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With or Without You

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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.

The alphas.

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.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

“So seriously, what happens tonight?” Stiles asks, shoving a handful of French fries into his mouth. He’s discovered that he’s a little nervous. When he had made the initial offer, it had been completely impulsive, and he really hadn’t thought beyond what would happen at the opening ceremonies. He would make good on it, because he was a man of his word, but Derek’s comment about him ‘not knowing what he’s in for’ has him revved up. Derek frowns a little and Stiles flaps a hand and continues to talk with his mouth full. “I mean, what’s the purpose of it?”

Derek’s face clears. “To show off,” he says. “About half the werewolves will stake a claim on the first day. They’ll want to show them off and basically dare anyone to try to take them away. The wolves who haven’t chosen yet will make challenges to those werewolves.”

“So, like, ‘you picked this chick so she must be worth something, so since I didn’t see anyone I liked yet, I’ll try to steal them’?” Stiles asks.

Derek nods. From the look on his face, he seems a little surprised at how quickly Stiles is grasping the politics of the situation. “Yeah. Which isn’t to say that they might not yet pick someone else, that nobody has staked a claim to, if they perform well in other events or get noticed in some other way.”

“But for this evening, it’s a bunch of circling, snarling, and butt-sniffing,” Stiles says. “Gotcha.” He sucks a bunch of his milkshake through a straw. “How d’you wanna play it?”

“How do you mean?” Derek asks, brow furrowing again. Stiles thinks that he should frown less. When he frowns, he’s gorgeous. But when he smiles, he’s absolutely breathtaking. He reminds himself that he shouldn’t be thinking like this. Derek’s just using him – he offered to let Derek use him – so he shouldn’t make things weird. By the law of averages, and the number of guys in Derek’s chosen group – zero – he’s probably straight anyway.

“Well, you said the purpose is to show off your mate. But we had sort of talked about you picking me because nobody else would want me. So, do you want to stick with that? Should I be loud and obnoxious and undesirable?” Another slurp of his milkshake. “Or do you want me to try to be someone you can actually show off?”

Another set of arched eyebrows. Stiles thinks that Derek’s eyebrows are somewhat amazingly expressive. “Do you think you could actually pull that off?”

“Hey, asshole, that’s not the question I asked,” Stiles says, pointing a French fry at him. “I can at least try, right? Do better than ripped jeans and finger guns.”

“Let’s not chance it,” Derek finally says.

“’Kay. Loud and obnoxious it is.” Stiles takes a huge bite of his cheeseburger and tries not to show how insulted he is.

For a minute, it looks like Derek might say something. Then his phone – well, it howls. Stiles stifles a laugh with his burger as the werewolf grimaces at the incoming text noise. He fishes it out and then rubs a hand over his face. “It’s my sister,” he says.

“Which one?” Stiles asks, wiping ketchup off his chin with a thumb.

“Laura. She wants to know why I left early.” He sighs. “I suppose I should tell her the truth. She’ll meet you tonight anyway.”

“Hey, I said I would keep people off your back,” Stiles says. “It’s an all-inclusive offer. Sisters too.”

Derek gives him a cautious eyeballing. “She’ll grill you.”

“I’m not afraid of your – actually, I am, your sister is terrifying. But I’ll live up to my word.”

Looking like it’s against his better judgment, Derek starts to text again. Stiles grabs the phone as soon as it’s left his hand, prompting an indignant grunt but no real effort to stop him. Laura’s text reads as described, with more profanity. Derek’s response is painfully terse. ‘Met someone. Left with him.’

Barely a moment has gone by before Laura replies, ‘Who????’

“Whoa, easy on the punctuation, lady,” Stiles says. “Lemme field this,” he adds, his thumbs dancing skillfully over the keyboard. Derek looks disgruntled, but since he obviously has no idea what to say, he lets it go. Stiles tries to imitate his laconic texting style. ‘Guy named Stiles. A little young, but okay otherwise.’ He figures that’s okay, since Derek has told him that Laura’s aware of his lack of enthusiasm, and knows that he’s just trying to choose someone to make her happy and make their pack look strong.

‘Are you bringing him tonight?’ Laura asks, and Stiles texts back in the affirmative. ‘I want to meet him first. Be here at 8.’

Now it’s Stiles who grimaces. “She wants to meet me first.”

Derek sighs. “I guess we’d better try to make you look at least a little bit qualified, then.”

“Yeah. What’s the dress code? Same as today?”

“Less formal. We’ll be in the woods.”

“Okay.” Stiles shoves the rest of his burger in his mouth and stands up. “You know where the station is, right?” he asks, and Derek nods. “Pick me up at seven thirty.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles makes it all the way back to his house before he starts wondering what in the hell he’s gotten into. What does one wear to a werewolf party? Less formal, but still, he wants to look impressive. In some sort of way. He closes his eyes and thinks back to the opening ceremonies. The humans had been in nice clothes – suits for the men, dresses for the women, for the most part – but the werewolves had been a lot more casual. A lot of leather, a lot of denim.

He dives into his closet and pulls out a pair of almost-new blue jeans. Then he strips off the ‘support single moms’ T-shirt and puts on a plain white one instead. He tosses a short-sleeved plaid on over that and glances in the mirror to make sure he looks okay. He needs leather. He thinks his father might have a leather jacket, and goes hunting for it.

He does, but it’s way too big, and looks ridiculous. Stiles checks his watch, then jumps in the Jeep and heads for the closest thrift store. He finds a brown bomber jacket there which looks decent on him and pulls it on. Then it occurs to him that he ought to be sharing some of this intelligence with someone who actually cares, so he dials up Scott.

“Hey, Scotty, how’d it go?” he asks.

“Okay, I guess,” Scott says, but he sounds a little less upbeat than usual. “I didn’t get much of anywhere with the werewolf whose group I wound up in. I mean, I introduced myself, but . . .”

“Okay, well, I’ve got some advice for you,” Stiles says, “because I asked for some tips because I’ve got your back even though I think this whole thing is weird. So, you’re going to the moonrise party tonight, right?” he asks, and Scott replies in the affirmative. “Okay. You want to dress less formal. More like a werewolf. Go get that black leather jacket you have with the hood. Wear that. And those hiking boots. Sounded like the ceremony goes on ‘til dawn, you’ll be on your feet a while.”

“Got it,” Scott says. “You’re the best, dude. I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, wondering if Scott will realize he’s there. Five thousand people is a lot of people. He decides he’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it, and calls his father. “What’s up, Daddy-O?”

Sheriff Stilinski sighs. “I’m working, Stiles. What do you need?”

“Is it okay if I go out with some friends tonight? Might be late.”

“Define ‘late’.”

“Uh . . . don’t wait up?”

“I want you in by midnight.”

“You got it,” Stiles says, easily overlooking the slim probability that this will actually happen. He checks his watch and sees that it’s quarter past seven, and heads to the station. He knows that his father won’t be there, so much is going on in town. In any case, Derek’s already there – from the look of it, he’s been waiting for a while, making Stiles wondering if he drove straight over the diner and just sat there for two hours – so Stiles just parks the Jeep next to the Camaro. “God, this car is hot,” he says, getting in. “Are you aware of how hot this car is?”

“Well, I didn’t buy it for its gas mileage,” Derek remarks. “Seat belt.”

“Yes, Grandma,” Stiles says, buckling in. “I was going to put it on anyway. Driver’s ed was like, eighty percent gruesome photos from car accidents and twenty percent actual instruction on how to drive a vehicle.” He settles more comfortably into the seat. “Okay. Anything I need to know?”

Derek lets out a breath. He seems somewhat uncomfortable. “The moonrise ceremony is . . . primal, in a way that most humans don’t anticipate. Sometimes they get freaked out. It’s a lot of . . . unbridled energy. There’s drinking, and games that come closer to bloodshed. There can be fights. There will be fights. A lot of the ‘wolves will walk around partially or fully shifted.  Some of the ‘claiming’ . . . gets physical. I mean, it isn’t unheard of for people to start having sex in plain sight. So just . . . be prepared for that.”

“You know, from the way you’re describing it, it sounds like a frat party,” Stiles remarks. Derek gives him an annoyed look. “I’m just saying.”

“You might understand better once you’ve seen it,” Derek says. “Usually about a third of the candidates drop out after the first moonrise ceremony.”

“How would you even know?” Stiles asks. “You’ve never done this before, right?”

“I’ve never been through the mating rituals before, but I’ve been to werewolf gatherings, and Laura told me that the mating ceremonies really amp it up. Partly to scare off humans who can’t handle it.”

“So don’t act freaked out. Got it.”

Derek gives him a sideways look. “Yeah. Uh, avoid the liquor. There will be some coolers of beer for humans, but any hard liquor . . . well, werewolves have extremely high liquor tolerance, so we basically only drink high proof grain alcohol, and a few shots of that will literally kill you. There might be some other drugs, but I hope I don’t need to tell you to stay away from those.”

Stiles nods and holds his hands up. “I’m not immune to peer pressure, but I think I can handle it.”

“Okay. You won’t have to stay with me the whole time. I haven’t laid any sort of official claim on you, so you can mingle. But don’t go far. I’ll keep an eye on you, so if you get into any sort of trouble, I can help. Other than that, just . . . try to have a good time. But it’s important to stay up until sunrise. If you can’t last through the ceremony . . .”

“Can’t run with the big wolves,” Stiles says, nodding in understanding. He makes a mental note to either find Scott at the ceremony or text him this information. “It knocks you out of the running?”

“Not officially,” Derek says. “I mean, nobody is ever forced to leave the candidate pool. But since the choice of mate is supposed to reflect the strength of the wolf, nobody would pick a human who had embarrassed themselves like that.”

“I got it,” Stiles says. He asks a few more questions, but the drive isn’t much longer. The Camaro goes at a fast clip. They’re pulling up outside a solid brick building in the downtown district. “Not really what I pictured,” Stiles remarks, as Derek swings the Camaro into a numbered space. “I thought you guys lived out on the preserve.”

“We did,” Derek says briskly. “After the fire, we moved into town.” His tone of voice doesn’t invite any comments or questions, but after a moment, he elaborates, “The place is divided up into three apartments. I have the loft. Laura and Cora have the apartment on the main floor. Then there’s a basement apartment that we use for storage.”

Stiles nods a little, fidgeting from nervousness as Derek pushes open the large steel door. It looks heavy enough that he’s willing to bet that only werewolves could even open it. Derek walks inside, calling, “Laura?”

There’s a noise from further in the apartment, and then Laura comes out. She looks exactly the same as she had at the opening ceremonies that afternoon – tall and statuesque, her eyes chocolate brown with just a hint of red around the pupils. At the arts center, she had been wearing a maroon and black dress. Now she’s changed into more casual clothes, though the colors are the same – black jeans and a burgundy V-neck shirt. A black leather jacket is tossed over a chair near the door. She moves with elegant, predatory grace, and Stiles feels himself going still involuntarily, even though she looks fairly friendly.

Derek wastes no time. “Laura, this is Stiles,” he says, and gives the teenager a little shove.

Stiles manages not to stumble. “It’s, uh, it’s an honor to meet you, Miss Hale.”

Laura’s lips purse into a frown. “Call me Laura,” she says. She looks him up and down, and while she doesn’t seem impressed, she also doesn’t seem ready to kick him out of the apartment. Then she frowned a little as something occurs to her. “How did you two meet? Derek, didn’t you only have women in your group?”

Derek nods and starts to answer, but Stiles is already talking. He gives an embarrassed little laugh, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “See, I was late getting to the meeting rooms – my friend Scott, he hasn’t been to the arts center before and he wasn’t sure where to go, so I was showing him – anyway, long story short, I was supposed to be in Cora’s group, but I just barged into the first room that said ‘Hale’ on the door.”

Laura actually smiles a little at this. “Well, it seems to have worked out.” To Derek, she adds a little anxiously, “When you said ‘a little young’, I didn’t picture a teenager.”

“Look,” Derek says, “I know you want me to make a good impression. But I also figured it would help if none of the bigwigs had a reason to challenge me.”

“Geez, Derek,” Laura says, “you’ve known this kid all of five hours and you’re already insulting him. Nice going.”

Stiles laughs. “It’s okay. I said it first.”

Laura looks between the two of them like she almost suspects that something’s up, but doesn’t want to ask. “Okay,” she finally says. “Just . . . try to have fun tonight. I’m going to be pretty busy.”

“Don’t forget to look for someone yourself,” Derek reminds her, and she makes a face at him but doesn’t argue. “Oh, have you talked to Cora? How did things go for her?”

Laura gives a one-shoulder shrug. “She said she met some nice guys but didn’t seem excited about any of them. We’ll see what happens, I guess. Help me keep an eye on her tonight.”

Derek nods seriously, then waves to Stiles. Over his shoulder, he says, “See you there,” and then they’re heading out the door.

“Do me a favor,” Stiles says, “and stop somewhere that I can get some coffee.”

Derek gives him a glance, then nods. There’s a little coffee shop about halfway to the preserve. He pulls over and Stiles goes in, buys two thermoses, and gets them both filled up with strong black coffee. He grabs some packets of cream and sugar for Scott’s – he’s a gigantic baby about coffee – before heading back out to the car. Derek is quiet now, gone tense and nervous. “Look, uh . . . I didn’t mean what I said,” he finally says. “Or I did, I guess, but I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“My feelings aren’t really hurt,” Stiles says. “I saw the people going in. Most of them are like . . . the guys were big and buff, obviously athletes or some sort of successful businessman, and most of the women looked sharp enough to cut corners. I’m not what anyone’s looking for. It just worries me that I have to be at least somewhat impressive just to stay in the game.”

“Don’t worry about it too much,” Derek says. “I don’t have to follow their rules all the time. We just have to keep everyone guessing until the closing ceremonies.”

“Isn’t there like . . . a contract to sign at the end or something?”

Derek grimaces a little. “If we were going to make it official, yeah, but I don’t think we need to take it that far. I mean, I might need to formally claim you at some point during the ceremony, if anyone else really challenges me for you, but the contracts and shit are all done after the rituals are over.”

“What does that mean, formally claim?”

“Basically it means that I would give you a physical sign that I had claimed you and anybody else who expressed interest in you was offering me a direct challenge. Until then, other people are free to talk to you, and that’s only a mild insult.”

“So I’d get, like, a ‘property of Derek Hale’ T-shirt?” Stiles says, and Derek nods, his jaw twitching. “Okay, I can handle that.”

Derek doesn’t reply. Stiles manages to put up with the silence for a sum total of thirty seconds.

“So, are you bi or what?” he asks.

Derek blinks at him. “Excuse me?” he asks, with another one of those eyebrow expressions.

“Well, I figured you were straight. You know, because all the people who were put in your group were women. But then Laura wasn’t really surprised about me being a guy, beyond wondering how we had met. Which got me wondering.”

“Getting a little personal, aren’t we?” Derek asks dryly.

Stiles looks like he might be edging towards a sulk. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

Derek is quiet for a moment so long that Stiles starts to think he really won’t answer. Then he says, “Yes, I’m bisexual. But I put ‘male seeking female’ instead of ‘male seeking either gender’ on my registration because, well, a big part of getting a mate is because of building the pack. That’s especially important to us.”

“Werewolf babies,” Stiles says, with a sage nod. “I gotcha. I am too, by the way.”

“A werewolf baby?”

“No,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes. “Bi. You know, even though I have the sexual experience of a nun. Uh, I won’t need to prove my sexual prowess at any point during these rituals, will I?”

“You can opt out of the orgy,” Derek says, with such a straight face that Stiles really isn’t sure whether or not he’s kidding.

It’s fully dark when they get to the huge clearing in the woods, and the party is in full swing. There are three bonfires lit, and several tables set out with refreshments. There are people everywhere, and Stiles doesn’t recognize any of them. Lots of the werewolves are wandering around partially shifted, as Derek had predicted, and he even sees a few full wolves here and there in the crowd. Both werewolves and humans alike were often clad in extremely skimpy outfits. Some of the werewolves were completely naked. And some of the humans had . . . “Are those collars?” he hisses to Derek. The werewolf gives him a sideways glance and a nod. “That’s the physical sign of being claimed?”

“Not everyone uses those,” Derek says, keeping his voice low. “That’s just one way of doing it.”

Stiles gives him a suspicious look but decides against further questions, at least in their current setting. “Well, we might as well at least try to have a good time.”

There’s music that seems almost tribal to Stiles, a lot of drums and wild shouting, and dancing. Neither of them have any interest in participating in that. People are drinking a lot, standing in clusters. Sometimes they stand around a group or pair of dancers, watching the show. Once or twice he sees two wolves facing off, and a crowd has gathered around each of them, too.

There are even some carnival-like games – ring-toss, milk bottle pyramid, balloon darts – and some of them have a werewolf twist. There’s knife throwing and a truly wicked Jacob’s Ladder. Of course, the drunker one is, the harder the games get. They play a few rounds of ring toss. Stiles proves to be tolerably mediocre at it.

“Stiles – Stiles?” It’s Scott’s voice, as he spots them at the bottle pyramid. “What are you doing here?”

“Hey, man,” Stiles says, half-turning. Derek had gone to get them both something to eat, so he’s failing at the game by himself. He sees that Scott has followed his advice and is dressed casually. He fits in pretty well. “Thought I’d come by and offer some moral support! Brought you coffee. I heard that you have to stay up ‘til dawn or you’re presumed to be a weakling.”

“Oh, oh, good to know,” Scott says, nodding, all eager puppy. “Anything else?”

“Don’t drink any liquor, it’s hella strong,” Stiles says. “And just try not to freak out at the . . . wolf stuff going on everywhere.”

“Yeah, it’s a little . . .” Scott makes a face. “Wow.”

“You’re not wrong there,” Stiles agrees. “Oh, uh . . .” He sees that Derek is heading back towards them. He doesn’t lie to Scott, but he can’t exactly tell him the truth here; half the werewolves in attendance would hear him. So in order to get Scott to play along, he’ll have to feed him the lie. “Okay, truth, I’m not entirely here for your sake,” he says, talking very fast. “See, while I was at the arts center earlier, I kinda snuck in to see if I could get some tips for you, and I kinda ran into Derek Hale and he sort of, um, asked me to come here with him tonight.”

Scott gapes at him. “What,” he says. “What.”

Stiles rubs both hands over his hair. “I know, I know, it happened kinda fast and before you ask, I still think it’s all romantic bullshit but he asked me, and he seemed nice enough and I was technically registered, thanks to you, so . . . hey, Derek,” he says, as the werewolf approaches. “Uh, this is my friend Scott. You know, that I mentioned earlier.”

Derek gives them a neutral nod. Scott’s just staring at him with his jaw ajar. Since he obviously isn’t going to be any help any time soon, Stiles says, “Hey, uh, you know what would be cool? If you could introduce Scott to Cora. You know, see if there are any bells.”

There’s a long moment while Derek stares at him, but then he sighs and nods. He scans the crowd, then gestures for them to follow him. Scott is still giving Stiles that astonished look, but he straightens up a little when they get to Cora. She greets them neutrally, and frowns at Derek. “You actually brought someone?”

“Yes, I actually brought someone,” he says, glowering at her. Cora looks at Stiles as if he’s from another planet. Stiles feeds her the same story he fed Laura, and she seems skeptical but doesn’t want to question it in front of her brother.

Scott is still confused, and Stiles doesn’t like lying to him, but there’s no way he can explain. “I was trying to wingman you, bro,” he says. “I don’t even know what happened.”

“Are you . . .”

“Let’s talk about it later,” Stiles interrupts. Cora’s already wandered off. He scowls at her. Then his gaze lands on Laura, who’s standing by one of the bonfires. “Hey, I see Laura’s talking to someone.”

Derek glances over, following Stiles’ line of vision. Laura is chatting with a man about her own age. Stiles had seen him go into the auditorium earlier that day. At the time, he had been dressed in a suit – obviously tailored, very snazzy. Now he’s in a T-shirt and jeans, but still gives the impression of being extremely well-buttoned. His dark hair is slicked back, and the T-shirt reveals impressive but not grotesque musculature. “Good,” Derek says, with some relief in his voice. “I’m going to go . . . if you’ll be okay?”

“Pfff, I’m fine,” Stiles says. “Go say hi. I’m going to get some more of those shish kabob things.”

“You know those are rabbit, right?” Derek asks.

Scott’s jaw drops in horror. Stiles raises an eyebrow and says, “That’s why there was a catering van here earlier, to hunt down the rabbits? You’re a lying liar who lies.”

Derek just gives a shrug. “Worth it to see the look on his face,” he says, and walks towards his sister.

“What a jerk,” Scott sputters. “Do you actually like him? I mean, you said you thought all this was bullshit!”

“I am seriously not going to talk about this in a clearing full of werewolves,” Stiles says, and Scott grimaces but agrees. Stiles watches across the clearing as Derek walks up to Laura and shakes her suitor’s hand. He reminds himself that not everybody here is a vulture. He’s not a vulture, after all, and he’s here. “So, see anyone else we know?”

“Yeah, some other kids from Beacon Hills High are wandering around,” Scott says. He tries to point them out, but the crowd is too thick. When the wind shifts, it blows smoke from the bonfire in their faces, and he winds up having a coughing fit. Stiles tries to stay between him and the werewolves, to keep his moment of weakness private. “Thanks,” he says, when he straightens up.

“It’s totally not just you who’s doing this, though,” Stiles tells him. “Derek says there’s a woman in his group who’s dying of cancer.”

Scott grimaces. “That makes me feel kinda weird, you know? Like . . . how do you turn down a lady like that?”

“Derek didn’t seem to have trouble doing it,” Stiles says, with a shrug. He glances back over at Derek, who looks just as dour and uncomfortable as ever. Laura is smiling at her companion, though there’s nothing fake about it at all, as he pours her another drink and hands it to her. He’s not exactly smiling, whoever he is, but his eyes are crinkling in what looks like a genuine expression.

Since it seems like they might be a while, and he’s supposed to be helping Scott out, they venture into the crowd. Scott is still nervous, awkward-puppy, but Stiles doesn’t hesitate to approach some of the werewolves and introduce them. They like boldness, he reminds himself. They’re predators. Someone who’s timid will make them think of lunch, not of mating.

“Oh, there’s whose group I was in earlier,” Scott says, pointing to a teenaged girl across the clearing. She’s several inches shorter than him, with close-cropped blonde hair, wearing black jeans a turquoise tank top.

“Okay, go say hi,” Stiles says, and Scott balks. “I’m serious, dude. Walk right up and say, ‘hey, I met you earlier today but we didn’t really get a chance to talk. Are you having a good time?’ I will be wingmanning right there with you.”

“Well . . . okay.” Scott takes a deep breath, then a swig of his coffee and walks over. He gives her his adorable puppy smile and recites his lines perfectly. She gives him a look that’s more polite than anything else, but at least it isn’t active disinterest. One of her friends comes over to join them as they start chatting, and Stiles, ever the good wingman, introduces himself and is a little surprised when she starts giving him a measuring sort of glance.

Before he can figure out how to extricate himself from the situation, he feels someone come up behind him. His head twists around as a hand lands on his shoulder and he hears Derek snarl. The girl lifts her hands in surrender and redirects her attention towards Scott and her friend. Derek pulls him away from the trio without giving him a chance to protest.

“We were just talking,” Stiles tells him, feeling miffed.

“There is no ‘just talking’,” Derek says. “Not tonight.”

Stiles chews on his lower lip. “Sorry, dude, I just – you said I should mingle and all, I was just trying to help Scott out.”

“It’s fine,” Derek says. “I don’t expect you to exist in a bubble. You just have to let me demonstrate my claim over you if someone else expresses interest. That’s all.”

“Okay, sure,” Stiles says.

Derek seems restless, and he’s not exactly enjoying any of the offered activities – carnivals and mosh pits don’t seem to be his style – so really they end up walking back and forth between the different crowds and bonfires for what feels like hours. Stiles is bored and fidgety, and reminds himself more than once that he volunteered for this gig (without knowing what it entailed beyond basics, for that matter). His father would undoubtedly have a great deal to say about his typical lack of forethought.

Occasionally they’ll stop to chat with someone, if glowering and giving one-syllable responses counts as chatting, or get a drink or some of the appetizers. “Moonrise is almost here,” Derek says abruptly, as Stiles is examining a dessert table. He perks up somewhat at this, hoping that means he’ll be less bored soon. “The wolves will go running. We can’t – can’t help ourselves, really. Try not to be spooked by it. No one will hurt you. Just wait in the clearing until we come back.”

“How long will it be?” Stiles asks.

“About an hour, probably,” Derek says.

“Won’t a lot of people leave?” Stiles asks. “I mean, I know part of this is to see who can rock it ‘til dawn, but won’t people leave just because they don’t know better?”

“Yes,” Derek says, “and that’s part of the challenge. They should know better. They’ll know better because a werewolf has been interested enough in them to tell them. Or they’ll know better because one of the other humans told them – like you’ll tell Scott. That speaks well of him. He has a friend who is worthy of a werewolf, who considers him worthy enough that he should know. Or they’ll know better because they’re observant and they realize that a lot of people aren’t leaving, and figure there must be a reason why.”

Stiles nods. “I get it. A different sort of test.”

“Exactly.”

“So what do I do while you’re gone?”

“Just the same things you were doing while I was here. Eat. Talk. Mingle.” Derek hesitates, then says, “When we come back . . . our blood is up. There will be werewolves staking physical claims. Don’t try to stop anyone who wants to scent-mark you. That’s my job. I have to defend you from anyone else who looks interested.”

“So I have to let people molest me?” Stiles asks. “Jesus, you really weren’t kidding about me not realizing what I was getting into.”

“No one will . . . I told you that you could back out if you wanted,” Derek snaps. When Stiles lifts his hands in surrender, he continues, “Nobody’s going to molest you. They’ll touch your shoulders or your back, they’ll try to scent-mark you, but it won’t go beyond that.”

“What about my friend?” Stiles asks. “Should he allow it?”

“If he’s serious about getting chosen, then yes, he should let anyone who wants to. Tell him not to be disappointed if they don’t stick around afterwards. The full moon . . . gives us a lot of energy. Nobody’s going to just be standing around. If they express interest, that’s enough. It means they’ll be watching him at the future events – and it means that they’ve turned him into something that the other wolves will see as desirable.” Derek hesitates again. “This is the one part that . . . the romantic bullshit actually has some application. After the mating rituals Laura went to last time, she said that . . . some people just stood out in the crowd to her, that she was inexplicably attracted to their scent and their stance. So yeah, getting marked after the run is a good thing.”

“Except for me,” Stiles says.

“Well, even for you, or at least for us, because it will cement my position in that I’ve chosen someone worth fighting for,” Derek says, with a shrug.

“Okay.” Stiles grabs a fruit tart, then takes another and holds it out to Derek. He sighs and accepts it.

As they’re turning away from the table, they come face to face with another werewolf. Stiles vaguely recognizes him as one of the ones who was on the stage at the opening ceremony. He’s easy to remember because he’s wearing sunglasses. He hadn’t known that werewolves can be blind, but this one apparently is. He’s one of the few that hasn’t changed clothes; he’s still wearing the same T-shirt and jeans that he was wearing on the stage.

“Why, you must be Derek Hale,” he says. “The family resemblance in your scent is quite striking. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

Stiles glances up at Derek and sees his jaw tighten. “Deucalion,” he says, his tone flat. It’s not a question. “I’ve heard of you, of course.”

Deucalion smiles placidly. It reminds Stiles more of sharks than of wolves. “And who is your young friend?”

“This is Stiles,” Derek says. It’s all he offers, but his hand tightens slightly around Stiles’ forearm.

Stiles has no idea what the protocol is, but it’s obvious from Derek’s reaction that this guy is some sort of werewolf bigshot, so he says, politely, “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Hardly what I would have expected,” Deucalion says. “But I suppose we do all have our particular tastes. I find I’m somewhat intrigued. Perhaps later we can chat, and I can discover what has young Mr. Hale so interested in you.”

Stiles feels Derek stiffen beside him, and there’s a beat of silence that goes on too long. It’s obvious that Derek isn’t sure how to field this challenge, but Stiles knows that they can’t just let it pass. He blurts out, “Uh, how about no? No offense, dude, but you’re like three times my age. Not interested. I’ll stick with the one I’ve got.”

“Will you, now,” Deucalion says, and simply smiles. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Derek. Give your sister my regards.” Without another word, he heads into the crowd.

Derek’s still standing there, stock still and rigid, and Stiles says, “Whoa, dude, sorry, I just, you – ” He starts to say ‘you froze up’ but then remembers that people are listening. “That just fell right out of my mouth, I hope I haven’t fucked anything up for you.”

Derek’s jaw tightens even further. “We need to go talk to Laura,” he says, and locks a hand around Stiles’ wrist, pulling him through the crowd.

They find her in a throng of young men. The person she was talking to earlier is gone. She looks faintly annoyed, and shoos them away when Derek walks up. “Laura, Deucalion just offered me a challenge. Deucalion.”

“For Stiles?” she asks, with incredulity in her voice that Stiles is a little insulted by. She seems to notice, because she winces and says, “I’m sorry, that came out wrong, I just – Deucalion is, um – ”

“Old and creepy and melodramatic?” Stiles suggests.

Laura’s lips twitch, but she turns her attention to Derek. “It’s fine, Derek. He doesn’t mean it seriously. He’s just – making his presence known, throwing his weight around. Demonstrating that he could challenge you, if he felt like it. You’re way below his sight line, so don’t even worry about it.”

That also sounds a little insulting to Stiles, but Derek just looks relieved. The teenager is thinking about asking about Deucalion – who the fuck he is and why Derek is so freaked out about him – but then both Derek and Laura look up with identical expressions on their faces. It’s impossible for Stiles to describe. They just go still, in a way that’s almost supernatural in and of itself. Then Laura tilts her head back and howls, a real wolf howl coming out of her still human throat. Derek joins her, and then bare moments later, the entire clearing is filled with the sound.

Werewolves are shifting all around them, with the creaking of bones and shifting of skin, and suddenly there are eyes glowing all around them, primarily gold, with a handful of red and a rare blue thrown in here and there. Now Stiles is the one going still, because the werewolves are looking around and there’s a quantifiable danger in the air. He’s never felt like prey quite so much in his life.

Then they take off running. He feels kind of like a cowboy caught in a stampede, but within a flash, all the wolves are gone, taken to the forest. Stiles lets out a sigh of relief and downs a swig of his coffee. Then he looks around the clearing for Scott.

He finds him easily enough, looking just as spooked as Stiles feels. “Second thoughts?” he asks.

Scott shrugs. “I guess a little.”

“How’d it go with, uh . . .”

“Carlie,” Scott supplies. “Okay. I mean, we actually had a conversation, so that’s good.” He huffs out a sigh. “I thought you said we had to stay until dawn?”

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “It’s hurry up and wait time.”

Scott chews on his lower lip. “We should tell Isaac,” he says.

“’Kay,” Stiles says, following Scott through the crowd. It is, as predicted, thinning out a bit. He’s guessing that a lot of people are just too freaked out to stay. He briefly sees Laura’s earlier companion, calmly serving himself from an abandoned food table. “I didn’t know that you knew Isaac really well.”

“We were in the same group earlier today,” Scott says. “We hung around and felt awkward together.”

Stiles lets out a snort of laughter. “Okay then.”

Then find Isaac standing at the edge of a clearing with two other students at Beacon Hills High that Stiles knows by sight and reputation, if not by virtue of actual friendship, Vernon Boyd and Erica Reyes. Boyd is just saying, “C’mon, I’m beat,” when Scott walks up and tells them that they shouldn’t leave and explains why.

They wind up camped around one of the games, idly playing ring toss since no one is there to charge them anymore.

“So how d’you know all this stuff?” Erica asks him.

For a minute, Stiles thinks about telling them the truth, but then he decides against it. There might not be any werewolves around at the moment, but there are still plenty of people who could overhear. The competition is brutal; he doesn’t want to give anyone a reason to come after him. Besides, he doesn’t know the other three as well as he knows Scott. He doesn’t trust them the same way.

So he tells them the same half-lie he’s been telling everyone – he went to the opening ceremonies to try to wingman Scott, ran into Derek, and got invited to the moonrise party. “I guess Derek’s pretty serious about it,” he says. “I mean, because of all the werewolf politics and stuff.” He explains what Derek had told them about the importance of defending your chosen mate from challengers.

“So we’re screwed, then, huh,” Boyd says. “Because nobody’s given me so much as the time of day.”

“No, not at all,” Stiles assures him. “It definitely isn’t over until the fat lady sings at this shindig. And Derek said that a lot of the wolves wait until after the moon run to stake a claim because their senses are heightened then, and it’s easier for them to pick out the, I don’t know, the one who’s meant to be.”

They chat for a while. Erica’s in this for the same reason Scott is, because of her epilepsy. Boyd and Isaac strike him more as loners who are looking for a family, although he knows that Boyd’s family is poor and he imagine that might have something to do with it as well. The two of them seem fairly blasé about the rituals, with the ‘well, it would be nice if it happened’ attitude that Scott has displayed. Erica, for her part, is desperate for the Bite.

“But I’m too young, I know it,” she says. “I’m not even sixteen yet. Everyone says that the younger werewolves hardly ever choose. They’re all like ‘just come back next time’. Jesus. I might not still be alive in seven years.”

“Yeah, not to mention that next time it won’t be in Beacon Hills and we might not be able to get there,” Boyd says.

“Look, guys, do not count yourselves out,” Stiles says. “Let’s approach this as a team effort.”

“Easy for you to say,” Erica snaps at him. “You’ve already got a werewolf on the line.”

“Yeah, I do,” Stiles says, “which is why you’re still here right now, and why you haven’t already knocked yourself out of the running by leaving. You’re welcome.”

“He’s got a point,” Boyd says.

Erica’s clearly feeling upset, but Boyd’s hand on her shoulder seems to calm her down. Stiles wonders vaguely if they’re an item, but if they are, it’s their business, not his. They talk about strategy for a while, things that Stiles has picked up about the future events and werewolves they want to avoid, if at all possible.

Surprisingly, the hour passes quickly. Then they hear the howls coming closer again. Stiles makes them all stand a little apart, so there’s room for werewolves between them, as the wolves come back into the clearing. He’s already told them all about how the marking is going to work and how they should react. But it’s hard to stand still when the werewolves reappear, looking wild and feral.

As predicted, most of the werewolves go for older members of the crowd. But there is a batch of teenagers, and staking a claim is important to them, too, even if they won’t actually choose anyone before the rituals end. Stiles is a little surprised when someone he doesn’t recognize comes over and starts nudging his upper arm with her face, rubbing against it like an overgrown housecat. As instructed, he allows this, and then she wanders off and marks Scott in the same way. Scott tries to hide how excited he is about this.

Erica doesn’t get marked by anybody, and she’s standing there looking more and more bereft while the clearing starts to fill. Everyone is surprised when Cora trots over, blinks at the group of them, and then very vigorously rubs her cheek against Isaac’s chest. Isaac himself looks frankly stunned, and when Cora backs away, even she looks surprised by her own vehemence. She scowls at Isaac and then jogs away without actually speaking to him.

All this happens in less than two minutes, and a long-suffering Stiles is allowing another woman, this one somewhat older and not quite as gentle, to wrap an arm around his waist and press her face into the short hairs at the back of his neck, breathing in his scent. It’s a relief to see Derek approach, and he shows his teeth into a snarl. The female werewolf snarls back, and Derek literally pulls Stiles out of her embrace before putting both his arms around Stiles, one around his waist and the other across his chest, before pressing his cheek into Stiles’ hair. Stiles feels Derek’s lips brush against the top of his ear, and oh, that’s an unexpected wobbliness in his knees. He firmly puts those thoughts away.

Carlie, the blond werewolf from earlier, comes by, and at first she doesn’t look interested, but then she seems to notice that somebody else had marked Scott, and that clearly wasn’t acceptable even if she was only mildly interested in him. So she pushes her face into his shoulder, then quickly walks away.

“Well, that was interesting,” Stiles says, as the atmosphere in the clearing returns to normal.

Derek nods. Erica still looks bummed out, and Isaac is staring after Cora like she had hit him in the face with a board. Scott and Boyd decide to go get drinks for everyone.

The ceremony mellows out a little after that. The werewolves have burned off some energy and a lot of the humans had left. They wind up sitting around, a little ways from one of the bonfires – close enough to stay warm but far enough that the fire doesn’t bother Derek. Laura and Cora join them after a little while. Cora glowers at Isaac when he shyly says hello to her.

“Don’t take it so hard, honey,” Laura says, when she sees how upset Erica is. “There’s a reason why the rituals are a month long. Sometimes it takes a while for people to be noticed. And sometimes the people we notice at first aren’t the right ones.”

“Where’s that guy you were talking to earlier?” Cora asks her sister.

“Playing the field,” Laura says, a little sourly. Then she shrugs and says, “Not that I blame him. If you don’t get definitively claimed, it’s a good idea to get an in with as many wolves as you can on the first day. So he’s clearly pretty smart.”

“Have a lot of people really already been claimed?” Boyd asks, looking around.

“About a dozen, I think,” Laura says. “Though people don’t always stick with whoever they choose on the first day. It’s rare to change, though,” she adds, shooting a look at Stiles and Derek.

Derek pretends not to notice. He addresses Boyd and says, “That’s a dozen people who have actually done a formal claim at this point – there are probably about a dozen others who have chosen someone but haven’t sealed the deal yet, for a variety of reasons. Like me.”

“Which still leaves plenty of werewolves left over,” Laura says. “And since about a third of the contestants drop out after the first night, your chances have probably gone up, even if no one has specifically expressed interest in you.”

This seems to be cheering Erica up some, so Stiles asks, “So, I don’t know a lot about werewolves, but here’s what I’m confused about. Uh, if I can ask questions?” he adds, and Laura nods at him. “Well, you guys are kind of trying to rebuild your pack, right?” he asks, and her face goes tight but she nods again. “So why don’t you just . . . do it? Turn some people? You’ve got four volunteers sitting in this clearing right now.”

Laura grimaces. “It’s complicated.”

“Use small words,” Stiles suggests.

She gives him a look. “When you choose a mate, it’s expected that you’ll turn them for a lot of different reasons. If you start adding to your pack beyond that and the act of having children, it’s a sign that . . . the natural order isn’t good enough for you. That you need your pack to be larger for some . . . purpose. When someone starts trying to gain strength like that, it’s never a good sign.”

“It’s like a third world country suddenly starting a nuclear program,” Boyd says.

Laura nods at him. “Good analogy, yeah. It’s basically posting a sign saying ‘we’re going to cause trouble’.”

“Well, shouldn’t it be different for you guys?” Stiles says. “Because of . . . what happened?”

“It should be. But it isn’t,” Laura says. “And it’s kind of a catch-22. We don’t have the power to start throwing our weight around. Another pack would come in and shut us down.”

“So you don’t have enough power to try to gain power,” Stiles says. “That sucks.”

Laura shrugs a little. “As they say. This, too, shall pass. I’ll choose during the rituals, and Derek . . . if you two decide to make it official. Cora may, or she may not. But the pack will get bigger.” She forces a smile. “Slow and steady is fine with me.”

Stiles steals a glance at Derek, who’s staring out into the distance with a brooding expression on his face. He feels a little bad that he’s keeping Derek from meeting an actual mate, someone who could help him rebuild his pack. He reminds himself firmly that he told Derek up front to ditch him any time someone like that came up. But he can’t help but wonder why the idea of that bothers him now so much more than it did twelve hours previous.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Stiles texted his father at around eleven thirty saying, ‘went over to scott’s to ask about how werewolf stuff went. gonna crash here, too tired to drive.’ His father responded with ‘ok’ and Stiles congratulated himself on how clever he is, getting around his curfew. He’s yawning prodigiously as he lets himself into the house at around seven in the morning.

“You’re up awfully early,” his father greets him from the kitchen, where he’s drinking a mug of coffee.

“I could say the same to you,” he responds idiotically.

His father gives him one of those terribly unimpressed looks. “I have a job.”

“Well, so does Mrs. McCall, and Scott had to get up early to drive her to work if he wanted the car today, so I came home to catch some more z’s,” Stiles says.

Sheriff Stilinski folds the paper and says, “Something you wanna tell me, son?”

Stiles sighs. “Okay, well, you have to promise not to freak out,” he says, sees his father’s incredulous look, and winces. But he doesn’t want to lie to his father, and it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll get through the month without him finding out. “So, I went with Scott yesterday, to the opening ceremonies for the mating ritual. You know, to be his wingman and stuff. And I, uh, I kinda sorta met Derek Hale, and he kinda sorta asked me to go to the moonrise ceremony with him.”

Stilinski gives his son a look of open astonishment. “Son,” he says carefully, “one does not ‘kinda sorta’ get asked to go to the moonrise ceremony.”

“Well, I actually did,” Stiles says hurriedly. “See, I was complaining to Scott about how I thought it was all a pile of romantic bullshit, and Derek heard me, and as it turns out, he’s not a huge fan of the mating rituals either. He says it’s all werewolf politics and infighting and stuff. But Laura had asked him to go and try to make a good show, and so I, uh, I offered to be his beard. You know. So he wouldn’t get entirely swarmed. Seriously, you should have seen those women. They were like sharks.”

There’s a long pause while Sheriff Stilinski studies his son, gauging the sincerity of his words. Then he sighs. “Well, it was nice of you to offer, to try to take some of the heat off him. You’re a good kid, Stiles. But I really don’t want you involved with the Hale family.” He holds up a hand to stay Stiles’ protest. “I’ve met Derek a few times, and he seems like a decent guy. But that family . . .” He shakes his head. “They’ve got the devil’s luck. And I still think that Laura helped cover Peter’s tracks while he was on his killing spree, even if I can’t prove it.”

“Yeah, well, Peter only killed the people who killed his family, so . . .”

“I understand what Peter Hale did and why he did it,” Sheriff Stilinski says evenly. “That doesn’t mean I condone his actions. And let’s not forget what happened to him afterwards.”

Stiles grimaces. Nobody in Beacon Hills is likely to forget that any time soon, how Peter Hale had been murdered and strung up in the metaphorical town square for what he had done to the people who burned his family to ashes. “Look, it’s just for a month,” he says.

“A month consorting with some of the most vicious, dangerous werewolves in the country,” his father counters. “Don’t forget, I helped set up security for this shindig. I know exactly who’s here.”

“Yeah, but Dad . . .” Stiles grimaces. “I can’t really back out now. All this mating stuff, it’s about power struggles. Derek chose me, he defended me from challengers. If I tell him to piss off now, he’ll lose a lot of face. I can’t do that to him.”

“Jesus,” Stilinski says wearily. “You don’t do things halfway, do you.” He rubs a hand over his face. “Look,” he finally says. “I’m not saying that I’m going to allow it. Not yet. Let me think about it. And I think I’d better talk to Laura Hale. You . . . go to bed. You were obviously up all night, doing God knows what. Don’t think we’re not going to have a talk about how you a) stayed out past your curfew, and b) lied to me about it. That talk is coming.”

Stiles grimaces. “Uh, yeah, I’m gonna . . .” he says, and bolts up the stairs without another word. He takes a hot shower and sets his alarm before collapsing into bed. He sets his alarm so he won’t sleep all day and then have to stay up all night again, and wakes up around one in the afternoon, starving. The house is empty and quiet. He sits down with the schedule for the ceremonies.

There are four main events. The opening and closing ceremonies are respectively called the Finding and the Binding. The moonrise ceremony, of course, takes place on the same night as the Finding. Between those events, there’s the New Moon Dance and the charity auction. The dance, obviously, takes place halfway through the ceremonies, and then the auction is the next night.

Prior to the new moon dance, there are two weeks of organized activities. Stiles wrinkles his nose as he looks over the program. The aim to them seems to be to prove that you’re good at something – anything. There’s a variety of events: a basketball game, a paintball tournament, an art show. Some of them are humans only, and some of them are obviously meant to be done in pairs, geared more towards werewolves who have already chosen. Going on at the same time is what he had originally thought of as the Hunger Games training. Rooms dedicated to teaching a craft or a skill, where you could either learn something new, or prove that you already knew something. He rolls his eyes at this and wonders if it’s too early to text Derek. He sends him a quick note asking ‘when should I make my next appearance?’ and goes back to his reading.

The New Moon dance strikes him as something of a werewolf-Sadie-Hawkins event. Whereas the werewolves were expected to take the lead on everything, using their werewolf senses to find their theoretical soulmate (bullshit or no), the New Moon dance is done the opposite way. The humans invite the werewolves to dance. It’s an opportunity for humans who haven’t been noticed yet to have their pick of the werewolves and maybe make an impression. He notes down this event for its obvious importance to Scott. They can ask anyone they want, and the werewolves can’t – or at least aren’t supposed to – refuse.

He reads another underlying purpose to the dance as well. It’s a way for a human who’s being pursued by a werewolf that they weren’t interested in to send a clear message by not asking that werewolf to dance. A refusal without having to actively refuse.

The charity auction seems like a silly thing and is designed for humans who have already been chosen. They go up on stage and the werewolves have a little mock bidding battle over them, eventually ceding to their already designated mate. Proceeds go to the World Wildlife Fund. The hosting alpha gets to pick the charity.

The second two weeks then mirror the first, with a few sponsored activities, like a pot luck and a scavenger hunt. It all seems so ridiculous to Stiles, and he shakes his head a little as his phone chirps and he grabs it. Derek has replied, ‘you have to do some of the activities’.

Illuminating, it’s not. Stiles texts back, ‘can you vague that up for me?’

He can almost picture the werewolf’s annoyed scowl, and there’s no response for several long minutes before Derek texts, ‘whichever ones you want’.

That answer is even worse. Stiles is about to write back something even more snarky when he has a rare moment of insight and realizes that Derek is probably trying not to make him uncomfortable by insisting that he do certain things. To be fair, Derek doesn’t have any right to give him orders. He considers his answer for a few moments. ‘I’m trying to help you out, remember? What would your mate show up to, to make you look good?’

This time the response is faster, and he gets the impression that Derek is relieved. ‘You should make an appearance at each of the skill rooms. Even if you’re not good at things there. Just pop in and out. Then one, maybe two of the activities before the new moon.’

Stiles chews on this and surveys the list of activities. ‘Paintball’s good. Wanna do the maze?’

‘Ok,’ Derek replies.

‘Will you be at any of this stuff?’

‘I’ll probably be in and out but you may not see me.’

Stiles takes that as a message that Derek doesn’t particularly want to be seen. He continues to gnaw on his lower lip and think about all this. ‘Are you pissed at me for some reason?’

‘What? No,’ Derek texts back. ‘Why?’

All three of those texts are sent in quick succession, as if he wants to make sure the idea doesn’t linger in Stiles’ brain. That makes Stiles feel a little better. ‘I dunno, you just sort of seem that way.’

This time there’s a long pause before Derek texts back, ‘I’m not good at this sort of thing.’

‘Ok, I can feel ya there,’ Stiles replies. ‘We’ll muddle through somehow, I guess.’

Satisfied with his research, at least for the time being, Stiles tosses aside both his phone and his program. Skyrim is calling.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Two days later, Stiles and Scott are standing outside the Beacon Hills Plaza Hotel, the only one in town big enough to host any sort of convention. Stiles is trying not to let his reluctance show. Despite the fact that he assured Derek he didn’t mind, he’s not looking forward to demonstrating exactly how many things he isn’t good at. “This is gonna suck,” he says.

“No, we’re gonna do great,” Scott says, with his usual disgusting optimism. Stiles shakes his head and follows him inside. Scott is studying a map of the hotel. “What do you want to do first?”

Stiles flips open the program. There are several categories. He immediately summarizes them in his head. “Okay, our choices are basket-weaving and macaroni art, violence, obsolete skill sets, and athletic shit we won’t be able to do. Preferences?”

Scott chews on his lower lip and doesn’t argue with Stiles’ summaries. “Obsolete skill sets,” he decides.

“Excellent choice. That is in the Roosevelt Room.” Stiles heads down the hallway to their left and Scott follows, reading the program as he walks.

“This looks mostly like wilderness survival stuff,” he says. “Building fires, first aid, knot-tying . . . but it’s not all obsolete, there’s mechanics and carpentry and stuff.”

“Right,” Stiles says, “because what matters to werewolves is whether or not their mate can build a solid shelf. Weren’t you trying to tell me that this shit wasn’t stupid?”

“Well, maybe it’s like . . . where they try to find someone who has common interests,” Scott suggests. “Like, someone who’s artsy is going to look for someone who’s in the room doing the wood carving and leather work and stuff, right?”

“You’re hopeless,” Stiles says. “Let’s go tie some knots.”

“Speak for yourself, I’m going for first aid,” Scott says. “I actually know some of that shit.”

“Fair,” Stiles says. The Roosevelt Room is big, about the size of half a football field, and there are tables and booths set up all over the place. It looks like a science fair, and Stiles laughs despite himself. It all seems so patently ridiculous to him. It’s just an excuse for the big athletic guys to show off while everyone else gets discouraged. He’s surprised that there isn’t a room for the women just entitled ‘show up naked, bring beer’.

But what the hell, maybe he can actually learn something, and if he’s ever stranded in the woods for weeks, he’ll know how to survive. He heads over to the fire-starting station. His family had gone camping on occasion when he was younger, but not since his mother died and his father became the sheriff. They rarely took any sort of vacation anymore. Back then, he had been too young to really learn any of this stuff. He had been in Boy Scouts for about six months after his mother had died – his father’s effort to keep him busy when he didn’t have his shit together well enough to do any parenting – but Stiles had hated it and rarely paid attention.

So he hangs out and learns how to start a fire and actually impresses a guy by knowing that you can start one by pressing the right kind of battery against steel wool, and also that dryer lint in a toilet paper tube makes a great firestarter – boys will be boys, after all – and then wanders over to the ‘how to identify plants in the forest and not kill yourself by eating poisonous mushrooms’ and actually gets so engrossed that he winds up taking notes and pictures with his phone. It’s not until an hour later that he wanders over to the knot-tying station.

There’s a woman standing there, pretty face creased into a frown as she attempts to make a bowline knot. She looks up as Stiles comes over and lets out a little laugh. “I’m terrible at this; I think I’m going to wind up accidentally tying myself to the table.”

Stiles grins at her. “Wanna play cat’s cradle? We could probably end up tied together.”

“I’m too old for you,” she jokes back. “Oh, I’m Jennifer. Jennifer Blake.”

“Stiles,” he says, shaking her hand. He studies her, the sweater and jeans she’s wearing, the practical hairdo that has her brown hair swept back from her face. She’s wearing a choker around her neck. It’s tasteful, but it’s a collar, and here, it can only mean one thing. “Hey, didn’t I see you at the moonrise party – weren’t you with that hot alpha?”

Jennifer blushes a little. “Kali. She was, uh, showing me around.”

“Then why are you worried about your knot-tying skills?” Stiles asks, with a snort. “Sounds like you already landed a whale.”

“Well, yeah, but . . . that puts even more pressure on, in a way,” Jennifer says. “I mean . . . if I just skipped out of all this stuff, that would make her look bad, you know?”

“Yeah, I know that feel,” Stiles says, with a sigh. “Here, lemme see that. You’re just not lacing the end through both loops, that’s all.”

They chat for a little while. Jennifer is an English teacher who had come all the way from Idaho, but apparently it paid off, since she had gotten chosen by an alpha basically as soon as she walked in through the door. Stiles finds himself curious about this, and since she seems friendly, he asks, “So was it like . . . really like they say in the stories? I mean, did you feel an instant connection?”

“I did,” Jennifer says. “I know that a lot of people are really skeptical of all the romantic stuff, but I just . . . Kali looked at me and it was like everything inside me knew. That we were meant to be together.”

“That’s pretty romantic, I’ve gotta admit,” Stiles says. “And she obviously felt the same way, right?”

“Yeah.” A slight blush colors Jennifer’s cheeks again. “I mean, she was standing with three or four other people, talking with them, and as soon as I came in she just looked at me and . . . went right for me. And basically wouldn’t even talk to anyone else after that.” Jennifer manages to execute a perfect bowline knot and smiles at him. “Did you feel the same way? About the guy I saw you with at the party?”

“Uhhh . . .” Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head and wonders how to handle this. “I guess I felt something? I’m just not sure what it was. But he certainly felt it. I mean, he did the same thing you’re saying Kali did. Just snatched me up and then wouldn’t give anyone else the time of day. Maybe I just don’t have the right sense for it. Or maybe I was just distracted by the fact that he’s really hot and I’m sixteen.”

Jennifer laughs again. “I guess it’s pretty unusual for the teenagers to choose or get chosen.”

“So it would seem,” Stiles says, “but Derek’s only twenty-one so we’re not super creepy. Even if he’ll have to wait two years to get some.”

Jennifer shakes her head and says something about teenaged boys, and she decides to go do the edible plants thing, so since Stiles has already done that, he goes over to First Aid. He’s actually pretty good at this stuff – one can’t hang around Scott and Melissa McCall without absorbing medical knowledge through osmosis – so it isn’t as bad as it could be.

About three hours have gone by when he’s finished with that, and Scott has managed to fumble his way through a similar number of stations, so they decide to call it a day. “Did you talk to any werewolves?” Stiles asks him.

“Dude, I don’t even know if there were any werewolves here,” Scott says, his voice glum.

Stiles has to admit that he has a point. Not that he thinks he’ll recognize every werewolf around, but everyone he recognized was human. “Maybe they stick with the violence and athletics,” he says.

Which is why they find themselves in the athletics room the next day. Neither of them are exactly terrible at athletics, but, well. Scott is asthmatic and so doing anything that requires exertion usually knocks him flat after about five minutes, and Stiles has managed to injure himself while falling out of chairs, so they tend to avoid sports for their own safety. They play lacrosse, if ‘play’ can be used as a synonym for ‘sit on the bench and pine hopelessly for the field’.

The athletics section is a lot bigger than the obsolete life skills section. For one thing, it’s outside. They’ve devoted two entire parking lots for basketball and soccer. Then they’ve commandeered areas at the local high school for tennis, volleyball, and baseball. There’s a rock climbing wall, hurdles, and even ping pong. They’ve also taken over the pool for a variety of water sports.

Stiles and Scott head straight for the ping pong, because they’d both prefer to live through the day without abrasions. They play against each other for a while, watching people come and go. Again, it seems mostly populated by humans, although this time he does see some werewolves. Several of the humans are wearing collars, and often have a werewolf hovering by them.

Stiles joins the soccer game long enough to nearly break his leg while Scott plays volleyball, which he’s decent at because it doesn’t involve a lot of running. Then they meet back up and decide to tackle the rock wall. Just as they get over to it, they hear someone swearing. “What’s up?” Scott asks, seeing Isaac.

“Erica’s stuck,” he says, pointing upwards.

“Shit,” Stiles says, looking up at where Erica’s clinging. “Just let go, Erica!” he calls out. “They’ll lower you back down in the harness!”

It seems sensible enough, but Erica just clings to the wall more fiercely. “Hell,” Scott says, grabbing a harness and starting up. Boyd runs over, but by the time he gets there, Stiles has already grabbed the remaining harness and is getting it on. Scott is halfway up the wall, and Stiles starts up on Erica’s other side. He’s not great at this kind of stuff, but he can do it as long as he moves slowly.

By the time he reaches the top, Scott is talking quietly to Erica, trying to calm her down. Stiles edges over and gets an arm around her waist. Scott grabs her from the other side. “Have you got us?” he shouts.

“Yeah, we’ve got you,” Boyd calls back. Together, they manage to get Erica to let go, and Boyd and Isaac carefully lower them to the ground. Boyd reaches out to make sure Erica’s okay, as Scott gets her out of the harness. Erica’s trembling and pale, but it only takes her a moment to move from the paralyzing fear onto the bitter self-loathing. While Boyd is trying to cheer her up, Stiles looks around and sees a couple familiar faces. A group of the werewolves have gathered around them.

He spots Cora on their fringes, and nudges Isaac. “Go talk to her,” he hisses.

“What? I, uh,” Isaac says.

“Yeah, dude, go talk to her,” Scott says, contributing his boundless enthusiasm.

“Find out why they’re all watching us,” Stiles says. Isaac hesitates, then ducks his head a little and heads over. Stiles can’t hear their conversation, but he sees Cora scowling magnificently at Isaac as he offers her a hesitant hello. But her posture eases up a little as they start to chat. Scott is distracting Erica and Boyd by telling them that they should all go out for ice cream together. It’s hot, they’ve been working out, they all need a break, especially Erica.

Isaac rejoins them as they’re heading for the parking lot. Stiles has the Jeep, but the others all walked. He lets them load in. Erica sits on Boyd’s lap, so he takes care to drive slowly, since they aren’t all belted in. There’s an ice cream place a few miles away. They all get a cone and sit down around one of the tables.

“So what was up with the werewolf spectators?” Stiles asks Isaac.

“They were probably hoping I would fall,” Erica says, biting viciously at her ice cream.

Isaac shakes his head a little. “They weren’t really watching you, Erica. They were watching us. Working together.” He licks at his cone. “Cora said that . . . humans who can pull together in an emergency are considered good potential pack members. Because pack is all about working together.”

“That makes sense,” Stiles says. “They wouldn’t want someone who couldn’t take orders or work with others.”

“Yeah,” Isaac says. “So, you know, the four of us working together to make sure Erica got down safely, I guess that was a good thing. Not, like, so good that everyone’s going to be all over us. But I guess it drew some attention to us. So the wolves who haven’t chosen yet will be watching us.”

“Does that count you?” Scott asks, grinning at him. “Cora seems to like you.”

“No, she just glares at me a lot,” Isaac says.

“I’m beginning to think that that is a sign of affection from a Hale,” Stiles says, with a snort. “But hey, working together, okay, we can do that. Are you guys doing the paintball?”

“I wasn’t going to,” Boyd says.

“Well, you are now,” Stiles tells him. Boyd rolls his eyes. “Everyone else is going to be all one-on-one, right? If we actually form a team, I bet we can do really well.”

“Maybe,” Boyd allows. Erica still looks angry and depressed. Stiles makes a mental note to make sure she does well at the paintball. Maybe Derek can help him find a way to help her attract some attention. He’ll have to think about that.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Derek knows that he can’t hide from Laura forever. But he still tries. Because as much as he loves his sister, her bossiness can get on his nerves. Especially when he knows that she’s right, and he’s being a coward, and she’s going to call him that to his face any minute now.

“ – and then Isaac and his friend, the big black kid, helped lower them down,” Cora is saying, her mouth full of mashed potatoes. Laura’s a tolerable cook, but she doesn’t make anything special. They order takeout a lot. “A bunch of the wolves were watching, and shit, but nobody made a move on your man, Derek. I kept an eye on him for you.”

Derek mutters something that’s supposedly a thank you.

“And this charming Isaac?” Peter asks, twirling his fork in one hand. “When are you going to actually indicate that you’re interested in him?”

Cora scowls at her uncle and flushes pink. “What makes you think that I am?”

“The fact that you’re continuously talking about him without talking about him,” Peter says, which is true. The last forty-eight hours have been a lot of Cora talking about what she’s seen of the humans, but every time Isaac comes up, she changes the subject. Laura is smirking on her side of the table, and Derek feels a pang of sympathy for his younger sister. She’s like him: standoffish, anti-social, and really wishing others would let them be that way.

“Laura told me I didn’t have to choose,” Cora snaps, “so mind your own business.”

Peter lifts his hands in surrender, trying not to smile. “How about you, Laura? Have you seen your young man again?”

“I talked to him a little while yesterday,” she said. “He was signing up for the shooting tournament.”

“And?” Cora asks.

“And what?” Laura asks.

“Well, does he have a name?” she replies.

Laura sighs. “Yes. His name is Gordon. He used to be in the military, was discharged two years ago, and now he works doing home security. I’m by far not the only werewolf who has indicated interest in him, so I’m trying to be subtle.”

“The only thing you’re doing by being subtle is sending mixed signals,” Peter tells her. “If you don’t want someone else claiming him, you’d better do it yourself.”

Laura scowls at him but doesn’t actively argue, slicing into her steak. “Where’ve you been the past couple days, Derek?”

“Here,” Derek says, without thinking.

“You’re supposed to be down at the ceremonies,” Laura reminds him. “I mean, you should at least put in an appearance. You claimed somebody, for God’s sake, even if you didn’t do it officially you wouldn’t let anyone else touch him after the full moon run, so it might as well be the same thing. You need to be down there, making sure nobody else makes a move on him.”

Derek just stabs viciously at his cauliflower. “The whole thing is degrading,” he snarls. “He’s down there pretending to be a Boy Scout to make me look good. It’s fucking humiliating.”

Laura blinks at him for several long moments. “Holy shit, you actually like him,” she says. She sounds stunned, and Derek’s lip curls involuntarily. “I was moving up on eighty percent sure that you had only picked him to fuck with me or the other werewolves in general, but no, you actually have a thing for him.”

“Well, so what if I do,” Derek retorts. He ignores the likelihood that Stiles feels anywhere near the same way. “Aren’t I supposed to have a ‘thing’ for the person I chose as my mate?”

“Well, yeah, but the way you two were acting was a little . . . unusual,” Laura finally says. “I guess that’s probably just because of your attitude in general. Anyway, I’m serious. Get your ass down to the hotel tomorrow and check in on him. If you don’t, the others will start to think that he’s available and they can snake him out from under you just to piss you off.”

Derek sighs. “Fine. I’ll . . . put in an appearance.” He continues to shove his food around on the plate. “We’re doing the maze together, anyway.”

“Good,” Laura says. She darts a glance at Peter and says, “Maybe I’ll ask Gordon if he wants to do it with me.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea,” Peter says, and all three Hale siblings roll their eyes.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Stiles decides to visit the violence room the next day. Scott feels leery about this and wants to go do the art stuff instead, so Stiles tells him to have a good time, learn some new skills, maybe talk to some people. As soon as he enters the convention room that has the violent equipment, he wishes he had gone with Scott. He just feels . . . small. Everyone there probably has at least fifty pounds of muscle on him.

But he sticks it out, because he thinks an appearance in this room will serve him better than an appearance in the art room. He wanders from a booth displaying knives, to a roped off ring where two guys are boxing, to a woman demonstrating martial arts moves. A lot of it is actually quite interesting. There are sign-ups for a shooting tournament the next week. He thinks about it, then puts his name down. His aim isn’t exactly anything to write home about, but it’s fair.

“Are you kidding me?” a guy twice his age and size asks him. “You’re signing up for that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Stiles says. “I’ve known the basics of how to handle a firearm since I was four. What’s it to you?”

This is a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. His father had indeed sat him down when he was four and given him The Gun Lecture. At that point, it had basically consisted of ‘do not touch one of these, ever’. A similar lecture at six had been ‘do not touch one of these unless I am standing right there and have told you that it’s okay’. The lectures had been upgraded each year until the age of twelve, when his father had given him the full gun safety talk. Always assume a gun is loaded, even if you just checked it, never point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot, don’t fire at hard surfaces or into the air, et cetera. There were guns in his house. His father was a cop. He was familiar with them and comfortable with them. And since he had always been interested in a career in law enforcement, his father had never discouraged this, and had taken him to the range enough times to teach him the basics of shooting. He’s okay with a rifle, too. They had gone hunting a couple times when he was a teenager. That was when he had famously discovered how squeamish he was.

“I hope you enjoy getting your ass kicked,” the guy says. He’s wearing loose military fatigue pants and an olive green T-shirt. No dog tags, Stiles notes. His hair is long and he reeks of cigarette smoke. “And I sure as hell hope you don’t think you’re going to attract a werewolf that way.”

Another man wanders over, dressed similarly and looking equally macho. His mustache makes him look eerily similar to a walrus. “What’s going on here?” he asks.

“Babyface here is signing up for the shooting tournament,” Macho Asshole One says with a snort.

“Fuckin’ A,” the second guy says. “Bad enough that Fancy Pants is joining up. What’s the world coming to?”

“Fancy Pants?” Stiles asks skeptically, and one of the men gives a short, sharp gesture. Stiles follows the direction of it to see the man Laura had been talking to at the moonrise ceremony. He’s dressed just as sharply as he had been the other two times, this time in a button down shirt, neatly pressed pants, and a tie. His sleeves are rolled up and his dark hair is slicked back. He’s talking to a woman and showing her a knife, handling it with ease. Stiles thinks for a moment about pointing out many of the things he’s noticed about this man – he’s clearly intelligent, comfortable with weapons, dresses in a manner that indicates attention to detail, and has attracted the attention of at least three different werewolves – but decides against it. If these idiots aren’t smart enough to figure out what the werewolves are actually looking for in a mate, he’s not going to enlighten them.

“Anyway,” the first thug says, and leans over to cross out Stiles’ name off the sign-up sheet. He squints at it. “What the hell kind of name is that?”

“Mine,” Stiles says.

He draws a thick black line through it, scribbling it out with a pencil. “There’s no place for kids in this room.”

“Seriously?” Stiles says. “Are you nine? I can sign up for anything I want.”

“Says who?” thug two guffaws.

“Uh, the rule book, asshole,” Stiles says.

“Is there a problem here?” a quiet voice says. It’s Fancy Pants himself, who apparently has noticed their attention, which, Stiles thinks, of course he has. He’s no longer holding the knife, but Stiles recognizes his stance from the police training he’s observed. Loose, easy, on the balls of his feet. He’s ready for a fight. The two macho thugs in their fake military clothes have no idea what’s about to happen to them.

“Yeah,” thug number one says. “We’re sick of kids and fags trying to steal our prospects, is what.”

The man arches an eyebrow. “Not that I’m endorsing the concept behind your statement, but if I was gay, I wouldn’t be stealing your prospects, unless you are as well.”

“You calling me queer?” thug one bristles.

Fancy Pants looks like he’s getting a headache. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, you’ve accurately detected the meaning behind my words. Good job.” Shaking his head a little, he looks at Stiles. “Signing up for the tournament?” he asks.

“Yes, sir, I – ” Stiles starts, before thug one throws the first punch. Fancy Pants catches it without even looking up, twists the man’s wrist around, and slams him to the floor. It’s hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Thug two charges forward and careens right over Fancy’s shoulder when he ducks out of the way. He’s just getting to his feet when Fancy turns around, steps into his personal space, and dislocates his shoulder with a quick move. He howls and staggers backwards.

Within forty seconds, both men are writhing on the floor. The man straightens up and tucks a single stray hair back behind his ear. “Sorry. You were saying?”

“Uh,” Stiles says, blinking. He had been expecting the fight, but it had been fast. “You’re . . . not a werewolf, right?”

The man’s lips twitch and the space around his eyes crinkles in that almost-smile that Stiles had seen him direct at Laura. “No. Former Marine.” He holds out a hand. “Gordon James.”

“Stiles.” They shake hands. “I thought it was frowned upon to say ‘former Marine’. Like, once a Marine, always a Marine.”

“Ex-Marine is the frowned upon term,” Gordon says. “Former Marine is fine. I’m surprised you know that.”

“My dad had some friends in the military,” Stiles says.

“Did he serve?”

“No. He’s the sheriff. That’s why I’m familiar with guns and know how to shoot them,” he adds, casting a significant look at the two men on the floor. “Though I might be a little rusty. It’s been a while.”

Gordon’s lips twitch again. “They’ve got a range set up in the parking lot, if you wanted to refresh your memory.”

“Thanks but no thanks. My dad has a membership at one; I’ll go there on my own.”

“You don’t want to show off?” Gordon asks, then gives his head a little shake. “No, I suppose you don’t need to, since you’ve already been claimed. Laura’s younger brother, right? I saw you two together at the Moonrise Ceremony.”

Stiles isn’t surprised that he noticed. “Yeah. Though, I mean, he hasn’t claimed me officially, but I think that’s just because he didn’t want to scare me off. But hey, you’re not doing too badly for yourself, right? I mean, Laura’s an alpha. And I saw you with one or two other werewolves, I think.”

Gordon nods a little. “Apparently I’m a hot commodity,” he says, and he sounds a little amused. “But no one’s staked an official claim on me, either. I think a lot of them pretended to be interested in me because they saw me with Laura.” He idly puts a foot on one of the thug’s chests as he tries to struggle to his feet. “There’s a lot more politics to this than I would have expected.”

“Me too,” Stiles says. “It’s like a land mine. Like, I agreed to go to the moonrise ceremony with Derek, and now I’m half afraid that if I don’t learn how to tie knots and play tennis, I’m going to make a bad impression and his whole family will lose their territory. It’s impossible to say how much of this is bullshit for show and how much actually matters.”

“I imagine we’re not supposed to know,” Gordon says. He glances up as hotel security is starting over. “You might want to go learn something while I deal with this.”

Stiles nods and heads for one of the martial arts booths. The woman there is nice, so he spends several hours there and actually manages to successfully execute a throw by the time he’s done. After that, he decides he’s done enough for the day. He doesn’t see Gordon or anyone else he knows, so he heads for the exit.

He nearly walks face-first into Derek as he’s leaving and stumbles in surprise. Derek grabs him and keeps him on his feet. “Oh,” he says. “Hi.”

He doesn’t exactly sound thrilled to see Stiles, but Stiles chooses to overlook that. “Hey. We still on for the maze on Saturday?”

“Yeah,” Derek says. “Sure.”

“You should come to the paintball game Friday. You know. Cheer me on.” Stiles wonders if he’s babbling. “If, uh, if that’s something you’re supposed to do, anyway. Cheer me on.”

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Derek says.

“Good. Uh.” Stiles really, really hates the way Derek just clams up when they’re around any of this mating bullshit. He looks tense enough to snap. “I need a break from all this stuff,” he blurts out. “You want to go see a movie? We should probably be seen together outside anyway, right? That’s why there’s all the shops downtown and the special run at the movie theater and discounts at restaurants and everything. Because you’re supposed to take your mate around and show them off.”

Derek’s eyebrows draw into a frown. Then he huffs a little and says. “Yeah, okay. That’s a good idea. What do you want to do?”

Something not intimate, Stiles’ brain immediately supplies. “Well, you’ve gotta take me to see I Was a Teenage Werewolf, right? It’s a double at the drive-in with The Wolfman. We can grab some food beforehand.”

There’s a long moment where Derek just blinks at him, like he’s trying to decide whether or not Stiles is joking. Then his face cracks into a grudging smile. “Okay,” he says.

“Pick me up at seven, yeah?” Stiles says, and Derek nods.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The Beacon Hills paintball center is about the size of two football fields side-by-side, and although it’s normally partitioned into smaller areas for smaller groups, Laura had reserved the entire place for the day. It’s outside, so Stiles and Scott decided to go after hours and explore a bit. There’s night paintball, but the courts close at ten.

At eleven PM, Scott boosts Stiles over the fence and Stiles lets him in. They spend an hour carefully mapping out the complex and planning strategy. “Isn’t this cheating?” Scott asks at one point, forehead wrinkling with consternation.

“Did you see a rule against it?” Stiles asks.

“Well, no,” Scott replies.

“Okay then,” Stiles says. “If other people don’t think of it, that’s not our problem, right?”

That seems fair to Scott. They don’t have a lot of time; the match is the next day, starting at one o’clock. He texts Erica, but Boyd and Isaac don’t have smart phones, so Scott calls them the next morning and they meet at the Stilinski house. Over coffee and donuts, Scott outlines their strategy. Stiles lets him take the lead. Boyd and Isaac seem to like him better, and Erica’s still jealous that he’s gotten a werewolf all to himself.

“How’d your date with Derek go?” she asks, as they’re suiting up.

“What date?” he asks.

Erica gives him an incredulous look. “You know, the part where you two went out to dinner and to the movies?” she prompts.

“Oh, that,” Stiles says.

Oh, that?” Erica echoes. “If you don’t appreciate him, I can take him off your hands, Stilinski. I’m starting to think that he’s too much man for you.”

“Quite possibly,” Stiles agrees, picking up two cartridges of paintball pellets. He sees Scott looking at him and says, “No, uh, it was fun. You know. I guess I’m still just getting used to all of this.” It had been fun. They had eaten Mexican food and Derek had been surprisingly tolerant as Stiles talked about stupid things that he probably couldn’t care less about. The movies were fun. They had popcorn. At one point Stiles’ hand brushed Derek’s when they reached for the popcorn at the same time. It was so cliché that he could have died, but his heart beat suspiciously fast in his chest. Derek had given him an odd look, but hadn’t said anything about it.

Stiles has a feeling that his growing attraction to Derek is going to lead to disaster. With a werewolf who can hear his heartbeat and smell his pheromones, he won’t be able to keep it hidden forever. He doesn’t want to make things weird, and he’s well aware that bowing out now would have disastrous consequences for the Hale pack. Derek had been right about not realizing what he was getting himself into – although Stiles thinks that really, Derek should have warned him how difficult backing out would be. As far as he can tell, it hadn’t occurred to Derek that anyone would really pay that much attention to his choice, or care about what happened to him. That was about as far from true as it could get. Or maybe Derek was just willing to take the hit. He seems to have some Issues surrounding what had happened to his pack, something that Stiles can’t really blame him for.

He shakes himself back to the present as the warning bell goes off. They have five minutes to make it to their starting positions.

To keep the game from going on forever, and to keep people from simply hiding while the action moves around them, flags have been distributed throughout the field. Some of them are in plain sight, and some are hidden. The more a player gets, the better his score. Score will also be tallied based on how many other players someone takes out.

There are no teams, but there are no rules against working together, either, which is what Stiles and Scott have decided to take advantage of. Stiles is willing to bet that everyone else is in the ‘every man for himself’ mindset, and he turns out to be right. For the first half hour or so of the game, they do quite well. Some practice revealed that Isaac and Scott have the best aim, so they take cover positions while the others try to grab flags. Stiles usually takes point, because it’s the least important to him if he makes it through the game. He, after all, already has a werewolf.

They’ve collected seven flags – a good tally considering there are a hundred total and probably three times that many contestants – and are taking a few minutes to lie low in a shallow trench and take stock.

“Can anyone see the game clock?” Erica asked, peeking over the lip of the trench.

“I can,” Boyd says. “It’s been just under an hour. Eighty-two flags have been found and there are only forty people left in.”

“Nice,” Scott says.

From above them, they hear the solid smack of a paintball striking someone and then a fervent swear. That doesn’t surprise Stiles. They’re camped out near a cluster of flags. Five of them all in a bundle, on top of a pole. It’s such a temptation that so far, everyone has avoided it. But with fewer flags left to find, apparently someone decided to go for it. Several someones. Over the next five minutes, Stiles watches four people all try to get to those flags and all get sniped. The shot comes from the same direction every time.

“Hey, guys,” he says, “I’ve got an idea. I think we can get those five flags. But we’re going to have to be creative . . .”

He sets it up carefully. The general idea is that Scott and Boyd will create a diversion by shooting at each other. Scott will stay in the trench and Boyd will take it as it curves around and find shelter behind one of the stacks of hay bales. “Show yourselves just often enough that the sniper will keep himself focused on you,” Stiles tells them. “No one else will come near here with you guys shooting at each other, but just in case, Erica, you cover Boyd, and Isaac, you cover Scott. I’ll signal you when it’s safe.”

He gives them a minute to get into position. They then start poking their heads up like whack-a-moles. The sniper takes one shot when Erica presents a tempting target, but then decides to conserve his ammunition. Stiles follows the trench about twenty yards and crawls out behind a tree. There are fewer people on the court now, but he still has to be careful.

The sniper has set himself up on the higher ground, crouched behind a screen of shrubs. Stiles creeps up behind him, waiting to get close enough to get a sure shot. He’s not sure what gives him away, but the man suddenly spins around, the muzzle of his paintball gun whipping up. Stiles pulls the trigger and they fire almost simultaneously, and both of them get a solid hit.

“Ah, fuck,” the man says, and laughs. He pulls off his mask and Stiles realizes that it’s Gordon. “Nice one, kid. Which one of us do you think tagged the other first?”

“I think we’d need slow motion cameras to figure it out.” Stiles points his gun down at the field and fires three rapid shots at the ground by the flags. A moment later, Isaac and Scott dart out and grab them.

“Those your friends down there?” Gordon asks.

Stiles nods. “Yep. And now they have ten flags between the four of them.”

“But you’re out,” Gordon says.

Stiles shrugs. “I didn’t need to stay in as badly as they did. I’ve already got myself a werewolf. So I figured if one of us had to take the suicide mission, it should be me.”

Gordon gives him a thoughtful look, and then his face creases in that smile that’s mostly around his eyes. “Tell me you at least thought to grab a couple of their flags,” he says.

“I took two. Didn’t want to be greedy.”

The two of them head for the exit and go past the volunteer who’s collecting all the gear. Gordon had collected five flags, a fairly impressive tally, before settling into his sniper position. “Got tired of running around,” he says. “Figured I had enough flags, so I would lay low until the action had died down a bit.”

Stiles turns in his gear and then smiles as he sees Derek walking over. His smile fades a little as he sees the set scowl on Derek’s face. “Hey,” he says. He’s suddenly afraid that he handled this all wrong, that he shouldn’t have been working with the others, that he’s made Derek look bad somehow. He’s not even sure how to ask, not in front of everyone. “Uh, everything okay?”

“I’ve spent the last hour sitting in the sun, bored out of my skull,” Derek says. “We can’t really see what’s going on in there. I’ve been waiting forever.”

Stiles frowns. “I’m sorry, but are you annoyed at me for doing well in the match and taking too long to get tagged out?”

“Um . . .” Derek’s eyebrows knit together. “Yes.”

Stiles lets out a snort of laughter. “Okay. Just so we’re all on the same page.”

Further commentary on Derek’s social ineptitude has to wait, because Laura walks over at that point and her gaze lands on Gordon. A slight flush rises in her cheeks, and she says, “Five flags, not bad.”

“Thanks,” Gordon says, smiling at her. “You’re looking good yourself.”

Laura chews on her lower lip for a few minutes as if trying to work herself up to something, then says, “Were you planning on running the maze tomorrow?”

“I hear you need a partner of the werewolf persuasion to do that,” Gordon says.

“Well,” Laura says, “it just so happens that I’m a werewolf looking for a human partner, so clearly we should join forces so you can get revenge on Stiles for knocking you out of the running today.”

“You’re on,” Gordon says, with a smirk. To Stiles, he adds, “Better watch out.”

“Bring it,” Stiles says.

About ten minutes later, the game officially ends. Scott and the others emerge triumphant. There’s no ‘winners’ per se, but they all scored fairly well. They split up the flag between themselves, and none of them have gotten tagged out. Each of them managed to tag out a fair number of other people, so they’re as close to being winners as they can get. Almost all the werewolves are milling around at this point. A small group of teenagers stops to talk with them. Scott winds up chatting with Carlie for a little while, and Erica finds herself standing with two young men who are both a couple years older than her. She manages to be suave about it, even though she’s obviously exhausted by the afternoon. Boyd is hovering by her, obviously trying not to stay too close but wanting to keep an eye on her.

“Hey, I’ll take you home,” Stiles tells her. “Anyone else want a ride? Scott?”

“I, uh, I’m gonna hang out here,” Scott says, although Carlie has wandered off at this point. “Wingman Isaac,” he adds, and Stiles glances over to see the curly-haired teenager talking with Cora. She’s actually not scowling for once, and is standing a little closer to him than propriety might have otherwise dictated.

Boyd decides to stay as well, so Stiles says goodbye, awkwardly waves to Derek, and heads for the car. Erica thumps into the passenger seat of the Jeep.

“So what’s with you and Boyd?” Stiles asks her.

“What? Nothing,” she says.

“Uh huh,” Stiles says. “C’mon, are you two dating or what?”

Erica shoots him a look, then shrugs. “We talked about it. I mean, he’s . . . nice. I like him. And he likes me. But I still really want to get chosen. Maybe if neither of us does . . . we’ll talk about it again.”

Stiles nods. It seems reasonable enough to him. He wishes again that Laura could just pick some people for her pack and turn them. It would solve so many problems. But since she can’t, he’ll just have to do his best to help Erica and the others. “Well, you guys did great today, and I saw a couple guys talking to you, right? So maybe between that and the new moon dance, we can get you a nice werewolf.”

“Yeah,” she says, and huffs out a sigh. “Sorry I was, you know, a bitch. About you having gotten picked already. You’ve really helped us out even though you don’t really have a reason to.”

“Hey, you know, any friend of Scott’s,” Stiles says.

He drops her off and heads back to the house. He has some prep to do before the maze.

The basic concept of it is simple. A huge maze was constructed in a field outside town. The humans go in first and have to find their way to the other end. Then their partner goes in and tracks them by scent, so both partners are tested – the humans for how quickly they can solve the maze, and the werewolf for how quickly they can find their mate.

Stiles isn’t worried. The maze is constructed out of wood and has no roof. He had already gone to Google Earth, taken a snapshot of it, and plotted a route out. The humans would enter from either end in staggered batches so they wouldn’t all be tripping over each other, but it shouldn’t be too difficult.

“Heard you did well at paintball today,” his father says at dinner that night, and Stiles nearly drops his sandwich.

“Uh, yeah, well,” he says. “Who, uh, who exactly did you hear that from?”

Sheriff Stilinski arches an eyebrow at him. “Might I remind you that I helped Laura Hale plan this whole thing? That I did the background checks on all the applicants for her, that I helped her choose venues and helped Derek set up and screen security? Do you think it would be that difficult for me to find out what’s happening at the events my son is attending?”

“No?” Stiles hazards. His father gives him an unimpressed look. “It’s just paintball, Dad. Geez.” He takes another bite of his sandwich. “Did you, uh, did you ever talk to Laura?”

“I did,” his father replies.

Stiles waits. “And?” he finally says.

“And she promised me that she’d look out for you, and that she didn’t think anyone was going to kick up too much of a fuss. Apparently, if someone is going to challenge her, they’ll challenge her.”

Stiles wonders if that’s why she hasn’t staked an official claim on Gordon yet. If she’s too nervous that someone will challenge her, and she’ll lose both her potential mate and her pack. “Well, that’s good, right? And I’m watching out for myself, too. Gonna do the maze tomorrow.” He wipes ketchup off his lip, then adds, “Oh, and uh . . . there’s a shooting tournament next week that I signed up for. If you’ve got time, could you take me down to the range for a refresher course?”

“Don’t see why not,” Sheriff Stilinski says. “A tournament, huh? Maybe I’ll stop by to cheer you on.”

“Sure, Dad,” Stiles says, perking up. “You totally should. I’m gonna wipe the floor with these guys.”

His father just shakes his head a little. Stiles grins and heads up to his room. He texts with Scott and plays video games for a while before falling asleep. The next morning, he dresses casually and heads out to the maze. He has a ten fifteen entry time. It’s done alphabetically by werewolf, so Gordon is starting five minutes after him. He wonders if Cora asked Isaac, but doesn’t see either of them there.

Derek is there waiting, scowling, but his expression unbends somewhat when Stiles greets him with a box of donut holes. He gives Stiles this look like he’s from another planet, and he has no idea why this alien is being so nice to him.

Stiles has thought about giving Derek a copy of his route, but decided against it. He doesn’t want the werewolf to get weird about ‘cheating’. So he just doesn’t say anything about it. Instead, he says, “So, do you need to smell me or something?”

“What?” Derek asks, giving him a look of incredulity.

“Well, you’re supposed to follow my scent, right?” Stiles says. “So . . . do you need to smell me?”

Derek rubs a hand over his face. “Stiles,” he says, “I know your scent. I knew it within thirty seconds of meeting you. Don’t . . . please stop trying to help me.”

“Man, somebody got up on the wrong side of bed,” Stiles says, blowing Derek a kiss as he heads to the maze’s entrance. He sees Derek scowling behind him and that just makes his grin widen. Then, he almost misses it, a reluctant smile tugs at the corners of Derek’s lips. Stiles turns away quickly before he can melt into a puddle of warm goo.

The volunteer at the maze’s entrance glances at his watch, waits a beat, and then says, “Okay, go.”

Stiles jogs into the maze without waiting. He’s memorized the first turn, so he can get out of sight before pulling out the map.

The best time on the maze so far is nine and a half minutes. The average is fifteen, and the highest so far has been one poor sap who came out the entrance twice and finally managed to complete it after half an hour. Stiles thinks that whoever did it in nine minutes and change must have had the same idea as him, because he makes it in ten. Then he just gets to wait. He doubts it’ll take long for Derek to follow him.

Gordon comes out first, however, having started five minutes after Stiles. His time is just under twelve minutes. “Hey, you beat me,” he says.

“I had a five minute headstart,” Stiles reminds him.

“So?” Gordon says, with a shrug.

Stiles makes a childish face at him, and Gordon laughs. “Did you consult Google Earth like I did?” Stiles asks him.

“Nope. Left-hand rule. Good strategy, though.”

“Work smarter, not harder,” Stiles says, and then Derek comes jogging out the exit. “Hey, good time!” he said.

Derek is frowning at him. Stiles is starting to learn Derek’s frowns. This is the ‘I’m trying not to look impressed with you’ frown. “Yeah,” is all he says in response. He gives Gordon a slight nod but doesn’t really engage with him. Then he looks up as the computerized scoreboard blips and they appear on it. Third place, Hale-Stilinski, eighteen minutes and four seconds total. There’s some polite applause from the audience.

“Lot of people left to go?” he asks.

“Yes,” Derek says, and Stiles nods. Since it’s alphabetic, the Hales would have been fairly near the beginning. “But most of the stiff competition has already gone, actually.”

Stiles glances at the board again. He doesn’t know Kali’s last name, but he sees the team ‘Ascher-Blake’ lower down on the list with a time of twenty-six minutes. Apparently mazes weren’t one of Jennifer’s skills. None of the other names are ones he recognizes. He doesn’t know any of the people in the two pairs that are ranked above them.

Laura emerges a few minutes later, and ‘Hale-James’ goes up onto the board right underneath ‘Hale-Stilinski’ at nineteen minutes and forty seconds. Laura wrinkles her nose at it. Gordon just laughs. Laura punches her brother in the shoulder. Derek gives her a smug smirk, a ‘you thought I had picked a dud’ sort of smirk, and casually loops an arm around Stiles’ shoulders. Stiles is sure it’s just for show, and tries to ignore the high-pitched internal screaming.

“How would you like to go get some breakfast?” Gordon asks. “My treat. You two are welcome to come along,” he adds.

“Sounds great,” Laura says, and elbows her brother.

“Sure,” he says, somewhat grudgingly.

They’ve only gotten about four steps away from the maze when there’s a shrill scream from inside. There’s a moment of shocked silence before Laura bolts away from them. She’s shifting as she goes, and goes into a crouch so she can jump up on top of the maze, a good fifteen feet above their heads. Then she starts running along the top of it. Derek is close behind her.

“Shit,” Stiles says, startled. Laura turns and gestures to her brother just before jumping down.

“Still got that map?” Gordon asks, and Stiles nods and pulls it out. Gordon looks up, judging where Laura had gone, and then says, “Come on if you’re coming.”

Stiles runs after him as he goes back into the maze. There are people coming from every direction, and wolves running above their heads. They round a corner to see a body. More accurately, they see pieces of a body. “What the hell,” Stiles blurts out. There’s blood everywhere. He doesn’t recognize the person that’s been killed, but they’ve been torn in half. Their upper half has been pinned up against the wooden wall of the maze. Blood has soaked the wall below them, where the lower half is crumpled. It looks strangely familiar to him, tugging at some memory.

“Jesus, Stiles,” Derek says, half-turning. It’s the first time that Stiles has seen him in his shifted form, and he blinks at him, almost not recognizing him. But even through that, Derek is surprisingly pale and frightened. “What are you – ”

The rest of his sentence is drowned out as other people arrive, most of them werewolves. Stiles fumbles for his phone and tugs it out of his pants pocket. He’s just about to hit the send button when somebody demands, “Who are you calling?” in a gruff, angry voice.

Stiles looks up to see a man at least a foot taller than him – and he’s by no means short – with a shaved head, tight T-shirt, and terrifying expression. He nearly falters, but manages, “Who do you think? I’m calling the cops!”

“That won’t be necessary,” The voice comes from behind him, smooth as honey with that slight accent to it. He knows that it’s Deucalion before he turns around. “These things do happen from time to time, unfortunately.”

“Uh, how about no?” Stiles suggests. “My father is the sheriff. Do you have any idea how long I’ll be grounded if I see a murder scene and don’t call him?”

“Quite a concern, I’m sure.” Deucalion sounds amused. “But when werewolves challenge each other, it does happen. It’s a risk that we all accept.” When Stiles still doesn’t put down his phone, Deucalion reaches out for it. “Give me your phone, Stiles.”

Stiles jerks his arm back. “Touch my phone and I’ll break your fingers,” he says.

The werewolf to Deucalion’s right lets out a low growl. “He said to give it to him,” he says, starting forward. Derek pushes his way in front of Stiles and snarls at the other werewolf.

“Stop it!” Laura says, pushing her way in between them. But she’s talking to the alphas, not to her brother. She takes a deep breath and then says, “Stiles, put your phone away.” Stiles opens his mouth to protest, but sees the way Laura’s staring at Deucalion, a hint of feral crimson in her eyes. But he can’t quite bring himself to agree, either. He relaxes a moment later when Laura continues, “I will call the authorities. Just because ‘it happens’ is no reason there won’t be an investigation. I’m on good terms with the law enforcement with Beacon Hills and I’m going to keep it that way.”

Stiles tucks his phone away. Deucalion just smiles at Laura and says, “I suppose if you really feel it’s necessary.”

Laura’s jaw is tight and angry. “Stiles, Gordon,” she says, “we’ll take care of this. Wait for us outside.”

Stiles is about to protest again, but Gordon’s hand on his arm stops him. He darts a glance at Derek, who nods, just a little. Reluctantly, Stiles allows Gordon to draw him away. Then behind him, he hears Laura say, “You too, Derek.”

He expects that Derek will argue and snarl, but he doesn’t. The beta werewolf just silently turns and follows the other two. Stiles supposes that he doesn’t want to argue with his alpha and diminish her standing in front of everyone else. As they’re exiting the maze, it occurs to him that there are things they should be doing. “We shouldn’t let anyone leave,” he says. “This is a crime scene. Help me explain?”

Gordon nods a little and they start shooing people back into the audience, keeping them from heading into the parking lot. Some of them argue, but most of them want to see the spectacle. Derek doesn’t look happy about it, and he keeps looking over his shoulder at the maze, like he’s nervous leaving Laura on her own.

Bare moments later, they hear sirens and police cars start to pull up. Sheriff Stilinski exits from the second and then frowns at Stiles. “What are you doing here?”

“Securing a crime scene?” Stiles says, giving his father an unsure-but-game smile. His father returns it with a now-is-not-the-time-for-your-sass frown. “Uh, I was competing in the maze, remember? Someone’s been killed.”

Stilinski’s jaw tightened. “Show me where. Not you,” he adds to Stiles.

“I’ll take you, sir,” Gordon says, heading back towards the maze. Stiles glares after them.

“Does this . . . ‘just happen’?” he asks Derek, as the cops take over the job of making sure nobody tries to run away, getting names and information.

“Sometimes,” Derek says, “but it’s rare. It’s not . . . how things are supposed to go. But sometimes tempers do flare and this sort of thing results.” He shifts restlessly before saying, “I’m going to go check on Laura.”

So now Stiles is left sitting by himself, and he’s bored, but far too curious to just leave. More police officers show up, and the coroner’s van, since an ambulance obviously isn’t necessary. A little while later, a body bag is carried out. Most of the audience departs after the police gets their information and clears them to go, since the maze run has been called off and there’s no point in sticking around.

Stiles winds up pacing around, too fidgety to just sit still. He wanders back towards the maze and sees his father standing with Laura, Derek, and Deucalion. Laura looks tired and there’s a smear of blood on her cheek. Deucalion looks smug, which makes Stiles nervous. As he approaches, his father is saying, “Okay. Let’s start with the basics. Who is the deceased?”

“Another werewolf in the competition,” Laura says. “An alpha by the name of Scarlet Rausch.”

“And did she – ” Sheriff Stilinski stops when he sees Stiles hovering just within earshot. “What are you still doing here?”

“Uh,” Stiles says. “I was, uh.”

“Never mind,” his father cuts him off. “This is a crime scene and I have work to do. This isn’t your business, Stiles. Go home.”

“I just wanted to – ” Stiles tries.

“Absolutely not,” his father says. “Derek, take him home and make sure he stays there. If he’s not home when I get there, this will be the last event he’ll be attending. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

Derek nods. “Yes, sir.”

“But, Dad, I – ”

Now, Stiles,” his father says, and Stiles slumps in defeat. He sulks his way back to the parking lot. Derek climbs into the Jeep with him. Stiles doesn’t know if he has his own car or if he came with Laura. He decides he doesn’t care. Derek can just walk home later if he’s going to be a jerk about things.

 

~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Stiles’ sulk lasts about three minutes before he decides that pumping Derek for information is a better tactic. “Okay, so, who was that werewolf that was killed? Why did Deucalion not want me to call the police? Why were you and Laura all tense about this?”

Derek scowls out the window. “Scarlet is . . . one of the main challengers. She was sniffing after Gordon, for one thing, which is why Laura had him leave. She didn’t want anyone thinking he was involved. Scarlet’s from Oregon. She actually has the territory directly north of us. Which means she’s one of the people who would gain the most with a successful challenge. She could actually expand her territory instead of just taking over a new one.”

“I get it,” Stiles says. “Some people would just give up their own territory for a prime piece of real estate like Beacon Hills, but Scarlet could actually keep her own territory and get this one.”

“Yeah,” Derek says. “So . . . Laura has motive. And if the authorities hadn’t gotten involved, I’m willing to bet Deucalion would have tried to spin it that way to turn other alphas against her.”

“What does it matter?” Stiles asks. “He was the one who was all like ‘it happens’. If another alpha is stepping on Laura’s toes, sniffing around after her mate and threatening to steal her territory, isn’t Laura kind of entitled to try to get her to back off?”

“Yes,” Derek says, “but there’s rules. You can’t just murder someone whenever you feel like it. There has to be a challenge match.”

“You’re talking about like an actual duel,” Stiles says, and Derek nods. “Okay, that’s kind of . . . awesome actually, never mind, moving on. So whoever killed Scarlet went about it in the wrong way. But that still doesn’t totally account for you and Laura being all fucked up.”

Derek’s quiet for a minute. “Did it . . . strike you as familiar at all? Not the werewolf herself. But the way her body was arranged.”

“Yeah, actually,” Stiles says, and frowns. “I wasn’t sure why.”

Another long minute of silence as Stiles waits at a light and looks at the brooding werewolf anxiously. “You were at the station that day. The day Peter was killed.”

Stiles flinches away from the memory, which starts with his usual Saturday morning ride to the station with his father, his chatter filling the car, and ends with a torn-up, bloody body nailed to the police station door. His father had tried to keep him from seeing it, but he had seen. And Derek was right. It had looked like this.

“Hunters,” Derek says, “like to cut their victims in half. It’s a way to ensure that the werewolf is dead. I’m not saying that one werewolf couldn’t or wouldn’t do it to another. But they usually don’t.”

“Uh, newsflash, Derek,” Stiles says, “I’m pretty sure that hunters don’t compete in the mating rituals.”

“I know,” Derek says.

Stiles chews on his lower lip. “If it was actually some sort of challenge, here’s the last place it should have happened. I mean, the whole idea behind the maze was that it was for werewolves who had already chosen. If two werewolves were fighting over someone, they wouldn’t have met here. And it would have been almost impossible to get into the maze without being seen. There were crowds of people by both entrances.”

“Yeah,” Derek says. He shakes his head. “Your father will handle it. He’s a good cop. Laura did the right thing, turning it over to him. She can avoid the appearance of bias that way.”

“Fair enough,” Stiles says, and shrugs it off. He’s pretty sure he’ll come back to it later, but there’s no point in stressing about it. “Come see me in the tournament on Thursday, okay? I promise I won’t embarrass you.”

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Derek says. He pulls up in front of the Stilinski house and puts the car in park. “I’d better come in, I guess. Your dad made it pretty clear that he wanted me to keep an eye on you. Even if you didn’t go anywhere, he might be pissed if I left.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t trust me for some weird reason,” Stiles says, putting on a look of wide-eyed innocence when Derek gives him a skeptical look. “You ever played Halo?”

Derek scoffs as if to say that such low-brow entertainment was below him, but he proves to be suspiciously decent at the game.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles spends the entire refresher session at the range trying to pump his father for information, but the sheriff refuses to tell him anything about the murder beyond, ‘it’s not your business’. Things at the ceremonies are a little tense, but overall it doesn’t seem to have made a huge impact. He drops by the athletics again, muddling his way through an obstacle course, and heads to the artsy rooms to try his hand at a few new skills.

About two hundred people are in the firearms competition. He doesn’t even break the top fifty with the rifle – needed more practice – but does pretty well with the handgun, taking twenty-second, which isn’t bad at all given his age and lack of experience.

Gordon takes first place with the rifle and second with the handgun. Werewolves are all over him afterwards, and he responds politely and with due diligence to everyone. Stiles sees Laura hovering on the outskirts at one point, and wonders why she isn’t approaching. One of the women, a tall werewolf with pale skin and jet black hair, spends a lot of time pressed against Gordon’s side and smirking at Laura. Gordon doesn’t peel her off, although he doesn’t particularly look like he’s enjoying it. Laura’s jaw is tight and angry, and she walks over and congratulates Gordon. For a minute it looks like there might be bloodshed, but Laura doesn’t try to get any of the other werewolves away from him. Stiles does notice that out of all of them, only Laura got that genuine smile where the corners of his eyes crinkle.

Derek walks him back to his car. Stiles has a bounce in his step. His father had attended and cheered him on and he’d gotten one of those awkward, back-slapping hugs that he adores for his showing. Then he had jetted away – work to do – but it was enough for Stiles that his father was proud of him. “Hey, so, next thing is the dance on Saturday night, right?”

“We don’t need to go to the dance,” Derek says, shaking his head.

“Well, yeah, I know we don’t need to,” Stiles says. “But I’m going because I told Scott I would wingman for him, so I figured you would want to go too.”

“The dance is for people who haven’t chosen,” Derek says. “We’re not supposed to go. It sends the wrong message if we do.”

Stiles rubs a hand over his hair and says, “Yeah, that’s great and all, but your werewolf politics are going to have to take a backseat here, because, like I said, I told Scott I would wingman for him.”

Derek’s scowl deepens. “Scott doesn’t have a chance of being picked anyway, so what the hell does it matter?”

“Okay, wow,” Stiles says. “Let me rephrase: I’m going to the dance. I don’t give a fuck if you show up or not. Later.”

Derek grabs him by the wrist as he opens the door to the Jeep. “You can’t go without me,” he growls. “It would look bad. Like you were – ”

“Uh, I know exactly how it would look,” Stiles says. “I’m not a fucking idiot. So I guess you’re going to have to make an appearance, and if you want me to actually ask you for a dance to reiterate to everyone that I belong to you and I’m only there to help out my bro, you’ll do something revolutionary like fucking apologize for being a dick.”

“I’m not trying to be a dick,” Derek says, exasperated. “It’s just – you know it’s true. No one has even showed any interest in him.”

Stiles studies him for a few moments thoughtfully. “Do you know where I was last Christmas?”

“What? No. How would I know that?”

“I was at the hospital. Because Scott had pneumonia and wound up being admitted so he could have oxygen and chest PT and other things that you werewolves never have to worry about. Oh, you know, I was there in March, too. When he had to go to the ER because someone wore really strong perfume to school and he had an asthma attack. Would you believe I was there in April, too? Because this asshole jock thought it would be ‘funny’ to steal Scott’s inhaler, play with it until it emptied out, and then stick it back in his bag?”

Derek’s jaw was still set in a scowl, but he didn’t say anything.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass how bad Scott’s chances are,” Stiles concludes. “I’m going to keep doing everything I can to get him a werewolf so he can get the bite so he can climb two flights of stairs without having to sit down for five minutes afterwards, so he can go on field trips without his mother needing to chaperone in case he gets sick, so I don’t have to lie awake at night whenever he’s in the hospital. And I really don’t care whether or not that matters to you. I’m going to the dance.”

After a moment, Derek says, grudgingly, “I’ll pick you up at seven.”

Stiles folds his arms over his chest. “And?”

“And what?” Derek asks.

“Do you want me to ask you to dance? To loudly deflect any rumors by announcing I’m only there to wingman my bro and of course I’m not interested in any other werewolves?”

Derek sighs. “Okay, fine. I’m . . . sorry for what I said about your friend.”

“Good enough,” Stiles says, since he can’t make Derek mean it, only say it. “Seven it is. Semi-formal, right?”

“Yeah,” Derek says.

“Then I will find a tie.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“You look like you’re in a good mood,” Peter observes as Derek stalks into the main floor of the apartment, slamming the door behind him. The older werewolf is curled up by the window with a book and a mug of tea. “Did the tournament not go well? Laura got back half an hour ago and she’s been mooning away over the winner ever since.”

“I heard that!” Laura shouts from the kitchen, and there’s a bang and a rattle as she closes a drawer.

“The tournament went fine,” Derek says, though his scowl doesn’t lessen. He paces back and forth across the room before finally saying, grudgingly, “I need to find something to wear to the dance on Saturday.”

“That ought to be interesting,” Peter says mildly, flipping a page. “I can’t recall the last time I saw you in anything more formal than a polo shirt, and that was when you were nine. But Laura is going to take Cora shopping tonight, so perhaps you can tag along with them.”

Laura comes out of the kitchen, wiping her hands dry on a dishtowel. “Why are you even going to the dance?” she asks, frowning. “I thought you and that Stiles kid had everything all worked out, which, by the way, you really should give him the – ”

“I know, Laura,” Derek says, glaring at her. He doesn’t even want to think about what Stiles’ reaction would be if he gave him the collar and asked him to wear it. “When you’ve given one to Gordon, you can talk to me about giving one to Stiles.”

Laura folds her arms over her chest, unimpressed. “Gordon still has others interested in him. If I gave him a collar, it’s a direct challenge to them. Stop trying to dodge the subject. Why are you going to the dance?”

“Stiles wants to go. His friends are going. And if he goes, I have to go. So just . . . stop asking questions about it and take me with you to buy a suit or something.”

Peter closes his book and redirects his attention to the matter at hand. “Have you talked to him about the auction?”

Derek squirms. “No. I – ”

“He has to participate, Derek. It’s not optional,” Peter says. “Gordon’s already said he won’t, and Cora’s interest in Isaac has been largely speculative. You claimed Stiles and warned other werewolves away. If Laura had a mate to bid on, we wouldn’t push this issue, but – ”

“I’ll talk to him about it,” Derek says loudly, interrupting his uncle. He’s thinking that maybe if he helps Stiles out at the dance, he’ll be more likely to agree. “Why don’t you badger her?”

“He has been, all afternoon,” Laura says, her jaw tight.

“You’re only angry at me because you know I’m right,” Peter says, picking his book back up. Derek doesn’t need to ask what they were arguing about. Peter has made it very clear that he thinks Laura’s caution around Gordon borders on cowardice, and it’s making her look bad. On the one hand, he agrees with Peter. The way Laura is dancing around the issue makes it very plain that she’s trying to avoid confrontation. On the other hand, if Peter had been more supportive of Laura as their alpha at the beginning, they wouldn’t be having half as many problems.

On the third hand (presuming he had one) it’s insanely irritating that Laura had put all this pressure on him to find somebody and not embarrass her, and now she’s not living up to her end of the bargain. Derek examines this from all angles before saying, “Look, if you like Gordon, shouldn’t you at least ask? I mean, the whole point is to find a mate, right?”

“I will ask Gordon when the time is right,” Laura says, effectively putting a stop to that argument despite Peter’s little scoffing noise.

Derek changes the subject. “Have they made any progress on Scarlet’s murder?”

Laura pushes both hands through her hair. “Well, despite the fun that the rumor mill is having with it, no. According to the records, only seven people were inside the maze when it happened. All of them were found on the way out and none of them were covered in blood. We don’t even have idea what Scarlet was doing at the maze – she hadn’t signed up for it, didn’t have a partner. It’s a complete mystery right now.” She forces a smile. “Sheriff Stilinski will get it figured out. I’m going to go finish making dinner. Then we can go shopping.”

Derek frowns after her as she heads back into the kitchen. Then he turns his glare on Peter. “You could try not being such a jerk to her.”

Peter turns a page in his book and doesn’t look up. “My attitude bothers you more than it bothers her.”

“No, I’m just the one who calls you on it,” Derek snaps.

Peter looks up, and gives him that smile which means ‘I’m five hundred percent done with you for today’. “Do you mind? I’m trying to read.”

About fifty different smart retorts filter through Derek’s mind, but in the end he just walks away. There’s never any point arguing with Peter. He always wins, and even when he doesn’t, he makes Derek think that he has. He decides to hide up in his room until dinner is ready.

After a few minutes to think, he decides the conversation about the auction might go better over text than face-to-face. At least Stiles won’t be able to yell at him. But he needs a better opener, given how they last parted. He considers his options before texting Stiles, ‘Has Scott met Yseila? They might get along.’

The response is gratifyingly quick. ‘Not sure. Describe?’

‘Hispanic, on the short side, from southern Arizona.’

‘I don’t think we’ve met her.’

‘Well, I saw that Scott did a lot of stuff with the first aid and veterinary medicine. Yseila’s mother is a doctor, so I guess they’d have some stuff in common.’

There’s a long pause. Then Stiles says, ‘Thanks. I’ll let him know.’

Since he’s clearly accepting the peace offering as it was intended, Derek moves onto other, touchier subjects. ‘The auction is the day after the dance.’

‘Yeah, I know. We doing that?’

‘We should,’ Derek replies.

‘Ok,’ Stiles texts in return, and Derek gives his phone the side eye, wondering if it could actually be that easy. Then Laura is calling that dinner is ready, so Derek texts Stiles to say they can talk about the details at the dance, and heads downstairs.

Laura must be feeling bad about what’s going on; Derek can tell because as they’re getting ready to leave, she turns to Peter and says awkwardly, “Do you . . . want to come? We could drive over to the mall in Redding.”

“That’s nearly an hour away,” Cora says, rolling her eyes.

Peter gives Laura a smile and says, “I appreciate the offer, but don’t go out of your way for me. I’ll stay here and finish my book. We can go shopping some other time.”

Laura nods, and the three of them head out to her car. Derek lets Cora have the front seat, and they drive in silence. All of them sometimes feel bad for the fact that Peter can’t go anywhere in Beacon Hills, lest he be recognized and an uproar started over his resurrection. Peter himself never seems to mind. If he’s craving a cheeseburger, he’ll drive an hour to get one, to somewhere that nobody will know him. The rest of the time, he stays in the basement apartment.

After a few minutes, Laura asks her younger sister if she’s excited about the dance, and since Cora actually is, that gets them onto a more cheerful topic. Derek leaves them looking at dresses and goes to pick out a jacket and a tie. It doesn’t take long. Fashion isn’t his thing, and he wants to get away from the two female clerks who are eyeballing him, clearly thinking about making suggestions.

When he gets back to the girls, Laura is holding a dark green dress up against Cora and she’s oohing and ahhing over it. Derek stands and watches them, as Laura smiles and Cora looks at herself in the mirror and they just act like girls for a few minutes. He feels how painfully young they are, even though he’s two years younger than Laura. She looks so tired and strained, with so much on her shoulders. For the first time, he sympathizes with her decision not to try to lay a claim on Gordon, despite all the pressure she had put on him. He can’t imagine what it would be like to meet someone at the rituals that he actually wanted, but lack the self-confidence to approach them about it.

(Stiles is a different story, he tells himself; they had an agreement, and to change that agreement now would be weird and make Stiles uncomfortable. It’s a totally different situation.)

When Cora flounces off towards the dressing rooms, Derek walks over and rejoins Laura. She looks up at him and pushes her hands through her hair. “She’s having fun,” she says.

“Yeah,” Derek replies.

“I’m sorry I’ve pushed you both so hard.”

“It’s fine,” Derek says. “It’s for the pack. We’ll do whatever we have to.” He reaches down and grips Laura’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “You’re my alpha. Always. What you say goes.”

Laura looks up at him and manages a smile. “Thanks. You’ll keep an eye on her at the dance?”

“Of course,” Derek says.

The two of them walk over to the dressing rooms as Cora is coming out in her first outfit. “It’s a little loose around the top,” she says, and Laura agrees. Two more dresses are tried on and rejected before she comes out in one that’s forest green, with narrow straps and a long, gauzy skirt. She clearly loves it, no matter how much she tries not to gush.

“Not green,” Derek says, scowling. “I picked a red tie. We’ll look like Christmas siblings.”

The two women look at each other, then at Derek, and then Laura says, “Go pick another tie.”

“Fine,” Derek huffs, and stalks back towards the men’s section. He returns the maroon tie and grabs one that’s black and silver instead. By the time he gets back to the others, Cora has changed back into her regular clothes, and they head for the registers. Derek takes out his phone and texts Stiles. ‘Isaac will ask Cora to dance, won’t he?’ He doesn’t want to see his younger sister’s heart broken.

‘Dude, it’s all he’s been talking about for the last two days,’ Stiles replies, and Derek breathes a sigh of relief.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles stares at himself in the mirror for a long time, willing the image to change from a sixteen year old playing dress up to a confident young man with a big date. It doesn’t happen. He looks okay. His tie isn’t crooked. His suit jacket fits. His shoes are appropriately shiny. After a minute, he huffs out a breath and goes downstairs.

“Hey, there you are,” his father says, looking up. His face breaks into a smile. “Nice tie,” he teases. “Where’d you get it?”

“Very funny, Dad,” Stiles says. The tie in question is the only one his father owns, which he has borrowed for the event in question. “Geez. I look like a kid.”

“You look fine.” His father walks over and puts both hands on his shoulders. “Hey. Look at me,” he says, and Stiles looks up reluctantly. “You are a brilliant, amazing, extraordinary young man, and you should be confident in yourself, because anyone, werewolf or otherwise, would be lucky to have you. Okay?”

Stiles manages a nod and tries to hold his head up. “Yeah, uhm . . . don’t get all mushy on me,” he says.

“I won’t,” Sheriff Stilinski says. “I just, God, I wish your mother were here to see this.”

“She’d have picked a better tie, that’s for sure,” Stiles says, and they both laugh, that awful sad laughter that he wishes would someday be happy again. Then his father slaps his back as the front doorbell rings. It occurs to him to wonder why his father is giving him this pep talk, if his attraction to Derek is that transparent, and is almost glad that he doesn’t have a chance to ask about it.

Derek is standing at the front door wearing a gray suit with a white shirt and matching black and silver tie. Stiles smiles at him nervously, glad that they’re not wearing the same colors. “Hi, uh, hey,” he says.

He’s saved from having to make further conversation when his father comes up behind him. “I want him home by midnight,” he says.

“Yes, sir,” Derek says.

Sheriff Stilinski gives a satisfied nod. “You two kids have fun,” he says, nudges Stiles out the door, and closes it behind him.

Derek turns and heads towards the car without another word, and Stiles sighs and follows him. He knows that Derek is irritated with him, and whether or not he has a right to be could be the subject of endless debate. He really doesn’t care at the moment, but if they can’t reconcile, it’s going to be a long night. “Hey, Cora,” he says, getting into the back seat of the Camaro. “You look great.”

“Thanks,” she says, only a little bit more sourly than usual.

“So, Derek, I should ask you to dance right away, right?” Stiles asks, and Derek nods shortly. “What if someone else asks you to dance?”

“Then I’ll dance,” Derek says. “That’s the point.”

“Should I like, sit in your lap or something?”

“Christ, no,” Derek says, a little too quickly, and Stiles could swear that he sees color rising in the werewolf’s cheeks. “It doesn’t matter if other people ask me as long as I don’t show interest in them in return. So just . . . be polite about it.”

“Okay,” Stiles says. “If you say so.”

Derek scowls and focuses on the road. Stiles decides to ignore him until he stops being a jerk. He finds Scott waiting outside the school gymnasium where the dance is being held, obviously too nervous to go inside. Stiles waves and slings an arm around his shoulder, tugging him into the building. “Okay, here’s the plan,” he says, scanning the room to see who’s there. The dance has been going on about twenty minutes, and it’s in full swing. “Derek says there’s a girl here named Yseila who’s about your age, mother’s a doctor and she loves animals, so she should be perfect for you. You’re gonna ask her to dance. That’s gonna make Carlie jealous, right? Because Carlie thinks you’re all into her. Then we’re gonna leave her hanging for a little while. Play hard to get. When we judge her to be appropriately desperate, that’s when you’re gonna ask her. She’ll melt into your arms like butter on a hot day. Got it?”

“Got it,” Scott says, with a decisive nod. He looks up as Derek and Cora come in. A lot of people look up, actually, and Stiles can practically feel the wave of interest that accompanies their entrance. “Uh, you’d better – ”

“On it,” Stiles says. He jogs over to the two of them, plants himself right in front of Derek and says with a smirk, “Can I interest you in a dance?”

Derek’s scowl lessens slightly. “If you insist,” he says. But then he looks at Cora uncertainly, like he doesn’t want to leave her by herself.

Before he has to deal with that, however, Isaac walks over with Scott in tow. He’s in that hunched up, nervous posture, and Stiles sees Scott elbow him and mutter something that he can’t hear over the music. Isaac straightens up and approaches Cora as if she’s a ticking time bomb. His, “hey, uh, wanna dance?” is maybe a little less smooth than it could be, but it gets the point across.

Cora tucks her hair behind her ear and says, “Sure,” looking about as uncertain as Isaac does. She accepts his hand and he leads her onto the floor.

“You just hang out,” Stiles says to Scott. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

The song is a slow one, and Stiles sort of wishes their timing was better. He clears his throat several times as he leads Derek onto the dance floor and gingerly puts his hands on Derek’s upper arms. Derek gives him a funny look. “What are you doing?”

“Uhm . . . leaving room for the Holy Spirit?” Stiles says weakly.

“What?” Derek says.

“Never mind,” Stiles replies. “I just, uh, I thought, I mean, since we’re not actually . . .”

“Shut up,” Derek hisses at him. Stiles grimaces in apology, and Derek huffs out a sigh. “Okay. Like this.” He picks up Stiles’ left hand and puts it on his shoulder. Then his other hand lands on Stiles’ hip, and Stiles nearly jumps out of his skin. Derek takes Stiles’ free hand in his own, but they wind up awkwardly extended. “Your arms are too long.”

“Sorrreeee,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes. He puts his hand on Derek’s other shoulder. “Better?”

“Yeah,” Derek says, flushing pink again. His free hand wanders down and lands on the small of Stiles’ back. Stiles tries to focus on breathing and not having a coronary incident. “There. That’s good.”

“Now we just . . . sway and shuffle our feet a bit, right?” Stiles says, trying not to think about how there’s really only an inch of space between their chests, or how nice Derek smells, or how warm he is, or how easy it would be to just rest his head on Derek’s chest, or any one of a dozen thoughts that will almost certainly lead to an awkward boner.

“Right,” Derek says.

A few moments go by. Stiles doesn’t know where to look. His face is so uncomfortably close to Derek’s, and everything else is pretty dim, so basically all he can see is Derek’s amazing eyes, staring down at him with that fierce intensity that Derek always carries with him. Stiles swallows hard and starts to sweat, eyes darting around for something else he can look at. Derek’s mouth. Nope, no good, way too kissable. His jaw. Still no, that jaw could have been chiseled by Michaelangelo himself. Hairline? Hairline is good. He fixes his gaze on it.

“What are you staring at?” Derek hisses.

“N-Nothing!” Stiles stammers.

Derek sighs again. “Will you please just relax? It’s just a dance. You’re the one who insisted on coming, didn’t you think about this part?”

“No!” Stiles says. “Sometimes, okay, I don’t always put the amount of thought into things that I should. Just . . . let me look at your hair because looking at your face is making me nervous.”

“What? What’s wrong with my face?”

“Nothing! Nothing is wrong with your face, that’s what’s wrong with it.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense!”

“I didn’t say it did!” Stiles bites his lip and looks at the ceiling. Derek grumbles but allows this, because he seems to have realized that pressing the issue is only going to make things more awkward. The song ends about two minutes later and they both make a beeline for the refreshments.

“Thank God that’s over,” Derek mutters.

“Yeah, terrible, ha ha,” Stiles says, mainlining a cup of lemonade like it’s tequila. “Help me find that Yseila girl you were talking about.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Derek spots Yseila sitting on the ‘werewolf’ side of the room, chatting with a few friends. She’s fairly unremarkable looking, somewhat plain and with makeup that obviously wasn’t done by a professional. She’s wearing a strapless pink dress that flatters her figure well enough. Stiles finds Scott and points her out.

“I can’t go over there by myself,” he says, looking like he might hyperventilate himself into an asthma attack. “You said you’d be my wingman!”

“I know, but I can’t ask other people to dance, it’d be bad form,” Stiles says. “But I can still go over there while you say hi. Derek, come with me,” he adds, lacing his fingers through the older man’s and hoping they aren’t too sweaty and clammy. Derek just rolls his eyes but goes along.

Scott gives Yseila his best puppyish smile and asks her if she’d like to dance. She smiles back, more politely than anything else, but accompanies him to the dance floor. Stiles gives them a thumbs up as they leave.

“That’s it,” Derek says. “That’s what you had to come here to do? You didn’t even have to say anything.”

Stiles turns with an exasperated look on his face and says, “Because you’ve always had the self-confidence to do anything you wanted, right? Because the first time you asked a girl out, there were trumpets and confetti and she swooned into your arms, because you’re stupidly gorgeous and a hot piece of werewolf ass? Jesus, Derek, grow a little bit of compassion for the lowly, socially awkward dorks among us, and until then, leave me the fuck alone!”

He storms off like the mature adult he is and finds a corner to sulk in. He can’t ask anyone else to dance; he’s not that mad, and the format of the dance means he doesn’t need to worry about anyone else asking him. Derek doesn’t try to follow him, so Stiles just watches for a little while. Scott dances two numbers with Yseila and then they go over to get some punch. From the look of it, Scott is being his charming, adorkable self, so he clearly doesn’t need help. Isaac and Cora have been split up because another young man asked Cora to dance. She looks quite annoyed about this. Her glare rivals Derek’s, but her suitor seems unfazed. Isaac is left hovering nervously by Boyd, like he’s not sure what to do next.

As far as Stiles can tell, Boyd hasn’t bothered asking anyone to dance. Like Stiles, he seems to be there mainly for moral support. That makes sense to Stiles. Boyd really hasn’t connected with anyone, but he obviously wants to be there for Erica. Her tactic seems to be to wear a low-cut dress and ask any werewolf with a pulse for a dance, whereupon she flirts with them outrageously. It seems to actually be working, if the number of admiring stares is any indication.

When half an hour has passed and he still doesn’t see Derek anywhere, he takes the opportunity to cajole Scott into asking Carlie for a dance before he goes looking for the older man. Carlie seems put out that Scott had been dancing with someone else, just as Stiles had predicted. He hopes that this will get them somewhere in the long run.

Since looking for Derek doesn’t do him any good, he finds Cora. Isaac has reclaimed her for another dance, and she’s scowling at anyone who looks like they might interrupt. This includes Stiles, but he’s growing inured to Cora’s scowl. “Hey. Have you seen Derek?”

Cora lifts her head and sniffs a little. “I think he went outside after you ditched him.”

“I didn’t – okay, I did, but he deserved it. Thanks.” Stiles walks over to the door out of the gymnasium that leads into a little courtyard. As Cora had said, he’s sitting on a low stone bench, glowering out into the distance. Stiles sighs and sits down next to him. He’s not sure what to say. He isn’t about to apologize, but he knows that Derek is tense.

“There wasn’t,” Derek finally says, his voice flat and short.

“Jesus, do you guys have a class on how to be cryptic?” Stiles asks, losing his temper all over again. “There wasn’t what?”

“Trumpets and confetti,” Derek says. “And I didn’t ask her. She asked me. I was fifteen, she was twenty-six, and she was a hunter who told me she loved me and then used me to get close to my family, and in the end she killed them.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Derek,” Stiles stammers.

“I’m not . . .” A look of frustration crosses Derek’s face. “I’m not good at this. Being nice. Talking to people. Pretending. Just . . . I’m sorry if I’m a dick sometimes.”

“Yeah, I uh, I’m pretty sure that’s the best excuse in the galaxy for being a dick, you’re totally forgiven,” Stiles says.

Derek shakes his head. “I don’t even know why I told you that.”

“Uh, me neither,” Stiles says. He shakes his head. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Scott’s doing fine, Cora and Isaac are mind-melding, nobody needs us.”

“Okay.” Derek gets to his feet and they head back to the Camaro. Stiles thinks that they should really talk about this, there are dozens of things they should probably talk about, but for once the silence is strangely comfortable. It explains so much about Derek, why he was hesitant about this process, why he has so little regard for himself or for his future, why he devotes everything to the pack and won’t let go.

They need to talk about it – or, well, someone should talk to Derek about it, but Stiles isn’t sure that that’s him. He’s just . . . the beard. Just the guy who’s trying to keep this month from being too torturous for Derek. After the closing ceremonies, he supposes they won’t see each other again, and that thought echoes in his suddenly hollow chest. It hurts more than it should.

They drive in silence, and Derek drops him off and only says, “The auction starts at eight tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at seven.”

“Okay,” Stiles says, getting out of the car. “Uh, g’night then.” He gets out of the car and waves as Derek drives away.

“You’re home early,” his father says when he comes inside.

“Yeah,” Stiles says.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just . . .” Stiles shakes his head. “I’m just tired, that’s all.”

His father narrows his eyes as he goes up the stairs to his bedroom, but he’s smart enough not to comment. Stiles is sure that a talk about this is coming, but if he can avoid it for the night, that will have to be good enough.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles studies himself in the mirror for a long moment before saying, “Okay. This might not be the most demeaning thing I’ve ever done, but it’s got to be up there.”

Derek scowls at him and snaps, “I told you that you didn’t have to, if you didn’t want to.”

Stiles sighs, because he feels like he’s starting to learn Derek’s language now, how to mine his tone and his stance for the true meaning underneath his growls. Derek is anxious, and it’s obvious that he doesn’t want Stiles doing this any more than Stiles wants to. But they’re both equally aware of why it has to be done. Since neither Cora nor Laura have expressed a definite interest in anyone, they don’t have anyone to officially bid on in the auction. They could still feel free to bid, but there was nobody that they had to win, if they wanted to maintain face. Neither Isaac nor Gordon are participating, in any case. Laura might place some token bids, but that would be all.

Since they were out, and winning at least one person in the auction was important, that left Stiles. Derek had claimed him from the beginning and several other people had expressed interest. It was vital for the Hale family appearance that he be in the auction.

“How do I look?” he asks, turning away. What did one wear to a werewolf auction? In his case, a T-shirt and jeans. He’s done trying to impress people or not impress them. It’s become abundantly clear that this isn’t about him. Just like Derek had tried to warn him from the beginning, this is about politics, and appearances, and power. Nobody will give a shit what he’s wearing tonight.

As such, Derek doesn’t dignify that with an answer. He just jerks his head towards the door. “Let’s go.”

Stiles follows him down the loft stairs and to the Camaro. “So how does this go? Tell me I don’t have to sing and dance. Nobody wants that.”

Derek’s scowl eases a little at this. “No. You just stand there and the MC will read a little out of your dossier. Name, age, occupation, which you don’t have anyway, et cetera. He’ll probably mention a couple things you did well on earlier.” He takes a breath. “A couple other people will bid on you – and if you happen to notice, I’ll make a few bids on other people as well. Don’t let that worry you. While the bidding is low, it’s considered polite. Bidding on another person’s chosen mate indicates that you think they’ve chosen somebody worthy of the title. Laura will open the bidding on you. That’s her place, as my alpha.”

“Gotcha,” Stiles says. “But nobody will really bid on me, will they?”

Derek grimaces a little. “Enough people have been dicks about it that they might, as a subtle challenge or just to be an asshole. But don’t worry.” He glances over and says, “This is a charity auction. Bids start at five bucks. Someone particularly desirable might go for as much as a couple hundred. Laura says the highest she’s ever even heard of was a five hundred dollar bid that went down while two alphas were fighting over someone. I’ve got two thousand bucks with me. No one will be outbidding me.”

Stiles nods and relaxes a little. “Do we wait afterwards?”

“Yeah. You’ll come sit with me in the audience for whoever’s after you. You’ll probably be somewhere in the middle. We pay at the end, and then we leave.”

“Okay.” Stiles huffs out a breath. “I still say it’s demeaning.”

“It’s a charity auction. It’s supposed to be demeaning.”

“Fair enough.” Stiles strikes up a conversation about something else – Derek is surprisingly knowledgeable about baseball – and that gets them to the hotel. Stiles is ushered away by a few of the attendants, waving over his shoulder. He gets shown into a small room that’s off one of the ballrooms. Then it’s hurry up and wait time. It’s almost an hour before the auction begins. It’s fun to watch the other ‘goods’ arrive, some of them dressed to the nines, some of them in combat gear, whatever they think will make the most impression. He sticks out more and more like a sore thumb.

Still, once it gets going, he relaxes. The first woman up, wearing a skimpy negligee, gets polite applause and a few whistles. Bidding starts at five, quickly goes up to fifty, trails off into the low hundreds, and ends there. The next person is a bulky young man who he’s seen a few times with one of the alpha twins, he can’t remember which one. Apparently, people don’t care about being polite to that particular twin, because no one much wants to bid on his prospect. He gets a final bid of twenty-five dollars.

Stiles zones out for a little while, listening to the MC drone about the virtues of each prospect, the yammering as he takes the bids. A few more people clear out and he realizes that he’s suddenly sitting next to Jennifer, with a few empty chairs between them. She’s twisting a loose thread from her dress in her hands. “You nervous?” he asks her.

“Scared to death,” she confesses. “It’s silly, right?”

“Naw, I get it,” Stiles says. “I mean, in theory, we’re at the disposal of whoever wins us, right? So, if we don’t get won by the right person . . .”

Jennifer shudders. “The funny thing is, that’s not what scares me. I just picture getting up there and, and Kali not bidding on me. Just looking at me from the audience and not saying a word.”

“Hey, relax,” Stiles says. “Kali’s been on you since day one, right? She’s obviously got a real crush on you. You’ll be fine!”

The brunette manages a smile for him. “Thanks, Stiles.”

“You wanna hear what scares me?” Stiles asks. “I guarantee it’s even sillier.”

Jennifer laughs. “Shoot.”

“I’m gonna get up on that damned stage and he’s going to call me Przemysław Stilinski instead of Stiles.”

“Oh, how awful,” Jennifer says, and then they’re both laughing. Then the MC calls her name. She swallows and says, “Wish me luck!” before she hurries out onto the stage in her slinky black dress. There’s somewhat louder applause than usual. Stiles fiddles while he listens to the MC’s spiel: Jennifer Blake, twenty-seven, English teacher, from Idaho . . .

The bidding quickly goes up to fifty dollars, then seventy-five, and Stiles peeks through the cracks in the folding screens to see who’s winning. It’s Kali, of course, her eyes shining crimson as she dares anyone else to lay a finger on the woman she’s claimed. A blushing Jennifer Blake goes for a final price of one hundred twenty dollars, and Kali walks up to the stage to help her step down.

“Przemysław Stilinski,” the MC says, and Stiles winces but walks out onto the stage. He hears a few people in the audience mangling his name as they try to figure out how to pronounce it. He thinks about telling them not to bother, since the announcer said it wrong. But he gets the salient points after that correct: Stiles is sixteen, a student in high school, a resident of Beacon Hills, performed very well at such-and-such and so-and-so, and has proved to be very loyal to his friends.

“The bidding, as always, starts at five dollars,” the MC says, and Laura raises her little placard with a polite smile at her brother. “Do we have ten?” he asks, and Derek lifts his own. “Fifteen?”

Some polite bidding goes on between Derek and some of the other werewolves that Stiles has seen him and Laura being friendly with. Stiles chews on his lower lip and waits for it to be over. He doesn’t start to get nervous until the bidding reaches seventy-five, but then it peters out, until Deucalion lifts his placard and says, “One-fifty.”

A collective gasp goes through the audience, not only at the jump in price but at the werewolf who announced the bid. Stiles sees both Derek and Laura shoot identical, stunned gazes at Deucalion. Stiles grits his teeth. Derek may be below Deucalion’s sight line – but Laura is not. And this is a challenge to Laura. But it’s a challenge that’s going to end with Stiles sentenced to spend twenty-four hours with a psychopath if they lose.

He reminds himself that Derek brought more than enough money as the MC collects himself and says, “W-Well, do we have one seventy-five, yes, one seventy-five from Derek Hale, do I have two hundred,” and then Deucalion lifts that damned little placard and smirks that damned little smirk.

Frustrated, Laura raises her placard at three hundred and fifty dollars as if to remind Deucalion that she’s the alpha and that he should back off. He just smiles at her and bids four hundred. The audience has gone stunned and silent, watching this power play, and Stiles is suddenly keenly aware that the events of the next five minutes are going to determine the fate of the entirety of Beacon Hills and the Hale pack. Laura probably hadn’t brought much money, if any, since she hadn’t been planning to bid, and the bids have to be paid in cash directly at the end of the ceremony. If a werewolf didn’t bring enough money to pay, that’s their problem.

But despite the larger problem hanging in the balance, Stiles can’t help but shoot Derek a desperate look as the bidding tops a thousand dollars. They’re bidding for Beacon Hills, but he’s the one who’s going to suffer. He doesn’t want to admit it, but Deucalion scares the shit out of him, and he can’t even imagine what the alpha will do to him. Remove him from the running permanently, most likely.

It occurs to him to wonder what would happen if he just said, “You know what, fuck this shit” and walked off, but his better judgment makes a rare appearance and warns against it. He’s pretty sure that leaving just because the person who claimed you isn’t winning is extremely bad form. Even if the bidding has crept up to seventeen hundred and Derek is cringing at each time he has to raise his placard and clearly wishing that the MC would keep the bidding in smaller increments, since he’s now raising it a hundred dollars at a time.

When the bidding hits two thousand, Derek raises his placard for the last time. Deucalion immediately counters with twenty-one hundred. Derek half-raises his placard, then drops it, and everyone stares at him. A little titter runs through the audience. Stiles gives the werewolf a look that he hopes adequately expresses how pissed off he is.

The MC is actively smirking now. “Twenty-one hundred is the current bid, do I hear twenty-two hundred, anyone, going once – ”

“Three thousand,” a voice in the back says, and every neck twists. Derek’s head jerks around so fast that Stiles can practically hear the creak, but he barely notices because he’s staring at the man who’s just entered the bidding fray. He’s middle-aged, neatly dressed with a small goatee and a toothy smile. He’s not even holding a placard.

The MC clears his throat. “Uh, three thousand from the gentleman in the back, do I hear thirty-one hundred – ”

Deucalion has barely lifted his placard when the man in the back says, “Four thousand.”

Now everyone is just staring. He reaches down and pats a briefcase that’s sitting in the aisle next to him, which looks large enough to hold at least ten times that much money. It’s a gesture that couldn’t say ‘I can do this all day’ any more clearly. Deucalion gives the newcomer a little nod, a thin smile, and lowers his placard.

“Four thousand in the back, going once, twice, sold!”

Stiles just stares at the man who approaches, with absolutely no idea who he is or what the hell just happened, as he walks up to the front. He’s wearing a dark suit with a blood red shirt underneath it. It occurs to Stiles that he looks strangely, vaguely familiar, like he’s met him before, but he can’t recall where. The man extends a hand to him to help him down off the platform.

“I don’t – ” Stiles starts to say.

“Come with me,” the man replies.

Stiles shoots a glance at Derek. Derek nods at him, his posture tense and rigid, but the lines on his face have smoothed out a little. Stiles accepts the man’s hand and steps down off the platform. Then he walks to the back and sits down next to him. “Who – ” he starts.

“Not now,” the man says, and the MC is calling out the next name. Stiles grits his teeth in frustration and thinks about getting up and walking away, but doesn’t quite dare.

There’s no more drama, and the rest of the auction seems exquisitely boring. Stiles keeps shooting looks over at Derek, but the other werewolf refuses to look at him. It occurs to him that Derek probably feels like shit right now, so maybe he should have some sympathy, because this guy probably can’t be as bad as Deucalion.

As soon as the auction ends, the man is on his feet, grabbing his briefcase in one hand and Stiles’ wrist in the other. Stiles casts a look over his shoulder for Derek, but then they’re in line for him to pay. Much to his dismay, Kali and Jennifer are in line right behind them.

“Well, well,” Kali says, her voice practically a purr. “If it isn’t Peter Hale. We thought you were dead.”

Stiles’ jaw sags and he stares at his companion, who just gives Kali a toothy smile. “Oh, I was,” he says pleasantly. “For eight entire days, as a matter of fact. It was really quite interesting, gave me a whole new outlook on life. If you’d like to try it, I’d be happy to give you a hand.”

He doesn’t speak loudly, but in a room full of werewolves, that doesn’t matter. A low murmur goes through the crowd as Derek pushes his way through it. Peter tilts his head to glance at him and says, “See, nephew, that is how you issue a challenge. None of this money or meaningful looks or perving on boys half your age.”

“You dare – ” Kali starts, getting in Peter’s face. Stiles decides to hold very, very still and pretend to be invisible.

“Now, now.” Deucalion intervenes. “Let the man have his victory, paltry as it is.” He smiles at Peter. “Enjoy your . . . spoils, Mr. Hale. I’m sure we’ll be seeing you again.”

Derek moves up to Stiles’ side as Kali snarls at Deucalion. “You okay?” he asks.

“I’d be better if someone could explain what the fuck is going on,” Stiles blurts out.

“Oh, well,” Peter says, “I figured my nephew would probably find some way to screw this up, so I decided I’d better show up and make sure nothing terrible happened to his cute little mate.” He puts the briefcase down on the table and pops the clasps. Stiles glowers at him as he counts out the stacks of bills. “Four thousand.”

“Both of you sign,” the woman at the table says.

“I’m not – ”

“Sign the God damned form, Stiles,” Derek says in a low growl. Stiles glares at him, snatches the pen, and scribbles an approximation of his name.

“I’d say to have fun with him,” Kali remarks in a haughty tone, “but we all know you only picked him to try to avoid challengers. You’d probably sooner mate with your own sister than you would touch that.”

Stiles is about to let loose a truly witty comeback – just give him a second to think of one – but he doesn’t get the chance. Derek just spins around, grabs him around the waist, and pulls him into a kiss. “Hnnnnng,” is what makes it out of Stiles’ mouth. Derek kisses like an amateur, all bruising force and mashed lips, and it’s amazing. Stiles lets a hand curl in the back of Derek’s shirt, closes his eyes, and goes for broke. It’s a show, right? He sinks into it and lets Derek give his mouth a thorough mauling.

He comes back to the real world a moment later when there’s a polite tap on each of their shoulders and Derek pulls away. “I beg your pardon,” Peter says, “but I did win him fair and square. And I think you’ve proven your point.”

“Nn hn,” Stiles pants.

“And we should probably let the ladies behind us take their turn,” Peter says, and although his voice is casual, Stiles reads the underlying words perfectly well. We need to get out of here before things get worse.

Derek gives a little nod, his hand curling around Stiles’ upper arm, and Stiles lets the older man drag him out of the ballroom. Laura joins them as they leave, her mouth thin and tight, face lined with worry. But she doesn’t say anything until they’ve gotten outside, where she whirls on Peter and says, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Peter arches his eyebrows at his niece. “You are aware that I just pulled your ass out of the fire, right? You’re welcome.”

“You can’t just – ” Laura turns away, looking ready to hiss and spit out of sheer frustration.

Since she seems to be having trouble figuring out what to say, Stiles decides he’ll take the opportunity to chime in. He looks at Peter. Now he understands why the man looked vaguely familiar to him. “You’re dead,” he says. “I saw your body.”

“Really?” Peter sounds interested. “How bad was it? These two have never been willing to tell me.”

Stiles tries to keep his jaw from sagging. Slower, he says, “I saw your body. You were dead.”

“Mm, yes, we’ve established that,” Peter says. “I didn’t stay that way. Are we going to have this argument in the parking lot? Perhaps we should adjourn back to the house.” He reaches out and uncurls Derek’s hand from around Stiles’ arm. “Would you care to ride with us, nephew? Or will you drive your fancy sports car by yourself?”

Stiles half-expects Derek to protest and say that he’ll take Stiles and Peter can damned well get himself home, but he just says, “I’ll ride with you. I can come back for the Camaro tomorrow.”

“You’re all coming with me,” Laura snaps, and nobody quite dares argue with her as she marches back to her car. As soon as they’re all inside, she slams it into gear and goes right back into her rant. “Jesus Christ, Peter. We’ve talked about this. I’m sorry if you feel like I’ve kept you prisoner in the basement, but you can’t just announce yourself at a werewolf gathering and not expect there to be consequences. Do you have the slightest idea how big a disaster this could be – ”

She continues on for several minutes. Stiles sits with his hands in his lap and tries to pretend he can’t hear her. Finally, Peter says, “Are you done?”

“For now,” Laura snaps.

“Then I’ll take the opportunity to tell you that I know exactly what I’m doing, and half the reason the Hale pack has appeared so vulnerable over the years is because of your age, because you were an inexperienced alpha without older family members to provide you guidance. But you know all that, don’t you. And you know that a lot of the packs here are going to be less eager to tackle us now that they know I’m alive because they know what I’m capable of. And you know that I saved your asses tonight.” There’s a brief pause, and then he adds, a little more quietly, “And I’ve never felt like a prisoner. I understood the precautions. But the time for that is over. You know that as well as I do.”

Laura pushes her hair out of her face. “You could have asked me.”

“You would have said no.” Peter gave her a charming smile. “Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”

“Oh, yeah?” Laura retorts. “When tonight have you begged forgiveness?”

“It’s not my forte, I admit,” Peter says, with a sigh that’s not at all genuine.

Laura seems content to steam in silence after that. Stiles wants to say something – he has about a billion questions – but it doesn’t seem wise. About ten minutes later, they get back to the apartment building. Laura slams the car door shut, stomps into the apartment, and then into the bathroom, where she then slams that door.

“Uh, so . . .” Stiles says, blinking. He’s suddenly tired. It’s almost eleven o’clock at night, and the stress of the auction has taken its toll on him. “I’m, uh . . . going home. I’ll call my dad to pick me up if you don’t want to – ”

“You can’t,” Derek says. “You have to spend the next twenty-four hours with Peter, remember?”

“What? Aw, come on, you’re not actually going to – ”

“I have to,” Derek snaps. “They’ll know if you didn’t. From your scent.”

“What?!” Stiles sputters. “Come on, your noses are that sensitive? They’ll be able to tell who I spent time with?”

“If it’s for an extended period of time, then yes,” Peter says. He gives Stiles that toothy grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.”

“How about I just go home and then take a long shower before I see any other werewolves?” Stiles suggests.

“Fine,” Peter says. “You owe me four thousand dollars.”

Stiles’ mouth opens. Then it closes. He gives Derek a furious look. Derek scowls right back. Then Stiles says, “So, you live in the basement apartment? The one Derek told me was ‘storage’?”

“Got it in one,” Peter says.

Derek clears his throat. “Do you want me to – ”

“No,” Stiles snaps, and flounces off. He’s noticed the spiral staircase in the corner before. Instead of taking it up, to Derek’s apartment, he finds that it leads down as well. There’s a door at the bottom that he goes through. He can feel Peter behind him, but the older werewolf is quiet as he goes into the apartment and closes the door behind them.

He’s not sure what he was picturing – the lab of a mad scientist, or the prison that Laura had alluded to – but what he gets is a warm, cozy, little apartment. It’s easily as nice as the ones above it. It seems a little smaller, but then he realizes that’s because it’s darker. The only windows are the little half windows near the ceiling. It’s partitioned into several rooms, as well, in contrast to the open floor plan in Laura’s and Derek’s apartments. There’s a little kitchenette and he can see a bedroom through one of the doors. One of the walls is entirely covered with bookshelves, and the stone walls are covered with what look like old tapestries.

“It’s, uh, nice,” he says, fidgeting.

Peter just quirks a little smile at him. “Relax, Stiles. I’m not going to hurt you. In fact, I think within the next five minutes, I’m going to be your favorite member of the Hale family.”

Given how pissed off he is at Derek for getting him into this mess – a sentiment that Stiles appreciates is not wholly warranted – it wouldn’t be difficult. He gives Peter a suspicious look and says, “Why?”

“You have questions,” Peter says. “Questions that either you don’t dare ask Derek, or he doesn’t know the answers to, or you’ve tried to ask and he’s put you off.” He spreads his hands out in front of himself. “Ask me anything. About the rituals, about the Hale family, about the alpha pack. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

Stiles thinks about that for a long minute. Then he repeats, “Why?”

“Because you’re in way over your head,” Peter says, “and we need you. And Laura hasn’t figured that out yet and Derek isn’t sure how to handle it. So. It only seems fair that somebody sit you down and tell you what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

Another minute. “Got any coffee?” Stiles asks.

That toothy smile crosses Peter’s face. “Sure.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Stiles examines the bookshelves while Peter goes into the kitchen. It’s an eclectic collection, both fiction and non-, reference books on almost every imaginable subjects, classics, children’s books, cheesy romance novels. He looks up as Peter comes back in a few minutes later and hands him a mug. Then he sits down on one of the plush armchairs, leaning over with his elbows on his knees, cradling the cup between both hands. “I saw your body,” he finally says. “I was twelve years old. My mother had died a few years before, and my dad was still taking me with him to the station on a lot of weekends. Kate Argent nailed you to the door of the police station and left you there for them to find. There was blood everywhere. My dad tried to keep me from seeing, but . . . I had nightmares about it for weeks afterwards.”

“Sounds horrific,” Peter says, sipping his coffee. “Not one of my finer moments.” Another sip. “How much do you know about what happened back then?”

“Just . . . pieces,” Stiles says. “There was a lot of gossip, rumor, but I don’t know how much of what I heard was true.”

Peter nods. “Then let’s start there. Because a lot of what’s happening now is directly related to what happened then. The Argent family hunts werewolves. The first thing you have to understand is the general attitude about werewolves, which has been shifting and changing ever since our existence was revealed a few centuries ago. Think of us like . . . lions. Superior in many ways, fascinatingly powerful, rather rare. And while most humans honor that and everyone’s happy to call us ‘the king of the jungle’, there are still plenty of people who hunt us for sport or try to keep us in zoos.”

“That’s . . . depressing,” Stiles says.

Peter gives a little shrug. “People are, in general, stupid.” He flashes Stiles a smile. “You know this. They don’t like things that are different. Prejudices come in all shapes and sizes. There are still plenty of people in the world who think that men from Africa are genetically incapable of being as intelligent as men from Europe, or who think that women don’t have enough logical reason to be able to vote as rationally as men. Now. There is a subsection of humans, a very dangerous subsection, which includes people like Kate Argent who believe that werewolves are just animals and murdering them is completely fine. Why she set her sights on my family, I honestly have no idea. But she did. She and her lackeys blocked off the basement tunnel, barricaded the front door, and set the house on fire.”

Stiles winces a little, but Peter talks about this as matter-of-factly as if it were a historical battle from decades previous.

“There were two survivors. Myself, and Cora. Derek and Laura were at school – they weren’t involved. Cora was small enough to wiggle out of one of the basement windows. I wasn’t, but for some reason the gods spared me. Of course, I wound up in the hospital, and Laura is fond of postulating that I am now completely insane.”

“Way to make me feel secure in your basement, dude,” Stiles says.

Peter just smiles at him again. “After some time to heal, I decided to take revenge on those responsible.”

“Yeah, that part I’m familiar with,” Stiles says. “I heard my dad talk about the serial murders.”

“I killed everyone responsible except Kate Argent. Sadly, she got to me first.” Peter gives another half-shrug. “However, in doing so, she tipped her hand as the vicious psychopath that she was. Laura went to Chris Argent, the head of their family, and demanded . . . well, whatever he was willing to give her, to be honest. She was in no position to bargain, and she knew it. Chris could have easily killed the remaining three. Derek was seventeen, Cora even younger . . . but surprisingly, Chris is a decent man who follows their Code. He was appalled that his sister had killed a family that included children and non-weres, and equally appalled – not that she killed me, but what she did to me first. Which is better not spoken of. In any case, Chris executed his sister and gave Laura her head. Peace was declared through the land, there was much rejoicing, et cetera, and then Laura used an ancient ritual involving moonlight and alphahood and blood to bring me back from the dead.”

“She just . . . brought you back from the dead,” Stiles says, somewhat skeptically.

“You saw my body. Yet here I sit.” Peter tilts his head to one side. “What other explanation were you expecting?”

“I’m not sure,” Stiles admits. “It just seems like, if you can bring each other back from the dead, why didn’t you bring your whole family back?”

“It doesn’t work like that. The body has to be in . . . relatively good condition, and there’s a narrow window of time in which it can be done. It can only be done by an alpha who is directly related to the deceased, and only on the night of a full moon.” Peter shrugs. “Even then, she risked losing her alpha power, which would have left our family without an alpha. It was dangerous. But she needs me, and she knows it.”

Stiles lets out a breath and takes a few gulps of his coffee. “Okay. So . . . what’s happening now?”

“First things first,” Peter says. “In order to understand the what, you need to understand the who. Deucalion.”

“Yeah, who is that douchecanoe?” Stiles asks.

Peter smirks. “Deucalion was one of a number of alphas who came to Beacon Hills for something of a . . . conference, not long after the last mating rituals, as it happens. This was while the Hale family was alive and well. The Argents and their ilk had been particularly problematic in the preceding year, and all the alphas from the area got together to discuss it. That was Deucalion, Kali, Ennis, and my sister, Talia. Opinions varied. Ennis wanted to kill them all. Talia wanted to strike only in retaliation. Frankly, I don’t remember what Kali wanted, if I ever knew. And Deucalion wanted to try to strike a truce. Talia told him that it wasn’t going to happen. Gerard Argent was in charge back then, and he was a ruthless son of  a bitch. Deucalion tried anyway, Gerard ambushed him and killed about half his pack and put out Deucalion’s eyes. This drove Deucalion completely insane in a way that makes my supposed psychosis look like a dandy stroll through a tulip field. He killed his entire pack. Unfortunately, in doing so, he realized that he absorbed their power, making him much stronger than before. He persuaded Kali and Ennis to do the same and join him, and since then they’ve travelled around, looking for hunters to kill, and for the most part, finding them. Talia died in the fire not long after.”

“Okay. So Duke’s nuts and his cronies probably have a few screws loose, too,” Stiles says. “But why do they want this territory so bad?”

“Well, for starters, because werewolves are territorial by nature and stealing each other’s territory when we sense weakness is just something that we do,” Peter says. “Secondarily because Deucalion still holds Talia partially responsible for what happened that day – he thinks she should have been there to back him up, but she refused, because she was neither suicidal nor an idiot. And thirdly because Beacon Hills is actually prime territory – a lot of ley lines run through it, which means a lot of supernatural energy, which means stronger werewolves.”

Stiles nods. “Got it. So they decided to hold the rituals in Beacon Hills to step all over Laura’s toes and force her to bow out of her position here. But that’s not enough for Deucalion. He obviously wants to humiliate her in the process.”

“Mm hm. Laura went into this thinking that she would use this to solidify her pack’s position. If she couldn’t make people think we’re strong, she could at the very least convince people that we’re not weak.”

“But then Derek picked me,” Stiles says, wincing.

“Well, yes and no. Make no mistake, Stiles, and I hope you don’t take this as something too insulting, but this is not about you. No matter who Derek picked, it would have come down to some sort of confrontation like this. Laura’s done her best to dance around the topic and not choose anyone, and the sooner we can convince her to cut that shit out, the better, but that’s another story. But the reason I say yes and no is that . . . Derek picked you. It made him look cowardly, like he was trying to avoid a challenge. It made him look weak, like he couldn’t handle one. And so Deucalion issued a challenge right there at the moonrise ceremony . . . and you spit in his eye.” Peter’s face cracks into a smile again. “God, I wish I could have seen that. You have to understand, Stiles, humans don’t . . . do that. They don’t challenge werewolves. Especially not alphas.”

Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head. “He was being a jerk.”

“I’m sure,” Peter says. “Derek picked someone that everyone immediately tried to walk all over, and then instead of him defending you, you defended yourself. Now people can’t decide if Derek is a useless, pathetic doormat who bows to a human, or some kind of secret genius who found the best possible kind of mate. Because rather than looking to make himself look strong, he found someone who would make the pack strong. Everyone’s expectations have been upended, and to be honest, nobody is really sure how to handle it.”

“Apparently by continuing to be jerks,” Stiles says.

“Well, that goes without saying. But from our perspective, it’s vital for us to appear like we did this on purpose. Which is why I had to swoop in and save you tonight.”

“Yeah, uh, thanks for that,” Stiles says. “Sorry if I wasn’t appropriately grateful.”

“Well, I do understand that I can be a bit intimidating,” Peter says, amused. Stiles gives him an annoyed look, and Peter just laughs.

“Okay, so what do we do?” Stiles asks.

“First things first.” Peter stands up and picks a box up off the end table, and tosses it to Stiles. He opens it up to reveal a thin leather choker with a silver pendant on it, which has a calligraphy ‘H’ etched into it. “You need to start wearing that.”

“Why do you even have that?” Stiles asks, making a face.

“Laura ordered three in preparation for this exact event,” Peter says.

Stiles sighs. “Of course she did.”

“If anyone asks, Derek gave it to you after the auction – after my twenty-four hours were up, of course,” he adds. “But the question is, will you wear it? How far are you willing to go for this? It’s obvious that you and Derek are crazy about each other – don’t deny it,” Peter says, rolling his eyes. “You two can act out your epic will-they-won’t-they romance on your own time. But this isn’t about Derek. This is about the Hale pack. You’re going to be in danger before this is over. At least one person has already been murdered, and you’d be dead if I hadn’t showed up tonight. Things are going to get much worse.” He sees Stiles open his mouth and says, “No, don’t give me an answer now. I want you to sleep on this one. You seem to like a challenge, and you don’t seem to like pretentious blowhards like Deucalion telling you what to do. But. You would be dead right now if it weren’t for me – or worse. Don’t think that Deucalion would have hesitated an instant to simply remove you from the field to destroy Laura’s position as the alpha of this territory.”

Stiles nods, hands clenching around the box. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll think about it.”

“All right, then.” Peter sits back down. “Any other questions?”

There’s a few long minutes while Stiles thinks about it. “Why won’t Laura stake a claim?”

“Because she wants Gordon,” Peter says, “but at least three other werewolves, two of them alphas, have expressed interest in him. And he’s not helping matters by basically refusing to indicate which of them, if any of them, he’s interested in in return. He declined to participate in the auction. Like you, he is an oddity. Nobody’s quite sure why he’s here or what he’s trying to get out of participating. Laura likes him – a lot – but she’s afraid he’ll decline if she presses the issue, and that would hurt her almost as much as getting challenged.”

“Geez, this was easier in middle school,” Stiles says, “when you could just pass a note, ‘do you like me, circle yes or no’.”

Peter gives an amused snort. “Well. If you decide you’re on board, you can help. Gordon seems to find you tolerable enough. Maybe you can do a little detective work and figure out what his intentions are.”

“Okay. Uh . . . this . . . ‘mating’ stuff. The one true mate. Uh . . .”

“You want to know if it’s real or bullshit.”

Stiles nods a little. “Cards on the table. Derek and I, uh . . . it wasn’t really a thing. I mean, I offered to be his beard to keep everyone off his back.”

Peter is smirking a little. “Yes, I know.”

“Of course you do,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes.

“To answer your question,” Peter says, “there is no real answer. I’ve heard different opinions from different people. Some werewolves believe in it whole-heartedly. They say that the instant they saw their mate, they just knew. Some people share Derek’s opinions that it’s all politics and appearances. Some people counter that by saying that those people have just never met their mate, so they can’t understand. Some people say it happens because people want it to happen. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s different for everyone. The rituals have been going on for over a thousand years, so if the people who founded them believed in their message, their intentions have been lost to time. I’m afraid I don’t really have an answer for you, Stiles. You’re going to have to decide what you believe on your own, like the rest of us.”

Stiles nods. Then he yawns. He tries to stifle it, but doesn’t do a good job. It’s almost midnight, and it’s been a long day – hell, a long week. Peter stands up and says, “I’d offer you the use of the bed, but I have a feeling you’d think that was creepy. You can sleep on the sofa. I’ll get you a blanket.”

“Thanks,” Stiles says. He means to stay up and think about everything for a while, but surprises himself by falling asleep right away. So instead he does his thinking the next morning, when he wakes up. The door into the bedroom is shut, so he assumes that Peter’s asleep. He raids the werewolf’s pantry and finds some cereal, and helps himself.

He toys with the choker while he thinks about everything Peter said, and about what his father said – that the Hale family had the devil’s luck. Maybe he hadn’t known exactly what he was getting into at the beginning, but it had become clear pretty fast. He hadn’t backed out before. Why would he back out now? There are larger consequences at stake here. If the Hale family loses Beacon Hills, life will get harder and more dangerous for all of them.

If he could go back in time and rescind his offer, he thinks, he wouldn’t. So there’s no reason for him to back down now. He hates Deucalion with an irrational loathing. Just thinking of the alpha makes him want to punch the man in his smug face. He’s not sure what to think of his cronies. Kali seems completely feral, but around Jennifer she’s different, gentler, softer. Stiles isn’t sure what that means.

So when Peter gets up and comes out of the bedroom already dressed, he glances at Stiles and a smile quirks at his lips when he sees that Stiles is wearing the choker. “Just like that?” he says.

“I don’t like bullies,” Stiles says. “I don’t care where they’re from.”

Peter frowns slightly. “Are you . . . quoting Captain America?”

“Technically, I’m quoting Steve Rogers, in that he wasn’t Captain America when he said that, but, uh, yeah.” Stiles shrugs. “The concept applies. Deucalion is nothing but a bully. And it’s time he picked on somebody his own size. Which, apparently, is me.”

Now Peter looks amused. “Well, then. Shall we go see what your werewolf has gotten up to?”

“Sure,” Stiles says, standing up. He’s a little rumpled, having slept on the sofa in his clothes, but it isn’t a big deal, in his opinion. He’s looked worse.

Peter heads for the stairs, then stops. “He’s going to be a jerk to you today,” he says, his tone matter-of-fact. “Don’t take it personally. You see, I know my nephew very well. When he feels like he’s let someone down, he pushes them away. He’s going to act like he’s angry at you. He isn’t. He’s angry at himself. If it makes you feel any better, he’ll probably be an even bigger jerk to me, because he’s pissed off that I had to come to his rescue.”

“Great,” Stiles says. “How very . . . mature.”

Peter just snorts and then goes up the stairs. Laura’s terse and annoyed, and drops a bowl full of eggs she’s whisking when she sees Stiles in the collar. Cora takes one look at him and says, “Wow, really?” but doesn’t react beyond that and some dramatic eye-rolling. Stiles helps Laura clean up the kitchen, and they’re just talking about how Stiles is going to talk to Gordon for her – something Laura absolutely does not need him to do, in her opinion, and now Peter’s the one rolling his eyes and Stiles is wondering what gene is responsible for that – when Derek comes in.

He was clearly up late, and he’s tired and surly and snarls at Laura when she asks him how he wants his eggs, and blinks sleepy-eyed at Cora when she gives him a cup of coffee, and actually gets five swallows of it down before he sees Stiles wearing the choker and spills it all over the counter. “Where did you get that?” he demands.

“Peter gave it to me,” Stiles says. “Duh. But on your behalf, of course.”

Derek’s scowl deepens. He snarls at Peter and says, “That wasn’t your right. It was mine to do.”

“Oh please,” is Peter’s succinct opinion.

“And I can’t believe you accepted without talking to me first,” Derek snaps at Stiles.

“Yeah, well, I can’t believe you didn’t make it clear to me how the fact that I wasn’t wearing one was screwing you over, so maybe you should drink your coffee and shut the fuck up,” Stiles retorts.

Derek wipes up the spilled coffee with murderous force. “I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone with him,” he says to Peter.

“Yes, that’s right, Derek,” Peter says. “This is all my fault.”

“Hey, back off,” Derek snarls. “I can handle this.”

“Okay, wait just a second,” Stiles says, slamming his hand down on the table. “Peter’s not only the one who saved my ass last night, but he’s also the person who has actually explained things to me and told me how I need to behave if I actually want to help your sorry ass, which for some reason I still do. I get that you’re pissed off that you didn’t somehow magically foresee needing to bring obscene amounts of money last night, but we’re all in this together, so why don’t you shut your dick holster and let your uncle help?”

“Oh my God,” Cora says, and starts cracking up. Laura’s jaw is just sagging, and then she turns away, pressing one hand over her mouth to hold in the laughter. Derek flushes pink and scowls even deeper.

“There are some things we should discuss,” Peter agrees, “but why don’t we do it over breakfast? I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m starved.”

Still glaring, Derek sits down at the table. Laura’s still biting her lips as she serves everyone and they sit down around the table. Returning to the previous topic, she says, “I don’t need anyone’s help with Gordon.”

“Of course not, Laura,” Peter says smoothly. “But that doesn’t mean some assistance wouldn’t make things go a little smoothly for you.” He starts cutting into his fried eggs with the edge of his fork. “Because you either need to claim him, or renounce your interest in him. The sooner the better. The day after tomorrow, preferably. You’ll have a nice audience at the pot luck.”

Laura purses her lips, but then sighs. “If Stiles is willing to talk to him, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.”

“Sure,” Stiles says. “Gordon’s cool.”

“He’s totally dreamy,” Cora says, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “Laura’s got a crush.”

Laura narrows her eyes at her younger sister. “Speaking of which, if collars are going around, shouldn’t you be offering one to Isaac?”

Cora flushes pink. “What? No! You told me I didn’t have to choose anyone.” She picks up a piece of bacon and continues with her mouth full. “And since nobody else has expressed interest in Isaac, then I don’t have to stake a claim to keep anyone else off him. So there.”

“Leading the boy on,” Laura says, shaking her head. “Very not nice, baby sis.”

Cora makes a face at her.

“The problem,” Peter says, bringing them back onto topic, “is that while Stiles’ ability to defend himself makes him look strong and possibly even makes the pack look strong, it makes Derek himself look weak. I was doing a little reading last night, and the guidelines originally set down by the werewolves do indicate that a human at the rituals has every right to defend themselves from unwanted advances – after they’re formally claimed, of course. And that doing so is supposed to be not only allowed but encouraged. But we still have to get the message across that while Stiles can protect himself, he’s still second to Derek.”

“So just boss me around in front of some big wigs,” Stiles tells Derek.

“And tell you to do what?” Derek asks.

“I don’t know, tell me to kiss your feet, figure it out,” Stiles says. “Do I have to do everything around here?”

Laura frowns. “I can’t believe there’s a time in which I actually liked you.”

“Ha very ha,” Stiles says. “You’re stuck with me until ten PM. Or you owe Peter four thousand dollars.”

“Yes, what are you two going to do all day?” Cora asks brightly.

“I have a little light reading for Stiles to do,” Peter says. “About two thousand pages of werewolf history and protocol.”

“Sounds like a blast,” Stiles says.

“Better than having to actually talk to him,” Derek mutters.

Peter blows him a kiss.

“So dear Uncle Peter told you everything, huh?” Derek asks, turning to Stiles. “He answered all your questions, he’s your new best friend? Has he told you why we don’t trust him?”

Peter’s mouth tightens. Laura looks up and says, “Derek, don’t.”

“Don’t, she says,” Derek says, and his features are changing, rippling, and the tension in the room just builds. “Do you know why I didn’t get any sleep last night, Stiles? Do you have any idea how it felt knowing that because of my lack of foresight, I had to leave you in the company of a murderer?”

“Derek, stop,” Laura snarls. “It’s done, we’ve had this discussion.”

“It’s not like I didn’t know he killed people,” Stiles points out, trying to calm things down before they get worse.

“But it was for his family, right?” Derek asks, his mouth twisting on the words. “He would never hurt his pack, right? There’s poor Peter Hale, just trying to get revenge for his family, he’s the smart one, the one everyone should listen to, the one everyone trusts, the one who nearly killed my sister to get what he wanted!”

“Derek!” Laura snaps, her eyes flaring crimson, but it’s too late, the damage is done.

“The fuck is wrong with you people,” Stiles says, trying to keep his temper. “Just when I think I’ve got a handle on this crazy situation, shit goes sideways again. Peter, tell me what the hell Derek is talking about.”

Peter sighs, and that makes Derek snarl at him. “After I killed the lackeys, I knew Kate was coming after me. She was a good hunter. I knew she was going to kill me – that the only way I would survive was if I was an alpha. So . . .”

“You tried to kill Laura,” Stiles concludes.

“And the worst part,” Derek says, “is how he did it. No surprise attacks, no violence. He tried to convince her that it was the right thing to do. He tried to manipulate her into letting him do it. He took my sister at one of the most vulnerable moments of her life and used her love for Cora and I against her. He told her that the pack needed him. That he would bring her back after it was over. He told her that we would never survive without him. He told her that she wasn’t good enough to be our alpha.”

“Jesus,” Stiles says, under his breath.

“I would have brought her back,” Peter says mildly. “That wasn’t a lie. It’s fairly obvious that the spell I had found worked.”

“Do you honestly think that makes one damned bit of difference to me?” Derek snarls at him. “You didn’t know it would work. You couldn’t have known. And even if you did, that doesn’t excuse what you did.”

“I did it for the pack,” Peter says.

“You did it for yourself,” Derek retorts. “You did it because you can’t stand the idea that maybe you aren’t right one hundred percent of the time. Because your ego is so huge that you honestly think there’s no way the Hale pack can survive without you.”

“Okay, enough!” Laura shouts. “Jesus Christ. Yes, Derek, what Peter did was terrible. He revealed his true colors in a way that none of us will ever forget. But it’s over, and he’s still your uncle, and he’s still my beta, and we are done talking about this.”

“Why didn’t you do it?” Stiles asks quietly. “Let him kill you?”

“Because I was afraid,” she says, her voice trembling. “I told him to give me a day to think about it, and Kate got to him first.”

Stiles turns his attention back to his plate. He’s thinking back to that day at the police station. His father had ushered him inside, although not before he’d gotten an eyeful of what Kate had done to Peter. But he could still hear what was going on outside as he sat in the station. And he remembers hearing Laura arrive – remembers hearing a woman screaming, screaming, screaming, and then howling. One of the most desperate, desolate noises he had ever heard. Laura carries the guilt over Peter’s death, no matter how temporary, to this day. And Derek is clearly never going to forgive him for the effect his words had on their alpha.

“Derek,” he says evenly, picking up a piece of bacon, “if you would like to join me while I read dusty old books about werewolves in your creepy uncle’s basement, I would be glad for the company.”

Some of the tension leaves Derek’s shoulders. All he manages to choke out is, “Okay, fine,” but it’s enough.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Stiles catches up with Gordon the next day, intercepting as he’s on his way to some werewolf something that Stiles hasn’t been invited to. “Hey, mind if I ask you some prying personal questions?”

Gordon gives him an amused look and says, “With an opening like that, how can I refuse?”

“Awesome,” Stiles says. “The fewer werewolves around to hear us, the better.”

“Oh, that’s easy.” Gordon gestures for Stiles to follow him. They go down a hallway to one of the smaller panel rooms, which is currently empty. Gordon sits backwards in a chair and takes out a small silver device. “High-frequency sonic emitter,” he says. “Too high-pitched for us to hear, but it drives werewolves nuts. They won’t be able to get anywhere near us, let alone hear anything we have to say.”

“Where’d you get that?” Stiles asks, impressed.

“One of my friends from the service,” Gordon says. “Nice collar, by the way.”

Stiles reaches up to play with the little pendant, which is rapidly becoming a nervous habit. “Thanks. For both the compliment and the segue. Laura wants to give one to you but she’s afraid you’ll say no.”

Gordon frowns. “Why?”

“Because you’re enigmatic and awesome and also she has some pretty crippling problems with self-doubt,” Stiles says. “Apparently some asshole once told her that she wasn’t good enough to be the alpha of the Hale pack, and she took it kinda hard. Given the current . . . climate . . . it would be pretty disastrous if she asked you and you turned her down.”

“Why didn’t she just ask me in private, and then if I turned her down, nobody would know?” Gordon asks.

“See previous statement re: crippling self-doubt,” Stiles says. He pushes a hand through his hair. “No one’s sure why you’re here. You’re too cool for school, as the kids say. You’re not the type to pant after werewolves. You’ve been polite to everyone who’s expressed an interest in you but not pursued anybody. So, yeah. You’re hard to read, and to be honest I think that freaks werewolves out.”

“Fair,” Gordon says. “I’ve actually had some training in it.” He flips the sonic emitter in one hand. “I met some werewolves in the service. Interesting folks. And I don’t do real well on the more traditional sort of date. I don’t have much in common with most women. So I thought, maybe I should participate in the werewolf mating rituals and see if I can meet someone that I do have some things in common with.”

That makes sense to Stiles. “Have you?”

“I like Laura,” Gordon says. “A lot. Is it because of werewolf magic, or pheromones, or anything like that? I don’t know. Do I want to spend the rest of my life with her? I don’t really know that either. But if I have to wear a collar for a couple weeks so she has the maneuvering capability to kick that Deucalion guy in the balls, bring on the collar.”

“I know, right, that guy,” Stiles says, thrilled to discover Gordon’s mutual loathing of Deucalion.

Gordon’s lips twitch into a little smirk. “Congratulations on your record-setting price, by the way.”

“Ugh, I don’t want to talk about it,” Stiles says, with a shudder that’s not entirely faked.

“In any case,” Gordon says, “I would have said something myself, but from everything I’ve heard, I’m not supposed to make the first move. I have to accept advances from basically anyone who wants to make them until someone tries to make a formal claim, at which point I can accept or reject. And if Laura doesn’t have the confidence to stake a claim, me having to do it for her will only weaken her position further.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true,” Stiles says. “All this bullshit is so fucking . . . tiring.”

“Politics,” Gordon says dismissively. “There’s boot-licking and ass-kissing no matter where you end up in life.” He stands up. “I’ve got places to be. Tell Laura to ask me.”

“At the pot luck tomorrow,” Stiles says. “It needs to be public.”

Gordon raises his eyebrows, then huffs out a little laugh. “For someone who hates the politics, you’re pretty good at it,” he says, and walks away.

Stiles considers this for a minute, then texts both Derek and Peter saying, ‘Tell Laura to ask Gordon. In his own weird way I think he’s head over heels for her.’

Peter texts back in the affirmative. Derek, who still clearly feels awkward around him, doesn’t text back at all for an hour, and when he does, it’s just ‘k’. Stiles rolls his eyes at Derek’s social ineptitude and goes about his business.

The pot luck is something he’s been looking forward to, and he still is, albeit for different reasons now that he’s had some time to think about how he’s going to handle it. He marshals his troops. Boyd, Erica, and Scott are still in the running, despite their very narrow chances, and of course so is Isaac, even though he and Cora are still dancing around each other.

“Does anyone here actually know how to cook besides me?” he asks.

Isaac does, as it turns out, though it’s mostly just simple stuff. Boyd says he can whip up a mean peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich but not much beyond that. Erica is good for chopping and stirring, and Scott shouldn’t be allowed within fifty yards of the kitchen. “The key to fancy cooking,” Stiles says, “is finding stuff that looks a lot harder than it is.”

“So no soufflés,” Erica says.

“Exactly,” Stiles says. “Now, in theory, you’re supposed to make something that is a traditional family dish or family recipe.”

“If you make me bring fried chicken, I will never speak to you again,” Boyd says.

“Relax, Boyd, I don’t see the world through that lens,” Stiles says. “Nope. Jambalaya.”

“Oh, much better,” Boyd says, rolling his eyes. “And Erica’s bringing tacos?”

“Carne asada,” Stiles corrects. “And you’re welcome, it’s not like I did all the shopping or anything. Scott, you get the chicken pot pie, and Isaac, the beef casserole. Let’s get to work, folks.”

“What about you?” Isaac asks him.

“I’ll make mine in the morning,” Stiles says, and grabs a casserole dish out of a drawer. They wind up making a pretty good time of it. It might not be the way any of them would have chosen to spend their afternoon, but they talk and joke around and listen to the radio. Sheriff Stilinski comes home and seems surprised to find his house full of teenagers, but happy that Stiles is making friends.

They decide to watch a movie after the cooking, and it’s late by the time everyone leaves, holding their carefully wrapped dishes. Stiles waves as they’re leaving and says he’ll see them the next day.

The pot luck starts at noon on the nose, and Stiles knows that a lot of people will get there earlier to set up, if they’re doing something fancy. He leaves the house at eleven thirty sharp and stops to pick up what he needs. It’s one minute to noon when he gets to the park where the pot luck is being held. The weather is nice, a little cloudy, but the temperature is perfect. He finds the table that’s been designated for him, whips a plastic table cloth over it, and starts laying things out from his bags.

Scott looks over from where he’s setting things up on his own table and chokes. “Is that Kentucky Fried Chicken?”

“Yup,” Stiles says.

“I thought you had to cook something.”

“Technically,” Stiles says, “that’s never stated. I mean, the point of the event is to prove that you can provide for a mate. That used to involve hunting. These days, people assume that means to prove that you can cook something decent. And that’s how the event has developed. But there really are no rules. And I just felt like turning heads, that’s all.”

He’s certainly doing that. While everyone else is setting up plates or bowls, they turn and stare at him. Gordon walks by carrying a tray of barbecued meat that smells delicious, and just lets out a bark of laughter before he keeps walking. Stiles smirks at him, and helps the other teenagers get set up. The tables are set far enough apart that he can watch the werewolves as they start to arrive and peruse the offerings.

Those who have already chosen always go straight for their mate’s table and accept something from their hands, and then usually stay close. Sometimes they snarl at anyone who approaches and tries to sample the food. Others mill around, trying a little from everywhere. Depending on the rank or importance of each werewolf, sometimes the crowd goes quiet while they walk around.

When Laura arrives, things go very quiet indeed. After the events of the auction, two nights previous, everyone is aware of how precarious her position has become. Nobody knows it better than her, and there are two spots of color in her cheeks, standing out against her pale complexion. But her head is held high as she strides purposefully for Gordon’s table. A few other people have already been to it, and he’s politely offered them food. One of the women now snarls as Laura approaches, but doesn’t actively interfere when she smiles hello at Gordon and asks what he’s serving.

“It’s spicy,” Gordon warns, stabbing a toothpick into a piece of meat and holding it out to her. Rather than taking it from his hand, she leans over and closes her mouth around it, then pulls away. Stiles suddenly feels like his pants are uncomfortably tight, and from the way everyone around him is shifting, he’s not the only one. Gordon himself seems unaffected, waiting as Laura chews and swallows. “Do you like it?”

“Very much,” Laura says, her voice low, almost a purr. Then she holds out a small wooden box, which Stiles recognizes from the one Peter had given him. “I wanted to ask if you would accept this.”

Now the crowds have gone silent. Laura making a formal offer would be a big deal even without the drama of the auction. Gordon opens the box to view the collar inside. He gives Laura that almost-smile where the corners of his eyes crinkle. “I will if you’ll put it on me,” he says.

Laura’s breath is a little quick as she lifts the choker out of the box. Gordon ducks his head slightly so she can reach up, fastening it around his neck. The silver pendant falls against the hollow of his throat, glinting in the sunlight. There’s even some polite applause from those watching. Gordon holds out another piece of meat to Laura, and she takes it. Then she feeds a bite to him.

“You’ve got a little bit of barbecue sauce on your face,” Gordon tells her, reaching out to wipe it away with his thumb. She lunges upwards abruptly and her kiss takes him so off guard that she nearly knocks him over backwards. He regains his balance quickly, getting an arm around her waist to hold her as the other tangles in her hair. Their kiss looks so passionate and hungry that Stiles wonders if he should cover Scott’s eyes.

When they finally pull apart, Gordon actually looks a little out of breath, and Laura is smiling, really smiling, for the first time Stiles has seen. Gordon leans over and murmurs something in her ear, and she flushes a delicate pink but then nods. Gordon puts an arm around her waist and they start walking away.

“Awww, yeah, get it, Laura!” Erica shouts after them, and several people start laughing. Some of the remaining humans converge on the food Gordon left behind, but Stiles notices that none of the werewolves touch it.

His own food is getting cold. Nobody wants it, and several of the werewolves have actively wrinkled their noses at it. This amuses the hell out of him. He sees Cora arrive and go over to Isaac’s table, accepting a little plate of the casserole before giving Isaac her usual scowl like she’s not at all interested. Isaac is becoming inured to this, and asks how she is and if she’s missed him, which makes her blush.

Stiles is watching them flirt, and watching Erica press her goods on anyone who walks by, regardless of whether or not they look interested, when a hand slams down on his table so hard that he nearly jumps out of his skin. “What the hell is this?” a voice asks, and Stiles looks up to see Ennis standing there, scowling at him.

“Well, according to Colonel Sanders, it’s chicken,” Stiles tells him.

“Are you trying to be funny?” Ennis asks, growling.

“Yeah, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me that I’m failing,” Stiles says. “Diff’rent strokes, I guess.”

“It’s an insult,” Ennis says. “These rituals were designed to prove yourself to a potential mate. Now you and Hale are making a mockery of the whole damned thing. I don’t give a fuck what he thinks about it. I’m going to put a stop to this.” Without another word, he hooks his hands underneath the table and heaves. Stiles lets out a yelp and scrambles backwards.

“What the hell, man,” he complains, as the food goes everywhere. “Get a grip!”

Ennis reaches out and grabs him by the front of his shirt, lifting him off his feet. “Do you even know who you’re dealing with?” he snarls. “I’m an alpha!”

“I don’t care,” Stiles wheezes, and jams the taser he’s carrying into Ennis’ side, pulling the trigger. The alpha’s body spasms, his grip loosens, and Stiles falls to the ground. He backs away precipitously without bothering to get up, feet kicking little scuffs in the dirt.

Ennis shakes off the effects a few moments later and snarls, “You cocky little shit – ” and reaches for Stiles again. A hand grabs him by the wrist. He struggles, nearly wrenches free, and then two more hands are added. Stiles manages to get to his feet as Derek and Peter haul Ennis backwards and shove him a few feet away.

“Get out of here,” Derek says to him. “This one belongs to me.”

“Like I give a fuck,” Ennis says. “Did you even see what he did?”

“He defended himself,” Derek says.

“So is that what it’s come to?” a smooth voice interjects, and Deucalion walks up, the tip of his cane tapping against the dirt. “Your poor little mate is forced to protect himself, because this time even your uncle couldn’t help him?”

“Hey, fuck off,” Stiles says, pushing in front of Derek. “I’ll have you know that I’m perfectly entitled to protect myself.”

“Oh, entitled, certainly,” Deucalion agrees. “That’s hardly the point.”

“You want the point?” Stiles asks, and fishes in his backpack, pulling out the thick werewolf reference book that Peter had given him. It’s hundreds of years old, and the pages are yellow and brittle with age. “Okay, here’s the section on the mating rituals, now, let’s see . . . ‘once chosen, the human mate has the right to defend him or herself from any unwanted advances or challenges to his werewolf mate. Such a display of strength is not only allowed but encouraged, as it demonstrates the human’s will and the strength he or she will add to the pack they have been chosen for’.” He snaps the book shut. “In your own words.”

“That was written a long time ago,” Deucalion points out. “Back when humans still had the need to be able to defend themselves.”

Stiles just looks at him and says, “Clearly, some of us still do.”

“Bullshit,” Ennis says. “You’re just making shit up as an excuse to do whatever you want. Derek’s the one who should be in charge, but instead he’s letting you walk all the fuck over him.” He sneers at Derek and continues, “How’s it feel to rank lower than a human kid, Hale?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Derek says, keeping his temper admirably, although there’s a hint of a growl in his words.

“Oh, yeah?” Ennis asks. “You’re going to try to convince me of that after what he just pulled?”

Derek turns to Stiles. His jaw is clenched tight, the muscles twitching. “Which one of us is in charge here, Stiles?”

“You,” Stiles says, smiling at him.

Derek swallows visibly, his Adam’s apple moving up and down. “Then – get on your knees,” he says. Ennis scoffs a little, but stops when Stiles just drops to his knees right where he’s standing. Derek has to swallow again, but his voice regains a little confidence as he says, “Now kiss my feet.”

Stiles is actually pretty glad of the opportunity to fold himself forward, because it hides the raging hard-on that he’s starting to develop. This is a kink he hadn’t previously known he had. Everything about Derek giving him orders in that voice is just making his nerves spring to attention. As well as other parts of him. He leans over and presses his mouth against Derek’s boot. He can hear people murmuring around him, but it doesn’t seem important.

Derek leans down and puts a hand underneath Stiles’ chin, making him look up and then drawing him to his feet. Stiles gets up, feeling a little shaky and glad that his pants are loose. “So,” he says, “do you understand what the point of this event is?”

“To, uh, to prove that we can provide for a mate,” Stiles says, hoping his voice isn’t quite as husky as it sounds to him. He sees Derek’s eyes widen slightly, and realizes that the pheromones must be rolling off him in waves. He clears his throat and continues, “It was originally about hunting, but people don’t really have to hunt anymore.”

“No, they don’t,” Derek agrees, “so the ritual could be considered obsolete. But we still do it. Do you know why?”

Stiles thinks he has a notion or two, but that obviously isn’t the point, so he shakes his head.

“Cooking for another person is an act of . . . intimacy,” Derek says, his gaze boring into Stiles. “And an act of trust. If I accept food from your hands, it’s a sign that I know I can eat it without being tricked or hurt. You see the point I’m making?”

Stiles swallows and nods. He looks down, trying to appear appropriately humbled instead of incredibly turned on, and says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand.”

“Then go make me something.” Derek lets him go.

“Okay,” Stiles says. “What do you want?”

“Something with . . . chocolate,” Derek says, and Stiles wonders if the werewolf is trying to kill him. “Better hurry. The pot luck ends in two hours.”

“Right,” Stiles says, and just turns and bolts. He doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks about it or what happens after he’s gone. He needs to be as far away from Derek as possible. And he doesn’t even have time to stop and jerk off. He needs to get the dessert started as soon as he can. So he drives home at something of a reckless speed and starts throwing things out of his pantry. He comes up with the box of brownie mix that he had been hoping he still had and turned the oven on to preheat. Then he dials and tucks the phone underneath his ear as he pulls eggs out of the fridge and oil out of the pantry.

“Hello, Stiles.” Peter’s voice is cautiously amused.

“Hey,” Stiles says. “I need you to run to the grocery for me.”

Peter lets out a snort of laughter. “Really? You weren’t prepared for this?”

“Of course I was prepared for this. Why do you think I got your number from Derek? You want to be helpful, shut up and go to the grocery for me.”

“What do you need?” Peter asks, and the sound of the pot luck was fading as he moved away from it.

“A carton of strawberries, one of raspberries, and a jar of hot fudge,” Stiles says, and hangs up before Peter can protest or ask stupid questions. Then he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. Brownie cups are quick and easy, but look amazing. He throws together the mix and pours about an inch of it into each hole in a muffin tin.

They’re just getting out of the oven when Peter arrives. Stiles presses the center of each one down before they can cool, fills the indent with hot fudge, and puts the fruit on top. Then he checks his watch. It’s barely been forty minutes since he left the pot luck. He’s got time. He doesn’t want to show up at the last minute, but he doesn’t need to rush. It gives him time to wait for the brownie cups to cool, take them out of the muffin tins, and arrange them on a glass plate in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

“Is there anything you can’t do?” Peter asks, clearly quite amused.

“Put a sock in it,” Stiles says. “And hold onto these while I drive.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Peter says, accepting the tray, “but you’ll have to carry them the rest of the way. Better if people don’t realize that I was helping you.”

“Right,” Stiles says, and gets behind the wheel of the Jeep. It’s easy enough to carry the tray of brownies back to his assigned table. Someone has righted it while he was gone, and cleared away the mess of the KFC that Ennis had destroyed. Stiles is annoyed about that. A complete waste of money, just to prove a point. He could have eaten it later himself, if the werewolves were too good for it.

Derek is still waiting for him there. He’s gotten a lawn chair from somewhere, and is sitting casually by Stiles’ table. Without a word, Stiles knows exactly how to play this. He sets the tray down and averts his eyes somewhat shyly. “I made you these,” he says. “Do you want a strawberry or a raspberry?”

Derek pats his lap. “Surprise me.”

Hoping that he doesn’t do anything completely obvious and embarrassing like come in his pants, Stiles takes one of the strawberry brownies and arranges himself in Derek’s lap. Everyone nearby has gone quiet to watch this display. Stiles holds the dessert up to Derek’s mouth and tries desperately not to watch as his lips close around it. His pants are loose, but not loose enough.

“It’s good,” Derek says, his voice soft, and Jesus, that does terrible things to Stiles’ libido. But he keeps himself together, feeds it to him bite by bite until there’s only one left. Then, as he’s holding that out to Derek, the werewolf takes his wrist and pushes his hand back towards him, making it obvious that he intends for Stiles to eat that last bite. So he does. The chocolate is thick and rich and sticks in his throat. It’s delicious, but takes effort to swallow.

“Do you want another?” he asks, once he thinks he can talk without his voice cracking. Derek’s face is so close to his. He would barely have to lean forward six inches. He licks a bit of stray chocolate off his lips and tries not to think about it. And now Derek is giving him this look, a complex sort of look that’s confusion and awkwardness and a bit of anxiety. Stiles gets the feeling that Derek knows exactly what he’s thinking and is uncomfortable with it.

“I’ll take a raspberry one,” Derek says, “and then you should let your friends try them.”

“Okay.” Stiles takes this as a hint that he needs to get off Derek’s lap before his boner actually pops out of his pants and starts trying to assault people. He scrambles up and heads for the treats. After passing another to Derek, he starts handing them out to the others. He sets two aside for Laura and Gordon, for whenever they make an appearance again, but there are still plenty left. The recipe makes twenty-four.

Cora and Isaac share one. Erica eats one while leaning against Boyd. Boyd eats two while leaning against Erica. Scott debates between a strawberry and a raspberry for so long that Stiles makes him take one of each. Peter wanders over at some point and picks one up with a smirk. Some other people come by, acquaintances he’s made at the various events, and politely ask if they can try one, and he always says yes. None of the werewolves ask for one. Deucalion and Ennis are nowhere to be seen. Jennifer comes over with Kali on her arm and Stiles gives her one. She eats half of it and tries to offer the rest to Kali, but Kali won’t take it. Her lip is curled into a silent snarl as she pulls Jennifer away. Jennifer gives Stiles an apologetic glance over her shoulder.

Stiles feels bad for her, but he’s both stunned and thrilled by the larger implication. Kali wouldn’t eat the food because to do so would have challenged Derek, and she didn’t want to. It was the first sign that they were making any impression on the alphas at all. Stiles eats another brownie cup and starts to feel like maybe they’ll actually get through this with their skin intact.

Gradually, the crowd dissipates. Stiles packs away the chocolate treats that hadn’t been eaten yet. His father will appreciate having one or two. “Scavenger hunt is on Tuesday, right?” he asks.

Derek nods shortly and says, “At least we don’t have to deal with any of this bullshit until then.”

Stiles looks up, because that sounds suspiciously like ‘at least we don’t have to see each other until then’, and he feels the blush rising up in his cheeks. He looks away, rubbing his hand over the back of his head. “Yeah,” he says. He can’t blame Derek for feeling awkward and not wanting to see him, after the show they had just put on.

Derek scowls at him and says, “I didn’t – I’m sorry. About – what I told you to do.”

“Huh?” Stiles asks, then remembers. He had been so preoccupied by the chocolate of delicious sexiness that he had practically forgotten about what proceeded it. “Oh, that. Don’t worry about it. You lose some points for creativity, though. I mean ‘kiss my feet’ was really the best you could come up with?”

Looking even more sour about everything, Derek says, “I didn’t want to make you do that.”

“Oh, I know,” Stiles says. “If you had wanted, I would’ve told you to piss off.” It occurs to him that maybe, Derek is trying to split them up because he’s afraid Stiles doesn’t want to see him after what happened. That maybe Derek doesn’t mind the way Stiles is attracted to him – dare he guess, that he even likes it? There’s a set of thoughts that’s destined for uncomfortable conclusions. Stiles clears his throat and says, “So, uh, I’ll see you Tuesday?”

“Yeah,” Derek says, and waves as Stiles makes a hasty retreat.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

“I am such an idiot,” Derek groans, flopping facedown on the sofa next to his sister.

“Yep,” Cora says, not looking up.

Derek scowls at her and wonders how hard he should hit her for agreeing with him. “You could argue with me a little,” he says.

“Nope,” Cora replies.

Feeling even more miffed, Derek says, “Shouldn’t you be off canoodling with Isaac or something?”

“Gross,” Cora says, but a blush rises in her cheeks despite herself. “I’ll have you know that Isaac and I had a very enjoyable afternoon and that I came home afterwards because he had to go make dinner for his father. Unlike Laura, who seems to have disappeared into the ether of Gordon’s hotel room.”

“Can’t blame her for that,” Derek says, but then buries his face in the cushions again. He’s such an idiot. Stiles is never going to want to talk to him again. He can’t figure out what the hell he had been thinking. The ‘kiss my feet’ thing could be blamed on stress, maybe. It was what Stiles had suggested, albeit jokingly, and it had gotten wedged in his brain.

But the look on Stiles when he had said that, the smell of him – Derek begins to think that maybe he shouldn’t be thinking about this while in a room with his younger sister. He had expected Stiles to be pissed at him, to be upset, maybe even amused, but he hadn’t expected that. That wave of lust and pheromones had nearly knocked Derek off his feet.

Not that he had any idea what to do about that. This whole fake relationship thing is starting to go in directions he never would have expected, and he’s pretty sure that any attempt to confront those directions will only end in disaster. But he’d been so addled by it that he had taken things at the pot luck several steps further than they should have gone. There had been a moment there when he was sure that Stiles was going to kiss him, and he has no idea what would have happened after that.

“Why’d I have to have him sit in my lap?” he moans into his cushions.

“Oh my God, Derek,” Cora says, exasperated. “Will you please just get over yourself? He obviously enjoyed sitting in your lap.”

“That’s the problem,” Derek mutters.

“Oh, please,” Cora replies. “You like him. He likes you. Most people would take this as a cause to celebrate, not a God damned tragedy.”

“It’s not a – look, he doesn’t – we can’t – ”

Peter comes up the stairs from the basement and says to Cora, “Don’t even try. They’re hopeless.”

Derek sits up enough to scowl at his uncle. “Okay, well – look, things are kind of – complicated right now. Maybe after the ceremonies are over and we’re done with all this bullshit, then I’ll talk to him and we can – work something out. Until then, keep your opinions to yourselves.”

“Sir, yes sir!” Cora snaps off a salute and then gives a snort of laughter.

Derek’s phone chooses that moment to ring, much to his relief. He glances at the screen and sees that it’s an unknown number. “Hello?” he says, somewhat cautiously.

“Derek? This is Sheriff Stilinski. Is your sister with you, by any chance? She isn’t answering her phone.

“Oh, uh, no,” Derek says. “She was, uhm. Out. I can track her down for you, if you need me to.”

Sheriff Stilinski clears his throat. “Yes. I need to talk to her. There’s been another murder.”

Derek shoots to his feet. Cora and Peter have both gone quiet, able to hear the sheriff on the other end of the phone. “Who? And when and where?”

“From the ID in the wallet, it’s a young woman by the name of Raven Chancellor,” Stilinski says. “Which, according to the roster from the tournament that I have, is a thirty-two year old werewolf from Nevada. Does she ring any bells to you?”

“Uh, I don’t know her personally, but I think she’s tall, pale, dark hair, right?” Derek says.

“That’s her,” Stilinski says. “Same cause of death, same arrangement of the body. A couple joggers found her out in the woods by Webster Park. That’s where the pot luck was, right?” He doesn’t wait for confirmation; he already knows the answer. “Estimated time of death is about an hour ago. I’ve got guys at the scene, but I want to talk to Laura, see if she knows anything about this particular werewolf and if she has any connection to Scarlet.”

“Yeah, she . . . she left the pot luck with her . . . with Gordon. That’s who she chose. They just formalized it today. I, uh, they didn’t come back here, so . . .”

“Okay,” Stilinski says. “They’re probably at his hotel, then. I’ll find her.” There’s a pause. “I wonder if you might do me a favor.”

“Uh, sure,” Derek says, knowing there’s no other answer.

“Would you go by my house and check in on Stiles?”

Derek knows the underlying point here. There’s a murderer on the loose and they’ve got no idea what the motivation is, but the odds are good it has something to do with the Hale family, and that means anyone associated with them could be a target. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”

“It’s just, if I call him . . .”

“He’ll know something’s up and he’ll find some excuse to come poke his nose in,” Derek says, almost smiling. “Okay, yeah. I’ll go keep an eye on him.”

“Thanks.” Stilinski hangs up without another word.

Derek studies his phone for a minute, then looks at Peter. He doesn’t trust his uncle a lot of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that Peter is one of the smartest people he knows. “Raven was all over Gordon after the tournament. And Scarlet was hitting on him at the moonrise ceremony. He’s the connection.”

“Or Laura is,” Peter says smoothly. “She has obvious motive, which means the intent could be to frame her.” He stands up smoothly and says, “I’ll go check on her. You stay with Stiles.”

Derek nods. He has a feeling that Stiles isn’t going to be thrilled with him after the afternoon’s performance, but there isn’t much he can do about that. In addition to the sheriff’s request, he has a nagging urge to check on the teenager and make sure he’s all right. He’s pretty sure that doesn’t bode well for him in the future, but pushes that aside.

He grabs what he feels will be needed to keep Stiles captivated, then breaks the speed limit several times on the way to Stiles’ house, and is relieved to see the Jeep parked in the driveway, indicating that Stiles is home. He rings the front bell and it occurs to him that he might have called to say that he was coming over. Of course, he’s not sure that he would’ve been able to call without giving anything away, like the sheriff was, but he could have texted.

It’s too late now, though, and Stiles opens the door a few moments later. “Oh, uh . . . hey,” he says, rubbing a hand over the back of his head awkwardly. “What are you, uh, I mean . . .”

“What am I doing here?” Derek asks dryly. There’s no point in trying to hide the truth. He’s not one for social calls. “There’s been another murder. Your father asked me to come check on you.”

“Come hold my leash, he means,” Stiles says grumpily, and stands back. “Come on in. But your price of admission is telling me what you know.”

“I don’t know much,” Derek says. “Just that the victim was another werewolf.”

“Uh huh. Who?”

Derek sighs. “Raven Chancellor.”

Stiles’ face goes blank for a minute. Derek is glad to see that he doesn’t recognize the name, that he’s not going to spend the next half hour defending his sister from meaningless allegations. That all goes downhill a few moments later when Stiles says, “Raven was hitting on Gordon after the tournament. Someone is killing off Laura’s rivals.”

“Jesus Christ,” Derek says. “How do you even know that?”

“Dude, I pay attention,” Stiles says. “Anyway, we know your sister didn’t do it – we, uh, we do know that, right? – shit, of course we do, she was standing with us when the first body was found.” Stiles frowns, considering that.

“What?” Derek snaps at him.

“Well,” Stiles says, “she was with us when the body was found. Which is not necessarily the same time it was killed. She was probably in the maze when the murder actually took place, and so was Gordon, and you, and possibly even me. Which is really fucked up. But anyway, she and Gordon were together tonight, so that’s all okay. So someone’s trying to frame her. I just don’t understand what the point would be.”

Since Stiles obviously won’t be deterred, Derek sinks down into one of the kitchen chairs and says, “More bullshit to loosen her hold on her position here. If Laura killed those two werewolves, it would imply that she didn’t want to face them in an actual challenge match.”

“So anyone who wants Laura’s territory could stand to benefit,” Stiles says, “which rules out . . . hardly anybody.”

Derek nods wearily.

“Okay.” Stiles rubs his hands together. “Let’s get the files of the alphas attending. And then let’s – ”

“What? No,” Derek says. “Your father sent me here to keep you out of trouble. Which I’m pretty sure means no investigating.”

“Are you kidding me?” Stiles asks. “Are you telling me that you don’t want to solve this?”

“Are you telling me that your father isn’t qualified?” Derek retorts. “Because I’m pretty sure that he has already come up with every theory that you just talked about. Jesus, Stiles. I get that you’re smart and you want to help, but it’s not your business.”

“It is my business,” Stiles says. “You made it my business.” He tugs on the collar that he’s still wearing. “Okay, yes, I volunteered. And yes, you were right, I had no idea what I was getting into, and sure, there are times in the past few weeks when I’ve felt like the water was way above my head. But that doesn’t change anything. If you want me to keep going to these stupid events and pretending to . . .” Stiles swallows suddenly, convulsively. “Pretending to be your mate, then you can’t stop me from being involved in the other stuff that’s going on.”

“Look, I told you that you might not realize what you were getting into,” Derek snarls. “I told you that you could back out any time.”

“Yeah, you told me that,” Stiles snaps right back, “but you didn’t tell me what it would mean. How bad it would make you look. You didn’t tell me that my performance in these God damned rituals could hurt your pack, could unseat your alpha, could result in Beacon Hills becoming a completely differently place if someone like Deucalion takes over. Do you think I’ve never been outside California, never been to a territory where the wolves and hunters are at war, where people never go out after dark because civilian casualties are just a fact of life? You told me I didn’t realize what I was getting into, but you never told me that people other than me could get hurt. And I get that maybe it would have happened no matter who you picked, but seriously, what the hell were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking,” Derek says flatly. “Jesus, you don’t have any idea what this is like. To have so much riding on you. To just, just want to have a pack and a family but it’s all this bullshit politics and you have to be strong for your sister, have to support her even when you don’t agree with her. All I was thinking was that I couldn’t handle doing this, and you gave me what I thought would be an easy out. But it wasn’t easy, because nothing in my life is ever easy.”

“Okay, well, understand one God damned thing,” Stiles says. “We are in this together. I might not be your mate, but I’m your partner in this. Because I don’t want you and your pack to lose Beacon Hills – for the sake of the town. So we’re a team, and don’t you fucking forget it.”

Derek darts a look at him, then sighs. “Yeah, okay,” he says. “Whatever.”

That will have to be good enough, so Stiles lets it go. “Look, on the upside, this thing is practically over, right? I mean, I’m signed up for the scavenger hunt in three days, but other than that, can’t we just chill until the finale?”

“That . . . won’t really work,” Derek says, frowning. “I mean. We could. But . . .”

Stiles sighs. “But avoiding the events would be a signal that we don’t want to show up and get challenged. Okay. Fine. We will attend every single God damned event left. We will. Both of us. Together. You got that?”

“Fine!” Derek says, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “But we’re still letting your father work the whole ‘murder’ thing, because if I let you get involved, he’ll remove my hand at the wrist.”

“No, I’m pretty sure he would skip to something you find a lot more valuable,” Stiles says, his gaze flicking downwards. Derek grimaces. “But, uh. Can I say something that you’re not gonna like? That you will, in fact, utterly hate?”

“Half the stuff you say falls into that category,” Derek says.

Stiles blows him a kiss, and for the first time, Derek cracks a smile. But the teenager sobers up quickly. “Look, here’s the list of suspects. Primarily people who would benefit from Laura losing her territory, which means other alpha werewolves and maybe even some of the beta werewolves at the ceremonies. We can’t rule out the humans, either – some of them might be doing it to attract an alpha, or maybe to help out the one that’s chosen them. I think we can probably rule out most of the event staff. They would have had opportunity but no motive. But, the thing is, I can think of one other person who would have motive to unseat Laura, that my dad won’t think of because he doesn’t know the background.” His gaze rises to Derek’s. “Your uncle Peter.”

Derek flinches, but stops the angry response before it can leave his mouth. He forces himself to think about it. There’s no reason to be reflexively defensive at the suggestion. It is possible that Peter would benefit from this. That he could use it as an opportunity to again manipulate Laura into letting him take her position. Or even as a way to get her killed so he could then kill her killer and become an alpha without having to touch her – without Cora and Derek realizing what he had done. It’s completely possible, and Peter is smart enough to do it, strong enough to have killed other werewolves, and has no alibi to speak of for either crime.

“Okay,” he says, letting out a slow breath. “We can – keep that in mind. But I still say we should let your dad do the police work.”

“Yeah, sure, that makes sense,” Stiles says, letting Derek have a point now that he had won the war. “Though he still didn’t need to send you over here to baby-sit me, for fuck’s sake.”

Derek has to smile at that. “Didn’t he?”

“Bite me,” Stiles says, without vigor. Derek arches an eyebrow. “Not like that! Or . . . like that, either. Never mind. You’re the worst. I’m going back to my World of Warcraft game and you can just . . . brood. Or something.”

“I brought this,” Derek says, holding up the case for Grand Theft Auto V.

Stiles’ eyes go wide. “Holy shit, I was so, so wrong about you. I take back every mean thing I ever said.” He’s already reaching out for the game with grabby hands.

“Never tell your dad I let you play this,” Derek says.

“Deal.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

It’s late when Sheriff Stilinski gets home, and he looks at the two of them sprawled on the sofa, watching Mulan. There’s a moment while he clearly thought about asking if they had been watching Disney movies the whole time, but thinks better of the idea. “Oh my God!” Stiles bursts out, as his father takes off his shoes and his holster. “Are you seriously not going to tell me anything?”

Stilinski gives his son the side eye, then shakes his head. “Knowing you, not telling you anything is probably more dangerous than giving you some details,” he says. “Your curiosity is a force to be reckoned with. You two already know that the two women killed were both Laura’s rivals, and direct competitors. Scarlet to the north, Raven to the east. Laura says she’s on good terms with the alpha nearest to the south, and she was going to go talk to her, to warn her that someone may target her.”

“So someone is framing Laura,” Derek says. “Trying to shake her hold on her territory.”

“That would be the most logical conclusion,” Stilinski says, “and there are thirteen alphas and even a number of betas who would stand to benefit. Deucalion is obviously the most likely suspect, since he has a grudge against the Hale pack, no matter how nonsensical. However, Deucalion swears he was at a function when this event occurred. It’s a soft alibi, since only people directly related to him are vouching for it, but it would be hard to break.”

“Great,” Derek says, obviously frustrated.

Stilinski lets out a breath. “Unfortunately, Deucalion has declared that he thinks Gordon himself is the most likely suspect. Apparently he’s something of an . . . unusual candidate. Deucalion thinks he’s a hunter who has infiltrated themselves into the proceedings.”

“Gordon was with Laura, right?” Stiles asks.

“Yes and no,” Stilinski says, with a grimace. “They went back to his hotel room together. Laura says that they were, ahem, engaged until at least four o’clock. But after that she fell asleep and didn’t wake up until I called the hotel room at seven. Gordon was there when she woke up, but she can’t vouch that he was there the entire time while she slept.”

“Great,” Derek says again.

“What did Gordon say?” Stiles asks.

“Not much that you wouldn’t expect. He says he also fell asleep and was also awoken by my phone call.” Stilinski gives a shrug. “Again, a very soft alibi. As for the first murder, he was probably inside the maze while it occurred, as was Laura, so there’s no help there.”

“Gordon does know some hunter techniques,” Stiles says, a little reluctantly, and tells his father about the sonic pulse emitter. “He could have just learned that in the service, though.”

Sheriff Stilinski nods. “I’ve requested his service record. That may give us a little more information about him. I don’t want to pry too deeply, because I don’t think he’s guilty. Deucalion was quite eager to suggest him.”

Derek’s jaw sets in an angry line. “That . . . it would be even more disastrous for Laura than even if she was guilty herself. That implies cowardice, but still, taking care of her rivals isn’t against the rules, no matter how you do it. But if she chose a mate who was really a hunter, it would just destroy her. Especially after what happened to the Hale family.”

“Yes, I imagine that’s Deucalion’s game,” the sheriff says. “But we can’t prove anything. There is one other odd thing, though,” he adds. “Neither of the victims had defensive wounds, but of course, that doesn’t mean anything with werewolves. Still, there’s no evidence that either of them put up much of a fight. If one alpha fought another . . .”

“It would be messy,” Derek agrees. “I mean, in the maze especially, in such a confined area, I would have expected half of it to be knocked over.”

“Hunters have ways to immobilize or sneak up on werewolves, I assume,” Stilinski says, and Derek nods. “But even if it is a hunter, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Gordon.”

“I actually asked Gordon why he was here,” Stiles says. “Since he’s . . . kinda like me, not a person you would expect. He said that he basically had known some werewolves in the service and thought they were cool, so he decided this might be a good place to meet the ladies. And he does seem to genuinely like Laura a lot. Maybe . . . if it is him, maybe he thinks he’s helping her.”

“One theory at a time,” Stilinski says. “I’m going to have another chat with Gordon tomorrow, down at the station and away from everyone else. See if his story stays firm. You two, do . . . whatever stuff it is you need to do. And stay away from this. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” they say in unison.

Derek eventually goes home, leaving Stiles to sit in his room and think about everything. He’s up bright and early the next morning, and heads down to the station. His father isn’t there, and it’s child’s play to go into his office under the pretense of dropping off his lunch, and start looking through his file on the murders. There’s not a lot there that Stiles didn’t already know, so he hides until Gordon comes in, waits until his father has him in interrogation, and then sneaks in to the room next door to watch.

He expected something dramatic and interesting, but it isn’t. Gordon is polite, says he understands why the sheriff needs to talk to him again, and reiterates what he had said the other day. He had gone back to the hotel with Laura, fallen asleep there, and woken up when the phone rang. He has no prior knowledge of the victims although he acknowledges that they were both flirting with him.

Stiles catches up to him as he’s leaving. Gordon gives him a look and then a snort of laughter. “I was under the impression that your dad didn’t want you involved.”

“He seriously underestimates my crime-solving abilities,” Stiles agrees. “So. You were in the hotel room, sleeping, that whole time? Three whole hours?”

Gordon arches his eyebrows. He looks amused right from the top of his slicked-back hair down to the tips of his combat boots. “You’re a virgin, apparently?”

Stiles flushes pink. “Uh, well, that’s not – really relevant – ”

“Yes, it is,” Gordon says. “Because you seem unaware that after several rounds of sex with a truly beautiful, powerful, insatiable woman, it is more than possible to sleep three hours. I would have slept longer if the phone hadn’t rung.”

“Well, I’m glad you and Laura have worked things out,” Stiles says, somewhat sourly.

Gordon stops walking. “You think I could have done this?”

“I think it’s possible, yeah,” Stiles says, meeting his gaze without flinching. “You have military training, mysterious motives, and soft alibis. Of course, Deucalion also has great motives to frame you, so it’s entirely possible that you’re not guilty, but hey, I’m just exploring my options right now.”

“That’s fair,” Gordon says. “I didn’t do it, not that you have any particular reason to believe me. And if anyone tries to use me to hurt Laura, they’ll live long enough to regret it.”

Stiles considers this for a long moment, then says, “Okay. For now, at least.”

“You’re being very protective of the Hales,” Gordon says, giving him a sidelong glance and a smile that’s almost amused. “You and Derek are interesting, you know that? You put on a huge display, but then get awkward in smaller gatherings, or when you think no one else is around.”

With a shrug, Stiles says, “Neither of us are very good at this whole ‘courtship’ thing.”

“No, actually, you’re very good at it,” Gordon says, “when you need to be. I missed your display at the pot luck after Laura gave me the collar, but I heard it was phenomenal.”

Stiles squirms and tries not to think about being on Derek’s lap. “Yeah, uh,” he says. “It was interesting, I’ll give it that much.” What with everything else that had happened, he had almost forgotten about the way Derek had retreated after that, like he was upset by Stiles’ reaction. “What a mess,” he mutters, pushing his hands through his hair. He sees Gordon give him a questioning look. “Nothing, never mind. Are you doing the scavenger hunt?” he asks, and Gordon nods. “Okay, then I’ll see you there.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

The next few days aren’t pretty. Everywhere Laura goes at the ceremonies, people are pointing and whispering. She handles it with poise, but it clearly upsets her. Derek can see it, can see the tension in her jaw and her shoulders. He doesn’t say anything about it, because there isn’t much that can be said. She brings Gordon with her everywhere, a decision that he approves of. It’s a way of showing that she doesn’t think Gordon is guilty, and that anyone who says so would be challenging her.

At home, he watches Peter carefully, but his uncle is acting like always. He’s not eager to talk about the murders, not trying to help, which would have made Derek suspicious. He’s always suspicious when Peter tries to be helpful, always looking for his ulterior motives. But as usual, Peter keeps his own counsel beyond endorsing Laura’s way of dealing with it.

Peter himself has made a few appearances at the ceremonies, just enough to remind everyone that he was there. He has a way of getting into it with Deucalion that floods the room with so much condescension that nobody else can stand to be around them. Derek just holds on and waits for things to be over, but he doesn’t think that Deucalion is going to leave until he’s gotten what he wants.

The scavenger hunt is stupid and he doesn’t even see the point in participating. It’s just another way of making the humans run around like rats in mazes, even though everyone who was going to choose someone has done it already. Stiles doesn’t seem to mind participating in this one, and Derek supposes that at least it’s one of the least humiliating things they can participate in.

There’s a moment of awkwardness at the beginning, where Stiles asks Scott to be his partner, and Scott says, “Oh, I thought I would go with Isaac? I mean . . . I thought you would be going with Derek. I didn’t realize it was humans only.”

“Oh,” Stiles says. “Oh, that’s cool, okay.”

He looks a little miserable about it, and Derek is trying to think of a way to intervene, when Gordon says, “I can go with Isaac.”

Isaac blinks at him. “Uh, are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Gordon says. “We’re sort of going to be brothers, right? C’mon, it’ll be fun.”

“Okay,” Isaac replies, with a hesitant smile. They get their lists and everyone sets out to do their part. Derek is left with Peter and his sisters at the picnic where they’re supposed to wait and see who wins.

Of course, before fifteen minutes have gone by, Deucalion walks over with Ennis and Kali in tow. The other two alphas look like they’re itching for a fight, but Deucalion is just wearing his usual smirk. “Are you sure it’s wise to let your mate out of your sight, Laura?” he asks. “It would be terrible if someone else were to be killed.”

Laura grits her teeth but manages a pleasant smile. “I’m sure Gordon can take care of himself if the murderer comes after him.”

“Of course,” Deucalion says, amused. “He seems quite capable.”

“I wouldn’t choose anyone who wasn’t,” Laura says, and her gaze flicks to Kali. “Unlike some alphas I could name.”

Kali snarls at her. It’s not exactly an untrue statement. Derek has noticed that Jennifer Blake hasn’t done particularly well at any of the events. She never even showed her face in the ‘violence’ room, didn’t participate in paintball or any of the athletic tournaments, and really hasn’t done much to enhance Kali’s status. She’s pretty, certainly, but that seems about all there is to her. Kali’s lip curls and she says, “I can pick whoever I want to be my mate, because I don’t need anyone’s help.”

“Whatever you say,” Laura says breezily.

Now it’s Ennis who glowers. “You better watch yourself.”

“Is there a point to this?” Peter asks mildly. “Understand I’m just curious. I find posturing to be so wearisome. Better suited to dogs than wolves.”

Ennis steps forward. “I know you didn’t just say that.”

Peter looks at him like he would look at a bug under a microscope. “I thought all werewolves had good hearing, but perhaps I was wrong.”

“A Hale, wrong about something?” Deucalion asks. “Say it isn’t so.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time,” Peter says. “My sister Talia was convinced that you weren’t an idiot, and yet, all evidence to the contrary.”

“Talia simply didn’t have enough . . . vision,” Deucalion says.

Peter lets out a snort and says, “Neither do you, if we’re going to be literal about things.”

Deucalion’s smile tightened. “This from the man who was cut in half by a girl in her twenties.”

“All part of the plan,” Peter says easily. “She’s dead, and I’m not. Therefore, I win. Now, if you people don’t have anything better to do, I was trying to enjoy a nice afternoon out with my family. So run along.”

“I would just think the lot of you would be a little more leery of hunters, given all the trouble you’ve had with the Argents,” Deucalion says, unfazed. “To actually mate with one, it’s like . . . well, you were talking about behavior appropriate to dogs? Which is worse, a dog, or a wolf who mates with one?”

Laura’s on her feet. “Say that about my mate again,” she says, eyes blazing crimson.

“You do know that while he was in the service, he was active cleaning out werewolf nests in the Philippines, yes?” Deucalion says, smirking. “I’m sure you wouldn’t have overlooked such an important piece of information about your lover. Oh, he went by a different name back then. Gordon Klein, I think it was. I wonder why he would have used a fake name to enter the rituals? Unless he didn’t want someone knowing about his past, that is.”

Laura’s mouth is slightly ajar. Derek opens his mouth to say something, but finds himself only snarling. Peter rises to his feet and says smoothly, “We know everything about Gordon that we need to. Laura chose him, and that makes him pack. So if you aren’t feeling suicidal today – and trust me, death is not all it’s cracked up to be – I’d advise that you back off.”

Deucalion just smiles. “Well, I’m sure we’ll be seeing you,” he says, and turns around with the other two at his heels.

“Motherfucker,” Laura snarls, fists clenching at her sides so hard that her claws are digging into her palms, shredding the skin.

“Take it easy,” Peter says to her. She snarls at him. He looks unimpressed. Gradually, she relaxes and lowers herself into a chair. He gives her a moment to recover before saying, “That was too specific to be untrue. He must have found the information somehow. We’ll need to verify it, but . . . with Deucalion, it’s very likely that either it’s a partial truth, or he’s twisting it to suit his needs. We’ll find out which.”

Laura lets out a breath, and nods. Derek reaches over and grips her hand for a few moments in silent solidarity. She squeezes back, hard.

The participants in the scavenger hunt come back over the course of the next few hours. Stiles and Scott are somewhere in the middle; Derek gets the impression that they didn’t try too hard, and he can hardly blame them. Gordon and Isaac are back before them, and they seem to still be on friendly enough terms. Derek breathes out a sigh of relief that he hadn’t realized he was holding. He hadn’t liked the idea of Cora’s probable mate going out alone with a possible hunter, but it seems to have been fine. Of course, a hunter wouldn’t hurt a human . . . usually.

When Stiles and Scott get back, they’re joking around, and nobody says anything about the confrontation that took place while they were gone. None of the werewolves that Scott has briefly connected with are waiting for him. He looks a little disappointed, but not strongly so. Scott is obviously getting used to the idea that he’s not going to end this month as a werewolf.

“I’m starved,” Stiles says. “Let’s go get something to eat.”

“I’m in,” Peter says, with a toothy smile. Derek glares at him, but doesn’t actively dissuade him.

“I can’t,” Scott says. “I promised my mom I’d be home by six so I could do some chores.”

“I think that Gordon and I will go somewhere a little more . . . private,” Laura says, giving Gordon a look from underneath her eyelashes that would make Stiles’ knees wobble if it was directed at him.

“Sounds like an excellent idea,” Gordon says.

“I’ll pass,” Isaac says. “I, uh, I have to get home and make dinner for my dad. I’m already late, he’s going to be mad.”

“We’ll drop you off on the way,” Cora offers, and Isaac smiles shyly and nods at her.

In order for Peter to come along, they have to go somewhere out of town. Derek bitches about this, but in truth, he’s used to it. Despite everything Peter has done, he’s never felt right about just leaving him to rot in the basement. All the Hale siblings are used to driving half an hour for dinner, or forty-five minutes to go shopping, if Peter feels like tagging along. And Peter doesn’t make them do it often, far less often than they actually offer.

They wind up at a little Chinese place in a nearby town, and Derek is actually having a fairly good time because Stiles and Peter seem to have decided to have some kind of sass fest. They keep insulting each other in an almost affectionate way while Cora rolls her eyes and Stiles drums with his chopsticks. Derek wishes the others could be there, because this, this feels like family, it feels like pack, it feels right. Then he realizes that he shouldn’t rely on Stiles to make things feel like pack. He shouldn’t, he can’t. Not unless he means to make this something real, and Stiles hasn’t given him any indication that this can be anything long-term.

Cora goes to use the restroom while Peter snags the check and goes up front to pay, leaving Derek and Stiles alone at the table. Against his better judgment, Derek blurts out, “Stiles, we should – ”

‘Talk’, the next word is going to be, but then Stiles’ phone rings. “Hell, that’s my dad,” he says. “Hold that thought,” he adds, and grabs the phone. “What’s up?” he asks.

“Where are you?” his father asks, clearly audible to Derek even across the table.

“Uh, a Chinese restaurant in East Nowhere. Why?”

A moment of hesitation, then, “There’s been another murder.”

Stiles’ body tightens up. “Is it – the girl to the south? Graciela or whatever he name was?”

“No,” his father says. “It’s another woman, another rival, but not her. Look, I just wanted to make sure you were okay. Go straight home and call me when you get there.”

“Dad, no – when?” Stiles blurts out.

Sheriff Stilinski sighs. “Time of death is estimated at three to four PM. Okay? Now go home.”

“Okay,” Stiles says, and hangs up. Peter and Cora have both made their way back to the table, and have clearly heard enough of the conversation to be clued in. “My dad wants me home,” he says, making a face.

“Shall we?” Peter asks, gesturing to the door.

Once they’re all in the car, Stiles says, “Between three and four PM was during the scavenger hunt. So I guess that doesn’t give us a lot of information.”

“Well, on the one hand . . .” Derek rubs a hand over his face. “It does rule out Peter conclusively. He was waiting with us while you guys were gone.”

“Nephew,” Peter says. “Really? I was a suspect?”

Derek glowers at him and says, “We decided anybody who could benefit from Laura’s removal as alpha of the territory was a suspect, and yeah, that included you. But it’s not you, so count yourself lucky. That means that either it’s another one of the werewolves . . .”

“Or it really is Gordon,” Stiles says. “Well, okay. This is good, I mean, it gets us one step closer to solving the mystery. And ruling Gordon out should be pretty easy. We know for a solid fact that the murder took place during the scavenger hunt. Gordon was paired up with Isaac. So let’s just ask Isaac if he and Gordon were together the whole time.”

Derek nods. When Stiles takes out his phone, he says, “Let’s go see him. I won’t be able to tell if he’s lying over the phone.”

“Why would he lie?” Stiles asks, but he tucks away his phone regardless.

“I don’t know. If he thought it would help Cora. If Gordon threatened him. Let’s just go. I can get back to where he lives easily enough. Cora, we could – ”

“I’m going with you,” Cora snaps. “Don’t even think about trying to take me home first.”

Stiles glances at her, but just nods. He doesn’t see any point in arguing with her, and there’s no reason for her not to come. “What if it is Gordon?” he asks, wincing, but willing to entertain the theory for the first time. “What then?”

Derek’s jaw sets in a grim expression. “Laura would have to kill him, publicly, to regain any semblance of control. And even then her position would be weakened. Maybe too much to hold onto.”

Stiles lets out a breath. “Then we’ll just keep our fingers crossed that it isn’t him,” he says, and puts a little more pressure on the accelerator than is prudent. They reach Isaac’s house about ten minutes later. Derek is clearly edgy, and Cora is worse. Every one of her sharp angles looks even sharper than usual, ready to snap. Stiles ignores them both and goes up to the front door. The doorbell looks broken, so he knocks.

There are heavy footsteps inside, and the door swings open to reveal a man with a lined face and graying hair. He looks at the three of them and grunts, “What do you want?”

“Uh, hi, I’m Stiles. We need to see Isaac.”

“He’s not here,” the man says, and swings the door shut.

Cora grabs the edge of it before it can latch, and shoves it back open. Her eyes are starting to gleam gold. “You’re lying,” she says. “Why are you lying? Where is he?”

“I told you, he’s not – ” Isaac’s father starts, but Cora uses the door to shove him backwards and push her way into the house. “You’re trespassing! I’ll call the police!”

Cora ignores him, and Derek grabs the man by his forearm as she jogs up the stairs, calling Isaac’s name. She reappears a few moments later, shaking her head. “He’s not up there. I don’t smell him much on the ground floor.”

“Who the hell do you think you – ”

“Basement,” Stiles says, seeing a door that’s open to reveal a narrow flight of stairs. Derek is still holding Mr. Lahey, so he goes down himself. He flips the lights, but it doesn’t help very much. It’s dim and smells of mildew. He looks around but doesn’t see Isaac. He’s about to turn around and report up the stairs that he isn’t there, but then Cora is behind him. She looks around wildly, teeth bared, and heads for a freezer in the corner. “Cora, what are you – ” Stiles starts, but then he hears a muffled thump. “Oh my God,” he says, as Cora grabs the latch in one hand and just rips it right off.

Derek is jogging down the stairs now, so he must be able to either hear or smell what’s going on, and he’s already at Cora’s side when she starts lifting Isaac out of the freezer. Stiles stands there, feeling frozen and useless while they pull him out. Cora’s making soft little crooning noises, running her fingers through his disheveled hair.

“I’m okay,” Isaac says hoarsely.

“Of course you are,” Cora whispers. She lets him go and turns back towards the stairs. She’s fully shifted now, fangs and golden eyes in prominent display in the dim light.

“Cora, no!” Derek says, grabbing at her but missing as she charges up the stairs. “Fuck – Stiles, stay with Isaac, call Laura! We’re going to need her!”

Stiles fumbles for his phone as Derek runs after Cora. From upstairs, he hears a crash and a strangled shout. He thumbs through his directory until he finds Laura, dials her, and then sits next to Isaac, who’s trembling and staring off into space. Laura picks up a few moments later with a cautious, “Hello,” so she doesn’t have his number saved into her phone.

“Laura, it’s Stiles, I, we need you,” Stiles stammers. “Isaac’s hurt and Cora’s flipping her shit and Derek said to call you – ”

“Where are you?” Laura demands, and Stiles gives her the address, and then Laura hangs up without another word.

Stiles wants to run upstairs, but another crash and a scream that’s half howl stop him. He doesn’t know what to do with Isaac, how to react to someone who’s obviously suffered through terrible things. But then he sees a little cut underneath Isaac’s eye and knows that that’s something he can help. “Hey, uh . . .” he says, and fumbles in his pockets. He comes up with a wad of Kleenex and presses it against his face, applying pressure to stop the bleeding.

From upstairs there’s another thud, and then somewhat ominous silence.

“Should we – ” Isaac starts.

“Pretty sure we should stay down here unless the house starts falling down,” Stiles says. But he takes out his phone and texts his father their address and says he knows he’s busy what with the murder and all but he might want to send somebody by to check out the worst case of child abuse ever.

Another minute passes, and he hears Laura making soothing noises, and then Derek comes back down the stairs. “You two okay?” he asks.

“Oh, yeah, we’re just, you know, chillin’,” Stiles says.

Derek rolls his eyes a little, and offers a hand to Isaac. The teenager’s legs are still shaking, but Derek gets him on his feet. Stiles manages himself, and doesn’t comment on it. Isaac obviously needs the help more than he does.

It’s quite a scene upstairs. Half the furniture has been demolished. Lahey is slumped into an armchair, with blood trickling from his lip. His glasses are in pieces on the floor. Laura is standing between him and Cora, who’s pacing around in little circles like she’s holding herself back. She turns when she hears Isaac, and the look on her face changes from rage to tight unhappiness.

“Are you . . .” she says.

Isaac takes in the destruction with somewhat widened eyes, but then clears his throat. “Yeah, I uh. I’m okay. Thanks for . . . helping me out.”

“Here, sit down,” Cora says. She reaches out to take him from Derek, who surrenders him without complaint.

Before anyone else can say anything, there’s the sound of a car door slamming shut, and Sheriff Stilinski jogs up to the front with one of his deputies behind him. Things get a little chaotic. The deputy gets them all separated, except Cora, who snaps and snarls when told to leave Isaac. Laura intervenes and has a quiet word with Sheriff Stilinski, who lets them continue to sit together.

Stiles talks to Tara, the deputy, and answers her questions knowing that Derek will give the same answers. In the other room, he can hear Mr. Lahey trying to protest that Isaac had only been in there for a few minutes, it’s not anyone else’s business how he raises his kid, et cetera. Stiles can see Derek’s fists clenching and relaxing.

Finally, Lahey is hauled away in handcuffs and Sheriff Stilinski says to Laura, “You’ll take care of Isaac for tonight?”

Laura nods and says, “We can talk about custody issues later.”

“Okay by me,” Stilinski says. He looks at Stiles with narrowed eyes. “You were supposed to go straight home.”

“Yeah, I uh, didn’t,” Stiles says. He sees everyone looking at him and sighs. “We wanted to ask Isaac if Gordon had been with him during the scavenger hunt, since that’s when the murder took place.”

“Uh huh.” Sheriff Stilinski looks unimpressed. “I suppose you thought it wouldn’t occur to me to, I don’t know, check Gordon’s alibi?”

Stiles winces. “Uh, well, I just thought – ”

“Can it. We’ll talk later.” Stilinski turns to Isaac and says, “Gordon was your partner, right?” he asks, and Isaac nods. “Was he with you during the scavenger hunt? The whole time?”

Isaac nods again and licks his cracked lips. “Yeah. I mean, from start to finish it only took a couple hours, it’s not like we had to have breaks.”

“Okay,” Sheriff Stilinski says. He rubs a hand over the back of his head. “Stiles, I want you to go with Laura and the others. I don’t trust you on your own right now. When I get finished for the night, I’m going to come pick you up. Is that perfectly clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Stiles moans.

“Good.”

The group of them head back to the loft. Laura calls Gordon and has him meet them there. “If he’s not the murderer, then he could be in danger,” she says firmly, when Peter gives a polite cough to signify his concern about this plan. He gets there before them. Isaac is still a little shaky, but Cora is hanging on him like a second jacket, and before long they all just wind up sitting around the loft’s living room watching television.

Stiles actually falls asleep before long, sprawled against Derek’s shoulder with his mouth half-open. It makes a little bit of warm fuzziness bloom in Derek’s chest that he hadn’t thought he was still capable of feeling. He sees Peter smirking at him, and scowls back. Peter lifts his hands in surrender, then stands up and leaves the room, heading down into his own apartment.

Peter has never had a mate, never seemed to want one. It strikes Derek as strange, now that he’s in this moment, all six of them curled up together like they belong and everything is right with the world. Gordon is drowsily playing with Laura’s hair. Isaac has also dozed off, and Cora is watching him with studied intensity, her thumb occasionally rubbing over the wound on his face.

He wonders, for the first time, if this whole mating thing is real. He’s never seen Cora so upset by anything since the fire. Like him, she had removed herself from anything that could hurt. But the way she had immediately gone for Isaac, the way she had seemed to know something was wrong, the way she had crooned as she tried to comfort him, the way she had gone after Lahey with fangs bared, it all pointed to the fact that she truly, deeply cared for Isaac. A boy she had only known for a little over two weeks.

Laura was responding the same way. The threats Deucalion had made had angered her in a way that shouldn’t have. Deucalion was a pompous ass, they all knew it. But Laura had reacted to the way he had talked about Gordon with true fury. Hell, even the way Kali had reacted when Laura had insulted Jennifer pointed to the fact that this could be real.

Then there was Stiles. Curled up against his shoulder. He feels like home, like safety, like something that Derek hasn’t wanted in a long time. He didn’t want this, doesn’t know what to do with it. Part of him wants to run in the opposite direction as fast as he can. Part of him wants to burrow into Stiles’ embrace and never leave. And none of him knows what to do about the odds that Stiles feels the same way.

“You should ask him,” Laura says, in a low voice, and Derek looks over at her. He’s always been transparent to her, although he supposes the way he’s staring down at the sleeping teenager isn’t particularly subtle.

Derek closes his eyes. “If he doesn’t . . . it could make a mess of everything. For the pack. I’ll talk to him . . . after the rituals are over. Okay?”

Laura regards him with dark eyes, then nods. “Okay,” she says, and takes out her phone.

“Who are you texting?” Derek asks.

“Sheriff Stilinski. To let him know that Stiles has fallen asleep and ask if he can stay the night.”

She gets an affirmative response a few minutes later, and puts the phone away.

“They don’t feel it the same way we do,” Derek says. “I mean, Isaac likes Cora, but he’s not . . . he doesn’t feel it as intensely. I mean, you two are just, the way you’ve been acting, you’ve both been really protective and possessive of them. It just doesn’t seem to be a certainty for them, the way it is for you.”

“I’ve never felt so certain about anything in my entire life,” Gordon puts in. He glances over and says, “Besides, isn’t Stiles reacting the same way that you’re talking about? Granted, I don’t know him, but he’s sunk his teeth into this and won’t let go. He’s determined to help you and protect your pack. Not exactly what one would expect to see from a casual friendship. Most people would have run screaming by now.”

Derek has to admit he has a point. “Maybe he’s just a stubborn SOB.”

Gordon chuckles. “Well,” he says, “that goes without saying.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

The next time Stiles sees Isaac, he’s wearing a collar identical to Stiles’. He gives Stiles a shy smile and says, “I guess we’re brothers now,” so Stiles gives him a high five. He doesn’t say anything about Isaac’s father or what he saw in the basement. What can he possibly say to that? He’ll leave that to professionals.

In the meantime, Scott had invited Isaac to stay with him for a little while, and from the way Melissa McCall had melted in concern when she heard the story, Stiles suspects that that will become a permanent arrangement. Which is okay by him. Scott is his bro, no matter what.

The last week of the ceremonies, as far as Stiles can tell, doesn’t really have many events. The idea generally seems to be for all the werewolves to just cram together into a small space at the convention hotel and snarl at each other. Everyone is tense. The third murder had put everyone even more on edge than before. All the werewolves are staying at the same hotel, so it’s impossible for them to avoid each other.

The Hales could avoid it, since they’re the hosts, but Stiles knows that they shouldn’t. So he goes to the hotel and hangs out with Derek in the arts and crafts room, learns some martial arts stuff from Gordon in the violence room, tries to be as ubiquitous a presence as he can be. Most of the humans who haven’t been chosen have dropped out by now, and some of the werewolves who haven’t staked a claim are making themselves scarce as well.

With five days to go, Stiles is starting to wonder what Deucalion’s last move is going to be, and he finds out that evening while the six of them are having dinner together at a little restaurant near the hotel. Deucalion walks in with the rest of his pack behind him, and Stiles feels everyone at the table go tense, including himself.

“So,” Deucalion says, as the group of them rings the Hales in. “I have to give you some points for creativity, Laura. Hiring a hunter to come pose as your mate and kill your rivals for you under the table. Impressive.”

Laura’s jaw sets, and she’s clearly forcing herself to remain calm, but she does it. “Creative is the right word for it.”

“Did you think you would get away with it?” Ennis growls. “We should rip him to pieces right now.”

“Touch my mate and I will personally remove any reason you might have to seek one for yourself,” Laura snarls right back.

“You don’t scare me,” Ennis says with a sneer.

“I notice that you didn’t find anybody,” Laura replies. “Tell me, was it your charming looks or your winning personality that scared all the ladies away?”

“If I ever chose anybody, it wouldn’t be a pathetic human,” Ennis retorts.

Stiles really wants to say something at that, but he’s letting Laura run the show, for now at least. “Should’ve told Kali that you had that rule,” Laura says. “I notice you didn’t bring along your pretty little mate, Kali. Afraid she can’t hack it?”

Kali’s lip curls back in a snarl. “Who I choose as a mate is none of your business.”

“Sweetheart, you took the words right out of my mouth,” Laura says. “Are we done here?”

“For now,” Deucalion says, “but the time is going to come when your hunter friend is going to answer for what he’s done here.”

“Look, in case it escaped your notice,” Laura says, “Gordon has an alibi for the third murder. He was doing the scavenger hunt with Isaac.”

Deucalion shrugs. “So your new pack member is covering for him. So what?”

Cora rises to her feet with a growl. “Are you calling my mate a liar?”

Deucalion smirks at her. “I’m sure he thinks it’s for your own good.”

“So you’re calling him a liar and a fool,” Cora snarls.

Deucalion looks at Laura and says, “Better put your baby bitch back on her leash, Laura.”

Now it’s Derek who jolts to his feet. “Don’t talk about my sister that way,” he says, and Stiles starts to wonder if they’re seriously going to have a brawl right in the middle of the restaurant. He can tell that Gordon is wondering, too, because he’s got that loose, easy stance, even sitting down, that implies he’s ready for a fight.

“What’re you going to do about it?” Ennis asks, getting right into Derek’s face.

“I’m going to tear out your throat,” Derek snaps back. “With my teeth.”

Ennis’ response is physical, as Stiles had half-expected it would be. One arm swings out in what looks like it will be a very punishing blow. Derek doesn’t flinch, and before it hits him, Laura’s on her feet. She grabs Ennis’ arm, twists it around, and sends him flipping over her shoulder. Then she rises from her crouch, fangs bared and eyes gleaming crimson. But she doesn’t waste a second on Ennis. She turns right to Deucalion and says. “We’re done here. Challenge accepted. Moonrise. Bring your pallbearers.”

The corner of Deucalion’s mouth twitches in a smirk. “If that’s what you want,” he says, and turns and walks away. The twins get Ennis back on his feet, and he shoots Laura a scowl as the group departs the restaurant.

“Oh fuck,” Laura says, sinking into her chair, stunned. “Ohhhh fuck. I am so fucked.”

“Wow, that was, uh, dramatic,” Stiles says.

Gordon reaches over and takes Laura’s hand in his. “You’re going to win this,” he says to her.

“Uh, newsflash, Gordon,” Laura says, “Deucalion is twice my age and about five times stronger than me.”

“We’ll work it out,” Gordon says, unperturbed. “Come on. Let’s go.”

He tugs her to her feet and the two of them leave the restaurant. Laura looks a little wobbly, but Gordon has an arm around her waist, so her steps are firm. Cora is pale and Derek is scowling into his sandwich. Stiles’ brain works feverishly on some way to help, but he knows that they can’t avoid what’s coming. Deucalion had always planned to force a challenge match with Laura, and one way or another, he would have gotten what he wanted.

“Come on,” Derek finally says. “Let’s go. We should go tell Peter what happened, if Laura hasn’t already.”

When they leave the restaurant, Stiles is surprised to see Deucalion waiting for them. He’s alone, as far as Stiles can tell, sitting on a bench. He stands up as they approach, and Derek tenses. “What do you want?”

“Oh, I thought it was about what you might want,” Deucalion says. He’s still got that ever present smirk on his face. “As in, to live to the end of the ceremonies.”

“I’m not interested in talking to you,” Derek says. “Especially not without my alpha.”

“But she isn’t your alpha anymore, or at least she won’t be by the time the moon sets,” Deucalion says. “I will be. So shouldn’t we all try to get along?”

Derek bares his teeth. “I will die in a bloody spectacle before I ever accept one command from you.”

“Yes, that does seem to be the most likely outcome,” Deucalion says, “but it isn’t necessary. Tell your sister to cede the challenge. She can be my beta. All she has to do is kill the hunter.”

“Fuck off,” Derek says. “We all know the only reason you want us as betas is so you can kill us and absorb our power. We’re dead either way, so why the fuck should I do anything to help you at all?”

“Well,” Deucalion says, “I thought you might be interested in whether or not I would let your mate live.”

Derek freezes, a growl bubbling up low in his throat. Stiles pushes past him and says, “Are you threatening me? Because I don’t give a flying fuck about what a big, bad alpha you are. I will destroy you, even if I have to haunt your sorry blind ass to do it.”

Deucalion never stops smirking. “I just thought I would offer.” To Derek, he says, “Talk some sense into your sister. If she kills the hunter, I’ll let your pack cede their territory to me and we’ll be done here.” Without another word, he turns and walks away. They’re left standing on the sidewalk, both of them stunned.

“What the fuck just happened?” Cora finally blurts out.

Derek’s jaw tightens. “More useless posturing. I – ”

“No,” Stiles says, frowning suddenly. “Cora’s got a point. What just happened? Why was that necessary? He’s already won. He’s gotten what he wanted. Laura challenged him. He’ll kill her by the rules, take her pack, take her territory. Why did he stay behind to issue more threats, specifically when Laura wasn’t here?”

Derek pushes both hands through his hair. “I don’t know. How in the hell would I know?”

Stiles stares after the departed alpha, his mind clicking through everything that Deucalion had said. “He doesn’t know who’s killing the werewolves,” he says.

“I thought he was the one killing the werewolves,” Isaac says, uncertain.

“No,” Stiles says. “We never knew that for sure. We assumed that Deucalion was responsible, that he was framing Laura and using it to weaken her position. But he never really needed to do that. Laura couldn’t ignore his challenges, as subtle as they were. It was always going to come down to this somehow. And if Deucalion is demanding that Laura kill Gordon – ”

“He thinks Gordon did it,” Derek realizes. “He actually believes that Gordon is a hunter.”

“But we know he isn’t,” Stiles says, “or at least that he isn’t responsible for the third murder, which makes it far less likely that he’s responsible for any of them. So if it’s not us, and it’s not Deucalion, then who the hell is it?”

“Someone who would benefit by maneuvering Deucalion and Laura against each other?” Derek says, frowning. “But that doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone need to do that?”

“Deucalion must have enemies, right?” Cora says. “Maybe this was never about us.”

Derek is still frowning, but Stiles says, “No, she’s right. Look, Deucalion is a powerful alpha, but Laura is no lightweight. She’ll lose, but she’ll go down swinging, and Deucalion won’t walk away unscathed. Someone is using Laura to take Deucalion down enough notches to make him vulnerable.”

“Jesus,” Derek says. “And we have no idea who that could be.”

Stiles lets out a breath. “I think we had better talk to my father.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“You wanna run that by me again?” Sheriff Stilinski says, with that annoyed face that tells Stiles what he’s actually saying is ‘back up and say something else entirely’. And in this case he doesn’t even give Stiles the chance to do that. “You’re saying that after all the lectures I’ve given you, all the grounding that I’ve had to hold off on until this three-ring circus is over, you’re still trying to investigate?”

“Dad, no,” Stiles says. “This wasn’t my fault!”

“It’s true,” Derek says, somewhat sourly. “Deucalion cornered us in a restaurant. There was no investigation going on.”

Stilinski narrows his eyes at the two. “Okay,” he says, “say I believe you. And say that Deucalion isn’t responsible for these murders. Do you two have any idea who the hell is?”

“Well, no,” Stiles says. “That’s why we’re here.”

Sheriff Stilinski rubs a hand over his face. “Okay,” he says, “you have two minutes. Convince me.”

It takes less than sixty seconds for Stiles to summarize why they’ve decided Deucalion isn’t responsible, and why it’s vital that they figure out who is responsible before the challenge match. “Because if someone is trying to play Deucalion, we can get the match called off, probably,” Stiles says, “in that there will be bigger fish to fry. And we do not want this match to go down. The results will be a freakin’ disaster.”

Despite all his annoyed words, Stilinski looks thoughtful, and he’s obviously running through all the facts in his head. “Well, I can see why Deucalion would have a lot of enemies. But that leaves us with a lot of suspects, and not a lot of time to rule any of them out.”

“You did background checks on everyone, right?” Derek asks, and Sheriff Stilinski nods. Derek hesitates, then says. “Including Gordon? Because Deucalion said something about him . . . using a false name. Having done hunter stuff in the military?”

“Let me get the file,” Stilinski says. He shuffles in his office for a few minutes, then grimaces and turns to the old computer. “Yeah, okay, it’s not a fake name,” he says. “He changed his name, but that’s not the same thing. It was a legal change.” He hits the page down button several times. “While he was in the service, he was badly injured. Another man in his unit carried him to safety, and died from his own injuries not long afterwards. Gordon got a purple heart, the friend got a posthumous Medal of Honor, et cetera. Gordon changed his last name to James, saying he wanted to carry his friend with him wherever he went. The courts approved it.”

Derek hesitates. “That attack . . . were werewolves involved?”

“No,” Stilinski says. “No, if that had come up in the background check, he wouldn’t have gotten in. We screen for all that stuff, you know that. It was insurgents in Afghanistan, it looks like.” He looks up and shakes his head. “Yeah, he did some work in the Marines hunting down rogue wolves in . . . the Philippines, it looks like. But the missions were approved by the North American Werewolf Council. Nothing wrong with that.”

“Okay, so it wasn’t Gordon, we know it wasn’t Gordon, let’s get on with things,” Stiles says impatiently.

“I still think it was a human,” a new voice says, and Stiles and his father nearly jump out of their skin. Derek doesn’t, because he heard Peter coming. He glances up and sighs a little as his uncle enters the office. “Sorry to intrude. Cora gave me the highlights and I thought I might be needed.”

“Shouldn’t you be helping Laura prepare?” Derek asks.

“Prepare for what?” Peter asks. “Getting her head ripped off? No, thank you. I’ll leave that to Gordon. I’d rather be here, trying to make sure the match doesn’t happen at all.” He turns to Sheriff Stilinski and says, “It’s been a while since we last met. Peter Hale. Sorry about the whole murder thing.”

“Uh,” Sheriff Stilinski says.

“They brought him back from the dead,” Stiles says, figuring it would be better to just cut to the chase.

Stilinski rubs both hands over his face. “I can’t imagine why,” he says, somewhat dryly. Peter quirks an eyebrow, amused. “Okay. You think it was a human. Why?”

“Because it would be extremely unusual for a werewolf to cut another werewolf in half,” Peter says. “I’m not saying it’s never done. Just that . . . it’s unusual. A show of extreme force, like they aren’t sure they have the juice to get the job done. Which I could see happening once, but three times? No. And I still think if it had been one wolf against another, there would have been more of a struggle each time.”

“I actually agree with him there,” Derek says, and Sheriff Stilinski nods.

“The problem is that humans just don’t have the same motives,” Stilinski says. “They can’t seize Laura’s territory.”

“But this isn’t about Laura, remember?” Stiles says. “That’s the piece we’ve been missing this whole time. We’ve thought it was about Laura and Laura’s territory, but it isn’t. It’s about Deucalion. And that changes the motive entirely and changes the suspect pool, too.”

“What about Kali?” Peter says thoughtfully. “She’s second to Deucalion. She could gain control of the other alphas if she takes him out. And she seems strangely attached to that little brunette she’s picked up. What if Deucalion made it clear that Kali wouldn’t be allowed to keep her, would be expected to kill her after making her pack?”

“That’s not a bad theory,” Stiles says, “but you said you thought it was a human.”

“Mm, true,” Peter says. “There are other alphas in the rituals. Maybe they’ve convinced their new mate, or brought a plant to do their dirty work for them? If an alpha killed Deucalion, they would seize control of the alpha pack.”

“Okay, well, let’s start with the humans that have been claimed by an alpha,” Stilinski says. “Make a list for me,” he adds, shoving a pad of paper and a pencil at Derek. Between the two werewolves, they manage to list all the alphas that have chosen. There are seven of them, not counting Laura herself.

“Give me the mate’s names,” Sheriff Stilinski says.

Derek just blinks at him. Peter rolls his eyes and says, “Ashonte Wright. Angel Cavazos.” He pauses for a moment while Sheriff Stilinski pulls out those files. “Jennifer Blake. Luke Eaton.”

“Wait, hold up a sec,” Sheriff Stilinski says. “Jennifer what-now?”

“Blake.”

He types for a moment and frowns. “She’s not coming up. You’re sure about that name?”

“It’s not exactly difficult to remember,” Peter says, frowning.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” Stilinski says. “She doesn’t have a file.”

“Did you . . . miss a background check?” Stiles asks, then winces underneath his father’s glare.

There’s a few more moments of typing. “Here’s the spreadsheet with all the registered contestants,” Stilinski says. “Five thousand, three hundred, forty-two. And here’s the folder with all the background checks. Of which there are five thousand, three hundred, forty-two. No, I did not miss anybody.”

“Is there a Jennifer Blake registered?” Peter asks, leaning over his shoulder.

Stilinski skims down the list to the Bs. “Nope.”

“That’s not possible,” Derek says. “She was participating in events. You can’t get in to the auction or things like that if you aren’t officially registered.”

“Truth,” Stiles says. “I always saw them look through the list for my name and check my ID whenever I did anything like that.”

“Of course,” Peter says. “It all makes sense now.”

“Oh, really?” Stiles asks, exasperated. “Because the rest of us are actually more confused.”

“She’s a witch,” Peter says. “That’s how she took down alphas without them giving her a fight. That’s how she’s getting in and out of events without being registered. How she got Scarlet down to the maze, and got in without anyone seeing her.”

“Okay, but why?” Stiles asks. “Do you think she’s doing it for Kali?”

Peter thinks about this for a few moments. “Maybe,” he says, “but probably not. It takes time and effort and a lot of blood to be as powerful as she apparently is. She’s been preparing for this for years. My guess is that she’s made sacrifices along the five-fold knot.”

“The – what?” three different voices say.

Peter sighs as if to ask why he has to deal with people so far his intellectual inferior. “Sacrifices to gain power,” he says. “Five of them, in groups of three. They would have been fairly brutal.”

“Okay, wait, I know this,” Stilinski says. “I heard about it a few years ago. Up in Idaho, Wyoming, that area. Never in the same place twice. Spaced out over the course of years. Whenever they thought the killer had stopped, there would be another grouping.” He’s typing rapidly as he speaks. “And – yes, there were five of them, fifteen bodies all told.”

“She’s powerful, then,” Peter muses, almost to himself. “But she doesn’t think she’s powerful enough to take on the alpha pack alone. She’s manipulated us into fighting them for her. And then she’ll come in and mop up whatever’s left.”

“Look, this is all fascinating but we still have shit for proof, if we say anything she’ll just deny it and play helpless damsel in distress, and we’ve got less than an hour before the challenge match,” Derek says, checking his watch.

“She must be using a fake name, right?” Stiles says. “Because if she’s a witch that Deucalion pissed off, I’m sure he would remember. So she’s using a fake name, a false face. We need to figure out who she really is. Dad, I know you didn’t do a background check on Jennifer Blake before, but can you do one now?”

“In reality? Not really,” Sheriff Stilinski says. “Without a social security or a driver’s license number – it’s too common a name. But, well . . .” He frowns, considering. “If she’s the one who committed all these murders, she must have lived in the area. Maybe if I look through . . .” He trails off into mumbles and starts typing again.

“That’s assuming that she’s been using the same alias this whole time,” Peter cautions. “We have no reason to think she – ”

“Got it!” Sheriff Stilinski says, and Stiles grins at Peter. “There’s more than one Jennifer Blake in Wyoming and in Idaho, but only one who lived in both places, at the time of these murders. So now I’ve got her information . . . and it looks like she didn’t really exist before about seven years ago.”

“That was the time of the last mating rituals,” Stiles says. “Could that be significant?”

Peter shakes his head. “It’s also the timing of something much more important. That’s when Deucalion lost his eyesight and killed his pack, when he convinced Kali and Ennis to do the same. Our little witch was a survivor, it seems. And now she’s out for revenge.”

“How could she have survived?” Derek asks, frowning. “I heard they tore everyone to pieces.”

Peter shrugs. “I got torn in half. She’s a witch. Anything’s possible.”

“You know, I think I recall . . .” Sheriff Stilinski was frowning. “This would have been what, about six months before the fire? There was a woman. A Jane Doe who we found in the woods. Cut practically to shreds, but miraculously somehow still alive. We brought her in to the hospital, patched her up. She never said a word about who she was, and then she disappeared a few days later. Just got up and walked out without anyone noticing.”

“This doesn’t get us any closer to knowing who she is,” Stiles says.

“Yes, it does,” Peter says, “because Kali’s emissary was her mate. Chosen just a few months before Kali and Ennis killed their packs. Pull up the rolls from that year, see who Kali chose.”

“Jesus, she killed her mate?” Derek asks.

“And here I thought you didn’t believe in all this, nephew,” Peter says, with a smirk. “Also, apparently, she didn’t.”

“Then she chose her all over again,” Stiles says, fascinated despite himself. “Jesus. Do you think she knows?”

“Hard to say,” Peter says. “Doesn’t really matter.”

“Julia Baccari,” Sheriff Stilinski says.

Derek looks at his watch. “Twenty minutes. Let’s go.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

The entire ‘violence’ room has been cleared out for the upcoming match. They’ve expanded one of the boxing rings and placed chairs around it for spectators, of which it looks like there are going to be dozens. The alpha pack, less Deucalion, are clustered to one side. Jennifer is standing with Kali, the lights glinting off the collar she’s wearing. Stiles wonders again if Kali realizes exactly who she chose.

Laura is sitting on the other edge of the ring. She looks pale and ill. Cora is standing behind her, hands squeezing her shoulders. Stiles doesn’t see Gordon anywhere, and wonders where he could have gotten off to. Isaac is standing with Scott, Erica, and Boyd in a tight knot on the other side of the room. Stiles looks over and nods at Scott to indicate that he’s okay. His heart is beating wildly and he’s sure that every werewolf in the room can hear it. Nothing wrong with that. He has every right to be nervous.

“Stay back here,” Derek says, leaving him behind the last row of chairs. Stiles nods and watches as he walks over to his sister, has a quiet word with her.

Deucalion is already in the ring. He’s wearing the same V-neck, same jeans, same leather jacket. He’s put his cane aside. Laura is dressed in a tight tank top and skinny jeans. It’s not exactly a flattering outfit, but it will be good for a fight. Her hair is braided and pinned close to her head. Stiles notices that Cora is dressed the same way. Derek is pulling off his jacket to reveal relatively tight clothes underneath it. They’re all prepared for a fight.

There are no rules to a challenge match, Derek explained on the way over. Just two werewolves in a ring trying to kill each other until one is dead or has yielded the match. With all the power that Deucalion absorbed by killing his pack, it won’t be a contest.

Any hope of approaching Deucalion about the matter of Julia Baccari in private is gone. There are already too many spectators. Laura is stepping into the ring. “Last chance to cede the match and keep your skin where it belongs,” Deucalion says to her.

“How about if I give you the opportunity first?” Laura asks. “We’ve been working under a misunderstanding. I thought you were killing the werewolves and framing me. You thought I was killing the werewolves to rid myself of rivals. We’ve been set up, Deucalion.”

Deucalion shrugs. “I really don’t care,” he says. “Either way, I got what I wanted.”

“You might care if you found out who it was that had done all the dirty work behind the scenes,” Laura says.

“Most likely not,” Deucalion says.

Laura’s jaw tightens, and her gaze flicks over to Derek, then to Stiles. It’s obvious in that moment that she can’t remember the name. Stiles can’t blame her. So much has been going on, and she’s clearly scared as hell. So Stiles stands up, points to where ‘Jennifer’ is sitting with the alpha pack, and says loudly, “Even if we told you it’s Julia Baccari?”

Deucalion’s face is blank. Stiles’ gaze darts to Kali. He sees a moment of confusion, then stark, horrified realization. She starts to turn towards Jennifer, her movements slow, reluctant, almost unwilling. But Jennifer is already on her feet, and moments later Kali reels back, blood gushing from her throat, which Jennifer tore a huge stripe out of.

Kali hits the floor hard, and then Ennis is on his feet. But he doesn’t even have time to shift before Jennifer slams both hands into his chest and sends him sprawling. The twins are up, but too far away to intervene before Jennifer waves in their direction and a shockwave leaves her hands, knocking them down along with half the werewolves in the audience.

Kali is struggling to her knees. “Ju – Jul – ” she chokes out, blood soaking her chin.

Jennifer grabs her by the hair and slams her back down. “I’m not going to kill you, love,” she says. “I want you to live a long life by yourself, knowing that we were meant to be together, that you chose me not once but twice, and that there’s nothing you can do to make me forgive you.”

She lets Kali go, and the werewolf collapses back to the ground, curling into a ball. Nobody else moves as Jennifer calmly steps over the ropes at the edge of the ring. “Duke,” she says, smiling. “Long time no see.”

Deucalion nods, smiling back. “Very clever, Julia,” he says. “But your little scheme didn’t pan out, it seems. In the end, you’re just as alone as you were the day Kali left you for dead in the woods.”

Jennifer just laughs and says, “You still talk too much,” and that’s when Laura breaks a chair over Deucalion’s head.

Things devolve into chaos very quickly. This isn’t a typical challenge match. Jennifer is using magic, and most of the werewolves make a hasty retreat to get out of the way of collateral damage. The other alphas charge forward, and Stiles decides that he might want to take cover, but finds he can’t move. His feet are frozen solidly to the ground. He swears and tugs harder, but he can’t move an inch.

Just before Ennis can reach him, Derek charges in from the side. The two of them careen across the room in a ball of snarling and flailing limbs. The twins are up, too, and suddenly they’re doing some freaky melding thing which has Stiles squeaking, “what the fuck?” before they toss Cora across the room like she’s a rag doll. Peter snarls and springs forward, but he doesn’t fare much better, and Ennis picks Derek up and just throws him. He lands on top of Cora in a heap. Then it’s time for round two.

In the ring, Laura has blood on her face and her eyes are just as crimson. She and Jennifer are basically kicking Deucalion back and forth between them, but he’s giving as good as he gets. Stiles sees Laura go down, clutching her arm at one point, before she manages to straighten back up. Jennifer bounces off the ropes and slams into her, knocking them both down. Deucalion slams a foot down on Laura’s stomach and even Stiles can hear her ribs splintering. She lets out a thin, breathless shriek.

Kali finally manages to get back to her feet. She’s soaked with blood and pale, but recovering. She joins Ennis beating the living hell out of Derek, and Stiles tugs harder at his feet, frustrated and desperate because he knows they can’t win this. If it’s truly going to take both Laura and Jennifer all their attention to take down Deucalion, the Hales can’t win against the alphas. Four alphas versus three betas. It’s not even a contest.

That’s when Gordon shows up.

He’s dressed just as impeccably as ever, but it’s combat gear now; a Kevlar vest over dark clothes, a leather jacket to protect him from claws, heavy boots, and a gun in each hand. He just walks up behind Stiles and shouts, “Hales, down!” and then starts shooting. Most of the Hales are already down, so it doesn’t take much effort. He doesn’t linger on any target, just squeezes the trigger on both guns before moving onto the next. The twins get a double shot, and every bullet connects.

Ennis shakes it off and lunges at them, and Gordon calmly drops the pistols and brings out a shotgun instead. He pulls the trigger just as Ennis reaches them, and the werewolf gets a chest full of shotgun pellets that are colored suspiciously blue-purple at point blank range. He reels backwards, body spasming and twitching violently.

The twins are back up but the moments of delay were costly. Peter’s grabbed the fire extinguisher from the side of the room, and he turns it on them. The monstrously sized combo-twin staggers back, and then Peter slams the fire extinguisher into their face. They go down hard. Kali, already weak from Jennifer having torn her throat out, can’t recover from the two bullets to the chest that she took. She claws halfway to her feet, and then Derek just grabs her by the back of the neck and slams her back into the floor.

“Woo, hey, we – ” Stiles gets through before realizing that he can’t see Deucalion anywhere. Somewhere, during all the chaos, he’s circled around and now he’s grabbed Stiles around the neck. Stiles lets out a little yelp despite himself.

“Fuck,” Derek snarls, getting to his feet.

“We’ll have to finish our little chat later, ladies,” Deucalion says. He’s out of breath and there’s blood staining his clothes, although Stiles isn’t sure whose. The hand gripping Stiles’ throat is grotesquely malformed, like he had punched a steel wall with it and all the bones had broken. “This one and I have some unfinished business.”

“Let him go,” Derek growls.

“Oh, please,” Deucalion says. “You should have chosen more wisely, Derek. A pathetic, weak human like this never stood a chance when the stakes were this high. He – no, don’t faint – ” he snaps, irritated, as Stiles just lets his knees unhinge. It clearly never occurs to Deucalion for an instant that Stiles is faking, that Stiles just wants to get the hell out of the line of fire. Because of the way Stiles’ feet are adhered to the floor, he just goes straight down, his weight dragging Deucalion forward. His hand tightens around Stiles’ throat, thumb digging in painfully for a moment before there’s a sharp crack, a sudden gunshot, and Deucalion stumbles backwards and lands on the floor hard.

“Was that – ” Derek asks, head whipping towards Gordon. But Gordon’s guns are down.

Stiles opens his eyes and looks across the room to see his father standing off to one side, gun still raised and ready to fire. With the way Stiles had dragged Deucalion forward, he had had a perfect shot at the alpha’s head. Stiles coughs a little and says, “Hey, Dad. I – ”

He doesn’t have time to say anything else, because Deucalion gets back to his feet with a roar. Sheriff Stilinski fires again, but he doesn’t even flinch this time. Then Jennifer jumps across the room, landing flat on both feet in a crouch and coming up out of it so quickly that her movements are a blur. Her fist slams into Deucalion’s chest and he makes a choked, wheezing noise. Then she rips it back out, holding a large mass of pulsing red-purple tissue in her hand. His heart, the rational part of Stiles’ mind supplies, the part that is not currently screaming as blood gushes down onto where he’s crumpled in a heap between the two.

“A heart for a heart,” Jennifer says. “You took mine. Now I have yours. Now we’re even.”

Deucalion collapses again, twitches once, and then goes still.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Gordon says, adequately summing up the thoughts of everyone in the room.

Derek is on his knees next to Stiles a few moments later. “Are you okay?” he asks, cupping Stiles’ face in his hands.

“I’m o-okay,” Stiles says, though he’s shaking like a leaf. Derek pulls him into an embrace, ignoring all the blood, and cuddles him close, growling at anyone who comes too close. Stiles decides to allow this.

It takes a few minutes for everyone to get calmed down. Gordon produces a coil of rope – infused with wolfsbane, he says, as if it’s completely natural for him to have such a thing – and they tie up the alphas that are still breathing. Kali looks up at Jennifer and then bows her head, saying nothing to her, tears mixing with the blood on her face.

“Well,” Jennifer says, “I don’t know about you guys, but I feel better about everything. Enjoy the rest of your rituals.”

“Wait just a God damned minute,” Laura says, her gaze going flat and steely. “You killed werewolves. On my territory. During the rituals that I was responsible for.”

“Yes,” Jennifer said, “and all three of them were werewolves who came here with the express purpose of unseating you and stealing your territory. You’re welcome.”

Laura folded her arms over her chest. “All that did was make me look guilty. You framed me.” Her lip curls. “You framed my mate.”

“I framed you,” Jennifer says. “It was never my intention to frame your mate. It’s not my fault that Deucalion is an idiot.” There’s a pause, and then a smile touches her face. “Was. Was an idiot.” The smile makes her face look beautiful, almost ethereal. It’s hard to believe that she’s talking about the man she just killed.

“Even so . . .” Laura lets out a breath. “You set me up. You wanted me to fight Deucalion.”

“I figured I would have better luck with him if you had softened him up for me,” Jennifer says, with a shrug.

“Can’t argue with that.” It’s Gordon who speaks. He walks over and slides an arm around Laura’s waist, giving her a squeeze. “Hell hath no fury, right?”

Laura gives him a look. Then she sighs and nods. “Okay. Yes.” To Jennifer, she continues, “Get off my territory. Don’t come here again. And we’ll call it square.”

“Deal,” Jennifer says, tossing her hair over her shoulder. She starts to walk away. Then she pauses and looks at Stiles. “As for you . . .” she says, and Derek stiffens and growls. “Do you mind explaining why you called me out in front of everyone? Right before their challenge match?”

Stiles smirks at her and says, “I figured Laura would have better luck with him if you had softened him up for her.”

Jennifer’s eyes narrow. Then she laughs. “Fair enough,” she says, and turns and walks away. Her figure fades in the distance, and then disappears completely. Stiles finds that he can move his feet off the floor again.

Sheriff Stilinski kneels beside his son, mopping ineffectually at the blood that’s splattered all over his face and upper body. “Jesus, kid,” he says.

“I’m okay,” Stiles reiterates. He still feels a little shaky, and he’s glad to have Derek’s reassuring bulk at his back. He hopes that the werewolf doesn’t let him go any time soon. He looks over at where Peter is quietly conferring with Laura. The alphas are watching her as well, except Kali, who’s still staring at the floor. She occasionally gives a quiet shudder. Ennis is scowling, but the twins just look nervous.

Laura finally walks over to them. “I should kill all four of you for attacking my pack members,” she says, her tone friendly, conversational.

“Get it over with, then,” Ennis growls at her.

Laura shakes her head. “No. I have a better idea. I’ll let the four of you live. And in return, I get four new pack members – not counting the mates we’ve already selected. I get to rebuild my pack, you get to walk away. If anyone has an objection to me rebuilding my pack, you’ll come to my defense and help me tell them to shove off. Agreed?”

Ennis’ scowl deepens. He flicks an uncertain look at Kali, but she still doesn’t say anything. Then he looks at Deucalion’s body. Somebody has thrown a tarp over it, but the pool of blood has spread outside it. Ennis looks at the tortured look on Kali’s face, then looks away. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay, agreed.”

“Good.” Laura walks over, takes out a knife, and cuts Ennis’ bonds with a jerk. Then she does the same to the other three. “Now, since none of you have mates to claim,” she says, and Kali gives another shudder, “I’d like to ask you to get the hell off my territory.”

Ennis nods again. He gets up. The twins have to help Kali to her feet. She’s still pale and moving unsteadily. The four of them walk out of the room in a cluster.

The meaning of what Laura said sinks in. Stiles turns to her and says wildly, hopefully, “Four – four new pack members? Do you – would you – ”

Laura smiles warmly at him. “Yes, Stiles, I meant your friends. I figure that’s the least we can do after all your help.”

“Yes!” Stiles does a double fist pump. Then he blinks. “Okay, but, four? Since Cora chose Isaac, there’s only three.”

“Well, I figured I would leave the fourth spot open for you,” Laura says, with a somewhat sad smile. “If you wanted it, that is. Since you’re not actually Derek’s mate, right? It was all just a show that the two of you put on.”

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Stiles says. He feels Derek tense behind him, and gradually start to pull away. The loss is a physical pain. “I guess I’ll, uh, I’ll have to think about it.”

Peter gives a dramatic roll of his eyes. “Keep up appearances until the ceremonies are officially over. The last thing we need are more people poking their noses where they don’t belong.”

“Right,” Stiles says. “I really, uh, I really don’t know about being a werewolf, though.”

“Just take some time to think it over.” Laura looks at Gordon and says, teasing, “What about you?”

Gordon smiles back. “I want to be your lover and I want to be your mate, but I’m not going to be your wolf.”

“You had me at lover,” Laura says, with a playful swoon.

Peter doesn’t look quite so amused. “Those shells were filled with wolfsbane,” he says.

“Wolfsbane and silver,” Gordon says, with a nod.

“Get those from the same hunter friends that you got your sonic pulse emitter from?” Peter asks, and Gordon shrugs and nods again. “This whole time. You really are a hunter.”

“No,” Gordon says evenly. “I was a hunter. For a year or so, after I quit the military. I had done some werewolf hunting while I was in the Marines, and after I was discharged, gave it a whirl stateside. I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the same at all. That the sanctioned missions I did weren’t what I could get here. That it was hunting for sport, or at best, vigilantes out for revenge. So I quit. But not before I picked up a number of interesting techniques.”

“Jesus,” Stiles says. “You should have told us that.”

“I told Laura,” he says. “As soon as Deucalion accused me. She told me not to say anything to anyone else about it.”

Everyone turns to look at Laura. She glares at them. “It wasn’t your business. He wasn’t guilty, so it wasn’t relevant.”

Peter shakes his head. “I give up. You’re the alpha.”

“Seconded,” Stiles says. “Jesus. I’m going home and I’m going to shower for the next four hours and none of you are invited.” He looks at Laura and says, “Hey – let me give Scott the news?”

She smiles and nods. “Because it’s outside the mating ceremonies, there will be some paperwork – parental consent – why don’t you bring them over to the loft tomorrow evening? We can have dinner together.”

“Okay,” Stiles says. His father helps him to his feet. He pulls away from Derek reluctantly. The werewolf hasn’t said anything for the past twenty minutes or so. “You, uh, are you all right?” he asks Derek.

“I’m fine,” Derek says shortly, getting to his feet. “C’mon, Laura. I’ll help you explain things to the other werewolves.”

Laura looks between the two of them, shakes her head a little and says, “Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow, Stiles.”

Stiles waits until they’re gone before he leans his head against his father’s shoulder. “I’m such a screw-up,” he says.

Sheriff Stilinski puts an arm around his shoulders and gives him a hard half-hug. “You’ve had a rough day. C’mon, now. You two can work it out later. Let’s get you home.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles does, in fact, take a long, hot shower. It takes a little while before the water is no longer running pink. He washes his hair twice. It’s only after he’s gotten out of the shower and dressed that the impact of what had happened hits him. He looks in the mirror and sees a thumbprint sized bruise on his throat, where Deucalion’s grip had tightened before letting go.

He goes downstairs and finds his father sitting on the sofa, mindlessly clicking through different channels. Stiles crawls into his lap and shakes, and shakes, and shakes.

Once the worst of it has passed, they order a pizza – Sheriff Stilinski contends he deserves pizza for not having some sort of well-deserved freak-out – and watch movies until Stiles falls asleep. By the time he wakes up the next day, the events of the challenge match seem like some kind of vivid dream. He brushes his teeth, makes himself breakfast, and calls Scott.

Scott’s heard all about what happened – rumors are running rampant through everyone still attending the rituals – so Stiles has to break it down for him. He relays the events of the previous day with great gusto. When he gets to the end, Scott is completely clueless about how things are going to work out for him. “So, that’s good for the Hales, right?” he says. “Getting to choose new pack members. I wonder if they’ll all be as awesome as Gordon.”

“I know for a fact that at least one of them will be every bit as awesome as Gordon,” Stiles says, smirking, “because one of them is going to be you.”

“What?” Scott asks, gaping.

Stiles’ smirk becomes an open grin. “Laura basically let me pick. So there’s room in the pack for you, Erica, and Boyd, along with a plus one somewhere later down the line.”

“Dude!” Scott starts jumping up and down. “You’re the best!”

“Providing that your mom agrees, anyway, but since she agreed to let you participate in the first place, I don’t see why she’d have a problem with it now,” Stiles says. “Laura’s going to call all the parents in question but she agreed to let me break the news to you guys myself.”

Scott tackles him and gives him a back-slapping hug and Stiles gives him a noogie in return and then they agree to call the others. Erica’s obviously tired and depressed when she shows up. Her mother has dropped her off. They have to go pick up Boyd, since his parents are working and they don’t have a spare car.

“So you guys really want to be werewolves, right?” Stiles asks.

“I will kick you in the nuts so hard that your children will feel it,” Erica tells him.

Stiles grins at her, too. “Good. Because I got you in.” He explains the situation. Erica accuses him of bullshitting about four times before she finally starts to cry, then threatens to punch anyone who makes fun of her for crying. Boyd smiles and squeezes her shoulders and gives Stiles a thanks and a bro-nod, which Stiles returns.

“What about you?” Scott finally asks.

“What about him?” Erica asks, blinking.

Stiles sighs. “Me and Derek . . . it was never actually a thing. He wasn’t in the mood to choose his soulmate by how well they could tie knots and shoot guns, so I offered to be his beard for the duration of the ceremony. We figured that would make things easier on him, because nobody would be interested in challenging him for me. Obviously, things got a lot more complicated than that.”

“No shit,” Boyd said.

“So it was all an act?” Erica asks, surprised. “Damn. You two should get some sort of Oscar. I would’ve sworn you were gone on each other.”

Stiles tries not to blush. “The long and the short of it is that Laura offered the fourth position to me, but I don’t . . . I’m not gonna take it. I don’t want to be a werewolf.” He doesn’t want to say how he really feels about it, which is that he’d be happy to join the Hale pack, but not like that. Being around Derek but not being able to have him, watching him as he goes on to choose an actual mate, sounds like torture.

“If you say so.” Boyd seems skeptical, to put it mildly. Stiles decides to ignore him.

After that it’s a lot of phone calls and some paperwork and they get together for dinner. Laura is warm and welcoming, and nobody makes fun of Erica if she cries a little more. Peter is his usual snarky self, and Stiles spends most of the dinner arguing with him, or chatting with Gordon. Derek avoids him, and he avoids Derek, which he admits is stupid, but he’s not going to be the one to make things more awkward than they already are. Isaac can’t be changed until after the rituals, when he’s officially Cora’s mate, so it’s just the three of them to be turned.

There’s surprisingly little ceremony to it. Just some signatures and Laura’s final warning, more of a reminder, that it could kill them – it’s a very slim chance but still a chance – and then crimson eyes and three teenagers offering up their wrists to her teeth. Then it’s done. Stiles leans back in his chair, exhausted.

“Dude, I’m totally gonna be a werewolf!” Scott says, with an adorable, happy grin, and suddenly everything was worth it.

“Are we supposed to come to the closing ceremonies?” Boyd asks Laura. “As members of your pack?”

“I think it’s probably better if we don’t go rubbing it in anyone’s face,” Laura says. To Derek, she says, “I think you and Stiles should probably appear together, though. You don’t have to say or do anything, just . . . be there. You two can handle that?”

“Of course,” Stiles says. “We’re pals, right, Derek?” he asks, elbowing the beta in the ribs. Derek gives him a scowl, but it’s not his usual scowl, there’s something underneath it that Stiles hasn’t seen before and can’t recognize. He quickly turns his attention back to his plate. He’s not sure why Derek is angry at him, and doesn’t know how to handle it.

Cora quickly changes the subject, asking something about the final ceremonies, and Stiles tries to shake it off. It’s not until they’re all leaving that Peter takes his wrist and pulls him aside. “You’re forgetting what I told you about my nephew,” he says, and with that cryptic remark, heads down into his basement apartment.

Stiles blinks after him, not sure what the hell he’s talking about. Then, in a flash of insight, he remembers. Peter had told him that Derek pushes people away if he feels like he let them down. Derek isn’t angry at him. Derek is angry at himself.

So since everyone is dividing up and Scott’s mom is coming to pick up Scott and Isaac, Stiles says, “Hey, Derek, drive me home.”

“I – what?” Derek asks.

“Drive me home,” Stiles says patiently. “I don’t have a car here. I came with the others.”

“Oh. Fine, then.” Derek grabs his keys and Stiles says goodbye to Scott and the others and they head out to the Camaro. He makes a few aborted attempts to conversation, but mostly they just drive in silence. It’s not until they’ve pulled up in front of the Stilinski house that he turns to Derek.

“I’m okay,” he says.

“What?” Derek asks.

“You seem . . . angry at me. Which I’ve learned by now is your way of showing that you were worried about me. That you’re pissed that you couldn’t protect me. I’m okay, Derek. Yeah, I mean, it was scary and everything but I don’t even have a scratch. Just a bruise or two. And I’m . . . I helped protect your pack. It was important to me for a lot of different reasons. I made my own choices, so just . . . ease up on yourself, okay?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Derek says, but his scowl is now his old familiar scowl.

“Course not,” Stiles says, and gets out of the car. “See you Friday?”

“Yeah,” Derek says, and drives away.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

The bite takes, for all three of the teenagers, and so Derek is kept busy for the last few days of the ceremonies. Nobody will dare challenge Laura after she beat Deucalion – regardless of what help she needed to do it – so there’s no reason to continue hanging around the hotel, waiting for people to pick fights with them.

Instead he stays home and talks to the teenagers about anchors and moon phases and learning to control their shift. Laura is still busy at the ceremonies, and Cora, well, Cora is lost in Isaac at the moment. So it falls on him to help the three new pack members out, and if he still finds Scott to be annoying, well, he tries not to let the teenager’s boundless, good-hearted enthusiasm get on his nerves.

There are appointments with Erica’s doctors about weaning her off her medication, and legal matters regarding Isaac’s custody, and more legal matters about Peter’s resurrection – Sheriff Stilinski refuses to let him stay dead, saying he should pay taxes like everybody else – and Derek tries to tend to as much as he can so Laura doesn’t have to be distracted. It’s also a great excuse not to see Stiles.

He has no idea what to do about the teenager. He can’t stop thinking about him, and a part of him hates Stiles for that. He doesn’t know what to do about the fact that Stiles refused the Bite. That Stiles looked Laura in the eye and said, “It’s been my privilege to help your pack, but I don’t want to join it this way.” This way, he had said, and Derek doesn’t know what to make of that either.

He knows that everyone else thinks he’s being an idiot, although Peter’s the only one brazen enough to actually say so, and just tries not to let the subject get near Stiles as much as he can.

The final ceremonies take place at moonrise, and there will be another moonlight run, and then after that everyone is free to go. The party will go on until dawn, like the opening ceremonies did, but nobody is obligated to stay. In fact, those with mates almost definitely won’t. Their blood will be up and hormones will be running rampant. Derek isn’t looking forward to it. He’s already had to buy condoms for Isaac, to which Isaac had given him this terrified look.

“I’m not going to kill you if you have sex with my sister,” Derek said, glowering at him, “but if you get her pregnant, I will tie your intestines around your neck.”

“O-Okay,” Isaac replied.

Business taken care of, Derek really doesn’t have much to focus on until the ceremonies themselves. He doesn’t see Stiles anywhere, and wonders if he skipped out. He supposes that he can’t blame him, and he doubts anyone will notice or care if he isn’t here. Anyone who had an idea about taking Laura’s territory has run home with their tails between their legs, in some cases literally. There’s no reason to continue the show, and he wonders why Laura said there was – although really, he knows the answer.

But Stiles does show up, wearing the same brown bomber jacket he wore the first night, along with an Iron Man T-shirt and black jeans. “Hey,” he says, with a smile that looks genuine. “You gonna get me a drink, or what?”

Derek does. Everyone is celebrating, moving around the clearing and congratulating those who have successfully chosen and defended their claim. Laura, as the host, is sure to greet everyone. Like a wedding, she remarks at one point, somewhat sourly. But Gordon is with her, his arm around her waist, and it’s hard for her to stay sour about anything.

“Everything went better than expected, right?” Stiles asks, and Derek forces himself to give a little nod.

The moon comes up and he forgets about all of it for a while. He shifts and he runs, runs with his family and his pack, and leaves all of the rest of it behind.

When he comes back, the clearing is still full of people, but there’s only one that he notices. A scent that draws him in as surely as the scent of home. He finds himself, quite without meaning to, wrapped up around Stiles, rubbing his cheek against the teenager’s temple, leaving his scent all over him. He’s about to kiss him when he hears Stiles make a quiet little noise, almost a whimper.

He pulls back and away abruptly, and when he sees Stiles, eyes slightly glazed over, mouth half-open so he can take in air, chest rising and falling in rapid little pants, he almost loses it again. “I – I’m sorry,” he grinds out between gritted teeth. “I didn’t – mean to – ”

“You didn’t,” Stiles repeats, looking numb and lost, and Derek can’t handle that, he just turns around and jogs away, back into the forest.

The next day, the ceremonies are officially over, and Derek sleeps in. When he comes down from his loft, it’s just his family. Laura is making French toast while Cora blinks sleepily into a mug of tea. Peter is teasing her about whether or not she had a ‘rough night’, and neither sister is dignifying Peter’s comments with any sort of response.

“Where’s Gordon?” Derek asks, getting himself a cup of coffee.

“He had a job interview,” Laura says. “Since it looks like he’ll be living in the area permanently,” she adds, with a smile that’s pure happiness.

“Is he going to look for an apartment or are you going to skip that step?” Peter asks, amused.

Laura flips him off without looking. “Where’d you go last night?” she asks Derek. “I didn’t see you when the run was over. I did see Stiles, looking like somebody had kicked his puppy.”

Derek hunches inwards, hating himself more with every moment. “I may have, uh, come on a little too strong after the run.”

“Is such a thing possible?” Peter asks rhetorically.

Derek glowers at him. Peter just rolls his eyes. Cora lifts her hands in surrender. “You’re right, Uncle Peter. He’s hopeless.”

Peter nods. Laura sighs and says, “Derek, will you please just go talk to the boy?”

“What’s to say?” Derek asks. “You offered him a place in the pack. He didn’t want it. What can I say after that?”

“Hopeless,” Peter says, sotto voce. Derek kicks him underneath the table.

Laura casts her gaze towards the ceiling as if praying for patience. “Okay, Derek,” she says, “let’s do a little thought experiment. Because I thought that by forcing his hand this way, it would encourage you to do the right thing, but instead you’ve taken it backwards. You clearly want Stiles to be your mate. You’re not going to argue with me on this, are you?” she adds, and he growls but shakes his head. “So let’s just pretend for a minute that Stiles is the werewolf and you’re the human. And everything happened in reverse. What would you say if Sheriff Stilinski invited you to be part of his family, independent of Stiles?”

“I – I wouldn’t – ” Derek breaks off, biting his lip.

“You’d say no,” Laura says. “Because you don’t want to be his son. You want to be Stiles’ mate. It’s the same thing. Stiles won’t join the pack because I invited him. He’ll only join the pack if you invite him. And so help me God, if you don’t get off your ass and go down to his house to do that within the next five minutes, I’m going to lock you in the basement with Peter and let him have a go at convincing you.”

“You’re the worst,” Derek says, downing the rest of his coffee in one quick swallow that burns his tongue. Then he’s on his feet and out of the house.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Self-pity doesn’t suit Stiles very well, but he figures he’s allowed one day to indulge. His father took one look at him, sprawled on the sofa, eating Cheez Balls and watching Desperate Housewives, and remembered urgent business at the station. His apparent decision is not to get involved.

It’s his own damned fault, and he knows it. He had gone ahead and fallen for Derek despite every neuron in his brain that told him it was a bad idea. Derek had clearly figured it out, grown uncomfortable with it, and decided to break off contact. It all made perfect sense. Stiles figured that by refusing Laura’s offer, he was giving silent acceptance to the way Derek wanted to handle this.

Everything would have been fine – broken hearts mend, after all, and he’s only sixteen – if it hadn’t been for the way Derek had mauled him after the full moon run, wrapping him into an embrace so warm and complete that Stiles now couldn’t imagine living without it. Then he had backed away with that stunned, horrified look on his face, like all the werewolf pheromones had drained out of his head and he had realized what he was doing and why it was terrible. Stiles had taken a baseball to the nuts once, and it hadn’t been that painful.

So he’s decided he’s going to take a day to feel sorry for himself and hate Derek Hale and hate himself for ever getting involved with him. It’s going splendidly when the doorbell rings. Stiles groans and hauls himself off the sofa to answer it.

He’s disconcerted to see Derek standing there. Disconcerted and then horrified, because he’s wearing flannel pants, the same T-shirt he had worn the day before, and he’s pretty sure that he has chemical cheese residue on his lips. He licks it off, and from the way Derek’s eyes widen, that was an even worse idea. “Oh, uh, hey,” he says. “Didn’t, uhm, didn’t think I’d be seeing you for a while.”

Derek flinches again, and Stiles tells himself to shut up. Then the werewolf takes a deep breath like he’s preparing to launch into something. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I never should have gotten you involved in this, and I’m sorry for all the times that I, that I came on too strong or asked you to do stupid things like sit in my lap. That was, was inappropriate and unnecessary. I just, sometimes, got carried away. And I’ll understand if you don’t want anything to do with me after that.”

Stiles blinks at him, jaw sagging a little. “Wait, what?” he asks.

Derek’s jaw tightens. “I know that you probably don’t want to see me for a while, and that’s okay, I just, I hope after all the dust has settled we can still – I don’t know, be friends, or – or – ”

“Derek,” Stiles interrupts, because he’s getting an inkling of what’s going on here and he’s not about to let the misunderstanding of the century get in the way of his, hopefully, getting somewhere. If he’s making a huge mistake, so be it. Better to have at least given it a shot and gotten chopped off at the knees than continue living in a well of uncertainty. “Will you shut up and kiss me?”

“I – oh,” Derek says, his eyes going wide like he just got punched in the gut. “Oh, okay, uhm, yes.” He steps forward and wraps an arm around Stiles’ waist, pulling him into an embrace. They’re almost exactly the same height, and Stiles feels his hips tuck right up against Derek’s like he fits against him perfectly. Derek leans in and the first brush of his lips is tentative, almost shy, and somehow amazing beyond compare. Then Stiles tilts his head and opens his mouth a little and feels Derek’s tongue against his teeth and the word ‘amazing’ gains new definitions. Derek’s hand slides down his arm and then onto the small of his back, and they stumble back a few steps and fetch up against the wall of the house. Derek kisses him slow and deep like there’s nothing else in the world.

Stiles finally has to break away to gasp for air, but Derek is undeterred, just burying his face in the crook of Stiles’ neck and shoulder and nuzzling there. “Nnnng,” Stiles says, because that’s the best he can come up with at the moment.

Derek huffs out a soft little laugh. “I’m sorry. I should have said something sooner, I just – didn’t want to make things awkward.”

“I so totally know that feel,” Stiles says, trying to retain cognizant thought in the face of Derek’s mouth against the side of his neck. “Hey, it all works out, though, yay, and all that.”

Derek nuzzles him one last time and then reluctantly pulls away. He swallows and still looks a little nervous as he says, “Will you . . . do you want to be my mate?”

“Yes, a million times, yes,” Stiles says. “But I don’t want to be a wolf. Okay?”

“Okay,” Derek says, and kisses him again, and it’s glorious. He knows that he should probably take Stiles back to the den, that the others are going to want the news, that they’re going to tease him and mock him and be thrilled for him all at the same time. But he decides against it, for the time being. As long as he’s here kissing Stiles, the pack can wait.

 

~fin~