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It’s not that Stiles hates the idea of soulmates. In fact, there are times when he bitterly envies the people he knows who had it so easy. Like Scott and Allison, who met when they were seventeen. Allison still proudly displays her ‘Do you need to borrow a pen’ tattoo and laughs when Scott shows off the corresponding flustered, ‘uh, what, yes, how did you know?’

He feels sorry for the people with the bland, generic tattoos. Some people get lucky. His parents, their epic romance aside, had ‘Can I have this dance’ and his mother’s reply had been, ‘Only if you don’t mind if I step on your feet!’ But he’s seen people who have things like ‘can I help you today’ or ‘it’s nice to meet you’.

Most of those people, he knows, have a collection of exciting responses they give. If a conversation goes ‘can I help you today’ and then ‘no thanks’, they’re out of luck. That was Lydia’s tattoo – ‘can I help you today’. Whenever anyone asked that, she replied with an outrageous demand. Stiles remembers Lydia laughing while she tells him about Jordan Parrish’s tattoo which reads, ‘Yes, I’m in desperate need of four hundred pounds of bananas’.

He knows that people feel even more sorry for him than they did for Lydia. Every time he looks at the profanity-laced tirade on his arm, he flinches. “Context is important,” had been his father’s somewhat lame attempt at comforting him. Stiles doesn’t doubt that, but he can’t think of any context that will make his apparent soulmate less of an asshole.

There are times – a lot of times – when he just wants to say ‘fuck it’ and start dating other people. But the problem is, nobody else is really interested. Nobody wants to date someone who isn’t their soulmate. Make friends, sure, have casual sex, maybe, but actually start a relationship? “What’s the point?” Stiles has heard, more than once.

He’s still stinging at the latest conversation he’s had along those lines – “I thought you always knew this would happen,” was what Malia had said three days previous, as she left him for her soulmate – when he shows up for his shift at the bookstore. His boss gives him a wide berth as he begins angrily shelving books.

About twenty minutes later, someone wanders into his section with the faintly confused look of someone who just knows the perfect book is there somewhere, but has no idea what it is. Stiles walks over, pastes on his best employee smile, and asks, “Can I help you find something?”

The man blinks at him. He opens his mouth to reply, but then his face twists in frustration and he groans, “Oh my God, I’m so sick of this!”

Stiles laughs despite himself. He knows the look of someone trying to recall one of their special soulmate phrases. He sees them at least once a month. A lot of people must have ‘can I help you find something’ tattooed on their bodies. “Soulmate trouble?” he asks, trying to put a note of sympathy in his voice.

The man sighs and nods. He holds out his arm to reveal the neatly printed words on his arms. “I take it you don’t have ‘I’m so sick of this’ as a tattoo, or you would have fallen over in shock.”

“Nope, sorry. Seriously, though, you look lost.”

“Oh, uh, I’m trying to pick out a birthday present for my youngest sister. She’s into fantasy and stuff, but this all looks . . . dubious.”

Stiles looks around at the rows of ‘paranormal romances’ and tends to agree. “I can totally help you out. How old is she?”

“Twenty.”

“Hey, same as me. Okay. You said she’s into fantasy. Classic or urban?”

“Either’s fine, I think.”

“What’s her opinion on Twilight? Love, loathe, or like but only ironically?”

The man laughs. “Loathe.”

“Does she like mysteries?”

“Yeah.”

“I have just the series for you.” Stiles walks over and pulls the first two books of The Dresden Files off the shelves. “Wizard private investigator, demons, werewolves, very cool shit. Hardly a melodramatic teenager to be seen.”

“Thanks. Really. Oh, uh, I’m Derek.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Stiles.” He taps the name badge.

Derek hesitates for a moment, then takes a deep breath and appears to plunge in. “Do you want to go get a coffee when you’re off shift, maybe?”

Stiles opens his mouth to say sure, he’d love to, because Derek is kind of funny and hotter than a thousand suns, but then he remembers the look on Malia’s face as she’d broken up with him. She had been genuinely surprised that Stiles’ feelings were hurt. “I don’t think that would be a great idea.”

Derek sighs. “No, you’re probably right.”

The crestfallen look on his face jolts something in Stiles. Derek is clearly willing to go outside the system – he just asked Stiles to. Maybe it isn’t such a terrible idea after all. A grin touches his face and he says, “I didn’t say no. Are you prepared to indulge in a bad idea with me?”

Now Derek smiles, and it makes him a hundred times more beautiful. “Sounds great.”

“I get off shift at three. Meet me at the coffee shop up front? And then we can walk to the café down the street which serves something that doesn’t taste terrible.”

Derek laughs, and says, “Okay. See you then.”

By the time Stiles gets off shift, he’s half-convinced that Derek won’t be there, but he is. Stiles takes a moment to get a better look at him. Beautiful eyes, gorgeous scruff, shoulders and arms to die for. Yeah, this is a great idea. Even if it stays casual. Maybe it can stay casual in the bed at his apartment.

The coffee at the in-store café really is terrible, but there’s an independent place right down the street that serves amazing pastries in addition to the good coffee. Stiles tells him about it as they walk down the street. The weather is good, so they sit outside. “So what’s your usual go-to response when people ask if they can help you find something?” Stiles asks. “I’m curious.”

“Lately I’ve been working through the verses of the Twelve Days of Christmas,” Derek says. “I should have asked you if you could help me find five golden rings. But to be honest . . . I’m not really into the whole soulmate thing.” His gaze flickers up as if to gauge Stiles’ reaction to this outlandish statement.

“Yeah? Why not?” Stiles asks.

Derek takes a sip of his tea. “My parents married out of soullock.”

“Oh, wow!” Stiles is genuinely surprised. He’s heard of that happening, but it’s rare. “Are they still together?”

“They died almost ten years ago, but they were still married when it happened,” Derek says, and then changes the subject. “What about you? I didn’t expect you to say yes when I asked you out.”

“Kind of a long story, but easily summed up.” Stiles rolls up his sleeve to reveal the words that have been tattooed on his arm before he knew what some of them even meant.

Derek reads it and his eyes go wide. “Whoa.”

“I know, right? Worst meet-cute ever.” Stiles dumps more sugar into his coffee monstrosity. “So I really stopped looking for whatever jackass this is years ago. And people are always like ‘oh, well, in context it’ll make sense’.”

Derek is clearly dubious. “What sort of ‘context’ could help that?”

“My thoughts exactly. I think I’ll pass on being fated to life with a complete asshole, thanks. But really, you’re the first person I’ve ever met you seems to think we have any choice in the matter at all. Even my dad, as well-meaning as he is, encourages me not to give up.”

“What about your mom?”

“She died when I was eight. You might have heard of my dad, actually – he helped found Single Soulmates.”

Derek nods in recognition. Single Soulmates is an organization that Tom Stilinski and Melissa McCall had put together, five years after Claudia died and four years after Rafael. They had wanted to get married, but it’s against the law to marry anyone who isn’t your soulmate. Even with their spouses dead, they were still technically married. “I think my mom mentioned that once or twice.”

“Yeah. I mean, if your soulmate dies, that sucks tremendously, but why the hell should you be sentenced to live the rest of your life alone because of it?” Stiles takes another drink. “So, my dad and Melissa formed this lobbying committee to get the laws changed, and now they run . . . it’s not exactly a dating site? They call it a companion service. Like, you can look for romance but a lot of people sign up to just look for friends. You know, other single soulmates who will get what they’re going through.”

“Wasn’t there some sort of scandal last year?” Derek asks.

Stiles’ eye roll is immediate and profound. “Depends on who you ask. My dad didn’t require a fucking death certificate for people to sign up, you know? So this one asshole who hadn’t actually met his soulmate yet signed up to ‘comfort the grieving woman’. Biblically, if you know what I mean. He got thrown out, obviously, but some jackass from on high came down and made them set up a bunch of new regulations about screening people. So they make sure nobody can join unless their soulmate is actually dead.”

Derek shakes his head. “I don’t get why everyone has to be all up in each other’s business about it. People were assholes to my parents literally from the day they started dating. They both had these dumb, generic tattoos. My dad’s was ‘Nice to meet you’ and my mom’s was just ‘thanks’. I don’t think either of them ever really tried to meet their soulmate. My mom told me once that she didn’t want to live her life holding her breath every time she passed the salt in the cafeteria at work. They loved each other, so . . . what was the big deal? But they got treated like pariahs.”

“How did they even get married? Was it legal?”

“Not technically. They had a ceremony, they said vows and wore rings, but they didn’t get a marriage certificate or anything like that.” Derek shrugs. “Then they had us. And it’s like . . . everyone thinks we’re cursed. Laura’s twenty-seven, I’m twenty-four, and Cora is twenty. None of the three of us have met our soulmates yet. People are saying we’re never going to.”

“But that’s crap,” Stiles says. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have a tattoo, but you do, so you have to meet them someday.”

Derek shrugs again. “Assholes don’t have to make sense.”

Stiles laughs. “That’s true.”

They drop the soulmate subject for a little while. Derek talks about his obnoxious sisters, and Stiles tells him about Scott and Allison. They talk about movies and Stiles’ job at the bookstore. Derek works as a dance and gymnastics instructor, the idea of which does terrible things to Stiles’ libido. He opened his own studio with family money.

Stiles’ eyes go wide at this. “Oh, shit! You’re Derek Hale, arg, why didn’t I realize that?”

Derek gives a snort. “Maybe I didn’t mention it on purpose.”

“Yeah, sorry. I can dig that.”

Everyone knows the Hale family; they have more money than Warren Buffet and own roughly ninety percent of California. He had heard about a couple that had been killed in a car crash, but had never heard about them being together out of soullock. He had been pretty young when they died, so it wasn’t the sort of thing people talked about where he could hear.

“A lot of people said the accident was my parents’ punishment for living in sin,” Derek says.

“What assholes,” Stiles replies.

“Yeah. But now – ” Derek groans. “The big Hale family-reunion-slash-corporate-meeting is next week. There’s going to be over a hundred people here. All the aunts and uncles who stopped talking to my mom when she married my dad, a bunch of obnoxious cousins. They’re going to spend the entire weekend throwing shade at my parents and reminding me that I’m cursed and going to be alone forever. It’s going to be a mountain of suck.” He tosses his cup at the trash can and it’s a perfect shot.

“Can’t you just avoid them?” Stiles asks.

“Technically, sure. But if I don’t go, they’ll mention it constantly until the next one. So it’s either a few days of being shit upon from close up or an entire year of being shit upon from a distance. I usually opt for the former.”

“Sensible enough.” Stiles grins as something occurs to him. “Hey, I could go, if you want. We could tell people that I’m your soulmate! Then they’d have to shut up, right?”

Derek frowns. “Our tattoos don’t even remotely match.”

Stiles shrugs. “I’ve done stupider things than getting ‘five golden rings’ tattooed on my arm.”

At this, Derek can’t help but laugh. “Yeah, but what happens afterwards? Are you volunteering to do this every year for the rest of our lives?”

Stiles grimaces. “I think proposing on the first date is probably a bad idea, huh?”

“Maybe a little.”

“Okay, then – let’s do it generic. Your tattoo is ‘can I help you find anything today’, right? So how about I get a tattoo of ‘just looking, thanks’. That way later we can say that it turned out we’d made a mistake and it wasn’t meant to be.”

“You’re seriously volunteering to get a tattoo of ‘just looking, thanks’ for a guy you met two hours ago.” Derek seems skeptical.

Stiles has to admit that it’s a ludicrous idea. “Uh . . . yeah, that’s pretty ridiculous now that you say it out loud like that.”

Derek looks at him, but then smiles. “Just writing it on with a fine-tip Sharpie would fool anybody who didn’t look too close.”

“You think?”

“Sure. My parents did it when my mom had clients she thought might be assholes about her sordid history.” Derek regards him pensively for a minute. “Are you sure you want to do this? You have no idea what assholes my extended family are. I mean, you barely know me, so you don’t have to make the offer, I swear.”

“Derek, there are three things I enjoy in life,” Stiles says solemnly. “Number one: inventing new grilled cheese recipes. Number two: petting dogs. Number three: being a sarcastic asshole to people whose opinions don’t matter.” He grins as Derek laughs. “Besides, no offense, but a family as rich as yours? This reunion must be off the chain. Open bar?”

“Didn’t you say you were twenty?”

“I won’t tell if you don’t.”

Derek’s grin turns into a smirk. “Oh, yeah. Great-Aunt Edna is going to love you.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Even knowing exactly how rich the Hale family is, Stiles can’t help but goggle at the high-end apartment building the taxi lets him out at. This is the kind of place where the marble is all imported from Italy and the concierge earns six figures to remember everyone’s name and see to their every whim.

In fact, said helpful concierge is immediately at Stiles’ elbow as soon as he enters the lobby. Despite how out of place he looks, the man is the picture of polite respect. “Can I help you, sir?”

“Uh, yeah, I’m here to see Derek Hale?”

“Of course, sir; we’ve been expecting you.” The concierge actually escorts him into the elevator and swipes his ID card before hitting the button for one of the top floors. “Enjoy your visit, sir.”

“You too,” Stiles says automatically, and then kicks himself while the doors slide shut. The elevator is smooth and fast, so he’s still feeling embarrassed when they get to the top. It opens directly into the Hale’s apartment, which is exactly as impressive as he would have figured. The walls are floor to ceiling glass, and the floor plan is open and spacious. It doesn’t look like the sort of place where people actually live.

“Hey!” Derek says, jogging over. “Hey, come on in. Sorry about all the,” he gestures vaguely at their surroundings. “I’d be happier in a normal apartment, to be honest, but unless I want to pay my own rent, this is what I’ve got.”

“Yeah, this place is . . . intimidating,” Stiles admits.

“Sorry. It’s my uncle’s doing. You want a drink?”

“Yeah, sure. Got any coffee?”

“Yeah, follow me.” Derek leads Stiles into one of those kitchens that are generally only seen on remodeling shows. He seems not to notice how shiny it is as he walks over to a machine that probably cost more than Stiles’ car and starts to fiddle with the settings. “So I was thinking about next week,” he says, studying the machine so he doesn’t have to look at Stiles. “I don’t really want to lie to my sisters, you know?”

“Makes sense,” Stiles says. “You’re close to them?”

“Pretty close, yeah. Laura especially. See – ” Derek turns to root in the refrigerator for milk. “When my parents died, Laura had just turned eighteen. The judge was a little hesitant to let her adopt a fifteen and an eleven year old. So my Uncle Peter took official custody, but Laura did most of the actual parenting. Peter’s not a ‘parenting’ kind of guy.”

“I kind of feel that. Scott and Allison keep trying to get me to hold their baby and I’m like ‘no, thank you’.”

Derek snorts. “Peter is actually the only one of my mom’s siblings that kept talking to her after she married my dad. He didn’t believe in the whole soulmate curse. Which apparently backfired on him, because he’s thirty-two now and he still hasn’t met his either. Not that he looks, or cares, apparently.”

Stiles thinks about asking what Peter’s tattoo says, but it’s really none of his business. Instead, he looks at the photos on the shiny chrome refrigerator. They’re mostly of the two girls, but there’s one of them with Derek and another man who’s clearly older (and just as mouth-watering if Stiles is going to be honest). “This him?”

“Yeah. He works at the family business. They hate him, but he’s too good at what he does to lose.” Derek waves a hand and says, “It’s his money that pays for all this.”

“So he lives here too?”

“Yeah. He’s around here somewhere. Laura’s at work and Cora’s at school right now, though.”

“You said she goes to CalTech, right?” Stiles asks, and Derek nods. “That’s cool. It kind of sucks being stuck at community college, but hey, who can afford an actual degree, right? Uh, besides you guys. Anyway, I like being here so I can pester my dad on a regular basis. Does Laura work at your family’s company?”

“Nope. They wouldn’t hire her. The curse and all that.” Derek rolls his eyes. “She works at a nonprofit that helps out underprivileged kids. It pays a pittance. In fact, after paying for gas, I think she actually makes negative dollars. But she loves what she does.”

“That’s cool.” Stiles hops up onto the counter, swinging his legs back and forth. “So tell me about this reunion. You said it was part reunion, part business thing, right?”

“Yeah. How much do you know about my family?”

Stiles shrugs. “Just that they own basically everything in a three hundred mile radius.”

“It’s much worse than that,” Derek says with another snort. He takes two mugs out of the machine and presents Stiles with a perfect cappuccino. “Everyone knows the whole rags-to-riches story of my great-grandfather, Dominic Hale, bought steel, invested in railroads, et cetera, et cetera. Then my grandfather diversified, profited off the backs of others, and bought everything that we didn’t already own. There isn’t an industry in the western United States that we don’t have our fingers in somewhere.”

“That’s great, I guess?” Stiles says.

“Not really. They talk about responsible business practices and environmental longevity, blah, blah, but they’re just a bunch of corporate sharks. I’m glad I don’t work there.”

“What does your uncle do there?”

“He’s the head of legal. According to him, his official job is to create oceans of fine print, and his unofficial job is to make problems disappear.”

“Charming.”

“Like a rattlesnake, yep.” Derek takes a long drink of his coffee.

“So if you aren’t involved in the company, why the corporate meetings?”

Derek sighs. “That’s Peter’s doing. See, he was worried that the board was going to decide to screw over my mom’s kids, so he purchased interest in the company for each of us. Technically, each of us own seven percent of the company. Which doesn’t seem a lot, but most of my cousins only own three, and Peter only owns five himself. My grandfather was pissed when he found out, but Peter did it too fast and under the radar to stop him. So even though we’d rather not, Laura and I are expected to attend the meetings and have opinions.”

“Do you?”

“Sometimes, but usually I let Peter have them for me.”

“That seems pretty smart, all things considered.”

“You’re not wrong.” Derek laughs. He looks up as there are footsteps on the tile floor, and the aforementioned uncle walks into the room. He’s just as attractive in person as he is in the photograph, although he now sports a small goatee, and is dressed casually in a V-neck cardigan and jeans. “Oh, hey, speak of the devil and he appears. Peter, this is Stiles. You know, the guy I met at the bookstore?”

“Mm hm.” Peter barely looks at Stiles as he heads over to the coffee maker and immediately procures himself a cup. Stiles assumes that the smell of fresh coffee is probably what attracted him to the room.

“We were talking about the reunion next week,” Derek continues. “We thought it might get some of my esteemed relatives off my back if he went along and pretended to be my soulmate.”

This gets Peter’s attention. He looks up sharply from his coffee, his gaze traveling up and down Stiles before he turns to Derek with a sour expression. “Really? For God’s sake, Derek. When are you going to learn the lengths to which people will go to get a shot at our money?”

“It’s not like that,” Derek says, scowling.

“Oh, no, it’s never like that, is it. It wasn’t like that with Kate and it wasn’t like that with that Isaac kid – ”

“It wasn’t like that with Isaac, and just because Kate turned out to be a bitch doesn’t mean – ”

“Your faith in humanity is both adorable, and ultimately, an easily exploited personality flaw. Someday I’m going to let you get what’s coming to you, but I’m certainly not going to do it while everyone in the family is watching. Particularly not with an actual prostitute; Jennifer would have a field day.” As Derek opens his mouth, he cuts him off. “We’re done talking about this, Derek.” Then he turns to Stiles. “And as for you, you gold-digging whore, you can feel free to take the one-step shortcut to the street. Balcony’s to your left.”

Stiles’ jaw drops, and all he can manage in the moment is to blurt out, “Jesus tap-dancing Christ!”

Peter goes very still. He turns to look at Stiles with wide eyes, moving slowly, reluctantly, like he doesn’t want to admit what just happened.

Derek looks stunned as well. He looks at Stiles and says, “Isn’t that – wasn’t that your – ”

It was. Stiles has read it a million times, had it memorized before he knew what it implied. And suddenly context is important. Peter’s vulgar and cruel, but he’s defending his family. It doesn’t make what he said okay, but at least Stiles can understand where the hell it came from.

And apparently Peter has ‘Jesus tap-dancing Christ’ tattooed somewhere on him, if the look on his face is any indication. “You’ve had that tattooed on you since you were a child?” he asks, and Stiles nods mutely. “Hm. Well, I suppose an apology is in order, but I wouldn’t actually mean it, because I’m not sorry. Now get out.”

With that, he turns and walks away. Stiles blinks as he walks up the stairs, and a moment later, a door slams. “Well, that was . . . about as well as I expected meeting my soulmate would go, if we’re going to be honest.”

Derek pushes both hands through his hair. “Yeah, uh, he’s not really . . . no, he is an asshole. He’s been an asshole as long as I can remember. I don’t think ‘my condolences’ is the acceptable response after someone meets their soulmate, but, uh . . .”

Stiles starts laughing. He can’t not; it’s just so ridiculous. “I’m just glad it’s over. Now I finally know why the hell someone would say that to me. Believe me, that’s been bothering me for a literal decade, and now I have an answer, so it’s all good! You wanna get out of here?”

“Absolutely,” Derek says.

 

~ ~ ~ ~