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As Though the Air Protects You

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Stiles has been restless all day. His cage, normally spacious, seems suddenly cramped and miserable. Whenever Dr. Deaton comes into view, Stiles mews at him to be let out.

Deaton just shakes his head. "I can't let you out, Stiles." His voice is gentle, if a little impatient. "I know you miss Scott, but I don't have the time to keep an eye on you."

Stiles huffs and curls up in the corner of his cage, tail flicking like a metronome. He does not miss Scott – okay, who is he kidding, of course he misses Scott. Life at the clinic just hasn't been the same since the stupid mutt (well, Labrador, but Stiles calls him a mutt and he better like it) got adopted. It's almost enough to make Stiles resent Ms. McCall for stealing his best friend away.

Only he knows that it's for the best. Animals who understand human speech aren't common, Stiles knows. Dr. Deaton gives his animals to the people of Beacon Hills to keep them safe, and Scott will never let Ms. McCall's old boyfriend hurt her again.

Even so, things are dull without Scott. None of the other animals appreciate Stiles' wit, and Deaton's human clients don't seem to understand him at all. Bored out of his skull, Stiles settles for desultorily batting at the metal bars of his cage and watching Deaton's clients trickle in. He's considering a nap when the door opens and Sheriff Stilinski comes in.

Stiles knows the sheriff. John Stilinski also keeps the townspeople safe, so they're almost like colleagues. He comes to consult Deaton when there are problems with the local wildlife.

He hasn't come around in a long time, though, and he's different. Stooped, and almost gaunt. His walk is unsteady. It's wrong, in a way that tears Stiles up inside. He steps up his mewing, loud and frantic as only he knows how to get.

"Sorry, Sheriff," Deaton says. "I better see what has him so upset." He opens Stiles' cage – sweet freedom! – and picks him up. Stiles struggles and squirms until Deaton lets him down, upon which opportunity he runs to the sheriff, climbing up his leg in his distress.

Stiles has a moment to realize he's hanging off the sheriff's pants and probably clawing him when strong, gentle hands cup around him and lift him up. Stiles finds himself nose to nose with the sheriff. He meeps in victory, and licks the tip of the sheriff's nose.

"He seems to like you." Deaton sounds amused.

John moves to hold Stiles against him. Stiles purrs his approval, stepping it up when he feels a small rumble of laughter in John's chest. "My God, he's loud," John says.

"Like a generator," Deaton agrees. Stiles throws him a dirty look. Purr-shaming is totally uncalled for. "And he can caterwaul, like you heard earlier. Gets into five kinds of trouble the moment you take your eyes off of him."

Stiles' dirty look intensifies into an outright glare. Which would probably be more effective if he stopped purring, but whatever. He's clearly trying to work his charms, here; Deaton really doesn't need to badmouth him like that.

John's thumb moves in the soft fur behind Stiles' ear, and he's willing to forgive a lot right now, so long as he's being petted. "Sounds like a handful," John says. "What's his name?"

"Stiles."

"Stiles Stilinski," John muses. Stiles resists the urge to give his finger a victorious little nip. "That sounds ridiculous."

Deaton smiles. "I'll get you a collar and some equipment for him, shall I?" Stiles can't see the sheriff's response, but it must have been positive because Deaton walks to the door. He pauses at the threshold, though. "I'm glad you like one another," Deaton says softly. "You could use the company."

The hand petting Stiles freezes. Stiles meows his discontent, and it resumes.

~~

John sets up food and water bowls and a litter box for Stiles, and puts a cozy little cat bed at the edge of the living room. Stiles tries it for half an hour before he decides he likes the window seat better, and John's lap best. He gets petted there.

The sheriff's house is big. Granted, all Stiles has to compare it to is a cage, but it's the biggest space he's been given permission to roam freely in... well, ever.

It takes Stiles two hours to decide that it's too small and he wants to explore outside.

Escaping isn't hard. The kitchen window has a wire screen that Stiles easily pulls aside with his claws. Clawing it feels good, Stiles marks for future reference. Outside is a small yard. Stiles nibbles on a blade of grass, scratches the bark of a tree, and hops up on the car's sun-warm hood for an extra-comfy nap.

That lasts for exactly as long as it takes Stiles to catch a glimpse of long-haired ginger tail swishing in the next yard.

Instantly, Stiles is smitten. That economy of movement, that grace, can only belong to a superior being, who Stiles must convince to be his future mate. He leaps off the car hood, gets his paws tangled up in his tail, God knows how, and lands in a humiliated tangle of limbs.

Stiles springs back up. "I meant to do that," he declares to whatever may be listening, and goes on the prowl for some small animal to kill. He must woo this vision of perfection.

~~

A week later, Stiles is in line to see Dr. Deaton with a vivid scratch across his nose and a far more cynical outlook on life. However, all that's forgotten when he sees who else is there. "Scott!" Stiles yowls joyfully.

"Stiles!" Scott barks and takes off at a run. Stiles jumps down from the sheriff's lap to tussle on the ground with Scott, catching a silky ear in his teeth while Scott mock-growls and attempts to put Stiles' entire head in his mouth.

Ms. McCall cries out a distressed, "Scott!" Behind them, John is standing up. Stiles stiffens, wary.

"They're just playing," Deaton says. "Scott and Stiles are great friends. In fact, I suspect Stiles forgets he's not a puppy from time to time because of Scott."

"I resent that!" Stiles shouts at Deaton. The other humans wince at his yowl.

Stiles is too happy to hold a grudge right now. He licks Scott's muzzle. "Scott, bro, how've you been?"

"Oh, man." Scott is normally a pretty happy puppy, but right now he's ecstatic. "I have met the most perfect--"

Just like that, Stiles' good mood is gone. "Tell me about it," he grumps.

Scott, whose immunity to sarcasm hasn't changed since they last met, does. "Her name is Allison. She's a poodle, and she's a little older than me, but she's perfect."

"A poodle?" Stiles scrunches up his nose. Then stops, because it makes him look like a bunny. "Does she have, like, those ridiculous puffs in her fur?"

"Those are to keep her warm," Scott says, defensive. "She's a hunting dog. Her teeth..." Scott emits a dreamy sigh and turns to show Stiles the neat row of stitches in his side. "Look how strong she is, this happened when we were playing. She didn't even mean to hurt me." He pauses and takes in Stiles' expression of heavy doubt. "I don't think."

Stiles would mock, but he'd be a hypocrite to do that given his recent enthrallment with the crystal perfection of Lydia's claws. Even, case in point, when they were raking his face, and Stiles cannot in good conscience say that Lydia was trying not to hurt him. "Love is pain, buddy." Stiles sighs.

Scott licks his face in commiseration.

~~

The scratch is nothing, but John worries, and Deaton likes his recent adoptees to come in for a check-up after they spent some time in their new homes.

Besides, Stiles wanted to talk to him. He waits for the sheriff to get a phone call and wander off before he says, "Listen, I'm not sure this was the best idea."

Deaton stills. "You seemed to be getting along exceptionally well."

Stiles' heart falls just a little bit. He doesn't want to leave John – really doesn't, it's tearing him up inside just to think about it – but there are other matters to consider. "He's the sheriff," Stiles says. "He does a dangerous job and he doesn't take anything near enough care of himself. He drinks," this Stiles says in a rush, ashamed to reveal John's secrets. "I try to distract him and make sure he sleeps, but I just want him to be okay and I don't know if I can do it. You should've sent someone stronger to him. Someone like Scott."

Deaton pats Stiles' nose with antiseptic. It burns, and Stiles hisses, swiping his claws in the general direction of Deaton's hand. "There's more to strength than muscle," Deaton says, placid as ever. "I saw your heart go out to him as soon as he came in through that door. You have excellent instincts, Stiles, and you'd do well to trust them. I do."

Stiles is silent, shocked by the praise.

Deaton takes advantage by cleaning the scratch on Stiles' nose further. "I think you're right in your assessment that the sheriff needs someone to take care of him. As far as I can tell, you're doing an excellent job."

Stiles looks up, still a little rattled. "Who takes care of you, Doctor?"

Deaton laughs. "I knew you were well-suited to the sheriff. Both of you ask too many damn questions." He tweaks Stiles' ear.

~~

It's late at night, and Stiles has taken to prowling the sheriff's home office, tail swishing in discontent. John has gotten up before dawn, came back home in the late evening and paid no attention to Stiles beyond refilling his bowl with kibble. Stiles would like to say that he's just miffed at the lack of attention, but he's worried. John has been squinting at the same case files for over an hour. He's taking disconcertingly frequent looks at the drinks cabinet.

In a last-ditch attempt to distract his owner, Stiles climbs up John's pants. That never fails to make the man laugh. But tonight, he just sighs and gently detaches Stiles from his uniform trousers to put him down on the floor.

Stiles sits on his haunches and mews plaintively.

John pinches the bridge of his nose. "Not now, Stiles." His voice is tense, and descends into a mutter as he continues reading the case files. “I know she has something to with it, but how do I prove it?”

Stiles leaps up to the table. It's a complicated process, involving a chair and a couple of falls since Stiles has trouble calculating jump trajectories in his head, but he makes it. On the table, there are photos and blurry lines of text. Stiles walks among them, careful not to disturb anything, and noses a picture of a grimacing blonde young woman.

John is grimacing, too. “Yeah, that's her.” He sounds far too weary for Stiles' peace of mind. “It is a little obvious, don't you think, Stiles? Woman arrested for arson comes back into town, suddenly houses start catching fire. But there's nothing to connect her to any of the fires.”

Stiles puts a gentle paw on John's hand. "You should sleep on it,” he says. “You'll feel better in the morning.”

John groans and rubs his eyes. “God, am I seriously talking to my cat about this? Fuck it, I'm going to sleep.”

Stiles purrs his agreement, which makes John chuckle and scritch behind Stiles' ears. At times like this, Stiles wonders if John might understand him on some subconscious level.

Who knows. At least it gets him to go to bed.

~~

The next morning is better. Stiles swipes pieces of bacon from John's plate whenever he's not looking, giving John his most innocent look when he glares at Stiles. He distracts the sheriff by climbing his shirt, which – gratifyingly, after last night – gets him a laugh.

It's a nice place to be, riding John's shoulder. Good view of the surrounding premises. Stiles decides to stay there when John goes out for a walk, even if his balance is a little precarious. At worst he'll fall, and cats always land on their feet, don't they.

Outside it's a lovely day. John nods at Danny, who's out walking Jackson, his iguana. Stiles sniggers, because the sight of a lizard on a leash never stops being funny. Jackson hisses a “Fuck off,” at Stiles, which Stiles cheerfully ignores.

They next pass by Ms. Morell. She doesn't look happy. “Your cat's been leaving me gifts again,” she says, giving John a pointed look.

"Excuse me, they weren't for you,” Stiles huffs. He may now know that love – and Lydia – are cruel mistresses, but that doesn't mean he'll just stop trying. That Ms. Morell is Lydia's owner does not mean she gets to claim the gifts he left for Lydia as her own.

John grimaces. “Sorry. I'll keep a better eye on him.” The look he gives Stiles makes Stiles want to squirm.

Which is a bad idea, he realizes, when he takes a tumble and ends up hitting the pavement. Feet first, so nothing more than his pride is hurt. Though really that's a sufficient pain in and of itself. Even so, Stiles is about to shake himself off and climb back into place, no big deal, when he feels someone looking at him.

Lydia. She's sitting on the fence, tail swishing lazily. Stiles' heart beats double time in his chest: of course she saw, just his rotten luck. Then she jumps down, and goes.

To Jackson.

Stiles can't think. All he knows is that Lydia, who is pretty much Bastet incarnate, is rubbing her cheek against an iguana. Danny's laughing, leaning down to pet Lydia, who regally allows it. Jackson, that bastard, is preening, pushing up on his scaly little front legs to get closer to Lydia.

He's nearly reached them when he hears the sheriff's frantic, “Stiles!” Jackson takes advantage of Stiles' distraction by sinking his teeth in Stiles' paw. Stiles spits, fur bristling, and rakes his claws across Jackson's broad back.

His claws slide against Jackson's shiny scales, doing barely any damage. To Jackson, at least – Stiles' claw sticks and pulls painfully. Stiles snatches his paw back and yowls.

"Stiles!”

Stiles turns. The sheriff looks huge, suddenly, looming over Stiles like he never did. He sounds—

Shit. He sounds angry, and the insides of Stiles' brain turn into one huge panic signal saying run! He slips between the sheriff's feet and takes off before the yelling can catch up with him.

~~

“Remind me to never trust my instincts again,” Stiles grumbles, trudging through the dead leafs. By the time he stopped running he was outside of town, edging into the deep woods. He's been trying to track his way back by smell, but he's pretty sure he passed by this tree twice already. Speaking of useless instincts.

He thinks he just might be getting closer when he hears a growl coming from behind him.

Like, straight up behind him. Zero range. Stiles had no idea he could run this fast, but the next thing he knows he's hanging off to a branch about twice a human's height off the ground.

"Ha!” Stiles says, victorious. “Totally outsmarted you. Didn't remember cats could climb, did you?”

"Sure,” the wolf – of course it's a wolf, what else would show up in the freaking woods to hunt Stiles' scrawny butt – says dryly. “Think you could climb down, too?”

Stiles narrows his eyes. “Not while you're here.”

The wolf huffs, as if to say suit yourself, and lopes off in search of a rabbit or something.

"Finally,” Stiles mutters, and begins to make his way down.

Only, it turns out, he can't.

”Just jump,” Stiles tells himself, frustrated, a few hours later. It's getting cold out here in the open, and Stiles is thirsty and hungry. He wants to know what John is doing, but that only makes everything worse again.

"Or don't,” he continues, since if he has nothing else to do he might as well complain. “Not like your owner is going to want you back after that show you pulled. Hah, told you you weren't right for him. Who needs a dumbass kitten who can't even keep his balance, eh?”

Stiles hears, "Are you talking to yourself?” and nearly falls for the second time that day.

"What!” Stiles yelps. Then winces, because he sounded like Scott for a moment and that's just sad. “What are you doing, listening to me like a creeper?”

"You're in my territory,” the wolf growls.

"Oh,” Stiles says. “Look, in my defense, I totally didn't choose to go up on that tree. You snarled me into this position.”

"I did not.” The wolf sounds annoyed. “I warned you to get out, and you treed yourself like an idiot.”

By all rights Stiles should bristle, but it's late and he's cold and he's out of snap for one day. “Yeah.” He gathers himself into a small tight loaf, resting his head against his paws.

The wolf is silent for a while, then awkward when he speaks again. “Looking stupid doesn't mean your owner won't want you anymore. Humans love it when we act stupid.”

Wow, someone's bitter. It's getting all up in Stiles' angst, too, which is no fun. Stiles gives up on self-pity and gives the tree another determined look. The fall from the sheriff's shoulder didn't hurt, surely he can handle a slightly bigger jump.

He's about to try and, well, drop himself, when he hears a rustle in the grass below. The wolf hasn't made any noise, before.

"You can jump now,” the wolf says.

Stiles' tail flicks a few irritated ticks, because yes, he's working on it, thank you very much. He closes his eyes and falls--

Onto something soft and padded. Stiles rolls off what seems like an old human coat, plush and overgrown with moss. Stiles' fur is wet from the dew gathered in it, but it seems churlish to complain.

"I best see you out,” the wolf says gruffly. “The less you wander about my territory, the better, and I have the feeling you can't find your way out of a thrown blanket.”

"Hey!” Stiles has to run because the wolf is walking already and his legs are, like, ten times as long as Stiles'. “Totally uncalled for! And will you slow down, you menace, some of us are a little closer to the ground.”

~~

Stiles can see the lights of the sheriff's house, and he purrs loud and contented in expectation of food and water and warmth. It's only when he reaches the very start of the street that he thinks to turn and ask the wolf, “What's your name?”

He can't see the wolf, for a moment thinks he must have vanished into the darkness, when there's a soft growl next to his ear. “Names are human things. I neither want nor need one.”

Then he disappears.

"Drama queen!” Stiles yells after him. Then he speeds up, thinking home home home home, tail flying up like a flag.

The lights are brighter than normal, Stiles realizes as he comes closer, because the door is open. And the sheriff is sitting there, eyelids drooping, shoulders hunched, with an open can of Fancy Feast in his hand.

Stiles freezes for one moment. Then he bounds into John’s lap, ignoring the can as it falls to the floor in favor of licking John’s face. John laughs, curling his fingers over Stiles’ neck, scritching behind his ears. “Whoa, boy.”

“I’m sorry,” Stiles says with a wholehearted mewl. “I’ll never run away again. Never ever.”

~~

The vow lasts for three days, which is the time it takes for the dark circles under the sheriff’s eyes to vanish completely. Even then, it’s not like Stiles intentionally sets out to get lost in the woods.

It’s just, there’s a moth. Or maybe a butterfly – Stiles doesn’t really know much about zoology, apart from what he picked up from Deaton’s muttering, but he thinks butterflies are supposed to be pretty and this one is a dirt-colored little pest. It flutters just out of Stiles’ reach, like it’s teasing him. Stiles can’t be faulted for chasing it, alright, that’s in his friggin’ genes.

So he leaps from the kitchen window after the bug, and makes it out of the front yard one failed pounce at a time. He pays no heed as he makes his way up the street, because it’s not like he’s under house arrest or something (hah, get it, because his owner’s the sheriff? He’s killing himself).

And then suddenly he’s in the woods, no moth nor sign of human habitation anywhere that Stiles can see. He walks a few steps, sniffing cautiously, when the ground literally moves under his paws. Stiles meeps, instinctively digging in with his claws.

“Stop scratching my head,” someone growls under him.

Stiles sheepishly retracts his claws. “I didn’t see you there.” The wolf’s coat is pretty much the same color as the layer of dead leaves on the ground. “You’ve got, like, mad camo skills going on.”

He thinks it’s the same wolf from a few days ago. He hopes it’s the same wolf, anyway, because there should be an upper limit to how many vicious predators one kitten can antagonize in a single week.

“I was napping,” the wolf says, and it sounds almost plaintive.

“Oh.” Stiles can’t really blame him. They’re located in a lone sunny spot in the midst of a clearing, the woods quiet around them but for the sound of rushing wind and the occasional bird yelling about its territory. So, marginally quiet. Close enough for government work. “You should go back to sleep.”

“You’re making noise,” the wolf says.

Stiles is about to complain that he can totally keep quiet, c’mon, when he realizes he’s purring. “Oh,” he says again. “Sorry, I can’t really not.”

The wolf settles back down on its haunches. Between his shoulder blades there is a perfect Stiles-sized spot, once Stiles curls into a tight little ball. He distantly hears the wolf saying, “It’s okay,” before the warmth and the rough-soft fur beneath Stiles lull him into sleep.

~~

Stiles wakes up to not one wolf but, count’em, four. The closest of which, an ash-blonde female, is baring disconcertingly long teeth at Stiles.

Stiles squeaks (like a mouse, ugh, there is no end to the indignities he must face) and tumbles off his... er, the first wolf’s back.

“Don’t get treed,” said wolf growls at him. He snaps at the other wolves, who dance back. They don’t look too intimidated, but they’re staying away and right now Stiles is counting his blessings.

The wolf jerks his nose in the direction of the – shit – setting sun. “That way,” he says. “And keep to the human territories from now on. There are things in the woods you don’t want to know about.”

Stiles takes this advice to heart very seriously. He also takes off. Wolves aside, he really doesn’t want John coming back to an empty house today.

~~

He makes it to the house before John, happily. To work off lingering guilt, Stiles tries to come up with something nice to do for his owner.

Now, Stiles likes to think that he takes all his pet duties very seriously. He purrs like no other, he warms John’s feet by lying on them when the sheriff is eating or watching television, he falls off various surfaces in amusing ways.

The last one may be because Stiles’ paws are a little too big for his body still, but hey, it makes the sheriff laugh, right? And laughter is the best medicine.

Or maybe not, Stiles thinks, flicking his tail agitatedly as he hears John hauling the groceries in. His breathing doesn’t sound right, and when Stiles goes to weave around John’s feet and mew at him, he catches a whiff of sweat that doesn’t smell like exertion. It smells like sickness, like something wrong.

For the next week, Stiles can’t stop seeing these little signs. He’s distracted enough that he forgets about going out to the woods, forgets about mooning over Lydia as she hunts field mice in the yard, maybe even forgets to eat a little bit.

That last thing has John sufficiently worried that he takes Stiles to Deaton. Stiles feels a tiny pinprick of guilt about that, but not enough to stop him from milking Deaton for information.

“He smells sick,” Stiles tells Deaton, not even waiting for the sheriff to get out of hearing range. “What’s wrong with him?”

Deaton hums, checking Stiles’ temperature. Stiles endures. “He seems to be doing well,” Deaton says to the sheriff. “Speaking of health – how’s the old ticker, Sheriff?”

John winces. “The less said about it the better. I’m supposed to cut down on fatty foods, but...” he spreads his arms. Deaton makes sympathetic noises.

By the time they get back home, Stiles has the beginning of a plan formed.

~~

Obviously there’s only so much Stiles can do regarding the sheriff’s diet. He can steal bacon from the sheriff’s plate and make John chase him around the house for exercise, but that’s not nearly enough.

Stiles eyes the package of ready-made hamburgers, left to defrost on the kitchen counter. John clearly relies on the meat being too frozen for its scent to tempt Stiles.

Hah. Shows what John knows.

Stiles does need a minute to consider what to do with it. It’s way too much to eat all by himself. He could gift it to Lydia, he supposes, but Ms. Morell is home and will probably confiscate the meat to give back to John.

Then Stiles thinks of the woods again, of how close the bones were beneath the wolf’s skin when Stiles lay on him.

At least that’ll get rid of the evidence, Stiles thinks, clawing the kitchen window open and setting his teeth as far as they’ll go into the cardboard packaging.

~~

Stiles pretty much regrets his every life choice by the time he’s out of the yard. The meat is heavy, it must weigh more than Stiles does, and even through the package it’s cold enough that Stiles’ tongue is numb. Still, he perseveres. He should get some exercise too, if only to empathize with the sheriff.

He barely makes it into the woods when his nose picks up the smell of wolf. Stiles lets go of the burgers, exhaling in relief.

Unfortunately, it’s not the wolf Stiles was hoping for. Instead, it’s the others, the three Stiles met the last time he came out here.

The blonde female is the first to approach. “I can’t believe this,” she says, sniffing at the now-mostly-defrosted burgers. “The food brought us food.”

“Hey,” Stiles snaps. Or wants to. He slurs a little. So sue him. “That’s for--” he stalls. What do wolves call other wolves?

“He’s got a point,” says one of the other wolves, the biggest. “I’ll go get Derek.” He lopes off with easy grace.

Stiles stares after him. “Is Derek...?”

“The one you were napping on? Yeah. I’m Erica, by the way. I figure if you’re gonna feed me introductions are in order.” Her nostrils flare. “Speaking of which...” She takes another step closer.

The third wolf, the scruffy, smallest one, whines. “Wait for Derek,” he says. Erica dances back, almost bouncing on her paws.

“He said names are human things,” Stiles says dumbly.

Erica tosses her head. “Derek says a lot of stuff like that. You learn not to listen.”

“Wild wolves don’t have names,” the other one says. "Erica and Boyd and me – I’m Isaac – we’re all zoo-born. They brought us here as part of a wolf reintroduction program.”

“But not Derek,” Stiles guesses.

“Nope. His parents were, I think.” Erica’s definitely still making eyes at the food. “He doesn’t like humans, not that you can blame him. One burned down half the forest, all the wolves from the last wave of the reintroduction died out. ‘Cept for Derek. Do we really have to wait for him?” Her voice shifts into a whine.

“You do,” Derek says, walking out of the shadows. “I’m the Alpha.” He tears the package open, devouring a whole burger in a single bite. “And I told you to stay away.”

Stiles tries not to calculate how much of his body Derek could dispose of in the same way. “But I brought you food,” he says half-heartedly.

“You should keep doing that,” Erica says around a mouthful of beef. “I’m in favor of that.”

Derek glares at her. “I’m not taking requests. Come on.” To Stiles’ abject humiliation, Derek catches the scruff of Stiles’ neck between his teeth, easily picking him up and carrying him.

John is just unlocking the door when Derek deposits Stiles on the driveway, turning tail and running away before Stiles can say a single thing.

John stares and shakes his head. “I just don’t want to know, do I?”

Stiles slinks inside after him, curling in a sulky ball just inside the door and refusing to respond on principle even when John swears out loud at finding out his intended dinner is missing.

~~

There are more and less efficient ways, Stiles learns, of handling John when he gets obsessed with a case. Nagging is right out, and so is anything that’s clearly intended to grab his attention. Stiles even manages to tamp his purring down. John doesn’t appreciate the distraction, not when he’s like this.

What works best is lying by either by John’s feet or – better – close by his hand, careful not to get on any of the papers he’s looking through. That means Stiles can directly see what John’s working on, literally put his paw on anything that seems intriguing.

At this moment, Stiles picks a photo clearly depicting the aftermath of a massive fire. There are singed tree-stumps everywhere, but it looks weirdly familiar.

That’s where I first met Derek, Stiles realizes, and he pulls the picture closer without even meaning to.

The sheriff gives him a glance. “Oh, that.” He sighs. “Setting a nature reserve on fire is hardly the worst thing Kate Argent did, but at least we could pin that on her easily.” He shakes his head sadly. “She had no reason to do it. We asked her why, and she just... smiled.” John closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Sometimes,” he says confidingly to Stiles, “I hate this job.”

Stiles has no answer but to lick the tips of John’s fingers, attempting to console.

~~

Stiles sits curled up in the yard. He’s fed, rested and warm, but he still feels moody and out of sorts.

Lydia is walking on the fence, tail a swirling counterweight behind her. She drops to the ground on Stiles’ side with an easy grace. “Do you like my new collar?” She lifts her head, exposing a pink elastic strip around her throat.

“It’s nice,” Stiles says. The tip of his tail is twitching, restless, but otherwise he feels all tired and weird.

Lydia makes a small high noise, like a disdainful sneeze. “You didn’t even look.” She sprawls on the ground next to Stiles. “Do you want half a frog? Jackson hunted it for me.”

“I can hunt my own frogs,” Stiles says, surly. “Why does Jackson even hunt, aren't iguanas herbivores?”

"He tries, for me.” Another cat might look demure, angling her ears like that. Not Lydia.

Stiles hunches his shoulders. “May I remind you he’s not even the same species as you?”

Lydia narrows her eyes at him. “Pot, kettle,” she growls under her breath. “Serves me right for trying to be nice to you.” She vanishes back to her own yard with a well-executed leap over the fence.

“What’s that’s supposed to mean?” Stiles yells after her, belated.

He gets to his feet, twitches his ears until he feels a tiny bit less inexplicably sorry for himself. He needs to go see Scott, that’ll shake him out of it. For whatever definition of it.

~~

Scott isn't at Ms. McCall's house, but it's not hard to follow his scent to the next yard over where he's frolicking with a poodle. Stiles has to admit that Allison is larger than he expected – larger than Scott, definitely – and the fur puffs don't look nearly as ridiculous when she bares her teeth, even in play. Scott was right, they really are impressive.

"Allison!” Scott yelps. “Allison, this is Stiles, he's my best friend.”

Allison and Stiles sniff one another politely. “Come in,” Allison says. “Scott said you lived far off, you could probably use a bite.”

"Uh, I'm f—” Stiles starts, until he catches the frantic wag of Scott's tail. “—Famished! Yeah, I could definitely use a snack.”

"You won't regret this,” Scott says as they tag behind Allison. “She gets fresh meat all the time.”

They're in Allison's owner's living room, stuffing their faces when the sound of footsteps comes close. Allison whines. “Hide! I'm not supposed to let anyone in.” Scott drags Stiles under the couch, looking suspiciously experienced.

It's a young woman who walks in, intent on her cellphone. "No," she says, sounding past irritated and coming up at angry. "I've done two jobs for you, that's enough for this month."

She flings herself down on the couch. Scott stifles a whimper as it sinks dangerously low over them.

"I don't care how much you pay me," she snaps. "I have family in this town, do you understand that? I can't afford any dirt on me here. It was bad enough last time."

She sighs as whoever it is on the other side talks on. "Are you kidding me? God, nobody cared about the forest fire. That was just good, clean fun. I only got that shit pinned on me because someone wouldn't let me space my jobs widely enough. Rings any bells?"

Stiles' blood runs cold.

The woman laughs. The sound is at odds with her ruthless tone earlier, wild and carefree. "Oh, fine. Gimme the address." Stiles hears the scribble of pen on paper. "God, the shit I go through for old friends."

She shuts her cellphone with a click, dropping it down on the couch cushions, then reaches under the couch. Scott has no time to do anything but yelp as she pulls him out by the scruff of his neck.

"Aww," she croons. "Allison's adorable little boyfriend hiding under the furniture again? C'mere, boy." Sounds like she's scratching him behind the ears. Scott had better not be licking her face, Stiles thinks, furious.

Maybe he hisses out loud without meaning to, as well.

He freezes as weight lifts off the couch, then the woman is crouching on the floor, looking Stiles straight in the eyes.

"Well well well." Her smile isn't pleasant, at all. "Are you another friend of Allison's?"

Stiles can't help his hackles rising. Human photographs are hard to parse for him, flat and lacking in scent, but he recognizes Kate Argent from the photos on the sheriff's desk.

"Sorry, I'm really not a cat person." The woman thumps on the floor. "Get out," she says. Stiles doesn't give her the chance to repeat herself: he's fleeing for his life the moment she clears his path.

~~

Stiles spends the afternoon pacing around John's chair as his owner works. He needs to find the address and get it to the sheriff, but how? And, moreover, how to make it look like a coincidence? Normal pets don't just hand their owners crime-solving clues. Stiles could always go to Deaton, but that's going to be hard to explain as well: where he found the notes, not to mention what they mean.

At times like this, Stiles sincerely regrets being a crime-fighting kitten. Couldn't he have been just a normal kitten, chasing pieces of string rather than crooks?

This moment of existential angst is happily interrupted by scritches, as John's hand comes down to idly pet Stiles. Stiles pauses, rumbling loudly as he permits himself to stop thinking for a moment.

He'll come up with something. He knows he will.

~~

"I got you the note," Scott says. Evidently, as he's got an increasingly soggy piece of paper in his mouth. Stiles snatches it before it gets illegible. "What's this?" Scott sniffs at the open can of tuna.

"Stay away from that," Stiles says, anxiously watching the fence. "She'll be here any minute. How do I look?" He slicks the fur on his head with a careful application of his paw.

"Like you always look," Scott says with a hint of confusion. Stiles is about to elaborate about personal grooming's importance to mating – he may have pretty much given up on Lydia, but he keeps trying out of sheer stubbornness – when the cat in question shows up, swishing her tail in displeasure.

"Seriously, that's what you got?" Lydia sniffs the tuna disdainfully. "I thought you were going to bring me something nice."

Stiles isn't too proud to refrain from begging. "Lydia, please. This is important."

Her tail thumps down once, decisive. "Alright. What have you got?"

Stiles shoves the scrap of paper at her. Stiles is smarter than the average cat, enough that he can comprehend the basic concept of addresses, but he can't actually read one off paper and connect it to a physical location.

Lydia can, though, because she is a freaking genius and wasted on that stupid lizard and alright, Stiles will stop being bitter. Any moment now.

Lydia scans the paper. "That's pretty far from here," she says slowly.

Stiles' heart sinks. “You can't show us where that is?”

Lydia smirks, whiskers twitching. “Did I say that?”

~~

Ten minutes later, they're careening down the main road on a Roomba that Danny, Jackson's owner, hacked to be controlled by joystick and run twice as fast. Lydia's manipulating the joystick with her teeth.

"Slow down!” Scott sounds panicked. “We're never gonna find out way back if we can't even scent-mark!”

"Speak for yourself.” Stiles purrs loud enough to rival the engine. “We're gonna make it to the first page of Youtube! Posterity, here I come!”

~~

After that, getting the sheriff there is a matter of taking John out for a walk and running just a little faster than him. Stiles figures it's good for John's heart which, hey, two birds in one bite.

Stiles slows down as they near the place, an abandoned warehouse downtown. He hears voices coming from inside.

Suddenly, he's not at all certain this was a good idea.

John, however, has stopped paying attention to Stiles. He's frowning at the warehouse door, approaching quietly. He eases the door open and walks in. Stiles follows after him, tail gathered protectively close to his body.

There are two men inside, arguing intensely. “She's supposed to be here,” one says. “Do you think she sold us out?”

"Naw, man,” the other says, making a pacifying gesture. “She's not like that?”

"Oh yeah? I think—”

They never learn what he thinks, because then John steps on a floorboard that creaks with vengeance. Both men's face turn to John, eyes wide.

John raises one hand. The other creeps to his gun. “Now, there—“

There's someone coming up behind them. Stiles hisses. That gets John's attention.

Unfortunately, the second guy takes advantage of John's distraction to take the two steps to them and pistol-whip John, who crumples to the ground.

The guy who just came in easily ignores Stiles' growl in favor of snapping, “Are you a fucking idiot? That's the sheriff.”

"Yeah, and he saw us! We have to get rid of him now.”

Third Guy purses his lips tightly, shaking his head. “Get him to the car. Get him out of here.”

Stiles' legs pretty much leap by themselves and he’s launched, hissing and clawing, at the guy's knee. He's frankly a little bit stunned at his own badassitude.

Then he's a lot stunned at how the guy's kick sends him flying back through the warehouse. Stiles isn't hurt, but even though he runs faster than he ever thought he could, the guys are gone by the time he makes it out of the warehouse again.

And so is the sheriff.

~~

Stiles doesn't realize how much noise he's making until Derek finds him.

He's been wandering on the street, trying to find the sheriff's scent and only catching whiffs of car exhaust. He doesn't know how long he's been going, not sure where he is anymore, but he know it's nowhere near the woods.

"What are you doing here?” Stiles asks when Derek materializes beside him. There's something preternatural about how sudden Derek's appearance is. A wolf sneaking up on Stiles in the woods, sure, but in the city? Derek ought to have been more conspicuous.

Derek stares at him. “You were crying.”

"I. Yeah.” Stiles raises his chin defiantly. “My owner was just taken by three big men with guns.” Not that you'd care, he adds silently.

Derek's silent for a second, then inclines his head. “Come on.”

Stiles' brain feels thick, like sludge. “What?”

"Climb on me.” Derek sounds impatient. Good. That makes two of them. “We'll track them.”

Stiles scrambles up quickly. “Wait!” he says as Derek takes off. “Where are we going?”

To his surprise, Derek grinds to a halt. “Did you see where they went?”

"No,” Stiles says. “Okay, I know. Take me to Dr. Deaton—hey!” The latter exclamation made as Derek's hackles rise. “No, come on, please. He'll know what to do, he can call backup for us – he can call the cops! They have guns!”

Derek is still snarling, wordless.

Stiles has a whole slew of reasons why Derek should listen to him, but all of them abandon him there. He slides off Derek's back to the wet pavement. "He's my owner," Stiles says; he's trying to sound determined, but it comes out small and lost. "He's the only family I've got. Help me or don't, I don't care, I'm going to Deaton—whoa."

The end of that sentence is uttered as Stiles dangles in the air, since Derek is holding him by the scruff of his neck. Again. Stiles struggles futilely, until he realizes Derek has set course for Deaton's.

"Okay—okay! Any chance I can ride on the back, though?"

~~

The clinic is locked when they get to it. Stiles scratches at the door to no avail. "He must have stepped out," Stiles says numbly.

"Told you this was a waste of time," Derek growls. In a tone that's slightly more bemused than hostile, he adds, "what are you doing?"

Stiles looks up from his thorough licking of his flank, defensive. "What? I'm a stress groomer. It's a thing."

Derek is no doubt about to comment on that when Stiles shushes him. "Someone's coming."

Unfortunately, it's not Deaton.

It's Scott and Allison. Without their respective owners, and looking really upset.

~~

"Settle down," Deaton says, not for the first time. He came back to the clinic a few minutes ago to find it a mess of barking and yowling. "Settle down!"

In the war of voices', Stiles' is the last left standing. "—get there now!" He finishes with a yowl.

Deaton massages his temples. "One at a time, please. What's wrong?"

"Allison's owners stole the sheriff," Scott says, earnest and wrong as he's prone to being.

Stiles let's out a low, threatening mrow, even as Allison barks her protests. "Not her owners," Stiles clarifies. "Her owner's sister. And she wasn't the one who took him, either."

"Kate was walking me," Allison says, obviously distraught, "when she got a phone call. She sounded angry."

Stiles refrains from asking Allison what, exactly, Kate said: Allison's smart, but she doesn't have his or Scott's command of human speech.

"She drove us out to the forest, to this old burnt-out house. That's when I smelled Stiles' owner." Allison whines. "He was hurt, and when he tried to move, Kate hit him on the head. Why would she do something like that?"

Scott adds, "That's when she ran and called to me. I talked her into coming here."

Deaton exhales, slow and measured. “You did good, Scott. I'll call the police, leave an anonymous tip.”

Stiles tail bristles. “They're still hurting him, aren't they?”

Deaton's voice is gentle when he says, “You're not going to get there before the cops do, Stiles. You can't run that fast.”

And Derek says, “I can.”

Deaton stares at Derek for a good long minute, but finally he says, “So you can.” He nods once. “Go. Keep them distracted till the cops come.”

~~

Stiles is hanging on for dear life. In spite of his attempts to take care, his claws come sliding out, looking for a grip in Derek's skin. Derek doesn't even seem to notice, running through streets and backyards, leaping over someone's swimming pool at one point. Stiles had no idea a living being could move this fast.

Derek comes to a stop in front of what used to be a human house, probably, some time ago. Now it's all charred wood and growing moss. It smells of disuse, even hearing human voices coming from inside.

Those same voices are probably what set Derek snarling.

Stiles noses Derek's ear. “Stay here. I'll go in and distract them.... Or not,” Stiles concludes when Derek completely ignores him and starts making his way in. Stiles runs ahead of him, leaping to an exposed ceiling beam to spy inside.

They have the sheriff tied up in a chair. Stiles spits and hisses, seeing the dried blood on his owner's forehead.

Kate is facing the men from the warehouse, looking absolutely furious. “How the hell did you think this was a good idea?”

One of the guys spreads his arms. “Carl here already had him down. What else could we do?”

"Not be fucking morons!” Kate shakes her head. “Alright, here's how we do this--”

One of the guys draws a gun, wordlessly. Kate scowls and says, “No!”

Stiles is nearly about to breathe out in relief when Kate pulls out a knife. “They can track your gun by the bullets you shoot, don't you know anything? This is better.”

She comes a step closer to John, and stops at the sound of growling. The guy with the gun swears, aiming it at Derek who's standing at the room's entrance, hackles raised.

Kate actually smirks. “Oh, don't bother. I know that one, practically tame. I used to have him eat right out of my hand.” She coos at Derek. “Who's a good boy, then?”

It's probably an optical illusion, but Stiles could swear Derek's fangs grow longer.

"Kate, I don't think--” Gun Guy says nervously when Derek leaps. He raises his weapon, but his aim is probably off because Stiles takes that moment to land on Gun Guy's face, claws most emphatically out.

A shot rings out, and Stiles, sick with terror, yowls and slashes. There are screams and the smell of blood and, oh thank goodness, a police siren sounding.

~~

Kate Argent dies in the crossfire. Later, Stiles will probably feel... something, about that, but right now he's just full of relief. He's in John's lap, and anyone who wants to move him from there can take it up with Stiles' claws. The paramedics examining the sheriff seem resigned to working around Stiles.

There's blood on the floor, and no sign of Derek. Stiles tells himself firmly that this is a good sign, and invests his full attention in rubbing his cheek against John's chest, getting his scent all over his owner.

~~

In the morning, once the giddy relief of victory has worn off, Stiles is... concerned. John has taken to locking the kitchen window now, so if Stiles wants to make a trip to the yard he must resort to scratching at the door and meowing until John gets the hint.

By the late afternoon, Stiles is resolute not to go out anymore. He can't go as far as the woods, not now with John so freshly hurt, and he's only driving himself mad waiting for someone he knows won't come. Derek is probably just tired of Stiles forcing him to interact with the humans he so hates.

Can you blame him? Stiles thinks of Kate's laughter and shivers.

It's still better than the next thought, which is, He's probably dying in a ditch somewhere.

When Stiles scratches at the door again, John just ignores him. Stiles sits by the kitchen window, tail lashing.

~~

The howl comes in the next morning. Stiles is still by the kitchen window, and he's up in a flash, tail held up in excitement.

But as the wolf stands in front of Stiles' window, Stiles realizes that something is wrong. The wolf is too big, he moves all wrong.

Boyd, Stiles recognizes after a moment. “What's wrong.” Stiles can't even make it a question. His heart beats in his chest hummingbird-quick.

"Derek's sick,” Boyd says. “He came back hurt, said it was only a scratch, but now he's hot and he isn't moving.”

Stiles' mind is surprisingly clear, barring the background stream of oh shits. He knows what he needs to do.

The sheriff is at the his workroom, and he sighs and gets up as Stiles scratches the front door. “Again? What is it with you, boy?”

He freezes when he opens his door to see a wild wolf on his front step. If he goes for his side arm, Stiles knows exactly where to stand to make him trip and give Boyd time to run for it.

The sheriff doesn't, though, just stares at Boyd. “I thought I hallucinated that wolf.”

Boyd gives a short, impatient bark. Stiles bites the hem of John's pants, tugging until John follows him out to the car.

~~

"Is this some kind of reverse Androceles' lion situation?” John sounds dazed. He parked the car a few steps back, following Boyd into the denser patch of wood.

Derek's there, and Stiles takes off for him, flying to lick at Derek's muzzle. Derek smells of illness, bad, and the swollen redness on his hind legs gives off sick heat. He can barely muster a half-hearted growl at Stiles.

John crouches, looking contemplative. He takes his cellphone out of his pocket and dials. When it's answered, Stiles can hear Deaton on the other end.

"I seem to have a sick wolf on my hands,” John says evenly. He listens for a bit, hums agreement and cuts the call. He eyes Derek speculatively. “Let's make a deal. You don't bite me, and I get you to safety. That works?”

Stiles thinks he sees Derek trying to roll his eyes.

~~

Leaning on Boyd, Derek manages to make it to the car without being carried by the sheriff, much to the relief of all involved. Stiles resigns himself to standing in the background and not getting in anyone's way.

He stays by Derek when they make it into the clinic, though, hopping right up on the exam table. Stiles doesn't take a lot of room, okay, and he needs to see what's going on.

What's going on, in this case, is fairly gruesome and fascinating in a can't-look-away kind of fashion. Derek keeps a steady growl throughout the process, which only slows – probably out of sheer confusion – when Stiles starts licking Derek's ear.

"Told you,” Stiles says. “Stress grooming, I do that. Also your ears are really scruffy, how do you even get the hair to stand up like that? Are you secretly part caracal?”

Derek snaps his teeth at him, but there's no heart in it. Stiles just licks Derek's muzzle instead.

Finally Deaton is done. “You stay here,” he tells Derek sternly. “I don't want you undoing all my hard work. Stiles, you have my permission to sit on him if necessary.”

Stiles, pained, looks to himself, to Derek, and back to his scrawny, tiny self. “If really think that would make any sort of difference, you need to work on your depth perception.”

Deaton just gives him a small, enigmatic smile and leaves the room.

Stiles pads around the table, investigating Deaton's work, careful not to hurt Derek. The hot, sick smell is still clinging to him, but there's healing under it, Stiles can tell. He parks himself a careful distance from Derek's face, keeping at the corner of the exam table.

"You should go home,” Derek says at last.

"Nah.” Stiles stretches and yawns, curling up into a neat little ball. “I heard the sheriff saying he's going to the station to get some paperwork done. Apparently he's gotten bored of sitting at home doing nothing.”

Derek's silent for long enough that Stiles thinks he might have fallen asleep. Then he says, “You're purring.”

"Oh.” Stiles' tail twitches in embarrassment. “I guess I am.”

"Loud,” Derek grumbles, but he reaches with a huge paw and brings Stiles close, so that Stiles' flank is pressing against Derek's nose.

"If that's meant to make me purr less,” Stiles starts, but Derek licks Stiles' ear with a long, wet tongue and Stiles is too stunned to react.

"Sleep,” Derek says, and Stiles nuzzles his face for a while before obeying.