I went out to Ocean.”

“Where’d he go?” Derek asks, and Erica grins a little viciously across the table at Boyd.

“We found him,” she says.

“You didn’t--” Stiles starts, but Isaac shakes his head.

“What do you take us for?” he asks. “We aren’t feral. We just reminded him whose territory this is.”

“Muir said the otters had been here longer,” Stiles says. “And they don’t like predators. He called you land seals.”

“Land seals,” Derek repeats, and Stiles shrugs.

“Predators,” he says. “Like seals. Sharp teeth. I don’t know. I know most of your records burned--Muir must be some kind of dumbass for not knowing that--but it is possible one of your ancestors like, ate an otter? And there’s been this weird one-sided feud going on that you don’t know about?”

“No,” Derek says. “Otter tastes like shit.”

“And you know that without eating them,” Stiles says, and there’s a bit of his normal sarcasm there. “Okay.”

After breakfast Derek follows Stiles up to the bedroom, where Stiles sits on the bed and says, “I guess since you’re here you can help me put on new bandages.”

He sounds resigned, and doesn’t wait for a reply before he pulls off his shirt and begins unwrapping the bandages that are already there. He’s so slim--his shoulders belie the narrowness of his chest, his hips. Derek still can’t believe--he shouldn’t have, he thinks, he shouldn’t have hurt Stiles.

But Stiles has always been stronger than anyone could expect him to be.

“You don’t really need to take care of me, you know,” Stiles says distantly. “I’m not pack. I could go to my dad’s.”

“You were injured on pack business,” Derek says. “By me.”

Stiles seems to sink a little, like that was still the wrong answer, and Derek doesn’t--doesn’t quite.

“Kate,” Stiles says, quietly, hands still holding the package of bandages in his lip. “Still?”

Derek looks up at Stiles.

“Not Kate,” he says. “But what she did.”

Stiles nods, just once, and then holds out the fresh bandages.

When Derek gets close he can see that Stiles’ side is scabbing over, can see the shape of the jagged cuts that were left in the wake of his claws, and it makes him wince, just a little. When he brushes his fingers across it he can feel Stiles shiver.

“Your tattoo,” Derek says, pausing on Stiles’ back and putting one hand up to touch it, almost involuntarily. Stiles tenses under his touch, and Derek is surprised at the strong surge of emotion that small reaction raises in him.

“It’s Jörmungandr,” Stiles says, still holding still. “Loki's child. Trickster's child, but he holds the world together. Endless cycle of death and life. I got it my senior year of college, because it just--made sense, somehow. I just finished an undergraduate thesis on trickster figures. And I wouldn’t get a coyote, because I’m not a wolf. And I don’t know what I am, exactly, but Jör--he made sense.”

Derek doesn’t know what to say to that, to any of it.

When Derek finishes with the bandages Stiles is looking off into the middle distance at nothing in particular.

“Thanks,” he says, kind of distantly, like he’s thinking about something else. “I think I’ll go back to sleep.”

Derek waits.

“Please leave,” Stiles says softly.

Derek leaves.

Derek goes out to work in the greenhouse, because it’s easier than staying in the house and trying to listen to Stiles’ heartbeat and see if he’s awake yet. Back there there’s not much to hear but plants, and it’s a little clearer that way. Plants--every sound a plant makes makes physiological sense, pure and emotionless.

Erica comes out to join him because she’s only working a half day at the coffee shop. She’s quieter than she ever is.

“Boyd told me he thinks Stiles wrote those books,” she says in one breath, not looking at Derek.

Derek grunts, because he’s not sure if he wants her to go on or not, but Erica takes it as an invitation to continue.

“Have you thought about what that might say?” she asks. “About Stiles? The human protagonist joins the pack, and everyone’s happy.”

“He didn’t want to,” Derek says.

Erica shrugs.

“I’m not, like, a literary theorist or anything, just saying. If Stiles did write those books you should probably use them for insight into Stiles’ psyche instead of looking constipated whenever you try to figure out if he’s pack or not.”

“And if he didn’t?” Derek asks.

“Then I owe Isaac twenty bucks and free macchiatos for a week,” Erica says. “Whatever.”

“Who does Isaac think wrote it?” Derek asks.

“Monkeys on typewriters,” Erica shrugs. “But that’s Isaac. Also, I think he was just giving me shit.”

“Probably,” Derek agrees, and considers this while he goes back to his plants.

“Or you could always ask Stiles,” Erica says. “But I’ve always preferred the direct approach.”

The problem is, Derek doesn’t know the question, and he’s not sure even Stiles could answer a question Derek doesn’t know how to ask.

Stiles is sitting out on the porch when Derek gets back to the house, with a mug of hot chocolate in his hands and his legs curled up beneath him.

“Boyd made it for me,” he says, when he sees Derek sniffing the air. “If you catch him he might make you one.”

Derek sits down on the steps in front of Stiles and puts his arms on his knees.

“Thank you, Stiles,” he says, which is probably something he should’ve said hours earlier.

“It wasn’t--” Stiles starts, and then Derek can hear him shake his head like he’s shaking something off. “You’re welcome.”

They’re quiet for a moment, and then Stiles shifts in his chair.

“You know,” he says. “A person can be loyal to the pack without being in it.”

That’s all he says. That’s it. But he says it so carefully, like he wants to make sure he shapes the words right, that Derek knows it’s important.

“I think I’m learning,” Derek says, and Stiles doesn’t reply, but Derek can hear his heartbeat settle, can hear Stiles behind him alternately blowing and sipping on his hot chocolate.

“We aren’t all Kate Argent,” Stiles says softly.

“I know,” Derek says, but part of him wonders what the ‘we’ is that Stiles is including himself in, because Stiles isn’t a Hunter and Kate Argent was, because Stiles isn’t a lot of things Kate Argent was. Not trying to sleep with Derek, for one, and that thought--something small inside Derek responds to that thought, the idea of Stiles trying to sleep with him, with a little thrill that Derek doesn’t want to examine.

They sit like that for awhile longer, until Stiles finishes his mug of hot chocolate and sets it down and then a bit past then, without talking.

“Do you need to go see the otters again?” Stiles asks eventually.

“No,” Derek says. “I imagine they know where we stand.”

“So less than adorable, than,” Stiles says, a little dryly. “I guess I forgot how closely related otters and weasels are.”

“Guess so,” Derek replies, and then it’s quiet again.

“I think I’m going to go back to my apartment tomorrow,” Stiles says.

“Okay,” Derek says, because he’s starting to accept that he can never, ever, tell Stiles what to do.

“So that’s settled, then,” Stiles says, and he sounds a little disappointed, like maybe he expected Derek to protest.

It’s only after Stiles leaves that Derek reconsiders his conversation with Erica, wonders if he needs to read those books again, read them with Stiles in the forefront of his mind instead of in the back. Because he and Stiles are okay now, he thinks, but when Stiles car pulls out of the drive his heart twists a little like it’s a lemon and all the juice is being squeezed out of it, and he doesn’t understand.

The problem is, he can’t find their copies. There might be one in the room where Boyd’s sleeping, but they’re not in the living room or in Erica’s or Isaac’s rooms, and that might be what brings Derek to Scott and Allison’s room in the far corner of the house.

There is a copy of ‘Omega’ on the desk, in hardback. It’s sitting there utterly innocuous, but it’s sitting there, and the wolf on the cover is gazing up at Derek. The jacket is metallic--the softcover copies Erica bought didn’t have metallic covers--and the wolf’s eyes actually glint.

Derek picks the book up, turns it over in his hands. If Scott and Allison had a copy (and of course they shared a copy, they’re Scott and Allison, Scott picked a vet school based on proximity to archery ranges) why didn’t they share it with the rest of the pack?

When he opens it to the fly-leaf, there’s an inscription in a spiky scrawl: “Hey, Scott, ole buddy ole pal, this one’s for you. Thanks. -N. D. Stiles”

Derek stares at it for a minute and a half before he goes downstairs, still holding the book, and tells Isaac he’s going out.

“Clubbing?” Isaac asks, looking up from his book. “Because--”

“No,” Derek says, and then he’s out the door.

He uses the fire escape. There’s no good reason for him to use the fire escape, except that he’s annoyed and it feels good to swing himself up from the ground onto the platform outside Stiles’ kitchen window. The lights are out and the windows are closed and Stiles--isn’t home?--but the next windows look like they’re Stiles’ bedroom and one of those is open.

Derek slips in. Stiles is definitely not home, so Derek turns on the desklamp and sits down to wait. Stiles’ desk is a mess, which is about what Derek would have expected of Stiles: there’s some sort of novelty mug holding pens, there’s a laptop, there’s a pile of photographs of Stiles being a ham with people Derek has never seen in his life, there’s a postcard from Bolivia from someone named Patricia. And there is, underneath an ugly cast iron paperweight shaped like a slice of pizza (where do you even buy that?), a manuscript. The word ‘Alpha’ is neatly centered on the cover sheet, and Derek had intended to reread ‘Omega’ while he was waiting, but this is new, and, well, he wants to find out what happens more than he wants to gain insight into Stiles’ psyche, apparently. He’s not sure what that says about himself, but he figures if he doesn’t mess up the pages too much Stiles will never need to know.

He’s only a quarter way in before he realizes that Erica was right, that Bishop and the Alpha--James, his name is James--are being set up for some sort of endgame romance, and Derek doesn’t even know how that makes him feel. The only thing Derek shares with James, as far as he can tell, is his position in the pack, but it still makes Derek wonder why, if Stiles had ever thought that was a possibility, between them, because Derek--hadn’t. Not good or bad, just hadn’t.

It’s the little things, with Bishop and James, these fictional simulacrums of themselves. They’re spending more time together. They seem attuned to one another, in small, quiet ways, and Bishop has already dwelled inordinately on the physical description of James, Derek realizes, on details to do with the shape of his shoulders and the color of his eyes, the way his hair looks after he runs a hand through it in exasperation.

It makes sense, in the novel, in the way things make sense in novels.

It still makes Derek wonder. Not just about Stiles--about himself. About the inordinate amount of time he’s spent trying to define the color of Stiles’ eyes, for one.

He’s still mulling it over when he hears a key turn in the lock, and then Stiles is walking down the hallway, the cadence of his footsteps on floorboards uniquely Stiles, and Derek just sits and waits until the bedroom door swings open and Stiles physically recoils before turning towards the open window.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he says, once the startle in his heartbeat has settled.

Derek holds up the copy of ‘Omega.’

“I found this in Scott and Allison’s room.”

“And that belongs to them, so you should probably give it back,” Stiles says, sitting down on the bed like he knows what’s coming, because he probably does. “It was a gift.”

“This is why you’ve been lying,” Derek says.

“Like a rug,” Stiles replies. He sounds tired. “I would say I’m sorry, but I’m not, really. At all. And I kind of thought you knew anyway.”

“I know,” Derek says. “I did. But I didn’t--know.”

“Now you know what it’s like to be me,” Stiles says.

“What does that mean?” Derek asks, and Stiles looks up at him.

“What do you think, Derek?” Stiles says. “You can’t keep going back and forth. I can’t keep going back and forth, not if--” Stiles shakes his head. “I came back to Beacon Hills because I sort of wanted to stay, you know?” Derek didn’t know. “It’s home.”

“And?” Derek asks, because Stiles is acting like he finished that thought.

“And I wanted to be around the pack again,” Stiles says softly. “But I couldn’t--can’t--you don’t trust me, you want me to move into the house, you don’t trust me again, you’re worried about me--it’s a classic case of mixed signals, Derek, but it’s--this--isn’t just me and you. Your pack members are my friends, and you don’t just get to decide for them, who I am to them.” Stiles pauses and takes a breath, like he’s shoring himself up for something. “Just because you can’t decide who I am to you.”

“I don’t--” Derek starts.

“Trust me?” Stiles asks. “Because this was the last remaining secret, I think.”

“I don’t know,” Derek says. “I don’t know.”

And he wonders if that’s true, about all the secrets being out in the open, now, if there’s not one secret left that involves Stiles feeling a distant glimmer of arousal around Derek, for Derek, if it’s not possible that Stiles’ questions about Kate have don’t have to do with Stiles wanting to--wanting something--with Derek. And, gods, Derek has never felt more fucked up than he does right now, sitting at Stiles’ desk and staring across the room at Stiles and trying to put all the pieces together so they fit, so Derek doesn’t break Stiles more than he’s already broken him, because Stiles is the only human, only human, and he seems so normal sometimes that it makes Derek’s teeth ache with want. He had always thought that was envy, some deep-seated vein within him that wanted normalcy, but he’s beginning to wonder if it’s some deep-seated vein within him that wants Stiles, just Stiles, who left town and left the pack and left Derek and came back this person, grown into his skin and his sense of humor and himself and kind of beautiful for all of that.

Stiles’ face, across the room, is patient and inscrutable, which are two words Derek doesn’t remember associating with Stiles.

“Stiles,” he says. “I don’t know who you are to me.”

Stiles looks at him, and his mouth is open just slightly, and it’s only that, that gap between two pink lips, that makes Derek think he can continue, that he’s not all wrong.

“Stiles,” he says, and he can hear his own voice dropping lower. “What could we be?”

Stiles blinks, and that’s the Stiles knows, the one who’s scrutable.

“Um,” he says, licking his lips. “Do you want the menu?”

Derek nods, slow and careful, and a smile starts to tease at the corner of Stiles’ lips, his eyes.

“I had kind of figured--” he says. “This is going to make me sound easy. But you read that--” Stiles nods towards the manuscript, pages still spread across the desk “--so I think we’re on the same metaphorical page here. The menu is anything, really.”

Neither of them move, for a heartbeat, two or three.

“The prices run a little steep, though,” Stiles continues quietly. “You have to stay. Not forever, if you don’t want to--but you can’t run away from me, Derek. And you can’t push me away. I know--you’re you. I don’t expect any less. But I’m me. And we--god, Derek--we could be good, I think.”

“Good,” Derek echoes. “That’s what’s on the menu, then?”

“That’s what’s on the menu,” Stiles says, voice steady. “Are you--ah--ordering? Because if you aren’t--even if you are, really--I have to say this metaphor is starting to get weird for me.”

Derek’s moving across the room when Stiles is half done, leaning forward to bracket him in with his arms, to get their faces close together so Derek can breathe Stiles in and take another stab at figuring out what color his eyes are, definitively.

“Careful,” Stiles mutters into his mouth. “Left side, still healing.”

“I know,” Derek says. “You think I would forget?”

“No,” Stiles says. “No, actually, I didn’t. And I probably shouldn’t be reminding you when I think we were going to--”

Derek kisses him. And Stiles--Stiles makes a muffled effort to continue the sentence, his lips forming words against Derek’s, but then he starts to make a concerted effort, apparently, to get his tongue into Derek’s mouth, fisting his hands in Derek’s t-shirt and pulling them so close together that Derek is worried he is going to hurt Stiles, somehow, but then Derek settles his hands on Stiles’ hips--just to steady them, really, and suddenly Stiles has his thigh hooked around Derek and is rolling them over, pushing Derek down into the mattress.

“This will be better for my side,” he mutters into Derek’s shoulder, where he’s in the process of doing something indescribable with his tongue, and also decimating the collar of Derek’s t-shirt. Derek doesn’t mind because the position puts him even with the moles on Stiles’ cheek, and he presses his nose and his mouth against Stiles’ the skin of Stiles’ cheek, all soft and stubble, and breathes him in and wonders what he waited so long for, and somewhere in the place between his gut and his heart his wolf is curling up and bedding down for the night--maybe for longer--right here, right here, right here.

 

epilogue

Stiles moves into the pack’s house in the fall, when there are wildfires ripping through the hills and Derek has trouble sleeping through the night without Stiles curled into his chest. They use the Hale Landscaping truck and Stiles’ Jeep, and Stiles mostly sits at the bottom of the steps of 43 Oak Street, talking to Maisey about his nice young man and telling the pack really, not to worry, nothing he owns is that valuable, anyway, they should probably just dump all the furniture at Goodwill when Derek frowns at them and tells them not to break anything.

“What the hell is in this, anyway?” Erica asks, setting a cardboard box on the sidewalk. “Bricks? Seriously, if you aren’t going to help--”

“He doesn’t need to help,” Derek interjects.

“I was just talking to Maisey!” Stiles says. “Because I’m her favorite tenant, and I’m moving.”

“This box, Stiles,” Erica says, kicking the corner of it, and Stiles blushes a little.

“Those are--they just came yesterday guys, it was supposed to be a surprise--”

What,” Erica says, and suddenly she’s on her knees and ripping the box open.

“The galleys of ‘Alpha,’” Stiles finishes somewhat helplessly. “Um, yeah.”

“You totally withheld this information because you knew we wouldn’t help you move until we finished reading it you manipulative little--” Erica mutters.

“Derek’s already read it, so he would’ve helped me,” Stiles says, getting up and going to wrap an arm around Derek’s waist. “Wouldn’t you have, babe?”

Derek’s not entirely sure when he became okay with being called ‘babe,’ it was probably sometime between the first time Stiles put his tongue up his ass and the first time for--other things. Derek throws an arm across Stiles’ shoulders and says, “Yeah, probably.”

“Ugh, you guys,” Erica says. “Bishop and James totally get together in this one, don’t they, and I’m not even going to be able to enjoy it because it’ll be, like, a gratuitous picture of Derek and Stiles’ relationship. You’re the worst, Stiles, seriously.”

“What’s this?” Isaac asks when he and Boyd come down the stairs carrying a table. He looks down at the box, at the book in Erica’s hands. “Stilinski, seriously, fuck you.”

“It was going to be a reward!” Stiles protests. “For when you guys finished.”

“I don’t even want to read it anymore,” Isaac says.

“Shut up, you totally do,” Stiles says. “Lying liarface.”

“This is the last of it, actually,” Boyd says, hefting the table into the bed of the truck in one easy motion that leaves Maisey eyeing him in a way Derek’s trying to pretend he doesn’t see. “You guys ready?”

“Are you kidding?” Stiles says. “I was born ready.”

And then he pulls away from Derek, but he catches Derek’s hand in his own and turns back grinning before pulling him towards the Jeep, and Derek’s pretty sure that, yeah, he was too.