Stiles was trying really hard not to fidget, but it wasn't working.
The woman on the other side of the desk — Ms. L. Wright, Editor, according to the name plate on her desk, "call me Lucy," according to the woman herself — was flipping slowly through a book that was filled with pictures of Stiles. The experience was excruciating on a level that Stiles hadn't anticipated. He'd never showed a portfolio to anyone before, hadn't even had one until the day before, when he'd put this one together. It was mostly amateur candids and clippings from the three shoots he'd done with Neckz 'N' Throatz, because his latest work hadn't hit the stands yet and other than werewolf skin magazines, he didn't actually have a modeling career. He hadn't even had a headshot, before yesterday.
"These are pretty good," Lucy commented, tapping her immaculately-painted fingernail against one of the candid shots. "Friends help you with them?" She looked up, something like a half-smile on her face, and it could have been mocking or encouraging; Stiles didn't know her well enough to say. Lots of wolves had smiles that seemed sharp-edged, even when they weren't.
"Ah, yeah," Stiles said, and couldn't resist the urge to shift in his chair, sliding his hands down the denim over his thighs, reaching up to scratch his jaw. "I— you asked for a portfolio, and I didn't have much, so Lydia and one of our friends helped me out."
They'd done a good job of it, too, Allison sifting critically through Stiles' closet while Lydia had applied what had seemed like a massive amount of make-up to hide the scrapes and bruises. They'd dragged him to the park and taken a whole series of photos that had seemed ridiculous at the time: Stiles leaning against walls, making an idiot of himself on the jungle gym, reading one of his textbooks with a highlighter clutched between his teeth. He'd felt like a grade-A tool when they were actually taking the pictures, but Allison really was good with her digital SLR, and he was oddly proud of the photos now, watching the way Lucy's fingers drifted slowly across each picture before she turned the page.
"Lydia's a lovely girl," Lucy said, without looking up this time. "She has impeccable taste, which is why I was happy to agree to this meeting, when she suggested that a friend of hers might be a good fit for our publication."
Stiles shifted in his seat again, trying to calm down, knowing that Lucy could hear the too-fast nervous beat of his heart. "She's great," he agreed, sincerely, because Lydia wasn't just great, she was the greatest. "And thank you, for seeing me. I really appreciate you taking the time."
Lucy smiled again, turning the last page over, tapping her fingernails against the empty pages at the back. "You don't have your latest work from Marked in here," she pointed out.
Stiles tried to hide the wince, but he knew he didn't do a very good job. He'd asked Lydia to do the makeup for him again, for the interview, but she'd looked at him like he was crazy, told him no, and granted him an annoyed hair-flip as she'd turned away. Which was why the pink-edged scabs on his cheek and the ugly purple-yellow hickeys not yet faded from his throat and collarbone were clearly visible. And apparently it was obvious to everyone with eyes how he'd gotten them.
"Ah, no," Stiles said, after swallowing down his dread and shame and what felt like a hundred other emotions that just thinking about his shoot with Marked always conjured up. "It's not out yet. But even if it was, I wouldn't really want to show it to anybody."
Lucy looked up at him, folded his portfolio shut and left it face-down on her desk, covered it over with her folded hands. "Not proud of your work there?" she asked, in an entirely neutral tone of voice that told him nothing.
Shit. Stiles tried not to panic, but he was pretty sure it wasn't okay to knock your previous employers in a job interview, and what exactly was he supposed to say? He finally settled on, "I think I did okay. Everybody there seemed, you know, happy with me. It's just not an experience I'm eager to repeat."
Lucy's smile this time seemed a bit more genuine, softer, like Stiles had somehow conjured up the right answer. "In that case, you might fit in here just fine. Are you familiar with our publication, Stiles?"
"A bit, yeah," Stiles said. "I've seen Lydia's stuff, of course, and she loaned me some of her back-issues to go through."
Lucy leaned back in her chair. "So you know we're a bit different from the places you've worked before. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending entirely on you. Neckz 'N' Throatz tends to always be searching for new models and new looks. It's why they're always scouting; I'm guessing they approached you, instead of the other way around? You've done three shoots with them already, so I'm willing to bet you got snapped up by Marked because Neckz 'N' Throatz wasn't interested in booking you anymore."
Stiles nodded, trying not to look miserable about it but probably failing completely.
"I'm glad you had Lydia to point you in another direction," Lucy said, almost consolingly. "Because Marked has a high turn-over too, but it's mostly because they tend to chew humans up and spit them out. Sometimes literally. We're different here, and our readership is interested in something different, too. We offer you a trial period, just to make sure you're comfortable with the work, but after that you sign a long-term contract." She waved a hand toward the posters hung on the wall behind her desk, huge framed copies of past magazine covers, each of them featuring a pair of models instead of just one, most of them in pretty innocent poses beneath a logo reading MATED. "Our readers are interested in relationships, lifetime commitments, in the idea of being truly mated with someone. Which means that when you model with us, you work with just one other model for any intimate shoots, and you work exclusively with that model. This arrangement has its benefits, but there are also drawbacks, so I want to make sure you understand what you'd be signing up for."
"But you... want me signed up?" Stiles asked, aware that he sounded pathetically hopeful.
"Of course I want you, Stiles, you're perfect," Lucy said, and rolled her eyes like he was being an idiot. It was an expression he was familiar with because he tended to elicit it in everyone he ever talked to. "But don't sound so eager; I haven't gotten to the bad news, yet."
"Okay," Stiles said, and settled himself a little more firmly in his chair, wrapping his fingers around the arm rests like he was bracing for impact. "Hit me with it."
"I'd laugh but this isn't going to be funny for either of us," Lucy said, shooting him a look that only managed to be half-serious. "I don't actually have any unpaired models at the moment. I did have one in need of a partner, last week, but he is right at this moment doing a shoot with the model I just hired yesterday."
"Oh," Stiles said, and was glad to be so anchored in his chair because he actually deflated a little. "I see."
"The reason that's not funny for me is that that shoot's probably going to end in literal tears and it's costing me money." Lucy went on. "We have a certain number of models here, and the reason I don't tend to hire many new pairs is because we only have so many pages, and our readers have their favorite couples. There are thousands of people who buy this magazine specifically to see photos of Jackson and Lydia, or Eric and Gadil, and they keep coming back to see those same people, again and again. In Derek's case, they keep buying the magazine to find out whether they'll ever see him find somebody he's willing to keep, because he is a massive pain in my ass."
Derek. Holy shit. Stiles knew that name. Stiles had seen that name in Lydia's back-issues of the magazine, accompanied by photos that had made him want to weep. "He doesn't have a regular partner," Stiles said, half statement and half prompt. He knew Derek didn't have a regular partner. He was the only model in the magazine who appeared with somebody new in every issue.
"No, he has a string of models who are generally unwilling to work with us again after their first traumatic experience. And if he wasn't so damned handsome and our readers weren't so damned invested in him and his tragic inability to behave like a normal person, I'd have fired his ass by now. So here's the deal, Stiles. I'll give you a shot, but only with Derek. And the only way you get more work with us is if by some miracle you and Derek both like each other enough to even make it to a long-term contract. So I'm going to take you down to the studio where they're shooting. If things are going as poorly with his new partner as I'm assuming they are, and if you think you're willing to deal with Derek, and he somehow doesn't send you screaming from the room nursing your wounded ego, you're hired. On a probationary basis."
She stood up, so he did too, and when she stretched out her hand he took it, gratefully.
"Deal," Stiles agreed, wondering just what exactly the fuck he was getting into.
What he was getting into was, apparently, six feet of dark hair, broody eyebrows, ridiculously sculpted muscle and a really surly attitude. He probably should've guessed it, from Derek's photo spreads, which usually featured a lot of sour looks, but he'd thought that was just a thing that Derek did. Like Blue Steel or something. His own personal Magnum. Apparently it was just his personality.
"His sister and I were best friends in college," Lucy murmured to Stiles, as they stood outside the ring of lights and camera equipment surrounding the shoot. "So I guess I only have myself to blame for hiring him to begin with, since I already knew what an asshole he was."
The lighting technician snickered. Derek shot a glare in their direction, so obviously that whole thing had been audible to werewolf ears, but he didn't seem to be able to see them properly through the glare of the lights. Stiles at least was thankful for that, because both models were shirtless, but Derek's jeans were unbuttoned, and Stiles was experiencing certain feelings about that which were probably visible in his expression. Visible from space. Derek was about a million times more physically impressive in person. It was only slightly less embarrassing knowing that Derek couldn't see him well enough to tell exactly what Stiles was thinking.
"Derek, focus please," the photographer snapped. "Put your arms around Mason. Yes, like that, good. Mason, try to relax."
Mason looked approximately twenty million light-years away from relaxed. He looked like a prey animal ensnared by the claws of an apex predator, which to be fair was exactly his situation. He was slender and had blond bed-head and would probably look really good if he'd been paired with somebody who wasn't completely hostile toward his entire existence.
"Derek, stop terrorizing your co-workers," Lucy called out, "and wipe that frown off your face, you're a model, it's your job to look how the photographer asks you to look, and I'm going to hazard a guess here that 'miserable' isn't what he's going for."
"Stop micromanaging me, Lucy," Derek said. His voice was surprisingly mild and not as deep as Stiles would've expected from looking at him.
The frown did ease up just a little, though, and he turned his head so his face was hidden behind Mason's, dipped against the back of Mason's neck, while the photographer frantically snapped the shot.
It almost looked intimate and comfortable, like Derek was scenting Mason's neck, which Stiles had long ago learned was a big thing for werewolves, but it was Mason who mostly pulled the shot off by managing for a few bare moments to look less terrified and more... well, not comfortable exactly, but like the tension was more sexual and less circle-of-life-related.
The photographer looked at the shot on his camera's display and shared a grimace with his assistant, who was sitting in front of Stiles, reviewing the photos wirelessly on a laptop. The photographer said, "Let's break for lunch," and the 'before I attempt to kill this werewolf with my bare hands' was only implied.
"Oh my God," Lucy said, sounding exasperated, and then pointed Stiles toward the table set off to the side where there was some food laid out. "Stiles, why don't you grab something to eat? I need to have a chat with my photographer for a minute, and then I'll introduce you to Derek, okay?"
Stiles said, "Sure," and bee-lined it for the table, because he was in college and the first rule of college was never turn down free food.
The photographer's assistant and the lighting tech came over, too, and Mason came with them, looking less like he was hungry and more like he was trying to find safety in the center of the herd. They all clustered around the table, but nobody gossiped, presumably because there were werewolves in the room who would be able to hear anything they might say, and most of what they probably wanted to say was related to Derek and what a massive tool he was.
When Stiles turned around, though, his plate loaded down with an awesome sandwich and a truly ridiculous amount of chips, he saw Lucy and the photographer still engaged in some kind of earnest conversation, and Derek slumped at one of the two plastic tables set up as a lunch area, wearing a t-shirt now, which made Stiles feel simultaneously thankful and dejected. He was scowling at the tabletop, scratching at a pen mark on its surface with his fingernail, and he looked miserable, his shoulders hunched, which Stiles could only assume had to do with whatever was being said in the conversation going on on the other side of the studio space.
Stiles turned back around, grabbed another plate, and made another sandwich.
He slid the plates onto the table and dropped himself into the open chair across from Derek in more or less the same movement. Then he dug the cans out of soda out of his jacket pockets, kept a Coke for himself and slid the Coke Wolf over to Derek's side of the table.
"I got you a Coke," Stiles said, gifting Derek with a wide smile that the guy didn't seem to appreciate at all, "because the blood of your enemies wasn't available as a beverage option."
Derek didn't answer, but he did look Stiles over in a way that implied that he wasn't impressed with what he saw, and then he leaned back and crossed his arms, somehow deepened his frown while simultaneously raising an eyebrow.
"The sandwich is turkey. I'd have brought you a bloody shank of Bambi but they didn't have that, either," Stiles went on, with a disapproving tut. He didn't actually disapprove, though, because the food was surprisingly good. He already had his own sandwich in his hand and his first bite was delicious.
"Werewolf jokes," Derek finally said, his voice flat, even, and unamused. "So original."
Stiles rolled his eyes, chewed a little more before he swallowed enough of his seriously amazing sandwich to actually answer without embarrassing himself. "Please. My best friend is a werewolf and he's a cream puff. Those were 'your resting face happens to be a murder face' jokes. Those jokes were not speciesist, they were you-specific. It's a good thing that your werewolf powers don't include the ability to kill people psychically because I'm pretty sure you'd be the last man on earth."
Derek snorted, but he also eyed his sandwich like he was thinking about it, then finally picked it up, gave it a sniff, and took a bite. He popped the top on his Coke one-handed, which was a sexier move than it had any right to be.
"I'm Stiles, by the way," Stiles said, and wasn't stupid enough to offer his hand for a shake because there was no universe in which Derek was going to take it. Even aside from the guy's attitude, they both had sandwiches in their hands, and Stiles had always felt that there was an unspoken code that food trumped social conventions.
Derek made a distasteful sort of face, but it wasn't very effective because it wasn't all that different from his usual sort of face. "That's the most awful fake modeling name I've ever heard," he said, and didn't bother to introduce himself.
Stiles laughed. "It's just my nickname, actually, people have been calling me that since I was like two. My actual name is pretty much unpronounceable. Shit, I never even thought about a modeling name. I could've rebranded myself with something manly and rugged! Maybe I should do it now! What do you think? Harrison? Luke? Mace?"
Derek squinted at him. "Are you seriously equating 'manly' and 'rugged' with Star Wars-themed?"
"Maybe," Stiles said, but he bit off whatever witty rejoinder was going to spill from his lips next when Lucy's voice raised loud enough on a curse-word that even Stiles could hear it. When he turned to look she was bent over the laptop, looking at the photos from the session, and her hand was clutched hard enough around the back of the folding metal chair that it looked like she'd dented it. The photographer looked grim, and the other guys were still standing over at the catering table, clutching their plates and looking uncertain. Apparently they weren't willing to get close enough to Derek to even sit down at the other table.
When Stiles turned back to Derek he was looking down again, hunched a little further over the table, and he'd dropped his sandwich onto the plate like he'd lost his appetite, which wasn't even possible. Stiles didn't know how to cook but he totally knew how to make sandwiches. One of his jobs freshman year had been in a sub shop. He was the master of making sandwiches.
So he leaned over the table a little further too, putting down his own lunch just to signal his seriousness, and said, "What's going on?" because he knew that whatever was being said, Derek had heard it all.
"She's seriously thinking about firing me," Derek said. He sounded morose and unhappy and just resigned to it, which as far as Stiles was concerned was not okay. "Which won't be a surprise to anyone." He sighed, looking away, staring at nothing, seemingly lost in his own thoughts.
"She'd be crazy," Stiles said, and he knew Lucy could hear him if she was bothering to listen, but it wouldn't really matter if she fired Derek, would it? Because Derek was his only shot at this, too. "Look, man, she brought me down here to meet you because she knew this shoot would be going awful, right? So it can't be that bad. It's not like she's surprised."
Derek clenched his jaw a little tighter and didn't respond, which might have been because Lucy was striding in their direction, looking pissed.
When she got to the table, she put her hands flat on it and leaned over, getting right in both of their faces. Derek only looked at her, warily, mostly from the corner of his eyes. Stiles actually leaned back a little, trying to remind himself that it would literally be a criminal act for her to bite him. "Derek, you've got to be kidding me," she said, and she did actually sound pretty done with the whole thing. "That last shot is the only one that's remotely printable and your face isn't even visible in it. What does that say to you?"
"I don't—" Derek said, and then snapped his mouth shut, like he wasn't sure how to finish that sentence.
"It says that you're not exactly model material, is what it says," Lucy tells him. "Why are you even doing this? Maybe you should consider some line of work where you'd get to be bitchy at people professionally. You could work at a soup stand or become a judge on American Weretalent or something."
Derek didn't say anything, just looked down at his half-finished sandwich and waited for the ax to fall.
So it was Stiles who said, "I think he's awesome." They both stared at him, and Stiles' hind-brain started screaming that he was about to be eaten; he was pretty sure that he was crazy, but he pressed on anyway. "Lydia gave me that issue from last year, the one with the solo shoot and the little interview? I must've stared at it for an hour. I couldn't put it down." He looked at Derek, just Derek, as steadily as he could manage, and it helped that Derek's eyes had gone wide like he couldn't quite believe somebody was complimenting him. "You know that one shot, where you were sitting in the window seat, and all that light was spilling in on you? You looked like you were a million miles away but it was beautiful, man. I felt like I could see your soul."
Lucy was still staring at him, eyes narrowed, like he was an emissary from another planet and nothing he said made any sense. She straightened up, slowly, looking back and forth at the two of them, then folded her arms across her chest. Derek had looked away again, but he'd also flushed a delicate pink, which was adorable, so even if this all went down in flames and Lucy fired them both, it'd be kind of worth it, in the end.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do," she finally said. "I'm going to pay Mason — who by the way is a very nice boy who doesn't deserve to be treated like an amusing fainting goat, Derek — and I'm going to send him home. You" — she pointed at Stiles, and the finger she used suddenly had a claw instead of a fingernail — "are going to finish out this shoot with Derek. If you want to stay after that, consider yourself officially hired. And you" — this time the point of doom was for Derek — "are going to prove to me that you're actually capable of behaving like a goddamned professional, or you're gone."
Derek's scowl apparently only intensified when combined with outrage. "I can't shoot with him!" he argued, and waved a hand at Stiles like just looking at him ought to make the reasons obvious enough. "He looks like he just stepped out of a spread from Marked!" That last word he spit out like a curse, which was pretty much Stiles' feeling on the subject, too.
"We do have a make-up department," Lucy snarled back. "I'm not asking, Derek, I'm telling you how this is going to go. If you're not up for it, you're welcome to find work elsewhere. And if the two of you don't give me something that I can actually put in the magazine, then you can find another line of work, Derek, and I'll be finding Stiles here a brand new werewolf partner who isn't so goddamned anti-social. Are we clear?"
Derek grumbled and looked away, but he nodded. Stiles nodded too, eagerly, because he desperately needed the work, but also because he really wanted to work with Derek. Even if he was an asshole. Because possibly Stiles had poor judgment, or a masochistic streak, or maybe he'd developed a massive crush on a werewolf he'd seen in a magazine. Shit.
"Alright, good," Lucy said, and her voice and expression even softened a little. "I'm going to go set everything up. Derek, take Stiles upstairs to make-up and stay with him. I know it might be a novel concept for you, but try talking to him and not being a complete dick. I'll have someone come and get you both when we're ready to go down here."
Derek nodded once, sharply, then stood up, walking toward the studio door without a word. Stiles took the time to flash Lucy a grateful smile, mouthing 'thank you' at her, before he turned and jogged toward Derek's retreating back.