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You're a Dream to Me

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Derek has the first dream in a shitty motel room just across the Nevada border, when his clothes still smell like smoke.

It’s the first time he remembers sleeping since they got called out of class at school (they made it to Laura’s classroom first, he heard it down the hall, the sober, shaky, “Laura, could we speak to you in the hallway, please? Bring your bag, we need to find your brother,” but he already knew something had to be wrong), but he knows they must have slept since then. There’s been enough time in between to talk to dizzying amounts of people he doesn’t care to say anything to, to set Uncle Peter up with the best care they can manage, to arrange funerals they won’t go to, to make the police and the school believe they’ve got somewhere else to go, somewhere else they have to go. So Derek must have slept, and Laura must have slept, but the motel is the first time he remembers doing it.

When he forces his eyes closed, Laura’s false-calm breathing not loud enough to draw focus from the domestic argument going on next door, Derek expects nightmares. He deserves nightmares, he’ll deserve them for the rest of his life. Instead, he has the vivid sense that there’s someone just out of his sight that he needs to see, and then all at once an avalanche of someone else’s emotions, more specific than he knows how to smell or hear. It’s restlessness, and worry, and a need not to bother anyone all at once, and it isn’t pleasant, but it’s someone else feeling like that so Derek lingers as long as he can, listens to the strange heartbeat binding all the emotions up, bird-fast and a little uneven.

Derek wakes up to the sound of Laura screaming, her eyes flashing red like their father’s used to.

He forgets about the dream, after that.

*

Sometimes, Derek has nightmares. He has ones about fires and screams and what his senses and the police told him must have happened to turn his family into what they became. Laura has those too, a hundred times worse with her newly-heightened, untrained senses. Others are more insidious, and a few weeks or months ago they would have been good dreams: Kate Argent, her smile, her admiration of his swimming form, her hair spread out on a pillow, her mouth on his cock and fingers digging bruises into his thighs just faster than they could heal. He doesn’t tell Laura about those. He can’t.

The farther they get from Beacon Hills, though, the more he has other dreams, ones he can’t quite explain and doesn’t quite remember in the morning. There’s always someone there, just out of his line of sight, a human heartbeat thrumming in the background, and the undercurrent of someone else’s feelings, quicksilver changes of mood that make Derek think it’s probably a kid, if it’s someone real at all. He doesn’t think about it any more than he has to, though, too busy trying to keep himself together—and, as they travel on, Laura.

As they head east, towards Minnesota and an ally pack they can beg shelter with but taking the most winding route possible to lose any tail, Derek does most of the driving. Laura’s an untrained alpha with one beta in her pack, and it’s harder and harder as they go on for her to stay fully human, or to keep her senses from overwhelming her. Derek wants nothing more than to withdraw, maybe even to run away on his own for a while, but he has a responsibility to Laura as the only pack he has left—especially since it’s his fault.

The other pack takes them in willingly, but everyone knows it can’t be a permanent arrangement—Laura’s an alpha now, and it’s rare that alphas can work together for too long. She does get training, though, a crash course that she was just beginning to slowly learn from their father. “You should join me,” she offers at first, whenever she gets up to learn something new, something else that’s different for an alpha. “You’re my second, if anything happens to me, you …”

“If anything happens to you I’ll be an omega and it won’t matter.”

Laura wants to say something—wants to say Fuck you, you don’t get to give up, he can almost smell the words on her skin—but instead she shakes her head, looking away. “I’m not going anywhere, Derek. We’re all that’s left other than Uncle Peter, and we’ll … find some territory, maybe.” She brushes a hand over her face, anger fading into the ever-present sadness that fits so badly with the sister Derek’s known his whole life. “Build a new pack, someday.”

Derek knows there are packs that aren’t blood, either born wolves who don’t fit into the packs they were born into or bitten wolves chosen carefully, but he hates the thought of it. Betraying one pack was bad enough. He’s not sure he deserves another. He knows Laura does, though, so he doesn’t say anything, just nods and sends her off to training, spends another day in the woods, wanting to run and run and never come back.

*

Six months on, Derek falls asleep only to be swamped by so much grief he thinks the dream is one of his own nightmares for a second.

It only takes a second to recognize it as something outside himself, something wild and hopeless and bewildered, twinned with the too-fast beating of a heart. Someone’s world is ending, and this time it’s not his. Whoever it is (the same person as always, but that doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t mean he knows even if he feels like he should) is alone, or feels alone, and for the first time Derek finds himself reaching out, trying to tear aside the mental curtain that lets him observe but never interact, for no reason he can fathom. He’s not going to be able to help, he can’t help anyone, but nobody should feel like that and be alone. Even he’s had Laura next to him.

He knows even as he strains that he isn’t getting through, but he tries anyway, doesn’t try to soothe or help, just shouts “I’m here, I’m here” and then he’s awake again with Laura’s hand on his shoulder and her eyes wide above him.

“Derek?”

“Nightmare.” Someone else’s, but his now too. He doesn’t know why he’s in someone else’s head when he sleeps, but it feels like his responsibility to help even if he knows, now, that he can’t. It feels like a failure anyway.

“You don’t shout in your sleep when it’s just a nightmare.”

No one’s coming to their room and pounding on the door. Once when Derek was a child he had a nightmare after one of his mother’s stories and the whole household was bursting through his door before he even knew he was awake. He feels almost as alone as whoever he’s dreaming with, even with Laura still close. “It wasn’t about the fire.”

“Tell me.” He looks away, shakes his head. There’s no reason for this to be a secret, not like Kate Argent and how he killed their family, may as well have been the one to strike the match himself, but he doesn’t know how to explain it, not without sounding crazy. “Derek, tell me. What kind of nightmare was it?”

Derek sighs. “It’s nothing. Just … sometimes, since the fire, I have dreams where I’m feeling what someone else feels, hearing their heartbeat, and whoever it is was upset tonight. I don’t know what it is, I didn’t want you to worry.”

Laura is white-faced. “Something could be wrong. You should have told me the second you—who are you feeling?”

“I don’t know. If I knew, I would have told you.”

“You should have told me anyway! You have no right keeping this kind of thing from me, I am your alpha and I demand—”

She stops on her own, and Derek almost wants to thank her for it. “Yes,” he says when he can catch his breath. “You’re my alpha.”

“I’m your sister.” It’s the closest thing to an apology he’ll get, if he deserves one. “And you should have told me. I’ll ask about it in the morning.” A formality. The Minnesota pack all bunks down close enough that they’ll have heard almost every word of this. “You can tell me anything,” she whispers. “You can always tell me anything, that much will never change, okay? You will always be my brother and nothing will make me love you less.”

If Derek could believe that, it might be a comfort.

*

“We have to go back to Beacon Hills.”

The words sound like they’re rough on Laura’s throat, like she has to swallow down the same bile he does at the thought of going back to where the smell of ash and burning flesh will feel as if it’s sunk into everything. Derek looks up from fishing, the day’s task he assigned himself to keep the Minnesota wolves from bothering him. “No.”

“You don’t understand.” She crouches down next to him. Her eyes are red not from the change but from suppressed tears. “I asked about your dreams, and … God, Derek, it’s your mate. You never told me you … you smelled like someone strange towards the end, and you never told me how it ended, did you leave your mate behind for me?”

Derek shakes his head violently, wanting to be sick at the thought of Kate being his mate, even if it was a wish he foolishly entertained when she’d tricked him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What does mating have to do with my dreams?”

“It’s … after mates have been in proximity for a long time, if they’re separated they often dream about each other. It’s a way to maintain the connection, even find a wolf in trouble.” Laura reaches out to touch him, but he flinches away. “You didn’t know?”

Kate’s heartbeat and emotions had a different flavor than the ones Derek dreams, he’s sure enough of that to breathe out his relief before freezing again on the thought that his mate, someone he’s meant for, is back in Beacon Hills, was close to him for years. “No. It’s … I don’t recognize it, whoever it is. It isn’t the person I was dating before we left, I would know her heartbeat. And wouldn’t I have recognized my mate when I saw her?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Nobody ‘s really sure how these things work.” She settles down a few inches from him, a tentative hope on her face that Derek knows he’s going to have to dash. This is the first time she’s seemed like herself since the fire and taking on the burden of being an alpha, but he can’t do what she wants. “We have to go back. You’ll find who it is, and it’s … well, it’s almost certainly a human, but you can get to know each other, and we’ll have pack again, and if she wants, I’ll give her the bite after a while. We’ll have a family again.”

Derek is winded by the thought of it, by imagining what that could be like, having a family that’s small but his, his sister and his mate (but his mate feels so young, younger than him, too young to consent to the bite or to mating, and he hates that thought) and maybe after a while a few others, but—Beacon Hills, and the memories of his family all around him, and the constant, horrible reminder that all of it is his fault. The abstract concept of a mate, someone meant for him, someone his wolf wants enough to latch onto their heartbeat even if Derek’s never even met the person’s eyes, isn’t enough to push aside the guilt. “No.”

“What, are you nervous?” Laura’s smile is forced, and that’s his fault too, that her smile isn’t easy and mocking anymore. “I would give anything for that connection, Derek. I won’t take you away from it. Especially if she’s upset, you can help her.”

Everything about that sentence is wrong, feels so deeply off that he can’t even parse it for a moment. Derek grits his teeth and reminds himself that Laura deserves a mate of her own and a pack and a new start without the memories. In the end, a strange heartbeat and a veiled presence aren’t enough to counteract that. “I can’t. I can’t go back, not yet. Maybe not ever. If my mate is human, she’ll never know what she’s missing.”

Laura doesn’t push, but all the weight is back on her shoulders again, even the brief moment of levity gone. “If you ever change your mind, all you have to do is tell me, and we’ll go back.”

*

Two weeks later, they leave Minnesota and head east.

Laura is surer of herself, not constantly on the edge of losing control, and spends more time than he wants her to worrying about him. She lets him pick the music while they drive, sometimes even the route, when she never would back at home.

She only mentions returning to Beacon Hills the mornings after he has the dreams. They’re frequent, whether because something is wrong in his mate’s life (and the word “mate” still sits oddly in his mind, makes him angry and sorry and overwhelmed, speeds his heart up every time he thinks it) or because he’s getting farther away, and they’re bad. More often than not, for a period of months as they work their way aimlessly through most of the Midwest and dip into the South, Derek wakes up with the taste of someone else’s panic and grief on his tongue, cloying and useless when he can’t do everything about it.

“We can go back,” Laura says every morning it happens. She always knows, even when he doesn’t call out. Now that she knows what to look for, she always knows. “You can help her, I promise we can go back.”

Derek knows, with all the conviction of seventeen, that he won’t ever go back to Beacon Hills. “I can’t help anyone,” he always says, and takes out the map and sees where the road might take them next.

*

Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Laura keeps them a little longer in each place, settling down, closer to done with running when it’s all Derek wants to do for the rest of his life. Laura remembers that neither of them graduated high school in Tennessee and tutors Derek in their free time, makes sure he’s ready to take the GED when she is, and they start staying in places long enough to work sometime around Georgia. Laura usually waitresses, poring over community college brochures in her spare time. Derek works wherever they won’t care that he’s not quite eighteen and doesn’t have a diploma. He learns how to change oil and hammer a barn together and harvest four different crops but mostly washes dishes in whatever restaurant Laura is working in at the time.

Mostly, Derek and Laura don’t fight. They were constantly at each other’s throats when they were younger, with the pack around them, most often Laura baiting Derek and trying to draw him out of himself, but now that they’re all each other has they stop themselves before an argument can start, even when the strain lasts for days sometimes. The first real fight they have happens in South Carolina, when Laura says it’s time for both of them to take the GED and refuses to take no for an answer no matter how much Derek says “I don’t care, I don’t need it!”

Laura’s hand is at his throat before either of them is prepared for it, claws out. Her eyes are red. “I don’t care, it’s what Mom would have wanted, so we’re doing it!”

They don’t speak to each other for three days without snarling, but Derek takes the test, and passes it. He was always good at school—better than Laura, which he used to tease her about, in another lifetime. It was the humans surrounding him that he never cared for, until a chance encounter in a pool …

But he can’t let himself think about that.

Time passes for his mate, too, dulling the grief and the panic and the loneliness. Some, but not completely, and Derek knows how that feels—it’s the first kinship he feels with his mate, and he shoves it away before it can take root. Every time he wakes up from one of the dreams he thinks as hard as he can Find someone human, find someone who isn’t me, and he thinks maybe it works because the dreams get less frequent, from a few times a week to once, to barely once a month by the time it levels out.

Two weeks after Derek passes the GED and Laura celebrates by picking their lives up again and moving them north, he wakes up twitching his hips uselessly into the air, someone else’s arousal drugging his senses. He horrifies himself by feeling jealous until he remembers his mate was alone in the dream.

Laura offers to return to Beacon Hills the next morning with a wicked curve to her smile, timing it for while Derek is at the wheel of their father’s Camaro, and he almost swerves off the road.

*

They end up in New York City like some kind of movie cliché. There are a few packs in the city, none of them who had any dealings with the Hale pack, and Derek and Laura spend a few moons going between them, running with them, before withdrawing back into themselves again. It’s easy to let New York swallow them up.

Laura enrolls in a community college for a degree in culinary arts. Derek hadn’t even known she liked cooking for more than just necessity. She starts looking a little more like the sister he remembers, a little more in control of herself, and Derek feels betrayed by it until he realizes it’s been more than two years now and she has every right to try to make a life for herself even if he doesn’t.

He has to do something, though. Even if he doesn’t deserve anything for himself, he still has a responsibility to Laura, so instead of letting himself get lost in the city Derek finds himself an apprenticeship at a mechanic’s shop and ignores the way Laura’s eyes get big and hopeful. He tends bar most nights too, at a place that doesn’t ask too many questions about his age or why he takes three nights about once a month off.

They don’t need to work, not really, not with life insurance from too many people sitting in their bank accounts, but it’s blood money and Derek isn’t alone in not wanting to touch it. He knows Laura sends payments to the hospital taking care of Uncle Peter, but other than emergencies she never touches it.

Derek only seems to have the dreams when his mate is feeling something strongly—arousal, loneliness, worry. The panic has died down over the years, as has the sharp edge of grief, but he knows his mate doesn’t feel much better than content most days. Something else they have in common, Derek acknowledges, but the difference is that Derek deserves it, and despite the nebulous and half-formed guilt that sometimes cut through the grief in the beginning he’s sure beyond a doubt that his mate doesn’t.

*

Derek knows, in an abstract way, that Laura wants to expand the pack, but it doesn’t hit home until she comes home three nights in a row smelling like a strange wolf. Not like sex, not even like interest, but just as if they’ve been spending time together. “Who is that?” he asks when she walks through the door after a late shift at the restaurant she’s cooking in reeking of wolf.

“An omega, rejected by her mate in Louisiana and came here.” Laura shrugs. “We don’t know if we’ll fit well, but she’s the best candidate I’ve run across so far.”

“I should meet her,” Derek says, trying to keep his voice casual. It won’t help, Laura has to know he’s wary of letting anyone into their pack, but he’s willing to try, for her sake.

“You should.”

And so the next night, Laura brings the omega home. She’s nice, a little reserved, a few years older than Laura, and Derek tries his best to be friendly, but something about him makes her shy away from his attempts to talk or touch, and after she goes home that night, Laura never mentions her or smells like her again.

She may be the first candidate for expanding their pack, but she isn’t the last. It seems like Laura looks for every omega in the city and tries to get to know them. Some of them she doesn’t even bother bringing home to Derek, but others she does, and every time Derek does his best to keep them there, using niceties that are more dim memories than anything else these days. Some of them last more than one meeting with Derek, even seem to like him, but in the end either they or Laura always decide against joining forces.

Sometimes, more cautiously, Laura courts humans for her pack, exceptional ones she meets at work or while wandering the city or just ones who need companionship so badly the air around them reeks with it. Derek tries even harder with those, but can’t trust them, not when any of them could be a hunter, from the Argent clan or another, and he’s afraid it shows—knows that Laura knows, because she gives him baffled looks when he’s the one that’s wary of them instead of the other way around. They only end up explaining werewolves and the bite to two of the humans, both of whom run away from disbelief or fear.

Between all that, Laura starts visiting Beacon Hills every few months. She doesn’t take the car, just buys a plane ticket and goes, and when Derek asks what she does, how she can stand it, she just tells him that it still hurts, but Uncle Peter is family too and he could still heal, given the right motivation. Derek wishes he could believe it.

Laura still offers to take him back to Beacon Hills to stay every time Derek dreams about his mate, but she never once offers to take him on her visits to Uncle Peter. He doesn’t know what that means. If he’s honest, he’s not sure he wants to know.

*

Only once in all the years he’s gone from Beacon Hills does Derek have a moment where he thinks his mate knows he’s there.

It’s an unremarkable night and an unremarkable dream, almost five years after the fire. His mate is worn down and tired and jittery-worried, heartbeat just fast enough to keep sleep from coming but not fast enough to bring on a wave of bone-crushing fear like it sometimes does. Every once in a while there’s a lazy spark of arousal, like she’s touching herself because there’s nothing better to do and she can’t sleep, and Derek thinks about joining in the way he sometimes idly ponders before discarding the idea as somehow more intrusive than dreaming her emotions is already.

Somehow, in the middle of it, there’s a sudden change of focus, a surge of dry humor, and then, the emotion so clear that Derek thinks the words are really what his mate is thinking: if you’re out there, now would be a good time to show up.

I’m here, for all the good it does anyone, Derek returns, before he can stop himself.

There’s a moment of surprise, a jolt, and then the dream is over.

Laura’s on one of her trips to Beacon Hills, and he’s glad, because he thinks that if she’d asked if he wanted to go back this time, he might have said yes, and he can’t think of anything worse than that.

*

There’s an omega called Sean, and he’s gotten farther than anyone else has towards making it into their pack. Laura likes him, in a way that changes her scent and makes Derek want to cling to her because it’s been six years now and he’s used to them being all the other has. He likes Sean too, though, and he’s the only thing that makes Laura smile as bright as she did when she was eighteen, so Derek will do anything to make him feel welcome.

Sean doesn’t mind that Derek is quiet and prickly and withdrawn, or that their pack was killed by hunters. He takes Laura to dinner, spends a full moon just the two of them while Derek runs on his own. Derek knows what’s coming.

Before it can happen, though, Laura gets a message, goes white-faced, and goes to Beacon Hills without warning or explanation to either of them. She calls Derek the first morning she’s there, giddy and upset all at once. “I dreamed with Sean last night,” she gets out, words tripping over each other. “We were together—when I get back, Derek, he’s joining the pack, it’s okay, right? He’s … I told him about her, here. He said when you’re ready he’ll come back here with us.”

It’s the last time he talks to Laura. A few days later he feels a stretched-thin thread snap and then he knows, as sure as he felt his family dying six years ago, that he’s as much an omega as Sean is, now.

Sean doesn’t need to be told, Derek knows that from lore and from experience—if the timing was right, he might have dreamt Laura’s last moments with her, but he would call Derek if he knew anything useful. Derek feels no guilt packing a few bags and driving away in the night, leaving New York behind with no warning to his jobs and making the trip back to Beacon Hills in two sleepless days.

From there, everything goes to hell.

*

Derek knows, intellectually, that the whole time he tries to avenge his sister’s murder and find out who the new alpha in Beacon Hills is his mate is somewhere close. The dreams stop, now that he’s back close enough, but Derek barely notices. He feels sixteen again, helpless with the impotent rage and need for revenge that’s all he has left as an anchor, a tenuous connection to the alpha that killed his sister the closest thing to pack he has now.

As the weeks go on, he has a little more help, though they’re reluctant allies at best: Scott, whose resentment of the bite and infatuation with a girl who looks nothing like her aunt but smells enough like her to jar Derek almost outweigh his usefulness as someone with more connection to the rogue alpha who killed Laura. Stiles, who Derek pays little attention to until he has a saw held to Derek’s arm, panic in his smell but hands steady. Their own constellation of almost-allies, none of whom are interested in helping Derek. If he thought he was lonely after the fire, it’s nothing like now.

The only time he gets a hint of his mate is when the alpha’s claws are through his chest outside the high school. He can feel the punch through his lungs, the distant thought of I’m going to die that’s more of a relief than anything, and then … a spike of someone else’s fear-panic-worry-denial that’s the last thing he feels before he collapses to the pavement unconscious. By the time he wakes up, he has other things to worry about, so he shoves the memory to the side and focuses on his anger, on running from the police, on forcing Scott and Stiles to help him.

They all save each other’s lives more than once, building up a life debt that Derek wishes wasn’t there, because he feels the need to pay his off. Stiles manages to help Derek more than Scott does, which Derek hates even more. Owing something to a human, even one as resourceful as Stiles who has no visible connection to the hunters, is never a situation Derek is comfortable with.

When the rogue alpha, Laura’s killer, turns out to be Uncle Peter, the last family or pack Derek can claim as his own, Derek isn’t even surprised as he fights him off and gives Stiles a chance to get away. It’s a betrayal, a punch in the gut, and it leaves him unmoored and hopeless as he fights his uncle—his uncle—for Stiles, to get a human who hates him and isn’t pack to safety.

In the end, Derek submits only because he knows he won’t survive long in Beacon Hills as an omega, and the only thing that keeps him from running all the way back to New York and anonymity is the thought of avenging Laura. He and Peter will strengthen each other by being pack until Derek can find a way to gain the upper hand and take what Peter never should have.

But Kate Argent is back, and she’ll always, always ruin his every plan, every defense. She takes him and tortures him (but then, isn’t that almost a relief? Physical pain he can handle, and it’s the least he deserves for trusting her the first time) and when he’s finally released, it’s into a battle, the discovery that the world went on without him and that he has to be ready to fight and there’s no time to fine-tune a plan.

He wins in the end, if it can be called winning. They win, and Derek has alpha power flooding his veins until he feels like he might shake apart with it. Everyone nearby is a wash of scent that he can barely decode in its new strength and complexity. He registers Scott’s betrayal (a laughable shadow of the emotion, because by now Derek knows that one inside and out and this barely counts. There’s a long list of reckonings Derek will have to pay one day, but not letting an untried beta kill his uncle on a wish and a dream isn’t one of them), Argent’s wariness, and how there’s some different scent on Stiles, beneath hospital and fading panic.

And, beneath it all, thrumming in his awareness, Derek feels his mate stronger than ever. Not a heartbeat, not emotions, just the knowledge that they’re close, and that if Derek wanted to he could follow that cord to its end. He doesn’t want to, not yet, but he knows it’s there.

*

Beacon Hills has been a battleground, the alpha title passing hands too many times in recent moons, and Derek knows that will bring the Alpha Pack to town. Discord always brings them, and Derek needs to be ready. He needs to have a pack, more than the one unwilling beta he has in Scott.

He bites Jackson because he asks, drunk on his own power and not thinking it through, and is almost glad when the bite doesn’t seem to take.

He thinks his next choices through more carefully: Isaac, who needs a pack that’s not the father who doesn’t deserve him, who will give Derek his loyalty if Derek does just enough to earn it. Boyd, whose steady presence reminds him of Sean and of his favorite cousin, and who will be a valuable second when he learns control. He thinks about Stiles, an obvious choice since he already knows about werewolves and he’s proved to be a valuable if reluctant asset before, but Stiles’s loyalty isn’t yet won and he won’t trust blindly, especially when Derek can’t trust him either, if he’ll always think of Scott before the rest of the pack. And Erica …

Derek turns Erica because he thinks she might be his mate. There are other reasons, but when he puts the pieces together, he can’t help but try—maybe, he thinks, her seizures are the moments of blinding panic and speeding heartrate that he remembers from his dreams. He doesn’t know what the new sense inside him, the one that points towards his mate like a compass pointing north, is supposed to feel like in his mate’s presence, and she fits: the right age, a reason for some of the worse dreams and the ever-present loneliness.

He’s wrong, but Erica gets along well with Isaac and then later with Boyd, and she might be a temptation to bring Scott in as well, so he sends her after him while ignoring the guilt, the voice that sounds a lot like Laura’s that tells him no alpha would use his betas like that, not when they were so newly turned and hadn’t quite found their feet yet.

Derek doesn’t know what else he can do, though. Not when he needs to be as strong as he can, to make Beacon Hills steady like it was when the Hale Pack had it under control before the Alpha Pack comes. He does the best he can, knowing every second that it’s not good enough and he should have followed Laura’s example and run for Minnesota the second he became an alpha, but it’s barely any time at all before even that consideration is pushed aside for the kanima.

*

Derek’s life, he’ll think later, when he has time to think at all, seems to revolve around the pool at the high school.

It was his refuge, for a while, a place to be himself and be active without anyone worrying that he was too strong or too fast. After that, it was an excuse to spend time with Kate Argent, a place that would even sap some of her scent off him so his family wouldn’t ask questions. Even later, it was nothing more or less than a representation of his stupidity and weakness, and he’d have been happy never to see it again.

It’s a convenient place to waylay Stiles, though, to question him about what he’s seen and if Derek’s suspicions might be true, and then there’s the nightmare monster itself, and Erica is gone and he’s telling Stiles to run and then relying on his rescue and then ... then he’s drowning, not dying by fire like he always assumed he would, but this makes some sort of sense too, in the end.

And then there’s Stiles.

Stiles is a warm presence at his back for two hours while Derek is more physically helpless than he’s ever been. Derek pretends not to notice how his breath and heartbeat catch as he struggles to keep them afloat, and Stiles is quieter than Derek’s heard him, other than their brief moments of conversation or Stiles warning him when he has to shift his grip. They can both feel Stiles getting weaker, but Derek doesn’t mention it until Stiles does, and then only to panic and then to remind him that Derek’s their only chance at survival if they can just wait, they don’t have to trust each other as long as they remember that.

Something about what he says is wrong, though. He can’t see Stiles’s face well, but he can smell some change in emotion and focus over the chlorine, hear the preparatory breath he takes, and then Derek is drowning again. This time it’s longer, and he can feel himself float to the bottom as he struggles to breathe, to move, even as he knows it’s useless. He’s going to die while Stiles tries whatever plan he’s trying, and the moment he accepts it, there’s his mate in his head, like he’s far away and dreaming again. There’s a sense of determination-anxiety-anger that he doesn’t recognize, and a stressed heartbeat that he hears double, in his head and out of it.

For a wild second, he thinks it’s Erica again, that he was right after all and she’s shaken off the attack to come back for him, but then Stiles’s arms are around him, taking him back towards the air, and of course, of fucking course, there are the two heartbeats pounding away, and they both belong to Stiles.

As does Derek, apparently.

Of course it’s Stiles. Stiles, who may be open in his dislike of Derek but has never taken the chance to let him die. Stiles, who is loyal and clever and never lets his humanity or his barely-contained fear keep him from doing what he needs to do. Stiles, who hides panic and loneliness behind a smile so well that Derek would never have paid attention enough to realize if he didn’t have the dreams. He doesn’t remember seeing Stiles more than once or twice before the fire, but it seems there was something his wolf latched onto that’s lasted all these years, and he hates that it makes sense. If he were anyone different, with a different life, he would be lucky to have Stiles.

Derek doesn’t remember much from the rest of the night, just stumbling through the barest minimum of an explanation and the look on Stiles’s face when he says “abomination” and doesn’t mean werewolves.

*

It doesn’t change anything because it can’t. Derek isn’t ready to deal with having a mate, and that’s no different now that he knows who that is, and even if he were he knows Stiles doesn’t want him. Instead, he returns to life as normal, or what normal has become, looking for the kanima and its master.

Something happened in the pool, though, some unintentional recognition of the bond, because now Stiles is always there in the back of Derek’s head, his emotions running muted alongside Derek’s. Within a few days, Derek notices that something seems to reach out and tug at his focus when Stiles is feeling something related to him. Derek would be gladder of the opportunity if he ever felt anything good, but while Stiles thinks of him surprisingly frequently, it’s rarely positive. As they find themselves on opposite sides again, Stiles protecting the Lydia girl who might be the kanima (and Derek now has the front-row seat he never wanted to Stiles’s worship of her), all he gets is anger and resentment.

Life goes on, because it has to. Derek fights to keep his betas in control, to bring Scott to his side (ignoring the knowledge that Stiles’s loyalties will bring him along as well), to deal with Gerard Argent and the kanima and the knowledge that the Alpha Pack is almost definitely on its way. Now, though, he does it with Stiles in his head, growing steadily more unhappy, sinking into the kind of despair Derek remembers from his earlier dreams. He can feel it all the time, and it sits bitter on his tongue, but it’s not his responsibility yet, and maybe not ever, no matter what the bond says. He has other things to worry about.

He almost slips when he feels the spike of surprised, vicious triumph when Stiles makes the circle of mountain ash, and again at his disappointment when he has to break it, but he keeps it to himself. Stiles is everywhere, protecting his pack and showing his worth like he wants to prove himself to Derek without knowing why, but he doesn’t have to give in.

Lydia, under control Derek knows he should have spotted when he was watching her and thinking she might be the kanima, brings Peter back, whole and alive and smiling and wrong. The night turns into hell, Derek reeling on his own without the twist in his gut that is Stiles crumbling, followed by the attack at the police station, finally meeting the kanima’s master and ending up out of his own control again, Stiles on top of him and then beside him as they try to figure out what to do.

There’s a certain wry resignation to Stiles while they’re there, directed at Derek and buried somewhere inside the claustrophobic tangle of emotions that’s the two of them. Derek wants to ask about it, but he can’t, and it doesn’t matter, in the end. When Scott comes, late as he always seems to be, Derek tells him to take Stiles and ignores the burst of surprised warmth directed at him before he’s out of Stiles’s thoughts and on his way to protect the sheriff.

It’s the last positive emotion he feels from Stiles at all for too long, long enough to make Derek uncomfortable and itchy in his skin even as he tries to ignore it. Everything, even things that Derek thinks would usually get a better reaction, is in a grey fog in the back of his head, and Derek shoves it away because it’s the only thing he can do as his pack slowly disintegrates around him. Scott is working with Argent, Isaac has fallen into hero worship of Scott, and he loses Erica and Boyd’s trust even as the Argents grow all the more dangerous with Allison committed to their cause and Jackson under Gerard’s control.

When Erica and Boyd leave for the Alpha Pack, arriving at the worst possible time, Derek does his best to block the unwanted bond between himself and Stiles even when he catches physical pain through it and does what he must. He deals with his uncle, mistrustfully but on slightly surer footing now that he’s the alpha. In the end, he joins forces with Scott yet again, despite his growing mistrust, and somehow, somehow, everything comes right.

Derek ignores the heartbreak he feels from Stiles when Lydia’s love is what saves Jackson from himself and fixes the all-wrong bite that Derek will always feel responsible and guilty for. It’s just one more piece of evidence that Stiles doesn’t want Derek any more than Derek wants a mate.

*

After that, the Alpha Pack is almost easy to deal with (almost, because nothing can come easily to Derek, not anymore).

When they leave, there’s tentative peace. Chris Argent, in the absence of his father, keeps the code, and seems to be teaching his daughter the same. Nothing new seems to be on the horizon to threaten Derek’s territory or his pack.

His pack, though, is barely worth the word, more the tattered remains of one and a reminder of his failure as alpha. They’re all alive, but that’s all he can say. Peter continues watching like he’s waiting for something—a chance, maybe, to do to Derek what he did to Laura—even as he pretends to be helpful. Scott still won’t trust him, even when Derek swallows his pride and tries to lead by example. Jackson is erratic, sometimes following at Derek’s heels more like a duckling than a puppy and sometimes wanting nothing to do with him. Boyd, Erica, and Isaac all try, but the bond he was just starting to try to build with them was damaged when the Alpha Pack came, and he’s not sure yet if it’s beyond repair. He has the big pack Laura always wanted, and no idea what to do with it.

The humans, as he should have guessed, turn out to be what keeps the pack glued together. Lydia, on steadier ground even if she refuses to be alone in the same room with Peter, demands all the information they can give her, combined with all the information the Argents are willing to share, and starts consuming it, understanding it well enough to summarize things for everyone else when necessary. Allison stands at arm’s length to the rest of the pack, but she’s a steady presence and, now that Derek forces himself to trust that she isn’t her aunt, a valuable ally. His wolves all know to respect her, even if Erica and Boyd especially still avoid her, and Derek makes a point of sometimes deferring to her in matters of strategy. Stiles is a little quieter, a little tighter around the jaw, but he’s the one least likely to break into the squabbles that the rest of them are prone to, and the one most likely to be go-between and fix it. Derek thinks sometimes, a little bitter, that if the three of them were running the pack, there wouldn’t be any problems at all.

Now that they aren’t in constant crisis, Derek takes the time to examine his connection to Stiles. It’s still one-sided, but it’s steady, and he’s not going to ask Deaton what that means. He starts learning to use it as an anchor, now that his anger has become hard to sustain, and loses control more than he has for years while his pack watches, baffled—until he figures it out and gets better than before.

Mostly, he focuses on the mechanics of it, not the emotions themselves. Derek saves that for nights when he’s having trouble sleeping, or moments when Stiles is feeling something too strong to ignore. Stiles is fighting his way out of a pit, and he’s always more serious than he acts, but he’s better than he was when Jackson was still the kanima and his anxiety had him chained. The heartbreak over Lydia fades, turns into a distant sort of regret that loses itself in the wash of warm feelings Stiles has for the pack in general, and Derek pretends he isn’t relieved.

Derek doesn’t want to pay attention to what Stiles feels about him, but it’s like a shout every time he does, and he’s curious enough not to force himself to ignore it. It’s annoyance, often, and sometimes a kind of wariness that skirts the edge of fear, but without Derek altering how he acts at all, that softens over time into a steady warmth that isn’t quite the same as the fondness he has for the rest of the pack.

One night, Derek is gritting his teeth through a haze of Stiles’s arousal and refusing to touch himself when there’s a blinding change of focus and suddenly the desire is all about Derek, and then they’re both coming, both shocked, and Derek can’t meet Stiles’s eyes for days.

*

Derek catches Stiles’s focus on him more often after that, curious and a little excited and a lot nervous and resigned. Derek still doesn’t know how to feel, doesn’t know if he should be hoping for Stiles to find someone else, but he tries smiling more often, letting him ramble on a little longer than he would have before. That just adds confusion to the mix of emotions, but Derek keeps trying. If Stiles wants him, then there might be a chance.

As luck would have it, long before Derek can make up his mind to either do something or not, his hand is forced. Lydia goes on a vacation with her mother, to visit some distant relative in New York, and the second morning she’s gone, Jackson clears his throat over breakfast, which the pack tries to eat together every Saturday. “So, Derek, I had a dream about Lydia last night.”

Stiles groans on cue. “Don’t want to hear it, dude.”

Everyone else laughs, but Derek knows the tone in Jackson’s voice and knows Peter will have his suspicions too. He should have expected it—no matter how Scott and Allison can be, he’s more likely to believe Jackson and Lydia are mates. “About her or with her?” he asks as evenly as he can.

Jackson looks relieved before he hides it, and everyone else stops, turns to look at Derek. “I kept hearing her heartbeat, and it felt like I was feeling what she was feeling, and I got the impression the same thing was happening with her. I haven’t had time to call her to ask.”

Peter opens his mouth to explain, likely assuming Derek won’t know what it means, but Derek cuts him off. “It’s something that happens sometimes, when mates are separated over long distances, especially after the bond between them has been acknowledged,” he says, as carefully as he can. It still sends up a wave of shock around the table. “You haven’t been more than a hundred miles from each other since she saved you, so I’m guessing that’s what happened.”

There’s an uproar at the table, everyone asking about this new part of being a werewolf he hasn’t mentioned, but for a change nobody’s complaining (though Scott and Allison are both stricken, maybe remembering Scott going to Mexico to visit his mother’s family and neither of them having the dreams). Derek feels Stiles’s focus unwavering on him, but he never looks towards that end of the table. “So what does this mean for Lydia and me?” Jackson asks over the din.

“It doesn’t have to change anything between you. Once you’re back in the same vicinity it shouldn’t make much difference. I know there’s a way to recognize the connection so you feel each other all the time, but I don’t know what makes that happen.” Stiles’s attention sharpens and it takes everything Derek has not to flinch. “Peter might know.”

Peter takes that chance and spends the rest of breakfast lecturing them on the subject, on acknowledgment and need and intent, and Derek hoards the information for himself too, to think about later. By the time they all leave, Jackson is a little bit calmer and already has his phone out to call Lydia, and Stiles’s focus hasn’t left Derek once.

*

Stiles gives him seven hours before he comes back, but he may as well not have left at all, because Derek can feel him stewing over it from across town. “So,” he says the second he comes inside, “the whole mate thing? That’s a new and fascinating development.”

Derek sighs and waves Stiles over to the couch. He could lie, he can still do that with Stiles, but if he lies now, Stiles will never forgive him for it if he tells the truth later. He’s assuming Stiles doesn’t know his place in things yet, but he’ll figure it out soon. “It shouldn’t be. Wolves mate for life. I should have mentioned it before, though.”

“Mating for life, yeah. Magical dream bond, not so much.” Stiles is sad, somehow, or maybe closer to disappointed. “I’m pretty sure Scott and Allison are going to have an explosion over this later, just so you know.”

Derek shakes his head. “There’s an element of choice to it, like Peter said. They’ve just never been steady enough.” That has nothing to do with what’s between he and Stiles, but he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get a satisfactory answer as to how that happened. “It could still happen.”

“Great. Tell Scott that.” Now there’s worry there, for Derek’s sake. “So, you, uh, totally knew to jump all over that subject. I mean, not that you’re not great at alpha-type subjects but usually you let someone else do the whole mysterious info-giving thing.” Given enough time, Stiles will reason out the whole answer. Derek lets him go a little longer, until he can find a foothold in the conversation. “And, I mean, maybe it’s something born wolves take for granted so that’s why it hasn’t shown up in any of the literature, but Peter started talking like he thought you wouldn’t, and—”

“My parents didn’t have the chance to tell me much about it before they died. I found out afterwards.” Derek takes a deep breath and realizes distantly that he’s terrified, that Stiles has become a comfort to have in the back of his head and that the rejection would hurt. Maybe it wouldn’t have at the beginning, but the bond is the one thing he’s had steadily since he lost his family, and he doesn’t want to lose it now. Doesn’t want to lose Stiles. “I started having dreams a few days after Laura and I left Beacon Hills.”

There’s a bright burst of shock-curiosity-worry in the back of his head. Derek tries not to flinch. “It was someone here? Dude, you were sixteen, you had a relationship that serious then? Why isn’t she hanging with—” He stops, and Derek can smell the horror and the apology and the pity on him without having to feel it, and knows Stiles is debating between asking if it’s Kate Argent or someone else dead.

“I don’t know how it happened with me. Laura and I never figured it out, and I haven’t wanted to pry too much since. It’s always been one-sided with me, except for once.” The pity is growing stronger, making Derek edgy. “I didn’t know who it was for months after I came back to Beacon Hills. Things have been too shaky since I found out to do anything about it, and I don’t want to force anything. Like I said, this isn’t anything conscious.”

“You know who it is now.” Derek nods. “And they’re still in Beacon Hills?” He nods again, and knows that now it’s only the way Stiles forgets to factor himself into equations as someone with value that’s keeping him from putting it together. “So why aren’t you dragging whoever it is to pack meetings? It’s not like you’re not the master of the whole stalking people into liking you thing, it’s the whole—it’s not Scott’s mom, right? Because that would be weird, and I think Scott would cry.”

He’s so close, Derek can feel it, but he won’t take that step. “It’s not Scott’s mom.”

“Dude, it’s not like you have to tell me, but if it were me? I’d want to know.” Derek winces, and that’s when it comes, the rush of realization-shock-panic that’s so overwhelming Derek’s own reaction feels secondary in his head. “Oh my God. Oh my God! Derek, I’m hallucinating, right? I’m …”

Derek answers the spike of anger that comes through. “I only realized it was you when you saved my life in the pool.”

Stiles waves his arms around, still a mess of so many emotions Derek doesn’t take the time to parse them. “That was a long time ago, Derek! Several villains ago, even, you couldn’t maybe mention the whole deal to me? I mean, you’ve been feeling what I feel when you’re asleep since I was … holy crap, you’ve been feeling what I feel when you’re asleep. Oh my God, this is so much worse than the standing around looking creepy, and the bad touch, and the shoving me against walls.”

The anger is growing, and Stiles has every right to it. Derek keeps saying what he can. “Since the pool, it’s not just while I’m sleeping. I recognized you as my mate when you saved my life, and I feel you all the time since then.”

Now Stiles is red with mortification and anger. “Invasion of privacy! Why do Lydia and Jackson get the advanced-level feeling each other thing, and I get stuck with this crappy one-sided … whatever?”

“If I could have blocked it out, I would have,” Derek says through his teeth, and closes his eyes against the wash of hurt that means it came out wrong. “Because I know it’s wrong, not being equal, and because either way you’re so young … I think after the fire my wolf needed something besides Laura to grab onto, and it picked you. I didn’t want to pressure you, so I didn’t tell you. And I know I’m not who you would have chosen, which is another reason I didn’t bring it up. I know that’s no excuse. I … I’m sorry.”

Normally, Stiles would be teasing him about apologizing and how often he doesn’t do it, but this time he’s too wrapped up in the situation. “Shit. Shit.” Before Derek can try to explain himself even more, Stiles is wheeling around and leaving Derek’s home at a run, head a swirling mess of emotion, so much hurt and anger Derek knows he’ll have to go to Deaton to look for a way to reject the bond.

He feels every excruciating second of the panic attack Stiles has a few miles down the road, his claws digging into the couch until the cushions are leaking stuffing.

*

That night, Stiles throws up a wall. Derek can still feel his distress, but it’s muted, and he’s alone like he hasn’t been before the pool—before that, even. He makes a few efforts to open his own emotions up, but fails because that isn’t the problem. It’s that he somehow recognized the bond without knowing it, and Stiles hasn’t yet, maybe won’t. If it were just a matter of Derek’s acceptance, Stiles would have been feeling him long before, when Stiles’s presence in Derek’s head became a comfort instead of a twist of the knife. He texts an apology, since that’s all there’s left to do, and waits.

There are two weeks before the full moon, and the pack seems to either have real or made up excuses to avoid Derek. He suspects Scott at least will have heard about what happened, and that maybe Lydia guessed, and either way that means everyone knows. By the way Peter looks at him while they have one of the dinners where they try to pretend that they’re still family as well as pack, he must know too, but for once he doesn’t comment. Derek doesn’t like anything that could mean.

Stiles texts after two days, warning Derek with a brief pulse of nervousness that escapes through the wall before he tamps it down. Deaton says he’s heard of bonds like this before. If we want to get rid of it we have to reject it and mean it.

Derek tries to reach through the wall Stiles has up to see how he feels about what he’s sent, but visiting Deaton must have shored up his reserves, and there’s almost nothing left. It makes him feel hollow, the bond between alpha and pack barely covering the gaps that Stiles rushed into fill for months. He respects and cares for Stiles enough to know he shouldn’t force himself on him, but it’s less a matter of being willing to break the bond and more one of being able. There isn’t leeway in magic, not the way Deaton and Stiles do it, and Derek doesn’t know if meaning for Stiles to be happy and free will be enough to reject the bond he wants to keep. We can try, he returns after what feels like a too-long gap.

He gets a return text almost immediately, after a swell of something he can’t identify across the bond. I’m coming over.

It takes him fifteen minutes to get there, and Derek spends the time sitting on his couch, hands clenched into fists, trying to talk himself into being able to let the bond go. There might be another mate for him, if he searches, but he’s not sure he wants one. He swallows down the instinct that tells him he would be able to handle himself better while shifted and answers the door when Stiles knocks.

Stiles is vibrating with nervous energy, but he doesn’t start talking the second Derek lets him in like he usually would. Instead, he looks around like he’s expecting someone else to come in until Derek clears his throat. “I assume you want to do it now.”

Stiles flinches. “Better than stringing ourselves along, I guess.”

“How do we reject it?” Derek forces himself to keep his tone flat.

“The catch is, it has to be equal, and Deaton told me about how to do that. So, you know, pack away whatever you don’t want me to feel or whatever.”

Derek’s first thought is to hide every feeling and impulse he has about Stiles, without even pretending that he’s being noble by making sure Stiles doesn’t feel guilty rejecting the bond. His second is that he’s had an uncensored look for months—years—and Stiles deserves the same. “Just go ahead.”

Stiles concentrates, wall coming down, and Derek looks away and braces himself, but if Stiles is in his head he doesn’t feel it, and when Derek looks back up he’s just staring at his twined hands. “It’s weird, right? Having someone else in your head? I didn’t want to ask Jackson or Lydia. Who are being totally disgusting about the whole mates thing, by the way, and Scott and Allison might be—”

“It’s weird at first, yes, but then it’s comforting. Or was for me.” Derek can’t look at Stiles when he says that.

The wall Stiles put up is down completely now, but he still can’t understand the reaction his words cause, something that’s pain and not pain at all. “Right, okay, let’s try this,” Stiles says, probably to himself, and then everything shifts, like Derek’s been orbiting around Stiles all this time but now they’re orbiting around each other, and one of them chokes on a noise. Derek thinks it might be him.

Even if he were trying, Derek doesn’t think he could lock any of his emotions away, too busy trying to get used to the way the bond’s changed. Stiles, though, seems to take to it as easily as he takes to everything like this, spending half a minute dwelling on being overwhelmed and shocked before he moves on to overwhelmed, worried, and curious. “Give me a minute,” Derek manages. “I can’t concentrate on rejecting …”

He stops before his emotions can give him away, but Stiles is clever, that’s one thing he’s always been, and Derek doesn’t know exactly what he finds sifting through Derek’s head but whatever it is gives him a wave of shock. “You don’t want to!” he accuses a second later, while Derek is still scrambling to catch up.

Derek looks away. “I want you happy, it will make you happy to reject the bond, it should be enough intent.” He’ll make it enough.

There’s a moment of silence, even the quick whir of Stiles’s emotions stopping like he’s too stunned to think. “You don’t want to,” he repeats, a little lost.

If he knew a way to open his emotions up to show Stiles the past several years, and even more the past year and change since he returned to Beacon Hills, he would, but he’s left with his words and what he’s feeling now, more frustration and exhaustion and hurt than anything else. “You do. So we will.”

“No, okay, you know what? Screw that.” Derek jerks his head up to look at him, shocked, and feels Stiles scramble to rephrase even as he does. “I mean, with the stoic not-explaining-things thing, because I need some explanations, okay? We’re mates, which is supposed to be a magical once-in-a-lifetime thing, seriously, I thought Deaton was going to buy us a blender or something he looked so happy, but it doesn’t have to be, especially when it gets forced on people, and it got forced on you when you needed pack, and—”

“Stiles, breathe,” says Derek, because he can feel Stiles starting to panic.

Stiles does, and then picks up where he left off, with what he seems to think is his trump card. “And you don’t like me! I mean, I’m pack and whatever, but seriously, you treat me like I’ve got the plague.”

Derek hasn’t got an answer for that, at least not a good one. Not one Stiles will accept. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s great! But it doesn’t tell me anything.”

It takes everything Derek has to bite back a growl. He forces the frustration down, searches for some kind of solution. Stiles allows him the seconds he needs to think, even though his impatience is as loud as a shout in Derek’s head. “Concentrate on me,” says Derek when he thinks he has some sort of explanation. “Like you’re listening, only to the bond.”

“We sound like a yoga video,” Stiles says in tragic tones, but Derek feels the sharpening of focus that means he’s doing what Derek asked.

Derek takes a deep breath and plunges them into the complicated tangle of feelings he has for and about Stiles, making sure he can’t mistake that it’s aimed at him and forcing himself to make it all visible, the strength and the comfort he takes from him, the guilty arousal, the concern and annoyance and amusement and affection all wrapped up together into one thing he won’t name. Stiles’s heart is beating like he’s running a race, and Derek pulls back, thinks of all the steps to change the oil in a car until they aren’t drowning in his emotions. It’s been maybe a minute and a half. “I like you,” Derek stays, understating to get the conversation going again.

“You like—Jesus Christ, Derek.” Stiles is a mess of emotions, scared and shocked and, to Derek’s surprise, happy, at least in some measure.

“I’m sorry,” he offers. He thinks he’s said it more to Stiles in the past week than he has at all for years. “I wasn’t ready for anything until recently, and then I didn’t know what to say.”

Stiles laughs, but he isn’t amused, still on the edge of panic in the way he gets when something new happens that he has to assimilate. “Something along the lines of ‘Hey, Stiles, everything is all rainbows and sparkles when you’re around and I want to bone you,’ maybe?” Derek shakes his head. “Yeah, okay, no, but seriously, this is kind of requiring some major changes in life plans, a little warning would be nice.”

“No.” He can be firm about this. “You don’t want it, so we’re breaking the bond. You don’t have to keep it out of some sort of obligation, just because you know … what you know.”

For a second, Stiles just stares at him, disbelief welling. “I didn’t want it because you didn’t! I mean, yeah, the not-knowing and all that isn’t good, but you’ve been in my head, you know I—no, this is just …” Stiles cuts himself off, making a decision in the middle of his sentence and starting on a different track. “We are going to have a talk about this. A really long one about what exactly being mates entails and how alpha sex works because the internet is terrifying about that, and you are going to talk during it and not just shove your feelings at me. Okay?”

“No.” Most of Derek wants to give in, but he can’t, not with a clear conscience. “Fifteen minutes ago you were ready to reject the bond, Stiles, and the longer you give it a try the more it will hurt us both to get rid of it later.” From the way Stiles flinches, he knows what a bad job he did at hiding what the thought of that does to him. “You might … like me, but you haven’t even been to college, and if things take their course, this is a lifetime bond.”

Stiles shrugs, carefully careless, but still serious inside. “Well, you know, the amount we’re in danger it’s not like our life expectancies are great any—whoa, okay, not bringing that up,” he says when Derek growls, panicking at the thought of losing Stiles like he lost the rest of his family. “Can you maybe just trust me for … a week? To make my own decision about the bond thing, get an idea of what it is, and all that, but it’s … this feels good, it’s intense but it’s good, and I may not be a werewolf but neither is Lydia and she and Jackson already have the bond thing going, so that’s not really a leg to stand on.”

“You don’t—”

Fast as always, Stiles figures out what Derek did a few minutes ago and replicates it, burying Derek in what he feels about him. He’s felt pieces of it, but added up to a whole it leaves him floundering, all warmth and attraction and confusion and anger and hope and fierce protectiveness that should feel out of place coming from a human but doesn’t. “I really, really do,” says Stiles when he lets up. “Can I kiss you now? I feel like kissing is traditional.”

Stiles must feel Derek’s desire before Derek can say the words, and leans forward to press an ungraceful, inexpert kiss on Derek’s lips. Derek holds him in place, allows himself to kiss back, and is rewarded by happiness singing across the bond, rebounding between them wherever they’re touching.

*

They spend most of the next week arguing about Derek keeping things from Stiles, about Stiles’s age, about whether it’s really wise to keep a bond that usually doesn’t reach this stage until werewolves have been with someone for months and years, and about anything else that occurs. It takes less than twenty-four hours for the entire pack to find out about it, and all of them feel the need to put their opinions in—though, to Derek’s surprise, they’re overwhelmingly in favor of it, other than Scott. It’s the only thing that the whole pack has agreed on since Derek took over as alpha, and he has to ignore Peter when he says smugly that it makes a pack more stable when the alpha has a mate.

When they aren’t arguing, they’re kissing or touching, getting used to each other. Derek flatly refuses to have sex whenever Stiles tries to bring it up, but he’s happy getting used to having someone to touch again, someone like Laura where he never had to think about getting close because it was natural. They talk a little about what things will be like if they don’t reject the bond (Derek is the one who always tacks that phrase on; Stiles is clinging to the connection with all the determination he gives to things he wants, and Derek fails at hiding how warm that makes him), how things like college will work.

After the week is up, Derek corners Stiles alone and opens his mouth to start the serious discussion they need to have about keeping the bond. Stiles disarms him by putting his arms around Derek’s shoulders and nuzzling his face into Derek’s neck. “Just … take a chance, okay? This could be good.”

He knows there are a hundred things to say to that, real things, things they’ll need to say at some point whether this lasts in the long term or not, but Stiles is all fondness and please in his head and Derek allows himself to want it, to want it to last, and feels some tension ease between them he hadn’t recognized before. “You remind me of Laura sometimes,” he says, both for something to say and because it’s true.

“Tell me about her,” Stiles answers, lips moving against Derek’s neck, and Derek does.