“Touch. It is touch that is the deadliest enemy of chastity, loyalty, monogamy, gentility with its codes and conventions and restraints. By touch we are betrayed and betray others … an accidental brushing of shoulders or touching of hands … hands laid on shoulders in a gesture of comfort that lies like a thief, that takes, not gives, that wants, not offers, that awakes, not pacifies. When one flesh is waiting, there is electricity in the merest contact.”
--Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
“It looks like registration doesn't start until four-thirty, so we'll have some time to, you know. Settle into the room.” Stiles moves his head and shoulders in a twitchy sort of jerk that makes Derek's fingers tighten on the steering wheel as he fights the urge to wrap a hand around the back of his neck and hold him still. “I've never really gotten that. I mean, what does that even mean? Who the hell 'settles into' a hotel room? This isn't freaking Oregon Trail, we're not growing crops and hunting buffalo and worrying about warding off dysentery.”
“It's just an expression.”
“Oh really? Is it? I know it's an expression, dumbass,” Stiles shoots back, tapping and swiping at the screen of his iPad. “I'm just saying, it's a stupid one.”
“So. Registration starts at four-thirty, and then there's 'informal mingling' in the atrium/pool area . . . thing. Which granted, sounds excruciating, but we should probably at least make an appearance, right? Get your face in people's heads; emphasize the fact that you're there from the very beginning. Networking shit like that.”
“Networking shit. Thus speaks the college graduate. I forget, what did you major in again? Advanced Slacking?”
“Fuck you, asshole, I had a 4.0.” Stiles glares down at the tablet in his lap and Derek watches his jaw ticking from the corner of his eye, counting silently. He makes it all the way to four before Stiles adds, “And it was a double-major in Folklore and Criminology. You know that, don't be a dick.”
Derek feels the corners of his mouth twitching, and bites down on the urge to smile. “Sorry.”
“Whatever. So anyway, that looks like all that's on the agenda for tonight. The meetings and workshops and crap aren't until tomorrow and Saturday. Man, I still can't even believe that this is a thing. We're going to an alpha convention.”
“Yeah.” Derek shoots him a bemused look and slips into the passing lane to get around the minivan in front of them. “I know.”
“Yeah, but. An alpha convention. A convention of alphas.” Stiles is staring at Derek like he's willing him to understand. “Alpha werewolves.”
“I know. Are you under the impression that I've managed to forget what I am? Do you have some reason to believe I've suffered a debilitating blow to the head recently?”
“You—no. Too easy.” Stiles slumps back into his seat with a heavy sigh. “My life is weird.”
Derek snorts. “I'd have thought you'd be used to that by now.”
“Dude, you don't just get used to werewolves. Okay? I can tell you that from legitimate firsthand experience, going on eight years now. It's like anglerfish; you know they exist, but they don't ever get any less freakin' unnerving.” He scrolls down the screen again with a quick swipe of his fingers. “I've gotta hand it to whoever put this program together, though, they're like a Jedi master of doublespeak. If I didn't know we were heading to the Greater Pacific Northwest Alpha Symposium—”
“For the last time, that's not what it's called, stop calling it that.”
“I'm just saying, I'd never know it just by looking at the schedule! It sounds like your average, run-of-the-mill, so-boring-I-might-actually-die generic business conference. Check this out. Efficient Resource Utilization; Tactical Leadership and Conflict Dispute; Managing—”
“I've read the schedule, Stiles,” Derek snaps.
“I know! I'm just—” Stiles breaks off on a sigh, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I know. Sorry. I'm just . . . sort of nervous, I guess.”
“This was your idea.” Derek glares out at the road, hands tightening on the wheel. “I could've gone alone.”
“Oh, yeah, that's a great idea. You go alone, some alpha looking to expand their territory realizes you don't have a mate, and you end up trapped in a loveless political marriage, because the pack may be improving, but there's no way in hell we can take on anyone as established as you keep saying most of these people will be.”
“You're making it sound more dramatic than it actually is. Arrangements like that really aren't as uncommon as you'd think, and it's not like there's anyone . . .” He bites down on the rest of that sentence, wishing he could shift into a higher gear; wishing he had something, anything active to do instead of just sitting there like an idiot. “I don't see why it matters to you one way or the other.”
“What, you mean aside from the fact that whoever you got paired off with would be pack, and we already have enough to deal with trying to make the people we already have get along most of the time?”
Stiles gives an irritated huff, glaring through the windshield at the road ahead. His fingers are playing absently with the sleeve of his jacket now—Derek's jacket, settled around his shoulders and wrapping Stiles in Derek's scent while the smell of Stiles's skin works its way into the leather. After three days Derek thinks he should be used to it by now. He's not.
“What?” It's more of a struggle than Derek would like to admit to pull his attention back to the conversation. Luckily Stiles doesn't seem to be expecting him to keep up and simply shrugs, tucking the iPad back into its case.
“Don't get me wrong, I think pragmatism is great.”
“Yeah,” Derek snorts. “I know.”
“Do you want an answer to your question, or do you wanna be a smart ass?”
Stiles chokes out a surprised laugh that makes Derek have to fight to keep from grinning back. “Well, stop thinking you can hold a candle to my wit and try to remember that I'm doing you a favor here. Because none of us want some stranger being, like, alpha-by-proxy or something—”
“That's not exactly how it—”
“You should get the choice, okay?” Stiles shifts his shoulders, staring determinedly out the window. “Maybe you're not into the whole happily-ever-after soulmate thing Scott and Allison are working on; maybe you'd be completely fine with marrying a total stranger to solidify your power-base or whatever; but if that's what you want, it should still be your choice. Not something you got roped into because you were on the wrong side of a power match.” He shrugs again. “That's it. That's why I'm doing this.”
It's a hard thing to keep from touching him, then; Derek's hand is already lifting from the wheel, fingers tingling in anticipation of the feel of Stiles's skin, but he makes himself drop it to rest on the console between them instead. The line is too blurry now between what he wants and what's appropriate, and the situation they're heading into is already too ripe with opportunity for him to take advantage. No need to start out already having fucked things up.
“Thank you,” he says instead, surprised to find Stiles staring at him in blatant frustration when he glances over. “What?”
“See, that's what's making me nervous.”
Derek blinks. “Me saying 'thank you'?”
“No. Well, yeah, a little; it still makes me worry you've been replaced with a pod person or something. But I'm talking about this.”
Stiles has always been faster than Derek gives him credit for, and his fingers are sliding against Derek's hand resting between them before Derek realizes what he's doing. It's nothing, really—just a quick brush of fingertips against the back of his hand, sliding over his knuckles—but he finds himself twitching, an aborted jerk of his hand that has Stiles groaning in annoyance.
“That! Right there! You're the one who said that sharing clothes wouldn't be enough to fool an entire hotel full of werewolves.”
“I know.” He'd been trying to talk Stiles out of the idea at the time. Clearly he should've tried harder.
“You said there'd have to be physical contact pretty much on the regular.”
“Okay, well, that's gonna be a little hard to pull off if you're swooning like a Victorian maiden every time I try to hold your hand.”
By rights, the look Derek sends his way should have Stiles dropping stone dead. “I don't swoon,” he growls.
“Oh, my mistake. You just try to flee in horror; much more manly.” Stiles runs a hand through his hair, yanking briefly at the strands between his fingers while his jaw clenches. “Is it really going to kill you to pretend you're into me? I've seen you do it before with other people, I know you can. I'm not asking for a marriage proposal here, I just . . . I can't carry this on my own, Derek.”
“This was a bad idea.”
“Are you kidding me? This was a terrible idea.” A little bit of the tension eases out of Stiles's face, and a smile starts to tug at the corners of his mouth. “But we're not exactly spoiled for choice here. Just pretend I'm . . . shit, what was her name? Maurissa? Even I could smell the sex on you two, and that lasted for like a month. We just need three days. C'mon.” He flutters his eyelashes and pouts his lips in an over-the-top—but still, Derek can admit, more or less accurate—imitation of Maurissa's come-hither look. “You know you want this,” he rasps out in a husky contralto, and Derek nearly bites a hole in his own lip trying not to laugh.
“You look ridiculous.”
“I look alluring,” Stiles breathes, still pouting in Derek's general direction. “Don't fight it, baby, just—come on, be seduced, damn it,” he gripes in his normal voice again.
“You're an idiot.”
“I'm smarter than you could ever hope to be.” Stiles nudges his shoulder, grinning widely. “You're more relaxed now, aren't you? That's what we need! For you to get out of your head a little bit, stop overthinking shit, and try to have some fun with this.”
“Fun.” Derek lifts a disbelieving eyebrow. “Stiles, we're about to try to convince a hotel full of alpha werewolves that this transparently fake relationship is the real deal. And, let's not forget, hoping that if they find out otherwise, they won't be insulted enough to launch an attack on our territory.”
“Exactly! What's not fun about that?”
“You mean besides everything?”
“Killjoy. Oh, hey.” Stiles sits forward in his seat, zeroing in on the sign they're about to pass. “There's a rest stop up ahead; get off at the next exit, I have to pee.”
“I know, right? It's almost like it's a bodily function that I have to deal with on a semi-regular basis. Seriously though, how have you not needed a bathroom break yet?”
“Superior physiology,” Derek mutters, but he downshifts and slows as they approach the exit.
“Ha ha, cute. I know it's not a werewolf thing, because Scott's bladder's still the size of a grape.” He eyes Derek suspiciously. “You don't have one of those Stadium Pal things on, do you?”
“Sta—no, you know what? I can tell just by your voice that I don't want to know.” There's only one other car in the lot when they pull into the rest area, and Derek pulls into a space as close to the restrooms as possible. “Hurry up.”
“You seriously don't have to go?” Stiles asks, opening the door while he's still fumbling with his seatbelt.
“No. I might stretch my legs a little, though.”
“That's the spirit! I'm gonna see if there's a vending machine; you like those crappy chocolate cupcake things, right?”
“I'm really not—”
“I'll grab you some cupcakes!” Stiles calls over his shoulder as he slips out of the car, setting off towards the low building at a loping jog.
“Sure,” Derek says on a sigh, and climbs out of the car after him.
It's cold but not freezing, and overcast but dry, which Derek is willing to accept as a minor miracle. He doesn't even want to think about what this trip would be like with wet roads on top of everything else.
Three days, he reminds himself, taking a deep breath of the fresh air as he walks out over the grass. Just three days, and then everything will be back to normal.
He can still feel the ghost of Stiles's touch against his hand. He scrubs irritably at the skin there, trying to banish the feeling and regain his equilibrium. It's been too long since he's had someone touch him like that; far too long for him to be able to brush it off as quickly as he needs to. Derek hates that it feels like so much, that it matters to him. Just a simple touch without violence or sex or need behind it, given with no thought behind it but a desire for contact. For reassurance, and comfort, and connection.
That's the problem, though, he reminds himself: none of that is strictly true, after all. It would be all too easy to let himself believe it, to fool himself into thinking that Stiles is touching him because he wants to. Even now, it's a struggle to remember that it took Lydia a full two hours to convince Stiles to attend this conference with Derek in the first place, though the idea of passing one of them off as Derek's mate had been Stiles's in the first place. Too easy to forget that in the nearly eight years they've known each other, Stiles has never given any indication that he'd be interested in anything more than getting into Derek's pants. And though there may have been a time when Derek would've taken that gladly, and counted himself grateful to have someone willing to give him even that much, at some point it ceased to be enough.
He misses Laura; it's a sudden wave of grief and loss that hits so hard he almost loses his footing in the force of it. Even after all this time it still happens like this sometimes, where her loss feels as fresh as it had the night he'd buried her. He misses her scent and her warmth, the way she'd haul him in for a hug when she was happy or wrestle him to the ground when she was pissed off; the way she touched him constantly, even if it was only the quick clap of her hand around his shoulder. He was her brother, her beta, and she never let him forget that he belonged. When he was younger, Derek had never considered how hard it might be to be on the other side of that—to walk the line between comfort and authority, giving one while maintaining the other. He knows now, though, and though his betas have never felt compelled to reciprocate, he takes some small amount of comfort from the fact that it's been years since he's given them cause to doubt that he cares about them.
Laura would have done better. But Laura is gone, and he doesn't doubt for a moment that she'll find a way to haunt his ass if he does any less than his absolute best for his pack.
Derek stopped hoping for a happy ending for his own sake a long time ago, but if the pack is dead set against a new mommy, he's just going to have to suck it up and do his best to make this ridiculous plan work. It's why he agreed to it in the first place, after all, and it's not as though anything has changed.
Pack comes first. Always.
“They didn't have cupcakes,” he hears, and turns to see Stiles making his way down the path, waving a candy bar in the air, “so I got you a Snickers. The machine is practically wiped out; I almost called the number on that little sticker on the side to report it as an issue. I mean, what the hell kind of vending machine doesn't even have Reese's?” Stiles tosses the candy bar and Derek catches it easily. “It's a travesty, is what it is.”
Derek doesn't have time to think of an adequate response to that before Stiles marches straight into Derek's personal space, wraps a hand around the back of his neck, and brings their mouths together in a sudden kiss.
Stiles's lips are soft and warm, firm and certain against Derek's. The kiss feels welcoming, friendly; almost casual, as if this is something that they do every day and not something that has Derek's heart trying to beat its way through his chest. His free hand opens and closes, unsure, but Stiles is already pulling away with a pair of quick parting pecks to Derek's lips, leaning back again with a soft laugh. His eyes are bright, his cheeks faintly flushed, though from the kiss or from the cold Derek honestly couldn't say. The hair at his temples is damp, as if he splashed his face with water while he was washing his hands, and the sight of it feels oddly intimate.
Derek opens his mouth to speak and realizes that he has no idea what to say.
“See?” Stiles takes another half-step back, smiling as he makes an expansive gesture. “The world didn't end. Neither of us dropped dead. I'm not saying we have make out in front of a room full of werewolves, but c'mon, a little bit of physical contact isn't really that big a deal, is it?”
“No.” Derek swallows, trying to ignore the way that he can smell their scents mingling, how he can still taste Stiles on his lips. He reaches out and wraps an arm around Stiles's shoulders, refusing to react to the feeling of an arm sliding around his back in return. “You're right; I just need to get used to this.”
“Hey, you and me?” Stiles nudges against his side, grinning. “We're master bullshitters. If anyone can pull this off, it's us.” He pulls away and heads towards the passenger side of the car. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah.” Derek takes a deep breath. “I'm good.”
Stiles has his phone out by the time Derek slides behind the wheel. “Scott's complaining again about not being able to take Allison,” he says, waving his phone so that Derek catches a glimpse of the texting screen.
“He's the one who decided to marry a hunter,” Derek says flatly. He takes just a moment to enjoy the purr of the engine before he shifts the car into gear. “He knew there'd be consequences when he did that.”
“I don't know if you've noticed, but Scott isn't too good at understanding consequences when he doesn't think he did anything wrong. As far as he's concerned, marrying Allison should've netted him nothing but sunshine and puppies.”
“And I'm sure it will, as long as she stays away from the big gathering of powerful werewolves who all know her family's reputation.”
“I'm not texting that back, it'll take forever. 'Derek says suck it up.' There.”
“You did not just—Jesus Christ, Stiles. Are you trying to get him to go back to hating me?”
“Dude, you are severely overestimating the number of fucks Scott gives about your opinion. It'll be fine.”
“I'm going to remind you that you said that the next time he says you guys should just let me die.”
“Oh come on, he hardly ever does that anymore, lighten up.” Stiles shoves lightly at his shoulder again, and Derek counts it as a personal triumph that he neither flinches away nor leans into the touch.
“You know, we haven't really talked too much about this.” Derek shifts lanes, letting himself focus on that for a moment instead of the conversation he's about to instigate. “What things are going to be like this weekend. We should probably . . .”
“Set up some ground rules,” Stiles finishes. “Right? Before we have to just, like.” He waves a hand. “Jump on in.”
“Yes.” Derek glances over and finds Stiles staring straight ahead, a faint flush still visible on his cheeks. “You know we're going to have to share a bed while we're there.”
“Yeah. Appearances; probably wouldn't look good to book a room with two beds if we're supposed to be in deep, werewolfy love.” Stiles clears his throat. “But you know, I could sleep on the couch, or even on the floor if you—”
“No, you can't,” Derek interrupts. “For one thing, we both know damn well you'd bitch so much I'd let you have the bed just to shut you up.”
“True,” Stiles admits, and Derek can hear the smile in his voice.
“But I wasn't kidding about the importance of scent, Stiles. We can't half-ass this.”
“Are you sure you don't want to—no, okay, I get it, not the right time to mock your choice of words there. Okay, so. Sleeping together. In the most literal sense. No problem.”
“We don't have to be . . . clothing isn't going to get in the way, scent-wise, so you don't have to worry about that.” Derek glances at the door handle, seriously considering the benefits of flinging himself out of the moving car rather than continue. “But there will have to be contact.”
“Contact. Right.” Stiles's voice sounds faintly strangled. “Like . . . cuddling?”
“I swear, Stiles, if you can't take this seriously—”
“I'm being serious! Totally serious! I just want to know what to expect.”
Derek clenches his jaw so hard his teeth start to grind together. “Yes, all right? We're going to have to fucking cuddle.”
“Okay, I don't want you to think I'm not taking this seriously here, but oh my god, hearing you say that was even better than I thought it would be.” Stiles holds up his hands when Derek glares at him, the smile already fading from his face. “That said, ground rule number one: you are absolutely never to comment on any, uh . . . consequences of said contact. I'm a young, healthy guy, okay? And certain reactions are only natural, especially when I first wake up, so I don't wanna hear any bitching or snarking from you. Got it? It doesn't mean anything, it's just . . . nature.”
“Fair enough.” Derek takes a deep breath. “I'm going to have to act like I have the right to touch you. When we're in public.”
“Well, yeah. Same goes for me, I'd guess.”
“That would probably help sell the idea that I'm not holding you hostage or something, yeah,” Derek says dryly. “If I make you uncomfortable, though . . .” He stalls out, suddenly unsure, and horribly aware that they really didn't think this through.
“Sourwolf.” Stiles shrugs when Derek raises a questioning eyebrow. “I called you that, once. It was back when we first met; don't feel weird for not remembering, it's not like—”
“I remember,” Derek says. There's not much about that night that he doesn't remember, really; it's hard to forget nearly dying. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
“I was just thinking, I could call you that. Like a safeword. It sounds enough like an obnoxiously cutesy nickname that it'll help sell the whole 'newlyweds' vibe we're going for, and we won't blow our cover.”
“Huh.” Derek considers that for a moment. “All right.”
“What about you?” Stiles asks, and Derek frowns.
“What about me?”
“I mean, what's your word gonna be? If you want me to back off?”
“I . . .” He shakes his head. “I'll be fine.”
“Come on, man, this is a two-way street here. I don't want you suffering through something that skeeves you out just because you're worried about blowing our cover. So pick something, or I swear to god I'll call this whole thing off right now and catch a bus back from Seattle.”
“You're making this a bigger deal than it has to be.”
“Oh my god, would you just pick a fucking word already?”
“Sheriff.” Derek can't help but smirk at the look of thinly-veiled horror on Stiles's face. “How's that?”
“Well, that definitely ought to kill the mood,” Stiles mutters. “Okay.”
His fingers are tapping out a nervous rhythm on his knee, and Derek does his best to steady himself before he reaches out and stills them. Stiles looks up, surprised, and a brilliant smile breaks across his face.
“We're totally going to be able to pull this off.”
“Yeah.” Derek lets Stiles lace their fingers together, their hands resting palm-to-palm against his leg. “Piece of cake.”