If the mating rituals that the werewolves hold every seven years at midsummer aren’t the stupidest thing that Stiles has ever heard of, they have to be close. Surpassed only be something Greenberg has said, possibly. They’re melodramatic, degrading, overly romanticized schlock. They’re called ‘The Finding and the Binding Ceremonies’, for crying out loud. And this year, Beacon Hills is hosting them for the western region.
The lead up has been a spectacle to behold, that’s certainly for sure. Every storefront in town is gleaming and sparkling with anticipation. Even the trash cans have been cleaned. Sheriff Stilinski has been working overtime as they get security established. It’s rumored that some big names are going to be there. Of course, that’s the rumor every time.
The announcement that it would be held in Beacon Hills – which came at midwinter, as it always did – had caused some surprise and raised eyebrows. Usually, it was hosted by a prominent werewolf family. The Hale family was really anything but. Reduced to three members – one of them still a teenager – they were fighting just to keep their territory.
As far as Stiles could suss out, this was basically an excuse for a bunch of werewolves to invade the Hale territory, step on their toes, and try to arm wrestle them out of their claim. There are even rumors going around that the alpha, Laura Hale, will be forced to choose another werewolf as her mate, thus ceding her territory to him.
None of this is Stiles’ business except for the fact that his father is getting more and more grumpy and tired by the day, and Scott seems to have decided he’s going to enter the pool of candidates.
“Are you seriously going to do this?” Stiles asks for the final time, as they’re standing outside the Beacon Hills Center for the Arts, where the opening ceremonies will take place. Stiles has grabbed a program and it looks like it’s going to be a bunch of bullshit pomp and ceremony. “C’mon, man. This mating stuff – it’s all bullshit, you know that.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Scott bounces on his heels for a few moments. “I mean, what if I do get chosen? If I get the Bite, it would cure my asthma.”
Stiles grimaces. They’ve had this discussion a lot of times in the preceding weeks. He has to admit that Scott has a point. He just doesn’t think it’d be worth putting up with a lifetime of licking a werewolf’s boots to avoid having asthma. Of course, it’s easy for him to say that; he’s not the one with asthma. “Okay, sure, but look at this. There are fifty werewolves attending, give or take, and Dad says the pool has over five thousand people in it. That gives you approximately a one percent chance of being chosen. Besides, look at some of these people,” he adds, gesturing to the stream of people heading into the auditorium. He looks nervously as one particularly buff specimen gives them an amused look, a ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ look. “I think that guy just got off the USS Rock Star.”
“I know it’s a long shot,” Scott says, “but it’s a shot, right? Besides, they say it’s all about – finding the right person. So looks and that sort of thing might not matter.”
“Oh, you didn’t actually buy into that bullshit, did you?” Stiles asks. “The whole ‘werewolf soulmate’ thing? Please say you didn’t drink that Kool-Aid.”
“Hey, it’s not like it’s impossible,” Scott says. “Anything’s possible, right?”
“No! No, Scott, all things are not possible, and even if they were, that doesn’t make them probable. It’s possible that the man in the moon is real and that he’s going to show up at the ceremony today and tap dance, but that doesn’t make it fucking likely.”
Scott makes a face at him.
“Besides, are you seriously saying that if some werewolf you’ve known for five minutes pointed to you and said ‘he’s the one’ that you’d be totally okay with that? Promising your life to a complete stranger? I mean, at least half the people are this ceremony are going to be old enough that that would be supremely creepy.”
“Yeah, okay, I guess I do sort of believe in that sort of thing,” Scott says. “Love at first sight, right?”
Stiles groans. “God, you’re hopeless, you’re such a romantic – can’t you just go to the school dance and meet a nice girl your own age – ”
“Uh, no, because I’ve been trying to do that for like two years now and it still hasn’t happened,” Scott says, to which Stiles has to admit that he has a point. It’s not like either of them have had a lot of luck in that field. “Look, man, I’m not asking you to do it. I’m just asking you to, you know, be supportive and stuff. Help me out if I need it.”
“Fine,” Stiles groans. “Okay, fine. Who are you pulling for?”
Scott glances around, blushing. “Well, it would be nice if I could make good with Cora Hale. I mean, she’s from Beacon Hills, so I wouldn’t have to move. And she’s our age, so . . .”
“It cuts down on the creepy factor,” Stiles agrees. “Okay.” He doesn’t offer his personal opinion, which is that Cora Hale is a bitch. He’s met her a sum total of twice, both times while he was at the station, and she had been a bitch both times. The rush of people is slowing to a trickle. “You’d better get in there, Romeo.”
“Okay, yeah.” Scott stands back. “How do I look?”
Stiles cuts off the truthful answer of ‘like the lovechild of an overeager puppy and a scarecrow’ and says, “You look great. Knock ‘em dead.” He waits until Scott is all the way in the building before he throws his hands up in exasperation and asks, “Why me?”
He doesn’t realize that anyone else is anywhere near him until he turns around and finds himself face to face with a man a few inches taller, wearing a black leather jacket and sporting just enough stubble to ratchet his looks up from ‘gorgeous’ to ‘how can you actually exist’. He flails and stumbles and nearly falls; the guy reaches out and grabs him by the forearm, keeping him on his feet.
“Did you actually mean that?” the guy asks.
“I . . . what?” Stiles asks.
“That you think the mating rituals are bullshit.”
“Uh . . . I didn’t say that,” Stiles says hastily, because in the intervening few seconds he’s recognized the guy. It’s Derek Hale, quite possibly the only eligible bachelor to be voted ‘most likely to become a serial killer’ in his yearbook.
“Yes, you did. I heard you.” Derek is just studying him with measured intensity; he looks neither pleased nor displeased.
Stiles swallows. “Hey, it’s uh, it’s just an opinion, man.” Something occurs to him. “Uh, shouldn’t you be in there?”
Derek actually grimaces. “Yes,” he says. “I’m avoiding it as long as I can. I wouldn’t be here at all if Laura hadn’t threatened to cut off my – anyway, long story short, I agree with you.”
“You . . . do?” Stiles asks suspiciously.
“Yeah.” Derek is frowning off into space. It makes him even more attractive, which shouldn’t be possible. “I really don’t want to go. How the fuck am I supposed to pick out a mate from a bunch of . . .” He waves a hand impatiently, like there isn’t a word in his vocabulary to describe his opinion of the contestants. “I don’t even know these people.”
“Aren’t you supposed to fall in love at first sight?” Stiles asks. “I mean, maybe you’ll recognize it when you feel it.”
Derek gives him a look. “Like you said. Romanticized bullshit.”
“Why do it at all, then?” Stiles asks, curious, since it doesn’t seem like Derek is going to bite his head off at any moment.
“It’s all politics,” Derek says dismissively. “Different wolves fighting over the best candidates. You pick a mate and then you have to defend your claim. They pour all the gooey romance on top to entice humans to join.”
Stiles rubs a hand over his hair. “Are you sure you should be telling me this?”
“I probably shouldn’t,” Derek agrees, his tone gloomy. “I guess I just needed to unload that onto somebody and you were an easy target. I’ll go in there and find somebody I can stand, I guess.” He turns and begins to walk away.
“Hey, uh – hey, Derek!” Stiles calls after him, jogging a few steps to catch up. “If you wanted, uh, this is gonna sound stupid, but . . . I have an idea.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Before the announcement that the mating rituals were going to be held in Beacon Hills was made, Laura didn’t care much about them one way or another. She would go, of course – as the alpha she was expected, and besides, it really could be a good place to meet someone, if you were willing to plow through the bullshit. But she didn’t say anything to Derek or Cora about it.
Once they found out it was going to be local, however, she went into overdrive. It was a challenge so obvious that it couldn’t be let slide. She announced that Derek and Cora would both be attending the rituals, and that they would be on their best behavior and not do anything to embarrass the Hale pack in general or her in particular. Derek and Cora put up with it, because there really wasn’t much they could say about it. After the fire, Laura had changed from the warm, mellow beta into a stern, uptight alpha. She was still their sister underneath, and they loved her, but she had their pack welfare to think about now.
If that wasn’t bad enough, everything that had happened several years later, with Uncle Peter and the Argent family – and then the challenges had started. Subtle at first, but growing more open by the day. Laura was adamant that she wouldn’t be the one to lose the territory that her family had held claim to for decades.
So Cora helped her do all the invitations and print out the programs and schedules, and Derek helped her set up the security, and they made a secret pact that, although they didn’t want to attend, they would suffer through it as best they could and do everything needed to make their sister look like a powerful alpha who had everything under control.
Then the RSVPs had started coming in, and that was when Laura flipped her shit.
The mating rituals always drew big names, of course, but the majority of the people who came were betas. They were from families where their parent or parents were alphas, well-established, and they were looking to find a mate long before they became alphas and started a family of their own. But this time it was different, because alphas were coming.
Deucalion was years too old to attend the mating rituals, but he had never chosen a mate so he was technically allowed to. The rest of them all fell squarely into the age range of most of the other candidates and contestants, and it was well-known that all of them had become alphas by killing off their entire pack.
They were approximately the last people that another werewolf wanted to show weakness in front of.
In the blink of an eye, Laura went from ‘just try not to embarrass me’ to ‘you will attend and you will claim someone, and that someone will be amazing, and then you will hold onto them until the rituals are over, don’t you dare let any challengers get in your way.’
Cora bitched and whined and pleaded, and eventually Laura unbent enough to agree that Cora was a little young to be choosing a mate – that if she found one, she should, but she didn’t have to.
Derek, being twenty-one, didn’t have the same luxury.
The day of the opening ceremonies, he was tense and angry. Laura had made him change clothes three times. Cora had finally intervened by asking Laura to do her hair, even though Derek couldn’t recall the last time she had done anything with it other than a ponytail.
The rituals lasted exactly one lunar cycle, from the full moon before Midsummer until the full moon afterwards. There were activities designed to help the werewolves ‘get to know’ the candidates, which were primarily set up for the candidates to show off why they were worthy of a werewolf. The better the candidate you claimed, the more prestige you gained.
Derek hated the very concept of it, he hated watching all these humans show off for him when they didn’t even know him or want anything to do with him. They wanted the Bite, they wanted the Pack, they wanted things that he had absolutely no interest in offering them. They were willing to degrade themselves in a variety of ways to secure this future for themselves.
Everyone he talked to was all sparkly-eyed and gaga over it. Even Cora wasn’t completely immune to it, saying three days previous, “Well, it would be nice if it happened. I mean . . . it is kind of neat, when you think about it.”
Sure, Derek thought. Neat. An irresistible force compelling him to lay claim to a complete stranger who, just by entering the pool of candidates, meant they were someone completely alien to everything he believed in.
He thought all the humans were the same way, which was why his ears pricked up when he heard a teenager’s voice, overly dramatic and completely disgusted, saying, “you didn’t actually buy into that bullshit, did you?” and he sidled a little closer to hear the conversation. He thinks about pointing out to the kid that he’s talking loudly enough for any of the nearby werewolves to hear him. Fortunately, at this point they’re all inside. He’s the only one left, although some humans are still going in to register. He finds himself unloading all over the kid, almost unable to help himself, he’s so tense and frustrated.
“I have an idea,” the kid says, as Derek is turning to walk away. He looks vaguely familiar. Derek wonders if he’s seen him around town. “Why don’t you, uh, pick me? I can be your beard. You know, keep them off your back. And you won’t have any trouble keeping a claim on me – no one else will want me, right?”
Derek blinks at him. It sounds ridiculous. Yet there’s a strange sort of logic to it. He could solidify Laura’s position by choosing a mate – it’s another man, yes, but that’s not unheard of. Werewolves can be gay just like anyone else. Several of the attending werewolves had checked off ‘male seeking male’ or ‘female seeking female’ or indicated that either gender would do on their registration form.
Unfortunately, there’s a huge logistical problem. “You can’t,” he says. “You’re not registered.”
“Uh.” The kid rubs a hand over the back of his head. “Actually, I am. See, when the registration stuff went around school, Scott signed me up even though I told him I didn’t want to do it. He said ‘better to have the chance and decide not to take it than vice versa’. I just figured I wouldn’t bother coming in. I mean, there have to be no-shows every year, right?”
Surprisingly few, but there’s no point in putting that out there. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, uh, Stiles. Stilinski.”
That explains why he’s familiar. He’s the sheriff’s son. Derek has met the sheriff several times over the last two years, usually due to the territory challenges, and of course he knew the man well from what happened after the fire. He’s probably seen the kid around the station a few times. “Look, uh, it’s nice of you to offer, but I promised my sister I would at least look around for someone I could, you know . . . seal the deal with.”
“So look around, I won’t stop you,” Stiles says, with a shrug. “You don’t have to stick with the candidate you first stake a claim with, right? I mean, what’s the point of the rituals being a month long if all you do is look around and grab the first person who strikes your fancy? You can ditch me later if you find someone you like better. No hard feelings, I swear.”
Derek thinks about it. He thinks about the looks on everyone’s faces if he picks a gangly, motor-mouth teenager who’s dressed in a T-shirt that says ‘support single moms’ with a picture of a stripper, and wearing jeans with holes in the knees. “You know it’s not just the first day, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I can do all that Hunger Games shit, no worries,” Stiles says. “I bake a mean blueberry pie.”
“Well . . . okay, then.” Derek has a feeling that he’s going to regret this later. But he also has a feeling that he’s going to regret any choice he makes at the rituals, so at least this one will provide some fun along the way. “Do you know how today goes?”
Stiles nods. “Yeah, uh, after the opening ceremonies, each werewolf gets put in a room with the people who have best matched their profile. EHarmony shit, I guess. Then they mingle. And usually choose someone from that group of people to attend the . . . whatever the fuck happens next.”
“The moonrise ceremony tonight,” Derek says. “Bonfires, running in the woods, probably a vast variety of things that couldn’t be broadcast on cable television.”
“Okay. So I’ll just, uh, find your room. And you can be like ‘Pikachu, I choose you!’”
Derek tries not to laugh. This kid is ridiculous. He can’t remember the last time he actually felt like laughing. Laura is going to kick his ass for this, and it’s going to be totally worth it. “Okay. Just . . . any time you want out, let me know. Because you may not realize what you’re in for. Deal?”
“Deal,” Stiles says. “And same for you. You know. I don’t want to fuck with your chances of actually finding someone, so if the werewolf roofies hit you, just let me know and I’ll drop out.”
“I don’t think ‘roofies’ is the metaphor you’re looking for.”
“Well, sue me for not having a ready list of werewolf aphrodisiacs.”
Derek arches an eyebrow. “You’d better go register.”
“Right, right,” Stiles says, and jogs towards the building. Derek shakes his head a little and goes around the back, to the werewolf entrance. It’s deserted; everyone is already inside. Laura grabs him as soon as he walks into the backstage area.
“Where the hell have you been?” she hisses. “Whatever, never mind, I don’t want to know. Just go find your sister and sit down!”
Derek lifts his hands in surrender and does as he’s told. As the hosting alpha, Laura will be up on the stage during the ceremonies. She’ll say a few words, but if he knows her, she’ll keep it short and sweet. He wonders briefly how she’s going to find anyone in this sorry lot of candidates. Then he heads up the stairs. The humans will be on the bottom floor and the balcony; the werewolves have the box seats. He finds Cora, and surprisingly, Peter. “What are you doing here?” he asks his uncle. “Jesus, does Laura know you’re here?”
“And worry her unnecessarily?” Peter asks smoothly, as Derek slides into the seat next to Cora. “She’s already so burdened, poor thing.”
“If someone sees you – ”
“Relax, Derek,” Peter says. “I’m safe as houses up here. And I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Derek rolls his eyes but doesn’t bother protesting, because it never gets anyone anywhere with Peter anyway. He focuses on the crowd below, the teeming mass of hopefuls. The smell of them is overwhelming, even from two stories up. The mixture of hope, desperation, passion. He resists the urge to hold a hand over his nose. “Have you ever been to one of these before?” he asks. The last mating rituals were the year before the fire. He had been too young, at fourteen, and his parents had, of course, been happily married. Laura had gone, but she hadn’t attended many of the events, and had come home empty-handed and happy to be that way.
“I have,” Peter says, with a nod.
“Is it always . . . like this?” Derek asks, gesturing.
Peter’s mouth quirks into a dry smile. “Oh, you think it’s bad now. Wait until a couple weeks have gone by. Some people will drop out, of course . . . but the desperate ones will get more desperate. And you’ll have the lovely smell of werewolf power play in the morning to go along with it.”
Derek sighs and focuses his attention on the stage. Despite the fact that it isn’t safe for Peter to be there, he’s happy to have his uncle by his side, giving him a running commentary so he knows what the hell is going on. “That tall one is Ennis, one of the alpha pack. He’s all brawn and no brains, but still, don’t get on his bad side . . . that black woman over there is Destiny, current heir to the Talton family, she’s actually fairly nice as long as you don’t step on her toes . . . that’s Kali, she’s completely feral, stay as far away from her as you can . . .”
“Who’s the blind guy?” Cora whispers.
Peter darts a glance at the stage. “That’s Deucalion. The head of the alpha pack. He lost his eyesight here in Beacon Hills about seven years ago. Probably still hates Talia for it, even though she’s dead now . . .”
Laura steps up to the podium. “Welcome, everybody,” she says, sounding like she just saw a cockroach. She says a few quick words about how it’s an honor to host this most sacred of ceremonies, and then gets the hell away from the microphone. Several older werewolves have to give long speeches after that. Derek sighs and leans back in his chair. He finds himself scanning the crowd for Stiles. He’s fairly easy to spot; he stands out in his T-shirt and ripped pants, from everyone else, all dressed to the nines.
“Who’s that?” Peter murmurs, and Derek jumps. “Your heartbeat just went up. See someone you like?”
“What? No!” Derek sputters, and from the wicked curve of Peter’s grin, he knows that his uncle can tell he’s lying.
“Maybe it’s not all a crock of bullshit,” Cora says, “if someone here can get your heart pounding like that.”
“It’s not pounding,” Derek growls. “Oh, God, shut up,” he adds, since they’re both laughing at him. He almost, almost goes off onto a rant about the melodrama and the romance of it all, but realizes just in time that he would be protesting too much. Digging his own grave. So he shuts up, looks at anybody except Stiles, and waits for the speeches to end.
When it’s finally over, they head out of the box. The arts center is full of galleries and music rooms and receiving rooms that have been set up for this purpose. He checks the packet he had gotten when he had checked in and sees that he’s been assigned to room A203, in the music center. He folds the packet away and heads over. Cora walks with him most of the way, because she’s in a room nearby. Peter disappears to who-knows-where; he’s gone before the speeches end, although Derek didn’t see him leave.
The room is set up nicely. There are several tables and chairs, a table with pitchers of ice water and plastic cups, and several trays of hors d’oeuvres. He’s the only one there, at least for now. Getting out of the box was a lot easier than the throng of people had to leave the auditorium. He also knew right where to go – he’s from Beacon Hills, he’s been here before, but none of the people he’s been matched with are.
He skims down the list while he waits. All women, all between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five. From their profiles, some of them even look tolerable. There are a few who obviously just want the bite – a woman with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and another with lupus – but he supposes he can’t blame them for wanting to be healthy. He reminds himself that he’s doing this for his pack, for his sister, and he should behave himself. Never mind that he hasn’t even wanted to be near a woman since Kate Argent.
From outside, he hears a woman shifting back and forth, her heart racing, obviously too nervous to go in. Probably not wanting to be the first one. A few moments later, another woman greets her, and they timidly push into the room. Derek manages to muster up a warm smile of greeting, and they both immediately melt. Before they can do more than introduce themselves, several other women show up.
It shouldn’t be a big deal. There are three dozen women on his list, true, but he’s got nowhere else to be for the next four hours. There will be time for everyone. But as soon as there are more people present than he can easily divide his attention among, the squabbling starts. Some of them physically elbow each other to get closer to him. The smell of desperation gets even stronger. Derek drinks some ice water as his smile goes thin.
He doesn’t understand it. Any of it. He knows it’s all politics and power plays, but he also knows that his parents met at the mating rituals, so there have to be some good people there. But how the hell is he supposed to find one, in this morass of cat-fighting women? He knows that he doesn’t have to pick someone from this group, and that there will be other opportunities to meet people, but he isn’t feeling particularly hopeful, especially after Peter’s comments.
When the door opens and Stiles stumbles in, it’s like a breath of fresh air. He looks around the room full of women, who have all stopped to stare at him. “Hey, uh, I’m looking for . . .” He stops to extravagantly peruse his registration packet. Derek spares a thought to wonder who he got matched with. “Cora Hale . . .?”
“She’s two doors down,” one of the woman says, eyeing the teenager with disbelief.
“It says Hale on the door,” Stiles says guilelessly.
“Because this is Derek Hale’s room,” another woman says, with the unspoken ‘you idiot’ coming through loud and clear.
“Oh!” Stiles says. He blinks and then his gaze falls on Derek. “Oh, wow. Yeah, I can see that, I mean, lookin’ fine,” he says, with ridiculous finger guns, and Derek nearly falls over laughing. “Actually, maybe I’ll just stay in here, there’s no rule against it, right? I mean, they recommend that you go hook up with your suggested werewolf, but you can actually go to whatever room you want. So, I could just stay in here, the view is nice and all.”
“You can’t just . . .” Several women are fumbling for their paperwork, as if they want to check the rules. One of them looks appealingly at Derek. “Can he?”
It’s the best exit line he’s going to get. “I think he just did,” Derek says. He steps over to Stiles and puts a hand on his forearm, feeling his heartbeat under the skin, fast but not fluttery, like it’s just that way naturally. He smells so different, nervous but amused and clean, and Derek takes a few extra breaths of his scent just to steady himself. “Let’s take this somewhere a little more private,” he says.
All of the women just gape, and a wide, happy, honest grin blooms on Stiles’ face. “Yeah, yeah, let’s do that, Mr. Hale,” he says, in a way that actually makes something jump in Derek’s stomach. He writes it off to nerves. Derek pulls him out of the room before he can say anything else that either of them will regret later.
As soon as they’re out of the building, Stiles bursts into laughter. “Oh my God, their faces, did you see that, that was awesome!”
Derek finds himself grinning despite his better judgment. “It so was,” he says. “My sister is going to kill me and it was totally worth it.”
“Just wait until moonrise,” Stiles says. “I know all the lyrics to Kumbaya. Every. Single. Verse.”
Derek shakes his head. “We’ve got a few hours until then. Should I . . . meet you? Or pick you up?”
“Nah, I got the whole day and I’m starving, all they had to eat at that place was like half cucumber sandwiches and fancy shit like that. You’re supposed to prove that you can provide for me, right? Let’s go get a burger.”
Derek fishes out his car keys. “You’re on.”
~ ~ ~ ~