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The first time he sees Stiles Stilinski, the kid’s on his hands and knees in Derek’s office. And Derek’s not. In his office, that is. Derek’s not on his hands and knees either, for the record.

 

Derek is standing frozen in the hallway, gaping at the scene before him. He can’t see Stiles’ face, but he catches enough movement to realize Stiles’ head is bobbing up and down in a…suggestive manner.

 

From the sounds Stiles is making, someone’s getting a pretty fantastic blowjob in Derek’s office. And it’s not Derek. Seriously. His life.

 

Once more, Derek reads the note Laura left with Isaac. In it, she states that one Stiles Stilinski would be waiting for Derek in his office, and that Laura would swing by to “explain” after the morning’s Research Compliance meeting.

 

True, Laura is wildly unpredictable—one of the many personality traits that make her a fierce CEO and director for the Hale Process Safety Center—but Derek doubts his sister is crazy enough to send him a twink-o-gram at work. At least, he’s pretty sure she wouldn’t do that. Sure-ish?

 

Derek stuffs the note in his back pocket and nearly drops his coffee when he spots Stiles’ back arch as he begins to make gagging noises. And that’s enough to start Derek slowly inching away from his office. Even though it’s his office, he’s really not interested in getting an eyeful of—well, maybe he’s a little bit interested. No—curious. He’s curious. And curiosity is natural. It’s healthy, even. (Unless you’re a cat.) But the sexual harassment seminar HR conducts at the beginning of every fiscal year actually isn’t meant to be a tutorial, so yeah. Derek’s backing away because this entire situation is a lawsuit just begging to happen. Derek is perfectly fine waiting for Laura to show up and explain what the hell is going on.

 

In the meantime, he decides he’ll hide in the bathroom for the next half hour. He can catch up on his e-mail, maybe finally finish a game of Sudoku. Also, he can determine how he’ll eradicate the mocking stench of someone else’s satisfaction that’s sure to coat his office for the rest of the day.

 

“Ah!” Stiles hisses. “Too close, too close!”

 

But there are other things Derek can do in the bathroom as well. Like things he can’t do in his office right now, even if he wanted to. E-mail can wait. And fuck the Sudoku.

 

“Oh, my—” Stiles gasps, and then groans loudly. “Fuck! Oh, fuck!”

 

Fuck his life, actually. Derek glares balefully at his crotch, but with another breathy moan from Stiles, he’s had it. If someone else is getting his rocks off in Derek’s office—his office!—then Derek has every right to go rub one out in the bathroom.

 

But because his life is the worst, the moment Derek turns around, he literally walks straight into Peter. The collision sends them both sprawling across the floor, with Derek emitting a startled shout when his hot coffee splashes down the front of his now ruined white button-up shirt. Peter recovers first, standing up easily and dusting off his clothes—not because they’re actually dirty, but because he is a drama queen poured into the body of a well-dressed middle-aged businessman, and he really can’t help himself. That’s what Derek tells himself, anyway.

 

A lecherous grin curls Peter’s lips as he eyes Derek’s office with interest. “I wasn’t aware you’d scheduled a staff meeting for this morning.”

 

“I didn’t—There wasn’t—I mean—” Derek groans, then tosses his empty coffee cup into a trashcan before swiftly pulling himself to his feet. “Did you need something?”

 

Peter pretends to think, and after a moment, he says, “Lube?”

 

Derek wrinkles his nose in response.

 

“What?” Peter says, feigning innocence. When Derek rolls his eyes, Peter chuckles and drapes an arm across his nephew’s shoulders, carefully avoiding contact with any wet coffee stains. “You know I’m only kidding. But don’t worry; I can wait. You should probably get back in there to supervise your underlings.”

 

Before Derek can rebuke him, they’re interrupted by a pathetic whimper coming from Derek’s office. “Hello? Is anyone out there?”

 

Derek and Peter look at each other in surprise, momentarily confounded by the unexpected plea.

 

“I’d appreciate some—” A dull thumping noise cuts him off. “Ow!” Stiles whines. “Um, help? Preferably while I can still breathe?”

 

That gets them both scrambling into Derek’s office, where they find Stiles hunched over a paper shredder. He’s wearing a gunmetal gray suit with a plaid purple shirt inside and a skinny black tie, which has somehow gotten stuck in the shredder. Whenever he tries to pull himself free, the shredder activates, further destroying his tie and effectively strangling him. At this point, the shredder has clamped down on so much of Stiles’ tie, his chin is resting on the machine.

 

“Oh, thank God,” Stiles says, sighing in relief.

 

Derek feels a slight flush of embarrassment rise to his cheeks when he realizes he was about to beat off to nothing at all. Well, not nothing. He was about to get off on what ended up being some gangly man-child committing assisted suicide via office supplies.

 

Seriously. His life.

 

When he sneaks a glance at Peter, Derek discovers his uncle is already staring at him. And judging from the smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth, Peter knows exactly how to interpret Derek’s blushing.

 

“I love staff meetings,” Peter murmurs.

 

Derek scowls, and it’s all Peter can do to stifle his laughter.

 

Stiles either ignores Peter or does not hear him. In fact, he seems completely unaware of the mostly silent exchange between Derek and Peter—probably because he’s at knee-level and would need to break his neck to look at them properly—and continues talking as though he had never been interrupted.  

 

“So, at first, the thought of someone finding me like this was kind of mortifying,” Stiles explains. “But that was, like, half an hour ago, when I still had at least half a necktie and proper blood circulation. Now that I’ve had time to think on it, I’ve decided it would be way worse for someone to find me dead like this. I mean, my demise would basically be the teaser in an episode of Castle. And I wouldn’t even get to meet Nathan Fillion,” Stiles says, flailing his arms wildly, “because I’d be dead—”

 

The shredder suddenly comes to life again, reactivated by Stiles’ motion. Stiles squawks in protest and reflexively tries to pull away, but that only results in the blades speeding up, gears shrieking throughout their relentless pursuit of his tie.

 

Now Peter bursts out laughing. “Don’t move a muscle,” he tells Stiles, who is too panicked to possibly comply with the request. “I’m going to find a camera.”

 

Derek spares him a disapproving look, but Peter’s already gone, scurrying back to his own office.

 

“Charming guy—hkkk!” Stiles’ quip is cut short when the shredder jerks him down again, further constricting his tie, which results in the collar of his dress shirt puckering around his slender neck.

 

Derek kneels across from Stiles so that the shredder is between them. “Why haven’t you just unplugged it?” he insists.

 

“Because that never crossed my mind half an hour ago.” Stiles gives him a withering glare. “It’s a wireless shredder, brainiac!”

 

Derek frowns, unimpressed with the sass. “You need to stop pulling,” he says, palming the machine to search for a button that might reverse the direction of the blades.

 

“You need to get this shredder from hell to stop pulling,” Stiles replies through clenched teeth.

 

“I’m working on it,” Derek practically growls. Why won’t the kid simply do as he’s told? “It would be much easier if you would just stay still.”

 

“When I’m still, that’s how you’ll know I’m dead,” Stiles retorts.

 

Derek suppresses the urge to respond with a cutting rejoinder when he notices Stiles’ breaths are too shallow, his face too flushed. “Fuck it,” he mutters, reaching over Stiles to grab a pair of scissors from his desk.

 

“Wait—watch out!”

 

“Huh?” Derek asks, still leaning over Stiles. He looks down upon feeling a persistent tugging on his neck, and almost can’t believe what he sees: the end of his own tie—electric blue and too expensive for this shit—is disappearing into the shredder. Disregarding the delighted snickering he hears from Stiles, Derek drops the scissors, grips his tie with both hands, and attempts to yank it free.

 

He figures it’s within rational thought to assume he’s strong enough to wrench two inches of fabric out of a machine meant only to destroy paper. But then the shredder’s motor groans against the resistance, and Derek yelps as he’s knocked off his feet when the shredder consumes over half his tie before going silent again.

 

Maybe this is one of those heavy-duty shredders that also destroy credit cards and CDs. Or maybe Derek just needs to hit the gym a little harder. Less cardio, more weight training?

 

“I guess you were right about not pulling,” Stiles croaks, offering a weak smile. He’s resting his cheek against the shredder now, a thin sheen of sweat covering his pale face.

 

“Don’t be a brat,” Derek grumbles.

 

Stiles chuckles impishly in response, and Derek can feel the kid’s moist breath hit his cheek. Yuck. In what world is that not acting like a brat?

 

“Shut up.”

 

Unsurprisingly, Stiles turns a deaf ear to Derek’s demands. “If we’re going to be shredder buddies, you need to promise not to give me any stubble burn, okay?” Stiles says very seriously, his voice rough. “Because if we’re stuck here for the remainder of our short, uneventful lives, yours is as good a face as any for me to stare at for the rest of my forever. But it’s imperative you understand I have super sensitive skin, and—”

 

“Shut up!” Derek snaps. Do off buttons just not exist anymore? Because he needs one for the fucking shredder—which, by the way, he’s throwing out the window once this ridiculous situation is over—but, more importantly, he’d really appreciate an off button for his shredder buddy.

 

“Sorry,” Stiles rasps, taken aback. “It’s just that I talk when I’m stressed. Or dying.”

 

Derek snorts derisively. “Somehow, I doubt that.”



Stiles pulls a face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“It means you should shut up.”

 

Rude,” Stiles grouses. Then, he suddenly tilts his head and concentrates for a moment. “Dude,” he whispers excitedly, “are those footsteps?”

 

They both immediately stop breathing and speaking, straining to hear what does, indeed, sound like approaching footsteps. Stiles looks hopeful; as irritatingly recalcitrant as he is, Derek really can’t blame him, considering the poor kid’s been literally tied to the paper shredder for nearly an hour now. But all Derek is thinking about is how Peter went back to his office for a camera.  And Derek is never going to live it down if Peter acquires photographic evidence of this awful morning. He still hasn’t heard the end of Peter’s limitless commentary on Derek’s questionable wardrobe choices from the 90s.

 

“Anyone out there?” Stiles cries out. “Help!”

 

Derek shoots him a glare. “Shut up,” he hisses.

 

“I’m gonna need you to rotate out the verbiage, shredder buddy,” Stiles snaps.

 

Derek ignores him because the footsteps are drawing nearer, and he only has seconds to save himself from eternal mortification at Peter’s hands. He cranes his neck to peer behind him and just barely spots the scissors he’d dropped earlier. Derek stretches as far as he can so that the tips of his fingers grapple with the sharp end of the scissors; the shredder is going again, and Derek forces himself to tune out the indignant squeaks from Stiles about “not pulling.”

 

“Almost…” Derek uses his left foot to nudge the scissors closer, and can’t help the accomplished grin on his face when his fingers finally find purchase on the handles. “Got it!”

 

Of course, that’s precisely when someone snatches the scissors straight out of his hand.

 

“Oh, my God.” It’s Laura. “How does this even happen?”

 

Derek bangs his head against the shredder—the motor of which is still running—while he watches a pair of bright red stilettos quickly clip past him. He’s relieved it isn’t Peter, but he’s equally chagrined it’s his sister who has found them instead.

 

It sounds like Laura unplugs something from the wall behind Derek’s desk, and he belatedly realizes it must be the charger or whatever it is that powers the shredder. With the low, continuous whirring from the machine no longer in his ears, the loudest sound in the room is Stiles’ shallow panting. Derek turns to look at him just as Laura cuts through Stiles’ tie. The kid flops limply onto the floor, rolling onto his back, while Laura busies herself cutting through Derek’s tie.

 

Once free, Derek stands up and stretches, unbelievably glad about how things have turned out. Peter is still nowhere to be seen. “Thanks, Laura,” he breathes out as he slightly loosens his ruined tie. “You really saved my bacon.”

 

Laura doesn’t reply; she’s leaning over Stiles, who is still sprawled on the floor. His face is red, his eyes are shiny with panic, and his trembling fingers scrabble ineffectually at his own tie.

 

“Hang on,” Laura says. “Let me get that.” Her delicate fingers deftly remove the tie from Stiles’ throat, and he immediately begins gulping down air like he’ll never have enough of it.

 

“Thank you,” Stiles gasps, “so much.” He rolls onto his stomach, gets on his hands and knees, and crawls to a chair. Laura helps Stiles to lift himself into it, and when she continues to stare at him with concern, he forces a smile and breathes out, “I’m fine.”

 

Laura bites her bottom lip, unconvinced. “Honey, you’re shaking.”

 

“I just—I need—” Stiles closes his eyes and braces a hand on each of his thighs, straightens his posture in order to open up his airway, and focuses on trying to control his breathing. “Just give me a minute.”

 

Laura nods, even though Stiles can’t see her. Then, she rounds on Derek, smacking him on the arm.

 

Derek scowls, affronted, as he rubs at his arm. “No worries, Laur. I’m okay, too.”

 

Laura puts all her weight on one leg and crosses her arms over her chest. She’s wearing a sleeveless red dress that matches her heels and seems to radiate her fury. “What the hell, Derek?”

 

“What?” Derek bites out. As far as he’s concerned, he’s also a victim here, so he doesn’t understand why Laura’s aiming her Disappointed Eyebrows at him.

 

“Just because you don’t want an intern doesn’t mean you need to kill them all on sight.”

 

“Wait, what?” Derek blanches. “Intern?”

 

“Yeah,” Laura says with a satisfied shrug of her shoulders. She’s trying for casual, but hangs a left to smug instead. “Meet Stiles Stilinski,” she says with a flourish of her hand, “your new intern.”

 

Upon hearing his name, Stiles looks up wearily and waves. “Hey.” He still sounds a little winded, but at least his face has returned to a normal hue.

 

Derek’s mouth falls open, and that’s precisely when a bright flash of light blinds him. It’s followed by the sound of a camera shutter.

 

“Beautiful, dahling,” Peter purrs from behind his iPhone. He looks like Christmas has come early. “Now, give me some feeling this time.”

 

“PETER!” Derek shouts, baring his teeth. And when Peter snaps another two photos, Derek shoves him back into the hallway. “OUT!” he roars, slamming the door in his face.

 

“Derek—” Laura starts, appalled by his behavior.

 

“Sorry.” Derek clenches his fists tightly in an effort to get his temper under control. “You know what he does to me.”

 

Laura shifts her weight to her other foot and stands with arms akimbo. She doesn’t even need to say anything; the stance reminds Derek so much of their mother that it sends a pang of guilt straight to his gut and effectively sobers him. “Sorry,” he says again, sounding more sincere this time. “I know that’s not an excuse.”

 

“Damn right it’s not an excuse.” Laura purses her lips and considers her brother for a moment. “But I accept your apology.”

 

“Aww,” Stiles sighs aloud, a dreamy expression on his face. “Nepotism for the win.”

 

Laura arches an eyebrow and stares him down until he shrinks back into his chair.

 

“You guys have the same eyes. So sue me,” Stiles mutters.

 

“You seriously hired him on as an intern?” Derek insists. Then, he adds, “In any case, the requirement is one intern per full-time upper management employee per fiscal year. And I already had that Greenberg kid earlier this year. So, this knucklehead,” he juts a thumb in Stiles’ direction, “isn’t mine.”

 

“Pet names already?” Laura smirks. “Wonderful!”

 

Derek bristles, and he gets this look on his face that seems to say, “Oh, yeah?” Then, he turns to Stiles and very pleasantly states, “Stalin, you’re fired.”

 

Stalin?” Stiles balks while Laura does a terrible job of holding back a giggle.

 

“That’s your name, isn’t it?”

 

“Whose mother would name her child Stalin?” Stiles demands incredulously.

 

Derek shrugs. “Uh, Stalin’s?”

 

“Dude, his first name was Joseph,” he replies, sniggering. “And you can call me Stiles.”

 

“Okay,” Derek concedes. “Stiles, you’re fired.” And he doesn’t hide his smug grin when Stiles’ mouth falls open in disbelief.

 

“You’re not,” Laura quickly assures Stiles.

 

“Oh, you are,” Derek says, nodding.

 

Not,” Laura says with finality.

 

They hear loud laughter from outside Derek’s closed office door. “Peter!” Laura barks. “If you have time to frolic about like a souse, then that better mean you’re finished with the Federal Compliance Audit I know you were hoping to unload on Lydia.”

 

Peter immediately stops laughing. There is the faint sound of grumbling, and then shuffling footsteps leading away from the office.

 

With a sigh, Laura retrieves a bottle of water from the mini fridge under Derek’s desk and places it on the table next to Stiles. “We’ll be right back,” she says. “You’re welcome to swap out the water for something else. Please help yourself.” Then, she grabs the frayed end of Derek’s tie and uses it like a leash to drag Derek into the adjoining conference room located at the back of his office.

 

Once Laura closes the conference room door, Derek yanks his tie out of her grip. “Was that really necessary?” he complains as he removes the tattered silk from his neck. “Now that you’ve thoroughly humiliated me, care to explain?”

 

“Keep your voice down,” she hisses, gesturing for Derek to move away from the door. “The kid out there? Stiles?” she says. “He’s at the top of his class, and will most likely stay that way when he gets his degree in a year. Obviously, the Argents at Bane Chemical offered him an internship as well, but he chose us.”

 

Derek looks skeptical. “He’s at the top of his class? Him?”

 

“Funny.” Laura rolls her eyes. “We fucking poached him from the Argents, Derek. They’ve had the drop on us the past couple years. Don’t act like you’re completely unfazed.”

 

“We didn’t poach him,” Derek says defensively. “That would imply we did something wrong. If he prefers to intern with us, then it only means the kid’s got a better head on his shoulders than I had previously thought.”

 

“So, you understand why I want him interning under you.”

 

Derek snorts. “No. No way. Nope. Think again, sister.”

 

“Derek—”

 

No,” Derek says firmly. “I’m busy enough trying to thwart Gerard’s bullshit. People were still delivering fucking casseroles to our house after Mom and Dad died when he started trying to convince the board of directors his merger proposition is in the best interests of the Hale Process Safety Center.”

 

“You think I don’t know that?” Laura yells, getting in Derek’s face. “You think I don’t see how Argent’s got the board eating from the palm of his hand?” She sighs and looks away. “The way things are going, the merger isn’t a possibility—it’s an inevitability.”

 

Derek feels himself deflate. He can’t argue with Laura when she looks so crestfallen. He knows she constantly wonders what the state of things would be if their parents were still alive to run the center. “You think this Stiles kid can change everything?” he asks, his tone curious instead of accusatory.

 

“Well, nothing is certain, but he interviewed great, his recommendations are glowing, and his résumé and transcripts are kind of amazing. He really knows his stuff,” Laura says, perking up. “Plus, if he accepts a position here after the internship, don’t you think other top grads will want to work here in the future, too?”

 

Derek frowns. “Disregarding the fact that you’re gambling the future of this place on some random kid, you do realize every intern I’ve ever had has either quit or been fired, right? And the handful who received job offers from us ended up declining.”

 

“Except Greenberg,” Laura points out.

 

“Whom I fired,” Derek counters.

 

“Yeah, but he’s working down in HR now.”

 

“Only because he’s sleeping with Finstock,” Derek says. “That hardly counts.”

 

“A win is a win is a win,” Laura says. Derek’s not sure what that even means, but she continues speaking before he can ask about it. “Besides, you have to remember that Stiles chose us. He’s literally one of the brightest people on the job market right now, and he came to us of his own volition. You keep him moderately happy, and he’s sure to accept our job offer once his internship ends.”

 

She looks so hopeful, and Derek really doesn’t want to quash her optimistic outlook. But seriously, he can’t stand interns. They’re lazy and clueless, absolutely uninterested in learning about a company or industry, suffer from entitlement complexes, and basically just transform Derek’s job into that of a glorified babysitter. He did not sign up for this shit!

 

“Derek?” Laura asks warily.

 

He breathes out his response, barely audible. “Fine.”

 

Laura beams and starts bouncing on the balls of her feet. “What was that?”

 

Fine,” Derek says emphatically. He glowers as Laura stands on her toes and pecks a kiss on his cheek.

 

“Thanks, Derek. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Derek mutters, trying to appear put-upon. But he knows Laura doesn’t buy the act, and it’s not long before he returns her broad grin with a smile of his own.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Laura leaves the conference room through the back door, which leads out to the hallway, and Derek exits using the door that connects to his own office. But a cursory inspection of the room reveals his new intern is no longer in it. The only evidence of Stiles ever having been there is the unopened water bottle—the one Laura had given to him—perched near the edge of the side table next to the chair where Stiles had previously been sitting. Even the dismantled paper shredder is gone.

 

Derek crosses his office and pokes his head out the door to ask Isaac where Stiles has gone, but Isaac isn’t at his receptionist desk. He presumes Stiles and Isaac are busy disposing of the shredder, until he notices the chicken scratch on the post-it note acting as a coaster beneath Stiles’ water. Derek picks up the water bottle with one hand, and lifts the post-it note off the table with the other. He feels his stomach drop when he reads the message from Stiles: 

 

 

 

I don’t think this position is the right fit for me. Thank you for the opportunity. (And for not letting me die via paper shredder because can you even imagine the obituary for that?!)

Regards,
Stiles Stilinski

 

Derek groans as he crushes the yellow paper in his palm. Ordinarily, he would be ecstatic about a note like this from an intern. All interns should be so kind as to quit before even beginning under Derek’s tutelage. But there is also the small matter where Laura has placed entirely too much faith in what a single intern can do to save their parents’ company, and how Derek just promised he’d try his best to make things work out with Stiles. And even though Derek realizes Laura wouldn’t be angry with him if he explained that Stiles quit of his own accord, he is too familiar with Laura’s insecurities to know she will eventually find a way to make Stiles’ decision to quit evidence of her shortcomings as a CEO, director, daughter, niece, sister, and probably even human being.

 

Like hell he’s letting some anklebiter do that to his big sister.

 

So, that’s how he finds himself bolting past the elevators and sprinting down eleven flights of stairs to the lobby, praying the entire way that Stiles hasn’t left yet. Never in his life did Derek think he’d be hoping for the chance to beg an intern—the same one who destroyed a $200 Burberry necktie and inadvertently gave Derek a boner with a paper shredder (what the actual fuck), all in less than an hour—to stay. And yet, there he is, gasping for air when he reaches the lobby, looking like a complete lunatic in his disheveled state. Sweat glistens at his temples and at the nape of his neck as his eyes dart frantically across the marble floors and along the tall glass windows. But Stiles is nowhere to be found.

 

Derek grumbles about adding more cardio and weight training to his workout regimen, and is grateful he’s still holding Stiles’ water. He cracks the water open and takes a large swig from the bottle as he walks over to the security desk. Boyd glares a hole into Derek’s head by way of greeting, and he has a feeling the saturnine security guard has been silently judging him this entire time. “Boyd,” Derek says with a nod of his head.

 

“Mr. Hale,” Boyd responds, unperturbed.

 

“You haven’t validated parking for a Stiles Stilinski yet, have you?”

 

Before Boyd can answer, they hear Erica gasp, and a moment later, she appears from inside the break room. She’s in the middle of weaving her wavy blonde hair into a braid. “Stiles?” she asks. And then she gives Derek a critical once-over and grimaces, no doubt, at his messy appearance. “Boss, that’s not really how you’re supposed to do casual Friday.”

 

Boyd does a poor job of stifling his laughter. Erica seems to be the only one who can breach his stoic exterior.

 

“Stilinski,” Derek says, ignoring Erica’s remark. “Has the kid left yet?”

 

“What’s he look like?” Boyd asks, pulling a keyboard to him and placing a hand on his computer mouse.

 

“Uh,” Derek stammers. “Brown hair? About my height?”

 

“That really narrows it down,” Erica scoffs as she ties off her braid. “Thank God you’ve never been mugged.”

 

Derek bristles. “He’s wearing a fitted suit. Purple shirt. Plaid. No tie.”

 

“Uh huh.” Erica urges him to keep going as Boyd clicks away at the computer. “What else?”

 

“Well, he’s lean. And kind of pale. And sort of freckly.”

 

“You mean he has moles,” Erica supplies. It’s a statement and not a question.

 

“Yeah, moles,” he agrees. “And his eyes are—hey, wait a minute—” Derek gawks when he realizes Erica’s taken over describing Stiles.

 

“His eyes are big and round and kind, golden like honey,” Erica says with a knowing smile. “And he’s got long, dark eyelashes, full lips that must be so soft, and can we talk about that pert little ass?”

 

Derek flashes back to the shredder incident from the morning and recalls the way Stiles’ ass looked while he was on his hands and knees. It’s suddenly too hot in the lobby, and he can feel a blush creeping up his neck. With a grunt, Derek swivels the computer monitor toward him to look at Boyd’s screen and gapes when he discovers the guard has been playing Solitaire instead of searching for Stiles. Boyd’s lips twitch up into the faintest smile, which is his equivalent to the way Erica’s thrown her head back to laugh out loud at Derek’s expense.

 

Once Erica regains most of her composure, Derek tries to reign in his frustration and says, “If you’re quite finished, is Stiles here or not?”

 

She’s still tittering behind the fingers of one hand, so Erica just points toward the far corner of the lobby, past the elevators.

 

“Kid’s by the staff photos,” Boyd explains. And then his eyes twinkle as he adds, “Tell Peter he owes us.” Erica’s instantly lost in another fit of laughter.

 

One of these days, he is going to eviscerate Peter.

 

With a resigned sigh, Derek heads to the staff photo gallery, which is situated in an alcove at the rear of the lobby. It’s simultaneously his favorite and least favorite part of the building. After the chemical plant explosion that killed the majority of the Hales, no one had the heart to take down or update the photos. Now, it’s not so much a staff photo gallery as it is a memorial of the lost Hale family.

 

It’s been nearly two years since the tragedy, and investigators still have no idea what instigated the deadly explosion. Derek has his own theories, of course, but so does everyone else; the national news outlets had picked up the story. At first, it was because of the apparent concern over chemicals from the blast polluting the air. Later, coverage continued because the generated paranoia was a ratings goldmine. And after that, it was so alleged experts could harp over the irony that a company dedicated to preventing such accidents in the industry had gone and blown themselves up.

 

The insensitivity makes Derek sick with rage; the injustice of it all shatters him. He wants to concurrently steal away to the back of the lobby and avoid it at all costs. It’s just too many incongruous emotions, and Derek can’t compartmentalize well enough—

 

“Fuck you.”


Derek is pulled from his thoughts upon hearing the words, his mouth agape in shock. He knows instantly that it’s Stiles’ voice. Trying his best to be inconspicuous, Derek skulks around the corner—like a creeper is what Laura would add if she were with him.


Just as Boyd and Erica had indicated, Stiles is gazing up at the staff photos. He’s got his arms crossed over his chest, but what has Derek speechless now is the fact that Stiles is staring directly at Derek’s portrait.

 

Derek quells his annoyance at Stiles’ brazen behavior and, instead, tries to figure out why Stiles would be so angry with him. But then—why wouldn’t the kid be angry? He nearly suffocated to death, probably overheard Derek and Laura bickering over hiring him, and he’s out of a job.

 

Stiles continues his monologue, clearly unaware he’s being observed. “Yeah. Fuck you,” he says again, nodding in earnest. “And by that, I mean I would like to fuck you.”

 

What.

 

“Really hard.”

 

What.

 

“In the butt.”

 

Derek stares open-mouthed in astonishment.

 

Okay. So, that’s new. And awkward. And unexpected. And probably something HR would frown upon. Although, Stiles isn’t really an employee right now. And interns are unpaid, so would he even be considered an employee? And…and what even?!

 

“Hey, dude.” Derek jolts, momentarily terrified his creeping ways have been identified, but then he relaxes when he registers Stiles is on his cell phone. He’s pacing in front of the portraits in a distracted sort of way while he listens to the other person on the line. Meanwhile, Derek continues to lurk at his corner. Like a creeper. (Because Laura is always right, even when she’s not there. How does she do that?)

 

“So, you probably won’t understand this until I explain everything later, but I’ll eat my tie if your morning has sucked more than mine.”

 

After a brief pause, Stiles pulls a face. “Dude, no! Not that kind of suck.” He makes exaggerated gagging noises into the phone. “I mean, good for you, Scott. Not that I have any desire, whatsoever, to know the details of your sex life with Allison, but I wish that’s the kind of suckage I got to experience this morning.”

 

Stiles stops talking again, presumably to listen to what Scott’s saying.

 

“I dunno, man,” Stiles says. “Like, I think I got the job? But I just can’t do it.” He sighs dejectedly. “I’m literally staring at their stupidly gorgeous faces right now, and I seriously can’t go through with it.”

 

Derek scowls. Is it good or bad to be stupidly gorgeous? And what does his face (and its apparent stupidness or gorgeousness) have to do with Stiles’ internship? But then he calls to mind what Stiles had been muttering before the phone call to Scott, and decides it must be a good thing. And that revelation brings with it a stupidly tingly feeling in his gut, which Derek hopes is indigestion because the only alternative is his inner fourteen-year-old reacting stupidly to a pretty boy who likes him—who likes him, likes him. And who would like to fuck him.

 

“I’m going back to Bane Chemical after lunch,” Stiles says. “I mean, it’s gonna suck working for the Argents all summer, but at least it’s just for the summer, y’know? And they’re still going to pay me, so it’s not entirely a lose-lose situation.”

 

Derek feels his eyebrows rise in surprise. The kid knew ahead of time the Hales’ funding doesn’t support paid internships, and he still picked Hale over Argent? Surely, Stiles must have rationalized the situation on his own, and his decision to work for the Hales most likely has nothing to do with any underlying loyalty to the Hales over the Argents. Nevertheless, Derek can’t help but feel a strange swell of pride over Stiles’ distaste for working at Bane Chemical. A spontaneous surge of determination floods Derek’s system, and it clearly marks the moment he boards the Laura Hale Crazy Train. He suddenly finds he’s overwhelmingly committed to convincing Stiles to stay with the Hale Process Safety Center.

 

Stiles’ voice forces Derek to focus once more on his soon-to-be intern. “Not all of us get to have sucky mornings with the boss’s daughter,” Stiles chides. “And that’s exactly why your opinion about them doesn’t count.”

 

A moment later, laughter bubbles up past Stiles’ lips. “Whatever, man.” A proper grin lights up his features, and Derek is slightly startled when he realizes he’s smiling as well—in response to Stiles’ grin. “If we’re still on for late lunch, we’re doing Mexican. But I will kill you if you eat your weight in chile rellenos again. Seriously, I will. I drive a car with holes instead of windows, and I still can’t get the smell out from last time. Man, I’m not even lying,” he insists. “Your ass will be grass, McCall.”

 

Stiles frowns after a quick reply from Scott. “I don’t know what it means! It’s just a saying, dude,” he says, flinging his free arm about even though his friend isn’t there to see the gesture. “Go be productive. I gotta grace the rest of the planet with my fine ass, so I’m hanging up now. Bye.”

 

Derek takes a deep breath and braces himself. It’s go time. He’s going to woo the pants off Stiles Stilinski.

 

Well, not literally.

 

Probably not literally.

 

Not yet, anyway.

 

And it’s just a saying. Sort of? So, whatever.

 

But before he can actually do anything at all, regardless of whether or not Stiles’ pants are involved, Stiles spins around and stares straight at him. Derek comically glances over his shoulder, desperately wishes Stiles is actually looking at someone else, but he’s granted no such luck. They’re the only two people this far back in the lobby. Derek’s been caught. What’s worse is he can’t think of a single thing to say.

 

Fortunately, Stiles doesn’t have any problems filling the silence between them. “Hope you can get your money back.”

 

Derek swallows. His tongue is thick in his mouth, and he feels pinned like a butterfly under Stiles’ piercing gaze. “Huh?” he finally manages.

 

Stiles elucidates his quip. “From your ninja classes. Cuz stealthy, you are not.”

 

Derek rolls his eyes.

 

“I saw your reflection.” Stiles points at the staff photo frames and shifts to stand with arms akimbo. “How long have you been eavesdropping? And don’t try to tell me you weren’t.” He gestures at the half-finished bottle of water Derek is holding. “I doubt you came down here to give me my water.”

 

Derek wishes the floor would just swallow him up. Precisely when did Stiles catch his reflection? Does Stiles know that Derek knows that Stiles, apparently, wants to fuck Derek? Is this a test? Shit.

 

“Well?”

 

Derek abandons the not-so-covert corner and shakes off his anxiety as he makes his way to Stiles. “Long enough,” he replies when he finally figures out how to use words again. “You’re going to Bane Chemical, and you’re not all that enthusiastic about it. So, why not work here instead?”

 

Stiles guffaws at the suggestion. “Um, because you fired me before I even started? I’m not enthusiastic about working somewhere that doesn’t even want me.” When Stiles moves to leave, Derek shuffles sideways to block him. “Dude,” Stiles says, unimpressed.

 

“Hang on. Just hear me out,” Derek implores, the words tumbling from his mouth. “I admit I may have been somewhat rash in firing you. Brash, even. It was impetuous, and I apologize for that. It’s…been a morning.”

 

Stiles snorts derisively and looks away, but Derek counts it as a win because he’s no longer trying to step past Derek. He backs up to give him some space and continues with his wooing. “You did choose to work here at one point, right? Can I ask why?”

 

“No,” Stiles says stiffly. “And I really don’t see how that matters now.”

 

“Okay. That’s fine,” Derek says calmly. “I just think we got off on the wrong foot. I know you interviewed with Laura, but from what she tells me, you’d be an incredible asset to this company. I think you can be happy working here, too.”

 

Stiles gnaws at the inside of his cheek. He’s looking anywhere but at Derek, but it’s clear he’s paying attention to the proposition.

 

“We still can’t offer a paid internship like Bane Chemical, but if there’s anything else I can do to convince you to stay, just say the word.”

 

Stiles raises a single eyebrow and finally looks up. “Anything?”

 

Derek makes an amused sound at the back of his throat. “Within reason.”

 

“That depends on how you define reason,” Stiles counters.

 

“It does,” Derek concedes.

 

Stiles gets a mischievous glint in his eyes, like he’s about to issue a challenge. “What if I want you to bring me tea every morning? And not tea brewed from store-bought teabags. I want bona fide tealeaf action.”

 

“Uh, sure,” Derek says. “Too good for coffee?”

 

“Too considerate.” Stiles flourishes a hand at his own body. “You wouldn’t be able to handle a caffeinated Stiles Stilinski. Trust me.”

 

“Fine.” There’s an organic teashop near Derek’s loft. Easy. “Anything else?”

 

“Really?” Stiles blinks owlishly, like he can’t believe Derek agreed to his request. “Well, now I’m suspicious.” He narrows his eyes. “What’s the catch?”

 

Derek frowns. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean you’re exerting a lot of effort to hire a freaking intern. Why me?”

 

“Because you’re the best. Evidently,” Derek adds hastily. “Moreover, this is my family’s company. It’s all I have left of them, and I—” he stammers, unsure of how he ought to end the sentence.

 

“You want to do right by them,” Stiles supplies.

 

“Yeah.” Derek nods. “Exactly.”

 

Stiles sighs. “I get that,” he says, though he looks conflicted.

 

“I’m sensing a but,” Derek says. “What is it?”

 

Stiles only bites nervously at his bottom lip, a pensive expression shadowing his face.

 

“Listen. Let’s do a one-week trial run.” Derek smiles when that clearly sparks Stiles’ interest. “Work for me for the next week, and if you like it, then you commit to a full summer internship. And if you don’t, well, I’ll be sorry to see you go.”

 

“Could I have full security clearance to the library?” Stiles asks tentatively. “So I can check out books, videos, files—whatever I want.”

 

After a moment, Derek says, “That can be arranged.”

 

“Wow. Okay. Cool.” Stiles is visibly pleased.

 

“Anything else?”

 

“Yeah. One more thing.” Stiles fidgets nervously. “Can I have Friday afternoons off?”

 

Derek carefully studies Stiles. It’s fairly minor as far as demands go, especially because Stiles is an unpaid intern, so Derek has no trouble being amenable to the request. But his curiosity gets the best of him. “How come?”

 

“Lunch with my mom,” Stiles responds with a shrug of one shoulder. He’s trying for casual but doesn’t quite manage it.

 

“That’s fine.”

 

“Cool,” Stiles says, relaxing slightly. “So, one week?”

 

“One week,” Derek confirms. Then, he extends a hand, and Stiles grips it in a firm handshake. “Welcome aboard.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The instant the elevator doors slide open on the twelfth floor, Laura is storming toward Derek and Stiles, and Isaac is worriedly trailing after her. “You realize your shirt looks like one giant pit stain, right?”

 

Stiles bites his bottom lip to smother a laugh, but it doesn’t really work. “What?” he says when Derek scowls at him. “She’s not wrong.”

 

“It doesn’t look that bad,” Isaac offers meekly.

 

Laura rolls her eyes.

 

“I can just—” Derek starts, but Laura effortlessly silences him with one stern glare.

 

“I will slay you if you even think it’s okay to simply throw a blazer over it.” Laura’s hand darts forward to prevent the elevator doors from sliding shut. “What have you been doing all morning anyway?”

 

Wooing Stiles had taken somewhat longer than anticipated, and he can’t really explain the circumstances of his deal with Stiles while Stiles is in front of them. In fact, Derek hopes he never has to explain the situation to Laura. So, Derek slings an arm across Stiles’ shoulders, ignores the way the kid goes bug-eyed, and says, “Giving my new intern the grand tour.”

 

Laura looks skeptical.

 

“Uh, yep. Lobby, elevator, twelfth floor.” Stiles squirms under the attention. “Got it, boss.”

 

Derek pinches the bridge of his nose and groans softly. His genius intern, ladies and gentlemen.

 

“Why are you the way that you are?” Laura demands. And as Derek tries (and fails) to muster up an answer, she huffs at him and says, “I don’t care. Just fix it. And don’t screw up your lunch meeting with Chris Argent.” Then, she vanishes in a flurry of dark hair and sass.

 

“Wow,” Stiles breathes out as he and Derek finally step out of the elevator and begin walking back to Derek’s office. “Your sister’s kind of amazing. And maybe kind of terrifying?”

 

Definitely kind of terrifying,” Isaac corrects.

 

“So, how come you’re having a meeting with Argent?” Stiles asks. “Bane Chemical is your top competitor. What’s the point?”

 

“It’s a good faith move,” Derek explains. “It shows OSHA—that’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—that we’re actively working with the rest of the industry to determine the cause of the chemical plant explosion from a couple years ago.”

 

“Oh. Oh, my God. Yeah. I—” Stiles’ eyes widen as he stammers. “I’m so sorry. I mean, um—about the—”

 

“Thank you,” Derek says curtly. “You don’t need to tip-toe around the topic. It’s important we figure out what went wrong that day.”

 

“Yeah, of course. Risk assessment. Risk management. Go team!” Stiles rambles.

 

Derek raises an eyebrow, and Isaac looks on sympathetically at the train wreck that is Stiles Stilinski. “I can take your shirt to be dry cleaned,” Isaac says in a welcome attempt to change the subject. Sheepishly, he adds, “It actually is just as bad as Laura claims.”

 

“I’d appreciate that.” Derek says with a wry smile. He starts to unbutton his shirt once they’re in his office again, and then curses when he discovers the spilled coffee seeped through his dress shirt and substantially stained his undershirt, too. “Shit,” Derek says, glancing at his watch. “I’ve got a video conference with the board in fifteen minutes.”

 

“Don’t you have an extra shirt or something in your desk?” Stiles asks. “Or, like, in a secret closet or whatever?”

 

Derek pulls a face. “Who do you think I am? Don Draper?”

 

“I was actually thinking Harvey Specter, but whatever,” Stiles mutters. “Anyway, judging from Isaac’s killer Iron Man shirt, I’m guessing casual Friday is a thing here?”

 

Isaac beams and Derek nods.

 

“Cool,” Stiles says, unbuttoning his own shirt now. “I know you won’t fit into my dress shirt, but how about you wear my undershirt for the video conference, and I run out and get you a new dress shirt before your big lunch meeting?”

 

Derek figures this is his best option, but he promptly changes his mind when Stiles takes off his button-up shirt to reveal his undershirt is a blinding bright orange. And that isn’t even the worst part; in giant, white block letters, the shirt announces MY TACO SPARKLES.

 

After some spluttering, all Derek can manage is a single mortified, drawn out syllable: “Why?

 

“Why is my shirt so awesome?” Stiles smirks. “Listen, you either wear your undershirt and look like Brad Pit-Stain or you wear mine and look awesome. Or,” he adds as an afterthought, “if Isaac lets you, you can wear his Iron Man shirt and look awesomer.” He shares a grin with Isaac. “If you ask me, the choice is pretty clear.”

 

Derek begs to differ. He either gets to look like a hobo, a traffic cone, or a teenager. However, only one of those options will also give him a glimpse of Stiles without a shirt on. And after all that skulking around the lobby and sporadically thinking about Stiles’ ass and fake blowjobs and real boners all morning, Derek has come to terms with what a creeper he is. He’s at peace with it, and his conscience can suck it.


As he hands his shirt to Isaac, Derek says, “Sorry. I’m a DC Comics kind of guy.”

 

Stiles clutches dramatically at his heart. “Shut your mouth, heathen!”

 

“No offense taken,” Isaac replies as Derek rushes him out to the elevator. “And I’ll help Stiles with his new employee paperwork when I return.” But Derek is already hurrying back to his office before Isaac is even halfway through the sentence.

 

Much to his chagrin, Derek catches only a flash of Stiles’ midriff as he finishes buttoning up his plaid purple shirt. “Here,” Stiles says, pushing the horrible orange shirt at Derek. “So, do you live near enough for me to get a shirt from your house? Or am I buying you a new one?”

 

Derek glances down miserably at the shirt, then at Stiles, and then at the shirt again. It can’t possibly be natural to take off and put on clothes that quickly. And if it is, then it can’t be natural for Derek to never get what he wants. He’d just wanted one impromptu strip tease. One. Although, it wouldn’t have been impromptu so much as it would have been voyeuristic. But Derek is already okay with the creeper factor, so the universe just needs to get on board and quit with the teasing.

 

“You should see your face.” Stiles cringes. “You must really hate this shirt.”

 

“You have no idea.” Derek shuts his door and strips out of his stained undershirt as fast as he can (okay, it’s actually fairly easy to change quickly, which only serves to prove the universe obviously doesn’t want Derek to be happy).

 

“Holy crap.” Stiles gawks unabashedly at Derek’s abs. “I just rediscovered every single body image issue I thought I’d overcome after high school.”

 

Instead of responding, Derek snatches Stiles’ shirt from his hands. He pulls it on over his head and can’t help the frustrated little noises he makes in the back of his throat as he tries to stretch it across his torso; it’s a tight fit. Although he and Stiles are around the same height, Derek is at least twice as bulky. If the office temperature drops a few degrees, he’s pretty sure his nipples will slice through the orange fabric, and won’t that be an interesting addition to the board meeting minutes?

 

Stiles squeaks at the sight before him. He looks positively delighted.

 

“Not a word,” Derek bites out.

 

“No, it looks good,” Stiles assures. “Like, you should burn the rest of your shirts and only wear this one for the rest of your life. That’s how good it looks.”

 

“Those are words.” Derek twists around and pulls at the shirt so it covers more of his butt, and then curses when that results in the shirt riding up to expose his stomach. “I hate everything. So much.”

 

“Seriously, it’s not that bad,” Stiles says, placating. “And you’ll be sitting for the meeting, right? So, like, maybe stop pulling at the hem?”

 

Derek raises an eyebrow.

 

“You’re stretching it out,” Stiles whines.

 

Derek twitches as he forces himself not to tug at the hem. He’s not even moving around very much, but the shirt is slowly inching up his torso. With a resigned sigh, he picks up a memo pad from his desk and jots down an address, phone number, and name on it. “You know the strip mall off 19th and Wellborn?” When Stiles nods, Derek tears off the sheet he’s been writing on. “Here’s the address and phone number for the suit store that’s there.” He gestures to the name written under the information. “Ask for Floyd. They’ve got all my measurements on file. Get me a shirt and tie, and tell them to charge it to my account.”

 

Stiles folds the paper in quarters and slips it into his back pocket. “Got it,” he says, focused. “That all?”  

 

“Go ahead and get yourself a tie or whatever you want since yours—”

 

“Dude,” Stiles interrupts him. “Not necessary. I got my tie at Costco. It cost less than ten bucks.”

 

If there’s ever been a time when he wore Costco ties, Derek thinks he’s wisely blocked it from his memory. Because seriously, Costco? “Just get yourself a tie, okay? Consider it a welcome gift.”

 

Stiles shrugs his shoulders. “If you say so,” he says, heading out to the elevator. “Hang in there, bossman.”

 

And that’s exactly when Peter pokes his head into Derek’s office. He drinks in Derek’s wardrobe, and his expression twists into one of utmost glee. “Is it my birthday or something?” Peter whips out his camera phone and snaps a couple photos of Derek. “I love everything about today.”

 

“Stiles!” Derek shouts out as he tries to pluck the phone away from Peter. “Hurry.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The video conference with the board of directors gets underway when all four of the video monitors in Derek’s private conference room flicker to life, and the one featuring Gerard Argent’s head immediately points out how Derek looks like a Cheeto. Derek doesn’t mention how Gerard resembles a disgusting, leathery piece of man jerky, but he thinks it. He thinks it really hard.

 

When Kate Argent scoots in next to Gerard and gives him a disparaging smile, Derek’s had it. He addresses the screen featuring Alan Deaton, the wealthiest shareholder outside the Hales. “I thought this was a board meeting.” He doesn’t even try to mask the utter revulsion that seeps into his tone. “Who invited Bane Chemical?” Meetings with the board of directors only ever involve the Hales, their company shareholders, and, on occasion, proxies for shareholders.

 

“We all did,” Deaton says, and the shareholders pictured on the other screens nod to indicate their common consent. “We want to discuss the possibility of a Hale-Argent merger once more.”

 

“You’ve got to be joking.” But when the people on all four screens calmly stare at him with what must be pity, Derek sees red. This is an ambush. “No!” he yells. “The answer is and always will be no.”

 

Your answer might always be no,” Adrian Harris pipes up from the screen mounted to the right of the one displaying Deaton, “but that isn’t necessarily true for the entire board.”

 

Derek exhales, long and slow. This is bad. Both Deaton and Harris are old acquaintances of his parents. Derek’s never been particularly fond of either, but they’ve both always demonstrated an admirable sense of loyalty to the memory of his parents. For both Deaton and Harris to be so eager about the merger now is cause for concern. “Has something changed?” Derek swallows thickly. “Why readdress the merger now?”

 

On the screen to the very left, Derek sees Kate is practically bursting at the seams, like she’s just barely holding in a juicy secret.

 

“Not necessarily.” Deaton presses his lips in a thin line. “Ms. Morrell, as you’re the one who proposed reviewing the possibility of a merger, would you care to explain?”

 

“Of course,” Morrell responds, her tone icy and mysterious. Derek doesn’t know much about her; Deaton brought her on as a new shareholder soon after the deadly chemical plant explosion. “I think I can safely speak for my fellow fiduciaries when I say we still value the Hale Process Safety Center’s mission—to improve safety standards and procedures. But in the last two years, productivity has noticeably faltered, your sources of funding are dwindling, and your competitors are surpassing you.”

 

Derek sighs. “The past couple years have been tough, and I suppose productivity has slowed somewhat, but what the center is producing is well above industry standards and is more than competitive.”

 

“To be fair, your assessment is subjective,” Deaton argues.

 

“What about the funding issue?” Harris presses.

 

“Funding isn’t dwindling,” Derek replies. “We have always been funded by endowments, consortium funding, and contract projects.”

 

Morrell shuffles through some papers in front of her, and then holds up a line graph that briefly rises before almost completely plateauing. “You haven’t received enough new funding,” she explains. “With the industry expanding at a practically exponential rate, your center is going to drown within a year without new funding.”

 

Derek purses his lips together in defeat. He knows Morrell’s right, but he had expected the board wouldn’t put it together for at least another month or two. He had hoped for more time to determine how to resolve the funding issue.

 

“We realize this circumstance is due to no fault on your part, Derek,” Deaton says. “But facts are facts. We believe in this company. We support the mission your family set out to accomplish. And I would hate to see it all fail due to prideful ignorance.”

 

Prideful ignorance?” Derek rages at the insinuation. “What the hell, Alan? I’m perfectly aware of everything that goes on in this company. Everything. Simply because you’ve known me all my life doesn’t mean I’m still a child.” Derek does his best to casually cross his arms across the MY TACO SPARKLES text on his shirt, but the giggle from Kate tells him the movement doesn’t go unnoticed. Fucking hell.

 

Deaton gets this look on his face that’s a cross between embarrassment and disdain, and it makes Derek feel like he’s eleven again and has just throw a tantrum at one of his parents’ business dinners. “Derek, calm down.”

 

The berating words have the exact opposite effect, of course. “Calm down?” Derek yells. “You’re lucky I’m even entertaining this poorly veiled excuse for a coup.”

 

“Mr. Hale, please,” Gerard says. He wears an expression of commiseration, as though the betrayal Derek feels is just as painful for him. “Once the merger is finalized, I would be more than happy to secure the services of you and your employees. And as a division of Bane Chemical, my company can be a source of consortium funding that is sure to keep afloat the Argent Process Safety Center.”

 

Derek mouths wordlessly for a long second, completely aghast. “The Argent Process Safety Center?” he demands, white-knuckling the edge of the conference table. “Are you kidding?”

 

Kate laughs, a noise that is high and shrill and makes Derek want to vomit a little. “Why would we be kidding, Der? It wouldn’t really make sense to have an Argent subsidiary called Hale.”

 

“I suppose we could call it the Bane Chemical Process Safety Center,” Gerard suggests. But then he dismisses his own idea. “No, I think it sounds better the other way.”

 

“Definitely.” A sinister grin pulls at Kate’s lips. “Just rolls off your tongue.”

 

Derek rubs a hand down his face. “Enough!” he practically growls at the Argents. Then, he addresses Deaton, Harris, and Morrell. “I hardly think this hostile takeover crap is kosher. At least give the Hale Process Safety Center a chance to prove the merger is—” Derek wavers for a moment. The worst idea ever? A huge fucking mistake? A sign of the impending apocalypse? “The merger is unnecessary,” Derek finishes, keeping things civil.

 

“That’s fair,” Morrell says, but it comes across indifferent. “Although, I think we’ve already proven why the merger is necessary.”

 

“Now, now. I think Mr. Hale deserves the opportunity to present his case,” Gerard says like he’s entertaining the whims of a small child. “Give the boy a chance to fight for his company.”

 

Derek wants to punch him in the face. “I appreciate the charity,” he says snidely, “but I doubt your opinion counts at all, unless we need to discuss a conflict of duty and interest clause?” Derek raises his eyebrows and looks pointedly at the board members, which effectively shuts up Gerard.

 

Harris shrugs. “I would be interested in hearing your case.”

 

“As would I,” Deaton agrees.

 

There is a pregnant pause until Morrell realizes everyone is waiting for an answer from her. “I said it would be fair, didn’t I?”

 

“You haven’t confirmed you won’t fetter your discretion,” Derek says.

 

“Semantics,” Morrell reasons with an unconcerned wave of a hand. “Don’t worry about me. I can be objective. Prepare your case.”

 

“Very well,” Deaton says. “I move that we reconvene in a week to hear Derek’s case. If we decide to go through with the merger at that time, we will finalize all details the following week.”

 

Derek feels his mouth go dry. A week is hardly enough time to prepare a compelling presentation, but what kills him is if he fails, the merger is scheduled to take place on the two-year anniversary of the chemical plant explosion.

 

As if from far away, Derek hears Deaton say, “Does anyone second my movement?” And both Harris and Morrell instantly do. Everything happens quickly after that. Derek thinks he might say a word or two as everyone signs off, and suddenly, all the screens are glossy and black and silent, and he’s still sitting there in complete shock, wondering what the hell just happened.

 

~ ~ ~

 

For once in her life, Laura is absolutely speechless after Derek finishes explaining the highlights of the board meeting. She hadn’t even commented on his shirt when he’d raced into her office; one look at Derek’s face, and she knew something was wrong. “I thought I was buying us time by proposing we ought to have a chance to make our case, but I didn’t realize it would only be a week.” Derek fidgets nervously in his chair. “I’m sorry.”

 

Laura just runs a nervous hand through her hair, still processing, but Peter speaks up. “Why couldn’t you simply say a week isn’t enough time?” he insists, calmly seething in the chair next to Derek’s. “You could have lied and made up a conflict for next Friday—a funeral, a religious holy day, a surgery, an eyebrow waxing appointment. Practically anything would have sufficed!”

 

I’m sorry,” Derek says again, but there isn’t any heat behind the words. “The meeting was over before I even knew what happened.”

 

“Before you even knew what happened?” Peter parrots. “What kind of explanation is that?” he demands. “This is our livelihood, Derek. Dammit!”

 

“Stop fighting,” Laura says wearily. “It’s not his fault.” It’s mine, she doesn’t say. Laura is typically silent in her self-deprecation.

 

“I’ll handle it, Laura,” Derek says. Because he honestly wants to. He needs to. The meeting could’ve gone better—obviously. He had already known about the funding issue, and should’ve figured out a solution for it before the board brought it up. He should’ve been prepared enough to adequately answer all the questions and concerns from the board today. Despite what Laura might think, this is on him, and he’s going to take responsibility for it. “I’ll take care of the presentation,” he assures her.

 

Peter looks at him incredulously. “Like you took care of the video conference?”

 

“Peter,” Laura says in a warning tone.

 

“What?” he snaps. “Where do you draw the line with Derek’s charming little screw-ups? Are you waiting until he’s got another Argent sitting in his lap? Because that’s literally what’s about to happen.”

 

Derek cringes.

 

Peter!”

 

He rolls his eyes and looks away bitterly. “You can’t baby him forever, Laura.”

 

“I hardly think you have any right to comment on people behaving like babies,” she quips.

 

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Peter says.

 

“Shut up,” Laura hisses. “Derek, I appreciate the offer to handle the board meeting next week. I’ll let you take lead, but you’re not doing this alone.”

 

“But I can do it,” Derek insists. “I’ll fix this.”

 

“I have no doubt you can, but you’ll need to shelf the guilt complex,” Laura says. “This is our company, so we’re going to save it together. You two are with me, right?”

 

“Always,” Derek says resolutely as Peter nods firmly.

 

“Aren’t you a pair of adorable sheep?” Laura grins as she twists her hair into chignon. “Peter and I will work on a game plan. Derek, you should head out for your lunch meeting with Chris Argent.”

 

“Tell me you’re wearing anything else,” Peter implores. “While I find it admirable you’re so open with the state of your…taco,” he gestures at Derek’s crotch, “I think we should limit the sharing of that type of information to meetings with your body glitter specialist and to when I’m making your life hell.”

 

Derek flushes as he crosses his arms over his chest. “I’m not wearing this by choice. You’re the one who made me spill coffee all over myself this morning. This,” he points to his orange torso, “is your fault!”

 

“And that’s your backup shirt? That?” Peter snorts.

 

“No,” Derek says indignantly. “This is the intern’s. He’s letting me borrow it while he fetches me a new shirt and tie.”

 

Laura’s mouth falls open. “You can’t treat Stiles like a gopher.”

 

Peter pulls a face. “The kid’s an intern. They exist to do bitch work.”

 

“It’s not bitch work, and I’m not turning him into a gopher,” Derek says defensively. “It was kind of an emergency, and he seemed happy enough to help.”

 

“Well, duh,” Laura says. “That’s because he’s a professional.”

 

“A professional intern?” Peter says skeptically. He smirks, steals a glance at Derek, and mumbles, “He’s a professional something, all right.”

 

Derek feels himself beginning to blush again. “And that’s my cue to leave,” he says, getting up. “We’ll regroup after lunch.”

 

Just as he’s halfway out the door, Peter calls out in a deceptively saccharine voice, “Hey, Derek?” When Derek raises his eyebrows in acknowledgement, Peter’s tone takes on a grim edge as he warns, “Don’t screw this up.”

 

“I wasn’t really planning on it,” Derek replies flatly.

 

Peter hums thoughtfully. “It would do you well to remember plans—especially yours—are like candy to the fates.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Derek is uploading the video and transcript from the board meeting to the shared drive, in case Laura or Peter wishes to review it, when Jackson, Lydia’s student worker, barges into Derek’s office and unceremoniously plops a shopping bag onto his desk. “Here.” Jackson sighs, long and slow, absolutely put-upon by the entire situation, and then turns to leave.

 

“Thank you?” Derek says.

 

“Uh huh,” Jackson grunts.

 

Worst student worker ever.

 

Derek peers into the bag to discover a three-pack of sleeveless white undershirts and two dress shirts—a white one that resembles the one he’d been wearing and a black one. He also finds two small gray boxes, inside of which he knows are silk ties. On the back of the receipt at the bottom of the bag, Derek recognizes Stiles’ messy scrawl:  

 

 

 

I got you duplicates of the shirt and tie that got ruined this morning. Floyd says you can return the other two items if you don’t like them. Or maybe you can stash them in your desk like Don Draper or Harvey Specter.

P.S. Thanks for the new tie.

Until Monday,
Stiles Stilinski

 

Derek smiles, and he’s not quite sure why. Pocketing the receipt, he opens the first tie box to find a tie identical to the destroyed blue Burberry tie from the morning’s paper shredder debacle, and inside the second box is a bright red tie with tiny red diamonds stitched into the silk.

 

He sets the white shirt and blue tie aside, and then unrolls the red tie and holds it against the black shirt, carefully considering the combination.

 

“I like it.”

 

Derek looks up at hearing Isaac’s voice at the door.

 

“Stiles picked it out,” Derek replies.

 

“Gonna wear it to lunch?” Isaac asks, walking in cradling a packet of papers to his chest. He sits in the chair across from Derek’s desk. “Red is supposed to mean power, isn’t it?”

 

“Hell if I know,” Derek says with a shrug. “I thought it symbolized anger.”

 

“Or love?”

 

Derek hesitates a moment. “What do you think Stiles thinks it means?”

 

“He’s wearing a gray suit, a plaid purple shirt, and a black tie. I think he could care less what a red tie means.” Isaac hands the packet of papers to Derek. “Here’s his new employee paperwork. I marked the places where I need your signature or Laura’s.”

 

Derek begins to flip through the pile, scribbling his signature across the lines Isaac has indicated. “Where is he anyway?” He’s trying for casual and misses by a mile. “Not that I wasn’t thrilled to see Jackson.”


Isaac chuckles. “He’s with Finstock, doing HR stuff. After that, he’s swinging by Danny’s to get an ID card and stuff. Speaking of which, is he really supposed to get full security clearance for the research library? That’s a little unusual, isn’t it?”

 

“Is it?” Derek honestly doesn’t know, considering he’s never given much thought to interns before now. “He’s a brain. He probably just wants access to everything in there simply so he has access to it.” Shrugging, he adds, “Besides, this is probably a good thing. Big board meeting next Friday, so I’ll probably have him in there doing research for most of next week.”

 

Jackson pokes his head into the office, and after another one of his long-suffering sighs, announces, “Your car service called. They’ll be here in ten minutes.”

 

Derek nods his thanks and has to stifle a laugh when Isaac quips, “You’re such a ray of sunshine, Jackson. What’s your secret?”

 

Jackson rolls his eyes and holds a manila folder in front of his hand. “Guess how many fingers I’m holding up, Lahey.” He sneers when Isaac gets the joke, and then leaves in a huff.

 

“Worst student worker ever,” Isaac says as he gathers up Stiles’ paperwork once more.

 

After Isaac leaves, Derek puts on his new clothes and stores Stiles’ undershirt and the extra shirt and tie in a large drawer at the bottom of his desk. Clad completely in black, Derek feels a little like a Bond villain, and the pop of color from the red tie really does make him feel powerful. He’s surprisingly pleased with how the look comes together, and in spite of the disaster of a board meeting from the morning, the new clothes make him feel confident about his lunch meeting—that is, until the restaurant hostess leads him to his table.

 

“You clean up nice as ever,” Kate Argent says, peeking over her menu as the hostess walks away. “I’ve been eying the cannoli for dessert,” she murmurs in a low, conspiratorial whisper, “but now I think I’m craving yours.”

 

“I think I just lost my appetite.” Derek grits his teeth as he scans the restaurant for any signs of Chris. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Having lunch,” she replies blithely. “Aren’t you going to sit down?”

 

“Where’s Chris?”

 

Kate pouts. “I’m afraid it’s just me today.”

 

“You’re not supposed to be here at all,” Derek says, irritated. “I have a lunch meeting on the books with Chris—not you.”

 

“Chris. Kate. The names are similar. Maybe that adorable receptionist of yours jotted it down wrong. You know how assistants can be.” Her eyes gleam like she knows something Derek doesn’t. “I’d offer to reschedule, but as I understand things, you really can’t afford the luxury of time on your side.”

 

Derek sits down reluctantly, taking deep, calming breaths that are less than effective. He decides the best thing he can do at this point is to sit through the meeting, keep things as civil as possible, and leave as soon as he’s able.

 

“I figured we could start things off by looking at the Bane Chemical report on safe storage modeling for self-reacting chemicals.” A pleased smile snakes across her features. “Your board members have already seen this, and they’re quite impressed.”

 

Derek appears taken aback as Kate pulls up the report on her iPad. The Argents have never been this forthright with entire reports during these meetings. Everything about this feels wrong.

 

“Here you go,” Kate says, passing him the report. “Take your time going over it.”

 

It’s like the floor drops out from beneath him the second Derek glimpses the front page. Derek gapes in disbelief at Kate, then goes back to swiping through the report. It’s an exact copy of a report from the Hale Process Safety Center, except all these pages display a Bane Chemical watermark.

 

“What the hell is this?” Derek demands.

 

Kate looks smug. “A report?”

 

“Not one generated by Bane Chemical,” Derek challenges. “Where did you get this?”

 

“From our researchers,” Kate scoffs. “They’re the best in the industry. Wouldn’t you agree?”

 

Derek frantically closes the report and looks through the next file, a study on the reactivity of aconite oxide in contact with contaminants; it’s also identical to a report from the Hale Process Safety Center, though it bears the Bane Chemical watermark across all its pages. Derek has a hunch the same holds true for the rest of the files on Kate’s iPad.

 

“What the hell is this?” he repeats, louder this time, which causes some people to stare. “These aren’t from Bane Chemical.”

 

“That’s not what your board members think,” Kate says in a singsong voice.

 

Everything is suddenly so clear. The video conference had been an ambush, though not through any fault of the board of directors. Kate and Gerard had somehow acquired unpublished files created by the Hale Process Safety Center, and passed them off as their own work. If the board of directors had been privy to all these files before the meeting, then no wonder they had been so eager to go through with the merger. To them, it must have seemed as though Bane Chemical could generate at least twice as much research and scholarship as the Hale Process Safety Center.

 

“This is low, Kate. Even for you. I can prove these aren’t your files.” Derek retrieves his own iPad and accesses the unpublished contract projects share drive…only to discover it’s completely empty. He desperately restarts his iPad, praying it’s just a technical glitch, but when he tries to access his files again, the folder is still empty. “You can’t get away with this.”

 

“Sweetie, I think I already have,” she says coolly.

 

Furious, Derek gets up so fast he nearly knocks over his chair. “You’re insane if you think that merger is going to happen.” He realizes he’s creating a scene, but he doesn’t care. “You don’t think we kept hard copies of the original files? The raw data?”

 

“Sure,” Kate says dismissively. “Good luck recompiling everything, repairing your network firewalls, convincing your board, and preparing your case in a week.”

 

Derek’s momentarily flabbergasted as the scope of it all hits him, but his anger anchors him to the situation at hand. “We’ll do it. Just you wait. Trust me when I say you’ll regret the day you set your sights on my family.”

 

A waiter shows up with a basket of breadsticks, and Derek briskly walks past him. Right before he can leave the restaurant, he faintly hears Kate apologize to the waiter for her boyfriend’s behavior, and that infuriates him so much he makes a beeline for the restroom. He grumbles at the automatic water faucets as he tries to wet his fingers enough to splash water in his face.

 

“Derek?”

 

He whirls around, shocked to see Stiles timidly stepping into the restroom. “What are you doing here?” Derek checks his watch; it’s a little more than halfway into the lunch hour. “You’re not even on the clock anymore.”

 

“Last I checked, even lowly interns are allowed to have lunch here,” Stiles replies, coming closer. He’s wearing a new black tie with black swirls embroidered into the silk.

 

“You’re supposed to be having Mexican,” Derek insists. “With Scott.”

 

“I wonder if you’re ever going to tell me just how much of that conversation you overheard,” Stiles says. “Are you okay? You sort of looked like your world was imploding when you bolted in here. Almost didn’t recognize you in your fancy new duds.”

 

“I’m fine.” Derek dries his face with one of the many hand towels in the restroom. “I’ll be fine,” he amends.

 

“Wanna talk about it?” Stiles offers, gently touching Derek’s shoulder.

 

Derek pulls away. “Not really.”

 

“Want me to take your mind off it?” Stiles asks, coming closer again.

 

“I—” Derek steps back, unable to withstand the scrutiny from Stiles’ earnest gaze.

 

“I mean, I talk a lot,” Stiles says. “Like, a lot. I bet I could take your mind off things.” And when Stiles’ tongue flicks out to wet his own bottom lip, Derek needs to step back a little more because he sure knows how he wants Stiles to help him take his mind off things, and it involves that clever tongue of his, and far fewer words, and really isn’t appropriate for the first day of work. It’s probably not appropriate for any day on the job.

 

“I need a stiff drink,” Derek mumbles shakily as he dashes out the door without another word.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Upon returning to work, Derek withholds treating himself to a stiff drink, even though he really, really could use one. Instead, he immediately stops by Danny’s office to ask him to figure out how Bane Chemical got their files, and how to prevent it from ever happening again. Danny is even more distraught than Derek, deeply ashamed someone managed to hack past his firewalls, but Derek assures him it’s not his fault. Clearly, the Argents had painstakingly planned every step of this hostile takeover, and network security, no matter how flimsy or sound, wouldn’t have stood in their way. Regardless, Danny has the entire IT department in a tizzy, tirelessly working only on the security breach.

 

Laura is understandably livid when she finds out what the Argents have done, and instantly places a call to Deaton while Derek and Peter are still camped out in her office. “What do you mean you need proper proof?” She puts Deaton on speaker and slams the receiver into its cradle. “Kate was gloating to Derek. She’s not even hiding what they did. How much more proof do you need, Alan?”

 

“You need to be able to prove you have a right to the reports. I know you say you have hard copies of the research and raw data, but they have their own research and data as well.” Deaton douses his voice in that annoying, placating timbre that would make even the saintliest person belligerent. Perhaps, one day, he’ll realize that tone actually doesn’t have the intended effect.

 

“Kate all but confessed,” Peter points out. “How is that not enough?”

 

Deaton simply replies, “Hearsay.”

 

“Can’t we file a formal complaint or something?” Derek asks. “We actually have the work to back up those reports. I doubt they do.”

 

“You can’t request OSHA or even any kind of law enforcement to impel Bane Chemical to produce the research unless your evidence is more substantial,” Deaton says.

 

“What kind of flawed system is this?” Laura protests. “We have a right to those reports because our researchers are the ones who produced them! It should be as simple as that.”

 

“If that’s your idea of evidence, it’s circumstantial, at best.”

 

Laura looks like she would love to throttle Deaton through the phone if it were possible.

 

“What if we recompile the reports?” Derek proposes. “I’ll work through the weekend if I have to, but I know I can do it. Kate can only use our unpublished work, and I know for a fact that’s the six reports from our contract projects from last year. I worked on all of them.”

 

“That may help, but it won’t be enough,” Deaton replies. “Short of a signed, written confession from Kate or Bane Chemical, my advice to you is to focus the majority of your efforts on that case you need to present next week.”

 

“Well, fuck,” Peter says, his mood bellicose after Laura ends the call. “I vote we quit sending Derek to meetings. Things keep getting worse every time he returns.”

 

“Shut up, Peter,” Laura says tiredly.

 

“Just a suggestion,” he says, putting up his hands defensively. “Fortunately, our lunch hour was more productive than yours, Sparkle Crotch.”

 

“Please tell me that nickname isn’t going to catch on.” Laura shudders. “I have no desire to know about my brother’s crotch. Or its sparkle.”

 

Derek emits a strangled noise from the back of his throat as he bangs his head against Laura’s desk. “Kill me now.”

 

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Laura says sympathetically. “We have a lot of work to do, and with Peter here, the drama queen quota is all filled up.”

 

Derek lets out a muffled laugh from where he’s hunched over while Peter scowls. “I am endlessly flattered by the respect you two afford me.”

 

“Anyway,” Laura says, schooling her features, “according to the board, there are three main reasons they’re considering the merger.”

 

“Besides the corporate espionage, you mean,” Peter supplies scornfully.

 

“We can’t do anything about that, so we’ll need to work in spite of it. I refuse to operate under the assumption that we’re a sinking ship simply because Kate and Gerard Argent will it.” Laura exudes such confidence and determination, Derek briefly wonders why they don’t just listen to Peter for once and send Laura instead of Derek to every meeting for the rest of time. Then again, with how fantastically he’s fucked things over, Derek’s fairly certain even Jackson would be a boon to their company if placed before the board of directors. “As I was saying,” Laura continues, “the board members are concerned about research and productivity—”

 

“Which wouldn’t be an issue if we hadn’t been robbed blind—”

 

“Sources of funding,” Laura says, speaking over Peter, “and competitors surpassing us.” Peter looks like he’s about to butt in again, but she shuts that down with a withering glare in his direction. “I’m scheduled to give a presentation at the annual process safety symposium in League City, Texas on Tuesday, so I’ll work on acquiring funding while I’m there for the other panels. I’m due back Thursday evening, so I’ll be there for your big presentation on Friday.” She smiles at Derek. “Peter will deal with competitor data and will follow up with Danny about the security breach.”

 

Peter presumably taps out a reminder on his iPhone about meeting with Danny while Derek nods thoughtfully, in awe of the seemingly simple yet effective game plan. “I’ll recompile the reports Kate stole, but what about after that?”

 

“You’re in charge of productivity and research,” Laura replies. “I’m guessing those reports will eat up your weekend, so when you come in on Monday, put together a prospectus about forthcoming contracts, research, and experiments. You should get Stiles to help you.”

 

“You want to trust an intern with this?” Peter asks, looking dubious.

 

“I said he ought to help,” Laura says through clenched teeth, clearly growing exasperated with the constant interruptions. “He’s actually very smart. Maybe after all this is over, you can take a look at his senior project, Derek. He’s doing some compelling work with aconite and thermodynamics.”

 

Derek’s own senior project had been about aconite dust oxidation, and his secondary interest in school had been thermodynamics—his primary interest being oxidation and reduction, of course.

 

“Aww,” Peter croons, puckering his lips. “Isn’t that precious? I smell an office romance brewing.”

 

When Laura smiles conspiratorially, Derek feels his cheeks flush and takes umbrage at Peter’s remark. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“Please,” Peter says through his sniggering. “You’ve been gazing at him all morning.”

 

Derek rears back and splutters at Peter’s accusation. “I do not gaze at Stiles!”

 

Peter only laughs harder, while Laura clucks her tongue at him. “I think it’s sweet.”

 

“Whatever.” Sure, Stiles had said he wants to fuck Derek—like he’s ever going to bleach that particular overheard conversation from his mind—but that doesn’t really entail anything meaningful. “He probably thinks I’m an old man or something,” he says despondently.

 

“You’re not old!” Laura exclaims. “And so what if he thinks you are? Some people think that’s sexy.”

 

“My sister is discussing my sex appeal with me,” Derek says faintly. “Okay. So, this is happening. This conversation is actually happening.”

 

“Oh, Sparkle Crotch,” Peter says fondly, a broad grin splitting his face when Derek puts his head down and whimpers.

 

“Besides,” Laura soldiers on, “while you were busy with the video conference, Stiles was peppering Isaac with questions about you.”

 

“Really?” Derek perks up, righteous indignation forgotten. “What’d he say?”

 

“Lots of things,” she says, feigning indifference.

 

Laura.”

 

“He may have mentioned wanting to hit it.”

 

Peter snorts. “Actually, I think he might’ve said he’d tap dat ass?”

 

Derek goes bug-eyed. “Okay, wow. So, I really do want to know what he said, but I just don’t think I’ll ever be mentally prepared for a conversation with my sister and uncle about my ass getting tapped.” He pulls a face as he gets up.

 

“Don’t be like that, Taco Pants,” Peter says.

 

Laura shakes her head. “Definitely not that.”

 

Derek escapes just as Peter mutters, “I guess Sparkle Crotch is gonna stick.”

 

Seriously. His life.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Enormous stacks of rubber banded files packed with papers that give off the lingering scent of trees and toner from the copy machine tower across Derek’s desk, providing the perfect cover for him to finally, finally enjoy that stiff drink he’s so desperately craved all day. It’s just after 6:00PM on a Friday, so he’s literally the only schmuck still in the office building. Although, upon retrieving the half-empty bottle stashed in the nook behind his mini fridge, he’s a schmuck with whiskey, so it’s not all bad.

 

He’s been working all afternoon and is barely started on recompiling the second of six contract projects. His desktop computer is busy rendering an image in AutoCAD, which should take another half hour, while another laptop positioned next to it renders an alkyl pyridine molecular simulation. He’s just thinking about ordering in for dinner when he hears a faint rapping on the wall next to his door, which is propped open by the already perused files from the one contract project he’d finished recompiling earlier. “Isaac, I thought I sent you home—”

 

Except, instead of Isaac, a very dressed down Stiles is leaning against the doorjamb. He’s wearing a slightly oversized olive green cardigan and light gray henley shirt—both unbuttoned—and burnt orange cargo pants. The combination looks ridiculous, but considering Derek probably looks like a hobbit as he stands there in his now wrinkled black dress shirt while cradling a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a paper cup in the other, he’s really not one to judge.

 

“Hey.” Stiles waggles his long fingers in an awkward wave. Then, he raises his other arm, which is clutching a brown paper bag that sports a small grease stain smudged against its left side. “Hungry?”

 

Stiles brought food. Does he know the way to a hobbit’s heart, or what?

 

“What’re you doing here?” Derek blurts out by way of greeting.

 

Stiles invites himself in, revealing he’s got a backpack slung over one shoulder. He drops it carelessly next to the chair in front of Derek’s desk and winces a bit when it lands with a heavy thud. “Just got out of class. I’m taking an extra course in the afternoons this summer. Anyway, Isaac texted and said you’d be working late.”

 

Derek suppresses a pleased smile at hearing Stiles is now texting Isaac about him. “I’m fairly certain Isaac didn’t tell you that because you were supposed to come in to work.”

 

“Oh,” Stiles says flatly before quickly shrugging off the misunderstanding. “Well, I’m here now, and I don’t know about you, but o-chem labs always leave me starved.” He somehow manages to rearrange the stacks of files so that a narrow swath free from clutter cuts across the middle of Derek’s desk. “You’re gonna eat, aren’t you? I went to two separate places to get this stuff,” Stiles says as he lays out napkins. And when Derek eyes his work and hesitates, he leans over to glance at the computers. “C’mon, your RAM is useless while both machines are rendering files that huge. Plus, I brought gyro sandwiches and curly fries. Like, no one can resist that.”

 

Derek’s brow furrows. “Gyros and curly fries?”

 

“Yeah!” Stiles says emphatically. “Haven’t you ever heard of fusion cuisine?”

 

“I have, but I’m not so sure this is it,” Derek replies, gesturing at the food.

 

“Last chance. I’m eating all of this if you’re not gonna have any.”

 

He’s tempted to refuse simply to see if Stiles really can eat all of that food. Of course, that’s precisely when Derek’s stomach produces an embarrassingly loud growl, effectively ending the debate.

 

Reaching into the brown paper bag, Stiles withdraws a foil-wrapped gyro sandwich and a carton overflowing with curly fries. He thrusts the food at Derek and has a look of intense conviction on his face. “Will you make a food baby with me?”

 

Derek wrinkles his nose and sets the whiskey on his desk. Who even says stuff like that? But having skipped lunch, he’s absolutely famished, so he relents, nodding at his napkin to communicate Stiles can set his food down. “You can drink water, whiskey, or whatever’s in the vending machines in the break room. Cups are—”

 

“By the water cooler!” Stiles calls over his shoulder as he sprints down the hall.

 

Derek angles the computer monitor so he can watch the rendering countdown while he eats. He has exactly eighteen minutes to spare for dinner; after that, it’s back to work. He syncs the timer on his phone with the countdown on AutoCAD just as Stiles returns with a root beer from the vending machine and a paper cup filled with water.

 

“So, Isaac was telling me about all the drama from your lunch meeting and how you have to do a bunch of stuff this weekend because corporate espionage is actually a thing? It’s really not as sexy in real life as it is in movies, is it?” Stiles unwraps his sandwich and takes a giant bite out of it. He crams a handful of curly fries into his mouth, licks a long strip of tzatziki sauce trickling down his hand, gobbles up another handful of fries, and then chases it all down with a splash of soda.

 

It’s simultaneously the most arousing and disgusting thing Derek’s ever witnessed, and the only way he can keep himself from saying something embarrassing or licking up the spot of sauce smeared along Stiles’ jaw is by taking a (normal-sized) bite of his own sandwich because he really can’t trust the actions of his own mouth right now.

 

“Hello? Earth to Derek.”

 

“Huh?” As it turns out, totally zoning out while ogling your new intern is an excellent way to embarrass yourself—and all without the use of your mouth.

 

“How can I help?” Stiles says slowly, like he’s repeating himself. When Derek maintains his confused expression, he elucidates further. “How can I help with the contract projects? Dude, haven’t you heard anything I’ve said?”

 

“Sorry, it’s been a long day,” Derek replies wearily. “But I plan to finish all the recompilations this weekend, so don’t worry about it.”

 

“Well, I can stay for a bit and help,” Stiles volunteers.

 

“I appreciate the offer, but it’s fine,” Derek says. He could absolutely use the help, but Stiles is obscene and distracting in the worst way. He is for Derek, anyway.

 

“What? You worried you’re gonna have to pay me time and a half on my glamorous unpaid intern salary?” Stiles looks pleased when the joke eases a chuckle out of Derek. “Danny set me up with login information, so I can work from one of the computers in the research library.”

 

That’s an appealing proposition. Stiles can provide Derek with some much-needed assistance recompiling the contract projects, and with Stiles tucked away in the research library, Derek won’t have to risk exploding from the strain of keeping his sexual frustration at bay.

 

“Don’t you, I don’t know,” Derek waves a hand vaguely, “have homework or something?”

 

“Please.” Stiles rolls his eyes. “I always have homework. I hardly think that matters.” He throws away the empty wrappers from his food and wordlessly helps himself to Derek’s curly fries. “Besides, Scott? My roommate? I love the guy, but he usually has his girlfriend over on Friday nights, and I just can’t be there for long when he does.”

 

“You don’t like her?” Derek asks.

 

“No, she’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with her. But when Scott and Allison are together?” Stiles shudders. “They’re like really loud rabbits in love: adorable, horny, and, well, really loud. Seriously, you’d be doing me a huge favor if you let me stay and help.”

 

Derek studies him for a moment before he relents. “Fine. You can stay.” He puts his sandwich down and wipes his hands clean. “I’m working on the projects in chronological order. I’ve already finished the first one from this year, and I’m in the middle of completing the second. Why don’t you work in reverse chronological order?” Derek methodically heaves the big stacks of files from his desk and groups them along the wall. “Here are all the files for the sixth contract project,” he says, pointing to the first group of files closest to the door. “And here are the files for the fifth, the fourth, and so on. Now, grab a set of files and follow me.”

 

Lugging heavy files that accompany the sixth contract project, they walk a little ways down the hall to a set of glass doors leading into the research library. Immediately after Derek unlocks the doors, they are assaulted by the musty scent of yellowing pages, dust that’s settled for too long, and history that’s long been forgotten.

 

“Man, it smells gross in here.” Stiles dumps the files he’s carrying onto a study table, and gets situated at the computer next to it.

 

Derek shrugs. “It grows on you.”

 

“That’s mold,” Stiles replies dryly.

 

Derek rolls his eyes. “Okay, pull up the share drive, and open the contract projects folder. Use the file for the first contract project as a template.” Stiles nods. “What you’ll be doing is going through every paper in these files so that you can pull the ones I’ll need for the reports.”

“Easy.”

 

“Maybe, but it’ll really help cut down on the time it takes me to recompile the reports,” Derek says. “I had Isaac organize all the hard copies before he left today, so everything you need already should have been pulled from the library. But in case you run into something that hasn’t been, the library is organized by year. Documents from 1988 are along the left wall, and the most recent files, like the ones for the contract projects, are along the right wall.”

 

Stiles gives him a double thumbs up. “Got it, chief.” He produces a pair of black-rimmed glasses from a pocket in his cardigan, and when he puts them on, Derek kind of wants to die a little because they look so good on Stiles’ face. “As if an entire adolescence of video games didn’t make me enough of a nerd, now I’m stuck with these for the rest of my life.” Stiles uses his index finger to push the glasses along the slope of his nose. “Then again, majoring in chemical engineering sort of sealed my fate to a life of epic nerdocity.”

 

Derek can’t tear his eyes away from Stiles. “God bless video games,” he murmurs before he can stop himself.

 

Stiles perks up. “You’re a gamer?”

 

“Uh,” Derek replies, eloquent as ever. Stiles stares expectantly as Derek attempts to think of a way to convey I want to rub my face all over yours that doesn’t result in a restraining order. He’s not entirely certain what he’s about to say—probably something that gives off molester vibes so strong they’re radioactive—but thankfully, he never finds out because his phone begins to beep, signaling that AutoCAD has finished rendering. “When you’re ready to leave, just stop by and let me know so I can lock up the library again.” And with that, he hurries back to his office as quickly as he’s able.

 

The rest of the evening is remarkably productive. Stiles stops by Derek’s office every hour or so to pick up a new set of files, and Derek ends up returning his whiskey to its hiding spot halfway through his second cup because the intermittent glimpses of Stiles’ whiskey-colored eyes are just as effective as the finest Kentucky bourbon.

 

It’s not long before Derek finishes recompiling the second contract project, and somewhere in the middle of shuffling through the third, Derek’s grateful when Stiles drops in with a mug of fresh coffee for Derek and a second root beer for himself. And by the time he gets going on the fourth contract project, Derek hits the files Stiles has perused, and he’s surprisingly pleased with how his painstaking organization sufficiently speeds up the recompilation process.

 

Around 10:30PM, both Derek’s computers are occupied by a double rendering process once again. It’s late—certainly way too late for an unpaid intern to be at work—so Derek decides he’s going to send Stiles home and call it a night after he finishes this project. AutoCAD reports the rendering will finish in nine more minutes, so Derek rests his arms on his desk and lays his head down for just a second. And jerks awake at 3:28AM.

 

Something about plans and candy and fate buzzes in Derek’s mind, but it’s in Peter’s voice, so Derek ignores it. He shifts slightly as he works out the kink in his stiff neck, and when he stands up to stretch his limbs, something falls from across his shoulders and onto his chair: Stiles’ olive green cardigan. Derek picks it up tenderly and smiles briefly at the thought of Stiles finding him asleep and draping the fabric over him. He pops the rest of his curly fries into his mouth and downs the last of the whiskey from the bottom of his paper cup—the breakfast of champions—before heading down to the research library. He either needs to lock up the doors if Stiles has left, or he needs to wake him up if he, too, has fallen asleep.

 

Of course, neither option applies to Stiles. When Derek approaches the library, he hears the beats from a techno dubstep song floating through the door that’s held open by a few volumes from a collection of encyclopedias. Derek drapes Stiles’ cardigan across the back of his abandoned computer chair and heads for the shelves that line the right wall of the library—where the contract projects are normally located—but stops short when he sights Stiles a handful of aisles early.


Stiles is humming to himself and bouncing on the balls of his feet in a spastic sort of way that somehow manages to go with the music. But what makes Derek pause is when he realizes Stiles is using a couple stacks of files as a makeshift step stool so that he can reach the top shelf—the one that contains files, news reports, and investigative records about the chemical plant explosion that killed his family.

 

For some reason, it makes Derek uneasy to witness someone literally rummaging through his past, even though Stiles is allowed to look at these documents. In fact, he’s the one who gave Stiles the right to any document in the entire library, and that includes the ones about Derek’s family. Still, he fails to control the irritated gruffness in his voice when he taps Stiles on the shoulder and asks, “What do you think you’re doing?”

 

Completely caught off guard, Stiles whirls around and loses his footing, and Derek barely braces himself as Stiles yelps and crashes into him in a mess of long, flailing limbs that sends them both plummeting to the ground.

 

“Oh, my God. Oh, God,” Stiles gasps out as he sucks in quick, shallow breaths.

 

“Are you—” Derek grunts. He’s not entirely sure where his spleen is located, but he thinks Stiles’ elbow might be grinding into it. Still, he asks, “Are you okay?”

 

But Stiles doesn’t answer. Derek catches a frightened and dazed look in his eyes before Stiles clings to Derek’s black dress shirt with trembling hands and buries his face in Derek’s neck, glasses digging into his skin.

 

Derek curses under his breath and tries to pull back, but Stiles has gone sort of rigid and only holds onto him tighter. “What’s wrong? Are you having an asthma attack?” he asks. “Where’s your inhaler?”

 

He’s ready to rifle through Stiles’ backpack for an inhaler—fully prepared to drag his octopus-intern hybrid with him if he must—when Stiles finally shakes his head and glances up, eyes shiny and terrified. “Panic attack,” he chokes out. “Gimme—” Stiles squeezes his eyes shut, dives back into Derek’s neck, and makes a soft whining noise as the panic ratchets up again.

 

“It’s okay,” Derek whispers soothingly while rubbing calming circles up and down Stiles’ back. He’s not quite sure what he’s doing, but it appears to be working. “Just listen to me breathe. That’s it. Just like that,” he says encouragingly when Stiles relaxes into him.

 

“Sor—” Stiles hiccoughs and eventually looks up, his glasses askew and adorable, despite the tear tracks behind them. “Sorry.”

 

“What was that?” Derek falls back and runs a hand down his face, suddenly exhausted.

 

“Panic attack induced by four root beers and a coffee all in,” Stiles eyes his wristwatch, “nine hours? And on an empty stomach?”

 

Derek doubts that’s the full story. People don’t just get spontaneous panic attacks from root beer. Or maybe they do, but Derek still feels like Stiles is deflecting. “Well, you scared me half to death. Fuck. I had no idea what was wrong.” He closes his eyes like it’s an effective defense against his darkest fears. “Just.” Derek sighs. “Don’t do that again. God. You are never allowed to have caffeine again—”

 

He stops abruptly when he feels Stiles’ fingers gently cup his face, and Derek’s eyes fly open the instant their lips press together in a sloppy, somewhat confused kiss—eager and curious on Stiles’ end, while hesitant yet accepting on Derek’s.

 

Stiles pulls away just as Derek finally gets the nerve to kiss him back. He licks his lips and smacks them together in a satisfied way. “Wow. Curly fries really do go with everything,” Stiles muses aloud. “Even whiskey.”

 

Derek can only stare at him incredulously.

 

“Crap. Did I read that wrong?” Stiles asks when he notices the look on Derek’s face. “Cuz I thought we were having a moment. We were having a moment, right?” He holds himself up on his forearms. “It certainly felt moment-y.”

 

Derek swallows, his mouth suddenly dry. “I think I’ve been having a moment since the moment you walked in this morning,” he says faintly.

 

 “You mean yesterday morning.” Stiles smiles smugly. “It’s Saturday now.”

 

“Why’d you kiss me?” He doesn’t mean to sound accusatory, but Derek needs to know.

 

“Why’d you kiss me back?” Stiles counters, a slight pout teasing at his lips.

 

Derek shakes his head. “No, I mean how come you—what made you—” He groans, unsure of how to avoid coming across as a sociopath while simultaneously determining if Stiles kissed him only because he plans to manipulate his emotions like Kate Argent had long ago.

 

“Oh.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows. Surely, Stiles can’t have gleaned the full extent of his trust issues from whatever Derek’s face is doing right now. “Oh, what?”

 

“You think I’m trying sleep my way to the top? Although, I am on top right now.” Stiles giggles impishly.

 

“Um.” Derek forces himself not to think about sleeping with Stiles and Stiles on top because fucking hell, his pants are beginning to feel a little snug.

 

“Or do you think I’m some promiscuous kid in college, and I simply go around kissing anyone who sits still long enough?”

 

“No, it’s not that—”

 

“Damn right it’s not that. I ain’t no floozy!”

 

“I never said you were?”

 

“I mean, when I saw you this morning—”

 

“Yesterday morning,” Derek corrects.

 

“Whatever!” Stiles blusters on. “When I saw you yesterday, I was all, ‘How is his face doing that?’”

“Doing what?”

 

That!” Stiles accidentally smacks him in the face when he flings his hand out. “Oh, crap. I’m sorry. It’s just that, like, you’re stupidly gorgeous? And you love your family, and you’re, like, all camped out in your office and working through the weekend on, like, barely any sleep and hard whiskey—like a total survivalist baller—and, like, I don’t know!” Stiles rests his forehead on Derek’s chest and groans softly while Derek tries to stifle his laughter. If subtlety were a planet, Stiles would be living on an entirely different universe.

 

“I know this is probably the caffeine high talking, but, just,” Stiles glances up at Derek again, “I really like your face? And I kissed it because I wanted to. And I know that makes me a terrible person because, like, what if you didn’t want me to kiss your face?” Stiles’ eyes widen as realization sets in. “Holy God. You didn’t want me to kiss your face.”

 

Stiles is mortified as he begins to crawl off Derek, so Derek does the only thing he can think to rectify the situation. He curls his fingers against the nape of Stiles’ neck and pulls him down for a proper kiss, tongue sweeping against tongue in a tumultuous, near-frenzied claiming that leaves them both gasping for air.

 

“I know you currently possess an abnormal number of my clothes for having known me for a day, but unless you somehow have an extra pair of pants in my size, we’re gonna have to stop this really soon,” Stiles says, cheeks flushed, lips a little swollen, and eyes bright with excitement.

 

Derek chuckles because he’s getting there, too. “Help me clean up this mess,” he says as Stiles pulls him to his feet. “What were you doing in this part of the library anyway?”

 

“Uh. Y’know, just curious.” Stiles frantically collects the scattered Hale explosion files and haphazardly crams them back into position on the shelves. “My senior project is about aconite, and I remember hearing on the news a couple years ago the, uh,” he stammers, “y’know, the explosion? I heard there might’ve been aconite involved?”

 

Derek gives him a withering glare. “It was in an aconite dust chemical plant. What do you think?”

 

“Right.” Stiles winces. “So, uh, they don’t know what happened that day? No leads?”

 

Derek makes a noncommittal grunt, though his expression is vindictive.

 

“But you think otherwise?”

 

“Doesn’t really matter what I think.” Derek shrugs.

 

“It does matter,” Stiles replies, his face suddenly inscrutable. “It matters because I want to know what you think.”

 

Derek purses his lips together and is silent for a minute, as though considering something carefully. “If I tell you, this doesn’t leave this room. You understand?”

 

“You got it.” Stiles appears as though he’s trying to seem calm, but his eyes betray him.

 

“I don’t actually have any proof, but it’s a feeling I can’t shake,” Derek says tentatively. “I think it was Kate Argent.”

 

“What?” Stiles exclaims. When Derek glares at the outburst, Stiles lowers his volume to a near whisper. “Did you take this to the cops? What did they say?”

 

“Take what to the cops? My feeling?” Derek scoffs. “No, Stiles.”

 

“I believe the technical term is hunch,” Stiles quips. “But really, you might only think it’s a hunch or feeling or whatever, but if you tell the cops, they’ll investigate.”

 

“I doubt it.”

 

“No, seriously,” Stiles insists. “My dad’s a sheriff. I know these things.” He nods sagely.

 

“Yeah, well, I was sort of seeing her at the time. She had access to my keys, my ID card, and God knows what else.” Derek clenches his jaw tightly. “I was also supposed to be at the plant when the explosion happened, but I wasn’t. Kate told me it was her birthday, and wanted me to wait for her in her apartment.”

 

“Dude.” Stiles stares in open-mouthed astonishment.

 

“She sent me a card in the mail a couple months later. It was an invitation to her birthday party.”

 

Dude.”

 

“You realize that word isn’t any sort of argument, right?” Derek laughs, the sound broken and bitter and sad. “So, you see why I could never be taken seriously if I brought this up publicly. Not without proof.” He shoves the last of the files back onto the shelf and swiftly walks out of the aisle.

 

“Derek, wait a minute!” Stiles calls out, running to catch up to him. “You really think it was Kate, right?”

 

Derek looks a little baffled.

 

“I think—”

 

No,” Derek bites out. “I told you. This information does not leave this room.”


“Not even if it could help prove your hunch is right? That the explosion wasn’t an accident?” Stiles gets right in Derek’s face. “You told me you want to do right by your family.”

 

“So? What’s your point?” Derek asks.

 

“What if I can find out whether or not Kate had something to do with the explosion?”

 

Derek gapes at him. “What? How?”

 

“I’m not really sure yet,” Stiles admits, grimacing a little. “Okay. Oh, wow. You’re turning a lovely shade of puce that perfectly indicates you’re completely regretting telling me all this and maybe even kissing me—”

 

Stiles. I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t want you to know. Same with the kiss.” Derek pauses and takes a slow, deep breath. “But don’t make me regret it. So, just drop it, okay?”

 

“Derek,” Stiles says gently. “I’m not—” he stammers for a beat before settling on the right words. “I’m not Kate. You can trust me.”

 

Stiles looks so earnest and genuine in that moment, but Derek still has to fight all his instincts to believe him. He had trusted Kate, too.

 

~ ~ ~

 

On Monday morning, Derek arrives at work holding his Americano in one hand and, as per his agreement with Stiles, an organic jasmine oolong yerba mate blend (whatever the hell that is) in the other. He hasn’t seen Stiles since sending him home Saturday morning, and it seems absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder. Or maybe that’s just the aftereffect of taking care of his morning wood with fantasies of his new intern on his hands and knees. And if that’s the case, then fine. Derek is just fine with that because that’s exactly the kind of martyr he is. (If by martyr, you mean creeper.)

 

Stiles’ assistance had exponentially sped up the process of recompiling the contract projects. Derek finished everything early enough Saturday night to go to bed on time, sleep in Sunday morning, and get a head start on his plans for the week.

 

He’s in a good mood and he’s kind of delighted with himself, which is why he’s not even surprised when he finds Peter lounging in his office chair, feet propped up on his desk. The universe delivers again!

 

“All right, Romeo. Who’re you sticking it in?”

 

Derek pulls a face. “That’s disgusting and hardly any of your business.”

 

“Hardly,” Peter agrees.

 

“Okay. I’ll bite.” Derek sets Stiles’ tea on top of his filing cabinet, well out of Peter’s reach. “What are you talking about?”

 

Peter puts his feet down and leans forward. “We have a spy in our midst.”

 

“What?” Derek balks. “What do you mean?”

 

I mean we have a spy in our midst,” Peter drawls.

 

Derek rolls his eyes, unimpressed. “I don’t have time for your little games. I’ve got a meeting with the Office of Sponsored Research soon. Get on with it.”

 

“You’re no fun.” Peter frowns. “Danny says someone hacked into our systems on Friday, during your video conference with the board and with the Argents. Considering you were canoodling with the Argents last time there was a similar breach in our security, I have to ask—are you with Kate again?”

 

Anger flares up in Derek’s gut. “How can you even think—”

 

“It’s my job to think that!” Peter yells, all the easy humor gone from his eyes. “I know Laura won’t, but at least she’s got a steady head on her shoulders. Well,” he scoffs, “steady only where you’re not concerned. So, that’s where I pick up the slack. It’s my job to anticipate every stupid thing you might do before you do it.” Peter stands, leveling his gaze on Derek. “I’ll ask again,” he says very slowly. “Are you sleeping with Kate Argent?”

 

“No,” Derek practically growls through gritted teeth. He’s so furious at the insinuation that he’s shaking, but the worst part is that everything Peter’s articulated is completely true. It is his job to ask these questions because Laura—bless her—isn’t even capable of thinking such things about Derek. And even if she were, she would never in a million years verbalize anything that might come close to resembling apprehension or distrust in her brother.

 

“Damn,” Peter says, snapping his fingers together. “This means the solution won’t be as simple as locking you in your room.”

 

“Fuck you,” Derek grouses. He sets down his coffee on his desk and snatches up his phone with a little more force than necessary, smashing down the button that connects him to the reception desk. “Isaac?”

 

“Morning, Derek,” he chirps.

 

Derek doesn’t return the greeting. “Call Laura and Danny Mahealani from IT to see when they can meet with me. Emphasize I need to see them as soon as possible. It’s urgent.”

 

“They’re actually on their way here,” Isaac replies, unfazed by the barked out orders. “And OSR called to confirm they’re fine with pushing back your meeting by an hour.”

 

Derek glares daggers at Peter. He would’ve needed to reschedule the meeting anyway, but he hates it when Peter takes the liberty of rearranging his schedule for him. “Thank you, Isaac,” he says just as Laura and Danny walk in. “That’ll be all.”

 

As soon as Derek hangs up the phone, Laura closes the door and Danny asks, “I gather Peter’s filled you in?”

 

“The Argents hacked us,” Derek replies. Laura looks anxious, and it’s making him antsy. “I trust you’re going to elaborate?”

 

Danny nods. “Bane Chemical basically piggybacked onto our servers during your video conference last week. Throughout the actual call, they had their own ghost program building them a personal back door into our system. With the back door in place, they could freely access our servers without our network security throwing up any red flags to alert us of their presence.”

 

“English, Danny.” Derek pinches the bridge of his nose. “Has the problem been resolved?”

 

“Please,” he scoffs. “Do you even know me?”

 

“Pretend I don’t.”

 

It looks like it takes everything in Danny’s power to resist rolling his eyes. “Yeah, it’s been resolved. Next time they try to access that backdoor, they’ll get a nasty virus that corrupts their entire network.” He grins smugly.

 

“And what happens if they find another way to install that backdoor?” Derek asks. “What are we doing in terms of prevention?”

 

“Well, nothing.” Danny falters, uncharacteristically hesitant. “That’s the problem.”

 

A look of concern furrows Derek’s brow. “I don’t think I understand. Do we need to upgrade our security systems?”

 

“Nothing’s wrong with my security systems!” Danny crosses his arms over his chest, indignant and defensive.

 

“If I may?” Peter interjects. And before he can be stopped, he helps himself to Derek’s Americano. “Bold,” he says thoughtfully, although it looks like the sour expression on Derek’s face provides Peter with more of a caffeine fix than even the strongest espresso. “We have a spy in our midst.”

 

“You’ve mentioned as much,” Derek replies, growing impatient. “And?”

 

“And at least you’re pretty.” Peter gives Derek a look of absolute disdain. “We have a mole, you idiot.”

 

“What?” Derek can’t even spare a moment to be annoyed with Peter. His eyes dart straight to Danny. “Do you know who it is?”

 

“No.” But Danny quickly adds, “I’ve narrowed it down, though.” He starts tapping on his iPad as he continues talking. “See, the conference call basically got them into our system; however, they needed a mask or disguise to remain undetected.”

 

“You mean, while they were installing the back door, they fooled our systems by parading around as one of our employees?”

 

Danny makes a noncommittal grunt, but nods affirmatively.

 

“That would mean they might’ve been acting as any of our employees.” Derek’s forehead is creased in confusion. “There’s no way you’ll find the mole if everyone is your key suspect.”

 

O ye of little faith.” Danny smiles, smugness on full blast once more. “Your mole provided Bane Chemical with an employee password. That’s how we know it’s an inside man.” He flips over his iPad to give them a quick glimpse of what looks like jumbled letters and symbols—complex coding. “I’ll spare you the finer details, but the mole is one of two people.”

 

“Two people who work here have the same password?” Peter laughs.

 

“New employee passwords,” Laura finally speaks up. “They’re all the same when first set up.”

 

“Exactly,” Danny replies, handing his iPad to Derek. “The first suspect is Matt Daehler.” The screen features the employee information and photo ID of an unassuming young man with unkempt brown hair, intense blue eyes, and a mouth drawn into a slight frown. “He started last week with the armed guards downstairs. I’m actually headed there to speak with Erica and Boyd after this.”

 

Peter cranes his neck over Derek’s shoulder in order to look at the screen. “And the second suspect?”

 

Derek suddenly understands why Laura has been strangely silent with unease. Before Danny even swipes his finger across the screen, he knows whose picture is next. “Stiles Stilinski,” Derek breathes out, staring at Stiles’ awful photo ID. His mouth hangs open a little, grin lopsided and disarming, his tie is crooked, and his bright amber eyes look a little dazed, like something caught his attention right before the camera snapped his picture.

 

All that rings through Derek’s mind is Stiles’ words from the library: You can trust me.

 

Danny asks, “Isn’t he your intern?”

 

“Huh?” Derek looks up, still a little bewildered.

 

“He is.” Laura takes over. “So, what’s the next step? How do we figure out the identity of our mole?” She squeezes Derek’s shoulder, the gesture subtle, comforting, and familiar. “Either of these people could be the mole, so neither is guilty yet.”

 

“For starters, I plan to just grill them both to see if I can figure out who has the balls to hack a system like mine.” Danny has a hungry gleam in his eyes, like he’s fully prepared to march into battle to avenge the honor of his sullied coding.

 

“Balls?” Laura arches an eyebrow dubiously.

 

Gall,” Danny amends. “I’m gonna figure out which one of them had the gall—”

 

“Run background checks on them.” Derek’s belatedly surprised when he realizes he’s vocalized his thoughts. “Check police records, priors, employment history, and anything else you can find on the Internet.” It’s a huge invasion of privacy, but if Derek can really, truly trust Stiles, then he shouldn’t mind. That’s what Derek tells himself, anyway.

 

Danny retrieves his iPad and taps out a reminder for himself. “I can immediately get started on the Internet searches, but there might be a delay while I request police records and stuff.”

 

“Just get it done,” Derek replies wearily. He collects Stiles’ now lukewarm tea and briskly exits his office, effectively ending the impromptu meeting.

 

“Derek!” Laura hisses, following after him. “Derek!”

 

He whirls around. “I’m fine, Laura.”

 

“You’re breathing only through your nose, and you look like an angry chipmunk. You’re not fine.”

 

“Aren’t you late for a meeting or committee or something?” Derek turns around and keeps walking, until Laura’s stiletto hurtles through the air and smacks him in the back. “Laura!” He rubs at the sore spot at the small of his back. “What the actual fuck?” he whispers furiously.

 

Laura hobbles over, picks up her shoe, and uses the hallway entrance to access Derek’s private conference room. She holds the door open for him and impatiently taps her bare foot on the carpet. “If you refuse to come inside on your own, you know I’ll yank you in by your tie.”

 

For a second, it looks like Derek is contemplating simply making a run for it, but he’s not that stupid; he knows Laura would track him down, even to the ends of the earth. So, he asks Isaac to give Stiles his tea, and grumbles miserably as he follows his sister into the conference room.

 

“You’re so freaking annoying,” Laura mutters as she closes the door and puts her shoe back on. “Would you please tell me what’s wrong? I mean, I was worried enough when I realized the intern we’re trying to win over is a possible suspect, but your reaction to that news isn’t at all what I anticipated.”

 

“And what am I reacting like?” Derek sneers derisively. “An angry chipmunk?”

 

Laura doesn’t miss a beat. “A scorned lover.”

 

Derek stares at his feet, his stunned silence speaking volumes.

 

“Wait—what?” Laura blinks at him owlishly. “Derek, you’ve known him for practically a day.”

 

Derek chuckles sullenly, a glassy, forlorn look in his eyes. “It’s so stupid.” He shakes his head dejectedly. “I’m stupid. So fucking stupid.”

 

“I didn’t mean to sound judgmental.” Laura sits in a chair and motions for Derek to do the same. “What happened?” she asks tenderly.

 

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” he reassures her. “It was just a kiss.”

 

Laura clasps her hands together and crows with delight. “A kiss? I knew you two would be cute together.”

 

Derek juts a thumb in the direction of his office. “Were you not in there a second ago? Stiles might be the reason our entire company goes up in flames.” He emits a strangled sort of whimper from the back of his throat. “Shit. I can’t believe I’m letting this happen again.”

 

“Don’t be pathetic. It doesn’t suit you.” Laura scrunches up her nose in contempt. “Simply because you kissed someone who might have done something bad doesn’t mean you’re horrible by association. You can’t control the choices other people make.”

 

Derek wrings his hands together, fighting for composure. “I just—I thought this would be different. I felt like things were changing. That I was getting over,” Derek wavers, searching for the correct word, and finally settles on, “stuff. But it’s like I’m making the same mistakes all over again.”

 

“It takes a lot to open yourself up to someone, especially if you’ve been hurt before,” Laura offers gently. “But that’s what makes you brave, Derek.”

 

He clenches his jaw and curls his fists tightly. “It makes me feel weak.”

 

“Then find your strength elsewhere,” Laura suggests. “And quit comparing every life event to the abusive relationship you had with Kate. That’s stupid, and it definitely won’t absolve you of any imagined wrongs for which you think you can repent.”

 

Derek bristles at her straightforwardness. “You wouldn’t understand. You have no idea—”

 

“Don’t you huff and puff at me,” Laura chides, wagging a finger at him.

 

Derek breathes out a laugh. “You look just like Mom when you do that. Freaks me out.”

 

Laura stares at her finger in wonder, as though it’s the key to everything. Derek doesn’t miss the proud expression that flits across her features. “Well, you know I’m right.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “The longer you obsess over everything that went wrong in that relationship, the longer you’ll stay stuck in that moment in time. You’ve got to put it behind you.”

 

“And what do I do if Stiles turns out to be the spy?”

 

“You mean after I kick his ass for thinking he could hurt my baby brother?” Laura shrugs her shoulders. “You forget him, Derek. You take the good moments for what they are—good—and you move on to something better.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The truth of the matter is Derek’s not nearly as brave as Laura imagines, and he plans to avoid Stiles for the rest of the day because he can. So there.

 

Really, there isn’t any protocol for how to behave when the intern whose face you like to kiss—and maybe more—might also be out to destroy your family and might possibly be in cahoots with your mortal enemy. Until Marvel or DC Comics tackles that one, Derek decides he shouldn’t have to either.

 

But what sucks more than Derek’s plan is Derek’s entire life. He’s rushing to the OSR meeting when he turns into a hallway that’s completely empty. Except for Stiles, of course. He’s wearing a bold pair of pants that feature a large black and red checkerboard pattern, a white button-up dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and collar unbuttoned, and black suspenders that dangle down loosely over his pants and keep swaying across his ass. At least Stiles isn’t wearing his glasses because then, Derek’s self-control would be shot to hell; however, the glasses are hanging off the breast pocket of Stiles’ shirt, so it’s a near thing.

 

When Stiles spots him, his eyes light up. “Derek!” He waves animatedly.

 

Derek’s completely unprepared for the train wreck of a conversation that’s sure to follow. What the hell is he even supposed to say? There’s no way to casually ask if Stiles can confirm whether or not he’s an evil spy. (Just like there’s no way to casually ask if he’s into bondage because those fucking suspenders are ridiculously distracting, and Derek has several creative solutions to that problem.)

 

Clearly, Derek’s not cut out for social interaction. Hell, he barely even manages weekly grocery runs. Likely, the only reason he survives in the business world is because his supreme social awkwardness is often mistaken for the eccentric sociopathic tendencies only the most successful assholes in this industry possess.

 

Fuck everything. Seriously.

 

Derek grunts something about being in a hurry, and walks away from Stiles as quickly as he can without appearing more insane than necessary. Stiles must be too stunned by his abrupt departure to protest or follow. At least, Derek hopes that’s all it is. Not that he’d wanted Stiles to come after him because that effectively defeats the purpose of escaping, but really, not even a word? Not even a word from Stiles?

 

He resolves to worry about it later as he nears OSR’s glass conference room. It’s literally a conference room surrounded entirely by glass, and is located at the center of the twelfth floor, making it easy to access from anywhere. From the outside, it’s a bit like looking into a fishbowl. Of course, that also means the “fish” inside can see out as well. Regardless, Derek can’t help staring, mouth agape, as a figure waves at him wildly from his place around the conference table.

 

“Stiles?” Derek whips the door open and picks his way through the throng of division heads waiting for the meeting to start.

 

“I saved you a seat.” Stiles pats the chair next to his. “Thanks for the tea, by the way. I can’t believe you actually followed through.”

 

“A deal’s a deal,” Derek replies faintly. “Uh. How did you get from—” He peers over his shoulder in the direction from which he’s just come, and then turns back to Stiles, looking absolutely baffled. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I was trying to tell you a few minutes ago. Lydia invited me to the Office of Sponsored Research meeting, too.” Stiles’ eyes sparkle with glee. “First, we’re shredder buddies. Then, we’re, y’know, library buddies.” He winks. “And now, we’re meeting buddies!”

 

Derek’s plans are the worst—case in point.

 

Lydia swans into the room, her lovely features stern and focused. Everyone takes a seat within seconds, and the meeting immediately commences. Jackson begins by rattling off the minutes from last month’s meeting, and then Lydia takes over with new business. All the while, Derek keeps sneaking furtive glances at Stiles, who sits to his left. He appears endlessly amazed with everything that takes place, even though everyone else seems to be either half asleep or absolutely miserable to be at the meeting at all.

 

As the division heads share details of the projects they oversee, Derek meticulously takes notes. He asks for updates on research, double-checks that everyone is on budget, ensures project timetables are maintained, and jots down dates of forthcoming publications. Lydia runs a tight ship, so he’s not surprised to find everything is in order. He acquires sufficient information to compile a promising prospectus report for the board meeting on Friday, but he hopes it’s enough to prevent the merger, especially after the Argents’ sabotage.

 

Derek is pulled from his thoughts when Lydia suddenly clears her throat loudly to attract everyone’s notice. “Thank you for preparing your reports on such short notice. I imagine you’re all aware of the potential for a merger. I’m told if it does happen, there won’t be any cutbacks, so there shouldn’t be any complications with the progress of your research.” Lydia pauses as a pleased rumble fills the room. Everyone is visibly relieved by this small measure of assurance. “Before we wrap things up, I’d appreciate if you turned your attention to Stiles Stilinski.”

 

Derek gawks, belatedly aware he’s doing a terrible job of hiding the confusion on his face when Stiles spares him a look, scrunches up his nose in offense, and starts straightening his notes. Derek figured Stiles had somehow convinced Lydia to merely allow him to sit in at the meeting; he’d never imagined Stiles was actually going to present something. The oversight makes Derek feel a little guilty—like a bad boyfriend?—but it is Stiles’ second day as an intern, so maybe Derek’s being too hard on himself. How on earth had he finagled a spot in this meeting so fast? Most baffling, how had he convinced Lydia?

 

Stiles puts on his glasses (and Derek’s brain shorts out for a second because damn!) and says, “Like Lydia said, I’m Stiles.” He smiles and waves, even though everyone is already raptly focused on him. “I started interning here last week, and I specialize in thermodynamics down at the university. My senior project is about aconite.” He pauses and looks warily at Derek. “Aconite dust, to be exact. Just like Derek’s. Er. I mean, just like Mr. Hale’s senior project, if I’m not mistaken.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows, caught off-guard. “Derek’s fine,” he mutters. After shoving your tongue down someone’s mouth, being on a first-name basis is somewhat assumed. “And yeah, I looked at aconite dust oxidation.”

 

“I know,” Stiles all but gushes. A wave of muffled laughter fills the room. “Your project is actually what inspired mine. I mean, among a bunch of other things because I’m not, like, some weirdo project stalker.”

 

Stiles,” Lydia presses. “Tell them your idea.”

 

“Right. Sorry. Okay, so, Derek only focused on oxidation,” Stiles says, addressing the entire conference room. “I’m considering reduction, too. Because the only reason aconitum—the non-volatile form of aconite dust—can remain stable and safe is due to a redox reaction. That’s why I want to study the effects of oxidizing and reducing aconite dust.”

 

The OSR division heads mumble appreciatively, and Lydia looks on proudly. “I already know from Derek’s project that oxidizing aconite dust is what makes it most volatile. All Derek’s tests paired up aconite dust and water or moisture. As Derek put it,” Stiles says, shuffling through his notes until he finds a highlighted line in what is presumably a copy of Derek’s senior project, “humidity content on dust can significantly affect explosive characteristics.”

 

Derek studies Stiles carefully. Honestly, he’s incredibly impressed with Stiles’ conclusions thus far, and he understands why Laura had been so taken with him during his interview. “Forgive me, but I’m a little confused,” he says cautiously, not wanting to insult or embarrass Stiles in a room full of people he clearly admires. “You’ve already established that you know aconite dust is extremely explosive, especially when in contact with moisture. What more is there to investigate?”


“Fire?” Stiles cringes a little.

 

Derek mouths wordlessly for a moment. “Fire.” He twitches. “You want to try mixing something that’s violently explosive…with fire.” Derek can’t even end it as a question; it just sounds too ridiculous. Jackson is sniggering behind his hands, and some of the division heads eye Stiles skeptically, like they’re concerned for his sanity.

 

“Just hear me out,” Stiles insists. “Research that explores the reactivity of aconite dust and fire is severely lacking. Like, it’s practically non-existent. Trust me—I’ve checked.” The way he grins gleefully probably isn’t helping OSR’s opinion of him. “I think that’s because people fear the explosive characteristics of the dust. After all, if it’s explosive in humidity and moisture and water and whatnot, you would think it’d be even worse near a flame.”

 

Stiles holds up a printout of a molecular simulation that also features a redox equation like the ones Derek remembers from chemistry class. But the equation isn’t quite right; it’s backwards. “My theory,” he says as he passes copies of the printout down the table, “is that fire actually does the opposite of water. It will stabilize the aconite dust and completely eliminate any of its explosive tendencies.”

 

“That’s just a theory, though,” Derek says flatly. Stiles deflates a little, and everyone stares apprehensively at Derek’s obvious disdain for the project idea.

 

“But everything starts with a hypothesis,” Stiles says, his voice small. “That’s the nature of science, isn’t it? That’s the nature of human nature.”

 

It’s just too much to process right now. Stiles obviously knows an aconite dust explosion killed Derek’s entire family. What is he thinking? How does he have the gall to propose blowing up more of the stuff in the name of science?

 

“I understand there is some inherent risk with science and experimentation. But when you already know how horribly wrong the consequences can be, that kind of gambling isn’t risk. That’s when it changes to recklessness.” Derek sighs, unable to look at Stiles. “The answer’s no,” he says. “We’re not sponsoring your project, Stiles.”

 

Lydia finally cuts in. “Last I checked, I’m the one who manages the Office of Sponsored Research.” She crosses her arms over her chest and focuses all her righteous fury in Derek’s direction. “I’m the one who gets the final word, and I say we are going to sponsor his project.” Stiles gasps and stares at her in complete awe. “Hell, I’ll be his project supervisor if that’s what needs to happen.”

 

“My strawberry-blonde queen,” Stiles murmurs breathlessly.

 

Lydia arches an elegant eyebrow and smirks, but Derek’s not amused. “Really, Lydia? You really want to take me on? On this?”

 

“I’m sorry,” she quips, her voice syrupy sweet. “Did. I. Fucking. Stutter?”

 

Stiles’ mouth falls open, a mixture of reverence and horror on his face, and the rest of Lydia’s division looks on as well, finally fascinated with the events of their meeting. Unfortunately for OSR, that’s when Lydia glances at the clock to check the time. “Good meeting, team,” she chirps, gathering her things. “Let’s break for lunch.”

 

Derek could scream.

 

OSR files out of the room in record time, no doubt rushing to a location out of ear shot to discuss the drama. Lydia flits past Derek without a single word, and then she stops at the entrance of the glass conference room. “Stiles?” She flips her hair and glances at him over her shoulder. “Coming?”

 

Stiles squirms uncomfortably as he gauges the calm yet feral gleam in Lydia’s eyes against the way Derek’s festering silently in his rage.

 

“Mom and Dad fighting again?” Jackson asks, positively giddy.

 

Stiles scowls. “Don’t you need to collate something? Like your face?”

 

“Don’t lash out, Stiles. It’s beneath you.” Lydia sighs, turning back into the room. “Are you coming or not?”

 

But Derek is incapable of remaining quiet any longer. “What’s this about, Lydia?” he snarls. Lydia looks unimpressed with his tone, so he takes a deep breath, gets out of his chair, and tries again. “The Hale Process Safety Center is all about risk management and risk assessment.” Thankfully, he’s more collected this time. “While I admit Stiles’ project idea is well-thought, it’s clearly an idea that should only be studied in theory.”

 

“This isn’t something frivolous like string theory,” Lydia scoffs. “There is a viable way to test Stiles’ hypothesis, so we will.”

 

“It’s not even like I would need to start actual lab work right away,” Stiles says, looking sheepish about interjecting. “I mean, what if you let me do the research, prepare a pre-lab write-up and anything else you want, and then you can decide—”

 

Lydia cuts him off with a steely glare when she sees where he’s going. “Even though I don’t believe in compromising in the lab, he’s right, Derek. Most of his research is finished, but he still needs to arrange an initial pre-lab write-up.” Her look softens. “Once the experiment phase begins, we’ll obviously test the aconite dust in small quantities—”

 

“And we can use fire suppressants, right?” Stiles cuts in. “Like, shock tube experiments? And the cup burner test? Like, as precautionary measures?”

 

“We’re a process safety center. We’ll be safe,” Lydia promises. “It’s kind of what we do.”

 

“And I wanted to talk to you about this before the meeting,” Stiles adds, “but I was thinking we could include my pre-lab write-up in your presentation to the board of directors on Friday.” He gestures to Derek’s prospectus report notes. “Y’know, with everything else you’ll also show them.”

 

Derek clenches his jaw against the defeat. “I just—” he stammers as he struggles to keep his emotions in check. “You can’t do this experiment simply because you can. That’s d—” He wants to say deadly because how can he not? “That’s just dangerous,” he says instead. “It’s irresponsible and petulant and reckless. So, how are you justifying the risks?”

 

Lydia jumps at the chance to answer. “If we can stabilize aconite dust, it’ll be safe enough to handle in everyday labs—even high school chemistry labs. Just imagine the plethora of research interests we can pursue. It opens up the prospect of experiments people haven’t even considered yet—haven’t even considered considering yet.” She looks somewhat dazzled by the possibilities.

 

“I’m not talking about the future of science.” Derek groans in frustration and addresses Stiles. “Forget about your senior project, mine, chemistry, and everything else. Tell me why you want to do this experiment now. Why this, and why now?”

 

Derek’s a little surprised when a flash of anger crosses Stiles’ face. “I get it, Derek. An aconite dust explosion killed your entire family. Believe me, I get it.”

 

Lydia balks at Stiles’ candidness. “Stiles,” she hisses. “This is not how to get support for your project!”

 

But Stiles forges on. “Your family isn’t the only one that was destroyed that day. What about the foreman on duty? And the bookkeeper who came in at the last minute to take an extra shift? And the first responders who died in the fire or from smoke inhalation, or worse, came out alive but the worse for wear?”

 

“Oh, hell,” Lydia mutters. “I’m leaving. Someone come get me after you both get your heads out of your asses.”

 

It’s just the two of them in the room now, and Derek feels cornered—in a circular conference room made from glass. He has an urge to flee, but knows Stiles isn’t going to drop this.

 

“I bet you can’t imagine a horrible explosion like the one from two years ago happening again, but the truth of the matter is accidents happen all the time. It’s our job to be prepared.” Stiles pauses briefly to rein in his temper and calm his breathing. “I know I’ve—I’m sure you’ve wondered what you could’ve done to save your family.”

 

Derek doesn’t want to have this conversation. “Stiles—”

 

Nothing,” Stiles says, talking over him. “You couldn’t have done anything because you weren’t there.”

 

Derek feels tears spring to his eyes and has to look away.

 

“Hey.” Stiles cups a hand to Derek’s cheek and forces him to look forward. He uses the pad of his thumb to gently brush away a single tear that trickles down Derek’s face. “I’m sorry. I know it sucks to think about it, but even though there’s nothing you could’ve done back then, don’t you want to know you can be prepared if something like that happens now?”

 

He’s shaken when he considers the full scope of Stiles’ words. What if an explosion like the one from two years ago does happen again? What if Laura or Peter is hurt? It breaks his heart to consider what it might be like to feel so helpless all over again.

 

“You’re right,” Derek whispers, his voice rough.

 

Stiles sighs in relief as a smile fills out his features.

 

“I guess I was just scared.”

 

“You were worried,” Stiles amends. “It’s a matter of perspective. Besides, a healthy dose of concern never hurt anyone.”

 

Derek rolls his eyes. “Don’t you ever shut up?”

 

Stiles leans in and kisses Derek while murmuring against his lips. “Mmhmm.”

 

Suddenly, they hear the mechanical sound of a camera shutter from the door.

 

“You realize this room is surrounded entirely by glass, right?” Derek and Stiles pull apart to find Lydia staring at the pair of them. “As in, people outside can see everything you’re doing inside?”

 

Derek blushes bright red, and Jackson walks past just as Stiles buries his face in Derek’s shirt to smother his fit of laughter.

 

“Dammit!” Jackson is looking over Lydia’s shoulder at the photo on her phone. “You two just cost me fifty bucks!”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Even though Derek has gotten his head out of his ass—Lydia’s words, not his—Lydia still wants to supervise Stiles’ project, but is happy enough to co-supervise with Derek. So, after Derek drives Laura to the airport so she can catch her flight to Texas for the symposium in League City, he heads back to work, where he left Stiles and Lydia working on the last of the research in his conference room. He expects they ought to be nearly finished by now; he does not expect Peter to be lounging at his desk, uninvited, again. In retrospect, he probably should’ve learned to expect the latter long ago.

 

“Hey, Sparkle Crotch.”

 

“Don’t you have your own office?” Derek smacks at Peter’s feet, knocking them down from where they’re perched on the edge of Derek’s desk. “You need to leave. I’m busy.”

 

Just as Derek’s hand is poised over the doorknob that leads into his adjoining conference room, Peter says, “You won’t find him in there.”

 

Derek ignores him and opens the door anyway, and is annoyed to find his uncle is right. Neither Lydia nor Stiles is in the conference room, though the large conference table in the middle of the room is scattered with books and papers.

 

“He’s with Danny,” Peter supplies. “Left with him about half an hour ago.”

 

Derek feels his mouth go dry. “Oh.”

 

Oh?”

 

“What else do you want me to say?” Derek shuts the door and starts gathering his things. He’s not sure he can be here once Danny is done with Stiles. It’s not like he’d forgotten Danny was going to be interrogating him; he simply doesn’t know how to respond to the results of that interrogation and can’t deal with his inner turmoil right this minute.

 

If Stiles is guilty, Derek knows he’ll be devastated and embarrassed for obvious reasons. And if Stiles is innocent, Derek’s going to feel like an awful person—awful boyfriend?—for doubting Stiles at all. You can trust me is what Stiles had said, but Derek’s not sure he has it in him to place blind faith in anyone anymore. He wants assurances, but that basically goes against everything that’s at risk here.

 

“Don’t you want to know how it went with Daehler?” Peter props his feet on Derek’s desk once more. “He’s the other suspect. The one who works with Boyd and Erica.”

 

“Not really,” Derek says through gritted teeth, “but I have a feeling you’d like to tell me.”

 

“You know me so well.”

 

“Some might argue too well.” Derek slaps Peter’s shoes off the desk again to collect a couple folders beneath them.

 

“Daehler’s clean. Danny says the kid knows nothing about computers—”

 

“You don’t need to know about computers to let someone use your password,” Derek says dubiously.

 

Peter raises an eyebrow at Derek’s reaction. “You should let me finish. Danny also said initial Internet searches came up empty.”

 

“What about police records? Employment history?”

 

“That stuff comes in tomorrow,” Peter replies. “But how revealing do you think it will be? I doubt anyone gets hired here if criminal or employment history throws up any red flags.”

 

Derek doesn’t want to admit it, but Peter has a point. But that doesn’t mean Stiles is definitely the mole. Maybe he’s clean, too. What then?

 

“But you never know with Finstock and his jokers down at HR.” Peter shrugs. “I still can’t believe he hired Greenberg, even after you fired the kid.”

 

“They’re sleeping together,” Derek says flatly. “I thought everyone knew that.”

 

Oh.” Peter looks impressed by that. “You say lubricant, Finstock says lubrican!”

 

Derek pulls a face. “I don’t think anyone’s said anything about lube, except for you.”

 

“Rough,” Peter muses aloud.

 

Derek looks scandalized. “Please leave.”

 

“Everyone’s a critic,” Peter grumbles. He’s almost out the door when he reconsiders and turns back around. “Don’t think I can’t see what you’re doing.”



“What? Getting as far away from you as possible?”

 

“You’ve been fairly obvious about that.” Peter smirks and leans against the doorjamb. “No, I’m talking about how you’re about to go home. How you’ll intercom Isaac in a second to let him know you’re working from home because it’ll help you concentrate on the prospectus report, when, in fact, you simply don’t want to confront that turnip of an intern of yours.”

 

Derek quells the sudden urge to shout nuh-uh! Because it’s all true. Although, Stiles isn’t a turnip, but that’s beside the point.

 

“But how long do you think that’ll work? You can’t simply ignore your problems until they magically fix themselves.” Peter chuckles to himself. “Believe me, if that approach actually worked, you’d be calling me Uncle Peter right now.”

 

Derek still can’t piece together an adequate retort. Sometimes, he forgets that even though Laura knows him better than anyone else, Peter has known him just as long as Laura. Sighing in defeat, Derek picks up the phone to intercom Isaac, just as Peter had predicted.

 

“If you’re going to ask Isaac to cancel your meeting with Strategic Research and Development this afternoon, don’t bother. I already had him push it back a week.”

 

Derek groans in frustration and slams the phone back into its cradle. “Peter!”

 

“What? I’m supposed to be at that meeting, too. I can reschedule it if I need to.”

 

Derek crosses his arms over his chest. “And is that why you rescheduled it?”

 

“Of course—” Peter maintains a straight face for half a second before breaking into a broad grin “—not.”

 

Derek points to the door. “Get out.”

 

“One day, you’ll be glad I can read you so well. Just you wait.”

 

Out!”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The next day, Derek gets to work early because Danny had e-mailed him with a disconcerting six-word message: We need to talk about Stilinski.

 

Derek blames Peter. For everything. Ever.

 

He’d still stopped to get Stiles his bona fide tealeaf action tea because he convinces himself he’s overthinking the e-mail from Danny. But by the time he’s back in the car, he’s on the other side of the fence. Danny never e-mailed about Matt Daehler, so there’s no way this can be good. Right?

 

He drives past his usual coffee stop because he doubts caffeine is going to do anything for how nauseous he’s suddenly feeling.

 

“Danny?” Derek knocks on the door that leads into the IT office suite, even though it’s propped open with a wooden wedge. He sets Stiles’ tea on a filing cabinet inside the empty suite and walks in. “Anyone here?”

 

“Just a sec!” Danny shouts out frantically. A moment later, he emerges from one of the offices with a blushing Isaac in tow.

 

Derek blinks. Well, he never expected that.

 

“Morning, Derek.” Isaac licks his lips and uses his forearm to wipe across his mouth, and now Derek is blushing as well because there’s no way the smug, satisfied grin on Danny’s face is merely the result of a really tasty breakfast muffin.

 

Unless that breakfast muffin is Isaac.

 

Maybe that’s why both Isaac and Danny are always so laid back.

 

Isaac ducks out the door, and Derek follows Danny to the back of the IT suite. What looks like a flat screen TV is mounted to the wall, though the display features a computer desktop.

 

“Police and employment records are supposed to be delivered later today, so nothing is for sure yet, but it’s not looking good for the Stilinski kid.” Danny taps on his iPad, which appears to be synced with the flat screen TV. “His dad is a sheriff, so it took forever to get through all the search results, but there are a couple things I found that I think you should see. First, check out this news story.”

 

Derek frowns. “That’s about the explosion.”

 

“But look here.” Danny scrolls to the middle of the page, and highlights a paragraph that lists the names of everyone killed as a result of the explosion. He points to a particular name and says, “Don’t ask me how to pronounce her first name, but look at her last name.”

 

“Stilinski,” Derek whispers.

 

“Right. That’s Stiles’ mother. She used to work for your parents as a bookkeeper. She wasn’t even supposed to be there the night of the explosion—”

 

“But she took an extra shift at the last minute,” Derek murmurs.

 

“You knew that already?”

 

“Stiles mentioned it. I think it might’ve inspired his senior project.” Derek’s not certain whether he’s trying to convince Danny or himself. All that rings in his mind is Stiles saying I get it when he’d been trying to convince Derek to sponsor his senior project.

 

“You sure about that?” Danny asks.

 

Derek thinks back to Stiles’ panic attack in the library. At the time, he’d assumed it had been Stiles’ reaction to being startled mixed with the scare from falling off the shelves. Now, he wonders if the panic attack was a result of actual panic for getting caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing—that something being corporate espionage. “I’m not sure about anything anymore.” Derek curses. “What’s the other thing you found?”

 

“His Twitter feed,” Danny says just as it loads on the screen. “His tweets are pretty boring, and he abuses hashtags like they’re going out of style, but I figured out he tweets from three IP addresses. One is his computer at home, according to his ISP. Another is his phone, and then there’s a third one he only uses on Friday afternoons. That’s where all these tweets were posted.” He pulls up another screen that shows the filtered tweets: 

 

 

 

Putting more than callers on hold. #mylife

 

Would you like to be put on hold or try back later? #itscalledemail

 

Weird. Calls for the assistant job keep getting dropped. #howtogetahead

 

Lips chapped. #asskissing

 

Am I cut or what? #bleedinghelp

 

I'm such a player! #onlinegames

 

Technically, I'm not alone. #cats

 

Derek wants to laugh, but then he reads the third tweet. “What assistant job?”

 

“Same thing I thought,” Danny says. “At first, I didn’t think much of it. I mean, plenty of students have second and third jobs, and he’s not even getting paid here. But when I couldn’t bust through the IP address, I reread that tweet, did a basic job search, and guess what? There’s only one place in the area advertising an assistant job.” Danny takes his phone out of his pocket and shows Derek the results of the job search. “Bane Chemical.”

 

Derek’s heart stops. “What?”

 

“Right?” Danny says emphatically.

 

Not right. Not right at all. Shit!

 

“And just to make absolutely certain, check it out.” Danny puts his phone on speaker and calls the number attached to the job listing.

 

“Good morning, this is Bane Chemical. You’re speaking with Scott. How may I help you?”

 

Derek blanches. Was that Stiles’ Scott? The Scott who has sucky mornings with his girlfriend? The Scott who eats too many chile rellenos? The Scott who makes Stiles laugh?

 

Shit, shit, shit.

 

“Hi, this is the Beacon Hills Depot,” Danny says smoothly. “The receptionist on duty this past Friday afternoon placed an order with us, and we need his name for the packaging slip.”

 

“Oh, that’s Stiles. Stiles Stilinski. Need me to spell it?”

 

Derek gawks at Danny like he might grow a second head.

 

“Nope. That’s all I need. Thank you, Scott.” Danny ends the call.

 

“Oh, my God,” Derek mutters weakly. “How could this happen?”

 

“Dude, there’s no way the standard new employee background check would flag previous employment at Bane Chemical.”

 

That’s not what he meant, but Derek doesn’t have the energy to explain. “Can you e-mail all this to me?”

 

“Sure thing.” Danny hands him a packet of papers held together with a binder clip. “I printed out all of it, too. I never know if I’ll be dealing with a technophobe.” He rolls his eyes. “Anyway, I know there’s still a chance all of this is a huge coincidence because I’m still waiting on the police and employment records, but like I said, it’s not looking good. So, I’ve locked Stilinski’s account, and as soon as Boyd and Erica get here, I’m sending them up to get him.”

 

“He’s getting arrested?”

 

“By security guards? I don’t think so.” Danny laughs. “But since I’ve locked down his account, I don’t want him to realize he’s been caught and make a run for it. Boyd and Erica will keep an eye on him until I have a chance to peruse the records. After that, I’ll hand over everything to the cops, and let them deal with it.”

 

Danny’s phone rings, and he curses when he reads the display. “No rest for the wicked. I better get this,” he mutters apologetically. “Expect Boyd and Erica in a few.” As he walks away, Derek hears him say, “Before you start, Greenberg, did you turn it off and then on again?”

 

After that, Derek isn’t sure how he gets to the elevator without imploding. He stares numbly at Stiles’ tea, which he grips like a lifeline in one hand, and can’t even bear to look at the thin packet of papers in his other.

 

He wonders if Kate told Stiles to pursue him. Did Stiles laugh after Derek confessed his suspicions about Kate? Did he laugh about everything in the library? Had it all been a lie? Everything?

 

“Hello? Derek? Are you okay?”

 

Derek looks up to find Isaac eying him with concern.

 

“Whoa!” Isaac lunges forward to prevent the elevator doors from sliding shut, and the sudden movement shakes Derek out of his stupor.

 

“Sorry,” Derek murmurs, shuffling out of the elevator. “Can you let me know when Stiles gets here?”

 

“But he’s already here.”

 

Derek freezes in his tracks. “What?” he snarls angrily.

 

Isaac cowers at the sound of his booming voice. After several stuttering starts, words finally rush past his lips. “When I saw you at Danny’s office, I thought you were the one who let him in.” He keeps clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides. “I think he’s been here a while.”

 

Derek hates himself for the way Isaac refuses to meet his eyes. He rubs a hand down his face and takes a deep breath to calm himself. “I didn’t mean to snap,” he says wearily. “This isn’t your fault.”

 

“It’s okay,” Isaac mumbles, his voice tiny.

 

As gently as he can, Derek places a hand on Isaac’s shoulder and doesn’t miss the way he flinches. “It’s not.” Derek sighs. “I’m sorry, Isaac. I mean it. I shouldn’t have snapped.”

 

Isaac finally looks up and nods slightly. “He’s in your conference room.”

 

Derek offers him what he hopes to be an encouraging smile. “Thank you.”

 

The exchange with Isaac is sufficiently distracting, and instead of feeling numb, confused, and betrayed, he simply feels like an asshole. He’s unsure of what to expect in the conference room. What if Stiles already figured out Danny locked his account, and now he’s going to pull some crazy, last stand act of desperation?

 

Choreographed to that awful techno dubstep music he likes so much?

 

Derek carefully moves toward the hallway entrance of his conference room and opens one of the double doors to find Stiles sitting on top of the conference table with papers, books, and files scattered everywhere around him. His hair looks wild, like he’s run his fingers through it a thousand times. His glasses perch precariously at the tip of his nose, and he’s raptly focused as he feverishly scribbles away on a sheet of paper. He’s wearing a gray Beacon Hills High School lacrosse team t-shirt and black sweatpants; the checkerboard pants and white dress shirt from the day before are draped over an empty chair next to him.

 

Derek steps over Stiles’ backpack, maneuvers his way around a few stacks of files and a tower of books, and stops when he sees Stiles’ laptop in the chair with his clothes. He presses the spacebar to stop the music. “Stiles?” he says hesitantly.

 

Stiles jerks as he glances up. His eyes register Derek before he spots the tea and snatches it greedily. He pops off the lid and takes a large gulp, even though the tea is surely too hot, and then spits it back into the cup. “Caffeine. I need caffeine,” he says, shoving it away.

 

Derek notices several empty plastic bottles of root beer littering the floor around the wastebasket. “What the hell? Have you been here all night?”

 

No.” It’s clearly a lie. Stiles pulls his laptop onto the table and furiously begins typing away.

 

“And don’t you have a class in the afternoons?” Derek flicks the checkerboard pants. “Your clothes from yesterday are still here. I know you skipped class.”

 

“So what? People skip class all the time,” Stiles huffs, unconcerned.

 

“Stiles.” Derek puts his hands on the table and leans down, getting eye level with him. “Look at me.”

 

“Hang on a minute,” Stiles mutters, fingers flying across the keyboard. “Crap. Is hydrocarbon one word or two? Is it hyphenated?”

 

Stiles!”

 

“Dude, I’m fine!” Stiles finally looks at Derek. There are dark bags under his eyes, and he’s obviously exhausted. “Ignore the vein throbbing at my temple,” he says, returning to his typing. “It’s just happy to see you.”

 

Derek’s had enough of this act. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but this is over.”

 

Stiles pauses and looks hurt. “This? Us? We’re over?” He blinks owlishly. “But we’ve hardly begun.”

 

Derek gapes at his audacity. “Everything! Everything is over!” he cries. “I know you’re working for the Argents.”

 

Stiles’ eyes go round and frantic, and he looks like he’s on the verge of another panic attack.

 

“Security’s due up here any minute to collect you. I just—” Derek sighs. “I want to know why. How could you do it?” He stammers a moment, fights with his composure. “You told me I could trust you.”

 

“You can trust me.”

 

“So, you’re not working at Bane Chemical?” Derek looks cynical. “The Argents didn’t send you here to spy on us?”

 

“No—well, yes. I do work there. But only for the money, which, I realize, sounds a little like a part-time porn star’s defense? But you have to believe me. I’m not here to hurt your family. Please, just let me explain.”

 

Derek doesn’t want to hear it, but he knows he needs to. He needs to understand why if he ever expects to get over this. “You have until the guards come for you.”

 

“Holy God,” Stiles squeaks. “Okay, my friend, Scott, got me the job. At first, it was cuz I needed cash. Then, I realized they have files on aconitum, aconite dust—the works. And my mom—” Stiles swallows nervously. “My mom—she—”

 

“I know about your mom.” Derek plops the packet of papers from Danny onto the table; the printout of the news story is on top. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, voice low and deep.

 

Stiles nods as he blinks away unshed tears. “The Argents caught me nosing around their archives, and they got super mad when they checked my search history and figured out I was only interested in their aconite research. So, they said I could either take the internship with you and spy for them, or they’d turn me in for breaking and entering. And I think they might’ve said intellectual theft?”

 

Derek frowns. “You work there. How could that be breaking and entering?”

 

“Archives that exist only in paper form are kept in the old Bane Chemical building. Super gross and, like, probably filled with asbestos or something—wait!” Stiles suddenly looks up. “You heard me on the phone with Scott!” He scrambles off the table, papers fluttering to the floor with him. “You heard me say I couldn’t go through with it—with the spying. That’s why I walked out that first day. I couldn’t go through with it after I met you.”

 

“Yet, you still accepted my job offer in the lobby,” Derek deadpans.

 

Stiles groans in frustration. “I wasn’t spying! I only wanted access to the explosion files.”

 

“You’re not helping your case.”

 

“Not for the Argents,” Stiles assures, sounding fraught. “I wanted a look at the files for myself. To figure out what went wrong. To figure out how my mom died—why she died. I swear, that’s all.”

 

Stiles’ reasons are convincing, and Derek isn’t sure if that’s because he’s telling the truth, or because he’s a talented liar. Did the Argents make him memorize that story? He also recalls Danny’s comment about how all this could be a huge coincidence. But if that’s the case, then Matt Daehler would have to be guilty, which doesn’t make sense. Thus far, there isn’t a single shred of evidence that incriminates him.

 

“Derek?” Stiles tentatively reaches out, but Derek rears back involuntarily. “You don’t believe me.” His face falls.

 

“Dammit. I don’t know!” Derek surveys the mess in the room. It’s a tangible representation of the past few days, and it’s just too overwhelming. “I hope this was worth it,” he bites out bitterly. “Your research or files or spying or whatever the fuck you were doing. I hope it’s worth whatever you’ve got coming.”

 

Stiles leans across the table to remove the USB drive from his laptop. “It was worth it. Every single moment,” he says, placing the USB drive in Derek’s hand. “The first file in there is the pre-lab write-up for my project. It’s all done, except for the conclusion. Maybe Lydia can complete that, and you can use it in your meeting on Friday. And I guess you could call the second file research?” He shrugs his shoulders. “You should read it.”

 

Derek stares down at the USB drive in his palm, and glances up at Stiles again. “What the hell is happening right now?” He is so confused.

 

Stiles smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Just wait there,” he says, opening the door that connects to Derek’s office. “Let me get one more thing.”

 

That’s not suspicious or awkward at all. Derek sets the USB drive on the table and slowly approaches the door. “Stiles?” Something feels off. “You’re acting really weird—”

 

“Fuck!” Stiles hollers from the hallway. “Did you just taser me in the ass?” His voice is pitchy and panicked. “Thank God I’m wearing underwear today.”

 

Derek scrambles into the hallway through the back exit of his conference room and gawks at the scene before him. Erica is standing over Stiles, who is sprawled across the floor, freshly tasered. He’s trying to drag himself away from her, but it looks like he can’t feel his legs, so it’s slow going as he’s only able to utilize his arms.

 

“Why is every woman who works here absolutely terrifying?” Stiles whines through gritted teeth. He’s on his hands and knees now, but Erica continues to advance on him, a bit like a cat toying with prey. Honestly, it is a little terrifying.

 

But Derek sees the scene for what it really is, and it breaks his heart. Stiles had been trying to make a run for it. Not only that, but Derek had been his patsy. Again.

 

Right then, Peter and Lydia appear from the break room, each nursing a cup of coffee. “What on Earth is going on here?” Lydia demands.

 

Stiles uses the distraction to hop to his feet and manages to hobble only a few steps before Boyd rounds the corner and tasers the back of his neck. Stiles’ body tenses up, one of his hands curl into Boyd’s shirt, and his shrieks of pain taper off before he crumbles to the ground.

 

“Stiles!”

 

Derek’s not sure who cries out. Practically everyone is either in the hallway or watching the drama unfold from under doorways.

 

Stiles’ hands are trembling, and he jolts from aftershocks every few seconds. “D-D-Derek,” he stutters helplessly, tears streaming down his face. “D-Derek, please.” He whimpers as a particularly violent shock ripples through his body. “I’m s-s-s-sorry. P-Please.”

 

Derek clenches his jaw tightly, unwilling to answer Stiles’ calls.

 

Boyd kneels over him and handcuffs Stiles’ hands behind his back. “Think you can walk yet?” he asks, surprisingly gentle. When Stiles sobs and shakes his head—the movement barely disparate from the fine tremors that wrack his body—Boyd effortlessly slings him over a shoulder the way most people might carry a large bag of mulch.

 

“I’ll meet you downstairs,” Erica says to Boyd as he and Stiles disappear into the elevator. Then, she starts corralling people back into their offices. “Back to work, folks. Nothing to see here.”

 

Derek sluggishly walks back to his office and can’t do anything but sit in his chair for a while, still in shock over everything. How the hell was he supposed to process this?

 

“Derek?”

 

He digs his fingers into his eyes. “Not now, Isaac.” But he hears Isaac walk in, regardless.

 

“Um. Before everything that happened just now, Stiles asked me to give you this.”

 

Derek’s eyes immediately snap open. Isaac’s holding a folded piece of paper that appears to have been ripped from Derek’s own memo pad. He snatches it up and unfolds it apprehensively, unsure of what to expect.

 

“What’s it say?” Isaac asks.

 

One side is in Derek’s own handwriting; it’s the address and phone number he’d written for Stiles when he’d gone out to buy Derek a new shirt and tie. The other side, however, is in Stiles’ now familiar messy scrawl:

 

 

 

I’m going to find you proof.

YOU CAN TRUST ME.

 

Derek shows the note to Isaac.

 

“Proof about what?”

 

Derek shakes his head and tosses the note aside. “I have no idea.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Derek stays holed up in his office through lunch, having given Isaac strict orders to screen his phone calls. Essentially, that means important calls get forwarded to Peter, while incoming calls from Peter are blocked.

 

His office is quiet and undisturbed, a perfect atmosphere in which to prepare his presentation for the board of directors; however, Derek is unable to concentrate on work. His mind is completely consumed by thoughts of Stiles. He’d feel rather pitiful and maybe even juvenile about his moping if he actually gave a shit. (Which he doesn’t. Not at all. Nope.)

 

“Why so down, Sparkle Crotch?”

 

“Dammit, Peter!” Derek jumps and manages to scatter all his paperclips across the carpet. “How many times have I told you to quit using the back door?”

 

“That’s what she said.” Peter smirks and strokes his chin thoughtfully. “He said?”

 

“You’re a child, y’know that?”

 

Peter shrugs. “I’m not the one who’s been pouting in my room all day.”

 

Derek’s crouched on the floor, picking paperclips out of the carpet. “Could you not?”

 

“Touchy,” Peter grouses. “I’m only here to update you on your boy toy.”

 

Derek cringes inwardly at the appalling new nickname for Stiles; no doubt, Peter has talked to Lydia. “What part of can you not don’t you understand?”

 

He gets up with a handful of paperclips, can’t find the damned container that usually holds them all, and ends up simply dumping them into a desk drawer exactly when Peter miraculously produces the very container he needs. Derek is so done with today. “Peter, I appreciate you coming in here to…do whatever you came in here to do. But I’m busy. I have work to do. So, you need to leave.”

 

“Don’t get your panties in a twist, Sparkle Crotch.” Peter puts up his hands defensively. “Seriously. You’ll probably just end up with glitter everywhere.”

 

“Peter!” Derek’s pinching the bridge of his nose, fairly certain he’s on the brink of his sanity.

 

“Oh, you’re no fun.” Peter scowls. “Considering Isaac’s enabling your moping by playing that clever little trick with the phones, I gather you don’t know yet that Stiles escaped.”

 

Derek stares at Peter like he’s joking. “What? How did he get away from three armed guards?”

 

“It was only one guard. Matt Daehler was supposed to be watching him while Boyd and Erica filled out paperwork about their illustrious morning capers.” Peter’s disapproving tone speaks volumes about how he really feels about Stiles’ capture. “As it turns out, your ex-intern might have exaggerated his injuries. Or maybe he recovered quicker than anticipated. In any case, he slipped his arms under his legs, presumably found a paperclip lying around somewhere, and presto-chango—” Peter snaps his fingers “—Boyd and Erica found Daehler handcuffed where they’d left Stiles.” He chuckles appreciatively. “Never really cared for the kid until I heard about that.”

 

“Why are you telling me all this? Stiles is still guilty, isn’t he?”

 

“Therein lies the crux of the matter.” Peter’s face is inscrutable. “I’ve just been to visit Danny. Would you believe me if I told you Stiles is innocent?”

 

Derek gapes, thinking back to how Stiles, himself, admitted he worked for Bane Chemical, that the Argents forced him to spy on the Hales. “No,” he says adamantly. “Stiles is guilty. He has to be.” Because if he’s not, Derek isn’t sure how he’ll ever make things up to him.

 

“There’s actually no way he can be guilty,” Peter counters. “He was logged in to our system during the time we got hacked, but he was down at HR, doing his new employee training. Finstock can vouch for him.”

 

“Oh, God,” Derek mumbles weakly. Stiles had been telling the truth. About all of it—every single thing. His heart aches as he hears Stiles’ words in his mind: Every single moment.

 

“So, Daehler’s the mole. Apparently, he knows Gerard through some hinky connections, and now, there’s a warrant out for his arrest.” Peter looks disturbingly gleeful about the scandal. “But here’s my question: If Stiles was innocent, why did he run? And, more pressing, why is he still running?”

 

Derek’s brow furrows in confusion. “What do you mean still running?”

 

“It’s been hours since he slipped the guards, but no one can find him. Danny made the hilariously awful mistake of calling Stiles’ dad, the sheriff. Do not go down to IT if you don’t want an angry papa bear to bite your head off.” Peter shudders. “Been there, done that, never again.”

 

Derek is instantly up out of his chair. “Stiles is missing?”

 

“That’s what you got out of what I said?” Peter makes a face. “That’s the one thing I didn’t say. I said he’s running. Or, I don’t know, not found?”

 

“So, missing,” Derek says flatly.

 

“And people call me the drama queen,” Peter mutters derisively. “I’m fairly certain he needs to be gone a couple days before he’s officially considered missing.”

 

“You’re the one who said it doesn’t make sense for him to have run at all if he’s innocent.”

 

“So, what’re you going to do?” Peter snarks. “Just stand there, festering in manpain until your magical boss-intern bond beckons you to his location?”

 

“No.” Derek looks unimpressed. “I’m calling his roommate.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

This is when everything blows up in his face.

 

When Derek calls Bane Chemical in hopes of reaching Scott, he actually ends up speaking with the renowned sucky mornings Allison, better known as Allison Argent. The sheer number of coincidences in Stiles’ life astounds him.

 

Allison, however, refuses to give him Scott’s phone number because she’s never heard of Derek Hale (he vaguely wonders where the fuck she’s been because not only does the rest of her entire clan know him, but he can’t seem to quit hearing about her during every other conversation). Finally, she calls Scott on her own cell phone, and they have an awkward three-way phone call that lasts a merciful few seconds before they figure out Scott’s already down in IT with Danny and Sheriff Stilinski.

 

As Peter had warned, Sheriff Stilinski is vicious as he operates under the assumption his son is missing (no one—not even Scott—can reach him on his cell phone). The moment Sheriff Stilinski finds out Derek is Stiles’ boss, he sets to tearing Derek a new asshole. Although he keeps seeing Stiles in the sheriff—in his expressive eyes, his flailing limbs, his indignant pout—it’s absolutely terrifying to be the sole focus of his attention.

 

The IT office suite becomes the unofficial headquarters for their impromptu search. Danny doesn’t seem to mind as he repeatedly apologizes to the sheriff for not getting things right much sooner. It figures he’s the only one not getting yelled at.

 

As the workday comes to a close, the news isn’t promising. The sheriff calls the university and receives confirmation that Stiles isn’t in class, and when he discovers Stiles also missed class the previous afternoon because he spent the night in Derek’s office, it’s all Scott and Danny can do to hold him back as Isaac helps Derek escape into the elevator.

 

Once they’re safely tucked away on the twelfth floor, Derek receives a text from Danny that states Scott and the sheriff are going to campus to check the dorms, cafeterias, and bars. It’s a good idea—better than anything Derek can think to do. All he knows is after the taser fiasco, there’s no way in hell Stiles would want to come back to the Hale Process Safety Center.

 

“Did you ever figure out what Stiles meant in that note?” Isaac’s leaning against the doorjamb, similar to the way Peter does sometimes. “He said he was going to prove something.”

 

Derek rummages through the things on his desk, trying to find where he’d discarded the note. “I don’t know. At the time, I thought he meant he was going to prove he was innocent.” He swallows a lump in his throat. “But that can’t be it. He was innocent all along.”

 

“There it is!” Isaac darts forward and picks up the note from where it’s fallen over the edge of Derek’s desk. “I’m going to find you proof,” Isaac slowly reads from the paper. “And then he underlines this part: You can trust me.” He hands Derek the note. “Does that ring any bells?”

 

“Oh, my God,” Derek murmurs. He can’t believe he didn’t catch it before. “You can trust me,” he whispers, a growing smile curling his lips. He closes his eyes, instantly relives Saturday morning in the library with Stiles. It was the first time Stiles had said those words—right after their first (and second) kiss, right after Stiles had mentioned he could find proof Kate Argent is somehow responsible for the explosion from two years ago. “I think I know where he is!”

 

Isaac grabs the note and inspects it carefully, but is unable to decipher it like Derek. “Where?”

 

“Argent archives,” Derek says breathlessly. He whoops in triumph when he finds his keys among the clutter strewn across his desk. Just as he rushes out the door, he shouts over his shoulder, “Tell the others!”

 

“Drive safe!” Isaac calls after him. In retrospect, perhaps he also should’ve advised Derek not get brained on his way there. Alas.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The first thing Derek’s aware of is an incessant throbbing sensation somewhere behind his right ear. It’s unexpected and unwelcome, and Derek just wants it to stop.

 

The second thing he realizes is someone’s carding fingers through his hair, nails gently scraping along his scalp. It feels so soothing and familiar, like what his mom used to do when he was miserable and gross, sweating out a fever. Derek’s pretty miserable and gross right now, too. He can feel the sticky mess of drying blood at his nape, and the swollen welt on his head seems to intensify in pain as he nuzzles further into the comforting hand.

 

Of course, that’s when the hand freezes. “Derek?” The voice sounds concerned, and then it shifts to annoyed. “I swear to God, if that’s not you waking up right the fuck now, I’m fixing to kill you.”

 

Derek grunts, though he’d meant to tell the voice to shut up.

 

“Derek, wake up,” the voices prattles on. “Your thick head is putting my crotch to sleep, and it better not be permanent—”

 

“Stiles?” Derek’s disoriented. All he understands is he’s on his stomach, and all his joints feel stiff and sore.

 

“Oh, thank God,” Stiles rushes out in one relieved breath. “I was going to kill you if you died on my junk—dude, take it easy,” he says as Derek begins to stir a little more. “You might have a concussion—no, don’t!”

 

Derek’s just braced both hands on the cement floor, fully prepared to push himself up, except when he does, his head moves up a few inches before he chokes and is violently yanked back down onto— “Stiles.” He squeezes his eyes shut against the pain flaring up in his head once more. “Why can’t I move off your crotch?” Derek’s vaguely impressed with how calm he sounds—only vaguely impressed because he’s slightly more concerned about other things. Like why his head is somehow tethered to Stiles Stilinski’s dick—what the actual fuck, universe?

 

“I usually have to buy someone dinner before I ever get this lucky.” Stiles giggles, a frantic, nervous sound tittering past his lips. “I guess these are the perks of being held hostage!”

 

Derek warily raises his head this time and stops when he feels resistance against his motions. “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” he snarls. The reason he can’t move his head is because roughly half his necktie is stuck tightly inside the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet. It reminds Derek so much of the shredder debacle from his first meeting with Stiles that he gets this bizarre urge to laugh. What are the chances this happens to a person twice? And he means person—he doesn’t mean people. Stiles, the lucky bastard, simply has his left wrist securely zip-tied to the handle of the second drawer, and to Derek’s knowledge, doesn’t have his face shoved into anyone’s pants. “Where the hell are we?”

 

“You don’t remember?” Stiles tenses for a moment and coughs. “How hard did he hit you?”

 

“He?” Derek muses aloud. But it slowly comes back to him in colorful little flashes, like photographs from the worst vacation ever. “I figured out you were at the old Bane Chemical headquarters,” he murmurs. “I remember arriving, getting out of my car, and…I don’t think I can remember what happened after that.” Derek shifts so he’s turned on his side and his head rests against Stiles’ knee. “How long have I been out?”

 

“I’d guess about half an hour?” Stiles shrugs, though Derek can’t see his face because the angle isn’t right. “They took away our cell phones, and there isn’t a clock in here—” He chokes on his own words as a nasty coughing fit overtakes him. “The dust down here has been hell on my allergies. Anyway, it was that creepy security guard dude from your office who lugged you in.”

 

“Matt Daehler?” Derek’s suddenly overwhelmed by the memories of why they’re here in the first place. He jerks upward and curses loudly when his head snaps down again into Stiles’ lap.

 

“Holy God!” Stiles squeals, his legs scrabbling against the floor. “Dude. Stop pounding your head,” he flounders for a moment, “into my head.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Derek says, his voice cracking. “Stiles, I’m so sorry for everything.” From the horrifying takedown in the hallway this morning to Derek’s overall inability to trust—all in the face of Stiles’ complete innocence—Derek can’t imagine how Stiles could ever forgive him for the hell that is today. But Derek needs to try. If he has to beg or grovel, then so be it. This is on him.

 

“Uh. It’s cool, man.” Stiles awkwardly pats Derek’s head. “I mean, I’m already regaining sensitivity in the ol’ cojones.”

 

“What? No, that’s not what I’m talking about,” Derek says incredulously. “You asked me to trust you, and I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

 

Stiles is silent for a minute, and even though Derek can’t see him, he can tell Stiles is smiling. “I’m just glad you believe me,” he finally says. “But it’s not like I was totally upfront with you. I gave you reason to doubt me. This is partly my fault, too.”

 

“I doubt either of us is to blame for this,” Derek grouses, trying to pull away from the filing cabinet again. He looks around as well as he’s able. The floors are cement, the walls made from brick, and an eerie dust clings to everything. The room must be a rundown lab from when Bane Chemical used to operate in the building. “Who decided to get creative and attach us to a filing cabinet? Who does that?”

 

“Y’know that proof I told you I’d find?” Stiles bangs on the filing cabinet a couple times with the hand that’s fastened to it. “Found it!” He cringes a little. “And then, well, Gerard Argent’s fist found my face, and cue bad guy monologue. He said he was keeping me until after the merger finalizes. You know you’re a workaholic when,” he trails off, laughing. He looks thoughtful for a second, but the moment vanishes just as fast. “I never imagined I’d say this, but constantly finding myself stuck to office supplies is really beginning to lose its charm.”

 

“We need to get out of here,” Derek says, pulling with renewed vigor at his tie. “I have no idea why Gerard would kidnap you, but it can’t be good.”

 

“Should I be concerned I’m weirdly offended by your insinuation? How can you even—dude!” Stiles cries indignantly. “You didn’t look at the USB drive, did you?”

 

“The what?” Derek’s not paying attention. He thinks he hears the sound of fabric rending and finds himself wishing he’d been wearing a damned Costco tie for the first time in his life. Surely, it’d be easier to rip out of the filing cabinet.

 

Dude,” Stiles whines, drawing out the word. “After the dramatic exit and the it was worth it and, like, I freaking got tasered, man. And you couldn’t spare five minutes to look at it?”

 

“I was kind of busy recovering from the way I thought you’d ripped my heart out,” Derek says through clenched teeth.

 

“You’re the actual worst,” Stiles grumbles. “I was tasered in the ass, Derek. The ass!” Derek gives him a moment to calm down. “Why do you think I stayed up all night researching? Why do you think I knew to come to this room for the evidence? I know you can’t really see, but this is the only filing cabinet in here.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Stiles groans and leans over Derek, his face upside-down. “I know what caused the explosion.” He pulls back from Derek’s sight and smacks the filing cabinet again. “The evidence is in here, and your feeling was right.”

 

Derek’s mouth goes dry. “It was Kate?”

 

“Not completely sure it was her, but it was definitely the Argents,” Stiles replies. “The drawer I’m cuffed to? I found records of bulk aconite dust purchases and botched books that cover the trail. The one above it? A bunch of experiments and data that tests the way aconite dust will react to water.”

 

“Like my senior project?”

 

“No. Just water. Dude, all of this was on the USB drive—” Stiles’ rant breaks off as he’s wracked with violent coughs again. “Oh, gross,” he mutters feebly. “That can’t be good.”

 

“What?” Derek tries to move around to see what’s so gross, but his range of motion is irritatingly limited. “Stiles, what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing. Just, y’know, phlegm,” Stiles replies. It sounds like he wipes his hand on his shirt. “Anyway,” he continues, “after the explosion, I’m sure the fire chief checked the sprinklers to make sure they went off when the fire started. And the sprinklers worked fine. But here’s the thing: The sprinklers went off before the explosion.”

 

Derek is numb as tears spring to his eyes when the cold reality of what Stiles is saying takes hold. “Someone set off the sprinklers on purpose.”

 

“Ding, ding, ding!” Derek tenses at the shrill sound of Kate’s voice cutting into the air. He hadn’t even heard her come into the room. “Give the boy a prize.”

 

“Kate.” Derek growls her name like it’s the foulest thing imaginable. She’s lucky he’s tied down because he’s absolutely ready to tear her apart with his bare hands. “How could you,” he seethes.

 

He hears when Kate walks over to them, and can only see her shoes and the bottom of her legs as she crouches down. Stiles presses himself against the wall, and Derek flinches when Kate’s fingers trail down his back. “Y’know, I really did love you in the beginning,” she muses aloud, sounding nostalgic and strangely muffled. “Before you had to ruin everything, that is.”

 

“You can’t work out your relationship, so your solution is to flambé a bunch of innocent people?” Stiles blusters. “You’re a fuckin’ sicko—!”

 

There is a shuffle of movement from Kate, followed by a loud banging noise as she slams Stiles’ face into the filing cabinet. He swears loudly, and she does it again.

 

“Stiles!” Derek cries out frantically, distressed he can’t do anything more than flail uselessly. He’s tempted to lash out haphazardly in hopes of landing a blow, but he restrains the urge because he can’t know for sure he won’t hit Stiles by mistake.

 

Kate grabs a fistful of Derek’s hair, and he tries to dislodge her grip, but the angle is all wrong, so his efforts are fruitless. He yelps in pain when Kate forces his head back, his neck strained and exposed. She looks beautiful and dangerous as ever, although what appears to be a flu mask covers her nose and mouth. “My receptionist—I’m sorry,” she rolls her eyes, “your intern is cute, but he never knows quite when to keep out of other people’s business.” She smiles sinisterly as Derek bares his teeth at her.

 

“Was it you?” Derek bites out. “Is Stiles right? Did you cause the explosion?”

 

“I suppose it can’t hurt if you know now. So, yes. It was me,” she admits proudly, releasing her hold on Derek’s hair. “It took you long enough to figure it out. I nearly popped a blood vessel holding in my laughter when I got home to find you still in my bed because you didn’t know yet.”

 

“You’re a monster,” Stiles warbles from where he’s sagging against the filing cabinet. “How can you just laugh about killing innocent people?”

 

“Oh, Stiles,” she chides. “It was my family or his.”

 

“Yeah, cuz that worked out really well for the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Stiles mutters ruefully.

 

But Derek doesn’t understand. “My family wasn’t after yours,” he says, confused. At the time of the explosion, he didn’t know much about his parents’ company—not nearly as much as he does now, after two years of helping Laura and Peter run the business—but he’s fairly certain he would know if his parents were nursing some bizarre blood feud against the Argents.

 

“Of course it was,” Kate replies. “One of the first times you came over for dinner, you were showing Daddy your aconite dust oxidation project. Remember?”

 

Derek does. He recalls how nervous he’d been, how he’d asked his own father for advice about the date, and how his mother made him bring flowers for both Kate and Kate’s mom. The innocence of that moment in time is completely tarnished now.

 

“Daddy was furious after you left. He said it would only be a matter of time before you started to work on aconite dust reduction, too.” She huffs. “Regardless of whether the experimentation would produce viable results, your theorization was innovative enough to make every other process safety center completely irrelevant. My family would lose everything.”

 

Derek is so blinded by his rage he can’t see straight. “You murdered my family and countless other people,” he begins, voice dangerously low, “over a fucking science project?” He screams then, the sound gruesome and feral, and without thinking, he lunges for Kate, who skitters back, just as Derek’s tie chokes him back as well.

 

“Matt!” Kate screams. “Matt! Open the goddamn door!”

 

Derek continues to pull at his tie with wild abandonment. He barely registers Stiles’ panicked shouting when suddenly, his tie miraculously snaps in half. He stumbles onto his feet and bounds for the door just as Kate slips through it. Matt appears in her place, still wearing his Hale Process Safety Center security guard uniform and a flu mask like Kate’s while brandishing a gun that has Derek rearing back.

 

“That’s what I thought!” Matt sneers, backing out of the door. He slams it closed, locking it with an audible click.

 

“Kate!” Derek’s instantly on the door, pounding against it angrily. “You won’t get away with this!”

 

“She can’t hear you anymore,” Matt’s voice drawls from the other side of the door.

 

Derek jiggles the doorknob and tests the door, but it holds strong. Even though the building is old, the doors and walls are built well in order to prevent toxic fumes from drifting into hallways or other labs. Unless Kate or Matt open the door again, they’re stuck in the room.

 

“Derek?” Stiles’ voice sounds tight and his breathing is stilted. “Derek, my arm.”

 

Derek whirls around, only momentarily stunned by the sight before him: The filing cabinet has toppled over—probably during his one-man stampede to the door—and is crushing both of Stiles’ legs and his zip-tied left arm.

 

He rushes to Stiles’ side, showering him with a constant stream of apologies as he carefully lifts the heavy object off of him. Derek prods gingerly at Stiles’ legs, but Stiles swats him away with his good hand. “Stop that. My legs aren’t broken,” he insists. “I think I might’ve sprained my wrist,” he nods at the one still zip-tied, “but it’s fine. I’ll live.”

 

Derek is overwhelmed with an aching sort of solace now that he finally has a chance to take in the sight of him since the disaster that morning. Stiles is paler than he should be, features gaunt from stress and exhaustion. The left side of his face is bruised and swollen, a smear of blood is smudged next to his mouth, his wrist might be broken, he hasn’t slept in two days, and God knows what else.

 

“Stiles,” Derek murmurs. He cups a hand against Stiles’ unmarred cheek and relishes the way Stiles leans into the touch and puts his own hand over Derek’s.

 

“I know I’m totally ruining the moment, but I need to tell you something, and I don’t want you to freak out,” Stiles says. Derek raises his eyebrows expectantly as he tugs off the frayed remains of his tie. “So, you may have noticed we’re in a lab.”

 

Considering the lab tables, supply cabinets, and giant fume hood framing the room, Stiles’ confession actually isn’t all that startling. “Is this the part where I freak out?” Derek rocks back on his heels.

 

Stiles rolls his eyes. “Let me finish.” He toes off one of his shoes and rubs his sock-clad foot across the floor. He thrusts his leg at Derek. “Notice anything weird?”

 

Stiles’ sock is white, but the bottom of his foot is coated in a light dusting of purple. “Aconite dust,” Stiles says grimly. “This whole facility is coated in the stuff. It’s where they stored the extra supply they planted the night of the explosion.” He points to a fairly unassuming canister, roughly the size of a large tin of instant coffee, which sits under the fume hood. “See? They even have some that was never used.”

 

Derek’s eyes go wide with panic. No wonder Kate and Matt had been wearing the masks covering their noses and mouths. No wonder all his limbs have been sore since waking in the room.

 

“Y’know, silently freaking out still counts as freaking out,” Stiles points out. “Trust me, I know.”

 

“We need to get out of here now,” Derek says. Both he and Stiles are breathing in the aconite dust. It’s highly reactive in moist, humid atmospheres, and he can’t think of a better host than the human body. “You don’t even want to know what’ll happen after your body contracts a certain level of aconite dust toxicity.”

 

“And here I thought spontaneous combustion was always a myth.” Stiles chuckles anxiously.

 

Derek ignores the remark. “Get up. Let’s push the filing cabinet to the door and see if we can use it as a battering ram.”

 

“Brute force? Really?” Stiles quips from where he remains sprawled on the floor, leaning against the crook created by the wall to his back and the filing cabinet at his side. “Kinda offends my proud science nerd sensibilities.”

 

Derek stares. He doesn’t know why he didn’t catch it sooner. Stiles’ coughing, the blood speckled around his lips, and now that he’s looking for it, Derek notices a tinge of light pink on Stiles’ shirt, where he’d previously wiped his hand after coughing. “How long have they kept you in here?”

 

“Remember? No clocks in this dump. I’m thinking a strongly-worded letter to upper management is in order.”

 

Stiles.” Derek grits his teeth. “I know you’re coughing up blood. How long?”

 

Stiles stares him down until he deflates in defeat. “I’m not sure. I remember getting here a little after 9:00AM, and it wasn’t long before Gerard caught me. I…I think it’s been at least a couple hours since I could last feel my legs, and my hands are starting to feel tingly.”

 

Derek blanches. “I headed down here after 5:00PM, Stiles. You’ve been breathing in this stuff for at least eight hours. Probably more.” He’s on his feet again, pacing agitatedly. “Why wouldn’t you mention something like that?”

 

Stiles shuts his eyes tightly against tears that threaten to fall. “I’m scared, okay?” His voice wavers, all bravado having abandoned him now. “My mom didn’t die in the explosion. She made it out, and the doctors kept her hooked up to machines and tubes for a couple months while the aconite finished gnawing through all her internal organs.” When he opens his eyes, the tears spill down his cheeks. “I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want to die this way.”

 

Derek curses. “You’re not going to die. Isaac knows I’m here. He’ll bring help.” To be honest, he wonders why Isaac isn’t here already. Does he not know to send help to the old Bane Chemical building—the one that houses the archives? Derek shakes away the thought because he can’t worry Stiles with that horrifying misunderstanding. “We’ll get to a hospital,” Derek assures. “Doctors know how to cure minor aconite poisoning.” He doesn’t say what they’re both thinking: Just when does the damage go from minor to permanent and irreversible?

 

Stiles doesn’t respond as an aggressive coughing fit wracks through his body. It looks painful. He turns his head to cough against his arm, and when he pulls away, a large splotch of blood stains his t-shirt. “I think I’m going to be sick,” he moans upon observing it.

 

Derek can’t find the patience to determine if that’s because Stiles actually becomes sick at the sight of blood, if he’s being melodramatic, or if it’s the aconite poisoning that’s making him nauseous. “Hey! Open up out there!” He’s banging at the door again. “One of us is sick in here. He needs medical attention.”

 

They hear Matt cackle gleefully. “Notice how the pair of you don’t have masks?” He pauses. “That’s kind of the point.”

 

Derek balks at the ridicule and wants to shout they can’t simply be killed. But considering Kate has proudly confessed she’s responsible for the explosion from two years ago, he imagines a couple more people added to the death toll is no skin off her nose.

 

He quickly begins to raid the lab for anything remotely useful, placing the items on the lab table closest to Stiles so that he can see them, too. “All right, Stiles. Convince me of those proud science nerd sensibilities.”

 

Stiles grins. “We’re going to MacGyver our way out of here?”

 

“Sure. If MacGyver can do it, why can’t we?” Derek finds a scalpel and starts sawing at Stiles’ zip-tie, but it’s too rusty to be very effective.

 

“As long as you’re not setting your standards too high.” Stiles takes over with the scalpel. His grip is sloppy, but Derek is grateful he has a grip on the tool at all. “Tell me what you found.”

 

Derek walks back to the lab table that displays their meager supplies; it really isn’t much. “A bunch of test tubes, a couple large beakers, three Erlenmeyer flasks, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, duct tape, a couple Bunsen burners, and a cigarette lighter that still works.”

 

“And this,” Stiles raises the scalpel. “And the aconite dust—oh! Molotov cocktails!” he suddenly exclaims, sitting up excitedly. “You can put aconite dust into the test tubes and stuff. All we’d have to do is add rubbing alcohol and throw ‘em at the door. Or, if it’s not enough to knock out the door, maybe one of the walls?”

 

It’s a good idea, even though Derek would rather not mess with aconite dust without proper lab safety, but that ship sailed the moment they’d started inhaling the stuff. “We’d only have one shot at this,” Derek says. “The resulting explosion will cause smoke and,” he swallows thickly, “the smoke will set off the sprinklers.”

 

“So, we either totally rock this, or what’s more likely is we screw it up, the sprinklers go off, all the aconite dust here goes boom, and we both die the exact same way as our parents.” Stiles bangs his head against the wall. “Awesome. This is why I’ve never wanted to go to Vegas.”

 

Stiles continues to saw away at his zip-tie while Derek commences work under the fume hood. He conceals his nose and mouth under his shirt as he fills each of the five test tubes halfway with rubbing alcohol, seals them closed with duct tape, and sets them aside. Then, he gathers the two large beakers and three Erlenmeyer flasks and lines them up under the fume hood. Carefully, he opens the canister of aconite dust; it’s still completely full. He uses a spare test tube to mete out at least a tablespoon of dust into each of the beakers and flasks, and then carries everything but the canister of aconite dust over to Stiles.

 

“You okay?”

 

Stiles nods, though his pallor is cause for worry. “Got the zip-tie off, didn’t I?” He rubs at his sore wrist. “What’s the plan?”

 

“I think the door is made from steel, meaning we probably won’t be successful in knocking it down.” Derek points to the wall opposite of the door. “We’ll try to knock down that wall. Even if it doesn’t lead outside, at least we probably won’t find Kate or Matt out there.”

 

“Makes sense.” Stiles picks up one of the test tubes. “These are kind of genius. Is it wrong to say I’m super attracted to your brain right now?”

 

Derek huffs a laugh and starts shoving the filing cabinet so that it acts as a shield for them. Then, he places one rubbing alcohol-filled test tube inside each beaker or flask, gives Stiles two of the Erlenmeyer flasks because they’re easier to grip around the slim necks, and arms himself with the two large beakers. “When I say, aim for the center of the wall.” Derek kneels down next to Stiles so that he’s also shielded by the filing cabinet. “When the glass breaks against the wall, the rubbing alcohol should activate the aconite dust. We’ll only have a couple minutes before the smoke sets off the sprinklers. Ready?”

 

“Not quite.” Stiles leans forward and presses a kiss to Derek’s lips, and when he pulls back, his eyes shine with tears. “No matter what happens,” he starts to say, voice shaky, “I just want you to know that I—”


“Stiles, don’t,” Derek whispers. “If you’re about to say what I think you’re about to say, I can’t hear that right now.”

 

Stiles blinks away tears and laughs softly. “I was only going to say I’m gonna be really upset if we die because I still haven’t watched ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ because I was too scared to watch it because of sad feels? And then, like, I got fucking spoiled for it? And…and I’d hate to die with that regret.” He caresses Derek’s cheek and gazes at him for a moment. “But that would be my only regret.”

 

“I have no idea what most of that means,” Derek mumbles, blushing. “But if I did, I think that’s all I’d regret, too.”

 

Stiles grips an Erlenmeyer flask in each hand. “It’s now or never.”

 

Derek grips his beakers, spares one last glance at Stiles, and yells, “Now!”

 

They hurl their Molotov cocktails at the wall and cover their ears as a loud boom vibrates through their bones. The filing cabinet tilts precariously until Derek rights it again. He peers around it and grins, victorious. There is a small hole at the bottom of the wall, large enough for them to crawl through.

 

“Dude. It worked!” Stiles beams.

 

The door flings open and Matt stumbles inside, mouth agape at the slowly smoking hole. “What the hell?” But before he can do much more, Derek throws the spare Molotov cocktail in his direction, hears him shout in despair, and doesn’t wait to see the damage.

 

Derek drapes Stiles’ arm across his shoulder and hauls him up with a grunt. Stiles can’t use his legs, so Derek’s essentially dragging him the whole way, but it’s only a few steps to escape. That is, until a loud popping noise sounds, and white-hot agony radiates from Derek’s side.

 

“Derek!” Stiles screams.

 

Almost comically, Derek glances down at the blooming red wound near his right hip, like he can’t believe he’s actually been shot. He staggers gamely for a moment before Stiles slips from his grip.

 

“You idiot!”

 

Derek spins around, stumbling into the lab table with their unused supplies. Kate is at the door, yelling at Matt. He doesn’t hear all of it, but he sees Kate pointing to him, and then to the ground, where Derek notices small spirals of smoke rising from tiny drops of his own blood, no doubt reacting to the aconite dust coating the floor.

 

“But they were going to get away,” Matt whines. “I had to shoot him.”

 

Kate curses. “Now this place is going to blow us to pieces. You stay and make sure they don’t get away,” she sneers derisively. With that, she runs down the hallway, out of sight, with Matt chasing after her.

 

“Can you still walk?” Stiles asks, worriedly eying the steadily rising smoke from the hole in the wall. “You’ve got to get out of here.”

 

Derek bites his lip, trying to stave off the overwhelming pain emanating from the bullet in his side. “Not without you,” he says, voice rough.

 

“Trust me. I’ll be fine. Just go,” Stiles begs.

 

It’s a bold-faced lie, of course. If the aconite poisoning doesn’t kill him first, the explosion in a minute will. “Get to the filing cabinet.”

 

For once, Stiles does as he’s told, using his arms to pull himself into position. “What are you doing?” He looks confused and scared, but unlike before, when he was afraid to die, now, he looks frightened for Derek.

 

But Derek doesn’t answer. He can’t answer. It’s all he can do not to pass out as he clumsily makes his way to the fume hood, cradles the canister of aconite dust, and staggers back to Stiles. Without a word, he encircles them in a ring of aconite dust, backs into the filing cabinet, and slides down its side into a seated position, cringing from the pain.

 

Stiles is suddenly on him, pressing his lacrosse t-shirt into Derek’s bullet wound. Derek grunts at the pressure, and then can’t help the laughter that bubbles up out of him when he realizes Stiles has been wearing the fucking taco undershirt this entire time. He must’ve found it in Derek’s office the night before.

 

“You’re insane, y’know that?” Stiles says frantically. “What the hell are you doing?”

 

“Your project,” Derek rasps, as though that’s any kind of explanation. He opens his palm to reveal the cigarette lighter he’d found earlier. “According to your research, the fire should neutralize the ring of dust. It’ll form a barrier and keep us safe from the blast.” His hands shake as he tries to start the lighter.

 

“Are you crazy? You said it yourself. That is a theory.”

 

Derek’s fingers finally roll across the lighter in the right way, and it sparks a flame. “You said I can trust you,” he says. “And I believe you. I trust you.”

 

Stiles gapes at him incredulously, like Derek’s out of his mind. And maybe he is. The head wound and the pain from Matt’s bullet probably don’t put him in a rational state of mind. But it’s too late to turn back now. The smoke is billowing across the ceiling, and there must be mere seconds before the sprinklers turn on.

 

When Derek touches the lighter to the circle of aconite dust, the fire instantly races around the ring and an eerie, beautiful purple flame blazes around them. More importantly, nothing blows up.

 

Derek sighs in relief as Stiles looks on in astonishment and wonder. “I was right,” he breathes out, face aglow in the otherworldly purple light reflected from the fire. “My theory was right!”

 

Stiles swoops in to kiss Derek, and as their lips touch, water from the sprinklers drenches them, and a loud explosion rocks the foundation of the building. Derek doesn’t feel a thing past the warm embrace of Stiles’ arms. And he thinks, for one brief moment, that everything will be just fine. But that fantasy is shattered when the roof caves in and darkness swallows him up without another thought.

 

~ ~ ~

 

When Derek opens his eyes, things are strangely quiet. He finds Peter sitting next to him, silently reading something. One leg is crossed over the other, and he looks regal as ever in a handsome, dark suit. His lips are downturned in a way that makes him look austere—not at all how he appears when he thinks people are watching.


Derek wants to ask why everything seems so hazy and odd, but all he can manage is a strangled grunt because something’s been shoved down his throat.

 

Peter looks up and smiles at him, though it just makes Derek mad because he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and he can’t figure out how to talk, and Peter looks happy about it, and it sounds like he’s calling out the door to gather other people for the show and, just. Fucking Peter. Seriously.

 

Derek shifts, starts to get up, but cries out seconds later when pain lances through him. Peter is instantly at his side trying to hold him down and keep him calm, but all Derek can focus on is the sound of footsteps clattering against the floor, and then a weird pressure in his arm. But things stop hurting as much after that, and he thinks Peter might be yelling at someone, but Derek’s eyelids are so heavy, and he simply can’t bring himself to care.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The next time he wakes up, things aren’t quite as unsettling. For starters, nothing’s been crammed down his throat, though there is a transparent mask covering his nose and mouth. Also, Peter isn’t there. He registers the steady beeping sound from a nearby heart monitor and takes in the peculiar scents of tension and grief and hope that coat the walls of every hospital in the world.

 

“Good morning, sunshine.” A nurse with a friendly smile walks into view, clutching a clipboard to her chest. “You gave us quite a scare. How are you feeling?”

 

“Stiles?” he croaks. Derek’s tongue feels too big in his mouth, and his throat feels scratchy. He tries unsuccessfully to paw off the mask covering his face until the nurse helps him properly remove it.

 

“Drink this,” the nurse says, holding out a cup of water with a straw in it. “Sip it slowly. It’ll help your throat. But the mask goes right back on when you finish.”

 

Derek sips his water, and the nurse must see the question in his eyes.

 

“You’re very lucky to be alive.” When the nurse glances down at her clipboard, Derek gets a clear view of her nametag: Melissa McCall—as in Scott McCall’s mother. Seriously. “Among other things, you were poisoned. You’re breathing in the antidote.”

 

And that’s when everything comes crashing back to him. Kate, Matt, the aconite dust, getting shot, the explosion—Stiles.

 

Nurse McCall frowns at the distress clear on his face, and when Derek’s heart monitor abruptly starts beeping at a steadily increasing rate, she takes away his water and repositions the mask over his nose and mouth. “That should make you feel better,” she says.

 

It doesn’t. “Stiles?” he rasps again.

 

Nurse McCall studies him for a moment. “Let me get your sister.” She leaves and doesn’t return, and Derek is tempted to scream, but then suddenly, Laura is filling up the doorway. She’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt with their father’s old leather jacket over it and is carrying what must be every single item from one of the vending machines outside.

 

“Oh, thank God,” Laura whispers when Derek offers her a weak smile. She drops the entire armload of snacks and scrambles to his side. “I will end you if you ever do this to me again. You hear me?” she says through happy tears.

 

Derek pats her back stiffly, all his limbs feeling sore and sluggish. “Where’s Stiles?” he wheezes.

 

“He’s—It’ll be okay, Derek,” Laura says.

 

“Isn’t he okay?” Derek tries to sit up, but Laura holds him down—easily, it seems, which is disconcerting.

 

“No, but he will be. Just like you,” Laura says. When she sees that answer calms Derek, she moves off of him, picks up a bag of gummy bears from the floor, and takes a seat in the chair beside the bed. “I’m guessing you want to know what happened?”

 

As it turns out, the ring of burning aconite dust had protected them from the brunt of the explosion, but Derek clearly hadn’t taken into account the roof caving in on them. The firefighters who found Derek and Stiles claim the filing cabinet with Stiles’ evidence had toppled onto them, most likely sparing them serious injury from falling debris.

 

Oddly enough, Matt had drowned to death inside a building on fire. The first responders found him pinned facedown beneath a large cinderblock wall in a basement flooded with water from the sprinklers. Kate has yet to be found, though investigators can’t say if that’s because she made it out of the building or because she perished in the explosion.

 

Laura, however, is wary of Kate’s fate. “You know what I always say about cockroaches,” she harps. “They might scatter in the light of day, but they always come back to scare the shit out of you when you least suspect it.” Then again, she really hates cockroaches—a lot. She claims the ones in her flat have military training because she swears she set off a roach bomb one time and they defused it.

 

Isaac, through no fault of his own, had led his rescue party to the new Bane Chemical headquarters, though it wasn’t for naught because Gerard was still taken in for questioning after Sheriff Stilinski heard chatter on a police scanner about the explosion at the old Bane Chemical facility. And even though Derek never perused Stiles’ USB drive, Peter’s nosiness finally paid off; after reading through Stiles’ research about the sprinklers in the blast from two years ago, he was able to help the police gather evidence against the Argents, and Gerard was immediately taken into custody.

 

Both Laura and Chris Argent had been at the symposium in League City, Texas and instantly rushed back to Beacon Hills upon hearing about the explosion. By combining Derek’s aconite dust oxidation project with Stiles’ aconite dust reduction research, Peter and Lydia completed the research for Stiles’ aconite dust redox reaction, and Laura and Chris Argent were able to work together to develop a serum to fully reverse the effects of the aconite poisoning plaguing both Derek and Stiles.

 

Perhaps the most surprising development had been Chris Argent’s innocence. He’d been out of the country during the explosion two years ago, and was busy in Texas, coordinating the annual process safety symposium, during this one. In spite of this information, Peter still doesn’t trust him farther than he can throw him. Then again, Peter is a self-proclaimed man of leisure, and the only thing he ever throws around is his weight.  

 

“Wanna know the weirdest thing?” Laura asks, though she looks more like it might be the best thing instead of the weirdest. “Chris Argent asked me to dinner.” She wrinkles her nose. “That’s weird, right?”

 

“Isn’t he kind of old for you?” And Argent-y, Derek wants to add.

 

“Some people like that in a guy. You might want to ask your intern about it.” Laura smirks. “Besides, it’s just dinner.”

 

“Yeah.” Derek shrugs his shoulders. “With the widowed old dude who now runs the business of our top competitor because the widowed geriatric who used to will probably be incarcerated for the rest of his life.”

 

It’s just dinner,” she says again. “Besides, I’ll kick his ass just as well as I can kick yours if he gets smart with me.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Derek’s doctor claims his bullet wound is “merely a flesh wound,” as though that somehow downgrades the severity of a gaping hole in your gut. He is discharged a couple days later on Friday morning, and through Nurse McCall, discovers Stiles had been discharged a half hour earlier. Derek’s hurt for a minute that Stiles didn’t come seek him out, until he realizes where Stiles must have gone first.

 

And that’s how Derek finds himself at the Beacon Hills Cemetery, creeping behind a large oak tree (because despite everything that’s occurred in the past week, Derek Hale is and always will be a natural born creeper).

 

Derek watches as Stiles stops in front of a grave, presumably his mother’s. He kneels down to place a colorful bouquet of flowers next to an assortment of strange and weathered items—old action figures, Scrabble tiles, a first prize blue ribbon from the science fair, a Twinkie still in its wrapper, and more—that line her tombstone. Then, he sits down on the grass, withdraws a sandwich from his messenger tote, and eats lunch with his mom. It’s exactly how he’d told Derek he spends his Friday afternoons, and the knowledge of that truth does things to Derek’s heart he can’t even describe.

 

Derek waits patiently on a bench near the cemetery gates, not wanting to intrude on the moment, and an hour later, Stiles begins walking toward him, a knowing smile lighting up his face when he spots Derek.

 

“You okay?” Derek asks.

 

Stiles pushes up the left sleeve of his red hoodie to display the bandages wrapped around his wrist. “Sprained wrist and a few bruises.” He glances longingly at his mom’s grave. “All things considered, yeah. I’m okay.”

 

“You did her proud. You know that, right? Neither of us would be here now if it weren’t for your aconite dust redox reaction idea. Without it, Laura wouldn’t have even known where to start in creating that serum.”

 

“I guess.” Stiles looks conflicted as he takes a seat next to Derek. “I’ve always wanted to discover a cure to what killed my mom. It’s just that I feel this really weird sense of survivor’s guilt or something. Like, where she died, I didn’t.”

 

Derek knows the feeling all too well. He’s had similar thoughts about the explosion and how he was supposed to have been there, too. If he had been, maybe he could’ve done something to stop Kate. But the alternative is he might have died alongside his family, too.

 

“You can’t let yourself think that way because it’s impossible to change the past. You can react to it, though,” Derek says. “And you’ve done that. You didn’t allow the tragedy of your mother’s death to consume you. Instead, you took action. You’ve done this amazing thing by introducing research that’s going to do so much to prevent disasters involving aconite in the future.”

 

“Well, when you say it like that,” Stiles mutters, a half-smile playing at his lips.

 

“Hey, it’s not just me,” Derek assures. “Lydia’s already bugging Laura about hiring you for her OSR team. She wants you to expand your project and find serums to accompany all strains of aconite dust and all aconitum isotopes. I’m sure you’ll get a call about it soon.”

 

Stiles looks a little in awe over that.

 

“It’s a good deal. Probably involves better perks than your unpaid internship if this week has been any indication.”

 

Stiles laughs. “I don’t know if I could do that to you. Just one day without your intern, and you’re playing hooky in a cemetery.”

 

“Hardly,” Derek replies dryly. “Laura says I’m not allowed near the office for at least a week. Apparently, getting poisoned, shot, and blown up is what merits a vacation under her rule.”

 

“Technically, we blew ourselves up.” Stiles squirms around as he peels off his hoodie. “But I won’t tell if you won’t.”

 

Derek’s not even sure what he’s about to say next because all he can focus on is the shirt Stiles is wearing under his hoodie; it’s blinding orange, far too familiar, and proclaims MY TACO SPARKLES. “Oh, my God. It’s literally the shirt that just won’t die.”

 

“Don’t hate on the threads,” Stiles grouses. “It’s your fault for bleeding out on the only other clean shirt I had at the hospital. Besides,” he preens, “you know you love it.”

 

“I’ll admit to no such thing.” Not aloud, anyway. Because now that Derek thinks about it, he’s grown inexplicably fond of the ridiculous shirt.

 

Stiles suddenly sits up straight and gasps, like he’s just remembered something. “Aren’t you supposed to be having your big meeting with the board of directors today?” He checks his watch. “Like, now?”

 

“Yeah, but Peter’s taking care of it,” Derek says. “He didn’t exactly have much time to complete my half-finished presentation, but with the funding Laura got us and with the addition of your report, I think he’ll be able to pull it off.”

 

“Your directors are on crack if the merger is even a possibility anymore.”

 

“I’m fairly certain it’s off the table,” Derek says, chuckling. “But I still think this meeting will be good for Peter. He’s always wanted more of a leadership role in the company.” He fidgets uncomfortably before adding, “And that works out nicely because I think I’d like to focus more on research and lab work again.” When Stiles grins, Derek murmurs, “Some cute science nerd whose face I like to kiss might have helped me to reassess my priorities.”

 

“About that,” Stiles says, grimacing a bit. “My dad is under the impression I’m sleeping with you.”

 

Derek balks. “What kind of segue is that?”

 

“Like, in secret. At your office.”

 

“Oh?” Derek thinks back to the way Sheriff Stilinski had lost his mind upon discovering Stiles had skipped class to spend the night in Derek’s office. “Oh,” he says when realization dawns on him. “That must’ve been a fun talk.”

 

“Can you believe it’s not even the most mortifying conversation I’ve had with him?” Stiles shudders. “Anyway, he says I should invite my boyfriend to dinner next Friday.”

 

Derek can’t help the broad grin at hearing boyfriend.

 

“You’re such a dork,” Stiles says when he notices, but he’s smiling and blushing, too. “But you don’t have to if you don’t want to because I promise it’s going to be awful,” he warns. “My dad’s going to go back and forth between acting like an old codger and cleaning his gun in front of you to making totally inappropriate comments about safety and manhood and I don’t even know what else.” Stiles takes a deep breath before continuing. “But I also think it might be kinda nice. Especially with you there.”

 

Derek catches a flicker of uncertainty on Stiles’ face, but it’s gone in seconds.

 

“So, what do you say?” Stiles looks up at him through dark lashes. “Want to have dinner with my family?”

 

Derek doesn’t hesitate at all. “Does my taco sparkle?”

 

Stiles arches an eyebrow and smirks. “Does it?”

 

Derek vaguely wonders how Mexican food has suddenly become erotic before answering, “I guess you’ll find out next Friday.”

 

Spoiler alert: Evidently, it does.