”Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.” — Corey Ford
Not that anybody would know it from looking at her. She was, objectively speaking, incredibly cute. It was the ears, mostly. They were way too huge, all out of proportion with the rest of her, and they stuck up straight like little satellite dishes, defying all laws of gravity, never so much as drooping at the tips. They were also both perfectly black, a stark contrast to the unblemished white that was the rest of her body. The color ran down over her face and pooled around her big brown eyes like a mask.
It seemed appropriate, somehow, because the dog was a fucking criminal.
She wasn’t even Stiles’ dog, technically. He told himself that repeatedly, out loud, the first day he came home from work and discovered that she’d removed every single one of his DVDs from the shelf and systematically destroyed them. She’d even gotten the ones off the top shelves, with the simple expedience of knocking the entire shelving unit over.
He wasn’t attached to her, either, which was what he told himself the next day when she expressed her displeasure with being locked in the bathroom all day by redecorating it with toilet paper, shredding all of the towels, and painting every surface toothpaste. He swore there were mint-flavored paw prints on the ceiling.
He knew that logically speaking, he should get rid of her. There was nothing to be gained by keeping her, because the dog was supposed to be part of a hypothetical life that he’d never had and definitely wasn’t going to have now. Also, the way that she curled up with him in bed at night, all sweet, sleep-warm, and pliable, really didn’t negate the fact that she had come directly from the depths of Hell. Satan himself had probably kicked her out after she’d made a chew toy out of his favorite pitchfork. The dog just… really had to go.
Which was why he took her over to Scott’s. Because Scott loved animals. Scott had expertise. Scott hadn’t even met the dog yet so it was pretty much assured that Scott was going to fall for her many charms, and if she’d just refrain from destroying Scott’s entire house until Stiles could make his getaway, that would be great.
Except when he showed up at Scott’s door, with the puppy cradled in his arms and looking frankly angelic, Scott said no.
Well, what Scott actually said was, “Dude, I made it all the way through four years of working in a vet clinic without bringing any animals home. I’m pretty sure I’m immune. Like, my first year there we had this tiny chihuahua puppy with both his front legs in casts. Both of them. He was so little he could fit in the palm of my hand and he was seriously the most pathetic thing I have ever seen. If I was ever gonna do it, dude, it would’ve been that chihuahua.”
“You’d look ridiculous with a chihuahua,” Stiles said. He put the puppy down on the floor and took her leash off, hoping that she’d start destroying all of Scott’s stuff out of revenge for being scorned. Instead she just waited until Stiles sat down on the couch, and then she flopped down directly on top of his feet, like she was trying to pin him there.
“Like hell I would. I would have taught it to ride on my shoulder like a parrot,” Scott said. He dropped onto the couch, too, but he also brought a bag of Doritos with him and offered it to Stiles, so at least their friendship was still intact.
“That would actually have been awesome,” Stiles conceded. “You could teach this dog to do that. She’s small still.”
“She’s gonna be like thirty, forty pounds maybe,” Scott said. “Also you’ve already told me all about how she’s basically destroying your life.”
“Yeah,” Stiles agreed. He picked at a tear in the knee of his jeans that wasn’t there last week; the dog had gotten into the laundry last night while he was in the shower. At least this pair was still wearable, unlike ninety percent of his boxers. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with her. I can’t keep her. I’d have to either be a millionaire or like forswear all material things just to compensate for the destruction.”
“She’s a puppy, dude. It’s like you brought Godzilla home and you’re expecting him to have table manners.”
“Don’t be stupid, Scott. Godzilla had those, like, practically T-rex arms. Cutlery would be too much for him.”
“Anyway,” Scott said, like Stiles hadn’t even spoken. “You could just do what normal people do and take her to obedience training. I can recommend a place; Deaton always sent people there, apparently they’re like the freaking dog whisperers or something. But I don’t know why you think she’s so evil. She just looks cute as hell to me.”
Stiles looked down his own outstretched legs, to where the puppy was sprawled possessively over his crossed ankles. She was mostly asleep, but when he wiggled his toes she jerked her head up and stared at him, her gaze narrow-eyed, dark, and fathomless. “I think she’s just fattening me up,” Stiles said. “And later she’s going to actually eat my soul.”
Scott sighed and got up, generously leaving the bag of chips on the couch as he moved over to his desk and started rifling through the mess of paperwork. “I’ll get you the number,” he said, and it wasn’t a suggestion anymore.
Other people might have found the name of the place off-putting. Stiles didn’t. He was actually relieved, when Scott handed him a business card that said “HALEHOUNDS” across the top, because clearly, if anybody could recognize and understand the evil that lurked within his dog’s fluffy precious body, it was these people.
The relationship didn’t really start out well, though, because they began by asking him some really invasive questions. Like, for instance, “What’s the dog’s name?”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t invasive technically, but Stiles hadn’t come prepared for a pop quiz. Laura, the woman who’d brought him in for the interrogation — which she’d called an “assessment interview” — just looked at him and raised her dark, finely shaped eyebrows like she was considering whether she needed to bring in an interpreter to translate the questions, presumably from the language of hot girls into the language of guys who breathed with their mouths open.
“Um,” Stiles finally said. “Okay, the thing is she isn’t actually my dog? I got her for my girlfriend, who had recently been telling me about her desire to settle down and get a house and a white picket fence and a dog for our kids to play with.”
“Okay…” Laura said. She still hadn’t lowered her eyebrows. Stiles suspected that his answer to this question was more involved than she’d anticipated.
“So the next day, I mean after that conversation, I was at the grocery store and there was a kid outside with a box full of puppies, and it just seemed like a sign or something. The puppies, not the kid. The idea of kids strikes terror into my heart. But the puppy seemed like a good place to start, so I picked one and I took her home where I discovered my girlfriend was packing because she’d decided to break up with me and move to Nepal.”
He looked down at the puppy, who was sitting on the floor between his feet, and she looked back up at him with an expression that implied that yes, he was in fact over-sharing. She mostly signaled this with her ears.
“Okay,” Laura repeated. She tapped her pen against her clipboard. “So… what’s your dog’s name?”
The problem was, there was no correct answer. The dog didn’t have a name, unless “Oh god no goddammit not my underwear again” counted. Stiles opened and closed his mouth a couple of times.
Laura sighed. “She doesn’t have a name, does she?”
“No,” Stiles admitted. “I mean, I wasn’t sure I was going to keep her. Because she’s been kind of destroying my house. Completely. On a daily basis. But my friend Scott said maybe you could help with that, so I called, and I kind of haven’t really thought of anything beyond that.”
“Uh huh,” Laura said. The judgmental look on her face kind of eerily matched the one the puppy was wearing. “Alright, you know what? Normally I’m not a personal life coach or anything, but I’m gonna make an exception for you, because you’re kind of adorable and stupid and I think we might keep you. Here’s the thing: you’re obviously not getting rid of the dog. If you were, you’d be at the animal shelter right now, instead of sitting here telling me about your crappy life choices. So I’m going to go find my brother, and while I’m gone you’ve got five whole minutes to think of a name.” She put the pen down on top of the clipboard and slid it across the table at him. “While you’re at it, fill out your name and address and all the rest of this stuff at the top and save me the trouble. You’re already a pain in my ass, you might as well do what you can to get back in my good graces.”
Then she stood up, as promised, and walked out, leaving him alone. Well, alone-ish. The puppy was still staring at him, chewing slowly on the leash as if daring him to try to stop her.
“I could, you know,” Stiles told her, while he picked up the pen and started filling in his own information, because he at least knew that. “I could totally stop you from doing that. I just don’t want to. I’m trying to let you express your personhood.”
The puppy dropped the leash, like now that he’d admitted to her that that particular brand of destruction wasn’t quite provocative enough she’d decided to step up her game. She casually sank down onto her belly in between Stiles’ feet. Then she very carefully reached over and started gnawing on the hem of his jeans.
“Ugh,” Stiles said, and didn’t bother to try to get her away from his clothes because she’d already half-destroyed these pants anyway. “Never should have fed you after midnight. I was not given proper legal warning about you turning into a gremlin.”
The puppy growled and tugged on his jeans like she was trying to disrobe him — kind of flattering, since most people didn’t find him worth getting naked — and Stiles stared at the “dog name” prompt on the form. He finally shrugged and decided to carry the theme forward, scrawling “Gizmo” into the blank.
By the time Laura came back, Stiles had filled out everything on the form that he could fill out; most of the rest was some kind of behavioral survey that he clearly wasn’t supposed to fill out and also didn’t really want to think about too much. Because Gizmo was going to fail it. All of it. Hard.
Although possibly that wasn’t entirely Gizmo’s fault, because it hadn’t really occurred to Stiles until just then that maybe he shouldn’t actually be allowing his dog to chew on his pants. To be fair to Stiles, it was mostly the sane reaction of a man who had lost all will to live in the face of his dog’s attempt to treat his life and home like a fiefdom to be pillaged. It was possibly not his most brilliant moment to allow the puppy to be actively devouring his belongings in the presence of canine training professionals, though, because Laura actually stuttered to a stop in the doorway, staring at him with a look of despairing horror while her voice trailed off on, “Stiles, this is my brother, uh, Derek…”
Derek didn’t look very happy with the situation he’d walked into either. Derek actually didn’t look like a guy who was known for being happy ever, in any circumstance. Everything from the line of his shoulders to the swoop of his bristly eyebrows was locked into a position of perpetual disapproval. Really, incredibly attractive disapproval. He looked like he’d stepped right out of an outdoorsy and slightly pornographic menswear catalog for the express purpose of judging Stiles for his shoddy puppy-management techniques.
It was especially mortifying because Derek was the single most attractive person Stiles had ever laid eyes on, and Stiles was a madman in ripped jeans with a puppy attached to him by the teeth.
“Oh um, hi,” Stiles said, like this was exactly the kind of situation he dealt with every day. To be fair, he actually did, because his life was nothing if not a long chain of embarrassing and sometimes physically painful events. “I’m Stiles. That’s Gizmo.”
Laura was pinching the bridge of her nose and wearing an expression like Stiles’ very existence was giving her a headache. She circled her desk and dropped back into her chair like she was tempted to dig into the drawers in search of hard liquor. “Well, at least she has a name now,” she said.
“Do you leash her for walks, or does she just hang on to your pants?” Derek asked, raising an eyebrow in an eloquently sarcastic fashion.
“That’s actually a good idea, things would go more smoothly if she’d just sit on my foot and ride along,” Stiles said, looking down at the puppy contemplatively. She finally gave up the death-grip on his jeans in favor of glaring threateningly at Derek. She probably resented his effortless attractiveness, too. “Mostly when I take her for walks she tries to run in every direction at once, and then when that gets boring we play a game where she tries to give me a concussion and I practice my tripwire dodging skills. I’m getting good though, like pretty soon I’m going to be able to perform that whole scene from Ocean’s Twelve, the one where that hot guy goes through like the hall of laser beams, remember that?” Derek didn’t even bother to raise an eyebrow at him, but Laura had an appreciatively glazed look, so he knew she remembered it at least. “If I’m lucky she’ll get tired enough to sleep when we get home. For like, ten minutes. Ten glorious minutes.”
“Yeah,” Derek said. “Laura mentioned you were having some issues.”
The way he said “issues,” it was clearly code for “brain damage.” But Stiles wasn’t the only one with issues, anyway, because Derek crouched down on the floor like that was something that normal people just did in the middle of a conversation. He also stared down Gizmo, which Stiles was pretty sure was on the list of things you weren’t supposed to do with dogs. Gizmo froze and stared back, the white hair between her shoulder blades bristling, her lips curling back from her teeth, a low growl rumbling in her chest.
Stiles wasn’t sure if it was a test for him or for the dog, whether he was supposed to be doing something like putting the dog in time-out for being an unfriendly little shit, but Laura just sighed and returned to the paperwork like she was bored with the whole thing.
“What kind of dog is she?” Laura asked. “You left that part blank. Let me guess, you don’t know?”
Stiles shrugged helplessly, watching the Derek and Gizmo show-down. Gizmo looked pissed, but Derek looked like a zen master, holding the eye contact like he was trying to stare into the dog’s soul.
Hah. Joke was on him. She clearly didn’t have one.
“Derek?” Laura prompted.
“Border collie and cattle dog, I think,” Derek said. “The ears.”
Laura nodded like that was some kind of profound wisdom, scratching on the form and muttering, “Two high-energy working breeds; great choice, Stiles.”
He would’ve said thanks, but he was pretty sure that was actually sarcasm laced with bitterness, and not a genuine compliment. Instead he scuffed his shoe against the floor and said, “So um, can you help me with her? Scott said you guys did obedience classes and things.”
“This is going to take more than obedience training,” Derek said. Gizmo drew herself up a little taller and put a little more Elvis-style snarl into her lip like he was insulting her upbringing. “She needs exercise. Socialization. An appropriate outlet for her chewing habit.”
“Sit/Play package?” Laura said. “We can reevaluate after the first month and see where they’re at.”
Derek nodded, solemn, like he was carrying on some sort of incredibly profound conversation with Stiles’ puppy by way of psychic connection.
“It’s a really good deal,” Laura said, addressing Stiles this time. “It’s our standard package for newbies. You bring her to daycare as often as you want, during our standard operating hours. She’ll get exercise and she’ll get to be around other well-adjusted dogs and learn how to socialize with them, plus you won’t have to worry about her tearing your house apart while you’re at work. Derek will also do an assessment of her aptitude and interest in some different activities, like agility and dock-jumping, so you’ll have an idea of what kind of things she might enjoy doing with you later. Twice a week you bring her to group obedience classes, so you can learn how to train her and how to manage her behaviors for yourself, and as needed during the month Derek will help you out one on one.”
“That sounds great,” Stiles said. “But do you think I can even do it? I’m not really good at this stuff and my dog doesn’t even like me.”
“She likes you,” Derek said, without even looking up. Gizmo growled at him, like she was telling him to shut up with his stupid face, and he growled back. He actually growled back, like he was a dog, and that didn’t seem even remotely professional except—
Except Gizmo stopped growling, blinked, and sat down on her fluffy little ass like she’d just been offered a really compelling argument for changing her behavior and was starting to re-think her life of crime.
“Yeah, she’ll do fine,” Derek said. He reached out with one obscenely appealing arm and scratched Gizmo under her chin and across the breadth of her chest. Then he scooped her up one-handed, tucked her under his arm like a little furry piece of luggage, and plucked the leash from Stiles’ slack-fingered hand. Gizmo squirmed, but it wasn’t a struggle to be released, it was some sort of expression of heavenly joy. Her face looked almost maniacally happy. “We can start now. We’ll keep her the rest of today, free of charge. Stop by to pick her up by six. Laura will work out schedules with you for the rest of the week and she’ll get you booked in to the obedience groups that will work best for you.”
Then he took Stiles’ dog and walked out. Considering how often Stiles had dreamed of being rid of that animal over the last week, he didn’t think he should be feeling quite so bereft, but he did.
Derek’s confidence in Stiles was, as far as Stiles was concerned, completely misplaced.
For one thing, this was their fourth obedience class, and Stiles still couldn’t get his dog to stay. It had taken the first three classes just for them to get “sit” down pretty solid, and Stiles was still convinced that Gizmo mostly sat down because she got tired of standing up, not because Stiles was telling her to.
Also, Derek’s dog was very judgmental. Derek’s dog, in fact, created what amounted to a hostile learning environment. Derek’s dog liked to lurk in corners and seemed to believe that it was actually a military drill instructor. Derek’s dog, if Stiles wanted to get technical about it, was prohibited by law under Title 14 of the California Code of Regulations, because Derek’s dog was obviously a fucking wolf.
He was also watching Stiles, the way he usually did, exuding an air of disgust tinged with pity as Stiles once again failed to get more than a centimeter away from Gizmo before she broke her supposed “stay” to try to eat his shoelaces.
On the other side of the room, Peggy’s cockapoo was holding a perfect, frighteningly intense “stay” as Peggy actually power-walked laps around everybody else. Jim’s husky, who was usually distracted by things like lights and sounds and floors, was managing to keep his attention on his handler while Jim backed away a good six feet. Jim’s husky was even more attention-deficit than Stiles was. If that husky could do this, then so could Gizmo, by God.
“Okay,” Stiles said, turning back to Gizmo. He tried to ignore the wolf that was staring at him like it was trying to decide which part of his body would yield the most succulent meat. “We can do it this time, okay? You and me. Gizmo, sit.”
He gave her the hand signal, too, because Derek said that was important and since Derek apparently trained wild fucking animals to be his BFF, Stiles figured the guy knew what he was talking about. Gizmo just stood there for a second, and then looked sort of distractedly over at Derek’s wolf, like she just needed to check in with him about whether this was okay because Gizmo was seriously in love with that vicious killing machine in the corner. Then she finally turned back around, looking disgruntled, and placed her butt on the floor.
“Yes, good!” Stiles said, and felt a little stupid about how deeply his personal happiness was tied in to the location and general cooperativeness of his dog’s ass. He fed her some treats anyway — chunks of hot dog and cheese, treats so awesome that Stiles himself sometimes snacked on them when he got a little hungry — and then geared up for part two of the whole exercise. He said, “Gizmo, stay,” in a calm, even voice just like Derek had taught him, and held up his palm in front of Gizmo’s face in the universal signal for all you have to do is not do anything Jesus Christ. And then he backed one small step away.
And Gizmo got up and pounced on some completely imaginary thing on the floor and then tried to run over to see what Peggy and the cockapoo were doing. (The cockapoo was apparently working on standing up on her hind legs like a circus pony, and Stiles wanted to know what Peggy was even doing with that animal in a basic obedience class. He was pretty sure the answer had something to do with Derek’s ass.) Gizmo wasn’t very pleased when she hit the end of the leash, but she could suck it for all Stiles cared. He wasn’t very pleased with his entire life and he was seriously rethinking all of his choices. Particularly the ones that made him feel like crying in a completely undignified manner while surrounded by almost-strangers and their stupidly perfect dogs.
He was giving it actual, serious thought — because a really loud mental breakdown seemed somehow satisfying and cathartic — but then Derek’s hands came down on his shoulders and gave him a little shake, and Derek’s mouth was entirely too close to his ear when it said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to help, you’ve got this.”
“I haven’t got this,” Stiles pointed out. It was obvious to anyone with eyes, although he didn’t entirely blame Derek for not looking because the last two students in the class were Sandy and Stephanie, who were twins and actual underwear models. They had ridiculously well-behaved golden retrievers, who were also sisters. Really there were a lot more appealing sights available for Derek’s perusal, was basically Stiles’ problem, and Stiles had zero confidence in his ability to overcome his dog’s hatred for him, much less also be interesting or flirt or whatever it was people did when they met somebody as mind-bogglingly hot as Derek.
Stiles would settle for a well-trained puppy and gazing longingly at Derek from afar, if that was going to the trade-off, but right now he wasn’t getting either.
“She’s still a puppy, Stiles, and you’re new to this,” Derek said. He hadn’t actually let go of Stiles’ shoulders yet. It was really… nice. Nice was the word Stiles was looking for. He was not entertaining pornographic thoughts about Derek’s hands in the middle of obedience training. No sir he was not. He was definitely going to entertain them later, though. Probably in the shower. “You have to be patient, with her and with yourself. Okay? I’m here to help you. Let’s try again. Bigby!”
There was coming when called, and then there was Derek’s wolf, who didn’t respond to the summons like an eager companion animal at all. From the look on his face, he imagined himself to be a lieutenant being summoned to a council of war. He moved quickly and gracefully across the floor toward them, but without the bounding exuberance of a lesser animal; there was a measured military precision in his steps. He didn’t even come straight to Derek like he probably should have if he’d been told to come. Instead, apparently knowing exactly what his job here would be, he marched up to Gizmo, picked her up by the scruff of her neck, carried her back to her start position, and placed her on the floor. He even nudged her into a down position like he was unsatisfied with her parade-ground posture, and then he laid down himself, almost on top of her, his huge long forelegs bracketing her little body.
“I’m going to give you a little bit more training theory,” Derek said. He removed his hands, much to Stiles’ disappointment, but stayed close at Stiles’ shoulder like he had Stiles’ back, which was kind of nice. “You seem like a pretty deep thinker, maybe you’ll be able to pick all this up a little easier if I give you more of the hows and whys than I usually do. Just let me know if I’m overloading you with information, okay?”
“Okay,” Stiles said, and braced himself for the incoming missile of truth.
“First off, set yourself up for success. Don’t give Gizmo a command that you know she’s going to ignore — like telling her to sit when she’s actively running away — and whenever you can, especially when she’s learning something new, put her in a situation where you’re making it a lot harder for her to fail than it is for her to succeed. Ask her for really small things first, and work your way up from there. In theory, you’re smarter than the dog. That’s your advantage. You need to use it.”
“In theory, nice,” Stiles said. “Burn. Give me a concrete example here. We’re men of action, Derek, your zen master bullshit does not become us.”
He could hear the huff of Derek’s almost-laugh behind him, and twisted around enough to catch the little curve of Derek’s lips. Bigby made a disgruntled noise like he didn’t think Stiles’ jokes were funny, which just screw him seriously. He might be a wolf but Stiles would still win at arm-wrestling. Assuming Bigby understood that you weren’t allowed to chew off the other guy’s arm.
“Well, all you need her to do is not move. So at first, you enlist a helper to just hold her where she’s supposed to be. We’ve got Bigby for that. Reward really little stuff first; only ask her for a couple seconds at a time. As she starts picking up on what you want, you can start working on longer periods of time and greater distance. Go ahead and give it a try.”
Stiles nodded, took a deep breath, and just took a moment to mentally prepare himself for epic failure right in front of Derek. He should’ve been used it already because there was a lot of failure involved in this whole process for him, but it would still be nice just for once to not screw something up.
“Okay,” he said, more to psych himself up than anything else. “Gizmo, stay.” He showed her the hand signal at the same time, and then he stepped back, knowing that she was about to bolt. Again.
All he saw was the twitch of her muscles beneath her coat, and then Bigby opened his giant maw and clamped it down on Gizmo’s back, pressing her firmly into the floor.
“Holy shit,” Stiles said, not sure if he should be panicking or impressed. Gizmo wasn’t hurt, anyway; there was no blood on her coat — her white fur had a tendency to show off stains, as Stiles had discovered with the Garbage Can Incident — and she seemed to be squirming more in surprise and delight than pain.
“Don’t get distracted,” Derek said, and then made things more distracting by putting his hands on Stiles’ hips and nudging Stiles forward again, back into his starting position right in front of the dogs. “Now praise her and treat her, then do it again. At this point you need to get in there with the reinforcement before she has a chance to misbehave.”
“Right,” Stiles said, shoveling hot dog into Gizmo’s mouth. He was a little worried that Bigby would reach out and take his hot dog bits and his arm, but the wolf just opened his massive jaw and let Gizmo go with an expression of great dignity. He seemed to be pretending that he hadn’t just left a gross-looking drool slick across Gizmo’s back.
This time when Stiles repeated the exercise, Gizmo didn’t move, lounging between Bigby’s paws like they were just the arm-rests on her throne, waiting patiently for Stiles to hand-feed her all the best in processed-meat delicacies.
“See?” Derek said, and when Stiles looked up at him he was actually honest-to-God grinning. He looked proud, even. “One more time and she’s going to start thinking she’s trained you to shove treats in her mouth for doing nothing. Try it one more time; I’ve got to go help Stephanie, but Bigby’s here if you need him. If Gizmo does okay this time, then I’d call it a day. We’re almost out of time and you want to end on a good note.”
“Sure,” Stiles said. “Right.” He watched Derek walk away — there was no shame in it, the only one in the class who didn’t tend to watch Derek walk away was Jim — and then turned back to his puppy. She was, for once, watching him eagerly, waiting to see him perform the trick she’d taught him, just one more time.
Stiles only worked a half day on Fridays, which used to mean that Fridays were the kick-off of his weekly three-day religious observance of sloth. Now that he had a puppy, Fridays started the same way most other days did — with Gizmo trying to chew on his fingers, climb on his face, or otherwise use his person as a jungle gym, usually at an ungodly hour. Which was why these days he spent his Friday mornings mostly-conscious and hanging around at Halehounds.
Laura was frighteningly adept at separating overprotective owners from their canine companions and hustling the humans back out the door, but she always let Stiles stay. He was pretty sure it had less to do with his sparkling wit and more to do with the fact that he brought coffee with him. And not shitty gas station coffee, either; he only supplied the good crack, from the little drive-through caffeine shack on Coleman Street. He had Laura and Derek’s orders memorized, which said something about his life. Usually Laura put him to work shuttling leashed dogs from the office, where their owners dropped them off, out the back door to the compound proper where Derek would take each one to its assigned run.
Stiles had often thought over the last few weeks how unfair it was that his dog got to go to an exciting summer camp situation while Stiles was stuck in his office slaving away for The Man. Stiles hadn’t even gotten to go to summer camp as a kid, so it seemed unfair somehow. Still, Gizmo obviously enjoyed herself, terrorizing the other dogs who were confined in a run with her.
They at least had plenty of room to get away, because each of the runs was pretty massive. The property where the business stood was well off the beaten path, back in the woods of the Beacon Hills Preserve. There’d been a house there once, when Stiles was a kid, but it had burned down years ago and eventually been demolished entirely, making way for the doggy paradise that Derek and Laura had built in its place. The only buildings on the grounds were a trio of yurts, one housing the main office where Laura worked, another larger one at the center of the compound where classes were held, and a third set further back in the clearing, nearly at the tree line, which Laura had said was actually Derek’s house. Long stretches of high chain-link fencing tied all three buildings together, and the runs for the dogs themselves were positively luxurious. There were little shelters with doggy hammocks and fake dens where the dogs could crawl inside to escape rambunctious playmates. There was also a brightly painted agility course and on the far side of the complex they’d built a pretty sizable man-made pond with its own dock so the dogs could play in the water.
“How much do you think Laura would charge me to come here for daycare myself?” Stiles asked, as he handed Gizmo off to Derek along with his morning coffee delivery. “Because I’ve got to tell you, the hotter it gets the more tempted I am to strip naked and jump into that pond out there.”
Derek hissed, tripping over himself and apparently spilling hot coffee on his fingers, which was typically the kind of move that Stiles pulled off. Clearly Stiles was a bad influence.
Derek’s recovery was smoother than Stiles usually managed, though; he got himself back underway, leading Gizmo to her usual run. “That probably depends on whether you could entertain yourself out there or if you’d need me to come out and throw tennis balls off the dock for you,” Derek said, as he ushered Gizmo into her playpen and set her loose on its helpless inhabitants. Laura’s two gray-muzzled Great Danes were already in there, ready and bizarrely willing to play puppy babysitter.
Stiles snorted, went back inside to retrieve his next batch of charges, and found Laura sitting at her desk, flipping through a magazine and holding onto the leashes of four matching Dachshunds. “How does this work when I’m not here?” Stiles asked. “Do you have to actually stand up? Is it really tiring? Do you get shin splints?”
“Oh, sorry,” Laura said, holding out the collection of leashes for him without looking up. “Did you want me to go out and talk to my brother while you stay in here? Because that would be fine, too.”
“No,” Stiles said, too quick. “I’m good. This is good. I’m getting a lot of exercise and fresh air, I hear it’s the best way to start the day. Get the old juices flowing.”
“TMI,” Laura said, and flicked a hand to wave him out the door.
The Dachshunds led the way, fanned out shoulder to shoulder and marching seriously toward Derek like they thought they were headed to war. “I might keep these ones,” Stiles said. “I’m going to build them a little chariot and they can pull Gizmo around in it so she doesn’t have to sully her paws with touching the earth.”
“Did you hit your head?” Derek asked, and leaned in too close as he took the leashes, ruffling his other hand through Stiles’ hair, palming the back of Stiles’ skull like he was checking for evidence of trauma.
“Nope,” Stiles said, but it came out with a squeak, a note higher than normal. He was pretty sure he was imagining a lingering in Derek’s fingers as they slid away from his scalp. “I’m good, genius ideas like this just come naturally to me.”
He fled back inside before Derek could notice how profoundly he was blushing, but Laura still gave him a knowing look. As he kept ushering dogs outside — this time without the smart remarks — Derek kept looking at him funny, like there was something wrong with him and Derek couldn’t figure out what.
The wrong thing was probably that eventually Derek was going to figure out that Stiles had a massive crush on him, and things were going to get awkward.
So Stiles probably should’ve known better than to say yes when all the dogs were in their runs and Derek said, “I’m going to take the first group out the lake; you want to come? Throw some of those tennis balls?”
Stiles didn’t actually know better, though, which was why he did say yes, too quickly and with too much enthusiasm. The first group of dogs were all labs, who apparently took their pond-diving exploits very seriously, so Stiles and Derek stood at the end of the dock and launched ball after incredibly soggy ball into the water. The dogs would dive in after them, climb out along the graveled bank on either side of the dock, and deliver their dripping prizes to their human servants, only to start the whole process over again.
It only took about ten minutes of that for the both of them to end up slightly more than damp, water spraying everywhere with the launching of each wet ball and flying off the dogs’ coats each time they emerged from the pond. Stiles was caught entirely off-guard by the sight of Derek, early morning sunlight turning him stupidly gold, his t-shirt clinging to his profoundly chiseled body, his mouth open in a laugh as Bosco and Roxy both dove after the same ball.
Stiles thought to himself, I have made a terrible mistake.
He needed to say his goodbyes and leave before he completely embarrassed himself. For instance by throwing himself himself at Derek and toppled them both into the lake like something out of a bad rom-com. He cleared his throat, but when Derek looked his way and Stiles actually spoke, what came out was, “Good arm.”
He did have a good arm. He had a good everything, but he had a really good arm. Both of them. And the shoulders. And the— Stiles was going to stop. He was going to leave. He was.
“Thanks,” Derek said, with a grin that was half cocky and half devastatingly attractive. “High school baseball.”
“Beacon Hills High?” Stiles said. “I don’t remember seeing you in school. I’m pretty sure I’d remember.”
“Might’ve graduated before you started, I’ve got a few years on you,” Derek said, with a shrug, and slung another ball across the lake.
“Were you any good? Because I’ve got to tell you, when I was there the baseball team sucked.”
Derek laughed, and Roxy barked at him like she was agreeing, or maybe she was just demanding that he throw another ball. He obliged her either way. “Well, they didn’t have me anymore, did they?” he said, and smugness had really never been so attractive, the bastard.
“Their loss,” Stiles said, and realized too late that he was staring, his eyes fixed on the curl of Derek’s lips, too obvious by far. “I uh… I should get to work. I’ll see you later.” He ducked his head, dogs parting around his legs as he clattered his way back down the dock and away, wondering if he’d imagined Derek’s soft-spoken goodbye.
One of the perks of Stiles’ membership at Halehounds — of which there were many, and rightfully so considering the exorbitant price tag — was having Derek’s cell phone number and the freedom to call it when he needed help. Stiles hadn’t used it before, because he figured the guy probably already spent enough time trying to get off the phone with the Peggys of the world, but if there was a moment when he’d ever needed help with his entire dog situation, it was right now.
Gizmo was propped in his lap, and she was alright, she wasn’t bleeding or anything, but she was quivering like a leaf, and when Stiles went to pull up his contacts list, his hands were shaking too. He muttered little quieting sounds to Gizmo, who was whimpering and trying to squirm her way through his sternum like she thought she could hide from the world inside Stiles’ ribcage, but it didn’t seem to have much impact on her state of mind. Mostly he was trying to calm himself down, but it wasn’t working for that either.
Derek picked up on the third ring and said, “Hey,” instead of hello, like Stiles’ name had come up on his caller ID.
Stiles didn’t have the presence of mind to offer a greeting anyway, so it was probably for the best. “Derek, holy fuck, Gizmo just got attacked at the dog park, I don’t know what to do.”
“Okay, just stay calm, is she hurt?” Derek’s voice was steady and deep, like he was trying to model the appropriate level of panic for Stiles’ benefit. It didn’t help, but Stiles still appreciated the effort.
“I— no? I don’t think so. I mean, she’s not bleeding or limping or anything that that I could see, but she’s completely freaked out. I’m completely freaked out. Actually I’m probably doing worse than she is, honestly. I’m making a big thing out of nothing, aren’t I? She’s going to be like chasing butterflies in five minutes and I’m going to be sitting here hyperventilating.”
“It’s okay, you’re gonna be fine,” Derek said. He didn’t sound worried about Gizmo, but he sounded maybe a little worried about Stiles. “I’m going to come get you; which dog park are you at? Kretschmer Park or—”
“Mayhew,” Stiles said. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t breathe, it was more his throat closing down on itself in an attempt to kick off the crying portion of the day’s activities.
“I’ll be there in five minutes, alright? Just breathe, Stiles. I’ve got to hang up, I’ll be right there.”
He probably really was there in five minutes, but Stiles wasn’t really great at telling time when he was panicking. Every second always seemed like a decade and every too-fast beat of his own heart like a hammer blow against his spine. He held on through it and just breathed, holding on to Gizmo’s wriggling body and not even trying to dodge the way she sloppily licked at his mouth, like she was trying to get him regurgitate a steak for her or something. It was enough to keep him grounded, and then Derek was suddenly there, his hands on Stiles’ shoulders, giving Stiles a shake and calling his name.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Stiles said, even though it was a horrible lie. He wasn’t even capable of thinking about how stupid he probably looked, slumped against the outside of the dog park fence with his ass on the lawn, his face messy with tears and dog spit.
“I know you are,” Derek said, in a tone that implied Stiles was being humored. Bigby nudged in on one side, distracting Gizmo, and Derek tucked himself in on the other, close enough that their bodies pressed together shoulder to elbow to thigh.
Derek didn’t even really do anything, except sit and wait for Stiles to get himself under control, but having Derek’s solid heat on one side and the furry press of Bigby’s body on the other was certainly a help in its own way. Derek wrapped his arm around Stiles’ shoulders and Bigby pressed his chin to the top of Stiles’ head, which seemed to be some sort of wolfish sign of affection. After that it only took a few minutes before Stiles’ heart started to slow and breathing felt like an everyday event instead of an emergency situation. He loosened his death-grip on Gizmo and she seemed happy to shift her attentions to Bigby instead, trying to squirm her way into the space between his front legs and Stiles’ hip.
“I’m sorry,” Stiles finally said, when he felt capable of saying anything. “I didn’t mean to freak out like that.”
Derek’s hand shifted, gripped the back of Stiles’ neck and just held him that way, which was somehow reassuring all on its own. “I’m pretty sure nobody means to freak out. Are you sure you’re okay? You didn’t try to wade into the middle of a dog fight, did you?”
Stiles sniffed and swiped his sleeve across his eyes. “No, it was all over by the time I even got over there. She just made these sounds like — I thought she was gonna die. And she’s not allowed to do that. She and I have had discussions about that, I thought we had an understanding.”
Derek smiling at him gently was almost worse than actually being laughed it — it made Stiles’ heart hurt — but it was good in its own way, settling. Derek said, “Can I see her?” and gave up his grip on Stiles’ person to reach for Gizmo instead.
She clambered happily into his arms, trying to bathe his face in drool too, but he was busy running his broad hands over her little body. He touched in much the same way Doctor Deaton had, during the puppy’s first medical check, and it was nice to know that somebody knew what they were doing, that there was an expert there to spot if something was wrong.
Derek just handed her back gingerly, though, and curled his hand over Stiles’ kneecap, a grounding weight. “She seems okay. If she’s been scared she’s probably only reacting to how scared you were. Why don’t we get you both out of here?”
“Shouldn’t we like… go back into the dog park?” Stiles said, glancing over his shoulder at where other people’s dogs were still running around joyously like nothing had ever happened. Some of their humans were still looking at Stiles suspiciously, like they were waiting for him to completely lose it. “Confront the fear before it becomes a phobia, or whatever?”
“No,” Derek said. He blinked, like the idea had never even occurred to him. “No. Dog parks aren’t really the greatest thing for every dog. You never know how well-adjusted the other dogs in there are going to be, or how well the other owners are able to handle their pets. It’s not a great way to socialize a puppy. It’s not even good for a lot of adult dogs.”
“Oh,” Stiles said, feeling even more stupid than he had mere moments ago. “I guess that probably should’ve been obvious to me at this point, huh?”
“You’re doing fine, trust me,” Derek said, closing his hand a little tighter against Stiles’ knee. “We all make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect at this, especially not with their first dog.”
“Your face is perfect,” Stiles muttered, but as an insult it left a lot to be desired. Derek laughed, anyway.
Stiles was more pliable than usual in the wake of his emotional breakdown, so he didn’t put up even a token protest as Derek gently pulled him to his feet and guided him to the car, the same nondescript SUV that was always parked next to the furthest yurt at Halehounds. The interior smelled like mud and wet dog, and Bigby loaded himself into the back while Derek settled Stiles and Gizmo in the front seat like Stiles was a kid who couldn’t buckle himself in. To be fair, his hands were still trembling enough that he might not have managed, but all the touching wasn’t really helping him settle down.
When Derek pointed the vehicle toward the state highway and the familiar route to the Preserve, Stiles didn’t complain. They passed the time in silence, but it was a comfortable sort of silence at least, and Stiles took the time to stop worrying quite so much about Gizmo, who flopped around like a landed fish in his arms until he twisted back over the console and dumped her in the big cargo area in the back, with Bigby. The wolf looked at him like he was an asshole, but he wasn’t fooling anybody when he looked at Gizmo; Stiles had long since learned to interpret Bigby’s stony looks, and the ones he gave Gizmo were openly adoring. Which for Bigby mostly just meant that there was an almost imperceptible wrinkling of his fluffy white eyebrows.
Once they were parked next to Derek’s house at Halehounds, something eased in Stiles’ chest at last, and he managed to get himself out of the vehicle this time, while Derek opened the back door to let the dogs out. Gizmo immediately made a break for the trees, but Bigby was keeping pace with her, trotting after her as she exploited her rare off-leash opportunity.
“He won’t let her go far,” Derek said, but Stiles didn’t even need the reassurance.
Stiles might still be slightly terrified of Bigby at least half the time, but he still trusted him.
He trusted Derek, too, which was why he just followed wordlessly as Derek led the way back to the dog pond. It was midday and getting progressively warmer, and the cool air coming off the water felt awesome even from a distance; once they were on the dock, pulling their shoes off and sitting down with their feet dangling just above the water, it was even better.
“Thanks,” Stiles finally said. “For coming to get us. Talking me down probably wasn’t really in your plans for the day, I’ll bet.”
Derek shrugged. “I’m never going to have plans that are more important than you are, Stiles.” He said it flatly, matter of fact, like it should have been obvious.
“Right,” Stiles said. He looked down, picked at the hem of his shorts, twisted around to see what Gizmo was doing. (She was attempting to splash her way directly to the middle of the lake; Bigby picked her up every time she waded in too far and put her back where she started, but she didn’t seem to be deterred by that.) “You probably have to deal with this kind of shit all the time, with all your students having your number. Are you just like on-call twenty-four seven? When do you sleep?”
Derek blinked. “Passing my number out to— Stiles, I don’t give my personal cell number to all of our clients. That would be literally insane.”
Stiles blinked, too. They were sitting there staring at each other and just blinking like idiots. It was definitely a low point in Stiles’ life as an intelligent human being, particularly since he couldn’t for the life of him figure out exactly what Derek was trying to say. “But you gave it to me.”
“Well, yeah. I gave it to you a month ago. I was kind of hoping you might use it. To call me.”
“…For my puppy emergencies?”
Derek laughed, looking away like he couldn’t believe Stiles’ ridiculous face, then looking back like not looking was too hard. “I was thinking more for dinner, but honestly you’ve never seemed like a conventional-date kind of guy.”
“Oh my god,” Stiles groaned, dragging his hands down his face and flopping onto his back on the dock like he’d been mortally wounded. He had been, by his own stupidity. “We could’ve been dating for weeks. There could have been make-outs, Derek.”
“I guess we’re just going to have to make up lost time,” Derek said, and there was a muffled thump as he laid back on the dock, too, leaning on one elbow and looking like something out of an Abercrombie catalog. “Since you’re possibly the most oblivious person I’ve ever attempted to flirt with.”
“Please, you’re like a stealth flirter. Your idea of flirting is— wait, did you just say we need to make up lost time? Does that mean what I think it means?”
Derek said, “Stiles, shut up,” but there was a smile on his face, and when Stiles did shut up, Derek immediately reinforced the newly-trained behavior, with his mouth on Stiles’ mouth and his fingers splayed against Stiles’ stomach, light and hesitant.
The dogs splashed in and out of the lake again, but Stiles didn’t pay them much attention, even when they clattered up onto the deck and settled there in the sun, their bodies dripping water against the wood.
When Derek pulled back, there was a question on his face, and Stiles sifted his fingers through Derek’s hair in answer. He could feel the complete stupidity of the smile on his own face, but it probably only matched the look on Derek’s. “I think for conditioning to occur you’re going to have to do that more than once,” Stiles pointed out, helpfully. “I’m a little slow, it might require some serious repetition.”
Derek smirked back at him, leaned in again and said, “Good thing I’m a trained professional, then,” before diligently applying himself to his work.