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An Algorithm for Mistakes

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“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”
Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth

*

They’ve been having this fight for months. Lydia is over it. Over it.

The argument is about to reach that annoying point where everybody starts shouting, so Lydia stands up and picks her way over outstretched legs and gesticulating hands to the kitchen to make herself coffee. Derek’s “kitchen” is only a mini-fridge, a hot plate, and a coffeemaker in the corner of his tiny, molding apartment. But coffee is coffee. Once the coffee is brewed, she pours herself a cup and sets it on the window ledge to cool.

Scott is in the middle of a passionate and possibly rehearsed speech about the importance of a college education, but he keeps getting interrupted by Erica and Derek. They can’t leave their territory. Who will look after it? Who will protect it? If they’re going to be staying in Beacon Hills for the rest of their lives anyway, is it really so important to get a college degree? They can take classes at BH Community College. They need to solidify the pack first, and worry about advanced education later.

Isaac and Allison try to back Scott up, occasionally offering up parables about poor schmucks who try to make do with only a high school diploma. These stories, of course, have only succeeded in insulting Derek, who never went to college, and Erica, who doesn’t plan to. Erica calls Allison a patronizing snob, and then—oh, there’s the shouting. Right on time.

Boyd agrees with Scott to some degree, Lydia thinks, but he doesn’t say anything, just folds his hands over his stomach and watches the proceedings wearily. Jackson sulks in the corner, rolling his eyes every so often. Lydia knows that he’s not as apathetic as he appears, but Jackson’s worked hard to appear immune to the pack’s supposedly petty disagreements, and it’s too late for him to stop now.

The whole argument is a gigantic, everlasting circle, and Lydia is over it.

Lydia has already determined that the outcome of this fight will make no difference to her. She has a plan. And while things will be simpler if the pack gets its shit together and all goes to college in one place, she can make do if they don’t. Lydia’s plan is fitted to multiple eventualities.

She stares blankly out the window at the road, at the streetlights, at the parking lot, at a man walking his dog and letting it piss on someone’s car tire. A pair of bright headlights pull into the parking lot and glint off the window shields of the other cars, startling the dog. It barks maniacally even while its owner drags it away. Lydia recognizes Stiles’ Jeep when the headlights swing around into a parking space.

She feels not a little bit of relief as she watches Stiles hop out and reach back in for his backpack. He jogs up the sidewalk and out of her sight. Maybe he can distract them all.

Derek barely pauses in his spiel about pack loyalty to wrench the door open—apparently half a second before Stiles knocks on it, because his hand is in mid-air.

“Hey guys,” Stiles says. “Did you know you can be heard from the parking lot?” He’s bouncing on his heels, entirely too chipper.

“You’re late,” Derek snaps. “Sit down.”

Stiles opens his mouth to respond, but Scott beats him to it: “Don’t tell him what to do,” he says. “Stiles, tell them we need to get degrees if we want to have good jobs.”

Oh, this should be good. Lydia takes up her cup of coffee and looks around to see if there’s any popcorn.

“I’m not trying to keep you from having good jobs, Scott. I’m trying to keep you all alive,” Derek says.

“We need degrees to get good jobs,” Stiles parrots. “But I’ve got something—”

“Sit down, “ Derek repeats, seemingly determined to keep everyone on track. His eyes are fixed on Stiles, though, who’s withdrawing a packet of papers from his backpack and handing it to Scott. Derek shakes himself a little and begins again: “Obviously all of you who want a college degree will get one sometime, but right now—”

“You got into Stanford?” Scott exclaims.

“I got into Stanford,” Stiles says, grinning. They exchange an emphatic high-five.

“Stiles!” Allison exclaims.

“Wow, congratulations, man,” Scott says, and the pause while the others chime in. Boyd reaches out to shake his hand, and Isaac does too. Jackson smirks at him in a way that was probably intended to be congratulatory. Erica hugs him, which makes Stiles blush.

Lydia gives him a smile over her cup of coffee, which Stiles returns, shyly.

Derek has stepped back to lean against the wall during this interaction, giving off the outward impression that he’s just waiting for everyone to sit down, but his eyebrows are angled down in a V. When Stiles turns to him, Derek gives him a sharp nod.

“Listen. Like I was saying, I’m not trying to keep anybody from getting an education or getting a good job. I’m just saying, it’s kind of unusual, having a pack where we’re almost all the same age, and if we all go off in different direction for college at the same time, we’re going to lose all the ground we’ve covered in terms of solidifying the pack.”

“Yeah, I see that,” Scott says, “but what about Allison’s visiting idea. We could make sure we all meet up every month.”

“Meeting once a month is not going to work,” Derek insists. “I’ve explained this.” And the argument is about to pick up again with a vengeance, when half the werewolves in the room turn their noses toward the door.

“Pizza!” Erica exclaims. She extorts some money out of Jackson to pay for it, and sure enough, a minute later there comes a knock on the door. Soon they’re taking a food-enforced break, everybody passing around paper plates and stuffing their faces.

Lydia insinuates herself between Stiles and Allison so that she can grab the acceptance letter from Stiles. It looks just like her own, except with some strange name at the top.

“Oh, that’s.” Stiles plucks the papers from her hands and finds a pen so that he can methodically scratch out his first name, leaving “Dear Mr. XXXX Stilinski” at the top of the page.

“You got into Stanford, too, right?” he asks as he hands back the papers. His eyes flicker up at her face and then away.

“Yes, I did.”

“That’s cool,” he says, like he doesn’t care either way. Like he’s fooling anyone.

“How did you get in?” she asks, because she’s honestly curious.

“Lydia,” Allison hisses on her other side. Lydia doesn’t need to look at her to know she’s got her “be nice” face on.

“No, no it’s cool. I didn’t do so hot on my SATs; everybody knows that,” he says, and Lydia nods. Everybody knows that because he spent several weeks of pack meetings bitching about it. “But I’ve been emailing this history professor there? And I sent him a couple of history essays—”

“Male circumcision, right?” Scott butts in to ask.

“The hell?” Jackson says around a mouthful of pizza.

“Um, yeah.” Stiles looks a little flustered, and waves his hands. “ And he wrote me a recommendation, said he’d talk to the dean. Apparently it helped.” His looks down at his letter in wonder.

“So, do you think you’ll go there?” Allison asks him.

“I think I have to. Dad was so excited; he was all, ‘You can’t pass up this opportunity.’” His smile fades a little. “It’s really expensive, though.”

Lydia tsks. “Didn’t you read the packet? All financial aid is need-based. You’ll be fine.”

“Um, yes I did read the packet, and it basically guaranteed me more than a hundred thousand in loans to pay off after I graduate.”

“College costs money,” Lydia informs him helpfully. “That’s what loans are for.”

“Loans I have to repay.”

He looks downtrodden, and Scott slaps his back and says, “Hey, you know, one of the places I applied to is right next to Stanford. We could be right next to each other!”

Awesome,” Stiles says, and they high-five again. As if he and Stiles have not already discussed this extensively. Lydia knows because Allison had complained that it seemed almost more important to Scott to go to college near Stiles than near Allison.

“But no, seriously, I don’t even know if I’m going to go there. It was a reach when I applied, and that’s a lot of loan money.”

“We’ll help you pay off your loans,” Derek breaks in with a dismissive hand wave. “That’s not an issue. What we need to talk about—”

“Hey, wait. One minute you’re all ‘college will tear us apart’ and the next you’re gonna help us pay off our loans?” Scott protests.

“I never said you couldn’t go to college!” Derek all but shouts.

“No, back up. Why would you be helping me pay off my loans?” Stiles cuts in.

Derek visibly reins himself in. “Like I said, I want you all you to get good jobs. And we can all help each other out, money issues included, but—”

“Wait, seriously?” Erica cuts in. “You’re going to help us out with money? All of us?” Her expression is strangely vulnerable, a little spot of tomato sauce dotting the edge of her mouth.

“Yes, of course,” Derek says slowly, brow furrowed.

There’s a pause, a current of tension running through the room as Derek and Erica engage in some wordless exchange. Eventually Derek’s jaw works, once, and he sighs, eyes flickering up and around the room, meeting each person’s eyes for a second. Lydia raises her eyebrows at him when Derek looks at her. Lost your only ally, did you? Derek presses his lips together.

“Okay,” he says. And it’s impossible to miss that this is the tipping point, that Derek is agreeing to something now. “Okay. If it’s something that everyone wants to do, then we will go to college. But let me make something clear. This isn’t summer camp. We’re not just a bunch of friends who live together; does everyone get that? This is a pack. We need a plan that doesn’t involve everyone going in eight different directions.”

“I still don’t see why we can’t all go to the same school,” Isaac says, and that diverts them into re-hashing the discussion of whether they could all get accepted to the same school, and some pointed remarks from Allison about the lowest common denominator, which results in some growling from the other side of the room. But suddenly it’s more than a possibility. It’s happening.

“Lydia,” Stiles says, elbowing her. When she turns to stare pointedly down at his elbow, he retracts it and smiles apologetically. “Sorry. It would be pretty cool if we both went to Stanford, wouldn’t it?”

Lydia purses her lips out into a thinking face. “Yeah.” And maybe it would, despite the lingering awkwardness of Stiles’ crush. She hasn’t thought much about where and how Stiles fits into her plan, but he’s been pretty helpful in multiple werewolf-related situations. Maybe he could help.

Scott leans over from their other side: “Wouldn’t it be great if you two were at Stanford, and Isaac and me went to Foothill College for the vet tech program? And then we’d all be together!”

“What if we all moved to that area,” Boyd says. Besides asking Jackson to pass the pepperoni, it’s the first thing he’s said all night. “For a couple of years, to begin with,” he says. “Isaac, Scott, and I just need two-year programs to do what we want to do. And if Stiles and Lydia have gotten into Stanford, they should do that. There’s several colleges around there for the rest of us. Community colleges. San Jose State. Santa Clara.”

Lydia likes Boyd. He’s pragmatic. And he wants to train to be a paramedic. From what Lydia has seen, there’s nothing the pack needs more than someone who can perform triage in that first ugly hour before the wolves start to heal.

They all watch as Derek thinks, breathes out. “That’s a possibility. Two years is still a long time to leave the territory unguarded, though.”

And then there’s a lot more talk about how often they’re going to be checking in on Beacon Hills, and whether Jackson will go to San Jose State or not, and where they can afford to live in freaking Silicon Valley. But it’s a real plan. All they have to do now is iron out the details. Something in Lydia thrills at thought of moving forward, at long last.

They had been having this same fight for months, and all it took was for Erica to realize that she didn’t have to be left out. Lydia thinks that Stiles having an acceptance letter too good to pass up probably also had something to do with it; Derek hadn’t seemed particularly happy about that.

But this is good. She’s distantly annoyed that nobody has yet asked her whether she wanted to go to Stanford instead of Princeton or Caltech or MIT or any of the eight other places she got into, but it doesn’t matter in the end. She wants to be in the near vicinity of two things—the pack and world-class programs in math and biology—and it doesn’t matter where she goes. She is going to make this shit happen.

*

Lydia has always had a plan. For many years, her plan was to get a graduate degree in mathematics, do something brilliant, win the Field’s Medal, and then probably rule the mathematical world while wearing great shoes and with Jackson by her side.

Math has always been central to this plan. Mathematics is satisfying in a way that nothing else is, coming together like puzzle pieces, only better, because there is more than one way to fit the pieces together. She’d actually been bored by arithmetic as a child, but then she’d met algebra. All of a sudden, math was more than counting. With variables, you could talk about numbers you didn’t know yet. You could talk about many numbers at once. You could conjure up invisible targets and relationships, formulae that could predict the future and past. Math was magic, and it was so very easy to learn. Math belonged to Lydia. And so Lydia has known for a while now that, given a place to stand, she, like Archimedes, could move the world with mathematics.

Just to be clear, though, Lydia is not a nerd. She isn’t one of those weirdos in the Robotics Club obsessed over video games or Captain America or whatever. She decided many years ago that she would not be like that kid who graduated early from Beacon Hills because he took a bunch of college courses online and skipped two years of proms and lacrosse games and homecomings to go be an outcast at some college at age sixteen. Her freshman math teacher had suggested to Mom that Lydia take some extra college courses through the local community college, but Lydia immediately dismissed the idea. She came up with an algorithm after that. (Algorithm: on any given test, rank all questions according to difficulty. Difficulty is measured by a) number of steps, b) presence of misdirecting language or information, c) level of concepts, as measured by how late in the curriculum they are covered. Choose one problem to answer incorrectly per test; choose a hard question 68% of the time, choose a medium difficulty question 27% of the time, choose an easy question 5% of time. In the second semester, she always lowers the standard deviation for the appearance of learning, but no one ever notices.)

It was such a good plan. But two things happen.

The first thing is werewolves.

Lydia wakes up the day after Jackson’s transformation from kanima to werewolf, turns to face him on the pillow they share, palms his smooth, perfect chest, and slowly, reluctantly lets herself sink into the knowledge that her plan has changed. She needs to study biology. Zoology, genetics, and molecular biology to begin with. Maybe evolutionary biology? She watches Jackson breathe in and out, in and out, and starts a mental list of preliminary topics for research. It is alarming that she would be cutting into her math time, but she can do both. She can scale back her language study to accommodate it. She can double-major in college, or even triple-major if she needs to. Maybe she won’t change the world of mathematics in quite the timeline she had imagined, but she can do both, surely. Her hand shakes on Jackson’s chest, so she stretches her fingers out and presses them flat and still. Jackson’s breath falls out of rhythm, his eyelashes flutter, and he wakes, smiling at her without opening his eyes. He wraps his arms around her and pulls her against his chest, and well, that cinches it. She can do it. She will do it.

Lydia spends the rest of that week attempting to interrogate her various werewolf friends for the answers to a number of very specific questions. They include: How long have werewolves existed? Do werewolves get sick? How many are there, and how many people are aware of their existence? Do they have organizations, institutions, or governing bodies? What kinds of social systems exist? Do different packs communicate with each other? Why are werewolves secret? What threats exist that keep them silent? What resources exist for biological or medical information about werewolves? The answers to all these questions are deeply unsatisfactory, and involve shrugs, statements like, “I dunno, ask Derek” and also “Maybe Dr. Deaton knows?” and “Well, there are hunters,” like that explains anything. Lydia is rather alarmed that nobody in this group seems to have asked these questions before.

She goes to see Dr. Deaton first. She has a prepared list of questions, and the first one is, “Are werewolves homo sapiens?” Because she had initially assumed that they were different, but the fact that they can change a human into one of them under the right circumstances suggests that there are strong genetic similarities. She wants to know what genetic differences there might be between born and made werewolves, because she is sure there must be some. Dr. Deaton is strangely unhelpful, though. A lot of his answers are couched in the language of lore and magic, and Lydia spends half the meeting examining him through narrowed eyes, trying to figure out what kind of value such language has, if even a modern doctor like Deaton is still using it.

She reads the damn Bestiary. She will never get over the complete idiocy of keeping zoological information stored in storybook form in a language that nobody reads, but she recognizes that there must be a cultural reason for it. The cultural nuances, however, are inaccessible, because Derek either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to share. She suspects it’s a mix of both, based on how young he was when his family died. It might also be that she offends Derek when she asks if his parents were both werewolves before they had babies and whether Derek knows if he is fertile? Whatever. (Peter Hale probably knows more, but a) she doesn’t trust him to tell her the truth, b) even if she did, she doesn’t trust him not to hurt, violate, or otherwise harrass her, and c) it doesn’t matter for very long, because it takes barely a month before Derek kicks him out of Beacon Hills. It only takes another six months after that for her nightmares to go away.)

Anyway. Between Derek’s reticence and Dr. Deaton’s tendency to wax mythological whenever Lydia asks them questions, she gets the sense that they are both hiding things, which. Makes no sense. What do they believe they are protecting? And how the hell have werewolves survived this long without sharing medical information amongst themselves?

For them, and for the rest of the werewolves in Beacon Hills, the whole werewolf business is so localized, so personal. It’s a question of their own lives and their own survival. Every one of the wolves is looking at the tree in front of them and missing the huge fucking forest around them. It becomes patently obvious that Lydia may be the only person in the area, if not the state or country, with the access, inclination, and talent to do a proper study of what may be the only other sentient species on the planet. It falls to her.

The first time she gets a straight answer is out of Stiles, who explains to her everything he knows about the full moon shifts and how they work: all factual information with no lore whatsoever, and she is so relieved to hear sense from someone that she kisses him on the mouth.

“Oh. My god. Oh god.” Stiles crosses his eyes attempting to look down at his own lips. “Lydia, if you took off your top right now, I could check off, like, half of my bucket list.”

Scott coughs, embarrassed, and jumps in at that point to say that maybe there’s something about moonlight itself that does it?

“THE MOON DOES NOT EMIT LIGHT. It’s sunlight, bouncing off the moon. It’s the same light you stand in all day long, you moron.”

“I know that.” Scott looks distinctly miffed. “I’m not saying it makes sense or that I know how it works. I’m just saying it feels different when I can feel the moonlight on me.”

Lydia narrows her eyes at him. “Interesting.” She starts a new list of questions, chief among them “How do I set up a control group without Derek’s cooperation?”

*

The second thing that changes her plan is Jackson.

Lydia loves Jackson. She loves him now and forever, and that’s not sentimental; that’s facts. She's loved him since she was fourteen years old, when he smiled at her across the lunchroom in that shy way she’s only ever seen him do for her.

Lydia was Jackson’s first kiss; he was her first time at second base. Lydia and Jackson lost their virginity together. Jackson even bought her a vibrator, using his parent’s stolen credit card, and Lydia had her first orgasm in Jackson’s arms and Jackson’s bed. She knew that he felt weird about being adopted, and he knew that she felt weird about being smart—and not just smart, but freakish-psycho-genius smart—and they were both extremely good at not talking about those things, and they both appreciated that the other never brought it up. Lydia graciously ignored it when Jackson muttered, “You’re not my mother,” when his mom told him to do shit, and Jackson sweetly ignored it when she pulled out nerdy books on Archaic Latin and multivariable calculus. They could pretend to be flawless together, or at least push each other to be flawless, and it was a comfortable system. They worked: Jackson-and-Lydia, Lydia-and-Jackson.

But then werewolves. And Jackson had become mean, mean in a way he only ever been to other people before, and he broke up with her. And then there was Peter Fucking Hale, and the single worst year of her life, and then…then, they were together again. Except it was different. It was amazing, in a look-at-what-we-survived-together kind of way, but it was also different.

It was harder to ignore each other’s flaws. Lydia started being less subtle about her inner freak-nerd, and Jackson? All of Jackson’s anger issues started bubbling to the top, and rather than share them with her, he would let them out with Derek, or Boyd, or Isaac, or even Erika, and he was spending all his damn time with the pack, and. Well.

They broke up. Again. She's still not sure which straw broke the camel’s back, but Jackson being a werewolf—suddenly he was so caught up in trying to learn new things about himself, and Lydia was too. They were both caught up in it, but Jackson thought that she was in it for the science, which she was, but he was completely missing the point that the science of werewolves could help him. He accused her of trying to use him as a science experiment, and she might have yelled something about not everything revolving around him and the world being bigger than his little problems.

Suddenly they weren't the things that made each other special. The world had gotten bigger than them.

It has been six months, now, and Lydia still feels unmoored without him. She doesn’t belong. She didn’t go to a couple of pack meetings after they split up, and Allison had called her up to ask where she was. Derek had apparently asked Allison to relate the message that Lydia was already pack, so she might as well keep coming. So she does.

She could have made other friends; almost anybody at school would have been happy to hang out with her, she’s sure. Except that she knows she would spend the whole time thinking, “Werewolves exist. There’s an entire other sentient species on our planet, and almost nobody knows it, and I could be there, finding out more.” So she goes. She may not belong, but she goes. She sits next to Allison, or Scott, or sometimes Stiles. She avoids Jackson’s eyes. She squints at Erica’s boots, trying to figure out where she got them, and how she’s keeping them so clean if they’re all running through the woods all the time. She listens to Derek talk, albeit with a perpetual skeptical expression on her face. She notices how little he tells the pack, and how often he gets away with it. She notices that he likes good ideas, but not acknowledging them. She notices that his eyes always rest longer on Stiles. And once she figures out what that’s about, she spends time noticing his every aborted attempt to talk to Stiles and smirks meanly at him during meetings. It’s a good distraction, at least.

She becomes part of the pack, but doesn’t ever feel that she belongs to it.

But now they’re going to Stanford together. Maybe she’ll figure it out there.

*

The Stanford campus is even more beautiful than the brochures: all matching Spanish tile and green lawns and rolling, forested mountains on the horizon. But it’s also August, and unlike Beacon Hills, nestled near the cool redwood forests that lie northwest of the Bay, Stanford sits squat in a valley: just far enough inland to avoid even the semblance of a sea breeze. It’s hot. It’s hot in an ugly, sweating, don’t-wear-nice-fabrics kind of way.

Moving into the dorm is agony. The rest of the pack isn’t moving into their rented house until the end of the week, so it’s just Lydia and her mom, moving all of her belongings into the dorm while Stiles and his dad move him into a dorm across campus. There are people everywhere, carrying lamps and suitcases and cheap plastic containers, and there’s no place to park, and Lydia’s shirt is soaked through with sweat after the first hour. There’s no air conditioning in the dorms, which Lydia hadn’t expected to be a problem, except for how it’s hot, and the ventilation is shit, and just standing in her room is stifling. She makes her mom go out and buy a small window-unit air conditioner. The room itself is rather small and worn, with scuffs on the baseboards and window sills. The bathroom is down the hall: a communal monstrosity with shower curtains that don’t quite cover the edges of the stall.

Lydia had prevented the inevitable bitchfest between her parents by announcing that Dad could have her the weekend before she left, but that Mom would be driving her to school. Her mother is wearing jeans, instead of her usual pristine suit. She looks uncomfortable wearing them, and Lydia feels uncomfortable seeing her in them.

Lydia arranges her clothes and shoes twice, because her new roommate seems to think she needs more room for her ugly t-shirts than she does, but no matter. Lydia can make do.

Once they put away everything with their usual efficiency—they are a very efficient family, when it’s just the two of them—her mother stands awkwardly in the middle of the room.

"Well," Mom says. "What else do you need to do?" She looks over Lydia's shoulder at her checklist.

"Nothing much today," she says. She feels tight and fragile, for some reason, and she both doesn't want Mom to leave and wants her to leave right now. The second feeling is winning out.

Mom checks her watch. "We have time to get some dinner," she says. "We could check out the dining hall. The information sheet says it's open to everyone."

"No," Lydia replies. "You should go ahead and drive back. Don't want to be on the roads at night for longer than you have to be. I'll be fine." She is sure now: she wants to rip the bandage off quickly, to go ahead and have whatever strange feelings she is having right now, and get them over with. And she can't do that until her mom leaves

"You're sure?" Mom asks. She doesn't ask to try to prod Lydia into letting her stay but because she wants to know. Mom isn’t the sentimental sort.

"I'm sure."

So Lydia hugs her briefly, sees her to the car, and watches her drive away on the crowded, winding road.

It's just beginning to get late; the light is taking on a purple hue, and the heat has gone milder. The sky is high and wide and flat, and Lydia can see the phallic point of the main tower in one direction, and the tops of the mountains in the other. It's huge, here. Just big all around her, and it's exhilarating, feels like freedom, but it also feels like a panic attack, like there's too much air, and she has to breathe it all at once.

Lydia goes back inside the dorm, coming to a halt in the middle of her room. Her roommate—Jennifer? Jessica? some generic J-name—is at dinner with her own parents and brothers and grandmother. They’re a big family of enthusiastic, loud New Yorkers, and having all of them in the same room for even a few minutes had been suffocating. Lydia pivots on the spot, looking for something to do, but she and Mom have already done everything: hung her art and coat hooks, arranged her cork board and notebooks. Lydia seats herself at her tiny desk and checks her email. She checks Facebook. She looks at the schedule she's planned. She tries to call Allison, but no one picks up. And then she sits on her bed, feeling edgy and wrung-out.

At nine o'clock, she goes to bed for lack of anything better to do, and only wakes up again when her roommate comes back with her huge, annoying family. The girl’s mother cries when she hugs her daughter goodbye, and it pisses Lydia off for no reason at all.

“Sorry for waking you up,” the girl says cheerfully, after they all leave and quiet has been restored.

“Whatever,” Lydia says, and turns her face to the wall.

The girl huffs behind her, but Lydia ignores her, shuts her eyes, and wills herself to sleep.

*

Her outfit for the first day of class is to die for. She had painstakingly chosen the dress and shoes two weeks before she left Beacon Hills, and she spends several minutes that morning standing in front of the mirror, admiring the sharp, clean lines of her dress and building a confident smile in the mirror. She adds her earrings last, tinkling silver ones that swing against her throat, and presses her lips together one final time to cement her lipstick. And even though her stomach is flip-flopping in her belly, she reassures herself that this is the start of a glorious new chapter in her life. She is going to have teachers that know more than she does about their subjects. Education is going to be useful to her for the first time ever. Knowing that it will take a while to walk to her class, she sets out early with a spring in her step.

By the time she gets to her classroom, though, she can feel a blister coming on. Her new shoes don’t seem to be good for walking long distances in. She hadn’t considered that.

Lydia shakes it off, literally, with a flip of her hair, and scans her chemistry classroom. She should probably attempt to meet people in her classes. She picks a girl with a focused expression and sits down next to her.

Lydia has never been particularly good at making conversation with other girls, so she goes with the all-purpose girl’s conversation starter.

"I love that top," she says. "It's incredible. Where'd you get it?"

"Target," the girl says without looking up from her book.

"Oh, well. That's…inexpensive." Lydia squints at the girl, but she doesn't look up from her phone.

"My name's Lydia," she tries.

The girl does glance up then. "Maria," she says. She gives Lydia the up-and-down with her eyes. "Do you know anything about the prof? I've heard she's hard."

"No."

The girl shrugs and goes back to texting.

Lydia turns to her other side. A guy is just sitting down, clean-shaven and handsome, and he smiles at her nervously. He reminds her of Jackson.

She faces front.

The professor uses the first half of class to pass out the syllabus, read the syllabus, and then repeat the parts about due dates several times in a loud, weary voice. Lydia is stuck on the course schedule, though. She had known that this class would be a review of what she already knew. She knew that. And yet, seeing it all written down in orderly, measured rows: equilibrium constants, acids and bases, chemical thermodynamics, ionic and covalent bonding, periodicity. Despite everything she knew, Lydia had had it in her head that college would be different.

There is no help for it. She has to take the required classes, and the pre-requisites for the required classes, and she has to do them all in the correct order. This is the highest level of biochem course that her AP scores could get her into, and it’s still going to be a year of slogging through basic level pre-reqs.

Luckily, all of the assignments for the class are already up on the course website. The professor suggests that they take a look at the assignments before coming to lecture; Lydia looks them up and decides that she can probably finish all of them.

At the end of the lecture, the professor hands out a quiz. Lydia marks the first three answers and lingers over the fourth. According to her algorithm, she should miss this one due to a calculation error. Her heart beats fast, faster, and her pen makes eight little circles in the air before dipping in and checking the right answer.

“Oh god,” she breathes out.

“You okay?” the guy on her left says.

“Yeah,” she says. She almost crosses it out, but her hand is shaking. This is good. This is fine. She’s going to pick all of the right answers from now on. “Yeah, I think—”

“NO TALKING!” barks the professor.

*

An hour and a half later, Lydia finds herself standing in the dining hall. She had followed some other students there, not really paying attention to where she was going, her nose stuck in a notebook as she plotted out her homework schedule for the next two weeks. Someone jostles her as they pass, and Lydia suddenly becomes aware of her feet, of the prickles up her calves and the painful pinch in her toes. That was a longer walk than she’d thought. She grabs a tray and puts herself in the first line of hungry students that she sees.

It turns out to be a line for pasta, so she gets some. But then she’s standing in a cafeteria with a tray of food, doing that uncomfortable, indecisive table search with her eyes that she had always made fun of kids for doing in high school. It feels different on this side of things. Lydia breathes in deep, shakes her hair back, and strides forward. And sits down next to a group of girls.

"Hi," she says.

They all chorus "hi" back to her, ask if she's a freshman, say that they are too, blah blah blah, and suddenly they're having a conversation. Lydia is pretty proud of herself for accomplishing this much, so she puts on her best fawning smile and attempts to look interested in their lives.

But then, one of the girls asks what classes the others are taking, and one of the others says, “Oh god, I have to take this stupid math class. I got a 4 on the AP Calculus test, but to skip it, you have to have a 5. It’s ridiculous.”

The other girls hum sympathetically, but Lydia frowns at her.

“Well, if you can’t even manage a 5 on the AP test, you shouldn’t be in that class. You’ll just do badly.”

The girl’s face twists. “You don't have to be mean about it.”

"I wasn't being mean," Lydia says.

"Yes, yes you were," the girl next to her asserts.

Lydia smiles tight and sweet at her. "You would know if I were being mean.”

A third girl lets out a shocked little laugh, and the 4-score chick redirects her attention to her salad. It’s quiet for a minute, before someone brings up a party she’s going to. The conversation only lasts another five minutes before the girls suddenly find things they have to get to, and they all leave.

Lydia feels eyes on her, but she's probably imagining them, so she stays put until she has eaten every single angel hair noodle on her plate before she stands up, stiffly, returns her tray, and walks out the door at a normal, ambling pace.

Her feet hurt by the time she gets back to her dorm. There are blisters developing on her heels, and indentations in her toes, and her calves burn like fire. Lydia takes off her shoes, her gorgeous, specially chosen heels, and meticulously cleans off the dirt before putting them back in their spot in her closet.

She stands in front of the closet for long minutes, frowning down at the most beautiful collection of shoes that a girl could ask for. Boots and platforms and heels and sandals.

All of this was supposed to be easier.

*

It's a Friday evening after the second week of school, and she's staring balefully out the window of the Jeep as the highway rolls by. The Jeep’s air conditioning doesn’t seem to cut the bright, sunny heat that’s streaming through the windshield at all, and she’s already starting to feel sticky under her arms and between her breasts. Stiles has tried to engage her in conversation, has waxed on about his amazing classes, and how cool the texts are, and eventually he realized that she wasn't really responding to him, because he asked what was wrong. Lydia apparently looks

"...kinda like you're gonna punch me? What's up?"

"Nothing," she says. "I'm tired."

"Yeah, me too. So much shit to do this week! I've already got a mountain of homework." He says it with relish, like he's actually looking forward to his homework. Lydia is so jealous she could spit.

"That's nice."

"Yeah."

Stiles shoots her an awkward look, something in between pity and his habitual nervousness around her, and they ride the rest of the way in silence.

The pack’s new house is a ramshackle thing in a town halfway between San Jose and Palo Alto. It’s not in what Lydia would consider a nice neighborhood, but it does have four bedrooms. Erica gets her own room, and the boys claim that they will rotate through the other three so that whoever needs a single room for a night can have it. Derek is in that room for now, though, and Lydia strongly doubts that he’s going to give it up so that Scott and Allison can fuck.

Tonight will be the first time Allison is coming to visit since they’ve moved. Mr. Argent wouldn’t hear of her going to San Jose State with Jackson, not when she’s been accepted to several of the UC’s. Allison did manage to argue her way into UC Davis (2 hours away from Beacon Hills) instead of UCLA (eight hours), though. Lydia is pretty sure it wasn’t a hard sell. Mr. Argent seems like the kind of dad who doesn’t want more than three hours of drive time between himself and his daughter. Tonight, Lydia already has plans to steal Allison away from Scott for a few hours of heartfelt bitching.

The pack meeting—their first in the new place—doesn’t do anything to quell her bad mood. Isaac and Scott are starting school next week, and exhibit twin expressions of glee. They're even in most of the same classes. Lydia notices that Stiles laughs a little too loudly at the jokes Scott makes when talking about it, and she spitefully hopes that Scott and Stiles' epic friendship is on the rocks, that Isaac is swooping in and taking Stiles’ place.

At least they could be miserable together.

That thought makes her feel like a jerk, though, so she's full of guilt and bad temper when she tries to go hide in the kitchen and nearly walks into Jackson. He catches her arms with superhuman speed, and she looks up at him, and he's so mind-numbingly gorgeous that she just hates him for looking good when she's standing here in her sweat-stained t-shirt.

"Watch where you're going, asshole," she bites out.

He snaps out of some reverie, and the fingers that had started to move in little circles on her arms curl and scratch her a little as he yanks them back.

"Whatever, bitch," he says, at the same time as she opens her mouth to complain about the scratches. He looks at them, and looks at her.

"I didn't mean to—" Jackson begins, but his face hardens and he whirls around and leaves.

"Don't call me that," she says at his back. She hates him, she hates him, she hates him.

Fucking hell, she misses him.

Normally any kind of scratch or skin-breaking on humans is supposed to be reported immediately to Derek, but Lydia is immune, thank you, and she doesn’t feel like standing around while Derek chews Jackson out for carelessness. Isaac had accidentally scratched Stiles last year, and—after Derek had flipped his shit—they had all waited long days to see if anything would happen. It hadn’t.

Everyone's curled together on the second-hand couch, and on the rug from Craigslist, and in the chairs they found in a dumpster. The house is as ragtag as they themselves are, and it fits, strangely. Lydia snags the arm of the couch next to Boyd. There's Chinese food today, lined up in thirty different containers, most of them already empty. Lydia sifts through them looking for vegetables.

Derek starts talking at some point, and Lydia only tunes in enough to hear him talking about a low profile and keeping to themselves and not disturbing the local wolf pack and never doing anything interesting without asking him first.

He's droning on and on, and Lydia is both bored and hyperaware of Jackson three feet to her right, and she misses being able to roll her eyes at him or Allison during pack meetings. It had made it so much more bearable—having someone who would reciprocate her boredom.

At some point, though, she realizes that Derek is talking about her. Well, her and Stiles.

"...you need to stick close together. If anyone approaches you, and you think they might be a wolf, you need to call me immediately. There's a possibility that another werewolf will be able to pick up the pack's scent on you, and they might make assumptions."

Stiles looks skeptical. "What kind of assumptions?"

"They might assume correctly that you're a human member of a werewolf pack, and depending on what they want, try to approach you in some way. Humans sometimes act as intermediaries between werewolf packs. Or, they might assume incorrectly that you're werewolves, in which case they might just attack you. Neither of you should be out alone at night. You're on a big campus—too easy for someone to drag you off somewhere without being noticed."

Lydia scoffs. “You're being a little paranoid, don't you think? And also. I am going to go anywhere I please and with anyone that I please, thank you very much."

"If you want to be safe, then you'll stay with someone else," Derek growls. Lydia widens her eyes at him, like, really? You think so? But Derek just moves on like the matter is settled.

"Next. We're going to start off by meeting every weekend."

Lydia turns to Stiles so that she can vent her frustration with a good eyeroll, but he’s picking at his rice unconcernedly.

After another ten minutes of talking, the meeting is finished, and people start to disperse around the house. Derek catches Lydia in a doorway. He opens his mouth to say something, but then pauses, inhaling through his nose.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Lydia huffs. No telling what he’s picking up from her scent right now. “I’m fine. What do you want?”

Derek quirks an eyebrow skeptically, but leaves it. "I know that you don't like to be told what to do, but I'm doing this for your own good."

"Reeeeeeally," she says. "I think you're making up for the fact that you spent several years in high school telling me and Stiles jack shit, resulting in some serious trauma for the both of us. Thanks for the protection, by the way." Derek's face is steadily darkening. "And oh, I also think that if Stiles wasn't at Stanford with me, you wouldn't have paused to mention anything about safety. Don't think I noticed how quick you agreed to move everyone here after he got into Stanford."

"This has nothing to do with him. If you don't want to take care of yourself, fine. Do what you want. But I'm going to say 'I told you so' when it turns out badly."

"Fine," she says, giving him her sweetest face.

"Are you two fighting?" Stiles interjects, having come up behind her. "It does sound kinda restrictive, Derek. What if we want to play nighttime glow-in-the-dark frisbee? How are we supposed to be real college kids without that?"

"You can play frisbee," he says, frustrated. "You wouldn't be by yourself if you were playing frisbee, would you?"

"Oh," Stiles responds. "Well good." He stands there, looking almost goofily pleased about this development. “So we just have to, y’know, do the normal kind of safety, where we don’t walk down dark alleys by ourselves?”

Derek sighs. “That is what I have been saying.”

“Great. That’s great, right, Lydia?” Stiles turns big, round eyes on her, and Lydia starts to suspect that Stiles joined this conversation for the express purpose of getting her to back off. Huh.

She cocks her head to the left and examines his expression. “Yes,” she says slowly.

“Good,” and because she’s looking for it, she spots the clever little twist in his smile.

“Right, well I’m gonna play some Xbox with Scott for a while. Are you good to go back to the dorm in a couple hours?”

“Yeah,” she says.

“Cool.”

She turns back to Derek when Stiles darts off. Derek’s body is turned towards her, face set in a stern expression that he likes to think is authoritative, but his eyes follow Stiles all the way up the stairs.

“Does he do that often?” Lydia asks.

“What?”

“Solve all your widdle problems for you?”

She really expects Derek to lash out at her then. She’s itching for a good fight, and fuck if Stiles is gonna take it away from her. But Derek only breathes out, long and slow and tired.

“Yeah. Yeah, he does.”

He blinks, meeting her eyes briefly before turning back to the living room.

“Erica and Boyd—your turn to clean up,” he calls out, but doesn’t pause before bending to pick up dirty plates himself.

*

Allison arrives about an hour later, and promptly initiates a makeout session with Scott in the doorway—those two take their PDA very seriously, jeez. She and Jackson hadn’t been that bad, had they? Thinking about Jackson depresses her, though. He’s on the opposite side of the room, and Lydia can’t help but wonder whether they’ll ever kiss again. Whether they’ll ever be able to sit on the same couch again.

Lydia is beginning what looks to be a spectacular pity party by the time Allison sweeps her into a hug.

“Well, you look pissed. What’s going on?” she says into Lydia’s ear.

Lydia sighs and hugs her back. God, she’s missed Allison. For someone with parents as stiff as hers, Allison is surprisingly free with her hugs. Lydia hadn’t realized it until this moment, but she hasn’t touched anyone since she hugged her mother goodbye two weeks ago.

Allison pulls back to hold her at arms’ length and scrutinizes her face.

“Right. Girl’s night. Get your bag. Scott, Isaac, we’re taking your room for the next—how long before you need to go back to campus?”

“Doesn’t matter. Whenever I can catch a ride from Stiles.”

“Kay. Two hours. Scott, we’re taking your room for the next two hours.”

“Don’t you want to spend time with Scott?” Lydia says and Allison pulls her out of the room. She has no idea why she’s protesting.

“I talk to Scott everyday. Plus I’ll see him later.”

“Don’t you want to get laid?”

“He’ll still be here in two hours.”

Allison kisses Scott’s cheek as they pass him on their way up on their stairs.

Scott and Isacc’s room is impressively clean when they get upstairs. Scott must have cleaned it in anticipation of Allison’s arrival.

Lydia frowns at the pristinely folded-back blankets and sheets of Scott’s bed as she toes off her shoes. She deposits herself against the headboard and kicks a little until the sheets muss and wrinkle. It’s childishly satisfying. Allison’s not paying attention, just fishing things out of her bag.

“You do realize that everybody in the house has super hearing, don’t you?” Lydia says. “Even if you wanted to talk about stuff…”

Allison deposits a gadget at the foot of the bed.

“Meet the best the thing I ever stole from my dad,” she says with a flourish. “It’s a radio, basically, but it multiplies the sound from the radio into many more frequencies. It creates noise, in other words.”

Lydia looks at it skeptically. “That will keep werewolves from hearing us.”

“It’ll make it a lot harder. Probably impossible for everyone besides Derek.”

“And you have this because…”

Allison switches it on. Patsy Cline’s voice floats out, sounding normal to Lydia, but then she can’t hear the other frequencies.

“Because I’d rather not everyone in the house hear me screwing my boyfriend?”

Lydia can appreciate that. Privacy is so hard to come by now that she’s living in the dorm. “Doesn’t it make it harder for Scott to hear you, though?”

“We use handsignals,” Allison says, smirking.

“Oh god. I didn’t want to know.”

Allison laughs and drops onto the bed with a bounce.

“So…” Allison bats her eyes expectantly. Lydia just returns the gesture, and then they have a little stare-off. Lydia gives in, because she’s tired.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Lydia says. “You don’t need to go all maternal on me. Jackson’s still an asshole. Derek’s still lording over everyone. The usual.”

“Uh-huh,” says Allison, clearly unconvinced. Her gaze drops down, and her forehead wrinkles. “What’s wrong with your feet?”

Lydia compulsively pushes her feet under a blanket. “What?”

“Your feet, Lydia.” Allison pulls back the blanket. “Oh my god, what kind of shoes have you been wearing?”

“Normal shoes,” she says sullenly. To be fair, her feet are disgusting. The broken blisters on her toes and heels are weeping next to shiny red spots where the skin’s been rubbed raw. Lydia’s been ignoring her feet over the past two weeks with the idea that if she just waits long enough, she will develop the callouses she needs to endure the long walks across campus.

“What are you doing, mountain climbing?”

“Walking to class.” The sidewalks and lawns double in length every time she wakes up, she’s sure. The entire campus is conspiring to mess with her.

“Right.” Allison gets that imperious expression she gets sometimes when things need fixing. “I’m going to get the first aid kit.”

“Don’t bother. They haven’t unpacked all the boxes yet,” Lydia says.

“Oh, I’ll find it.” Allison disappears out of the room, determined. Sure enough, Lydia soon hears several dull thuds as boxes hit the floor, and doesn’t have to wait long before footsteps pound up the steps and Allison calls down “No, everything’s fine, I’m handling it” to someone. Probably Derek. (She lets herself imagine for a few seconds that it was Jackson, that he was worried about the scratches on her arms, and that he cares about her still.)

Allison refuses to let Lydia do it herself, and so Lydia gets to sit back and listen to the lilting twang of some country singer while Allison tends to her feet. Allison’s hands are gentle and efficient as she swabs antiseptic and antibiotic ointment methodically over each sore. Lydia breathes in the medicinal scent of the antiseptic and wonders what she herself had smelled like, when Derek asked her if she was okay. Is it just the physical pain that changes her scent? Can he smell her frustration? Her anger?

Allison applies the last bandaid with a flourish. “There. I’d offer you a pedicure, but as we have previously established, I’m kind of shit at painting nails.”

“That’s okay. Wouldn’t want you to make my feet all ugly.”

Allison grins at her, toothy and comforting, and Lydia feels the tiniest bit better.

*

She should have known that talking to Allison would start a game of Pack Telephone, because Stiles calls her the next morning and says that he’s picking her up in fifteen minutes to go buy a bicycle.

Lydia doesn't want a bicycle. They look dorky, and so do the helmets. And it seems highly probable to her that she will crash into a car, or a tree, or another bicycle, or a person. Also she might not have been very good at bicycling when she was a kid. She might have fallen down a lot and scraped her elbows and declared that she was never going to ride a bicycle again, Dad, so get rid of it, I want a Powerwheels.

But her roommate is giving her a sleepy side-eye for being awake and talking on the phone at 10am, and the absurdly basic calculus on her desk isn’t exactly inviting. Plus. Her feet really do hurt.

“Good morning,” she says to Stiles when she slides into the passenger seat of the Jeep.

“Hi,” he says, looking her up and down, not even bothering to hide his concern. “Allison says you’ve been walking everywhere. In heels.”

“Maybe I have.”

“The handbook said to bring a bicycle.”

“I know.”

Stiles lets out a noise of disbelief. “How have you been getting to your classes on time?”

“Careful planning.”

She’s staring straight ahead at the parking road, but she still glimpses his exasperated grimace in her peripheral vision.

“Do you need money? Will your parents not help you buy a bike?”

“I can afford a bike.”

“Then what possible reason could you have for—no. No, you know what? Doesn’t matter. We’re buying you a bike. ” He throws the Jeep into drive, and they spend the short drive in silence.

Lydia enters the bicycle shop with Stiles with her head held high. There are bikes everywhere, hanging from the ceiling and the walls and lined up in gleaming metallic rows. It’s a roomful of accidents waiting to happen, and she stands there, looking around in trepidation, while Stiles jets forward to peruse a line of bicycles.

"Well?" he says when he looks up and sees that she hasn't followed him. She moves to stand beside him.

"I don't suppose you had a kind in mind that you wanted.”

She gives him an incredulous look.

"No. Well then. We'll just have to find the best one. Only the best for Lydia Martin!"

It is mind-boggling, how fast Stiles can switch between the guy who takes charge like it’s his sacred responsibility and the guy who shyly, patiently adores her.

He’s got on that hopeful smile right now, the one she's learned to recognize, the one that always makes her feel a bit guilty for not having such strong feelings back. He’s probably trying to make her feel more comfortable.

"Alright," she says.

"Good. Okay. Well, I did a little research, and I was thinking maybe you'd want a cruiser bicycle? It's meant for just getting around town, not for, like, Lance Armstrong style stuff or mountain biking. They’re sort of vintage-looking. And look, they come with baskets, sometimes?”

He points at one such bike. Lydia purses her lips and nods.

"Right. Well, what about...this one's pink!" He pats the seat of the bike next to him. "Pink's good, right? You like pink?"

"I like pink," she confirms.

"So, um. Do you want this one?"

Lydia grimaces at it. She can already picture herself going headfirst into the concrete. But it does seem...easier to ride than some of the others she'd seen.

"I’m going to look ridiculous on that.”

“No you’re not! Have you not noticed how everyone else on campus rides a bike? Do you think all of them look ridiculous?”

No. They all look normal. They all have the magic ability to stay upright and not crash into things.

“Let me show you something." Stiles fishes his phone out of his back pocket. A salesperson drifts over while Stiles is tapping intently at his phone, and Lydia tells them they're "just browsing, thank you," with her sunniest smile.

"Look," he says, and shows her pictures of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe riding bicycles. They do look pretty charming, with their hands braced on wide handles and skirts that drape over their knees. Lydia typically avoids longer skirts because she thinks they minimize her already short legs, but she supposes she could make exceptions.

"See,” he says, the edges of his mouth creeping up into his cheeks. “You’ll look like a movie-star. That’s why I thought of the vintage bikes to begin with."

"Really?" she says, feeling caught off guard. She doesn't want to lead Stiles on by accepting compliments from him, but she’s a little empty right now. Spending last night with Allison made her skin feel thinner.

"Yeah," Stiles says earnestly. "You've always reminded me of old-school movie stars. Katherine Hepburn and Mae West." He ducks his head. “My mom used to like all those old movies. I watched them a lot with her, when she was sick.”

"Oh." Lydia has no idea what to say to that. She attempts a smile at him, and he matches it, one of the little moles on his cheek disappearing into the lines of his smile. Lydia swallows.

"This bike seems as good as any. Let's buy it." She marches up to the counter to present her credit card, but the process turns out to be more complicated than that. They take the bike out and adjust the seat and the handlebars, repeatedly asking Lydia to sit on it.

“How does that feel?” the guy asks. It feels deeply unsafe, is what it feels, with Lydia balanced on her toes with a giant piece of pipe between her legs, but she’s not going to say that out loud. She looks up at Stiles in question, and he just shrugs and gives her a thumbs-up. And then they apparently need accessories to go with the bike—a helmet, headlight, and lock—and by the time that’s done, it’s been two hours.

"Thanks for taking me to the store," she says, as they wheel out her new bike. It looks like one of the bicycles in Stiles’ movie star pictures, and Lydia does like it a little, despite herself. Stiles lifts the bike into the back of the Jeep, and Lydia can’t help but notice how his biceps flex tight in his sleeves.

"It's no problem. What are you doing after this? We could go for a ride, let you get used to it?"

Lydia thinks she's had just about enough bicycle for one day, though. She can try it out tomorrow. "I think I'm going to study, actually."

"You could study with me, if you want? I need to do some homework."

Lydia feels some sense of foreboding. It’s still awkward hanging out with him, with his everlasting crush hanging between them. Also, Lydia has a sudden, weird desire to lick his neck, and Lydia may not be all that savvy when it comes to relationships, but she does know that bad self-esteem leads to poor life choices.

Of course, her other option is to go back to the dorm, ignore her roommate’s poor taste in music, and do rudimentary math all day.

"Okay."

*

Lydia has never actually studied with another person before. Studying with Jackson usually meant sex, and studying with Allison usually meant hanging out. But studying with Stiles, surprisingly enough, means getting serious work done.

He sets a timer on his phone and switches tasks every twenty minutes—it helps with his ADHD, he says—and Lydia ends up doing the same, switching from chemistry to calculus to the stupid humanities course she’s required to take. Then she switches back to chemistry, because she’s determined to finish every damn assignment before the third week is out.

“You okay over there?” Stiles asks, amused, in the midst of one of their twenty minute sessions.

“What?”

“You were sorta growling at your book.” Stiles is struggling to hold back a grin. His mouth quivers, and he looks handsome like that. “Almost sounded like a werewolf.”

“I am sick of this chemistry class,” she says through her teeth. The chapter on acid-base theories only covers theories relevant for water solutions. Lydia is going to scream.

“I thought you loved chemistry?”

“I do. But this stuff is remedial. I’m…” she stutters, but pushes away the impulse to lie. “I’m halfway through the homework already.” She breathes deep, pushes down hard with her pen. It’s the first time in years that she’s told someone the truth about her academic progress.

“Halfway through all of the homework for the entire class?” Stiles looks impressed, and Lydia can’t help but revel in it, just a little bit.

“Yeah. I think I can finish the rest of it this weekend, though,” she confides. “I was sort of distracted the first two weeks.”

“Cool. You gonna turn it in all at once?”

“No! No. No, I’ll just turn in each one when it’s due.” She looks down at her notes again, grinds her pen in little circles.

“Kay.” Stiles dips his head to try to see her face. “Obviously you should do what you want.” He lets that hang in the air for a few seconds. “But Lydia, if you’re doing this because you don’t want the professor to see how smart you are…. You don’t have to do that. And if you want to skip some of these basic classes, you should probably get to know the professors. I mean, that’s how I got into Stanford. A professor read my work and helped me out.”

“Yeah,” she says. She’s thought about that. She knows that she’s going to have to show professors what she’s capable of if she wants access to specialized lab equipment in the foreseeable future. She’s not going to be able to make any headway on the werewolf front without a lab. But. “It’s just…”

“Just…”

She shrugs. “I don’t want to be a weirdo.”

“You’re unique. Nothing wrong with that.”

Same difference. And now that’s she’s out here on her own, without Jackson or Allison or even Scott, far away from anything familiar, all she can think of to do is to stick with the system that worked for her in high school.

“Do you know my roommate’s from New York City?” she says out of nowhere. “She was talking about the city, and shopping on Madison Avenue, and I said, ‘Beacon Hills has the only shopping mall for fifty miles.’ Like that meant anything.”

Stiles is smiling, bemused. “Yeah?”

“What if it turns out…,” God, she’s hardly even let herself have this thought. “What if it turns out that I’m not actually unique?”

“Lydia?” And here he reaches out and grabs her hand. “That is not going to happen.”

She works her jaw and presses her lips together, nodding at him. Lydia doesn’t cry in front of anyone, as a rule, but she’s finding herself hard pressed. She squeezes his hand before pulling back.

The timer trills on Stiles’s phone. He taps the screen to silence it. “Want to do another?”

Lydia meets his eyes. “Yeah.” The corner of his mouth turns up in response, and he starts the timer again with a jab of his finger.

*

They start studying together three or four times a week. And sure, sometimes it’s awkward, and they don’t know what to say to each other, but sometimes they get to talking about something interesting, and Stiles will actually listen to her talk about physics for an hour straight while she paints her nails, and she will listen avidly when he relates amusing anecdotes from his history class. Occasionally Scott and Isaac show up to study with them. But mostly it’s just them.

As promised, Stiles helps her practice riding her bike, making jokes to distract her, whooping praise when she succeeds, and once, memorably, catching her hips between his hands when she’s about to tip over.

The first time she meets him at the library, having ridden there on her bicycle, he grins at her for fifteen minutes straight from behind his book as they study.

Often they do their homework, but more and more they end up talking about werewolf biology, history, and culture. Lydia knows a great deal more about the sciences than Stiles does, but it’s incredible to have someone to talk about it with. Stiles is a quick learner; she only ever has to explain something once for him to catch on, and he’s good at puzzling out matters of culture. Better than Lydia is, at least. For one, she doesn’t understand why they would keep their medical information in archaic Latin. But Stiles immediately goes, “They kept it in archaic Latin. Do you know what that means? It means that they wanted it to be inaccessible. They wanted it to be hard to get to. And they hide it. Remember Peter kept that laptop hidden in a stair. It means that they’re afraid.”

Stiles is good to have around.

One morning he bounces into their usual spot at the library with extra vigor. “Okay,” he says without preamble. “You know how yesterday you were talking about how the werewolf bite could be considered a form of asexual reproduction? Well, I was googling stuff last night, and I read some stuff about horizontal gene transfer.” He deposits a stack of print-outs in front of her.

She looks down at them and back up at him.

“Well. What do you think?”

“Horizontal gene transfer is mostly restricted to prokaryotes,” she says, leafing through some of the papers.

“Which are…”

“Bacteria. Archaea. Little bitty things with no nuclei to protect their DNA from going all over the place. Not like plants and animals.”

She pauses and looks up. Stiles is obviously trying to hide his disappointment. “You never know, though,” she finds herself saying. “Werewolves obviously have a lot in their bodies that isn’t accounted for by modern science.” She sighs. “What we really need is a lab. We can’t know anything until we get it under the microscope.”

“Yeah.” Stiles seats himself next to her, appeased.

Lydia bites her lip. “I have a theory, actually, that werewolf genes are carried at least partially through retroviruses.” She hasn’t told anyone this before. It’s just a theory, but Lydia feels deeply attached to it. She already has the experiment written up to test it.

“Those are the ones that can turn RNA into DNA. They can basically implant new DNA into existing cells, right?”

Lydia regards him in surprise. "Yes. Well, sort of. But yes.”

He grins. “Hey, don’t look so surprised. I may not have liked the bio teacher, but I always paid attention when you talked in class.”

When did this happen? When exactly did evidence that Stiles has always liked her go from being incredibly awkward to being incredibly…something else? Lydia flips through some more of Stiles’ print-outs in a transparent effort not to look at him. She’s become more and more worried over the past couple of weeks that she is encouraging something she shouldn’t. She needs Stiles, now. She can’t lose his friendship over something as stupid as…whatever it is.

Stiles is waiting patiently on the other end of the table for her to say something.

“I have to do a problem set. Do you want to start the timer?”

He tips his head to side, eyes searching her face. “Sure.”

Lydia makes a mistake on the first problem and doesn’t catch it until she’s halfway through the second. It leaves her shaken for the rest of the day.

*

It was always going to happen. She doesn’t know why she’s surprised when it does.

They’re in her dorm room late one night in October, and the nights have gotten cool enough that they shut the windows. It’s still chilly, though, so Lydia leans into Stiles a little where he’s sitting next to her on her bed. Stiles has a textbook open in his lap, but he’s been staring out the window thoughtfully for the past ten minutes. He’s like a big warm pillow next to her, and the scent of his deodorant is masculine and comfortable.

Lydia feels content with the world.

She is steadfastly filling out a problem set that’s propped up against her knees. The math isn’t challenging, but that doesn’t bother her tonight. It’s still a kind of pleasure, to go through the motions and write out all the neat little steps in her best handwriting. She pauses when she reaches the last problem, because there are a couple of different ways to do it, and she wants to pick the most elegant one.

“Whatcha smiling at?” Stiles asks. She looks up at him, still smiling, and his face is close, closer than she’d expected. She blinks. He looks at her, looks at her lips, his mouth opening a little bit. Oh god, Lydia thinks, but she doesn’t do anything about it when he leans forward, eyes flicking up at her nervously, before pressing his closed mouth against hers.

The thing is, it’s nice. His body is warm and his lips are soft, and she lets it go on for a second too long before she turns her head away. She feels him inhale sharply against her cheek, and he leans back away from her, stiff.

Nobody says anything for a long minute, until Stiles slides to the edge of the bed and stands up.

“Stiles—” she starts.

“No, you don’t have to say it. You like me as a friend; I get that. I’m not going to stand here and whine about the friendzone like some sexist douchebag, but I also don’t think I can stand the embarrassment of pretending to work for another hour. So, I’m gonna go be embarrassed elsewhere, okay? Okay.” He drops his book into his backpack and zips it with an aggressive tug.

“You don’t know what I was going to say.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“No, you fucking don’t. Don’t talk about sexist douchebags and then refuse to let me speak.”

Stiles looks at her for a beat, and then grimaces in acknowledgment. She stares him down until he drops the backpack. He lifts his hands in a “Well?” gesture.

“It’s not as simple as me not liking you ‘like that.’ I do like you like that. Or at least,” she qualifies when Stiles eyebrows go up, “I think maybe I could. I don’t know. But you are my friend. And Stiles, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not really good at friends. I don’t have that many. In the last week, I’ve spoken to two people outside of class: you and Allison.” She takes a deep breath. God, this is embarrassing. “And I’m still in love with Jackson. It’s stupid, I know, but I am. So.”

She meets his eyes. Stiles’ expression is some complicated combination that she can’t read at all.

Lydia plows onward: “So those are some things you need to know if you want to kiss me some more.”

“What?”

“I like making out, Stiles. And I like sex. So if you wanted to do those things, and you were okay with my current level of indecision...”

“Are you saying you want to be friends with benefits?” Stiles looks—there’s no other word for it—appalled.

“If you want to,” she says, defensively.

“I…” He pauses, stares at his shoes, appears to think about it. But then he sighs noisily, shaking his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t think I could separate it out.”

“Fine,” she says. “That’s fine.”

They look at each other another long minute, and Stiles wrenches the corners of his mouth up in an rueful smile.

“I’m gonna go now,” he says. He turns toward the door and turns back. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow for the pack meeting?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Thanks.”

He nods and leaves.

Lydia looks back down at her problem set, but it’s too late. The joy is ruined. She’ll finish it tomorrow morning. She tosses the papers in the direction of her desk and flops back on her bed.

She thinks about getting off, because she’s sort of annoyed and uncomfortable but still a little horny. The only vibrator she owns is the one that Jackson gave her, though, and there’s no way she’s using that.

Lydia has no idea who she is kidding, offering up friends with benefits like she knows what she’s doing. Lydia’s had one relationship in her life, and they hadn’t exactly been a model couple. She doesn’t know how friends with benefits is supposed to work. (Despite everything, it does seem right, in some terribly literal way. Stiles is her friend, and she wants to have sex with him.)

She wants to have sex with him. She hadn’t really given herself leave to think that until now.

She lets herself do it, for a moment. Lets herself imagine what it would be like. With Jackson, she’d always had a sense of take me now. She wanted Jackson to throw her on the bed like she was in a movie. And it’s not that she doesn’t want that with Stiles. She does. He’s taller than her (everybody is), and he’s played enough lacrosse that he’s all firm underneath his loose t-shirts. Lydia thinks it would be a particular kind of pleasure to get him worked up into good ol’ macho pounding—just throw her legs around his waist and whisper obscenities in his ear until he forgets to be a gentleman and fucks her. But Stiles—the Stiles that gets shy and blushes and reminds her how it feels to be powerful—that Stiles makes her wanna do things to him. She wants to play with his nipples. She wants to suck his dick and his balls and his perineum. She wants to find out where he’s ticklish, and where he’s sensitive. She wants to finger him, and she wants to see the look on his face when she does. She wants to overwhelm him. And she kinda wants to pet his hair when she’s finished, which makes her feel a little weird, but then Stiles has always brought strange new urges out of her.

Lydia works a hand into her panties. It takes forever, but she pictures Stiles’ wet, open mouth when she finally comes, twitching, under the covers.

*

They don’t talk for four days. Given the rather intensive study schedule they had been keeping up ‘til that point, it is is a long time.

The last time she was so desperate to talk to someone—barring the (temporary) death of her boyfriend, Jesus Christ, werewolves have really fucked up the bell curve of her life—Jackson had broken up with her by text message.

Lydia recognizes what she needs to do. She needs to be a grown-up and call Stiles and attempt to get things back to normal. A couple days ago, they had ridden together to the pack meeting and back in total silence, and it had been agonizing. Lydia can’t do that anymore. She makes this decision whilst curling the last lock of hair at the very back of her head, and she puts down the curling iron, unplugs it, sweeps out her phone, and calls Stiles.

"Want to go to the mall with me?" she says immediately when he picks up. She listens to him breathe for a beat, and then hurriedly adds, “I mean, you don’t have any classes Tuesday mornings, right?”

"Yeah. I mean, no, I don’t have class. I can go.” Lydia can hear the rustle of sheets and realizes suddenly that he must still be in bed. “I can meet you there in...30?"

“Sure. Meet you outside Neiman?”

“See you there.”

*

It still takes two tries to get her bike locked up correctly, but once that’s finally done, she straightens up and breathes out determinedly. There are people milling around with their bags and baby strollers, a little fountain trickling down the path, and a set of signs pointing the way to familiar stores. She may be in a new city and far from home, but shopping malls are the same everywhere. This is going to be a good day. She is going to fix things with Stiles, buy some pretty things, and go home feeling happier.

“Hi.” Stiles is behind her, his bike tilted against his hip.

“Hi!” She moves out of the way to let him lock it to the rack and tries really hard to ignore when his shirt rides up and exposes the divots low on his back. He looks up briefly from his chain, catching the direction of her eyes, and then they both look elsewhere. Stiles gives his lock a final tug and clears his throat.

“So.”

“Nordstrom’s is having a sale?” she says, her voice sounding higher than she’d intended.

Stiles looks faintly nervous, like seeing her out-of-sorts is affecting his equilibrium. “Okay.”

This is going to be fine, she thinks, leading the way. Fine.

*

“So. You thought that the best way to make things un-awkward was to take me shopping,” Stiles says, as Lydia flips through the sales rack. "You couldn’t have picked something less emasculating?”

"I've always disliked the word 'emasculate,'" she replies before she can think about it. "It's men blaming women for their feelings of inadequacy. If you don’t want to be in Nordstrom, leave."

She looks up, running that back through her head, and turns to him. “I meant—”

Stiles is holding two dresses that she doesn’t remember handing to him, the skirts of them swept over his other arm so that they don’t touch the floor. His eyebrows are drawn down, and she notices for the first time the tired set of his shoulders.

“I didn’t mean— I don’t want you to leave,” she says. “I meant, if you don’t want to shop…” She pauses, huffs in frustration. “If you don’t want to shop, say something, and we can do what you want to do. Just—” Lydia hates being inarticulate. She hates it almost as much as she hates not knowing what to do. Stiles is standing there, arms full of dresses, but one of his cheeks hollows out, almost like he’s biting it.

“I can be kind of blunt sometimes,” she says.

“I know,” he says, his mouth turning up fondly. “I don’t mind shopping. I was trying to make a joke. Break the ice.”

“Oh.”

“It is kind of a stupid word,” he says, reassuring. His half-smile grows into a real one, and she can’t help but return it.

And then he tells her about a chick they’re reading about in his history class, a fourteenth century French historian who wrote a book attacking stereotypes of women, and Lydia tries on the dresses he’s carrying. His eyes catch on her breasts when she comes out to show him. It is both extremely awkward and not awkward at all.

*

They end up at a cafe outside, debating historical gender roles of all things. It is nice and normal, and Lydia is merrily tearing apart a croissant, trying to follow Stiles’ logic regarding chivalric conventions. She thinks he’s leaving some fundamental assumptions unstated, and is about to tell him so, when she realizes that the man standing at her elbow is not their waiter.

Everything that he's wearing looks tailored, from his close-cut jacket to his casually expensive plaid shirt to his high-dollar shoes. He's got a smile like a shark, and Lydia is already squinting suspiciously at him when he extends a hand over their table.

"Hello! My name is Michael Sheehan. I was wondering if I could talk to you both for a moment."

Lydia glances sideways at Stiles. He's sitting up very tall in his chair.

"Um, we're not interested in donating to anything, if that's what you're doing."

The man smiles even wider. "No, no. I'm a member of the Sheehan pack of the South Bay. I wish to convey greetings from my Alpha to yours. Just as a courtesy."

And Lydia had been having such a good day.

"I mean neither of you any harm," he adds on, in a tone that strongly implies at the moment. "I was hoping I could sit with you and talk a bit."

Lydia and Stiles exchange a look. Stiles's eyes dart around at the crowded court and back at her. They're together, and there are people all around. There’s not a whole lot he can do to them here. Riding home on their bikes is going to be another story, but the threat is already there. Might as well find out what he wants.

Lydia puts on her very best hostess' smile. "We’d love to. Sit!"

The man inclines his head, and pulls back a chair. He looks to be in his forties, with oddly perfect patches of grey hair at his temples. Lydia bets that he colors his hair especially. He pulls pretentiously at his cuffs when sits, crossing his legs carefully. Stiles leans forward on his elbows on the table. He’s got his calm, problem-solving face on, and Lydia is so grateful that she’s not here by herself. She steadies herself by placing her hands flat against the glass of the table.

"So you said your name was—" Stiles prompts the guy.

"Michael Sheehan. Of the Sheehan Pack." He looks at the two of them expectantly.

"Oh. Well, I'm Stiles. Stiles Stilinski. And this is Lydia."

"Lydia Martin," she says, holding out a hand with a flourish. Stiles shoots her a scandalized look, like maybe she shouldn't be touching the random ass werewolf who showed up at their table, but she doesn't back down. Michael looks at her with a growing smile and takes her hand, not shaking it, but curling his fingers around the tips of her fingers in one of those old-fashioned clasps that usually involve hand kissing.

"A pleasure," he says. And then he reaches out to shake Stiles' hand, as well, which Stiles submits to with only a little skepticism.

"And the two of you belong to...whose pack?" he asks. Lydia sees Stiles stiffen out of the corner of her eye. Michael had given them the same information, though. The Sheehan Pack of the South Bay, he’d said formally.

"The Hale Pack," Lydia answers. "We're from Beacon Hills."

"Beacon Hills," Michael says. "Is that nearby?" It's odd, because Lydia has been answering questions about Beacon Hill's location for weeks now, every time she met someone new at Stanford. The question had never felt so intrusive before.

"Northwest," Stiles says shortly.

Michael nods congenially. "And you and your pack are here to attend college?"

Oh, clever. Lydia almost opens her mouth to ask how he knows that their whole pack is here, but clenches it shut when she realizes that that would confirm his information, if he didn’t already know for sure. Stiles apparently thinks the same thing.

“Um. No?” he says, with convincing confusion. “It’s just me and Lydia.”

Michael quirks an eyebrow and shifts forward on his seat. "Maybe I should be more upfront. We keep tabs on werewolves in our territory," he says. “We know that your entire pack is here. My family's home is in Los Altos. We noticed pretty quickly that there were two new werewolves in town at Foothill College. We looked into the matter, found that they were living in San Jose with several others, and that the two of you were attending Stanford.”

He holds up a hand up at the looks on Lydia and Stiles' faces. “I’m not here to threaten you. Honestly. If that were what we wanted to do, my Alpha would have confronted your Alpha, wolf to wolf. Instead, she’s sending a human to talk to humans. No claws involved.” He raises his other hand and waggles both sets of fingers in what he probably thinks is a conciliatory manner.

“If you didn’t want to be threatening, lying to us right off the bat wasn’t the way to go,” Stiles says tightly.

"And you think we’re going to believe that you’re human without proof?” Lydia adds.

Michael eyes them both, faintly surprised. “I admit, I had expected a couple of teenagers to be easier to convince.” You mean you expected us to be easier to intimidate, asshole.

“I see I took the wrong approach. I apologize.” He really does look apologetic. “I don’t have any wolfsbane on me, but I’d be happy to swallow some, if you do.”

“I do,” Stiles says and starts digging through his backpack.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lydia mutters. He’s still a member of a rival pack. Being human doesn’t make him any less of a threat.

“It matters whether he’s started telling us the truth,” Stiles retorts and holds out a couple of fresh flowers. (Does Stiles keep wolfsbane on him at all times? Lydia wonders. They are so going to have a talk after this.) Michael looks downs at the flowers and up at Stiles, who stares back challengingly. He shrugs and picks them up, showing them his unmarred fingers, and then lays them on his tongue and swallows. He grimaces at the taste, but opens his mouth again to show them that it’s gone.

Stiles goes to eat some himself, but Michael holds up a hand. “Not necessary. The two of you are the only members of your pack who live in dorms. It’s a dead giveaway.”

Michael takes in their expressions and sighs. "Listen. We simply need to know who's in our territory and that they don't mean us or any of the humans in our area any harm. We get an omega or a couple of betas every few years; there are so many colleges in our territory, after all. We've just never had an entire pack before. You understand that it made us rather…concerned. So we did some research, found out who you were. Wouldn’t you do the same if you were in our position?”

A toddler at the next table over lets out a shriek that makes Michael look over and smile. Lydia looks over at Stiles again; his mouth twists skeptically at her.

“So if you know so much about us, why are you here?” Stiles says, not a little bit of warning in his voice. Lydia is impressed.

“We looked you up, like I said. We read about the troubles you had in Beacon Hills, and we wanted to see if we could help you.” Lydia scoffs, and he holds up a placating hand yet again. “I started off pretending to know nothing, because it’s telling, what kinds of lies people choose to tell. I realize that that may not have been the right approach to take, and I’m sorry. Quite honestly, we wanted to know whether your pack is worth helping. Some packs aren’t. A lot of packs, especially young ones, can be really violent. But all of you in college—it’s a good sign.”

He looks at each of them in turn, his hands folded in front of him and his lips turned down seriously. It’s convincing. Very convincing. She darts a look at Stiles.

“Why don’t you tell us more about your pack?” Stiles says. “If you’re so anxious to help us.”

Michael leans back in his chair, and Lydia thinks she can see something like respect in his eyes. “Like I said, we live in Los Altos. My pack owns Sheehan Ventures. It’s a little firm in town; we do investments. It makes enough money to keep the pack afloat and to keep us all protected.” Lydia strongly suspects that it’s more than enough, from the look of Michael’s thousand-dollar shoes. “We’re a pretty big pack, mostly family, but with quite a few turned wolves as well.”

“And how did you come to be part of the pack, as a human?” Lydia asks.

“Ah.” He smiles a twisty sort of smile, almost self-deprecating. Interesting. “Family. My mother is the Alpha.”

Very interesting. Lydia wants to know whether his father is a werewolf, whether he has brothers or sisters who are wolves. Is it that Michael has whatever genes confer immunity, like Lydia, or is it that werewolf genes aren’t always dominant? She’s lost in the implications, and almost misses it when Michael invites them to dinner.

“Excuse me?”

“It’ll be fun. You can meet the rest of the pack, see what we’re like. We’ve got several kids your age.”

She and Stiles must look pretty shocked, because he quickly adds, “Talk it over with your Alpha, first, obviously. But it’s traditional, for human members to act as ambassadors or go-betweens for packs. We’re less likely than the betas to start blood wars at the drop of the hat.” Michael grins and takes a pen out of an inner coat pocket. “Here, I’ll give you my number. You can talk to your Alpha and let him think it over.”

He scribbles a number on the back of Stiles’ napkin and pushes it at them.

“I really am sorry that we got off to a bad start, but I hope to make it up to you. Mom is very interested in keeping the peace in our territory, and that means reaching out to packs like yours. I hope you’ll relate that to your Alpha. Lydia, Stiles. It’s been a pleasure.” He nods at each of them in turn and then ambles off toward the parking lot.

“Well that was fun,” Lydia says when Michael disappears around a corner. Stiles doesn’t respond, and she looks over to find him tapping furiously at his phone.

“Don’t tell me you’re already calling Derek.”

“No. Look at this,” Stiles says, showing Lydia his phone. “Sheehan Ventures. They have investments in Facebook, eBay, Intuit. That’s serious money.”

No kidding. She thumbs down the list of the firm’s partners. Several are named Sheehan, but she doesn’t doubt that the other partners are part of the pack, too.

“If we ask Derek, he’s going to say ‘no,’” she says regretfully.

“Probably. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to show up to a werewolf’s house with no back-up.” He takes his phone back. “I’ll call him.”

Lydia jerks, reaching out to press a hand down over the phone. “What if— no, just let me finish—what if we didn’t call Derek?”

Stiles’ eyes have widened to comic proportions. “Are you kidding me?”

“What if we just went to their house, scoped it out, got some information about their pack, and then bring all of that information to Derek?”

“That is a horrible plan. What if they kill us as some kind of retribution for being in their territory? And Derek’s going to be furious.”

“They’re not going to kill us. They will believe that we’ve told Derek where we are, so killing us would start a war. They do long-term investments, Stiles; they didn’t get to where they are with short-sighted strategies. They have a longer game than just killing us. If they wanted to kill us, they would have been better off not approaching us so that the attack would be a surprise. And remember, Derek did say that humans act as intermediaries sometimes. So Michael isn’t lying about that part.”

She sees Stiles’ mouth twitch as he remembers that Derek had said that, but then he just shakes his head. “All the better not to play into their hands! We need to call Derek. Now.”

“Ugh. The two of you are so—. Stiles. Derek has been stuck on damage control for years now; it’s a miracle he even let us all go to college. If we want to make any progress as a pack, we’re going to need a less conservative outlook. And the Sheehans might show us how to do it. Plus. Don’t you want to have an adventure? Don’t you want to do one little thing without all of them standing over our shoulders like we’re the runts of the litter?” She can see Stiles’ resolve weakening, so she slips in the final blow: “We’re doing something to help the pack. By ourselves. We’re being ambassadors, like he said.”

And that gets him. His scowls, but his shoulders straighten and his chin tips up.

“They’re venture capitalists,” Stiles says as a last resort.

“We’re going. Get your backpack.”

*

The address Michael gives them when they call is indeed in Los Altos, an absurdly beautiful and rich township cradled between Stanford and the mountains. Two days after the shopping mall incident, they drive in that direction, and they watch as the houses get successively bigger, farther apart, and further from the road.

“I just want it noted that this is a bad idea,” Stiles grumbles.

“And yet, you’re still driving in that direction.”

“I am, aren’t I?” Stiles doesn’t look away from the road, but Lydia sees him bite back a grin.

When Lydia's phone perkily declares "you have arrived at your destination," all they can see is a flat gate of exquisitely stained and polished wood that hides everything behind it.

"I guess we press the button?" Stiles muses before leaning out his window and mashing it.

"Hello?" a female voice immediately answers, clear as a bell. It's nothing like the sound quality of a drive-thru.

"Hi! We're, um—," he appears to think better of saying anything directly about werewolves. "A guy met us at the mall and gave us this address?"

"Lydia and Stiles, is it? Come on in! You can park up at the top of the driveway, in front of the door," the voice says. The gate rolls smoothly open to reveal a brick road winding into the forest. Stiles tosses an amused look at Lydia before hitting the gas.

The forest goes on for at least a quarter mile before it starts to thin, finally revealing a massive house at the top of a hill, with the same Spanish-style tiled roof and details as the Stanford campus. Michael comes out onto the front porch as they roll up and waves heartily at them.

"Okay, is it just me, or is it weird how friendly they are," Stiles mutters.

"Not everybody can be as tragic as Derek."

"I'm just saying."

But then they've opened the doors, and Michael is welcoming them with gusto to the "Ranch," as he calls it.

"Everybody's inside. Hope you're hungry. We're grilling burgers on the deck! Oh—" and he turns to them as he sweeps open the front door, "and we got some portabella mushrooms in case either of you are vegetarians."

Okay. Maybe Stiles has a point. Lydia catches his eye as they walk into an enormous, open living room with plush rugs and wall-to-wall art, and he widens his eyes at her.

Michael leads them further into the house, past rooms and rooms of valuable furniture, and they emerge into a room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors that open onto a wide, wooden deck. There are more than thirty people standing around, framed against a jaw-dropping vista of grassy yellow hills, sparse trees, the occasional mansion, and the sky. It looks like pictures that Lydia has seen of Italian countrysides, and she can't help but believe that the people turning towards them with their wine glasses and thick sweaters know exactly what they're doing. There are men and women of all ages, even kids, and their eyes are all sharp, assessing. This kind of a first impression cannot be anything other than a power play.

Even so, Lydia can’t help but wish she’d worn better shoes with her blue jeans.

“Guys, this is Lydia Martin and Stiles Stilinski of the Hale Pack,” Michael announces grandly, gesturing at either of them in turn. Lydia is starting to think that Michael is just a tad pompous. She catches a teenager to her left rolling her eyes at him.

A older woman starts to move toward them, which Lydia only notices because the people nearest them part like the sea to let her through. She’s shorter than the rest of the adults, probably close to Lydia’s height, sans heels, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s subtle, but Lydia notices when the woman lifts her chin, and multiple people shift their stances to orient their bodies toward her. This is the Alpha.

“And this is my mom, our Alpha, Carolyn Sheehan.”

“What a pleasure,” Carolyn says. Her voice is low and warm and her expression genuine when she reaches out to shake both their hands. She’s got immaculately styled silver hair cropped into a bob and wears a trim, fitted suit that Lydia can tell cost multiple thousands of dollars.

"We may not know each other very well yet, but I'm hoping we get the chance. Let me introduce you to the rest of our pack!"

And then there comes a long number of introductions. Carolyn Sheehan has three children and multiple grandchildren but also a couple of siblings who have their own children and grandchildren, and then there are a couple of betas who aren't related but "joined up in, what was it, Joe? '93?" And, it turns out, not every member of the pack is in attendance. One or two are at college across the country, several others are on business trips, and one little family unit "lives in Pacifica, they don't usually turn up except for the big events." Lydia tries to keep track and guesses that the pack must have close to fifty members.

They're even introduced to somebody's two-year-old, a curly haired little boy with fangs that he "can't quite control yet, watch your fingers."

It's...amazing, on the one hand. This huge, sprawling family network that not only works, but thrives. The people passing around burgers here are comfortable around each other, even if they're a tad formal with Lydia and Stiles. They laugh and tease each other and play with the kids. It lacks a particular tension that's always been present whenever Derek and the rest of the pack get together. Maybe it's the lack of talk about basic survival.

But on the other hand, the looks they're getting from some of these people are worrying. They're a little predatory and a little measuring, looking at Lydia and Stiles like appraisers at an estate sale.

"So, do you get any hunters up here?" Lydia finally dares to ask after someone hands her a glass of wine with a wink.

"Hunters? Oh no," Carolyn answers. "No, most hunters—the ones outside the old families, anyway—don't tend to be very well-off. And what with their camo clothing and usually conservative outlooks, they don't often come out to the Bay Area. They stick out like sore thumbs in a place like Palo Alto. Lower-class survivalist types, you know.”

Carolyn Sheehan has obviously never met an Argent. It’s interesting, though, the way she stereotypes them. Lydia hums thoughtfully to encourage her to keep talking.

“We had a couple come through a few years back. They had unregistered weapons on them; it wasn't very hard to call in an anonymous report to the police and have them picked up. We're very lucky to live where we do." A sympathetic, sad look comes over her face. "Of course, we've heard of the trouble your pack had up in Beacon Hills. I hope you don't mind; we googled you, to find out more about your pack. We're so sorry to hear of your terrible losses."

Lydia feels incredibly weird being consoled about the death of Derek's family, but she gives Carolyn a tight nod. "Thank you."

"Might I ask—we read a short mention of someone named Argent being in that same town." Carolyn raises her eyebrows in question.

Lydia is starting to feel a little in over her head. She doesn't know whether it's a good idea to tell Carolyn Sheehan about the Argents or not, but she obviously already knows that they’re hunters. The Argents must be more famous than Allison has mentioned. "Yes,” Lydia ventures. “We've come to a peace with them now, though."

"And am I right that your alpha is a Hale?"

"Yes. Derek."

Carolyn smiles at that. "Good to know that the family was not completely lost. Obviously, he's found some excellent new pack members to start over with."

They stand there, smiling at each other for a beat, and Lydia recognizes the gracious hostess face in front of her. She's seen it in the mirror.

Stiles is talking in the corner to a couple of teenagers. It's a little disturbing to Lydia that she can't tell who's human and who's a werewolf, but feels acutely how rude it would be to ask.

Carolyn begins asking about Lydia's studies, and Lydia remembers again why she's here.

"I'm double-majoring in Math and Biology. I've always loved math, and since I joined the Hale pack,”—she enunciates the pack name in the same formal way that Michael had done—"I've wanted to find out more about werewolf biology. See if I could help out my pack somehow," she finishes brightly, trying to look like the well-intentioned young person that, well, she is.

"How lovely!" Carolyn says. "I suppose you have a Bestiary to work with? And that you've interviewed your Alpha?"

"Yes, yes," Lydia says, as if the research is going smoothly and she doesn't need anybody's help.

"That's fantastic. So many young people are only interested in what the Pack can do for them. So refreshing to see that. What have you found out, thus far?"

Lydia does not want to reveal how very little she knows. And she suspects it would reflect poorly upon all of them to admit that Derek hasn't told her anything.

"Nothing that we don't already know. But I've just started out."

"Well, we can certainly help you out with that. And if things go well, of course, you'll have access to all of my family."

Lydia keeps her smile completely level. "If things go well?"

"Yes," Carolyn says, winking, but not proffering any other information. She seems to think that she and Lydia both know what they're talking about. Lydia doesn't like that at all.

After another minute of chit-chat, she peels away to find Stiles. She finds him on a couch, talking to the high-schoolers about video games. Perfect. She seats herself next to him, nodding animatedly when one of them relates an anecdote about a game of Halo.

When there's a lull in the conversation, she asks casually, "That sounds amazing. I bet it's fun to have someone else to play with. Have your pack had other people like us over to dinner?"

One of the kids snorts. "No, obviously. Well, no kids. Grandma's kind of choosy about omegas, obviously, and we've never had people from a whole pack like yours over." Something about the way he says it catches Lydia’s attention. The girl next to him smacks his leg.

"Ian," she hisses. "Don't be rude."

"I wasn't being rude," he protests. But the older college guy behind him is also frowning at the back of his head. What exactly had he said that was rude?

Lydia hates that she can't ask directly.

"Yeah, omegas can be kind of every which way, huh?" Stiles interjects, and the older girl smiles at him, evidently thinking that he's being gracious about whatever rude thing her cousin had said.

"Exactly," she says. "I mean, you guys are obviously in a different place then some randoms off on their own. I mean, you've just had some hard times, right?" She smiles hopefully. Lydia files away her patronizing attitude towards omegas for a later date and focuses on her last comment. For some reason, this pack thinks that Derek's pack is in a bad position and that it's rude to talk about it, but it's also evidently important that Carolyn let them in. It means something.

The college kid standing behind the couch says, "We're sorry for your losses." His cousins nod and repeat it. Which is strange. It sounds very near to what Carolyn said.

"Thank you," Lydia says.

"It's good you're here," Ian says. "No hunters to deal with here."

"Yeah," Stiles says carefully. "But Beacon Hills is not so bad now. We've got a deal with the hunters there. Not so bad." Lydia can tell from the way Stiles enunciates it that he's onto the weird situation they're in. He's testing the waters.

"Right, right. Obviously," the girl replies. "Nothing wrong with your original territory. It must have been hard to leave it, even if you had to." She's smiling. “We’re glad you’re here now.”

Original territory. That…don’t sound like something someone would say about going away to college. Lydia is starting to wonder if coming here was a tactical error. She very nearly sighs out loud. Stiles is definitely going to say, “I told you so.” But they do need to get out of here and figure out what the fuck they've done.

Lydia puts her wine glass down on the table and makes a show of checking her phone.

"Oh my god! It's six o'clock. We promised Derek we'd be back." Lydia has a feeling that obeying one’s Alpha is a bulletproof excuse with this crowd. “Let’s go say goodbye to Carolyn before we go, Stiles.”

Stiles puts his Coke down on the table and smiles at the kids. “It was nice to meet you,” he says.

“Nice to meet you,” they chorus back at him.

They track through the house to make smiling apologies to Carolyn Sheehan, who is gracious and smooth and wants to know if they remember how to get back to campus. It feels nothing less than surreal.

They get in the car as hurriedly as they can without looking like they’re in a hurry and drive away in tense silence. Once they pass back out the gate, Lydia opens her mouth.

"I—"

"Not yet," Stiles says shortly.

They drive on for another half mile before Stiles deigns it far enough away to say,

"Well that was weird."

"Yes, it was. It's like they thought we needed their protection."

"More than that," Stiles shook his head. "They think we’re refugees. I was talking to Michael, and he brought up the Argents, said something about them running us out. I think they were auditioning us, to be part of their pack."

"Yeah, but. We're not."

"We need to go to the house, right now. Will you call Derek or Scott or somebody and let them know we're coming?"

"They were weird and pushy, I'll grant you that, but do we really need to go running to Derek?" Okay, Lydia had been kind of freaked out, but now that they're safely away from the property, she doesn't want to call Derek and flip out like a little kid. She wants time to think.

"They know where we live, Lydia. We should have called Derek after Michael came up to us at the mall. Now we really have to call him."

"I guess," she says. She pulls out her phone and texts Derek.

something weird happened. coming to apt.

They drive along for a few more miles. Lydia watches as the houses get smaller and closer together again.

"Did we really need to be that far away, you think, to avoid being heard?" she muses.

"I was lost in the wildlife reserve last year during the thing with the pixies, do you remember? And Derek found me because he heard me talking to myself from like, a mile away."

"Yeah, but that's—" she cuts herself off and shakes her head. They can have that conversation later.

"That's what?"

"Nothing. Let's just drive."

They book it. Derek calls them mid-trip to ask if they're okay. Lydia tells him it can wait until they arrive. She prefers to keep the yelling as contained as possible, thank you very much.

“I told you so,” Stiles says after several long minutes. He’s trying to lift the mood, she can tell.

“Who drove me there, Stiles?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

*

"What happened," Derek demands as soon as they walk in the door.

Jackson and Erica are seated in the living room behind him. The others must have evening classes.

Lydia draws in a deep breath. "We met a human member of a werewolf pack. He came up to us at the mall on Tuesday, and—"

"On Tuesday," Derek says flatly. His eyes flicker between her and Stiles.

"Yes," she says. "On Tuesday. He's part of the pack in this area, the Sheehan Pack. They live in Los Altos, where Isaac and Scott's college is. And they found out about Isaac and Scott, so they came to talk to us. They invited us to dinner at their house today."

Derek sucks in a breath and closes his eyes. "Tell me you didn't." Behind him, Jackson stands up.

"It was a good chance to find out more about them," Stiles interjects.

"So you went."

"Yes, we went. Obviously," Lydia tosses her hair. "How else are we going to find out more about werewolves if we don't—"

"Are you fucking kidding me." Derek's eyes are bright, steady red, and both of his betas have gone still behind him. "Do you even know what you've done?"

Lydia is so beyond pissed now. Derek refuses to tell her anything, refuses to give her so much as a hint about the group she's now a part of, and he's surprised that she goes to second source?

"No, we don’t know. We can’t read your mind, Derek. We don’t know things that you don’t tell us," Lydia says with as much sarcasm as she can muster. "You told us that humans act as ambassadors for packs. That's what we thought we were doing. We can't help it if you don't tell us the specifics of how that’s supposed to happen."

"I didn't think you'd fucking go off on your own to do whatever stupid thing you got in your brain."

Derek takes a step toward her, and Stiles moves quickly to puts his body between them, and says slowly, calmly, "Derek. What does it mean, that we went there?"

"By showing up there without me, you told them that we’re weak. That we need their protection. That I want to give up my territory and my position as Alpha so that the rest of the pack stays safe. Sending humans is a gesture of submission.”

“But. They sent their human to us. The guy came and asked us to dinner.”

“They sent their human member to other humans. They said they knew about Scott and Isaac, didn’t they? Why do you think they didn’t just go to them?”

“So sending humans to talk to humans is okay, but sending humans to other werewolves is—”

“Stupid. It’s stupid, is what it is. They thought I was sending the weakest members of my pack out to an Alpha, surrounded by his own betas, with no protection whatsoever, and no insurance that he wouldn’t turn you on the spot.”

“Oh,” Stiles says, deflated. He shoots a look at Lydia, grimacing. Everybody’s freaked out now. Jackson’s breathing hard at Derek’s right shoulder. Erica’s looking ready to fight.

“You just put a for sale sign on our pack. Are you happy, Lydia?”

“She.”

“What?”

“Their Alpha is a ‘she.’ And don’t be so melodramatic,” she retorts. “They’re not actually animals. We’ll just tell them we misunderstood, and that we’re not going to be part of their pack. Simple.”

“Yeah, we could tell them that. That my pack members don’t tell me important information, that they go behind my back. That our pack is unstable and ripe for the taking. You have to live in their territory for the next four years, do you even—” Derek shakes his head. “They could kill you, do you get that?”

“They’re not violent—”

You don’t know that,” Derek shouts. “And even if they don’t kill you; they could try to turn you, and accidentally kill you. They could try to turn Stiles and succeed, do you get that? And then they’d have him for good.”

“They didn’t seem like that kind of people, Derek, seriously. Get a grip.”

“Shut up. You’ve done enough. Go home, don’t talk to anybody, and let me think about this.”

Stiles speaks up: “Okay, we screwed up, Derek, but we were just trying to help. Let’s figure something out.”

His eyes go to Stiles. "I would expect something like this from her. You should know better than to just roll over like a bitch for her."

"Hey!," Stiles and Lydia say at the same time as Erica hisses, “Derek.” Even Jackson looks surprised. Stiles— Stiles’ expression is raw, his face slack like Derek had just slapped him. It’s a little bit true, is the problem: Lydia had talked Stiles into it. Which only makes it worse.

Derek’s eyes are on the floor, his shoulders set in a rigid line; he clearly hadn’t meant to go that far.

Fuck you,” Stiles grits out. “We did this together. We’re going to think of something.”

Derek nods, visibly gathering himself, and looks up. The red has faded out of his eyes. “Yes. We will think of something. You have class tomorrow?”

Stiles jaw works angrily. Lydia answers for them both, “Yes.”

“Okay. Go back to the dorm.”

Stiles moves immediately and is already at the door, when Derek calls out his name. Stiles pauses, but doesn’t turn back. “Are you good to drive?”

“Yes.”

“You’re angry. You shouldn’t—”

Stiles wrenches open the door and slams it on the way out.

Lydia is pleased to see that Derek at least looks shaken. “We’ll be fine,” she says.

“Just don’t let him kill himself,” Derek orders, turning to go up the stairs.

“What do you care?” she spits at his back.

Lydia catches Jackson’s eye as she turns to go. “Nicely done,” she hears him say when she’s halfway out the door.

Lydia doesn’t even care that it’s childish. She slams the door as hard as she can.

*

They go back to Stanford. Stiles drives slower than usual in the far right lane with a death grip on the steering wheel. She had thought that Stiles would ignore Derek’s warning about driving angry out of spite; she can’t tell whether it’s a good or a bad sign that he isn’t.

Stiles finally parks in a far-flung parking lot, and they sit in the Jeep for a few quiet minutes.

“We fucked up,” Stiles says.

“Yeah.” She can admit it to him, if not to Derek.

“I’m just— he had no right to blame it all on you. Even if I…even if I let you take the lead, I could have stopped you.” The words are all pronounced carefully, like Stiles is refraining from shouting.

“Yeah,” she agrees. She’s not entirely sure she wouldn’t have gone without him, but she might not have.

“No,” he says, looking up like he can hear what she’s thinking. “I could have stopped you, if I wanted to.”

She looks him in the eye, realizing that she believes him. “You could have,” she agrees.

He nods, like that’s what he needed to hear. They shift in their seats a bit. Lydia doesn’t want to get out of the Jeep. She doesn’t want to go back to her dorm room and have to fume silently while her roommate plays atrocious pop music on her laptop.

“Lydia?”

“Yeah.”

“Is the—” Stiles jaw works a little. “Is the friends with benefits thing still on the table?”

Yes. She presses her lips together and looks over at him.

“You seem kind of angry right now,” she tells him, because maybe this isn’t the best time to be making this kind of decision.

“I am. But not at you.”

When she raises her eyebrows, he amends, “Okay, maybe a little at you. But mostly at myself. And at us, together. And at Derek. I’m just. Sometimes I feel like I can’t win with the pack. Either I’m useless, or I fuck it up.”

Lydia’s never been good at comforting people, or saying nice things. She doesn’t know what to say to make him feel better.

“Derek was a dick,” she says.

His nostrils flare angrily, and she’s so angry then, at all of it: at Stanford, at Carolyn Sheehan, at Jackson, at Derek, at herself. Even though some part of her thinks this is maybe a bad idea, it’s too late. She’s already made a decision. She undoes her seatbelt, braces a hand on the steering wheel, and leans over the break between the seats. Stiles’ eyes flicker up at her just before their lips meet.

She kisses him hard, adds her tongue immediately, presses him back against his seat. Stiles’ hands go up into her hair, and he lets out some broken sound into her mouth, his tongue moving against hers.

When they break apart, Stiles’ lips are shiny and his mouth open. This is happening.

“My roommate is probably in the dorm tonight,” she says.

“Mine isn’t,” he says.

The walk to Stiles’ dorm is tense. Stiles keeps looking over at her with an expression somewhere at the intersection of lust and anger and wonder. His hands shake when he presses his keycard to the outside door, and when they’re in the elevator, his feet shift every other second. Lydia can relate. Her heart’s beating fast enough that she can hear it in her ears.

When they’re finally in the room, Stiles winces at his floor. “Here, let me—” He starts shoving clothes into piles and kicking them under the bed. Lydia places her purse deliberately on Stiles’ desk and sits on the edge of the bed.

Stiles ends up standing in the middle of his room, looking around like there’s something else he should be doing. He’s vibrating.

"Stiles," Lydia says, lifting her hands.

His head bobs up, refocusing on her, and he comes, takes her hands, lets her reel him in. She moves backwards on the bed ‘til her back hits the wall at the head of the bed. He follows her, settling down next to her hip.

She puts her hand on his jaw. "Kiss me," she says.

He does. Stiles kisses slowly, carefully, like he’s trying very hard to get it right. Lydia appreciates that; it had taken a year or two before she and Jackson had moved past the tongue-down-the-throat style of kissing. They work up into a rhythm, long smooth strokes of their tongues together, his lips moving steadily against hers.

But he’s holding back. She can feel it in the way Stiles’ shoulders don’t move, and the way his hands grip and release, grip and release on her arms. So she bites his bottom lip, and swallows down his grunt when her fingernails curl sharp into skin at his waist. He's abstaining from rubbing against her, but she wants him to, so she brings a hand up to cup his shoulder—surprisingly strong under her fingers— and pulls him on top of her. There's nowhere to put his leg for a second, and they fumble, and Stiles laughs, but then Lydia opens her knees, and his leg slips right between them. Stiles exhales a surprised, pleased little gasp that Lydia likes, likes a lot.

Lydia shuffles down, trying to get her shoulders on the mattress, and Stiles tries to hold himself up above her without putting weight on her, and it's all a mess again for a few seconds, but then his hips come down (probably because Lydia got both her hands on Stiles' ass and pushed, but whatever), and it's good.

Stiles hitches his hips against her and groans aloud when she moves the leg that's between his. Even through his jeans, it's all heat in his groin, and she whines in mouth, revels in his weight on her hips. Lydia skirt is already hitching upwards, and Stiles’ leg feels so good to move into.

And yet it still isn’t enough, so she grabs one of his hands and brings it up under her shirt.

"Really?" he asks breathlessly.

She laughs. "Really."

His fingers move over her bra, just touching lightly, tracking the edges where the fabric meets skin. She pushes him back a little and strips off her shirt.

"Oh," he says, looking down at her breasts, hands skittering over it again. It's a normal white bra, nothing fancy about it. But that's. That's nice, the look of reverence on Stiles' face. She can do with a look like that. She leans up into him to kiss him but also to get her hands behind her back, to get the clasps undone and drag her bra off.

"Oh," he says again, the reverence edging into something sharper. His eyes flicker from her face to her chest, over and over again, as he touches, softly.

"What should I…" he whispers. She takes his fingers and moves them over a nipple, back and forth. He teases it, slowly, and watches intently as she gets breathier. He lowers his head purposefully and lifts his eyes in question.

"Yes," she says, putting a hand on his head and drawing his mouth to her breast. He licks and licks and suckles, and it’s not long before Lydia is arching off the bed, and pushing his head to her other breast.

Every suck feels like it makes her wetter between her legs, and she wants, badly, something inside.

“Do you have any condoms?” Lydia asks abruptly.

Stiles lifts his head to stare at her. “Oh. No.”

“I don’t either. Would your roommate have something?”

“Doubtful. He’s really, really religious.”

Lydia has been on oral contraceptives since she was fifteen, and Stiles is probably the STI-free virgin she thinks he is, but Lydia has an Absolutely Ironclad Rule for a reason. No chances, no exceptions, not ever. Still, the ache between her legs makes her frown regretfully.

Stiles is smiling down at her. “Lydia, honestly, I could lie here and lick your boobs for the rest of eternity. It’s okay.”

She moves her thigh against his erection. “Eternity?”

His neck and jaw go a little red. “So I might come in my pants at some point. I’m pretty sure it’ll still feel good.”

“Yeah,” she says. “But I want—” She’s never had to ask, before. She would just spread her legs and push Jackson down, and he’d do things.

“What do you want?”

Lydia gets her hands down between them, and Stiles lifts up a little looking down to see what she’s doing. She reaches up her skirt and pulls down her underwear and tights; Stiles kneels up to help her, pulling them all the way off and dropping them off the edge of the bed. His mouth is open, hungry.

“Put your fingers in me,” she says, pulling him down again. She spreads her legs, and he moves back again—”I have to see”—and freezes.

“Oh god,” he croaks. He stares and stares. “That is so. God, you’re gorgeous.” He runs his fingers around the perimeter of her vulva and strokes over her clit, just once.

“Lick your fingers,” she says.

He does, and teases again, touching his fingers over and around the different folds of her, watching closely for her reactions. He puts the tips of one finger just inside her, and she clenches down, briefly, trying to draw him in.

“Oh wow,” he says, giving her a little more. She sighs, frustrated.

“More,” she says, and he slides in the whole finger. It’s nice, but she is so past the need for one finger. “Another,” she demands.

“Really?” he says, interested. “I thought you were supposed to build up to it.”

“Stiles,” she reaches down, pushes his hand away, and works four fingers into herself. It’s so good to have something inside that she moans.

“Oh jesus god,” Stiles says. Lydia works her fingers in and out, but soon tires, because the angle is difficult.

“Like that, “ she says, and Stiles puts in three fingers—and oh, his are bigger and longer and more full of knuckles and little muscles, yes god. “Up a little,” she says, because he’s curling his fingers, trying hard to find where it’s good for her, and it’s so near.

“Yeah, yeah, like that. A little softer. Like that.”

She gets wetter and wetter as he strokes, feeling a light sense of embarrassment when it spills out of her, and she can hear Stiles emit a muffled, “Fuck.”

“Can I lick you?” he says, the sound low in his chest, and Lydia hardly gets out a “yes” before his lips touch her clit. It’s just a kiss at first, only his lips pressed against her, unmoving. Lydia wonders briefly if she needs to explain how cunnilingus works, but then his lips pull back, and he exhales a warm laugh against her pussy.

“Sorry. I— I’ve thought about this for a long time.” And before she can process that, he’s licking her: long, warm, toe-curling licks, and his fingers start moving again. He’s obviously done his homework, because he tries different strokes, little kitten licks and circles and flicks and sucks, and Lydia has no objections to any of them, none at all. She can feel her orgasm coming from far away, spreading out through her thighs and sparking up her back. All she needs is for Stiles to keep going; don’t stop, don’t stop,

Don’t stop,” she pants, over and over.

His fingertips start to feel rough insider her; she’s so sensitive that she swears she can make out every little callous on his fingers as they stroke. It is almost, almost too much sensation. For a second she’s not sure she’ll be able to come. But then she looks down to see Stiles’ ass hitching against the bed, his cheeks and nose shining wet from her pussy, and his eyes fixed unwavering on her face, because he wants to see her come, wants it so badly that he’s blinking through the sweat and slick on his eyelashes.

Lydia was never one to deny someone a show.

She cries out when she comes, and distantly hears Stiles groan and shudder in response. She is still shivering when she feels him remove his fingers and lay his head heavily against her thigh. He’s breathing quick and shallow, like he just ran a race.

“Did you just come?” she asks faintly.

“Um. Yeah.” He sounds mortified.

Lydia tugs at his shoulders until he crawls up above her, his eyes everywhere but on her face. “Stiles,” she whispers and smooths a hand down his stomach. The first button of his jeans is undone, so her hand slides in and underneath his boxers easily. Stiles shudders gorgeously when she wraps her fingers around his cock. He’s just starting to soften, and Lydia circles her fingertips against the head, rubbing in the come. She tries to work up more of those little tremors that wrack Stiles shoulders where he’s holding himself up.

“That was fucking hot,” she tells him. “You give head like a pro.”

He collapses to one side of her and hides his face in her neck, muffling a laugh.

“Thanks.”

*

Lying side-by-side on Stiles’ twin bed is a tight fit, but it’s cozy.

They’ve only been lying here for half an hour, but some part of Lydia’s brain is already worried that what they just did was a bad, bad idea. That Stiles will get hurt, and that Lydia will lose one of the best (only) friends she’s ever had. She also rather anxious about Derek, because Derek may be hard at work suppressing his little crush, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be an asshole about it when it comes out that Lydia is fucking the object of his affections.

She looks doubtfully over at Stiles, their faces all of five inches apart. He smiles at her and drifts in for a kiss, his earlier embarrassment all but forgotten. She kisses back and wonders whether she ought to tell Stiles about Derek, just so that he’s aware of the dynamics in the room. Maybe he can say something to Derek to make him calm the hell down.

Lydia lifts up on an elbow to look down at him. “So you know how Derek basically blamed me for everything tonight?”

“Do we have to talk about that? I’m afterglow-ing here.”

“And you know how it was suddenly decided that the pack would come to South Bay as soon as you announced you were going to Stanford?”

Stiles frowns “That’s…not exactly what happened.”

“Yes. It is.” She pauses and looks him in the eye. “Derek has a thing for you.”

Lydia doesn’t know what she expected, but it’s not for Stiles to let out a tired little laugh and say, “I…yeah. I know.”

What? You know?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.” Lydia takes this in. “So what, he came on to you, and…?”

“He’s never come on to me.” Stiles scrubs at his jaw with one hand. “I just— I can tell, that he likes me.”

She waits for several long seconds for him to continue, but he doesn’t. “And…you don’t like him like that? Or you’re straight?”

“I’m not straight,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t like him. Or well, I didn’t like him, for a long time. He did some shit, before you joined the pack. But he’s better now. Well. He’s usually better.” Stiles shakes his head. He holds up a hand and starts ticking off fingers. “One, I only recently started liking him as a person, let alone romantically. Two, he’s like, significantly older than me. Three, I have no idea why he likes me. I mean, even if he likes me on some higher level than just—” Stiles waves a hand at their bodies. “He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you could go on a date with, y’know? What would you even do on a date with Derek Hale?”

Probably the same things other people do, Lydia thinks, but she gets it. Although it’s pretty suspicious, the way he can rattle off that list.

“You’ve really thought this through, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think he’s hot?” she asks, because she has no shame about nosiness.

He blushes, predictably. “Sure. ‘Course. But that doesn’t mean he’d make a good boyfriend. Dude has issues.”

But. Lydia blinks at him. “So do I.”

He shrugs, but when he catches sight of her face, he leans in and kisses her breastbone affectionately. “I like your issues. Plus, you have prettier boobs.”

She considers this. “I bet Derek has a prettier dick.”

“Oh god, Lydia, seriously?”

“He’d probably let you do anything you wanted to him. He’d probably even let you top.”

Stiles flushes even brighter and laughs.

And then they kiss, and she gets her hands down his underwear, and they end up moving together, Stiles fucking into her fist, Lydia bucking up against his thigh.

In the end, she does bring out Jackson’s vibrator, because fuck it, she wants another orgasm.

*

“What are we going to do about the Sheehans?” Lydia asks the ceiling later that night. Her hair is spread out over Stiles’ pillow—his only one, Lydia is definitely taking him shopping for linens in the near future—and Stiles is laying flat on his back beside her.

“Oh yeah. That.” Stiles rolls into her shoulder and sighs. “Lydia, I know you don’t like to hear it, but they’re not harmless. I mean, maybe they’re not bloodthirsty murderers, but they’re not harmless. We can’t threaten them and then try to finish school in their territory. And we can’t just become part of their pack. We’ve been through too much to make our pack.”

“We need to give them a reason to leave us alone.”

“Right.” His eyelashes beat against the back of her neck, and she can tell that he’s brainstorming.

“It’s a pity, though,” she says. “We could have used their resources.”

Stiles doesn’t say anything for a long time, and she thinks he’s fallen asleep until he places a sudden, smacking kiss against the top of her spine.

“Okay. Idea.”

*

After two hours of strategizing, drawing diagrams, and some of Stiles’ most adept internet research to date, they have a plan.

"Right. So the only problems I can see with this plan is that we need Derek to agree to it, Allison to come down from Davis like, immediately, and oh, we have to successfully lie to an Alpha werewolf who's been an Alpha for like, thirty years and has a pack of fifty betas. And it might result in all of us torn to pieces and strewn across Palo Alto."

"It's going to work," Lydia says.

"I appreciate your vote of confidence, but—"

"Carolyn Sheehan will believe us, because she's going to want to believe us."

Stiles stares at her and chews on his lips a while before nodding sharply. "Yeah. Yeah. She will. But you know that we're going to have to follow through, right? We're making a promise that could influence the rest of our lives."

"The rest of my life. And yes. I know."

“Okay. Well. I guess it's time to call Derek, then."

*

It takes half the night to convince Derek and five seconds to convince Allison.

Actually, Allison doesn’t take any convincing. Lydia calls her at about two and asks her to come down immediately.

“Sure thing,” Allison says sleepily. “Firepower?”

“Wouldn’t hurt.”

“’Kay. See you soon.”

Derek requires a re-hashing of every logical step in their plan, which isn’t unreasonable, but Lydia is impatient. Luckily Stiles is willing to explain everything in as much detail as Derek wants, and Lydia can feel it when he starts to come around. A few hours into the discussion, there’s a long silence over the speakerphone.

“Derek, you still there?” Stiles prompts.

“Yeah. I— I owe you both an apology.”

Lydia and Stiles exchange a look over the phone on the desk. Lydia draws it towards her. “Yes. You do. But we can talk about that later. Stiles and I need to fix our screw-up first.”

They hear him sigh. “Right.” And they make a plan to meet.

*

They fall asleep near five am and wake up at ten thirty when Stiles' roommate bursts into the room.

"Put a sock on the door," is all he says before dropping his bag and walking back out.

*

Lydia spends the late morning choosing an outfit with the most silk and as many lapels as she can manage. She wants to look powerful. She’s wearing her first-day-of-school shoes again, partly because they go with the outfit, and partly because she likes the symmetry. They are shoes for momentous days.

She doesn’t feel powerful, though, when she’s walking through the mall again with Derek, Stiles, and Allison. The betas are at a restaurant nearby (over Scott’s strong objections, but Derek had maintained that Carolyn Sheehan would be able to pick them out of a crowd if they got near enough). She breathes in, shakily, and Derek shoots her a look.

“Okay?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

Carolyn, Michael, and another pack member—Lydia can't remember her name, but possibly Carolyn’s sister?—are already seated at a table when they arrive: the same table where Stiles and Lydia had first met Michael.

They all rise in a weirdly simultaneous manner when Lydia, Stiles, Allison, and Derek walk up. The sister looks kind of tight-lipped, but Carolyn is smiling that same, gracious hostess' smile. The one that says, “Welcome to my party.” Lydia smiles it back, deliberately. You wish.

Carolyn never once takes her eyes off of Derek, though. Lydia figures it must be some kind of pack politics thing, because she doesn't so much as acknowledge Lydia’s, Stiles’s, or Allison’s existence. Carolyn extends a hand.

"I am Carolyn Sheehan, of the Sheehan Pack," she says formally. Derek takes her hand and shakes it, and Lydia doesn't miss the way both of their claws slip out and in when they do so.

"Derek Hale," he says. "Hale Pack."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hale. Your young pack members were wonderful to meet with yesterday. I was so pleased that you accepted our invitation to them."

"We thank you for the invitation," Derek says. Lydia can hear the ritual in it, and she wonders how often his parents met with other packs when he was little.

"I was also glad to get your call today. Why don't we all sit," Carolyn says. "I've already ordered some drinks."

They sit, the four of them crowding around the table with the Sheehans. Lydia looks over at Derek, and waits. He has to do this part. If either Lydia or Stiles were to try it, they would get caught out.

"There's something we have to tell you," Derek says.

"Oh that can wait, surely."

"No, I don't think so. I had Lydia and Stiles accept your invitation for a reason, but not for the reason you assumed."

Carolyn looks up sharply, and even though her face doesn't shift at all she suddenly looks less like the kindly grandmother and more like someone who literally has the power to rip out throats.

"I'm sorry we didn't approach you directly about the matter,” Derek says patiently, and Lydia has to admit, he’s good at this bit, better than she’d thought he would be. “The short version is, my pack would to like propose an alliance—not a merger of two packs, but an alliance—and we were concerned that if we approached you directly, it would be taken as a challenge."

Carolyn Sheehan leans back in her chair, her hands flat on the table in a way that shouldn't seem as threatening as it does. "I don't like being lied to," she says. "Alliances tend to work best between packs that trust each other, not to mention packs that have something to offer each other." She articulates “offer” accusingly.

Lydia's heart is beating fast, out of her control. Hopefully Carolyn will take this as nerves instead of another lie.

"I understand that," Derek says. "And I apologize, but it was necessary."

Carolyn lifts a skeptical eyebrow. Her sister's eyes flash blue, and Michael frowns.

Lydia glances at Derek, and he nods.

"We had to know what kind of pack you ran," Lydia says. "What we want to do is delicate, and we had to know that you ran the kind of pack that would accept it."

Carolyn’s eyebrows go up, and she exchanges a look with her sister. "And what is it that you want to do?"

Lydia breathes deep. Here we go.

"We want to map the werewolf genome," she says. "The things that have been done for humans based on genetic research are amazing. Gene therapy has been used to treat all kinds of diseases."

Carolyn looks like she wants to laugh. "That's a big project for a group of college kids."

"Yes it is. Which is why we'll need help."

Carolyn snorts. "Help? You mean you need years and years of education, institutional support, huge amounts of capital, lab equipment, highly skilled workers, and all for a project that you can't fully explain to investors, scientific journals, or the scientific community."

"Exactly. Which is why we need help from you."

Carolyn leans forward on her elbows and sighs. "It's a worthy project, Lydia,” she says in a motherly tone. “But why shouldn't I just find my own scientists to do it? I could make them members of my pack, and they would be a thousand times more skilled than—with all due respect—a couple of children who just graduated high school."

"Skill can be learned; talent can't. And what you need to make this happen is talent. I speak seven languages and can read fourteen. I started doing Calculus at age eleven, Ms. Sheehan, because I loved math, and I still do, and someday when I’m not too busy trying to advance the future of your race, I am pretty certain I am going to advance the study of mathematics. I can sit here and describe to you in considerable detail the findings of the Human Genome Project and the more than twenty-thousand genes in the human genome, but I can’t do that for werewolves, not because it’s impossible, and not because it’s even that hard to do, but because I need a fucking laboratory and millions of dollars to be able to do it.” Lydia desperately hopes that her heartbeat doesn’t telegraph as lying right now, but that’s the first time she’s ever admitted all of that out loud to anyone, period, and the high she’s getting from it makes her feel almost drunk.

Carolyn blinks. "You don't think someone has already done this? All of the werewolves in the world, and you’re the only one who’s thought of this?"

"If someone has done it, they're not sharing their data. That's the point. Science can't be done in isolation. Like you said, this is a project that needs support on a massive scale."

Carolyn's nails tap the table in rhythm.

"So that's why you're here? You trick us into thinking you're in need of help so that you can pitch a science project to us? You really expect me to believe that someone as ambitious as you is no threat to my territory?" She's looking right at Lydia.

Stiles speaks up. "Okay, first off, you came to us. And secondly, we're not just talking to you because you invest in things professionally, and you have a lot of money. We're talking to you because you have a multigenerational pack that cares about its weakest members. And you did care, when you thought we were refugees. You were going to help us out. Don’t you get that you are maybe the only person in the world with the ethics, the money, and the power to make this happen?” Stiles pauses, looking over at Lydia. “The only thing you don’t have is, and I say this with all due respect, is the brains. That’s what we have to offer.”

“I see.” Carolyn’s face is utterly blank at the moment: a poker face to die for. “And what if you’re not as good-hearted as you pretend? What if I decide that the lot of you are a threat to my pack? Do you think you can stay in my territory without consequences?” It probably wouldn’t be perceptible if Lydia weren’t looking right at her, but Carolyn’s face lengthens just the smallest bit, her cheekbones sharpening and her eyes flashing. Derek’s teeth click audibly in response.

“Oh, that’s my cue,” Allison says cheerily. “Hi. I’m Allison. Allison Argent of the Hale Pack. But also, incidentally, Allison Argent of a rather large family of hunters named Argent. You might’ve heard of us.”

Lydia thinks that last part was a little over the top, but hey. Subtlety is overrated when issuing threats.

Carolyn’s eyes narrow and flicker between Allison and Derek. “You have a hunter in your pack?”

“Yes. He does,” Allison confirms. “And let me assure you, Ms. Sheehan, not all hunters are loud-mouthed, camo-wearing hicks. Well, some of my cousins are, but what are you gonna do. We’re a big family.” Allison pauses to grin. “A very big, very old, very thoroughly trained family. If you come after my pack, I will call up my every long-lost Argent cousin and every hunter they’ve ever trained, and bring them all down on your head, so help me god.” She leans back in her chair. “And you will never see it coming. I promise you that.”

Lydia sometimes forgets how dangerous her best friend is.

Carolyn locks eyes with Derek. “Interesting bunch of kids you have here.”

Derek produces a shit-eating grin that Lydia has seen maybe once before in the last three years. “You haven’t met my betas yet.”

Carolyn holds his gaze for what seems forever, before quirking her lips and nodding. Then she pushes back her chair and rises with a degree of energy that a sixty-something-year-old woman really shouldn’t have. “I look forward to it,” she says, her pack members rising next to her.

She casts her eyes on Lydia. “Lydia, dear, I expect a full written proposal with cost estimates on my desk by Monday.”

And she turns on her heel and struts away, her son and sister trailing in her wake.

“Oh my god,” Lydia says.

“Did that really just—”

“Shhh,” Derek hisses, throwing a hand over Stiles’ mouth, probably worried about being overheard, but Stiles just pushes him off and turns to Lydia.

“Oh my god,” Lydia says again, thunderstruck, because some part of her really hadn’t expected it to work.

Stiles is biting his lips, hands fisted and near-quivering with silent victory.

“Stiles,” Lydia says solemnly, “If you took of your top right now, I could check off like, half of my bucket list.”

Stiles kisses her on the mouth, right there in the Stanford Shopping Center food court in front of Derek and Allison.

*

The walk out to the parking garage is awkward. Derek attempts to give some kind of congratulatory team-building speech while not actually looking at either Lydia or Stiles.

Allison exchanges an amused look with Lydia and theatrically interrupts him:

"So Lydia! You speak fourteen languages?"

“Oh that.” Lydia doesn’t blush, but it almost feels like she does, the way the back of her neck feels hot. She hadn’t thought ahead of time about how exposing herself to Carolyn also meant exposing herself to Allison and everyone else. “I might have exaggerated that a little,” she says honestly.

Allison laughs. “Good thing she didn’t catch you in a lie, then. How many languages do you actually speak?”

“Only six. I mean, no one really speaks Latin, do they? And strictly speaking, I only read eleven ‘languages’, but I counted Middle English, Middle French, and Archaic Latin for effect.” Lydia swallows. “Languages were never really my thing, anyway.” Lydia says this without looking at anyone, but she can feel Allison’s eyes on her and hear Derek’s steps falter. It makes her want to hide.

"Lydia, that's amazing." Allison sounds so genuine. She is genuine, of course, but it’s still strange. Something warm and timid bursts open in Lydia’s chest.

"Yeah."

They’ve arrive at Stiles’ Jeep, and there’s another awkward moment where they pause for a beat and look at each other.

"Right, well, we all meeting back at the apartment? Derek and I will go pick up everyone else." And just like that, Lydia and Stiles are alone next to the Jeep. Allison is walking quickly next to Derek, talking about something-or-other and effectively dragging him away without actually touching him. It's quite the feat.

Stiles is still biting back a grin, and Lydia allows herself to return it, to get in the Jeep. As soon as they get out on the road, Stiles lets out a whoop.

"That was incredible."

"Yeah. Yeah it kind of was, wasn't it?"

“We’re going to have a lab. A lab all to ourselves.”

“Yeah.” Lydia knows they’ve not completely won, yet. They still need a project proposal that with a tenable plan. Lydia has no doubt that Carolyn will take them to task if their proposal doesn’t measure up. A project this big doesn’t happen overnight, and they’ll need Carolyn’s backup at every step of the way. They’ll need to hire people who can be trusted. They’ll need to raise funds and probably break the law doing it, because they’ll have to lie about where the money’s going. Her fingers itch for pen and paper so that she can start outlining the write-up.

Stiles must be able to tell. “No! No thinking. No planning. We are done with thinking for the day. You are going to relax for twelve whole hours in a row.”

Stiles switches on the radio and sings along to the first song he finds. It's Gangnam Style, and Lydia can't help but laugh when Stiles attempts some abbreviated version of the dance in the driver’s seat.

"Soooooo," he drawls eventually.

"So."

"I kind of kissed you in front of them. Sorry 'bout that. Derek's going to make assumptions or whatever, but we can set him straight."

Lydia recognizes that Stiles is trying to feel her out, but she doesn't know the answer yet. What are they? What could they be? Friends with benefits? Boyfriend and girlfriend? Casual sex partners?

The only thing she knows for sure is that they're friends. They're pack members, now more than ever. It was partly a ruse, sure, to tell Carolyn Sheehan that the genome project is what they were after the whole time, but it was so successful that it was now reality. Lydia will be doing this project for the next ten, twenty, thirty years of her life. She doesn't think Derek or Allison or even Stiles was quite aware of it, but Lydia had just signed her name on the line in a way she hadn't before. She is with them now, irrevocably. And that meant she is with Stiles irrevocably. But it also means she is with Derek and Jackson and Allison and Boyd and Erica and Isaac and Scott.

"Lydia?"

She startles out of her reverie. "No. No need. Let Derek think what he wants. Let everybody think what they want."

"Yeah?"

"I mean. What do you think we are?"

Stiles doesn't look away from the road, but his smile is slow and contemplative and amused. "I think we are fucking geniuses."

"Fucking geniuses."

Stiles throws his head back and laughs so loud and long that Lydia reaches over to grab the steering wheel.

And maybe she joins in on the next chorus. Whatever. Stiles isn't going to tell anybody.

*

When they’re all back at the house, pizza boxes spread out on the coffee table and the floor, the whole story gets recapped two or three times, mostly by Stiles with interjections from Allison.

On the one hand, the genome project was a believable lie, a way to get the pack out of the impossible position she and Stiles had put them in. On the other hand, their pack had just signed up for a major scientific project, and Lydia watches nervously as this realization dawns on the others’ faces.

Boyd surprises everyone by being actively enthusiastic about the idea of the genome project; he asks Lydia a slew of questions about the science involved while Isaac listens attentively at his elbow. Scott is focused on logistics; how and where is this research going to take place? Will it affect the plan for most of them to return to Beacon Hills in two years? He’s worried that Carolyn Sheehan will double-cross them, and he, Stiles, and Allison spend half an hour dissecting her motivations. Erica and Derek shift between these two conversations, asking questions and making comments. It’s not a little like the arguments they used to have about whether to go to college, but less antagonistic. Lydia loves it.

In a lull in the conversation, Jackson speaks up to say, “So, what, we’re all going to be working on this genetics thing now? Is this a group project?” To most people, Jackson’s tone would sound sarcastic, even mean, but Lydia knows better. He actually wants to know.

Lydia and Stiles both open their mouths to answer, but Derek beats him to it. “Yes. This is a group project.”

Lydia sits up straight. “What?”

“We might not all be able to help with the ‘science’ part,” and there Derek makes actual finger quotes at which Lydia struggles not to laugh, “but we can all help in other ways. We did this together.” Derek punctuates this last with a significant look at Lydia and Stiles.

“Right,” Jackson says, nodding. His expression turns thoughtful, and his gaze shifts to Lydia. “It’s a good thing you’ve got me, then. The rest of these guys are shit at keeping to a schedule.”

Erica shoves him off his chair for that, and Jackson takes a swing at her that she dodges, laughing. Derek emits a low growl that has them stepping back immediately.

Lydia is grinning. She can’t help it; it’s the first positive thing Jackson’s said to her in months. (And to be fair, Jackson is great at keeping to a schedule. He would make a good project manager.)

“Thank you,” she mouths at Jackson when he settles back into his chair.

He shrugs, expansive and generous.

“We don’t have to plan this whole thing out now, though, right?” Isaac is holding up a pair of video game controllers.

Everyone looks at Derek, who rolls his eyes. “No. Not right now.”

*

It’s eleven o’clock, and Lydia is perched on the kitchen counter. Everybody else is in the living room, taking part in a Call of Duty tournament that looks close to reach its pinnacle, judging by the shouts. She has a mug of hot tea clutched between her hands, some herbal thing with no caffeine that Boyd drinks. She feels odd: grounded and centered and happy but also somehow apart. It’s going to take some time before she really calls the people in the next room her family. But she’s just signed up to be theirs, in a way that feels more permanent than it ever did before, when she was just showing up to pack meetings. She’s theirs, now. Some singleminded part of her desperately wants access to a laptop so that she can empty out some of the swirling plans onto a page, and another part of her resists, worries, wonders what it means, to commit those plans to paper, to put those plans on Carolyn’s desk, to sign away the next twenty years of her life so quickly. It scares her, a little bit.

“Are you okay?”

Derek looks, as he always does, a little out of place in his own kitchen.

“I’m fine,” she says.

His mouth thins into a constipated expression. “Listen…” But he stops after that, chewing on his lips. Lydia waits him out. “I—” He digs into his back pocket, bringing out a folded piece of notebook paper. “Here.” He holds it out steadily in front of himself.

Lydia plucks it from his fingers, unfolding it. It’s written in pencil, in Derek’s truly atrocious handwriting, but it’s unmistakable. A family tree.

“The H’s mean human?” she guesses.

“Yeah.”

“And the numbers next to some of them are…”

“Ages when they were turned, or near as I can remember.”

She runs her fingers down the branches, tapping names in turns, coming to a stop atop Derek’s own name scrawled near the bottom. There’s four generations written out, long on the horizontal. We’re sorry for your terrible losses.

“I’ll want to know, for the turned wolves, whether they had their children before or after they turned.”

“Sure.”

Lydia folds the paper back up and presses it between her palm and her thigh. It’s a start. Derek’s eyes search her face, his nostrils flaring on an inhale, and Lydia wonders again, what he can smell on her.

“I apologize for going to the Sheehans without consulting you,” she says formally.

Derek nods, his mouth quirking. “I apologize for putting all the blame on you.” He puts his hands in his pockets and glances back at the living room, eyes flashing red, before he takes a step forward. “And I apologize for…” He breathes in and out noisily. “You and Stiles don’t need to hide whatever you have from me. I’m not going to treat you differently.”

Oh, really.

She must communicate her disbelief effectively, because he amends, “I was unfair yesterday, blaming things only on you. I realize that now.” He pauses for a beat, which Lydia interprets as Erica browbeat me into admitting it. “I won’t do that again. I don’t want members of my pack to have to hide things from me.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t hide things from members of your pack.”

Derek sets his jaw. “I just gave you the family tree, and I can tell you anything else you have questions about.”

“I meant your obvious crush on Stiles.”

Derek stares at the floor and doesn’t answer for a while.

“I realized that I have a tendency to…favor Stiles. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. You’re pack, Lydia.”

Lydia examines his face, remembering that boredom, anger, and deep earnestness all look very similar on him.

“’Kay,” she chirps, sweeping her hair out of face, and waiting ‘til he looks her in the eye again. “But just so we’re clear, I am not opposed to threesomes.”

Lydia.”

Well that is just adorable. If Derek were any more horrified, he’d be clutching his non-existent pearls.

She sighs dramatically. “Of course, we’d have to ask Stiles. Negotiation and all that.” She threads her arm through his and pulls him back into the living room. Derek’s doing that thing where he clenches his jaw and pretends not to have emotions, but she can tell that under all the shock and modesty, he wants to laugh.

“Lydia,” Allison calls out when they step through the doorway. “Come here. I want to try that French braid thing again.”

So Lydia seats herself on the floor in front of Allison where she’s sitting cross-legged on the couch, and Derek ejects Isaac from his customary armchair. They’ve just turned off the game console, and everyone is resettling themselves around the room.

“Movie?” Stiles proposes, sinking down next to Lydia on the floor.

“Movie.”

Jackson sits down next to Allison, his legs taking up the space on Lydia’s other side. Boyd and Erika are jostling over the other armchair, Erica snarling playfully, but they eventually squeeze in next to each other, one of Erica’s legs splayed over Boyd’s.

One of Lydia’s shoulders is pressed against Stiles’, and her opposite thigh touches Jackson’s foot. Allison’s hands are in her hair, and Derek’s eyes are on her face, probably trying to figure out whether she was serious, and she feels it, welling up: a feeling that makes her heart drop with the newness of it. Family.

Lydia has a place to stand, and she’s going to move the fucking world.