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The Incubator

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The incubator demands a Twinkie. Never mind that they’re not made anymore and aren’t really food.

“Dude, Twinkies are the shit. That cream-filled apocalypse-proof goodness needs to be in my mouth, like right now.”

Jackson rolls his eyes. “You’re going to eat a diet ‘healthy and appropriate for gestation.’ Read the fucking contract.”

The incubator pouts. “But the baby is craving a Twinkie. And maybe a watermelon.”

“Take a multivitamin. It’s not my problem,” Jackson replies and storms off.

Once he’s slammed the door to the master bedroom behind him, he lets himself press back against it and slide down until he can block the tears with his knees. Cravings are natural, he reminds himself. He’d even looked forward to them, wondering how it would feel to actually enjoy the taste of those weird combinations he’s seen Erica inhale.

Of course, Derek orders a case of Twinkies on the internet the next day. Jackson doesn’t dare ask how much he paid for them.

***

Jackson knows it’s not really Derek’s fault that he completely fails at being comforting. Derek lost everyone except his sister at a young age and closed himself off. It isn’t that Derek doesn’t feel empathy, because Jackson’s husband has a definite savior complex; it’s that at some point, Derek decided that grief should be an exclusively private affair (probably when the local papers and the town gossips started capitalizing on Derek’s tragedy).

Derek was fucked up when they met and fucked up when Jackson married him, Jackson reminds himself. Derek has slowly been getting more open since Jackson’s known him, but he’ll always be fucked up. It’s what you signed up for, Jackson reminds himself. The ring on his finger isn’t a magical cure-all that will unlock everything Derek has repressed once and for all.

Even though Jackson knows this, he still wishes that Derek would hug him, cradle him protectively against his shoulder instead of staring suspiciously at Jackson and the tears running down his face like they might somehow grow a hundred times their size and drown him.

“Adoption?” Derek offers softly as Jackson sits huddled and vulnerable in a hospital gown, shivering ever since the OBGYN left.

Jackson shakes his head. “A surrogate. We’ll hire a surrogate. It’s not like we can’t afford it.”

Only the best. It's the motto Jackson has always lived by and he's sticking to it.

***

Jackson comes home from the grocery store to find Derek on the couch with the incubator’s feet in his lap, rubbing them absently as they argue over whether to watch baseball or Sharknado. By the sounds of it, the incubator and the flying sharks might actually be in the lead. The two of them look good together. This scene is how it’s supposed to be: a doting husband indulging his mate’s swollen ankles.

Jackson slams into the kitchen and angrily puts away the groceries. Before it came into their lives, Jackson would have shown his anger by storming upstairs; let Derek worry about the groceries. Now, Jackson knows he can’t slack in any of his household duties. He’s already failed at the most important thing he could do for his alpha. He can’t fail at the rest of an omega’s duties, too.

“Hey,” Derek says, coming up behind Jackson, who is staring at a giant-sized jar of pickles, looking lost. Derek hooks his chin over Jackson’s shoulder and puts his arms around his mate. Derek is careful now, after so many breakdowns. He holds onto Jackson at chest level, never down where his sore, empty womb should be. “What’s wrong?”

Jackson reigns in the tears. He’s not pregnant. He doesn’t have an excuse to be emotional. “Nothing.”

“Try again. Is it me rubbing Stiles’s feet? Because he’s doing us a huge favor. We should make him as comfortable as we can.”

“It’s not a favor,” Jackson snaps. “He’s an employee we hired to do a job. He’s not your friend.”

If Derek were a normal person, Jackson thinks he’d probably just argue that there’s no reason the incubator can’t be both. Instead, Derek takes a step back, his blue eyes flashing for only a moment. “Are you jealous of me and Stiles?” he asks, like it’s the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard.

Jackson isn’t worried that Derek will run off with the incubator. Jackson knows that Derek would never cheat on him. His mate doesn’t have a lot of people who love him, so he’s almost pathologically loyal to the ones that do. Besides, other than being the one gestating their child, the incubator has nothing to offer Derek. He isn’t wealthy or particularly attractive and even though Jackson knows Derek finds him funny, he’s not the kind of person you fall in love with.

Just because Derek would never cheat on Jackson doesn’t mean he’ll never leave him. It might take a while, but Stiles is showing Derek what he could have if he dumped Jackson’s dead weight and found an omega who could give him everything Jackson does and pups of their own. It’s only a matter of time.

***

“Mr. Hale,” Doctor Deaton greets with his usual bland friendliness. “I’m surprised to see you in here alone today.” Jackson has never come to Deaton’s without Laura. “I’m especially intrigued, considering your pack has managed to ensnare one of our best and brightest young emissaries. Is Mr. Stilinski not working out for you?”

Jackson grits his teeth. “Our alpha hasn’t agreed to anything.” Jackson doesn’t mention that he also doesn’t like the kid.

“What can I do for you?”

“I want a cure.”

“Excuse me?” Deaton asks, looking perplexed but no less unenthused.

“I want a cure. I want to be human again.”

Deaton chuckles. “I’m afraid there’s no such thing, Mr. Hale. The only cure for the bite is to have decided not to take it in the first place. Surely Alpha Hale explained that much to you before she bit you.” His expression shows exactly what he thinks of Laura’s pack expansion methods. Clearly he doesn’t think very well, considering that he refused to take on Laura and Derek as a pack after their emissary died in the fire. “But,” Deaton adds sagely, “that’s not what you’re really asking for. Is it?”

Jackson shakes his head. He knew the bite was irrevocable. He’d wanted it. He’d been so stupid. “If I hadn’t taken the bite, I would’ve been able to give Derek a pup. I wouldn’t be useless.”

Deaton nods. “It is a well known fact that the bite can interfere with an omega’s fertility, but it isn’t the only potential cause. From what I’ve seen, you have become an integral wolf in the pack. You can believe what you like, but I assure you that you would not be Laura Hale’s second if you had chosen to stay human.”

“I don’t care!” Jackson shouts. Bearing his alpha’s children is what an omega is built to do. If he can’t do that, then what is he worth? Laura could find another wolf with Jackson’s business acumen. It’s Derek who Jackson is failing. It’s Derek who matters.

Deaton pats Jackson’s shoulder awkwardly. There’s something about all the emissaries - some disconnect that makes them seem cold when they aren’t. It’s a kind of myopia - they’re halfway stuck in some other world of folklore and energy and magic and it clearly takes a huge amount of focus just for them to see human problems as relevant.

“You need to talk to your mate,” Deaton says. “If I remember correctly, Mr. Stilinski is already in his third month. It’s too late to reverse course, but it’s not too late for you and your alpha to work things out. For your own sake as well as the pack’s.”

“We’re fine,” Jackson spits. Jackson and Derek have always been fine. They complement each other. They give each other what they need. That’s the foundation of a strong relationship - not love, not passion, not even the ability to breed.

“You’re not,” Deaton replies, calm and insufferable as ever.

“You’re not my emissary.”

Though Jackson can’t exactly go to his own emissary either.

***

Jackson meets Derek at a frat party during Jackson’s freshman year. Derek is a senior and the quarterback of Stanford’s NCWAA football team. Jackson knows who he is because even if he’s brooding and a little awkward, Derek is at the top of the university’s social ladder.

Jackson is pushing it with his heat, which is due to start next evening, but attending a frat party in pre-heat is one of the rush week challenges for Omega Phi Omega and Jackson refuses to even contemplate joining a lesser omega fraternity. He thought this might be a real challenge, considering how horny he normally gets in pre-heat, but he’s enjoying the effects of the pheromone load: alphas walking into walls when he passes, all eyes in the room turning to him when he enters. Jackson already turns heads, with his delicate cheekbones and his pale skin offsetting big green eyes. He’s incredibly well-muscled, yet narrow in the shoulders - lithe strength, but still a tight fit over an alpha’s cock. Add the pheromones to that and there’s not an alpha Jackson can’t have.

Jackson has admired Derek Hale from afar, at football games and the few times he’s seen him around campus, but Jackson hasn’t approached him. The rules are that the alpha always approaches the omega and, as a senior, Derek will graduate at the end of the year. Jackson would enjoy a temporary popularity boost, but the timing isn’t right to consider Derek as a potential mate when most alphas won’t even consider knotting an omega until after at least six months of dating. Still, just having sex with Derek would be a win: both for the sex and for the publicity

That’s why he’s pleasantly surprised to find the tight grip on his arm belongs to the best-looking alpha he’s ever seen up close and personal. Of course Derek Hale would have a gorgeous face to go along with his perfect athletic skills and werewolf celebrity status.

Derek’s first words to his future spouse are, “Get out of here.” At Jackson’s dismayed look he continues, “You’re stinking this place up. It’s not safe for you here.”

Jackson smiles, stepping into the grip, which forces Derek to take an awkward step back and almost knock over the Beirut table. “You think I’ll be safer walking alone through a dark campus at o’drunk thirty?”

“I think, if you want to start a heat frenzy in a room full of alphas, half of whom are werewolves, then you should stay here. Otherwise, you’re safer pretty much anywhere else.” His nostrils flare and Jackson has a brief moment of panic, because what if he’s underestimated his cycle and he’s going to go into heat at frat party to be passed around for a supernatural gangbang?

Derek tilts his head, probably trying to hear the panic in Jackson’s heartbeat over the loud beat of the music. “I’ll walk you to the bluelight phone and you can get campus security to take you to one of the heat rooms.”

Jackson wrinkles his nose. He’s never used one of those sweaty, dingy little cubicles that must be rank with the slick of other omegas. He always books a room in one of the nice heat spas in the city.

“Do you have a car?” he asks, knowing that Derek drives a sleek black Camaro. Everyone knows that.

Derek nods, slowly.

“Can you give me a ride?”

Derek stares at Jackson for a long time. It makes him look a little stupid.

“I’m not spending my heat in one of those disgusting campus rooms, okay? You can give me a ride or call me a cab. Your choice.”

Derek grits his teeth, but he grabs Jackson’s arm in a bruising grip, yanking him down the stairs and out onto the street to his car.

Derek doesn’t talk the entire way into San Francisco. His forehead is beaded with sweat and his eyes are glassy, but he keeps focused on the road. Jackson would feel guilty making the alpha suffer a sympathy rut, except this is perfect. Get Derek Hale into a fancy heat room with him, share a heat, take advantage of the pheromones to get Derek to knot, start dating, get a ring on his finger and become the omega of the heir to one of the wealthiest werewolf families in California.

Except it doesn’t go that way. Derek pulls up in front of the lobby of the Excelsior Heat Spa, leans over Jackson to push open his door and orders, “Get out.”

Jackson tilts his head to the side, exposing his neck in the way he’d read in Vanity Fair that werewolves like. Derek’s nostrils flare.

“Share my heat with me,” Jackson says.

“No.”

“You’ve taken such good care of me, alpha,” Jackson entices, putting on his most saccharine sweet omega voice. “Please, share this heat with me.”

“Get inside before you make even more of a fool of yourself. I hope you feel better,” Derek says, slamming the door.

The only sign he’s been affected by Jackson is the screech of tires on the pavement as he speeds away.

***

Jackson always knew he wanted kids one day. Not really that he wanted their little grimy hands pulling at his suits or the high pitched whine of an impending tantrum, but simply that he’d have them, because that was the way of things. It seemed so simple back then.

Now, they’ve been trying for a year and a half: five heats in Jackson’s cycle and five discarded plastic sticks, all negative.

Derek won’t ask Jackson to go to the doctor, Jackson knows. Derek may be gruff and a little emotionally constipated sometimes, but he’d never do anything to hurt his omega, even just voicing a truth that they both already know. Instead, he’ll ask Jackson if he’s scheduled his annual physical or leave tabs to fertility centers open on Jackson’s iPad. It’ll be weeks of awkward shuffling and nervous glances until Jackson cracks and confronts him about it.

Jackson might as well get on with it. “I’ll make an appointment.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Derek asks, sounding eager.

Jackson does, more than anything, but even after all these years together, he wants Derek to think he’s strong. “If you want,” he shrugs. “They probably won’t get the results back right away, so you’ll just be watching me pee in a cup and get blood drawn.”

Derek nods decisively. “How do you know I won’t like watching you pee in a cup?”

“You couldn’t even watch me pee on the stick.”

“I’m coming with you.” Derek grabs Jackson’s hand, but then pulls it to wrap around his waist before the handholding gets too sappy. “I’ll watch you pee on whatever you want.”

“It’ll be okay,” Jackson says, pressing their foreheads together. Things always work out for Jackson. He’s accomplished everything he sets his mind to, including getting Derek to fall in love with him, which was no easy task. There’s no reason to think that if he does everything the doctor tells him, he can’t make this work.

Derek doesn’t say anything. His kiss is tentative for the first time in years.

***

Derek comes home from work with a leather notebook embossed with the logo for AWSA, the leading werewolf surrogacy agency in America. There’s a $100,000 retainer fee just to get access to the agency’s database, not that Jackson has looked. Jackson pretends he doesn’t know what it is and ignores it when Derek leaves it pointedly on the counter before retreating to his office.

Derek doesn’t ask about the folder when Jackson slides in next to him in bed that night, but he does do a piss-poor job at pretending to be asleep (mostly because Derek still refuses to admit that he snores like a chainsaw starting two seconds after he closes his eyes).

Jackson manages to make it it until almost 3pm the next day without opening the notebook. He checks their finances, writes an email to their tax attorney, looks at the plans left by the landscape architect, and even sends formal invitations out to their pack members about the full moon run the next weekend, even though the last thing any wolf would forget is a date with the pack on the full moon. He reviews a contract as a favor to Boyd, calls Laura to check if she needs help with any other pack business (“No, Jackson, everything’s good, same as yesterday.”), and gets his nails done for the third time this week. He’s halfway through an episode of the Real Houseomegas of Atlanta that he’s already seen when he finally breaks and opens the stupid thing.

AWSA is all class. The notebook contains a handwritten letter on thick cream-colored stationary introducing their agent, explaining a little about how she sees the process, and personalized suggestions about the first steps they should consider taking. Also included are an elegant business card, three full files on candidates she likes based on Derek’s intake information, a pamphlet on AWSA’s services and a passcode for their online databank.

Jackson doesn’t read any of the extra materials, just goes straight to the online databank. He scrolls through picture after picture of attractive omega: IQ, educational background, pack information, health reports, essay on why they’d like to be a surrogate.

Jackson is sitting in the dark, lit only by the light of his iPad, when Derek comes home.

“See anybody you like?” Derek asks, stroking Jackson’s back and pretending as though finding his husband home in a pitch black house isn’t weird.

Jackson shakes his head. “You decide. It’s your baby they’re going to be carrying.”

Derek goes to object, but Jackson flips over and grabs Derek by the tie, which forces him into a bruising, vicious kiss.

***

Jackson has no idea why he’s suddenly become so obsessed with Derek Hale, despite the fact that there are a few good reasons. First of all, Derek is rich, famous, and good at sports. He’s the most eligible bachelor on campus, maybe the most eligible on the entire West Coast. Then, there’s that body: bulging biceps, an ass you could literally bounce a quarter off, gorgeous eyes and lips and cheekbones, gorgeous everything. But on top of Derek Hale’s rather obvious attractions, Jackson’s sure that the real reason for his obsession is that Derek rejected him. Nobody rejects Jackson and Jackson isn’t about to allow Derek Hale to be the first.

So he goes to Derek’s football games. He studies at Derek’s favorite off-campus cafe. He snoops around the English department until he finds out which class Derek TAs and then bribes one of the student workers at the registrar in order to get himself a copy of Derek’s schedule and put himself in all the classes he meets the prereqs for.

Jackson saunters into the cramped shared TA office, proud of himself for asking Professor Brickham if students could get feedback on their papers if they turned them in early. Derek and the other two TAs for Literary History I had groaned when the professor agreed and told them to post available office hours.

Derek just gestures for Jackson to sit without greeting, handing over a printed paper that looks more red than black and white. Jackson is stuck between wanting to flirt and wanting to demand why in the hell Derek thinks his paper needs so many notes.

“Why are you in this class?” Derek asks once Jackson has finally given up on him talking.

“Two humanities courses are a graduation requirement.”

“That’s why the school designed special freshman humanities seminars. This is an English class, for future English majors.”

“How do you know I’m not going to be an English major?”

Derek gestures to Jackson’s paper on Jane Eyre as an omega rights work. It’s actually recycled from a paper that Jackson wrote as a sophomore in high school, but it had gotten an A. Derek is just being an ass. It’s probably in retribution for the heat proposition thing, even though everyone knows that it’s uncool to hold people accountable for sexual overtures made during pre-heat.

“That Jane Eyre can be read as an omega-rights text is well-known.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “That may be true, but not for any of the pieces of evidence you give. You’ve basically mashed all of the physical descriptions of Jane and her physiological desire for Rochester together interspersed with unprofessional observations about your own heat and what you’d do to an older gentleman in that position. Is this a paper or a pornographic proposition to Professor Brickham?”

Jackson gulps. Brickham is easily sixty years old with a combover and an ill-fitting tweed suit. Jackson just hasn’t had time to write his actual paper before the deadline for TAs to look it over. He hasn’t even reread it.

“I don’t know how things were done at your high school,” Derek continues, “but this is a world class university. You can’t fuck your way to a better grade, no matter how pretty you are.”

Jackson goes to protest, but then again, he had mowed the lawn and cleaned the pool for his high school English teacher, shirtless and in short-shorts, even though Jackson definitely didn’t need the money.

“I’m not propositioning Brickham,” Jackson says, jittering with anger that Derek would even dare call him out on sexual harassment he didn’t even consciously know he’d been participating in. “You’re the one I asked to read my paper.”

Derek clenches his jaw, stands and throws the paper, red marks and all, into the trashcan. “You still have two days before the withdrawal deadline. I suggest you do it, because if you turn in crap like that, you’ll be getting an F.”

“I’m not withdrawing,” Jackson says, because he’s never backed down from a challenge in his life.

When he accidentally gets locked into the library while researching omega-rights literary criticism, he almost regrets his choice. Almost.

***

To anyone else, Derek would look the same as he always does: serious, slightly aggressive, and suspicious. Jackson knows, however, that beneath the stoic expression, Derek is nervous. It’s in the intensity of his gaze, the tight, defensive cross of his arms, the careful and suddenly graceless way he moves.

Derek drops the folders on Jackson’s desk like a cat leaving a proudly caught mouse at its owner’s feet.

Jackson recognizes the AWSA logo immediately, but he still asks, “What’s this?”

“I narrowed it down to a few candidates,” Derek replies gruffly. “Take a look at them.”

Jackson wants to protest any involvement in the decision, but Derek is a stubborn man and for once, Jackson isn’t in the mood to provoke a fight. They haven’t been intimate since Jackson’s last heat a month and a half ago, so he doesn’t even have angry sex to look forward to if he does get Derek mad. Jackson resigns himself to at least pretending to help, so he spreads out the four files, flipping them open to the cover page.

He can tell immediately which one Derek prefers based on that information alone. Three of the four are clearly chosen based on their similarity to Jackson. They’re human male omegas with blond hair, green eyes, and a petite but athletic build, attending top liberal arts colleges and using surrogacy in order to pay for their education. Jackson can admire that. He’d pick any of them. They seem interchangeable.

The reason Derek clearly prefers the fourth one is the fact that he’s included at all even though he’s so different from the obvious selection criteria. He’s not bad looking and though he doesn’t have any specific features in common with Jackson, he’s still from the same mixed European genetic stock that means if the baby looks anything like Derek, nobody would assume Jackson isn’t the other father. The kid has dark brown hair and light brown eyes, taller than Jackson and lanky with broader shoulders but far less muscle mass. His IQ is 132 and his SAT is 2250, but he’s Jackson’s age and never went to college. The medical section possibly reveals why: he’s been diagnosed with severe ADHD but has had no medication of any kind since he turned eighteen. He species is listed as: ASK ME and his essay on why he wants to be a surrogate appears to be a detailed history of the male circumcision.

Derek is watching Jackson with what can only be described as a predatory look when he puts the folder down. “Is this a joke?” Derek and Jackson get along great in a lot of ways, especially sexually, but Jackson has never entirely understood Derek’s sense of humor.

Derek bites his lip, looking shy, of all things. “I’m pretty sure that to him it was.”

“But to you it isn’t?” Jackson demands. “Derek, do we want a spastic kid who we’ll probably have to drug to the gills with Adderal and is going to live at home for the rest of his life because he writes about penises on his college applications?”

Derek snorts, the smallest hint of a smile curling at the side of his lips. “No. That’s not the reason why he didn’t go to college. I don’t think he really even has ADHD.”

“Then AWSA must not be very good because that’s what’s listed here on his medical history.”

“There’s a note explaining it. They have to list what’s on his medical records, but he’s actually some kind of mage.”

“I thought there’s no such thing as witches and wizards,” Jackson says, because he hasn’t learned much about werewolf lore, but Lydia had been very clear about that one point at least.

“That’s not entirely true,” Derek replies. Jackson isn’t even surprised. Every time Jackson thinks he finally has a handle on all the supernatural business, Derek reveals some other thing that everyone of his kind just ‘knows,’ which he never bothered to tell Jackson. “Anyone can do magic if they perform certain rituals correctly. Obviously the rules are a little different for supernatural beings. The difference is that for ordinary humans, magic is a matter of balance. You can’t get something for nothing - every magical force requires a sacrifice, whether it’s the deaths of the plants used in the ritual or slitting the throats of ten virgins. But then there’s a small group of people, humans who are not quite human, who are blessed by fate. They don’t need to sacrifice for magic to happen. They just have to believe.”

“And this … person is one of those?”

Derek nods.

“What does that even mean?”

“It means that the ADHD was just the buildup of magical energy looking for a release.”

“I don’t care about that, Derek. You want this kid. What does it mean for our baby?”

“He’s training to be an emissary. He’s looking for a pack and he’s offering to use his magic to include the genetic material of both parents in exchange.”

“If he’s powerful enough to actually make artificial insemination work for werewolf sperm, then why hasn’t a pack already snatched him up? It seems like a silly business decision to be renting out his womb when he has something like that to offer.”

Derek looks annoyed, as though he thought he could’ve actually gotten away without answering the tough questions. “He’s not alone. He refuses to join a pack unless they let his best friend join with him.”

Jackson frowns. Packs accepted new wolves all the time. It was one of Laura’s best recruiting tactics for the company. “Still don’t see the problem.”

“His friend is an omega wolf who’s mated to an alpha hunter. From the Argent clan.”

“You’re not serious, Derek. After what Kate Argent did to your family, you’re not seriously considering--”

Derek stills Jackson’s agitated hands, leaning forward for a soft, slow kiss. “I want a child who is part me and part you. I talked to the mage on Skype and to his friend. It seems right. I don’t trust them yet, but I want to.”

Jackson can’t argue with that, not when Derek still struggles so much just to offer the barest amount of trust to anyone. That being said, Jackson doesn’t entirely trust his husband’s instincts (there’s a reason that Derek doesn’t get involved in either the business or the pack administration). “I’ll have to meet them. The Argent, too.”

Derek smiles, one of his rare, blinding smiles. “I already sent them tickets. They’ll be here on Thursday.” He kisses Jackson again. “I love you.”

“I know.”

“You’re an asshole.”

“I know that, too,” Jackson concedes, leaning forward until he forces Derek back down into one of the dining room chairs and lands in his lap. “I also know that I’m going to humor you, because Laura will never agree.”

Derek chuckles in between nipping at Jackson’s lip. “I’ll handle Laura. You just worry about getting yourself naked before I rip that stupid sweater right off you.”

“Hey, this is Armani!” Jackson protests as Derek’s claws flick out.

He’s just fast enough to save his new cardigan, but not fast enough to avoid a few cuts of his own.

***

Jackson gets a B on his English paper. It’s annoying, because he worked his ass off to get from a F to a B, but when he takes it to Brickham complaining of TA bias, Brickham tells him that Jackson’s paper was in the pile he graded himself. In fact, Derek had insisted Brickham grade Jackson’s paper specifically in order to avoid bias. Jackson vows to redouble his efforts.

“I heard you complained about me,” Derek says when he slides into the seat next to Jackson in their statistics class the next Monday. Jackson’s 5 on the AP stats exam means that he could have placed out of the statistics requirement for the Econ Department, but when he saw Derek was taking it, Jackson figured he could do with another easy A to anchor his GPA.

“Isn’t that against university policy?”

“If my professor doesn’t tell me about complaints, how am I supposed to improve?” Derek asks with a shiteating grin.

“Fine,” Jackson growls. “I complained.”

“If you want me to go out with you, tattling to my boss isn’t the best way to go about it,” Derek continues.

“At least I got your attention.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “You already had my attention.”

“Really?” Time to go on the offensive. Jackson turns, leaning into Derek’s space and knocking their knees together when he rotates his chair in Derek’s direction. “I’m happy to hear it.”

“That’s not a good thing,” Derek grumbles.

“That’s what you say now.” Jackson flutters his eyelashes in the coquettish way that has always worked for him in the past. Derek looks away, blushing. Victory.

“Hey, hey, hey,” shouts Franklin, their ridiculous TA. He has a scraggly brown goatee and a covers his greasy hair with a beanie in the colors of the jamaican flag, despite being the biggest white nerd from Connecticut that Jackson has ever seen. “I’ve got presents for you flunkies!”

He looks over at Derek when he says it, then winks at Jackson. Jackson thinks he might vomit a little in his mouth at the very idea that Franklin thinks he has a chance with him, but Jackson’s learned over the years that every authority figure spurned is a whole hell of a lot of work digging himself up out of the wreckage of their ego. He smiles back, ignoring Derek’s snort of disgust.

Franklin skips up the aisles, delivering Derek’s 4/10 on his problem set with manic glee. Jackson aced it, of course, which earns him a stalkerish pat on the shoulder from Franklin. “Pretty and smart. You’re too good to be true.”

Jackson smirks when that provokes a growl from Derek.

“Watch it, Wolfie,” Franklin reprimands. “It’s not the zoo or the football field. In here, you have to act like a civilized human being.”

Jackson grabs Derek by the bicep before he can do anything stupid. But he finds that Derek is looking down at his chest, ashamed, rather than enraged.

“You don’t have to protect him,” Franklin continues. “A beast like that will rip a pretty omega like you apart.”

“I can take care of myself,” Jackson replies. “I even know the university’s sexual harassment policy word for word.”

Jackson tries to share a triumphant smile with Derek when Franklin pales and backs off, but Derek’s still staring at his problem set like it’s a poisonous snake that might strike at any moment.

“So I take it you’re not worried about needing to fuck your way through this class,” Derek snarls.

“Numbers don’t lie,” Jackson replies. He’s offended, but he can deal. At least Derek is starting to see that Jackson is more than just a pretty face, even at that asswipe, Franklin’s suggestion. “This is a good enough university that I couldn’t have gotten in on looks and connections alone.”

Derek shrugs to concede the point. God, why does Jackson even want this guy? Oh yeah, hot, rich, powerful . . . not smart at everything, though.

“You know, I could help you with that,” Jackson offers, gesturing to Derek’s problem set.

“I’m still not fucking you.”

“Jesus,” Jackson moans. “Look, it’s not like I don’t have plenty of offers, okay? If you’re that stupid that you’ll pass up an opportunity at this,” he gestures to the amazing body he works his ass off in the gym for two hours each morning in order to get, “then I’m not sure you’re smart enough for basic statistics, but I’ll try.”

“Jackson--”

Fuck, this guy is stubborn. Why can’t he just accept the help Jackson is gracing him with? “I’m actually offering out of the goodness of my heart and, in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t give a shit about most people. But that dickbag TA isn’t going to get away with saying those things to you and keeping you from fulfilling your GenEd requirements. If it makes you feel better, we’ll trade. You help me get an A in English Lit and I’ll help you with this.”

“But, that’s my job.

Jackson shrugs, not sure why he’s even arguing the point here. He shouldn’t have to beg in order to do this stupid alpha a favor. But he still wants Derek to take him up on it. It’s only to figure out how this seduction went so horribly wrong, he tells himself.

“You can pay me, if it’ll make you feel better. We both know I need the money as little as it’ll cost you to part with it.”

“Okay. Fine,” Derek says.

“Good.”

“Good.”

“Your room at Eight?”

Derek just stares.

“You’re such a loser.” Jackson rolls his eyes. “I’ll meet you in the library. You reserve us a study room.”

“Thanks,” Derek says so softly that Jackson wouldn’t have heard if it hadn’t coincided with the exact moment that their fellow students quiet down for Professor Greenley’s entrance.

“You’re welcome.”

***

“Jacks?” Derek murmurs, a confused and distracting silhouette in the door.

“Hmm?” Jackson replies. Derek is blocking his light, so he moves over to the opposite corner of the room, paint swatches in hand.

“So this is the fifth time you’ve repainted the upstairs guest bedroom.”

Jackson shrugs. They can definitely afford it. He’s thinking nature-themed. Sky blue with clouds and a green rug that looks like grass. “It’s not perfect.”

He hates the current plum color with the cream-colored victorian lace trim. He has no idea what he was thinking. Not that it’s any worse than the previous sterile white with the black and white framed hitsuzendo calligraphy or Jackson’s ill-advised flirtation with cantina orange.

“Do you think--” Derek pauses, ducking his head and looking bashful. Jackson wonders how he ever thought that Derek was just too cool to deal with him rather than just a shy dork. “I mean, maybe it’s not perfect because it’s not supposed to be a guest bedroom.”

It takes Jackson a second to process that. In an unusual departure from his patented wall of manly stoicism, Derek continues to babble. “I read somewhere that, um, omegas can sometimes get a pre-nesting instinct. You’re showing a few of the symptoms. And--” Derek seems like he might have more to say. He’s probably been keeping a list of the symptoms and checking them off like a nerd. “Are you?”

Derek winces, like he expects Jackson to slap him for actually being astoundingly insightful for once.

“Would it bother you?” Jackson asks. Laura has been bugging him about children and expanding the pack, but Derek has never brought it up. Jackson has always figured that it was on the table, what with their near-miss and everything, but Jackson figured he’d wait for Derek to bring it up. Jackson is still only twenty-three. They have plenty of time.

“Painting the room?” Derek asks, peering at Jackson’s paint swatches. “Baby blue seems like a nice color. It wouldn’t bother me.” After all these years and with the werewolf hearing, Jackson still isn’t always sure if Derek is being deliberately obtuse or if this is his way of being cute and playful.

Jackson spins on his heel and marches up to his husband, grasping Derek’s hands in his. “I’m asking you if you want to paint this room baby blue, because according to what you ‘read,’ my swatch choices are subconsciously about a real baby. Do you want a baby in here, Derek?”

Derek winces, but Jackson isn’t discouraged. There are a lot of things that make Derek uncomfortable, and there’s no way to know if it’s the idea of a baby or just having to talk about it explicitly that has Derek looking sour. “I mean, if Laura brings baby Talia over, it might be good to have a room with a--”

“Sorry, Derek, I need a real answer.”

Derek sighs, looking tortured. It’s only their whole future hanging in the balance right now. Jackson wishes, not for the first time, that he’d married someone a little better equipped to discuss his feelings. “What do you want?”

“I’ll tell you after you tell me.” Jackson has always taken perverse pleasure in having alphas at his mercy. They need to learn their place and even though Derek has never been one of those alphas, Jackson loves looking into those stubborn electric blue eyes, forcing those broad, powerful shoulders down and relishing in the control he has over this beast.

“That’s not fair,” Derek’s voice is steady and matter-of-fact, but Jackson hears the whine nonetheless.

“Life’s not fair, alpha. But I promise, whatever you say, I won’t judge.” Jackson just desperately wants one thing and not the other, but he won’t judge Derek for wanting what he wants. Jackson had always wanted kids because that was the next step in the game of life. An omega found a mate, got married, got knocked up, added some dependents to the tax return and that was that. He’s always thought things like the biological clock were base and much too far beneath him, but now he realizes how much a slave to biology he really is, because he wants nothing more than a babe suckling at his breast, a combination of him and his mate that they can love and cherish and who can carry their legacy forward into time.

Jackson bites his lip, hoping that Derek, in spite of the million traumas that might convince him otherwise, wants the same thing Jackson wants.

Derek takes a deep breath before answering. “Fine,” he grumbles. “I want children with you. I have since our mating. But I owed you the time to develop your career and learn your wolf. I’ll wait as long as you need, but if you’re ready now, I want to start trying.”

Jackson can’t help it. He’s grinning ear to ear. He leans into his husband until Derek is supporting all his weight when they indulge in a slow, delicate kiss.

“You’re a lucky man.”

“I am?”

“You did get lucky enough to snag this,” Jackson gestures to himself and ignores the rock in his gut when he realizes how fat and unattractive he’s going to end up getting. “And you’re lucky, because I want the same thing.”

Derek laughs. He pulls Jackson in by his waist and kisses him until they’re both flushed and breathless. They’re having a baby.

Jackson tackles Derek onto the unused guest bed, suddenly so wet that he thinks their desire may have triggered a flash heat.

“You and I are going to make the world's most gorgeous babies,” he says.

Derek just nods his agreement, speechless as his too-serious eyes gaze up to stare at his mate.

***

“I have an idea,” Jackson hears the incubator say to Derek. They’re downstairs in the kitchen where Derek is making eggs benedict at three in the afternoon in order to service another one of the incubator’s stupid cravings. “I’m going to ask Laura, but I want to run it by you first.”

“Okay.”

“It’s about your Uncle Peter.”

Derek growls. Peter is absolutely off-limits as a topic, even for Jackson. The only reason the incubator doesn’t have an open gash right now is because Derek’s wolf knows that he’s carrying Derek’s baby.

“I know, I know, sensitive topic. He was injured in the fire and almost killed Laura the one time he made any progress recovering. I get that you love him. I get that you’re scared and angry because it’s not his fault even if you want to gut him in order to protect your alpha. But I think I know how to help him. Laura will still need to be involved, but I found a ritual. It’s obscure and the necessary factors are hard to come by, but I know we can do it.”

There’s a long pause. Jackson waits with baited breath to see what Derek will do.

“Give me the information and I’ll think about it. You’re not doing anything until the baby is born, though. I won’t risk you.”

“You see, that’s the beauty of it. I won’t be the one performing it. I can’t be the one performing it. My role will be strictly advisory. Something I can do without even getting off the couch, which is getting difficult, by the way. Do you think we can get one of those lifter things that old people use?”

“No. Jackson or I or one of the pack will help you up. And if you’re not doing it, who will?”

“It’s a Worm Moon ritual, which means it needs someone who can cross over in order to work. Luckily, I know a certain strawberry blonde goddess with A+ fashion sense who would--”

Jackson is down the stairs and standing in front of Derek and the incubator before he notices. The incubator is staring, egg yolk dripping onto his rounded belly as he pauses with the sandwich halfway to his mouth. Derek just raises an eyebrow.

“You leave Lydia out of this!” Jackson shouts. He knew that calling Lydia over to help the incubator shop for maternity wear had been a mistake. “She’s not pack and she’s no business of yours. If you put her in any kind of danger, I will have them cut that baby out of you so I can tear you apart.”

The incubator looks contrite for once, but not afraid. How could he be afraid with Derek standing between him and Jackson, eyes flashing blue and fangs extended in warning. Jackson knows that it’s half his baby too, but he doesn’t care, he just hates that smug little shit who has invaded his home and his pack.

“Um, I may have already, um, mentioned it to her.” He appeals to Derek. “She’s all for it, dude. She’d also totally join the pack, I think. We’d have to wait for the official pack ritual until I’ve pushed the sprog out, but there’s nothing that says the banshee has to be magically bound to the pack.”

“She’s not doing it,” Jackson replies. “And she’s not joining the pack. Keep away from her.”

“Hey, man, you’re the one who introduced us. I can’t help it if my milkshake brings all the alphas to the yard.”

“There’s no way Lydia is even remotely attracted to you,” Jackson snaps meanly. “You’re just a pregnant ken doll to her. A woman like her is so far above you it makes me want to cry. Or laugh. Definitely laugh.”

The incubator looks defeated for a moment, like he actually did think that Lydia might be attracted to him. Tears well in his eyes, but he wipes them away with an understated curse of “stupid hormones,” but then he grits his teeth and turns to Derek, looking defiant. “She’s the only way to bring your uncle back and she wants to do it. It’s your family and not his,” he glares at Jackson. “A banshee is a rare ally. Who cares if she used to plough your whiny brat of a husband? He’s yours now, whether you like it or not.”

Jackson thinks he hates the incubator more than he’s ever hated anyone in his life. Derek has always been insecure about Jackson staying friends with Lydia. His wolf is possessive and Derek himself worries that he can’t hold a candle to a genius and celebrity like Lydia Martin. They've just finally gotten to the point where Jackson can invite Lydia over to a full moon celebration without worrying that she’ll get mauled by his jealous mate. The incubator isn’t allowed to destroy all the trust they’ve finally built.

Jackson is practically vibrating with rage. His claws extend against his will and even though Derek is studying the incubator’s face and not looking a Jackson he must sense it. “Stiles,” he says slowly, gritting his teeth. “I think you need to leave this discussion to me and my husband.”

The seriousness of Derek’s tone is enough to convince the incubator to waddle out, slamming the door behind him.

“I want him gone,” Jackson steams, ignoring the tears running down his own face. “No contact until he’s in labor. We pay him generously for the surrogacy, but he’s out of the pack.”

“Jackson, he didn’t do this for the money. He did it because he needs a pack and we need him. He’s pregnant and emotional and he doesn’t have an alpha to support him. Of course he’s going to say some things that he doesn’t mean. We have to be understanding.”

“I’m done being understanding and bending over backwards! You wouldn’t have let me get away with that if I’d been able to--” Jackson hates how his voice breaks.

Derek’s gaze softens. “I would’ve let you get away with everything. I already let you get away with too much.” He sighs, pulling Jackson into his arms. “We rushed into this too quickly. It’s my fault for not being able to see that you weren’t ready.”

“I was ready,” Jackson sobs. He’s more than ready to have a child.

“No,” Derek repeats. “You weren’t. Allison says that sometimes people need to grieve for what has never come to be as much as they do for things they’ve lost.”

Jackson tries to reign in his ugly sobbing. He knows it makes him unattractive and attractiveness is the last thing he has that would ever keep Derek around him. “You’re taking advice from a hunter, now?”

Derek shrugs. “I’ve been trying to be the kind of man who would be a good father. If that means not judging Allison by the Argent name, then I’ll do it.” Derek has changed a lot since Jackson met him. The anger has slowly faded. He’s become more open. But since they started trying for a baby, Derek has been making attempts to change his behavior to be more socially acceptable. Jackson wants to be proud of him, but it seems as though Derek is changing how he treats everyone except Jackson.

“Maybe you should’ve. Then he wouldn’t be here.”

“You know that Stiles is just trying to help, right? That’s what emissaries do. He’s young and a pain in the ass, but he knows more about magic than any other druid I’ve seen. We were lucky to get him.”

“I hate how you are with him,” Jackson confesses. “You confide in him and you won’t even tell me what you’re thinking.” Jackson knows that their inability to conceive must have taken its toll on Derek too, but the other man won’t show it. He’s been all about forcing Jackson to play the victim to his perfect, adoring alpha routine.

“I’ve been telling him about the pack, our history, so that he understands us and can better help us.”

“You’ve never told me the pack history.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “That’s because you went to intern with Laura before we were even married. I figured she beat me to it. Besides, I had to help him feel more included. You’ve been treating Stiles like he’s unwelcome.”

“That’s because he is.”

“I know. That’s the problem. I’ve been letting you get away with it because I don’t know how to deal with your hurt about not being able to conceive. But it stops now. You don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to be nice to Stiles. He’s part of the pack now, whether you like it or not. So when his feet hurt, you will rub them. When he has a craving, you’ll indulge him. And when he needs you to be a decent person and treat him like human being for five seconds, you’ll do it. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Jackson grumbles. He’ll more or less try to do as Derek says, but he’s glad that Laura’s the alpha so Derek can’t make it a real order.

***

Jackson had been hoping that Stilinski would look better in person than he does in his photos. In his photos, the emissary looks like the average all-American kid. He’s Jackson’s age, but he looks younger, like he’s just finally grown out of his childish features but hasn’t quite figured out how to fit into his adult skin.

“Hi,” Stilinski says awkwardly, wiping his hand on the hip of his jeans before offering it to Jackson to shake. “So, um, I guess I missed Derek, huh?”

Derek had only been able to get the morning off from work, but Stilinski’s plane had been delayed and he’d gotten lost trying to find the house. The poor sense of direction did not bode well for his magical skills.

“That’s fine,” Jackson replies coldly, not offering to help Stilinski with his bags. A duffle, a large suitcase, and a rolling carry-on seems like overkill for a weekend visit. Chronic over-packer gets added to the list of cons already tallied in Jackson’s head.

Stilinski trips over himself and only Jackson’s werewolf reflexes save the bust of Theodore Roosevelt that was the only item that Derek showed any interest in when the interior decorator made an ill-advised attempt to include him. Jackson still has no idea whether or not keeping a statue of the worlds most well known werewolf hunter in their foyer is Derek’s idea of a joke.

“My bad,” Stilinski remarks casually. “Sorry, Big Teddy. Hey, this is a nice place, dude. Not that I’d expect anything less from the Hale pack. I mean, you guys are like the Kardashians of werewolves.”

Jackson growls inadvertently.

“I’m just joking! Jeesh.” He checks Jackson out in an exaggerated way. “You don’t have enough junk in the trunk to be a Kardashian.”

‘The kind of man that doubles down on unwelcome and unfunny jokes,’ Jackson adds to the list. “You do know that I’m interviewing you to be a member of our pack, right? You know that I’m the alpha’s second. If you know anything about weres, you’ll know that position is hard enough to come by, especially for a non-familial, omega, bitten wolf, so don’t expect me to go gentle.”

“Well, yeah. I know that. And seriously, more power to you,” Stilinski replies, looking down at his hands and fidgeting nervously. Finally, an appropriate response. “I just thought--”

“You thought what?” Jackson prompts.

“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Derek and--”

“And?”

“And I thought you’d be different, okay?” Jackson chaffs at the comment. Stilinski has been here two minutes and already he’s found a way to blunder straight into Jackson’s deepest insecurities. He knows that he and Derek don’t have a lot in common. Derek is the literal black sheep in the family and Jackson is the stereotypical society omega, with a small amount of West Coast flare. Derek likes sports and hates black tie events, prefers to go wander in the woods for days with nothing but some leather bound classic novel for company. Whereas Jackson has never once defecated outside, even under the full moon. He likes spa days and feels most comfortable in a suit and tie. There’s really no reason for them to be together now that Jackson can’t give Derek the perfect cubs, with Derek’s strength and Jackson’s light, agile frame, Derek’s loyalty and Jackson’s deviousness.

Stilinski visibly steels himself, taking a deep breath before extending his hand. “Look, let’s start over. Clearly, I’ve made a bad first impression. I’m Stiles.”

“What the hell kind of name is Stiles?”

The kid rolls his eyes. “You’ve seen my file, dude.”

Yeah, Jackson doesn’t have any idea how to go about pronouncing that. “Fine. Now, you’re here to convince me to let you and your friends into our pack.”

Stilinski nods.

“So start convincing me.”

“Look, it’s pretty clear that you and I aren’t a match made in heaven,” Stiles answers, looking painfully out of place among the immaculately arranged furniture in Jackson’s Hamptons-style sunken family room. “And my way of doing things is a little unconventional, but I can tell that you’re a practical guy. You want what’s best and you’re not going to get a better deal.”

In the pro column, Jackson grudgingly adds, ‘capable of directness, no bullshit.’ “Explain.”

“Well, first off, I’m not going to bother with modesty, because judging by the six car garage and the room full of trophies, you don’t bother with it either. Look, I’m damned good at magic. I’m naturally gifted and I trained with the best. You’ve seen my resume.” Jackson had. It was good enough for Laura to specifically ask Jackson to keep an open mind about Stilinski. “And if you’re looking around for the surrogacy spell I offered to perform, you won’t find it. I invented it myself and even with my help there are probably only eleven people in the world who could do it and only six of them are omegas. And I promise you that none are as desperate as I am, so I’m pretty much the only act in town if you want both your genes in the kid. There’ll be a little of me in there too, just enough to give the baby the magic genes to survive being the subject of this kind of spell. Fifteen percent of his or her DNA max. Hopefully the non-spastic ones.”

Jackson has never really understood the point of self-deprecation, so he just pushes forward. “That would be acceptable. But as our emissary, you would need to do more than just come up with spells.”

“Yeah, that whole keeping the pack human thing,” Stilinski snorts derisively. Jackson privately agrees. Maybe that had been an issue back in the day, before werewolves had integrated into the rest of society, but now the government has a whole Department of Supernatural Relations to make sure the creatures of the night keep things above-board, not to mention the Pack Council, the College of Emissaries and whatever humans werewolves are forced to interact with on a daily basis. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m not the one in charge. The alpha sets the agenda and I find a way to execute. If I have an idea, I won’t keep my mouth shut, but it’s the alpha that decides. If I disagree with pack policy bad enough, I’ll leave before I disobey. I’m loyal as shit, though, so if someone threatens the pack, I will literally eviscerate them if necessary. I know like seven spells for that, but I haven’t gotten a chance to try any of them. Couldn’t even bring myself to practice on a pigeon, even though that fucker totally deserved it for getting its dirty beak all over my meatloaf sandwich.”

No wonder Derek likes him, Jackson thinks. Derek loves loyalty about as much as he loves grotesque but empty threats.

“Look, Stilinski, the surrogacy offer does seem almost too good to resist and your emissary qualifications make up for your personality, but none of it answers the real question. With that spell, you could make a small fortune as a surrogate alone and I’m sure any number of packs would take you, including the hangers on. You invented the spell because you knew that Derek and I had this particular problem and you targeted our pack for a reason. My husband is a romantic in his own gruff, creepy way. He’ll take a deal that sounds too good to be true because hope is his Achilles heel, but you’re not going to convince me that you inventing an entire new type of fertility magic in order to get the sister of the woman who killed my husband’s family into my pack is a coincidence.”

Stilinski sighs. “Fine, you’re right. I did invent this spell for you, but it’s not what you think! Listen to my heartbeat.”

“Yeah right. You want me to believe that you can make a spell for gene splicing and you can’t find a way to control your heartbeat? Let the truth speak for itself.”

“The truth is that I already have a pack. Scott and Allison are my pack. It doesn’t matter if Scott is an omega with two humans - we’re a pack and I wasn’t lying when I said I’d do anything to protect them. We all know that Kate Argent wasn’t the only crazy in her family and Gerard doesn’t approve of his granddaughter’s allegiances. We’d receive protection from any pack, but this pack - every group that’s even remotely familiar with werewolves will be paying attention, from the Department of Supernatural Relations to US Weekly. He won’t be able to move against us.”

Jackson actually approves of Stilinski’s reasoning. In fact, it’s a kind of strategizing that will prove useful from the pack’s emissary. Jackson still doesn’t like him, but he’s right to assume that Jackson will be pragmatic about this. Jackson wants the best and he knows that he won’t get any better than a man who will invent a spell to get himself knocked up with a child that is 85% not his just in order to keep his friend’s marriage alive.

“I don’t like you,” Jackson says, because Stilinski needs to know that even if Jackson is willing to put up with him, he’s not going to lift a finger to make things easier.

“That much is obvious.” Stilinski rolls his eyes.

“And Derek, Laura and I still need to approve of the other two.”

“Again, obvious.”

“And you know everything you said about your pack, how you’d eviscerate someone in order to protect them? That’s how I feel about my pack and that’s how I feel about my husband. If you or yours hurt Derek in any way, including even the slightest reminder of the fire, I will destroy you.”

“Dude, I would never do anything to hurt Derek. Not only does that guy obviously have more psychological issues than a room full of Woody Allen characters, they’re all because of horribly depressing circumstances beyond his control. It’d be like kicking a drowning kitten.”

My drowning kitten. Don’t forget it,” Jackson growls.

Jackson doesn’t know whether to be happy or annoyed that his new emissary doesn’t flinch when he flashes his yellow eyes at him and shows a hint of teeth.

***

“I knew you’d love him,” Derek says, grinning ear to ear. It’s actually kind of creepy seeing Derek this happy.

“I didn’t say I loved him. I said that I think we should take him up on his offer. It’s a smart decision.”

“We’re going to have a baby,” Derek goes on, ignoring the practicalities as usual. He pulls Jackson into his lap, nipping at Jackson’s lower lip and gripping his ass. “And Laura and I are finally going to get an emissary.”

“You’ve done alright for the pack without one.”

“True. I did pick my mate without the help of an emissary and that was the best decision I ever made.”

Jackson is, once again, not sure whether Derek is being ironic with his cheesiness. “What about the Argent? Do you think you can get along with her?”

Derek shrugs, but Jackson can read his uncertainty in the introverted hunch of his shoulders.

“Derek. If you’re not comfortable having her in the pack, we can wait to find another emissary. You and I can get an ordinary human surrogate. You’ve already picked out a few that could be my doppelgangers.”

Derek shakes off Jackson’s comforting grip, but doesn’t knock him out of his lap. “She’s not going to hurt the pack.”

“That’s not what I asked, Derek.”

“Stiles is the best emissary we could hope for.”

“Derek,” Jackson grunts in frustration.

“And I think Scott will make a nice addition. Sadly, I don’t think it’ll be long before his wife knocks him up so we’ll have to train hard before then. I’ll ask Laura--”

“Derek!”

Derek puts on a ridiculous ‘who me?’ face that makes Jackson want to punch him in the throat.

“Derek, if having Allison Argent around is a problem for you, it doesn’t matter what you think about the other two or what you think will be good for the pack.”

“The good of the pack is always more important,” Derek replies. “You’re not a born wolf. You don’t--”

“Bullshit. I’m not a born wolf so there are a lot of things I don’t know, but I’ve been Laura’s second since I got the bite so I know she won’t judge you if you have a problem with this. I won’t judge you. Even that concussed freakshow who wants to incubate our baby would understand. Kate--”

“Don’t,” Derek pleads. He doesn’t cry. Derek never lets himself cry, but the pain is there in his eyes, shining bright.

“No, Derek, we have to talk about this. That bitch killed your family. You have every right to hate her and everyone that even reminds you of her.”

“I don’t.”

“You can’t help what you feel.”

“I don’t have the right because it was my fault. I told her everything she needed to know. Don’t you get it?” Jackson has never seen Derek in this much pain, even though he realizes that he’s been preparing himself for it since the day he and Derek met. Derek shows how much he’s hurting in a million little ways, from microseconds of dazed sorrow to a pool of anger so deep and abiding that it frightens Jackson sometimes. Seeing the undiluted pain, however, is a precious vulnerability that Jackson doesn’t know he is worthy of.

“No, Derek, I don’t. How am I supposed to get it when you won’t tell me?” It’s been years and still Derek’s trauma goes unspoken between them.

“I was sleeping with her!” Derek gives an anguished shout. “She was going to let me share her heat. I thought she loved me.”

Jackson doesn’t know what to say to that so he says nothing. He and Derek gaze at each other like a bull and a matador staring each other down. Neither is good at emotional availability. It’s why they get along. But there’s only so much a single person can keep bottled up before bursting.

“That’s just another reason to hate that cunt.”

Derek nods, but his eyes are unfocused and glassy. ”I hate her.”

“I know.”

“But I let her in. I didn’t mean to, but I still--”

“I know.” Jackson has no idea what to do. Derek is stubborn and despite his inability to articulate his emotions, he feels things deeper than anyone Jackson knows. There’s no way to convince Derek to not feel guilty. Jackson can’t seem to do it when Derek feels bad about forgetting to take out the trash; how in hell can he do it when it comes to the death of Derek’s family? “But you don’t have to atone for anything, okay? Nothing you can do will change what happened and it won’t make you feel less guilty in the long run, so just, make a decision for yourself. If it were up to you and everything else were equal, would you want Allison Argent in the pack.”

“No,” Derek answers immediately.

“Okay, then it’s settled. I’ll call Laura and then we can contact--”

“I do want Stiles and Scott.”

“Okay, but we can find another surrogate. You don’t have to do this.” Jackson just doesn’t want Derek to be forced to relive the fire every time he sees a packmate just because Jackson has failed him as an omega.

Derek shakes his head. “No. No, even without the surrogacy, I want Stiles to be our emissary. I trust him.”

Jackson nods, but every muscle in his body feels strained tight to breaking. Derek doesn’t trust easily and Jackson has no idea why he’ll suddenly put faith in this crass, ridiculous, loser of a kid who hasn’t done a thing to deserve it, especially considering that Jackson still isn’t sure if Derek trusts him.

“Scott will make a good beta,” Derek continues, too wrapped up in convincing himself to notice Jackson’s distress. “He’s the alpha of his own pack in a way. He stood up to Gerard Argent when he went public with his relationship with Allison. That takes courage.” The fact that it took courage that Derek didn’t have when he was with Kate goes unspoken.

When Jackson doesn’t say anything, Derek starts to smile, just barely. “That’s what I want. I’d rather not have to take an Argent to get the other two, but I want all of them in our pack. The baby is a bonus.” It should be a triumph, seeing Derek truly confident in a decision for once, without a hint of false bravado. Derek himself seems shocked by the fact that he’s come to a decision at all. “I’ll … I’ll go tell Laura, I guess.”

Derek kisses Jackson on the cheek and is off in search of his phone before Jackson can register what just happened. Three new packmates and a baby. They’re locked in.

***

The incubator settles heavily down on the couch next to Jackson, instantly commandeering the remote and propping up his swollen ankles on Jackson’s white linen coffee table, getting dirt and maybe even some dried blood all over it. The sad part is that he probably can’t even see beyond his huge belly to the damage he’s doing.

“So what’s the deal with you and Lydia?” the incubator asks, dunking a samosa into what appears to be a Big Gulp filled with horchata and stuffing it in his mouth so messily that he ends up having to wipe up the detritus with his sleeve. Gross.

“None of your business,” Jackson replies as he stands to leave.

“Nuh uh. I know Derek told you to indulge me while I’m carrying around this bowling ball with your name on it. So you can either answer my questions or you can answer my questions while rubbing my feet. Dealer’s choice.”

Jackson rolls his eyes, but notices that the incubator’s feet do look painfully swollen. “Do you really need it?”

The incubator sighs. He looks tired. “I guess Scott will rub them for me when he stops by later.”

Jackson grabs one of the brown throw pillows that hopefully won’t show the mud and lifts the incubator’s right foot into his lap. “Don’t get too used to this.”

The incubator’s eyes go wide in shock at the kindness, but he doesn’t comment. “You and Lydia?”

“We dated for three years in high school.”

“What happened?”

Jackson shrugs. He and Lydia have always been difficult to explain. That’s probably why their friendship still puts Derek on edge. “She went to Harvard and I went to Stanford.”

“But three years is a long time!” the incubator protests. “You’re not telling me that you’re completely over it.”

“Nobody gets completely over Lydia. She’ll tell you that herself.”

“I’m pretty sure she already has.”

Jackson narrows his eyes. Exactly how much time has the incubator been spending with Lydia? “Lydia and I were both ambitious. She was valedictorian and I was captain of the lacrosse and swim teams. We were the two most attractive and popular people in school. It made sense.”

“You didn’t try to stay together?”

Jackson had wanted to, because he’d always known that Lydia would go on to do great things, but she had refused and wouldn’t even talk to him until their first summer break and by then, Jackson had discovered Derek and Lydia had discovered Math 55.

“Why do you think this is your business again?”

“Because I like her, okay? Go ahead, make fun of me and how weird it is that a lowly peon like me would dare to want to date the host of Science is Beautiful. I’m sure there’s nothing you can say that will hurt more than her actual rejection.”

If he were the incubator, Jackson would be more worried about the damage Lydia could do with the knowledge of his crush, not the rejection itself. Jackson had witnessed enough of those over the years to know that if ever asked directly, Lydia’s rejection would be swift, brutal, and unambiguous. But if she’s never asked, Lydia has no problem feigning ignorance while she takes shameless advantage. An omega bought her a car once, if Jackson remembers correctly.

“Everyone loves Lydia. It’s not strange. Pathetic, yes. But it’s an involuntary reflex. I don’t blame you.”

“You’re just a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you?” The incubator makes a face, but it melts into a groan when Jackson digs his knuckles into a particularly painful part of his foot. “Damn, you’re so good at that. It almost makes up for your attitude problem.”

“I’m good at everything.”

“Not good at giving your packmate advice on wooing the girl of his dreams. I watched like every episodes of Science is Beautiful and every interview with her I could get my hands on and then she just shows up at the house to take me out to shop for paternityware? Your baby’s lucky I didn’t faint and crush it.”

“You would’ve been a dead man if you did,” Jackson replies matter-of-factly. “Look, Lydia does what she wants. If she wants you, she’ll have you.” Jackson still remembers the day Lydia Martin marched up to him in her short skirt and ridiculously high heels, pointed and said, ‘You; you’ll be my boyfriend,’ tossed her hair and walked away. Jackson trailed after her, not really knowing what else to do, and the rest was history. “If she doesn’t want you, then there’s nothing you can do to persuade her. She knows who you are and as long as you’re carrying my kid, she can’t avoid you. That’s better chances than most omegas get.”

The incubator sits, rubbing his belly and frowning. Jackson can see the baby kick, momentarily stretching bulges in the skin. Jackson wants to touch it, but the only time he’s dared is when Derek grabs his hand and presses it there, completely ignoring the incubator’s look of disgust.

“So what kind of flowers does she like?” the incubator asks, proving that he wasn’t actually listening to a word of Jackson’s advice. “Or do you think I should go bigger? A TV? No, she probably already has one of those. What about a car?”

Jackson stands, knocking the incubator’s feet out of his lap. “You can tell Derek that I tried. Now do you need help off the couch or can you occupy yourself with your fruitless romantic plans until I get back from the store?”

The incubator holds up his phone in response.

Jackson is more that a little shocked to find Lydia sitting on the couch when he returns, wearing the glasses she denies she even owns to everyone but Jackson and arguing with the incubator about a particular translation of archaic Latin. She raises a perfectly sculpted eyebrow at Jackson in order to shut him up.

Maybe the incubator has better chances than Jackson gave him credit for.

Jackson storms off into the garden, staring at the patch of water hyacinths he had planted for Lydia when he and Derek moved in here.

Fuck the stupid incubator. He ruins everything.

***

Jackson is actually okay with the hunter. He doesn’t see her that often, out of respect for Derek, but when he does, he appreciates her. Unlike the two omegas, she isn’t pushy. She knows she was a hard sell for any pack to take, so she’s careful not to intrude, to just smile and let things go. But she also refuses to be a wallflower or to accept any blame for what her family has done. She attends pack strategy meetings and has already provided invaluable information about little things the pack can do to stay off the radar of hunters.

Allison Argent will be an asset. It’s her omega that Jackson can’t stand.

Scott Argent is a megaist. He goes to protests about reproductive rights and volunteers at a handful of omega work equality groups, including a daycare cooperative for Latino omegas that leaves him smelling like far too many non-pack children, before the incubator brewed him some special scent-cancelling soap.

Scott is always sticking his stupid, morally-superior nose where it doesn’t belong and now is no exception.

“I know that you’re jealous, but Stiles doesn’t want your stupid mate anyway. He’s pregnant with your kid. You need to at least be cordial,” Scott says.

“I don’t need to do anything. He’s performing a service that he’s been compensated for.”

“He’s part of this pack! The alpha has accepted him and your husband is fine with him. Just admit it: you’re insecure and you’re taking it out on Stiles. I won’t blame you, dude. It’s tough to not be able to--”

“Shut up!” Jackson roars, shoving Scott back against the wall until he hears the satisfying snap of a rib or two.

“You know Derek loves you, dude,” Scott whimpers. Scott doesn’t know that. There’s no way for him to know. Derek and Jackson just use each other. They like each other and they need each other. They have from the start. It sounds like love, but it isn’t. At least it’s not that desperate, head over heels, I would die for you kind of love - the kind that other people have.

“You have to see that you’re tearing this pack apart,” Scott continues. “If you can’t control yourself, you’ll end up a lone wolf.”

“That’s for the alpha to decide.”

“And the only reason she isn’t here talking to you is that Stiles hasn’t said anything to her. He’s trying to give you time, but once he gives up on you, that’s it. Stiles is my best friend in the whole world, but even I wouldn’t push him too far. He’s powerful and he’ll do anything to protect the people he loves.”

“I don’t care,” Jackson snarls, letting Scott go. “Just stay out of my way, Argent. Then the walking womb won’t have to protect you.”

“It’s Argent-McCall. And it’s not me you have to worry he’ll protect. It’s Derek. He saved all three of us and Stiles really cares about him.”

“My husband is fine. He’s dealing with your wife and he and I are great.” Even Jackson notices the shudder in his heartbeat on the last word. “You can tell that whore to leave Derek alone, because he might be willing to indulge a annoying, infantile, geek in order to protect his child, but look at me. I’m gorgeous and smart and successful and the alpha’s second. He can’t compete with this.”

Scott sighs and Jackson has to turn away to avoid the scorching pity in his eyes. “Jackson, Stiles isn’t trying to--”

“Just tell him.”

***

If Jackson thought Derek Hale looked perfect in a football jersey or in the over-the-top leather jackets he favors, then he’d obviously underestimated the sheer panty-melting power of Derek in a tuxedo. Jackson’s own suit is immaculate, of course, but as an omega, it’s cut to emphasize his narrow waist and lithe figure and not Derek’s amazingly broad shoulders and to subtly point to the package Jackson has become a little obsessed with, if he’s honest with himself.

“Thanks for doing this,” Derek says, opening the Camaro door for Jackson in a way that feels almost like an insult. “I wasn’t joking when I said that Laura would rip my throat out if I messed this port security deal up.”

“Of course not. You never joke,” Jackson replies. Derek almost looks saddened by that statement, but then again, Jackson imagines it can’t be great to be reminded of all the reasons you have not to laugh if you have as many reasons not to laugh as Derek does.

Derek shrugs. “Do you want me to owe you one or not?”

“Can you owe me a good tight knotting with that monster cock of yours, because that’s the only thing I can’t buy for myself.”

“I thought a self-proclaimed irresistible omega like you could find someone to give that to you for free.”

Jackson hates that the insult just makes him more attracted to Derek. “I want yours.”

“Then this can be a lesson in how not everyone gets what they want.” The glassy gleam in his eyes is a far cry from the flirty banter Jackson was shooting for.

“You mean everyone who is not me? Now, take my arm like a proper alpha and let me charm the Hale Conglomerate into another big city contract.” Even if Jackson weren’t desperately in lust with Derek, he’d still give his firstborn for the networking opportunity of a small dinner party with the Mayor of San Francisco and his key staff. Still, it’s good to let Derek keep thinking that it’s Jackson who’s doing him the favor and not the other way around.

Jackson has seen plenty of pictures of Laura Hale on the internet, but it’s nothing compared to seeing her in person. Unlike Derek, who is imposing, but only because he looks like 6 feet and 200 lbs of loose cannon, Laura gives the immediate impression that she could cut out a precise slice from your brain and read it like a map.

Her gaze immediately zeroes in on Jackson and she brushes off the city comptroller in order to stomp over to them in a flowy blood-red dress that just manages to hang onto tastefulness by a thread. “So you’re the one who’s finally managed to pin my brother down.”

Jackson is more than a little afraid of that alpha werewolf stare, but then Derek squeezes his hand in an unexpected act of solidarity. Jackson is so shocked that he doesn’t even manage to flinch when Laura learns forward to take a deep sniff of him at the neck.

“Well, at least you’re heat pure,” she mentions casually. Jackson fights the urge to cover himself. He knew that alpha alpha wolves could smell whether or not an omega had been knotted during heat, but he had no idea that one would be bold enough to bring it up in public and in front of a potential mate.

Derek’s eyes widen comically and Jackson thinks he spots a hint of teeth pushing against his cheek. Derek is probably just kicking himself for not tapping Jackson’s semi-virgin ass when he had the chance.

“But I’m sure I won’t stay that way for long,” Jackson replies, leaning closer in to Derek and winking. It’s completely lost on Derek and his wooden stoicism.

“Ew!” Her nose wrinkles. “I don’t need to know that about my baby brother.”

“Then you should probably avoid discussing the sexual history of people you’ve just met. It’s rude.”

Laura stares at Jackson for a long moment before laughing and grabbing him for an embrace and a nuzzle more intimate than anything that Derek has ever given him. “I like this one,” she says, winking and leaving with a light swat to Jackson’s butt.

When Jackson turns his attention back to Derek, the alpha is still scowling. “What now? If you want to make nice with these people, you have to suck it up and smile, even if it’s just dressing up your usual grimace.”

“You went into a house full of unmated alphas while pheromone loading when you haven’t even been properly popped.”

Jackson shrugs. “I had fun.”

“Do you want to get hurt?” Derek is dumb enough to look devastated by something that didn’t even happen.

“I knew what I was doing. College is for doing things you won’t be bold enough for later in life.”

“Anyone could have knotted you!” Derek roars. Jackson has to steer him back towards the bar in order to pass off his outburst as a desire for drinks.

“Yeah and I ended up getting dropped off by the one alpha that wouldn’t!” Jackson snaps. “I can’t believe that you’re fucked up enough to have your protective instincts kick in now instead of when I actually needed them.”

“Jackson, you shouldn’t feel pressured into anything. You should wait for someone you really--”

“No. I’m not waiting for true love. It doesn’t exist. I’m waiting for biggest, baddest, most well corded alpha to split me open, because I only want the best. I thought I wanted you, but forget it if you’re going to act like some knotless cunt who can’t get that I’m good with sex. I’m excellent, according to every alpha I’ve ever fucked or sucked. So what if I haven’t done it during heat? You missed your chance and when I have my next heat in six weeks, I’ll get that hole punched without you!”

Derek looks pained, but he doesn’t say anything. He just nods and leads Jackson over to talk to the Deputy Mayor.

“Ah, Mr. Hale,” Deputy Mayor Healy says. “It’s good to finally meet you. And who is this fine young omega?”

“Jackson Whittemore,” Jackson replies. Healy’s handshake is firm, but it lingers a little too long for Jackson’s liking.

“Enchanted.”

“Likewise.” Derek stiffens next to him, but Jackson ignores him. He’s not above using his sexuality to get what he wants and what he wants right now is to find out this man’s disposition towards Derek’s company. “The alpha has told me about you,” he gambles. “She says you’re sly. Not to be trusted.”

Derek’s eyes bulge at the subtle accusation in the comment, but the mayor throws his head back and laughs. He’s the kind of man who likes to be seen as tricky, manipulative, in control and out for himself.

“I’d say that I’d like to trust you, but who trusts anybody in business?”

“Too true, sweetie,” the man says, squeezing Jackson’s arm. Derek’s eyes flash and Jackson has to elbow him in the ribs to get him to calm down.

“I’d rather have assurances. The kind where I know a man would have his own skin on the line if he reneges on a deal.”

“You mean like our port security contract with the Hale Conglomerate?”

Jackson has no idea about any of the company’s business, but he’ll take it. “Among other things. As I’m sure you know, werewolves are very emotional creatures. They’re loyal, but they don’t take betrayal particularly well.”

“Well, look at you. For a pack human, you sure have some teeth on you, threatening a city official.” Jackson isn’t expecting such a vehement response. For a second he wonders if he really did overstep, but his instincts are telling him that there’s blood in the water - this man is guilty of something and covering.

“He’s not--” Derek starts, but Jackson just smiles.

“I’m afraid we have a misunderstanding. There’s no threatening going on here, just a gentle suggestion that you try honesty. They can hear a lie, so whatever mess you’ve gotten yourself into, I suggest you come clean.”

Healy sighs. “We may have received a last minute counter offer. I told your alpha that the contract was hers and it was, but the bid is almost exactly 5% lower, so it’ll trigger mandatory oversight if we don’t pick it. And two of the other members of our budgeting committee seem set on it. They’ve sweetened the pot for me, personally and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just vote with the rest rather than risk having it come out that I refused a better deal in favor of your firm. This may be San Francisco, but there are still those who would rather see things in the hands of humans over werewolves, especially if it’s cheaper.”

The whole thing reeks of dirty politics, but Jackson isn’t deterred. He’d seen countless similar deals go on when his dad had been the DA in Beacon Hills. Public corruption is the way of the world and at least the deputy mayor seems to be a loyal despot. He wonders what Laura is giving him to ‘sweeten the pot.’ “Who is the competing company?” Jackson asks.

“As a matter of record, they’re calling themselves Silver Shield Security Services, but they’re actually--”

“The security division of Argent Arms International,” Derek fills in.

Jackson’s almost gasps. They’re talking about Gerard Argent’s Company. The Company that no doubt paid for Kate Argent to burn the Hale estate down with Derek’s family inside. Derek’s eyes are a glittering blue and his teeth are protruding. Jackson hears a gasp from the waiter that had been approaching them, but nobody else at the party has yet noticed that Derek is fully wolfed out yet. Jackson does the first thing he can think of and grabs Derek by the cheeks, shoving his face down into Jackson’s armpit where his scent is the strongest. Jackson put on a lot of cologne that should hopefully enhance his omega scent, which supposedly is soothing. He hopes it’s soothing enough.

Derek is taking great gasping breaths and he’s shaking, but when Jackson reaches for his hands, there are no claws out. He feels that he’s diffused the situation enough to make the deputy mayor see exactly what the problem is here.

“Argent Arms International is the company of a well known werewolf hunting family. They’ve gotten themselves off the FBI watchlist, but Gerard Argent’s daughter, Kate, murdered Derek and Laura’s family. You’re looking at a world of trouble from any wolves you have dealings with if you pick hunters over one of the most well-known packs on the West Coast. Protest the decision and let the mandatory audit trigger and you’ll be a hero in our community. And it’s a community that pays well.”

The deputy mayor is left gaping, but Jackson just smirks at him until he backs away and Jackson can pull Derek out of the crowded ballroom and onto a nearby balcony. Derek is hunched in on himself, and he resists Jackson pulling his hands away from where they’re shielding his face.

“Hey, it’s okay. They’re not going to get away with it. You’re fine.” Jackson has never been good at the comforting thing. Sometimes he wonders where all those supposedly nurturing omega instincts went, because his first instinct when he sees someone hurting is to run away somewhere their toxic tears won’t contaminate him.

Derek nods, but his eyes are still lowered submissively. Jackson has always been fascinated by werewolves, so he’s read up; Derek’s posture isn’t a mate-submission, it’s surrendering to pack, even though Jackson is far from it.

Jackson pats Derek on the shoulder awkwardly, gulping down all the useless words he should probably say but won’t.

“It never stops,” Derek whispers. That’s true in a lot of ways. For Derek, it probably will never stop. There will always be prejudice and there will always be reminders of the things Derek has lost. Derek sucks in a wet breath, wiping at his face with the sleeve of an Armani tux. “It won’t ever stop.”

Jackson is still frozen, because what is there to say to that? He curses himself and his uselessness, ending up staying there until Laura bursts out onto the balcony doors, her pale cheeks flushed and her eyes flashing red.

“What the hell, Derek? Mindy says you wolfed out. What were you thinking?” Laura’s steps slow as she approaches them, undoubtedly smelling the sticky, cloying scent of Derek’s panic. “Derek?” her voice wavers. “Der, what happened?”

“We were talking to the deputy mayor,” Jackson fills in. “They were thinking of hiring an Argent Arms subsidiary over your company.”

“The hell they were,” Laura growls, but she’s already manhandling Derek so that he’s finally looking at her. “Do you have control?” she demands.

He nods.

“Good, because I need to give Mr. Healy a piece of my mind. If not a glimpse of my teeth.”

“Jackson already did,” Derek says, smiling minutely in Jackson’s direction while staying pinned by his alpha.

“It’s going to be a great scandal.” Jackson smirks back.

Laura looks between them and snorts. “Great. And I’ll bet he helped stop you from ripping Healy’s throat out too?” Derek nods. “This one’s a keeper, Der.”

“Yeah. He is,” Derek stutters out, but he’s full on smiling at Jackson now.

Jackson just wishes he could have actually done something to deserve being kept.

“Still, I’m sure there’s damage control to be done. You,” she points at Derek, “stay here until you feel 100% and then take a cab over to the penthouse and show your omega how much you appreciate him. And you,” she points to Jackson, “are going to be my new intern. Have Derek email your schedule to my PA.”

Jackson agrees that the trek back to Palo Alto is probably too much for Derek right now, so they take Laura up on the offer of the guestroom at her penthouse. In the end, all Derek wants to do is cuddle up with his nose pressed into Jackson’s neck, not show him how much he’s appreciated.

After Derek’s breaths have leveled off into an adorable snore, Jackson whispers to himself, “He’s never going to fuck me, is he?”

***

 

“Jackson, what a surprise,” Laura says, poorly feigning shock when it’s clear she’s been listening the rhythm of his footfalls since he left the lobby. “I thought you were off today, but I take it that you’re actually my two o’clock,” Laura says, raising an eyebrow in a broody, enticing fashion that Jackson swears the Hales have trademarked. Jackson does genuinely like Laura: she’s direct, no-nonsense, but still never takes herself too seriously.

“I am.” Jackson forces his fists to unclench and wiggles a little in his chair to loosen his spine. “I’m here to formally ask you for your inclination towards giving me the bite.”

Of all the possible responses, Jackson didn’t anticipate Laura snorting and rolling her eyes at him. He doesn’t let her dismissiveness stop him, however. Jackson always goes for what he wants and gets it. He’d been practicing this speech in the car every day on the way to work for the past week, so he continues, “I’ve been a good asset to you and the company for years now, between the Marcus Project, administrative tasks, and helping Cooper manage the Feinstein Account. I’m confident that all my employee evaluations are positive and that I get along similarly well with the pack.” Most of the high level employees are pack members and Jackson is a regular fixture at the moonlight pack runs, even when Derek is out of town. “I know that I’m relatively young, but I consent to the bite. I want to be stronger, faster, and better, but I also want to be a full member of what you’ve built here. I’ve already filled out the necessary contracts and consent forms. I can forward them to legal once I have your signature.”

Laura is outright laughing now, turning a little red with the effort of tuning it down. “Jackson, the last thing you need is my formal intent. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve been an informal pack member since your second summer here. If you were an ordinary employee I would’ve begged you to take the bite ages ago and HR already has a package ready for when you want to work full time. That’s what I thought this meeting was about. Should I write my salary offer on a scrap of paper for you like they do in the movies? Would that make it more exciting?”

“But--”

“Jackson, this isn’t about you and me. I’d accept you even if your business acumen was limited to being able to operate the shredder, so long as I had Derek’s say-so. He’s had enough hardship for a lifetime. He deserves to be happy.” Jackson doesn’t point out that Derek’s hardship is exactly the same as Laura’s, that she should give herself the same break. “I want you in my pack, but if things don’t work between you and Derek, I’d have to side with him and kick you out to be a lone wolf. Lone wolves don’t survive very long. I’m not putting you in that position. He has to be sure before we do it. I won’t go over his head. You have a place here as a non-pack employee until he pops the question. Don’t worry about it.”

Don’t worry about it? That’s easier said than done.

“Oh, Jackson, honey, don’t get your panties in a twist,” Laura implores. “Derek loves you and he wants to make you his mate. He just has a lot of issues. He’ll get there, just give him time. For now, you have my promise that I’ll give you the bite as soon as Derek asks.”

The problem is: Jackson doesn’t want to wait. In a rage, he races to the apartment he’s been sharing with Derek for the past two years. It’s raining hard enough to drown out the angry tears. Jackson knows it’s stupid to be angry. Derek hasn’t rejected him. To the contrary, their relationship is going strong.

“I want the bite,” Jackson says the moment he’s through the door.

Derek immediately spills the pot of boiling hot pasta sauce he’d been carrying off the stove. “Jackson!” he roars.

Scalding hot sauce must burn, but Derek will heal. Jackson just stands there impatiently while his boyfriend strips out of his clothes and wipes at himself with a paper towel.

“What?” Derek demands, scowling.

“I want the bite.”

“That’s for the alpha to decide, not me,” Derek snaps. Jackson realizes belatedly that making his boyfriend burn himself with their dinner probably wasn’t the best way to start this conversation and that standing in the kitchen half naked certainly won’t make Derek feel more comfortable about having it.

“She says it’s up to you. If I were just her employee she would have already bitten me. She just doesn’t want me to end up a lone wolf if you and I break up.”

“We’re not going to break up,” Derek says, fiercely. “Unless, you want to--” Jackson has always marveled at how Derek can go from tough, immovable alpha to this mess of insecurity in the blink of an eye. Jackson doesn’t like it. He hates seeing his alpha anything less than confident, but Derek lost practically his entire family. It’s not entirely surprising.

“Would I be asking for the bite if I had any intention of breaking up with you?” Jackson shouts back, because he’s not an idiot and Derek should trust Jackson’s spoiled upbringing enough to know that Jackson rarely has any trouble knowing what he wants.

“You and Laura are close. She says she couldn’t do her job without you and there are things you can’t do for her unless you’re pack. If you want to be part of our pack, you don’t have to worry about being a lone wolf if you break up with me. You could still stay.”

Jackson rolls his eyes, because as sweet as this consideration for Jackson’s worklife is, Derek is completely missing the point, as usual. “I don’t want to break up with you. I actually like being with you. I want to be your mate, have your pups, work with Laura, and be a member of your pack. You’re the one who’s holding out on me. If you don’t want those things with me, then you’d fucking better let me go, because I refuse to let you waste my time if you’re not going to give them to me.”

“Have my pups?” Derek’s eyes are blown wide, though they stay their natural green. He moves closer, prowling.

Jackson whacks him on the back of the head like a misbehaving dog. “Put those alpha instincts away, asshole. We’re having a serious relationship talk. And, yes, I want to have your pups. Hasn’t that always been the plan?” It has been for Jackson at least: graduate high school top of his class, go to a good college, meet a nice, wealthy alpha, graduate with enough accolades so he can work if he wants to, get married, get pregnant, pay someone to watch his kids and ride off into the sunset with his gorgeous spouse. It’s the plan that all omegas should have and Jackson imagines that alphas have something similar, especially considering the kinds of things that come out of Derek’s mouth when they’re having sex.

Derek nods, but very slowly, like his brain is still too stuffed full of the idea of knocking Jackson up to process even that small physical act. “I hoped that maybe, one day--”

“Not one day, Derek. We’ve been together three and a half years. We live together. I’m practically already your alpha’s second. I don’t need to get pregnant right away, but I’m graduated. It’s time to make a decision to move forward or go our separate ways.”

Then all of a sudden Derek is clutching Jackson tight to his broad chest , like Jackson might somehow slip away. Jackson feels claws at his back, but he doesn’t bother to lecture Derek about puncturing another of his CK shirts. He’s trembling. “I’m not letting you go.”

“Good, because I had no intention of going.”

Derek nuzzles at Jackson’s neck for a moment, making Jackson idly wonder if he’ll develop these same weird habits once he’s a wolf too. “Does this mean we’re getting married? Are you proposing?”

“Omegas don’t propose, you dickhead. You’ll ask me and it’ll be romantic and public and everyone will envy me for the amazing alpha I managed to bag. And we’re definitely getting married in the most elegant, extravagant way imaginable, with as many guests and as many flowers as I want. But I know that for werewolves, it’s really getting the bite that matters.”

Derek nods, gripping Jackson’s face between his hands and dragging him in for a deep, soulful kiss. The kiss quickly deteriorates into Derek pushing Jackson back toward the bedroom, his hands on Jackson’s waist possessive and almost bruising.

“Hey,” Jackson protests. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Derek looks completely bewildered. He looks young that way.

“Ask.”

“Jackson,” Derek stutters. His hands shake, even as he pulls Jackson closer, cupping his cheek and leaning their foreheads together. “Will you take the bite from my alpha and become part of my pack as my mate?”

“Yes,” Jackson replies, feeling justified in being breathless for once.

***

Jackson is wet, so wet. They’ve had sex during heat plenty of times by now, but knowing that he’s off his pills just makes it that much more intense. He feels like he’s drowning in slick and he’s content to rub it all over the sheets and their bed. His wolf is prowling near the surface and he just barely stops himself from rubbing the scent of his fertility all over everything they own, especially the things that Derek might take out with him into the world full of other omegas who might want to steal Derek away from Jackson.

It’s mere seconds between when Jackson hears the front door shut and Derek slamming down on top of him, breathing harshly in his ear as he sucks and nips at Jackson’s neck near his mating mark. “Smell good,” he pants.

“I smell fertile,” Jackson corrects, which has Derek growling ferally and flipping Jackson over so he can nip down his spine to his gushing hole.

“I’m going to knot you.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I’m going to knot you so good.”

Jackson nods, burying his face in the sheets to hide the ugly look of pure vulnerability he knows is there. He’s a strong omega, most of the time, one of the few omegas to serve as second in the US packs, but here he feels like nothing more that a writhing, weak mess of need and instinct. It should feel like a relief to let go, but there’s a part of Jackson that still wants to hide. There’s a part that refuses to beg like he wants to. “Do it, then!” he snaps at Derek. “Stop talking about it and show me how well you’re going to fucking knot me!”

The spank barely registers before Derek has Jackson’s face shoved further into the mattress and his hole spasming around Derek’s cock. He hates needing his mate so much, even as he craves it.

“Like that, omega?”

“Harder,” Jackson moans, because even in heat, Derek always holds onto his control like a twisted victory. He always wants to fuck Jackson slow and deep, which feels good, but makes Jackson feel self conscious. When it’s slow, each moan and whimper is drawn out, impregnated with meaning that Jackson can’t stand. He’s a wolf - he can fuck until he’s bloody, so he’ll be damned if Derek isn’t fucking him hard enough that his breathy little noises can’t even be heard over the slap of flesh hitting flesh.

Derek fucks him harder, obligingly. “Gonna make it so good for you,” he mumbles. “I’m going to stuff you full of pups.” He caresses Jackson’s belly. “You’re going to be a good omega for me, get fat with my babies.”

“So fat,” Jackson agrees, because as much as he’s horrified by the idea of losing his figure and waddling around like a helpless, awkward tumor, he does want to be a good omega for his mate. He wants to give Derek children. It’s what he’s made for.

“You’ll be beautiful.”

“I am beautiful, you dickwad. Now are you going to keep up with the bad porno dialogue or are you gonna fuck me like you mean it?”

Before he knows it, Jackson is being lifted up so that they’re both kneeling, with Derek’s dick thrusting up into him. Derek’s claws dig into Jackson’s stomach, right where he’ll carry their pup in a matter of months and he bites down hard enough to draw blood at the back of Jackson’s neck.

“Don’t provoke me, omega,” Derek snarls as he spears Jackson down on him. Jackson is so slick that it doesn’t even hurt.

He pulls Derek’s hands down to this hips and encourages him to lift Jackson up and down in counterpoint to his thrusts. “If you knot me hard enough to put a baby in me, then I won’t need to provoke you.”

Derek lets out a feral scream as that knot rips through him from barely a bulge to fully locked. Jackson comes helplessly and unexpectedly alongside him.

After Derek lays them down on their sides, panting from their orgasms and briefly stated, Jackson entwines their hands. Maybe he’d like to kiss his husband, but he’s too tired. Making a baby is strenuous business.

***

“Tell me about Boyd,” Jackson says to Derek. They’re sacked out on the lounge couch with all the materials for their big stats midterm spread out around them. Jackson isn’t worried. Practically the whole class is a review of AP Stats for him and the parts that aren’t, he learns in the process of going over them with Derek. Derek isn’t stupid, but he isn’t really suited to math, or really any kind of problem-solving, actually. He can read a novel once and pick out the exact perfect paragraphs to illustrate a theme, but the second he sees an x, he gets a look like the sky is falling.

“Boyd is Boyd,” Derek grunts, not even looking up from his textbook. Jackson never fails to get turned on by the way his brow furrows in concentration, but refuses to be ignored for even a second. He kicks at Derek with the foot he’d been warming under Derek’s thigh.

“He’s a big guy,” Jackson prompts, because even though he’d rather have Derek, Jackson isn’t one of those stupid lovesick omegas who doesn’t even take advantage of the ability to window shop. He thought that maybe after the dinner two weeks ago, Derek might realize how much more Jackson could be for him, but apparently exposing a corruption scandal and letting Derek use his scent to calm down weren’t enough. They were back to this agonizing “friends” routine soon afterwards.

If Derek didn’t want him, fine, but Jackson wasn’t going to just wait around for Derek like a fish on a hook. Either Derek claimed him or Jackson would move on to one of the many people lusting after his fine ass.

“He’s a linebacker,” Derek says about Boyd. “Being a big guy’s pretty much the point.”

“He’s part of your pack, right?”

“Laura’s a young alpha, so we started a scholarship for potential packmates in order to recruit reliable betas. Young, bitten, and indebted are known to be the most instinctually loyal. Boyd was one of the top candidates.”

“So he’s trustworthy?”

“I’d trust him with my life,” Derek says casually, finishing hammering something into his calculator, before tossing his book down on the table in frustration. “How in the hell did you get 1.25?”

Jackson ignores the question. “So Boyd would be trustworthy. He’d treat an omega well during heat?”

“Of course. It’s part of our pack credo that--” Derek trails off, eyes going wide.

Jackson can’t help but smirk just a little. If he can’t have Derek, then he’ll make it painful for Derek not to have him. He’ll get up in Derek’s stupidly attractive face and show him exactly what he’s missing out on.

“You want Boyd to help you through your heat.”

Jackson nods.

“Why?” Derek sounds so lost it’s adorable.

“Because I want to. Look, it’s the 21st century. I don’t have to be married and knocked up by fourteen. I’m allowed to enjoy my heat and I’m allowed to spend it with whomever I want, no strings attached.”

Derek’s eyes flash an electric blue for a minute and then Jackson is pressed back against the hard back of the lounge couch. The scent of Derek’s anger and arousal assaults him. Derek is shaking with it.

“I’m a free man,” Jackson goads. “If you’re not going to share it with me, than I can ask whomever I want.”

“Boyd won’t,” Derek replies like a vow.

“Then I’ll find someone else who will. There’s a whole campus full of attractive, smart, unattached young alphas to pop my cherry. I asked you first, but I’m not going to beg.”

“Jackson--” Derek whimpers, hands hovering over Jackson like he can’t wait to just pull him up against him and claim. Derek looks like it’s actually causing him physical pain to restrain himself.

“Don’t be a coward, Derek. If you don’t want me to share my heat with someone else, you have to ask.”

“Share it with me,” Derek begs. “Please, Jackson, share your heat with me.”

Even though this is what Jackson had wanted more than anything, he hesitates. He’s been trained all his life to crave the dark, possessive look in Derek’s eyes. Omegas are for coveting and alphas can’t help themselves. Omegas must accept that they are just objects of desire in the eyes of an alpha and to be a proper omega, one who deserves to be pampered, they must submit. But something chafes. Jackson is more than an easily forgotten toy, only to be played with when another child wants it. He and Derek are friends of sorts. “You already had your chance, alpha,” he sneers. Because Derek rejected him and Jackson didn’t like that feeling.

“I know. I’m sorry. But I wasn’t going to take advantage of you when you were already in heat. I haven’t--”

“Such a gentleman.” Jackson rolls his eyes. “But you know, nice guys finish last.”

“They don’t have to.” Derek is staring at Jackson’s mouth like it might provide the answers to all the great questions of life.

Jackson still wants to protest, make Derek suffer the rejection just as Jackson himself had suffered it, but Derek’s soulful eyes and his broad alpha shoulders and the grace in his every movement pull at something deep within. Normally, sex is about status and manipulation and power. Jackson has it because it fits with who he wants to be.

But he suddenly just wants, purely, overwhelmingly.

Jackson has pulled Derek on top of him before he realizes that was his intention. Derek feels hot and heavy, bracketed by his thighs. Jackson initiates the kiss, too, though Derek looks so lust-addled that Jackson is sure that he would have done it himself if he’d been able to get over the shock faster. The kiss is slow but deep. Derek is falling into him; forehead, then lips, then his hipbones slot perfectly down into Jackson, making his muscles burn with the perfect stretch. Jackson bites at Derek’s lower lip, holding on when Derek finally pulls back from the kiss.

“Not just during heat?” Derek begs, petting at Jackson’s hair.

“Not just during heat,” Jackson agrees.

He doesn’t even care that Sandra from down the hall ends up walking in on them in the middle of their first time together. Jackson’s won. He finally has Derek Hale in his arms, in his life, and buried deep inside, pumping him full of seed.

It only gets embarrassing when Derek has an out-of-heat knotting (not as uncommon for werewolves as for humans, but impressive all-the-same). But as strange as it is, Jackson doesn’t feel bad about making the floor move their planned movie night into Beeker’s room. A few of his hallmates grumble, but Derek brings cookies and Bourbon to the next one, so they’re eventually forgiven.

***

“It’s probably fine,” Jackson asserts, even though his inner thoughts are a whirlwind of what will happen if he doesn’t finish school, what if Derek won’t mate him, what if Derek wants him to get an abortion. “The odds of getting pregnant outside of heat are two in a hundred, half that for two males, and another half of that when one is a werewolf and the other is a human.” Jackson had looked it up on the internet while Derek was buying the pregnancy test. “That’s half a percent.”

Derek Hale is probably not the person to talk to about the odds of unlikely catastrophe. He growls, “just take the test.”

Jackson would normally snap back at anyone commanding him in that tone, but he does as Derek says and pisses on the stupid stick. They both know the score on this one. There’s no point adding more frustration to the mix.

The two minutes they have to wait is agony. The part of Jackson that already thinks of Derek as his alpha wants to cuddle close, but he refuses to look clingy or weak. He’s a modern, independent omega. He’s the kind of omega you take to business functions, who has a career all his own even if he doesn’t need the money, who enjoys sex and doesn’t take shit from anybody. He doesn’t need Derek. What he needs is for Derek to need him more than Jackson needs Derek back.

It’s Derek who breaks first. “If it’s positive and you want to keep it, we’ll get married. I’ll support you, Jackson, whatever you decide to do.”

Jackson shakes his head. He just keeps shaking it. He’d convinced himself not that long ago that getting knocked up by Derek would be a quick ticket into the life that Jackson has grown to expect he’d have - rich, powerful alpha from a prominent family, one who will give Jackson strong children and let him keep his independence. But that’s not what he really wants. He wants someone who will love him, because he’s perfect. He’s not a mistake. He’s not a faceless castoff whose parents weren’t even allowed to stick around long enough on this earth in order to love him.

“We can make it work,” Derek argues. “I’ll be good to you, Jackson. I can be so good to you. You’ll have everything you could ever want and the pack will take care of you and the pup. We’re a good team. You’ve helped me in stats and I’ve helped you in English. We complement each other. We like spending time together. At least, I like spending time with you. I really like having sex with you. You said it yourself: what’s the point in waiting for true love?”

Jackson nods, letting himself think that maybe it will work. Maybe he’s found someone just as damaged and emotionally constipated as he is - someone who will never need to see beneath the mask to the blank nothingness beneath.

The test is negative, but they spend Jackson’s next heat together anyway. Derek is right: who needs true love when they just work?

***

It shouldn’t be the last straw. It shouldn’t even matter, because Jackson and Lydia are over and have been for years. Jackson is with Derek and he’s happy that way, but he just can’t handle seeing the incubator, swollen and ready to pop, leaning over his huge belly in order to lay a sweet kiss on the corner of Lydia’s plump lips.

He’s already usurping Jackson’s duties as mate, demanding Derek’s time and attention, providing more advice to the pack than the supposed second, and now he wants to tread all over Jackson’s romantic history too? Especially after Jackson has dedicated so much to staying friends with Lydia. Unacceptable.

“Lydia,” Jackson snarls.

Lydia turns to him with her put-on kewpie doll expression. “What? Oh, Jackson, you’re home early.”

“I stopped by to check on my offspring. If I had known you had it already well in hand, maybe I could’ve stayed longer.” In truth, Laura had practically kicked him out, saying that he had a baby coming in a month and plenty to take care of; work could wait.

“Well, you’ve checked,” the incubator snaps. “Baby and I are just sitting on the couch. Nothing to see here.”

“No sex in the last two months. It’s bad for the baby.”

The incubator scowls. “Who made you the sex police? There’s absolutely no evidence that a healthy omega can’t have careful sex practically up to delivery. Besides, we were just doing a little macking, right, Lyds? No sex here, you perv.”

Jackson hates the incubator with a force that terrifies him. Why does he get to be this way? Why does he get to be awkward and strange and run off and talk to trees and eat nothing but Twinkies and still get to have Derek’s baby and make out with Lydia when Jackson has watched what he eats his whole life, watched how he acted, worried every day about what message he’s sending, trying so hard to fit in. How come the fucking incubator has the luxury of being so weird and still getting to have it all?

“Get the fuck out,” Jackson snarls.

Lydia stands, offering a hand to help the incubator up off the couch. He waves her away. “Fine,” she huffs. “I’ll go wait in the car.”

“I said, get out,” Jackson repeats, putting his wolf into it this time.

“And go where?” the incubator demands. “I’m nine months pregnant, you giant bag of dicks. I live here because your stubborn, overprotective bastard of a husband insisted. And you know what? I agreed. I agreed because I care about him and I care about your pack and I really care about this baby. I even care about you, believe it or not, even if you’ve been a complete and utter douchebag to me every chance you’ve gotten.”

“You don’t care about me,” Jackson snaps. The incubator doesn’t have the right. He has no right to pity Jackson. It’s Jackson who had the perfect, extravagant wedding with the indulgent, patient husband. It’s Jackson who took the bite and rose to an unprecedented position as a bitten omega in a wolf pack. It’s Jackson who graduated a world class university with honors, who helps run a very successful business and a pack at the same time. It’s Jackson who can wheel and deal with politicians and hard-nosed businessmen and who has given his alpha everything he’s ever asked for. This stupid, rotund, frivolous freak doesn’t have anything. Except he’s carrying Derek’s child and it just isn’t fair, because somehow that’s all that matters.

“Jesus christ,” the incubator spits. “Jackson, what the hell happened to you to make you believe that you’re not worthy of being loved? Seriously, you weren’t abused. You were given everything you wanted as a child and so far as I can tell, you’ve checked every fucking box on the list of life accomplishments you’ve been making since you were ten. You have a great pack and a husband that stays up at night panicking because he can’t make you happy. What the hell else do you want?”

“You don’t understand,” Jackson spits. The incubator just doesn’t get it. He’ll never understand this empty feeling inside, the ugly, unwanted child who gets away with unleashing his ugliness only because he’s useful. But when he’s not, nobody will take him.

“I do understand,” the incubator insists. “I was there in the forest. That’s why you hate me. I saw everything that you thought happened to you and I know all the reasons why you and Derek weren’t ready for this baby and you can’t stand that I do.”

“No.” Jackson shakes his head fruitlessly.

“It’s okay, Jackson. You’re not weak. Nothing is wrong. We’re going to have a baby, just--”

Jackson can’t be there. He can’t, knowing that the incubator saw. Nobody is supposed to see. He turns and runs, out the back porch and shifting before he can blink.

“Goddamnit!” he hears the incubator shout. “Jackson, unfair! You can’t run away when I can’t even get off the fucking couch!”

***

As it turns out, the excessive amount of luggage Stilinski brought with him isn’t books, as Jackson suspected (“C’mon, why risk death by dust mites like it’s the dark ages when I can keep a whole supernatural library on a jumpdrive?”), but rather a suspicious amount of mountain ash, several contraband strains of wolfsbane hidden inside triple-bagged condoms inside a jar of peanut butter, and the ugliest woven rune quilt that Jackson has ever seen.

“I’m an emissary, not a seamstress,” Stilinski quips, shaking out the quilt after pacing around the moonlit clearing with his bag of mountain ash. “I’m gonna go chat with the trees for a second. The two of you just sit here and concentrate on how much you want this, okay?”

Jackson and Derek exchange a look. “Are you planning on ever explaining this ritual or do we just paint by numbers,” Jackson complains.

“Oh. Yeah. I guess I probably should explain it.” Jackson really doubts this kid is the best and brightest, but Laura and Deaton trust him, which means Jackson should too. “Basically, it’s going to be really, really awkward. But you’ll have a baby in the end, so we’re just all going to have to get over it. The two of you are going to have to get your nasty on there on the quilt and I’m going to have to watch. That’s not actually that much of a hardship. I picked a really attractive pack. Go, me.”

Jackson growls and bares his teeth. He’s always been possessive of his mate. With an alpha who looks like Derek, he kind of has to be.

Stilinski ignores him. “So I’m gonna draw some runes on you,” he points to Jackson. “In my blood mixed with a special ‘bane miracle baby elixir. That’s going to let you not shoot blanks for the evening. So Derek fucks you, pulls out right before he comes and ejaculates in this awesome bowl I made.” The bowl is even uglier than the quilt - unsanded and uneven. It’s really only a bowl in the loosest sense of the word. “Then he’s going to make you come in the bowl. I suggest fellatio, but go wild. Then the two of you are going to rub the contents of the thing all over my belly. I’ll draw a few more runes and we all sit our asses on the quilt holding hands and ... do not move until sun comes up. And trust me, you’re going to want to move, but you can’t. We need the forest to help us with this and she’s a little reluctant. I’m a new emissary, you’re not a born wolf, and the alpha doesn’t spend a lot of time on the land. Plus there was the nasty business with some jackass cutting down her favorite tree years ago. Luckily, she likes me and I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, but if we fail this test, um, she’ll probably kill me, so let’s try to not, okay?”

“You could die?” Derek rumbles, crowding close to Stilinski as though he could protect him from the forest all around them. “No. It isn’t worth it. You and Scott and Allison will still be pack, but the deal’s off.”

“Do you think you’ll fail the test?” Stilinski asks, obviously completely confident in Derek’s devotion.

Derek glances at Jackson not very subtly. “No.”

“I want this more than anything!” Jackson protests, but his heart speeds up and he knows his palms are clammy. Does he really want kids? Or does he just want to not be a total failure of an omega?

Derek looks stubborn and Stilinski cautious.

“Jackson, if you have any doubt--” Derek starts.

“I don’t! I’m fine! Don’t you trust me?” The look in Derek’s eyes says otherwise, but he avoids a confrontation as usual, sighing.

“Of course I trust you.”

“Okay, well, I don’t, so, um,” Stilinski pulls out a rope woven through with wolfsbane. “Let’s call this insurance.”

“Isn’t that cheating?” Derek asks.

“For it to be cheating, this would have to be a game,” Stilinski replies, mysteriously. “I asked the trees about it yesterday. They’re cool with it. I bribed them with some homemade organic compost, so they’ll turn a blind eye.”

“Our emissary is an idiot,” Jackson mutters to Derek after Stilinski practically skips off to greet a tall oak tree with a shout of, “Hey, bro, how’s it hanging? Want me to clear that mistletoe infestation up for you?”

“He acts like an idiot,” Derek corrects.

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

“It doesn’t matter how ridiculous he acts if he gets the job done,” Derek counters. “He’s talking to trees, not shareholders. You might want style over substance, but the forest doesn’t care.”

Jackson gulps, feeling gutted. Is that really what Derek thinks of him? Style over substance? Jackson has always worried that Derek married him because Jackson did take care of the style problem. Derek is aggressive, socially awkward, and impatient when it comes to addressing his own flaws; Jackson can smooth all that over for him by being the textbook perfect mate on his arm. When it comes down to it, they don’t really have a lot in common. They have great sex, but that’s about it.

Stiles comes skipping back over to them, a dangerous, manic gleam in his eyes. He’s already stripping out of his flannel shirt and shucking off jeans to reveal Batman boxers underneath. “Okay, who’s ready to get this party started?”

Derek raises his hand, like a giant dork. Jackson is too choked up to call him on it. It’s so soon. He knows they’ve been in this process for a while now. It’s been almost two years since he and Derek first started trying for a baby and six months since they found out Jackson couldn’t conceive. Except now the moment is here and it feels too heavy, a lead weight settling deep in his gut.

It’s just nerves, Jackson tells himself as Stilinski curses a blue streak while cutting his palm with a purloined scalpel. Derek is yanking at Jackson’s clothes, already having stripped naked himself. Jackson is pretty sure this is the first time he’s ever been too distracted to not take a moment to appreciate the marvel that is his husband taking his clothes off.

The ritual feels like it’s taking place underwater. Jackson can barely feel the emissary’s fingers on him. Even Derek’s thick cock stroking into him barely registers. Jackson is fairly certain that Derek is babbling some horribly embarrassing things, judging by the flush in Stilinski’s cheeks and the steady murmur behind him. “...gonna put a baby in you. Gonna fuck you so good. So pretty….”

Jackson raises his eyebrows at Stilinski, who shrugs. “Not literally. Obviously, he’s not fucking anything into you right now, but it’s all part of the ritual. Don’t worry.” Stilinski is getting hard, which is not as awkward as Jackson imagined it to be. He’d probably be more offended if Stilinski wasn’t turned on by the sight of Derek pulling Jackson into his lap and slamming into him for all he’s worth. Jackson knows they make an attractive pair.

Stilinski ignores his own bobbing erection in order to hand Jackson the bowl. Jackson knows Derek is getting close and judging by the low, inhuman growl, he’s not going to be able to stop himself. He bites down on Jackson’s shoulder, actually tearing out flesh when Jackson muscles him off in order to collect his cum in the bowl. Derek whimpers and whines, then collapses back on the quilt.

Jackson looks at Stilinski, who pokes Derek awkwardly on one of his pecs. “Hey, Mr. Bigstuff, your job’s not done.”

When Derek continues to lie there, panting, Stilinski prods him again. “I know this is such a monumental hardship, but you have to jerk your pretty little omega off now or we’re not going to finish the dough in time to put a bun in my oven. Are you with me?”

Derek whines, but pushes himself up, grabbing Jackson’s cock inelegantly. Jackson turns away from Stilinski, knowing that there’s no way he’s going to be able to do his part with that odd, turned-on face staring at him.

Derek cups Jackson’s cheek. “It’s just us. Baby, it’s just us.”

Jackson nods, rocking down into Derek’s palm, kissing him like it’s the night of their mating ceremony all over again, running through these very woods and making love beneath the full moon. Derek has always been a fantastic lover and it’s only gotten better over the years. He knows every twitch, every small patch of sensitive skin, ever moan, and he uses them all shamelessly to his advantage. Tonight is no exception and before Jackon knows it, Stilinski’s long fingers are thrusting his crudely-made bowl under Jackson as he comes and comes and comes.

“And the omega wins the jizz contest,” Stilinski comments with a snort. “Don’t look at me like that, you sour wolf, it’s the spell, not some problem with your alphahood. Jeez.”

The mixture in the bowl has congealed on its own. It glows an eerie, luminescent red, counteracting the blue of the moonlight. Derek sticks a hand in first, reaching out tentatively to touch the emissary's belly. Jackson just stares down at it dumbly.

“It’s a wonder you two fools can find your own tails in the dark. Rub it in, not smear it all over me!”

The mixture glows as it settles into Stilinski’s skin. Once it’s all used up, Stilinski stands and draws a tight circle around the quilt with a small bag of mountain ash that Jackson hadn’t even noticed. He uses what remains to draw two runic figures that Jackson has never seen onto his belly. He’s about to ask, when Stiles holds his finger to his lips to command silence.

He arranges them so that they are sitting crosslegged in the center of the quilt, leaning against each other’s backs, their hands interlaced in their laps. He made Derek tie Jackson’s hand to his own with the wolfsbane rope. It itches and burns on Jackson’s wrist and Derek has welts forming on his fingertips, but if this is the extra insurance they need, Jackson is willing to deal with it. It’s a lot less painful than pregnancy, he assumes.

Once that’s done, Stilinski fidgets and Derek is solid and tense as a rock. Jackson is somewhere in between. Once everyone is settled, Stilinski speaks, “So, forrest. I know I’m asking a big favor, here. I’ve brought you tribute and used your energy to forge an elixir of three genomes. My body is ready. I’m asking you: lend us your energy so that we may create life. Okay?”

The forest doesn’t say anything that Jackson can hear, but Stilinski seems satisfied. “So the ritual part is over. I know the words aren’t very impressive or anything. I’m not the best with the Gaelic and natural spirits don’t understand words so much as the intent behind them. What happens next will test that intention, so, um, seriously, don’t let go. No matter what happens. No matter what you see or what you might even think I say, do not let go. Nothing supernatural is getting past that mountain ash barrier, so just try to stay calm, okay?”

At first, nothing happens. Jackson is frankly, bored. He’s about to say something, when he looks to his left and instead of Stilinski’s wide eyes and goofy smile, he sees a corpse, its face half rotted off. He startles, maybe even yelps and tries to pull away, but the ropes remind him that it’s still solid flesh beneath his palm. Stilnski is really there, staring out into the distance impassively.

Once Jackson has calmed his breathing he turns to check on Derek. If the forest is challenging them with the macabre, then Derek is probably in it much worse than Jackson. That suspicion is confirmed by the blue glow of Derek’s eyes. Except instead of looking out at the forest, Derek is staring at Jackson. When their eyes meet, Derek growls.

“Woah,” Jackson says. “Calm down, Derek. It’s just me.”

“You,” Derek spits, like the word is rotting on his tongue. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“It’s fine. It’s safe inside the mountain ash.”

“You shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be here.”

Jackson grips Derek’s hand tighter. Is Derek getting scared? Is he going to run? “We have to stay here. Finish the ritual.”

Derek shakes his head violently, like a dog shaking off water. “No. I mean, I see now. I can see you. The real you. The forest, she’s shown me. You’re nothing. I thought you were perfect, but it’s all just a show. Now I know how weak you are inside. You disgust me.”

Jackson shakes his head. His palms are sweating, heart hammering. He’s been dreading those words for his entire relationship with Derek, waiting for the other shoe to drop and now it finally has. It’s almost a relief. There’s no more hiding, no more pretending to be strong and just soldiering on.

“That was always your redeeming feature - you’d at least give me beautiful kids. But now you can’t even do that. Why am I with you? Why did I accept these people into my pack when I could have found myself a good breeder, because that’s all I ever really wanted from you anyway - someone to run my house and give me pups.”

“No,” Jackson resists. “It’s the forest. You don’t mean that, Derek. Please.”

Derek turns out to face the trees. For having been Stiles’s ‘bros’ mere hours ago, they sure have shifted into a terrifying, impenetrable wood. “I take it back!” Derek screams. “Take him back!”

“No!” Jackson shouts. “Derek, just hold on! I won’t carry it, but if you just hold on, I’ll still give you a baby that’s part you and part me. Derek!”

That’s when Jackson sees them. A man and woman are standing at the edge of the wood. They’re far away enough that Jackson wouldn’t be able to make out their features. Except they have none. Their faces are gone, nothing but smooth, unidentifiable flesh. Jackson recognizes them from his dreams.

“We’ll release you from the deal,” the forest hisses in a low serpentine whisper. “Keep your Emissary. We’ll give you a child with him and only him. Just let us take this one. He’ll come live with his real family. Denounce him.”

“No!” Jackson screams. “Derek, please! I’ll do anything. You can father as many babies as you want with whomever you want. I’ll take care of the house. I won’t talk to you except pack business. Please.

Derek steals his jaw, ignoring Jackson. “I denounce him. He’s no longer part of my pack. He’s no longer part of my family.”

Jackson is all out sobbing now, bringing Derek’s clenched hand to his lips. Kissing him. “Please, Derek. Don’t do this.”

“He has to come willingly,” the forest whispers.

Derek turns, glowing blue eyes pleading. “Do this for me, Jackson. If you love me, you’ll let me have this.”

“No, Derek,” Jackson wails. “I can’t!”

“It’s alright, honey,” a warm voice calls. She sounds like sunshine and comfort. Jackson turns back to the two figures at the edge of the wood. They have faces now, but they’re still too far away to see clearly. She’s singing a lullaby now, one that Jackson hasn’t ever heard in his adult lifetime, but he knows that she sang it to him as a child, before the crash.

“Come with us, son,” a strong, commanding voice booms. “We’ll take care of you.”

“Just do it,” Stilinski says. “Can’t you see? It’s better for everybody.”

Before Jackson knows it, his claws are out. He’s slicing at the rope that binds his hands to Stilinski’s. It’s cutting Stilinski’s flesh too, which explains why he’s shouting, trying to grab back onto Jackson’s fingers. Jackson doesn’t stop to wonder why he doesn’t use his other hand, the one that is still clinging to Derek’s.

“Derek! He’s going for the rope! Stop him,” he hears Stilinski yell, but Jackson ignores it.

The wolfbane burns like fire in his veins, but Jackson doesn’t care. He finally takes notice of his other hand, pulling it to his mouth and biting down hard so that Derek releases him. With one hand free, it’s easy to get rid of the rope, Stilinski, too. It makes the pain only slightly better to know that he left those gouges along Stilinski’s cheek.

The mountain ash barrier stops Jackson for a second, but then a breeze kicks up and it transforms from impenetrable barrier into choking veil. He can run through it, screaming with the pain, but he makes it, dashing for the two figures at the treeline. Except when he reaches them, their features aren’t the warm, welcoming things he imagined. Their eyes are sunken and their eyeballs hollow. Their mouths are gaping maws of sharp, crooked teeth, stuffed in at odd angles like the spikes on a mace. Something howls in the distance. Maybe it’s the wind.

Jackson screams at they descend on him. He’s a monster like they are, he knows. He deserves to be consumed by his own emptiness. Those grotesque figures reach out to touch him, but then someone is slamming into his back. Jackson smells the familiar scent of his mate just before he hits his head on a rock and it all goes black.

***

When Jackson next opens his eyes, the russet-colored dawn is painting the leaf litter with shadows and he’s shivering in the morning dew.

A voice murmurs nonstop and Jackson bats at his own ear to try to end the sound.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Stilinski is saying. “I know. I know you put your roots on the line for me and I’m grateful. I promise. I won’t leave. I’ll stay forever. Well, forever until I die. I’ll stay with the pack. I promise. I know he didn’t want it enough. And, trust me, I know he’s an idiot, but can’t you tell he needs it? We need it.”

“What happened?” Jackson grumbles, pushing himself up. He’s still naked, but for a few runes. Stilinski is sitting back against the roots of an old oak tree. He has Derek’s head pillowed in his lap, but doesn’t seem particularly concerned with jostling him as he fidgets.

“Well, you, my beautiful, moronically emo friend, went running out of the fucking mountain ash line. You had one job, Jackson. One job. Stay on the goddamn quilt! I told you, the forest will fuck with you. I told you that I could die, but did you listen? No, of course not, because you’re a spoiled brat who has probably never had to listen to anyone his entire privileged life.”

“They said it would be okay. They’d accept my life in trade.”

“Yeah, because wood nymphs can always be trusted. They were toats going to eat you and let the forest take my life as forfeit anyhow.” Stilinski rolls his eyes. “Haven’t you ever seen a horror movie?”

Jackson shakes his head. Horror actually isn’t his thing.

“Of course you haven’t,” Stilinski sighs. “Why would a werewolf watch a horror movie?”

“What happened to Derek?” Jackson asks, levering himself up. He feels sore, like after lacrosse practice back when he was a human. His heart starts to speed up, worried at Derek’s unconscious state even though Stilinski doesn’t seem too concerned about him.

“Oh, this big heroic idiot dove in and covered you from the nymph’s attack. They sliced him up pretty good before I could get to you two. He’s healed most of it. Should be awake soon.”

“I’m sorry,” Jackson says. He doesn’t say it often, but it’s pretty clear that he fucked up this time. Maybe he and Derek just aren’t meant to have children. He can get started on the divorce papers once he knows Derek is alright.

Stilinski shifts Derek’s head into Jackson’s lap with the mumble of, “Good. I don’t think he’d like to wake up with his nose that close to my dong.”

“So you’re still alive,” Jackson comments, because it had been implied that Stiles would die if the spell didn’t work.

Stiles shrugs, like it’s no big deal. “No thanks to you. I had to do a hell of a lot of sweet talking to get us out of the mess you made. Chaz here,” Stiles gestures to the oak tree, “was nice enough to give us sanctuary when I dragged you two idiotic lovebirds over here. And I definitely owe the wood nymphs like probably half a Whole Foods worth of rare herbs and spices for the damage Rambo here did while defending you. But, it could have gone worse. I mean, the forest thinks we’re a bunch of incompetent possums. Possums are known for their incompetence, in case you were wondering. B.T.dubs, don’t ever ask a tree why, unless you’re prepared to spend an hour listening to ‘a possum, a skunk, and a squirrel walk into a clearing’ jokes. No, Chaz, don’t you fucking start. I’ve had a long enough night as it is, buddy.”

“I take it the spell was a bust.”

“I’m not actually sure about that. We’re all alive, which bodes well. And the spell itself worked. I just needed an extra energy boost from the forest to keep it going. What do you think guys?”

Stilinski tilts his head to the side, listening to something even Jackson’s sensitive werewolf ears can’t pick up.

“Randy says that my eggo is preggo,” Stilinski finally says. “But cedars are notorious optimists. I guess I’ll take a test in a couple of weeks and we’ll find out.” Stilinski gives Jackson a small, hesitant smile that frankly, weirds Jackson out more than anything he’s done thus far. “Look, Jackson, about what happened. You have to know that all of that was a trick. Derek--”

At the sound of his name, Derek lets out a small moan. Jackson runs a hand through his mates thick, dark hair and soon is greeted with slivers of hazel and a soft smile. “Jackson.” The morning haze dissipates rapidly, however, and Derek shoots up, narrowly missing giving Jackson another concussion. “Jackson! Stiles! Are you alright? What happened?”

“Jackson freaked out, got attacked by wood nymphs, you defended him, and I rescued both your sorry asses. You’re welcome. Also, say thanks to Chaz.”

“Thanks Chaz,” Derek mumbles obediently, but his eyes are fixed on Jackson. He cups his cheek, pressing his lips to Jackson’s in a kiss he absolutely does not deserve. “Why’d you run?” he asks.

“You don’t know?” Jackson asks, wonderingly.

“You were tripping balls, dude,” Stilinski interrupts. “Nothing you think either of us said to you was real.”

“Why’d you run?” Derek insists.

“Leave him be, Derek. God, are you always this fucking intense? You two can have your girly emo moment later. Right now, I need like two breakfast burritos, some curly fries and a chimichanga and that’s not pregnancy cravings - ask Scott.”

Except they never have that moment. Jackson is left with nothing but the stupid incubator and his stupid knowing looks.

***

“Jackson?” the incubator says. It’s soft and a little scared, unlike his usual obnoxious screeching that is more than overkill for werewolf hearing.

Jackson normally ignores him for a little while in order to show him his place in this household and in this pack, but he drops the tray of cookies he’s been baking onto the counter, not caring if they spill. He runs.

The incubator is sitting on the top of the stairs, his heartbeat fluttering wildly, one hand pressed to his belly, while the other grips the railing.

“What is it?” Jackson asks, rushing to his side.

“I--. I slipped. Not even a fall, really, because I was holding on to the rail like a good little boy, but I knocked my stomach on the side. Fuck,” he grimaces against a wave of pain. “I think it might just be bruising, but I need to go to the doctor.”

Jackson is paralyzed, looking down at this man. He’s a man, not a boy or a place for a baby to grow. He’s a member of Jackson’s pack and even if he is doing Jackson’s job as an omega, he hasn’t taken anything away from him. It was the bite. That was Jackson’s mistake, not Stiles’s. In fact, an emissary might actually have prevented it. He puts a hand on Stiles’s shoulder, hoping that it’s comforting. Considering the circumstances, Jackson isn’t sure how it could possibly be.

“Can you stand?” Jackson asks, frantic. “I’ll help.”

Stiles makes an attempt, but then slumps back down with a groan.

“What is it? What hurts?”

“At first it was my side, but now, oh, fucking christ that hurts. That’s a contraction.” His sweaty palm presses against Jackson’s and he squeezes for all he’s worth. “That was definitely a goddamned contraction,” he whimpers, tears in his eyes.

Shit. Jackson lifts Stiles up, bridal style. With werewolf strength it’s easy to shoot down the stairs and out to the garage. Derek’s hideous FJ Cruiser is finally good for something, giving Stiles plenty of room to curl up in ball in the back seat.

Jackson forces himself to dial Derek before he lets himself panic.

***

“I’m sorry,” Jackson says the moment Derek is through the door. Derek’s looks normally turn heads, but as an alpha he has never had a particularly commanding presence. Heads snap up at his entrance this time, though. It reminds Jackson of how it felt to walk through the halls on Lydia Martin’s arm, only it’s Derek’s sense of urgency and purpose that commands the room, not Lydia’s expectation of adulation.

“What happened?” Derek asks. “How is Stiles? The baby?” Jackson doesn’t miss that Derek’s first concern is for their emissary even though their baby is hours away from coming into this world.

“The doctors say that Stiles will be fine. They don’t think there was any trauma to the baby, especially considering that he’s a werewolf. But Stiles is all human and he’s subconsciously been weaving a magical field around the baby. The disruption when he fell was enough to induce an early labor.”

“He fell?” Derek growls, eyes flashing as he whirls around, apparently looking to gravity as the source of blame. Jackson feels the guilt sink deeper into the pit of his stomach. If he hadn’t been so determined to hate Stiles, he never would have been navigating that big spiral staircase on his own.

“Just down onto his ass. He didn’t fall offanything.” Jackson knows he sounds defensive.

“He’s in premature labor! Are you telling me that’s a coincidence?”

“Yes!” Jackson shouts, defensive even when he knows that’s wrong. Stiles is where he is because Jackson wasn’t taking good care of him, because things are bad between them, because Jackson is weak and can’t cope with his own failures. The worst part of it all is that it’s their baby that will suffer the consequences.

“Jackson--” Derek reprimands.

“No, you’re right.” Jackson cuts him off. “It’s not a coincidence. It’s just another way I’ve failed you.”

“Jackson, you’ve never--”

“Yes, I have!” Jackson shouts. “Are you kidding? First I can’t carry your kid myself like a proper omega and then I fail to protect our surrogate when we get lucky enough to find one who can still give us a kid that’s both of ours. That’s pretty much the definition of failure for an omega!”

Tears are streaming down his face, but no matter how hard he reaches for it, composure eludes him. Jackson has always been emotional, as is natural for an omega, but he’s mostly managed to keep it to himself. He’s never let Derek see him this wrecked, this ugly. He hates it.

Jackson flings himself into Derek’s arms and even though Derek rubs his back in too-fast circles and can’t really figure out where to rest his head, it feels amazing to be comforted like this. “If I can’t do these things for you, then what am I worth as a mate? Why would you keep me around?”

“Because I love you,” Derek replies, as though it were ever that easy. “You’re strong and you’re smart and you just . . . you fit.”

“But you could have someone who’s all those things and is a good omega for you.”

“How are you not a good omega?” Derek seems genuinely perplexed, but then again, Derek would. Derek never pays enough attention to that kind of thing. He doesn’t hear the whispers when they’re at parties, about omegas cheating on their alphas or failing to pup or about all the expensive treatments Jackson has to get in order to stay young-looking and firm and tight for his alpha. He certainly has no clue about all the time Jackson spends looking through catalogues or consulting with the pack’s personal shopper just so he can be the most desirable omega in any given room, to make people envy Derek.

“How am I a good one?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care about that. Jackson, can’t you see that I--”

“How. Am. I. A. Good. Omega,” Jackson barks. He’s not going to let Derek deny and evade and not talk about things this time, not when they might have a pup any minute now. If Derek is going to cast him aside, it needs to be now, before Jackson gets attached.

Derek sighs, once he sees that Jackson won’t budge. “Fine. Um, omega qualities. You, um, you take good care of the den?”

“You hate what I’ve done with the house!” Jackson protests. “If it were up to you, we’d live in a fortified flameproof bunker furnished with a mattress and a couch you found on the side of the road!”

Derek grabs Jackson’s hands in his. It isn’t as calming as Derek probably thinks it is. “I let you pick out couches that cost more than the car I’d be hauling roadside furniture with because I love you and I want you to be happy!”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why? You’re my mate.”

“Only because I tricked you into it!” Jackson shouts. As soon as the words leave his mouth, he clasps his hands over his lips in an effort to stuff them back in. Derek was never supposed to realize. He was never meant to know.

Derek is looking angry now, his blue eyes flashing. Ever since he found out about the fire, Jackson has known exactly why Derek reacts so negatively to being taken advantage of. He’ll dump Jackson for sure. “How did you trick me?” he demands. “A spell?”

Jackson rolls his eyes. “Too illegal.”

“Wolfsbane perfume?”

“Not scientifically proven to be effective.”

“You’re not the real Jackson Whittemore?”

Jackson looks away. Derek knows he was adopted, so he’s technically not a Whittemore, but he isn’t some kind of con man or a spy. “No. If there is a real Jackson, then I’m him.”

“Then why are you saying you tricked me?”

Jackson crosses his arms over his chest and sinks down into a waiting room chair, putting his back to Derek. “Our emissary is in labor. It’s not the time.”

“It’s the perfect time,” Derek growls. He puts so much power behind it that Jackson instinctively tilts his neck to the side. Jackson may serve as second because Derek isn’t actually very good at any kind of strategizing, but it only takes a little display like this to make Jackson remember that there’s no doubt whose second in the dominance hierarchy. “Tell me how you tricked me.”

“You didn’t want me. You never really did,” Jackson says. He’s always cringed whenever people ask them how they met. He plays it off as a cute story about Derek being his knight in shining armor and driving him to a heat spa, but he hates being reminded of that first, stinging rejection when Derek wouldn’t even touch him when he was stinking of heat pheromones and practically throwing himself at the man.

“What the hell are you talking about? Look at you.” He tries to tug Jackson around to face him. “I wanted you the first time I saw you. Everyone does. Don’t you know how hard it is for me to not claw people’s eyes out when I have you out with me in public and I can see the way they look at you? Why do you think I get so annoyed when you insist on getting all dolled up for parties?”

Jackson had no idea Derek was that possessive. Derek always seemed so cool and indifferent to Jackson. He’s noticed how antsy Derek got when he was primping for a night out, but he’d always thought that Derek was just annoyed by how long Jackson was taking.

“But when we met, I asked you to share my heat and you turned me down! You only wanted to fuck me later, after I’d convinced you how useful I could be. You know, to help you network.”

Derek looks straight up bewildered, like this is some other couple’s messy history and not their own, like he wasn’t there to witness it all. “I turned you down because you were drunk and pheromone loading and I just met you that night!”

Jackson shrugs. “It was college. You know that people fucked for a lot less reason than that.”

Jackson hates how Derek can look so sad and lost sometimes, like he’s drowning in the waters of past wrongs and strangled by the promise of future calamity. “You know you’re only the second person I’ve had sex with, right?”

“What?” That’s impossible. Derek was on the football team and a werewolf. There were omegas throwing themselves at those guys left and right. Fucking a team member was practically an initiation rite at Jackson’s fraternity. Jackson had never asked Derek about his past for exactly that reason. He didn’t want to know how many of his frat brothers and sisters he’d have to cunt punch for having touched his mate.

“Jackson, the person I lost my virginity to burned my family alive. How willing do you think I’d be to trust people after that? I was fucked up when we met. You know that. You helped me heal from that.”

Jackson is pretty sure he didn’t do any such thing. He’d known that Derek had still been grieving about his family. Who wouldn’t be? That’s why he’d needed Jackson to help him pull things together occasionally at networking things, but they’d been fuck buddies at first. Even now, they’re really just fuck buddies that are useful to each other. Their first time had been in a dorm lounge room after Jackson had made Derek jealous. Someone had walked in on them. There was no ‘hallelujah’ moment, no lovemaking. Derek hadn’t acted like some traumatized almost-virgin. It had been hot, sweaty, dirty, glorious sex and that’s it. Derek had knotted, but that was the only interesting thing about it and even that had been more embarrassing than interesting.

“I made you jealous and you bent me over a cheap college couch and fucked me. How is that not a trick?”

“I was afraid to let anyone else in. I tried to push you away. I convinced myself you only wanted a quick fuck and would end up using me like Kate did. But you wanted me and you are relentless when you want something. You just kept pounding away at the wall I built up to protect myself like an unstoppable force and in the end I couldn’t help myself.”

“See, I tricked you,” Jackson replies, stubbornly, but he lets Derek lift him up and into his lap.

Derek kisses him, pulling Jackson back so that he can nose at his jugular, scenting him. “It was a good trick.”

“Stop it.”

“Jackson, without your trick, I would have self-destructed. I barely got out of bed some days and that was only because Boyd dragged me. I didn’t trust myself to make decisions or to fall in love. You didn’t give me a choice. You made me realize that I didn’t have to be perfect and normal or atone for my mistakes before someone would love me.”

“You didn’t even want to marry me,” Jackson gasps out, because he hasn’t let it go, in spite of the over-the-top spring wedding and the way Derek likes to clink their rings together every morning before he gives Jackson his good morning kiss.

Derek frowns. “Why would you think that?”

“I pushed you into it. I went behind your back to Laura about the bite.”

“I wanted to ask you,” Derek replies, looking young and so painfully earnest. “You can ask Erica. I made her go ring shopping with me at least three times, but I couldn’t find one that I thought would convince you to marry me. She threatened to yank my balls out with a melon scoop.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I didn’t know if you would say yes,” Derek replies. “And a ‘no’ when you’ve been dating that long is the end of the relationship.”

“You think I would’ve said ‘no?!?’”

Derek shrugs. “I was your college boyfriend and college was over. You always wanted the best. I might have been a big fish at Stanford, but an omega like you could’ve done even better in the next pond you moved into.”

Jackson shakes his head. “I never would have said ‘no.’”

“Why not?” Derek replies. “You know you could do better.”

“Because I love you!” Jackson shouts, realizing what a hypocrite that makes him. If he’ll stick around all Derek’s broken, jagged pieces out of love, why won’t he accept that Derek will do the same for him? Because you’re fake, that voice in his head snarls. Because he doesn’t really love you. He only thinks he does.

“I love you too!” Derek shouts back. “That’s why it doesn’t matter that you couldn’t get pregnant or if I have to spend ten thousand dollars on an ottoman when I barely know what that is! You’re mine, Jackson. You’re the one who stuck by me when I was at my darkest. No one else can be that for me.”

Jackson whimpers. He never knew Derek felt that way. Derek isn’t the most expressive, but he’s said ‘I love you’ hundreds of times. This is the first time that Jackson has really thought about what that means.

“I get it,” Derek continues. “It sucks that you couldn’t carry our baby, but it’s not the end of the world. Stiles is in there right now giving us a baby that’s part you and part me and once you hold him in your hands, it won’t matter how he got here!”

Jackson could almost believe it. He wants to, so badly. “Derek, I don’t know if I deserve--”

Derek sighs. “You deserve the world.” He swoops forward to press an intense but chaste kiss to Jackson’s lips.

Then a nurse is walking down the hallway towards them, a strained smile on her face. “Derek Hale?” she asks.

Jackson’s palms are sweating. He clutches Derek’s hands like a life preserver. What if something is wrong? What if his stupid emotional issues caused Stiles to lose the baby?

Derek stands, approaching the nurse. “Is everything okay? How’s Stiles? How’s the baby?”

“The fall triggered premature labor, but everything seems to be going smoothly. The fetus isn’t in distress and he’s only two weeks shy of his due date, so he’ll be a little small, but still fully developed. Mr. Stilinski has requested that you call someone named Deaton to help with some spellwork and he’d like you in the labor room.”

Jackson stands to go with them, but the nurse shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says. “He asked for Mr. Hale only.”

It’s not unexpected. Jackson has been nasty to Stiles ever since they met and he’s the reason that Stiles is in premature labor and probably more pain due to the bruising from his fall. Still, not being there for the birth of his child stings, even if Jackson deserves it.

Derek looks torn. “I can--”

“No,” Jackson interrupts. “Go. He needs you more than I do.”

Derek nods, giving Jackson a final kiss and squeezing his shoulders before he follows the nurse down the hall. “It’ll all be fine,” he says.

Jackson spends another twelve hours in the waiting room. It seems like an endless parade of people traipse in and out. He wouldn’t put it beyond Stiles to be rubbing his exclusion in his face. Deaton shows up carrying a giant bag of what appears to be spell ingredients and, as usual, gives a cryptic an utterly useless explanation (“oh, these are for the baby”). Scott and Allison get immediately ushered into the labor room, as does Lydia. Isaac, Erica, Boyd, and Laura all check in at some point, but Derek texts to tell them all to go home. Derek, Jackson, and Stiles picked a hospital with attached birthing suites, so there’s couches and a bed and tvs and even a jacuzzi in there. Jackson imagines it must be like the world’s most awkward hotel party, but he’d give anything to be part of it.

Jackson thought he’d see Derek more in this endless, boring process of waiting for news, but Allison is put in charge of relaying messages, as Derek is apparently on full-time hand holding, back rubbing, pamper duty. She sends out mass text updates and comes out every once and a while to give Jackson updates. He wishes he’d brought his laptop, but he’s too afraid to leave and go and get it. Even when Allison comes out to tell him that Stiles is only 3 centimeters dilated and he has time to run some errands if he needs, Jackson can’t leave. He’s already been a big enough let down today. He has to stay in case he’s needed.

When Stiles is at 8 centimeters, Lydia comes flying out of the labor suite with a thunderous expression on her face. Even the quick snap of her high heels marching down the linoleum exudes anger. “My boyfriend is a rude, self-absorbed, idiot. I apologize.”

She throws herself into the chair beside Jackson and plays with her hair the way she does when she’s playing bored but secretly gauging every little reaction.

“He’s probably in a lot of pain, Lyds,” Jackson offers.

She snorts. “Not with two werewolves practically fighting over the chance to leach his pain, he isn’t.” Now the crowded room and the fact that it’s Allison relaying news makes slightly more sense. “This is the birth of your son. You should be in there. Yes, you have been a royal dick to Stiles for the past nine months, but he has no right to exclude you just because he doesn’t want you to see him vulnerable. I mean, he doesn’t mind subjecting me to more of his blood and bodily fluids than could ever possibly be considered sexy, but he doesn’t want you to see his cooch when you’ve got one that looks just like it?”

Jackson can understand where it’s coming from, though. Stiles hasn’t been able to show any weakness around Jackson for the past nine months out of the justifiable fear that Jackson would use it against him. It makes sense that he still feels wary. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know I was an asshole. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me. Do I look like I care?” The fact that she’s even talking about it seems to say she cares, but Jackson isn’t stupid enough to bright that up. “You should have pulled yourself together and apologized to Stiles a long time ago. This was all about you and Derek and your ridiculous inability to communicate and it was unfair to take it out on Stiles, who is having your baby.”

“I know. I fucked up, Lydia. I wasn’t ready to go through the surrogacy process and I don’t know what I was thinking, acting that way towards an emissary. They can be really powerful. I could have put the whole pack in danger.”

“No kidding. You do know, despite his tendency to act his shoe size, Stiles is actually one of the most powerful druids in the world.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“I’m serious. He’s our age and already has a few top-cited articles in magical theory. I almost asked him on my webcast a few times before we even met,” Lydia confesses. “I’m going to ask him once he’s recovered from the pregnancy.”

“Wait, so the two of you have been fan-stalking each other since before you met? Disgusting.”

“Romantic,” Lydia sing-songs. “He’s going to need some work, however. My omega has to be a little more presentable, I think. But that’s not the point. The point is that flaws and stubbornness aside, Stiles is a good man and he will forgive you. Just try to not be a jackass and, for god’s sake, act a little contrite.”

“How do you know he’ll forgive me?”

“Because I’ll make him.” She taps something into her phone and gets an immediate response pinged back.

“What’s that say? Lydia, what did you tell him?” Jackson whines, because pride is still pride and giving in to whatever puppet strings Lydia wants to pull leads to humiliation about eighty percent of the time.

“You can go in. Any minute now, according to Allison. Of course, he’s just started the transition into the second stage, so I doubt the baby will be crowning this second. Allison can be excitable.”

Jackson hurries after her, but persists. “Lydia!”

“What?! Jackson, this is the birth of your child, we really should--”

Jackson grabs her wrist so she’s forced to pause, stomping her feet as she spins around to face him, a pout on her bright pink lips.

“What did you tell him?”

“Fine. I told him that you were sorry and that you promised to behave and that you are my friend, so if he ever wants me to bend him over and fuck his brains out, he had better not make you miss the birth of your child.”

“You bribed him with sex?”

“It’s what I do best. Now, come on, Jackson.”

The birthing suite looks different than when they took the tour a few months ago. Part of the difference is how full it is. The doctor, Derek and Scott are all gathered around where Stiles is laboring on a hospital bed disguised by another haphazardly sewn rune quilt. Allison, Deaton, Jackson and Lydia are waiting in the screened-off ‘living room’ section of the suite. It almost looks as though they are throwing a super bowl party. Somebody even opened a giant bag of Cheese Doodles (Jackson’s money is on Scott).

Stiles also appears to be making use of every possible kind of magical assistance he can lay hands on. There’s incense burning in the four corners of the room, a bunch of runes drawn on the floor and over Stiles’s naked belly. Some of them appear to be in blood, and sure enough, Deaton hands Jackson a homemade “bowl” and a wicked-looking ceremonial dagger and tells him that now he can at least make himself useful.

Jackson has been a werewolf long enough that the blood letting barely even stings, but his hands are shaking when he approaches Stiles to hand it over. Stiles is grimacing and grabbing Derek’s hand like a vice, but he snaps his fingers to get Jackson to hurry it up.

“I’m sorry,” Jackson says, because he can’t let his kid be born without saying it. “I feel--”

“I don’t give a shit about how you feel. I just want this damned baby out of me,” Stiles replies, finishing up the final rune on his stomach in Jackson’s blood and then letting out a choked-off scream. Both Derek and Scott have black veins tracing up their arms and, on instinct, Jackson jumps in too, grabbing one of Stiles’s ankles. The pain is intense, but with all four of them sharing it, it’s not the worst Jackson has ever felt.

“Well look at that,” the doctor says. “You just fully dilated in about a minute. And the baby has descended. I can see he’ll be crowning soon.”

“Almost like magic,” Stiles huffs, rolling his eyes.

Derek frowns. “Have you been sitting here in unnecessary pain because you didn’t have Jackson’s blood yet and were too busy punishing him to ask for it?”

“Baby now, recriminations later!” Stiles chokes out. His knuckles are white where they’re holding onto Scott and Derek. “Holy shit that feels weird!”

Derek’s eyes are blue and Scott’s eyes look about ready to pop out of their sockets watching the baby’s head start to crown. Jackson would feel awkward about the whole situation, except all of a sudden there’s a head. Jackson’s baby has a head!

Another scream from Stiles and then suddenly the baby has a body too. Deaton and the scary dagger make a repeat appearance and Derek is using it to cut the cord, which he submerges in a potion of who-knows-what for yet another spell that Stiles hasn’t told them about. Jackson ignores the magical fussing and instead focuses on the bloody, squalling bundle that the doctor is handing over to him. He’s small and wrinkled and absolutely perfect.

“Thank you,” is the first thing he manages to say. It’s the only thing he can say, because for once in his life he knows what people mean when they talk about feeling ‘blessed.’

Stiles just gives him an exhausted grin and the finger for good measure.

***

“Don’t touch me, you harpy,” Stiles groans as he playfully shoves Lydia’s hands off his taut belly.

“Stiles, you know I’m a banshee and not a harpy and that harpy is just a term invented by misogynists to demonize and police femininity,” she pouts. Jackson smiles. He knows that pout and how devastating it can be. But he knows that Stiles is too busy whining to care. After all these years, getting to know Stiles and even enjoy his company, Jackson still has no idea what Lydia sees in him.

“You did this to me,” Stiles moans dramatically, clutching at his bump and slowly letting himself list to the side and half into Derek’s lap. Derek just grunts and puts his arm around Stiles’s shoulders. “Lydia, you stuffed these two wriggling parasites inside me and made my feet swell and my back hurt and none of my clothes fit and you’re evil Lydia Martin. Evil, evil, evil.”

“I’ll get you a Twinkie.” Lydia rolls her eyes, but she smirks when she catches sight of her pregnant omega just like she’s been smirking pretty much constantly since Stiles ‘popped.’ The entire pack is in agreement that it’s insufferable.

“I hate her,” Stiles says into Derek’s shoulder. “Why do I have to be the one to get fat? Why can’t she give up her giant collection high heels and see her perfect little feet swell up and have her breasts itch and feel constipated for like one day just so she’ll stop looking so damned smug when I’m the one doing all the work!” Derek pets Stiles’s hair with one hand and sips his wolfsbane-laced beer with his other, completely unperturbed. Years of dealing with Jackson’s tantrums have made him immune.

“Do you really want to deal with Lydia if all that happened to her?” Jackson asks, because a banshee scream is still a banshee scream whether she’s just seen into the afterworld or is upset about spilling something on her favorite set of pumps. “Trust me, you’re much better off with you being the pregnant one. Imagine how many more times you’d have to watch the Notebook.”

Stiles wrinkles his nose, then flips himself over, thrusting his feet into Derek’s lap. “Rub my feet. You give the best foot massages.”

Derek raises his eyebrows at Jackson. It’s half ‘can you believe this shit’ and half asking for permission. Derek and Stiles are still closer than Jackson would really like. They geek out about classic science fiction and snark at each other like an old married couple and occasionally goad each other into situations that they need to be rescued from (like the spell that turned Derek into a cat for a week or the time Jackson had to get them out of Disney jail). Jackson has stopped being threatened by their friendship, because sometimes Stiles’s particular brand of insanity is exactly what Derek needs and a good omega lets his alpha have what he needs.

“If you want to touch those smelly sausage toes, be my guest,” Jackson says, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

“Lydia, Jackson agrees I have sausage toes!” Stiles shouts over his shoulder. “I told you!”

Lydia slaps Jackson on the back of the head when she comes back into the living room, having arranged a platter of Twinkies on Jackson’s good china. Stiles grabs three of them and stuffs them in his mouth.

“He didn’t bitch like this when he was carrying your baby,” she accuses, glaring at Derek for making Stiles moan in pleasure from the foot rub.

“That was a job,” Stiles mumbles through the mouthful of Twinkies. “I was being professional. Didn’t wanna get kicked out of the pack.” He gestures to Jackson. “This one hated me.”

“Still do,” Jackson replies cheerfully, even though that’s far from the truth. Jackson and Stiles still don’t have much in common, but they spend a lot of time together working on pack business. They make a surprisingly good team. Jackson brings the charm and the negotiating power and Stiles brings poorly manufactured magical objects and the research.

“Hate me all you want, hater, but I made you two idiots confess your undying love for each other, un-coma-ed your husband’s crazy uncle and restored your pack’s bonds to the forest all while pregnant with your kid. You’re welcome.”

“And he’s never going to let you forget it,” Scott says from the doorway. He’s got Emmett riding on his shoulders and Vernon Jr. hanging onto his left leg. “Dude, that was like the longest trip to the grocery store ever.”

“You volunteered to take the sprogs with you,” Stiles reminds him. “Totally your own fault, bro.”

“Rookie mistake,” Jackson agrees. Scott is just barely starting to show with his and Allison’s first child and the entire pack has been taking advantage of his enthusiasm for ‘hands on learning.’

Scott groans and Lydia takes pity on him enough to unwind Vernon Junior from his leg. “Hey, Veej, how about you let Uncle Scotty have a break, huh? Come on, you can help me and Auntie Allison with dinner.”

Jackson pries his own offspring off Scott’s shoulders, giving him a kiss on the top of his head. Emmett is a serious, quiet child, which Jackson and Stiles agree must be Derek’s genes in play, thank god. Genetically, he’s 47% Derek, 41% Jackson, and 11% Stiles. The last 1% has something to do with the conception ritual. Stiles and Deaton published an article about it in the American Journal of Medical Runes and Rites that made Jackson realize that, his spastic personality aside, Stiles really is on the forefront of magical practice.

All Jackson knows is that despite inheriting a large portion of his genes, Emmett doesn’t look like Derek at all. He has chocolate brown hair, Jackson’s prominent cheekbones and cleft chin and Stiles’s undeniably unique nose and amber colored eyes. It makes Jackson squirm when humans who can’t smell their genders assume that he and Stiles are Emmett’s parents. We made a really fucking gorgeous kid, is all Stiles will say about it. Derek just shrugs, though Jackson suspects that Derek is secretly pleased to have a kid both with his mate and his best friend.

“Uncle Stiles!” Emmett shouts, reaching out for the man that carried him. Jackson lets him go with a gentle reminder to: “Be careful of Uncle Stiles’s tummy. Those are your cousins in there.” They’ve settled on cousins, because even though they are technically part-siblings, the twins are less related to Emmett than first cousins would be and nobody is ready to explain the full details of his conception to Emmett.

Emmett curls around the man who birthed him contentedly, laying with his head over Stiles’s heart. Jackson ignores the twinge of longing that he gets every time he sees that. Emmett is a werewolf and he remembers the cadence of Stiles’s heartbeat from the womb and still finds it comforting. “Hey buddy,” Stiles says, stroking Emmett’s hair. He kicks out at Derek when he momentarily pauses his foot massage. “Did you have fun with your Uncle Scott?”

“I don’t like the store,” Emmett whispers. “It smells confused.”

Stiles chuckles. “That’s okay, bud. The store confuses me too.” He plants a smacking kiss on Emmett’s cheek before passing him off the couch to Scott. “Sorry, your cousins are tap dancing on my bladder. Time for Stiles to drain the snake.”

Jackson plops down next to Derek, claiming the space in Stiles’s absence. He kicks off his sandals and thrusts his feet into Derek’s lap. “I have it on good authority that your foot rubs are the best.”

Of course, because Derek is Derek, he tickles him instead. Jackson trying to kick him off just results in Jackson getting dragged into Derek’s lap for a playful kiss that quickly heats up.

“Awe, man,” Scott complains, shielding his eyes. “It’s cute that you’re still all over each other like teenagers, guys, but I’ve already seen way more of Jackson’s ass than I’ve ever needed to see.”

“You’re one to talk,” Stiles complains as he emerges from the bathroom. “I’m pretty sure at least one of us witnessed the beginning of Allison sticking that bun in your oven.”

Scott grins, looking only slightly sheepish. Stiles drapes himself over his shoulder casually. “Hey, so before I get too pregnant to even move, there’s this really cool ritual that I read about in--”

“No!” everyone in the room shouts at the same time, making Stiles pout.

“You guys suck.”

This is Jackson’s family. They’re strange and goofy and imperfect in so many ways, but they’re his. Derek seems to share his sentiment, because his eyes are smiling when he pulls Jackson in for another kiss. Jackson is utterly content, with his mate and his child and his pack.

They’re allowed to relish the feeling for about three seconds before someone throws a Twinkie at them.

“Watch it!” Stiles shouts. “Twinkies are like practically an endangered species! Don’t waste them!”

THE END