The first of February is Derek Hale’s least favorite day of the year. It’s not the day itself he has a problem with, but the festival that takes place on it. It’s the Searching Ceremony, and every year he has to meet a bunch of people he has absolutely no interest in spending the rest of his life with, and put up with it while they smile and try to cozy up to him as they imagine a cushy life as the newest member of the Hale Pack.
He didn’t mind as much when he was younger. Humans are allowed to enter the pool of candidates at fifteen, and so most of the werewolves start looking at the same age. But it’s fun, when you’re younger. There’s no pressure. It’s just a day that you meet a bunch of new people and make some friends and hope you meet someone who has that spark. To teenagers, it’s romantic.
But Derek isn’t a teenager anymore. He’s twenty-four. The smell of desperation on the humans gets stronger every year. It’s common knowledge that if a ‘wolf hasn’t mated by the time they’re twenty-five, they’re going to accept that it isn’t meant to be and stop attending the festival. Derek himself knows this isn’t true – Peter didn’t meet his mate until he was twenty-eight, and even then it wasn’t at the festival, it was at a coffee shop. But the truth never seems to bother the festival attendees.
Derek can handle that. His preferred method of handling the ceremony is not to attend. Or to drop in for about fifteen minutes, make a quick run through the mixer, and then get out as quickly as possible. But then there’s his mother, his alpha, who has been putting more and more pressure on him in the last six months to find somebody, anybody.
He can’t blame her entirely. Half of the Hale pack was wiped out in the fire – it was a miracle that as many survived as they had. Talia’s father had died, along with her younger brother and his mate and their daughter, Peter’s mate and their unborn child, and two of Derek’s brothers. Ever since then, if Talia had been a little obsessed with her remaining children finding mates and reproducing, the others tried to take it easy on her.
Derek had expected after Laura had found her mate when she was twenty-two, and then been pregnant three months later, that Talia would ease up on him. But if anything, Talia had only increased the pressure. There was a note of ‘if Laura can do it, why can’t you?’ in every conversation where it came up.
So he’s agreed to go, and to really talk to these people and look at these people, and it’s approximately the last way he wants to spend a day, but he’ll do it, because that’s easier than arguing.
It’s amazing, though, how the attitude of the humans involved can make him feel like prey in a room full of predators, rather than the exact opposite. They look at him like they’re undressing him with their eyes, and they don’t seem to realize that he can smell the lust on them, that he can hear their murmured comments about how he’s the scion of the Hale pack, the most long-standing, illustrious pack in the area, how being chosen would be a ticket to easy street. They could sit back and put their feet up, they could lord it over all the pathetic un-chosen, they could get the bite and then they could be one of the highest caste.
He hates them. He hates their smiling faces, he hates the coordinator, Harris, whose nose is so far up in the air that he might as well be trying to sniff the Heavens, he hates their clothes and the sound of their heartbeats and the way their voices drip eagerness with every syllable.
Not only is the mating ritual bullshit, in Derek’s opinion, but it’s bullshit that he’s been putting up with for hours. As if the reading all the dossiers hadn’t been bad enough, now he has to sit and actually meet these people, these ‘eligible candidates’ that all have him wanting to snarl or roll his eyes or slam their faces into desks. He can’t help but wonder what these people think a werewolf wants in a mate, because the simpering and tittering really gets on his nerves.
He’s just about ready to find Harris and say he’s done for the year, no luck, his parents will just have to deal with it, when the door opens and a teenager stumbles in. He’s about the same height as Derek, although much less built, wearing a plaid shirt and a ridiculous T-shirt that proclaims him to be a stud muffin. His brown hair is buzzed short, but it’s his eyes that catch Derek’s attention, they’re light brown, amber really. His eyes and his hands, long nimble fingers curling around the door as he practically falls over.
“Hey, Scott, I brought you . . . you’re not Scott.” He blinks at Derek. Then at all the men and women standing around, glaring at him, since it was obvious Derek was about to make an announcement and now they have to wait. “Whoa, sorry, I – holy crap there are a lot of you, seriously? Is this what I have to look forward to later in life?”
Without thinking, Derek stabs a finger in Stiles’ direction. “I want him.”
Wide-eyed, Stiles points at himself. “Me?”
“Uh, Mr. Hale, he’s not on the list,” Harris stammers.
“I don’t care. I want him.”
“Well, uh, all right . . .” Harris says, clearly unsure of how to handle this. Stiles is just standing there, gone momentarily still, mouth hanging slightly open (which is very distracting). When he doesn’t move, the coordinator gestures to him and says sharply, “You heard the man, Mr. Stilinski.”
Derek can’t help but wince at the tone he takes, and he’s thinking about saying something when Stiles says, “Oh, yeah, uh.” He looks around the room as if seeking help, and is met with cold, astonished stares from every direction. “Yeah. Okay. I, uh, it’s an honor and a privilege,” he adds, stiltedly, obviously pulling the words out of his memory.
“The privilege is mine,” Derek says automatically, the words falling out of his mouth, entirely truthful. It is a privilege to be lucky enough to find the right one. No one is really sure exactly how they can tell. Scent, motion, some extra sense that only werewolves have. Which isn’t to say that werewolves don’t fall in love like normal people, or that it always hits them in the same way. But sometimes, maybe one time in a hundred, they meet someone and feel that instant click that tells them that this is who they’re meant to be with, this is who they’ve been waiting for. And he had stumbled over him, practically in his lap, when he was about to give up. He doesn’t even want to think about the odds of that.
Humans can’t feel the bond the same way, which is why the pools were created to begin with. Anyone who entered was basically entering a contract saying that they trusted the werewolf senses, that they would allow themselves to be claimed, no questions asked, if a werewolf chose them. This boy wasn’t in the pool, apparently, but that doesn’t change the way Derek’s entire world is already re-ordering and re-focusing itself to find a place for him.
He steps closer and holds his hand out to the younger man. The need to touch him, to catch a stronger sense of his scent, to be closer to him, is practically overwhelming. Stiles takes an automatic step backwards, trips over a chair, and heads towards the floor. “Jesus,” Derek says, bolting the distance between them and getting a handful of Stiles’ T-shirt as the easiest thing to grab, keeping him from hitting the floor and towing him upright. He makes a mental note that his mate seems to be a klutz. “You good?” he asks, wanting to be sure that Stiles has balance back before letting him go.
“Yeah, fine, totally fine,” Stiles says, flushing a brilliant shade of pink. “We should, uh, we should probably go,” he adds, darting a somewhat nervous look around at the crowd, which is slowly turning from stunned to outraged.
Derek nods, oblivious to the other people in the room, and ushers him into the hallway, keeping an eye out for rogue furniture. Then he remembers what brought the teenager into the room. “Do you still need to find him? Scott?” Whoever Scott is, Derek figures he owes him.
“Oh, no, I, I’ll just text him.” Stiles pulls out his phone and starts tapping at it rapidly. “I was going to bring him some lunch, he’s waiting for, uh, Cora, your sister, right? I mean, he’s in the pool. Of candidates. So he’s waiting to meet a bunch of people, not just Cora. I came to show support. But, uh, I’ll just catch up with him later. This is probably more important.”
Now Derek feels awkward. What do you do with the best person to ever happen to you once you’ve found them? Not mess up their plans with someone they care about, that’s for sure. “We can wait. If you want.”
“Nope.” Stiles tucks his phone away. “It’s cool, it’s done.”
Derek nods. “Would you . . .” He stops walking suddenly. “I only know your last name.”
Stiles blinks at him. For a moment it looks like he might make a comment on how Derek had literally just asked to spend the rest of his life with him, without even knowing his name. Then he shakes himself and says, “Uh, Stiles, call me Stiles. And you’re . . . Derek Hale.” It’s not really a question, but he says it nonetheless. “But, uh, you know that I wasn’t in the pool, right? I mean . . . I hadn’t entered.”
Derek responds with another nod. Stiles. He can see this bundle of limbs and nervous words having a name like that.
“Also, you noticed that I have a dick, right?” Stiles asks, having regained enough of his composure to press this point, given its importance.
At this, Derek turns to face him instead of just standing beside him, eyebrows raised. “Yes, I had noticed.”
“Well, doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose?” Stiles sounds a little skeptical now. “I mean, I thought the whole idea was so you guys didn’t all wind up with inbred malformed babies, that you need to, like, spawn, which sort of makes you sound like salmon, sorry – ”
Derek makes a little snorting noise which turns into a laugh. “Salmon. Oh, God. You’re amazing.”
“I, what? Dude, you don’t even know – never mind, so, uh . . . now what? I mean, they don’t talk a lot about what happens if you get chosen. It’s all just about how to get chosen, you know, how to make yourself attractive and suddenly this is super creepy.”
With a shake of his head, Derek sobers up. He feels a little giddy, almost intoxicated, with Stiles’ scent. “You’re not supposed to make yourselves ‘attractive’. You’re supposed to be yourselves.” He gives his head another shake. “Now I take you to meet my family, maybe part of the pack, and then hopefully get to meet yours. Unless you want to do it the other way?”
“No, I, whatever’s cool with you, dude,” Stiles says. “I guess other people are more prepared for it, you know, because they wanted to be chosen so they’re probably all over you guys – ” He seems to realize what he just implied and hastily adds, “but meeting your family, okay, I can do that.”
“I wouldn’t actually know. I’ve never done this before. Chosen someone.” A pause. “Obviously.” He looks at Stiles for another long minute. Actually, he can’t stop looking at him. His amber eyes and a few moles he hadn’t noticed before and the way he somehow isn’t still even when they’re just standing there. He knows it’s rare to find someone with whom a ‘wolf can forge such a strong connection with on their first meeting. He knows that at his age, the odds he’ll meet anyone else as compatible are slim. Even so, he forces the words out. “Are you . . . do you want to refuse? You weren’t on the list. You have the right.”
“Are you kidding, I’d be a pariah,” Stiles says, neatly ducking the actual question. “You’ll just have to protect me from all your fangirls. I hope you’re prepared.”
The idea that anyone would actually think about hurting Stiles clearly does not make a happy werewolf. He bites back a growl and says, “Understood.”
“And, uh, meeting my family might have to wait. My dad’s on security today. You, uh, you do know who my dad is, right?”
Derek nods. “The sheriff,” he says, mostly to assure Stiles that he really does know.
“Yeah. And, uh, this is kind of a big day, sometimes there are fights – ” Sometimes there are riots, in point of fact – “so I don’t think he’d really be free.”
“Why would there be . . .” Derek gives up. Humans are crazy. “I don’t want to interrupt him doing his job. If you think we should wait, then we’ll wait.”
“Yeah, I probably should think about . . . breaking the news or something, instead of just showing up with you, I think he’ll be a little surprised, I’m only sixteen you know.” Stiles realizes he’s babbling and snaps his mouth shut.
“That would explain why you were waiting for someone who’s seeing Cora.” Derek likes all of his anxious talking, which surprises him. He would have expected it would drive him nuts. “I thought you were a little older. Maybe seventeen or eighteen.”
“Uh, yeah, no,” Stiles says. He stops walking. “Dude, are you sure? I mean, that you want to pick me? You can always go back and tell Harris that you changed your mind when you realized I was only sixteen. Or a boy. Or something.”
Derek stops with him and makes sure he’s looking Stiles square in the eyes. “I have never been so sure of anything in my entire life.”
Stiles immediately flushes pink again, and his gaze slides to the side. “Well. That’s that, then.”
His enthusiasm is somewhat underwhelming. Derek wants to offer his hand again because he still hasn’t been able to touch Stiles, but he remembers how Stiles jerked back last time and he doesn’t want to push his luck. So he just starts walking again. Once they’re out in the parking lot, he sees the first genuine emotion out of Stiles that isn’t confusion or nervousness, when Stiles sees the Camaro. “Okay, this, I can get behind,” he says, running a reverent hand over the hood as he walks around towards the passenger side door.
Derek can’t help but give a pleased smirk. “Cora makes fun of me for loving this car. But she drives a Prius, so what does she know.”
“I don’t even know why you guys have cars,” Stiles says. “Shouldn’t you just, I don’t know, run everywhere?”
“We could, if we wanted to get there naked and empty-handed.” Derek opens the driver’s side door, gets in, and pops the lock. He waits for Stiles to get in before he says anything else. “Seriously, though, for day-to-day living, a car is just as practical for us as it is for a human.”
“Oh,” Stiles says. “Okay.” He can’t think of anything else to say, and the silence feels excruciatingly awkward to him. For Derek, it’s much less so. He’s enjoying the lack of excited rabbiting heartbeats, chatter, and far too much perfume. It’s nice to breathe normal air again. And now he’s able to start cataloguing Stiles. The pattern of his heartbeat and his scent.
It’s distracting enough that it takes him a minute to remember how to drive. As he’s backing out of the parking space, Stiles drums nervously with his hands against his thighs. “Hey, what do you say – ” he says, and starts fumbling at the radio’s controls without asking permission.
Derek’s mouth opens automatically to tell his passenger hands off, like he normally would, but then it closes again, the words unsaid. He finds he’d much rather know what sort of music Stiles will pick, and how fast he’ll figure out the controls. He’s also starting to think that Stiles is literally incapable of being still. So he lets him be and pretends to concentrate on driving.
“Oh, sweet,” Stiles says, as he happens upon a station playing the Rolling Stones. He shoots Derek a sideways glance, clearly trying to gauge his reaction to the music.
Derek nods in approval. “I was afraid you’d go with country.” There’s a pause. “Did I just insult you?”
“Nah, I’m not a country fan,” Stiles says. “My dad listens to country sometimes. Despite my best efforts to banish it from the house.”
“I am so sorry.” Derek shakes his head a little, still amused. “There are some pack members who like it, country in general, so it shows up sometimes when we do big events.”
“Yeah?” Stiles drums nervously at his knees again. “So like . . . are there a lot of those? Big events? Is this a big event?”
“Yes and no.” Derek shoots a quick glance at Stiles, hearing the spike in his heart rate. “You aren’t going to be mobbed. I promise.” There’s more he could say, but he wants Stiles to take a deep breath first.
Much to his relief, the teenager does. Several deep breaths in fact. “Okay. I, uh. Shit. This doesn’t usually happen to me. Speechlessness, I mean.”
“Yes, this is a big deal,” Derek says. “But it’s also private. People won’t be pressing their company on us. Eventually, once you feel more comfortable and we’ve gotten to know each other, there might be a party to introduce you to the rest of the pack. But if that takes a few months, it’s not a problem.”
“Oh. Okay.” Stiles fidgets again.
Silence reigns inside the car for a long minute, aside from the music, before Derek blurts out, “Does it bother you? That I’m a guy?”
Stiles gives him another sideways look and then just says, “No, I’m down with that.”
Derek lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”
“I still say it defeats the purpose, though.”
“Salmon,” Derek says, amused. “I actually don’t care that much. Laura already has two kids. And her mate used to be human.”
“Yeah, but I, I don’t want to bring up a tender subject, but I thought you guys . . . were sort of trying to repopulate. You know. Because of the fire.”
Derek shrugs, determined not to be oversensitive about the fire. Not with Stiles. Stiles has to be comfortable asking questions. “You’re the right person. Despite the plumbing. Maybe we’re meant to adopt. Maybe we’re too young to be thinking about kids.”
“Maybe,” Stiles says dryly. “Yeah, I mean, I figured I would wait until I was seventeen, at least.”
“You’re hilarious,” Derek says, somehow hiding the fact that he does actually enjoy Stiles’ sarcasm.
“So . . .” Stiles rubs his hands together briskly. “What should I say? Is there protocol? The ‘honor and privilege’ bit is all I know.”
“Just be yourself. And I mean that.” Derek thinks about it for a few moments, really forces himself to consider. There are differences in human and werewolf culture. “Don’t try to shake hands. No one will want to touch you. It isn’t an insult. It’s just that we can tell who our closest pack ties are by scent. And no one will want to get between us. Not for a while.”
That should be enough to get Stiles through the first meeting, and it’s a good thing, too, because he’s pulling up outside the house. Nobody had wanted to rebuild on top of the ruins of the first house; that had been bulldozed and a memorial tree had been planted there to commemorate the people who had died there. But the property was big enough for another house to be built, about half a mile away. He recognizes all three of the cars pulled up by the house. Everyone is home except for Cora, who’s probably still at the high school.
Derek parks the car and gets out. He waits near the passenger door, and once Stiles has emerged and closed the door, he again offers his hand. Stiles looks at it for a moment, swallows hard, and then takes it. His own hand is trembling and a little sweaty; his heart is pounding in his chest, although he tries to give the appearance of being calm. Derek’s own heart rate climbs a little as he curls his fingers around Stiles’ slimmer hand.
There’s no sneaking into a house full of werewolves. They’ve all heard his car approaching, and although they might have let it go, now they can hear the second heartbeat, the second set of footfalls. They know he’s not alone. And there’s only one reason someone else would be with him right now. So he isn’t surprised at all to see that half the family has gathered just inside.
The house has a large foyer, with a staircase on one side that leads up and a wide arch that goes into the living room, as well as two other doors: one into the kitchen and one into the study. He glances around as he enters to see where everyone is. His parents are standing right at the foot of the stairs; Talia standing tall and proud as she always does, and his father, Aaron, behind her, one arm wrapped around her waist. He takes after his father, broad-shouldered and at his best when scruffy, while the girls take after Talia, elegant and refined. Laura’s there, too, standing in the archway into the living room, rocking back and forth on her heels in excitement, her baby girl strapped to her back as she nearly always is. Then there’s Peter. A little apart, as Peter tends to be. Standing on the second floor, leaning against the balcony railing, where he can observe from above without being involved.
Derek lets out a breath as he sees them all waiting for him, and gives a nod to his parents. “Mom, Dad,” he says, “this is Stiles.”
Stiles swallows again, his Adam’s apple moving up and down, as he edges forward so he’s all the way inside. “Uhm,” he says. “Nice to . . . meet you?”
It starts as a statement and then moves to a question instantly as he sees the look on Talia’s face: a mixture of exasperation and anger that clearly proclaims she is five hundred percent done. “Derek,” she says. “Really? Really?”
Derek hadn’t exactly expected his mother to be thrilled with his choice, but this is a little much. A lot much. He moves a step ahead of Stiles and a bit in front of him. It’s an instinctive, protective gesture and it puts Derek in the space between Stiles and his parent. “Yes,” he says, his tone flat. “Really.”
Talia groans and pushes her hair out of her face. “Okay, I know that you’ve been annoyed at the way we’ve pushed you to find someone, but you can’t just expect to get away with choosing a completely non-viable candidate. For God’s sake, Derek – ”
Derek’s eyebrows come together and his jaw tightens. “I thought I was supposed to find a mate, not someone to make babies with.”
“I think what your mother is trying to say,” Aaron interjects, trying to be at least somewhat diplomatic about this, “is that it’s counter-productive to try to get out of choosing a mate by picking somebody that you obviously wouldn’t actually enter a contract with . . .”
“I did pick Stiles. If I hadn’t found anyone this year, I would have just said so. Just like last year, and the year before that.”
“Derek, how stupid do you think we are?” Talia asks, her chin lifting in annoyance. “All you’ve talked about for the last three weeks is how you didn’t even want to go. Could you be any more obvious about trying to throw it back in our faces?”
Stiles clears his throat. “I’m gonna go,” he says, his voice strained.
Derek turns to look at him, and then realizes he has no idea what to say to make this better. Somehow, ‘sorry’ doesn’t seem like enough.
“Oh, but things are just getting interesting,” Peter remarks from the second floor.
“Shut up, Peter,” Talia says, her voice strained. She huffs out a breath and tries to speak civilly to Stiles. “Look, I’m really sorry that Derek played such an awful joke on you. It was really cruel of him to get your hopes up like this – ”
“It isn’t a joke,” he tells Stiles, looking for any sign that he might be believed. “I swear it isn’t.”
“Yeah, I, uh . . .” Stiles takes a step backwards. “Okay, you know what, this is awkward, and it probably wasn’t gonna work out anyway, so, yeah. I’m just gonna go.” He pulls his hand free from Derek’s and backs out of the house without another word.
Derek’s hand just hangs there, empty, for a few moments, and he feels crushingly alone. Then, suddenly, he’s angry, and it quickly moves past anger into something that he can’t keep a hold of. His lips peel back to show his teeth, and he bares them at his parents, mostly his mother, snarling. After the animal noise tapers off, he bites out, “Look what you did.” He turns his back on them and heads outside to find Stiles. If nothing else, he can’t expect Stiles to stay there.
“Derek, think about this – ” Talia snaps as he storms out, and he hears her, but he doesn’t slow down and he certainly doesn’t stop. He also hears Peter say, in a much milder tone, “Shit, he’s serious,” before the door slams behind him. He looks around for Stiles. For a moment, he doesn’t see him anywhere, but then he realizes that he’s gotten back in the Camaro. He’s sitting in the front passenger seat, face flushed pink with embarrassment and shame, hands knotted together in his lap.
As soon as Derek approaches, without giving him a chance to speak, Stiles says, “Take me home.”
Derek gets in and closes the door. He curls in on himself, forehead resting on the steering wheel for a long moment. “Okay,” he agrees, uncurls, and starts the car.
Stiles just stares out the window as Derek starts down the drive, his jaw clenched and trembling slightly, without saying a word.
When Derek finally breaks the oppressive silence, his voice is quiet. “I’m sorry. Really. She . . .” He doesn’t have the words to smooth this over or apologize what his family has done.
Stiles still won’t look at him. “Derek,” he says, using his name for the first time, which admittedly makes all of Derek’s nerves jump to attention. “I am so pissed off right now that everything you say just makes me want to kick you in the crotch. Just shut the fuck up and take me home.”
After a moment, Derek nods. It’s about the same way he feels about his parents, particularly his mother, right now. It only reinforces his surety that Stiles is the right person. None of the people he had met at the mixer today would have dared say that to him, let alone actually followed through. So the drive passes in silence, except for Stiles giving him terse directions once they get back into town. Once they reach the Stilinski house, Stiles wordlessly gets out of the car and slams the door so hard that Derek winces. He’s left with nothing but the echoing quiet and the scent of Stiles’ anger and shame. He’ll take that over nothing at all.
~ ~ ~ ~