It was raining quite hard, so of course Stiles found himself trekking through the Preserve. It wasn’t that he wanted to, because he didn’t, okay? Contrary to what his father and Scott and the rest of the pack said, Stiles didn’t actually have an uncontrollable desire to be embroiled in all things supernatural, horrifying, and potentially deadly. And okay, so walking through the woods in the rain wasn’t exactly deadly, but he was definitely in danger of catching a cold. Or pneumonia. Or possibly being kidnapped, maimed, or killed by something. Of course, those last few were a possibility on any day ending with ‘Y’ but that wasn’t the point. The point was...
The point was, Stiles had lost the point nearly twenty minutes ago, when he’d slid down an unfortunately steep embankment and wound up not only soaking wet but also muddy and covered in leaves. So he was cold and filthy and miserable-bordering-on-angry as he swung the flashlight a bit haphazardly back and forth across the trees he was stomping between. Or, well...he’d be stomping if he had the energy to stomp. Which he didn’t. Also, his left leg and hip were sort of throbbing with a wicked heat, letting him know he’d be bruised to hell and back from that little tumble of his. Which also wasn’t conducive to stomping. He was stomping internally, okay?
As he trekked along, Stiles was muttering under his breath about stupid banshees and their stupid, unpredictable powers. Two years into this mess, graduating from high school in five months and heading off to MIT, a complete genius about most things...and Lydia still couldn't manage more than, “Death...something’s hunting in the preserve. One dead, a second close to it...and another life at risk...innocent and needing help. Now.” So the pack had rushed off, no further questions asked or answered. Boyd, Erica, Isaac, Scott, Derek, Peter, Cora...they were all searching the woods. Even Allison and Chris were somewhere in the dark. Stiles’ dad was waiting for anything that might be related to come through official channels, while Jackson was with Lydia, ready to pass on any more information Lydia might receive, though Stiles wasn’t holding his breath for it. Melissa was on standby for first aid. And Stiles had stupidly volunteered to go traipsing about in the dark as well.
In his defense, it hadn’t started raining until they had all gone off into the trees. Also in his defense, Stiles wasn’t supposed to be alone. But Cora had no patience for Stiles’ humanity and she’d run off ahead, saying she was just scouting and she’d be back. Then, fifteen minutes after being left alone, Stiles had fallen down the embankment and that had been twenty minutes ago and...and now he was alone, in the dark and the rain and the woods, and something was probably going to eat him.
Actually, Stiles was pretty sure that would be an improvement over his current misery, but he wasn’t about to voice that opinion out loud. The collective wrath of the pack if any of them heard him was one hell of a deterrent...as was the possibility that welcoming death aloud would invite an attack. As shitty as his life was a lot of the time - present moment included - Stiles really wanted to live. At least long enough to not be a virgin anymore. He didn’t think that was asking too much.
There was a sudden scream from the dark woods to the right and Stiles whirled in that direction, heart thundering loudly in his chest. It hadn’t been an entirely human scream. There had been something wild and animal about it. It was tinged with pain and fear and desperation, and Stiles was convinced it wasn't the thing killing, but rather a victim. Stiles wasn't sure how much help he could offer the creature that had made the sound, but he knew he had to try.
He ran in the direction the sound had come from, skidding on wet leaves and mud and forest-detritus as he nearly tripped over a young man who was curled up on the ground. Stiles could hear him breathing, thready and weak, and he realized as he dropped to his knees beside the man that he was curled around something; a bundle of some sort of fabric. The fabric moved and let out a whimpering sound, and Stiles jerked back quickly as a small hand poked out.
“Holy shit...” Stiles breathed, wide eyes locked on the tiny fingers curling and uncurling as though trying to catch the rain still pouring down.
The man’s eyes opened and Stiles didn’t think he’d ever seen anything so green in his life. The man’s hand lashed out, whip-quick, and too-strong fingers curled around Stiles’ thin wrist. “Oh crap...” Stiles squeaked, trying to pull free and scramble backwards to no avail.
“Madadh-allaidh...” The man rasped, and Stiles froze at the desperation etched on the man’s face. More words spilled out in a rush. “Tha iad a 'sealg dhuinn, ged nach do chuir sinn dragh air duine sam bith, tha mi' mionnachadh. Cuiribh a 'dìon mo nighean. Tha i a-mhàin leanabh...tha i neo-chiontach..."
“I...I don’t understand.” Stiles’ eyes flicked to the baby for a moment before shifting back to the man’s face. He was handsome, if worryingly pale. Dark hair was plastered wetly to his head and those eerily green eyes looked glassy and unfocused. “I don’t know what language you’re speaking, I’m sorry.”
The man winced, his body beginning to shake. “Danger.” He bit out. “Protect. Baby. Please.”
Stiles started to explain that he was just a kid, not quite eighteen himself, and that he could take them both to his Alpha - and maybe Deaton - but he couldn't exactly protect a baby. His words were cut off by a choked gasp of surprise as the man in front of him seemed to dissolve between one blink and the next. He left behind his clothing, and the baby who was now thrashing and screaming in its blanket cocoon, and a weird pile of what looked like clear gelatinous goo and strands of seaweed. Part of Stiles had to admire the efficiency of self-body-cleanup, but the rest of him was busy trying to figure out what the hell he was supposed to do next.
The sound of someone coming through the trees to his left had him grabbing up the baby and stumbling to his feet, praying it was a pack member and not whatever had hunted this screaming infant’s family. He managed a handful of steps towards the treeline before someone shouted. “Hand it over!”
Stiles’ back stiffened even as he turned around, taking note of the two men and the guns they carried. With a wriggling bundle taking up his arms, he did the only thing he could think of. “Human! I’m human! And just a teenager, also. Friends with the Argents, actually. Chris...maybe you know him? Him and Allison are out here with me, doing rounds. So, you know...maybe don’t shoot? Please?”
“What do you know and how?” One of the men holstered his gun and asked, but Stiles kept his eyes on the one who hadn’t.
“I’m the sheriff’s kid, and clever. I figured some stuff out a couple of years ago when there was a rogue Alpha wreaking havoc in the area, piling up a body count and leaving my dad baffled.” It was the truth, or enough of it to keep Stiles from having any tells a human might pick up on. “Things are pretty settled here now, but we still do rounds for security reasons. Why are you here?”
“Hunting.” The man who was still armed spoke, the tip of his gun lowering a little. “So how about you just hand over the thing you’re holding and we’ll be on our way.”
Stiles smiled tightly. “I’m not handing you a baby whose father begged me to keep it safe. You’re in our territory, hunters. We make the rules, not you.” As he spoke, Stiles carefully balanced the baby against his chest with one hand, the other creeping into the leather pouch on his belt.
“Territory?” The hunter who’d lowered his gun had it up and leveled at Stiles a moment later. “Humans don’t have territory. What are you, a wolf?”
Stiles laughed, full and bright, then whipped his hand up into the air, putting all of his manic energy into the thought, ‘No one and nothing can cross this line to harm us.’ before replying. “I’m human, just one with a few tricks up my sleeves. They come in handy, considering I run with wolves.” Throwing his head back, Stiles let out an eerie howl he’d spent months learning how to produce.
Smirking at the hunters, he taunted. “My Alpha’s coming, along with the rest of my pack. The Argents, too, but they’re more likely to kill you than the wolves. Chris isn’t fond of other hunters these days. I suggest you start running. Maybe, if you’re quick enough, you can get away.” Hearing a chorus of answering howls, Stiles added. “I wouldn’t bet on it, though.”
One of the hunters stupidly took a shot at Stiles, but the bullet ricocheted off the mountain ash barrier he’d thrown up. The man snarled something that sounding like ‘Filthy magic-user.’ before they both took off into the trees. A few seconds later, Chris and Peter were running past, after them, with Cora and Isaac not far behind. A heartbeat after that, Allison skidded into the clearing and rushed over the mountain ash barrier - careful not to disturb it - to Stiles’ side, face flushed but seemingly unharmed. Scott and Erica ran in full-tilt from opposite directions, stopping just on the other side of the barrier. It wasn’t much longer before Derek and Boyd were there as well, all eyes on Stiles even as the wolves’ heads were cocked as though listening to something outside their field of vision.
“So, this has been fun.” Stiles muttered, shifting the baby - who hadn’t stopped crying, though it had settled into softer sobs - so it was a little higher against his chest. “But it’s pouring and I think we should get the baby inside and out of the wet. Dry it off, change it, feed it...do all the stuff you do to make a baby stop crying.”
“I’ll take her.” Derek growled, holding his arms out for the baby.
“I can hold it.” Stiles retorted, feeling oddly protective of the solid weight filling his arms. “And how do you know it’s a girl?”
Derek huffed, still holding out his arms. “I can smell her, Stiles. It’s a girl, and a shifter, and you’re holding her wrong so just give her to me before you drop her or something.”
Scowling, Stiles stepped outside the circle he’d made and handed the baby to Derek. The Alpha immediately shifted her against his chest, her tiny head on his shoulder, holding her as though it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do.
“Where’d you learn to hold a baby, anyway?” Stiles asked, using both hands to make a scooping sort of motion in midair, grinning when the mountain ash gathered itself into his palms, dry powder ready for reuse should he need it again. He poured it carefully into the pouch with a little help from Allison, who held it open for him.
“There were always babies in the house.” Derek’s voice was soft and gruff and Stiles winced because that tone meant sorrow and he hadn’t meant to poke at a wound. “I was already six when Cora was born, and there were younger cousins as I got older. I’ve got a lot of experience.”
“Right.” Stiles cleared his throat awkwardly, then gestured to the trees around them. “I vote we take her back to the house and let Chris and the others handle the hunters. All in favor?”
A chorus of agreements had everyone following behind Scott as he led them in the direction of the rebuilt Hale house. Stiles fell into step beside Derek, eyes drawn to the baby. She had stopped crying almost as soon as Derek had her, and her eyes were drifting shut now that they were moving, one of Derek’s large palms cradling the baby’s butt while the other rubbed soothing circles into her back. Stiles looked at the way her dark hair clung to her cherubic cheeks; the way rainwater was dewing her pale skin; the way the soaked blanket was wrapped loosely around her lower half.
“Shouldn't we cover her?” Stiles knew very little about babies, and she didn't look uncomfortable, but surely being soaked through wasn't good for her. “What if she gets sick?”
Derek sounded very certain, but Stiles was never one to simply accept anything. “How do you know? She's not a wolf, or a human, so how can you be sure of anything?”
Derek growled softly and shot Stiles a look complete with a flash of red eyes. “She's a kelpie, Stiles. A water-based shifter. She's in human form right now, but she could never get cold or sick from being wet. Now stop questioning me. I can handle this.”
Stiles held his tongue the rest of the way to the house, mostly because he was mentally running through everything he could remember about kelpies. But as soon as they were inside, he reached for her. “Give her to me.”
“You're filthy and soaking wet.” Derek pointed out, edging further from Stiles reach. “I'm not giving her to you.”
“She's dirty and wet, too.” Stiles stalked closer, reaching for her again. “I'm going to clean us both up. Give her to me.”
Derek growled and his eyes bled red as he bared his fangs, something Stiles rarely took well these days. His magic sparked to life, blue-white sparks dancing around his palms and fingers in response. “Derek...” There was a sharp warning in Stiles’ voice. “Give. Me. The baby.”
“I’m the alpha. It’s my responsibility to care for any orphaned or abandoned supernatural children in my territory, Stiles.” Derek’s eyes were still red, though he’d retracted his fangs to speak more clearly.
“Yeah? Well, her father gave her to me.” Stiles held out his hands again, scowling. “Give her to me. You can go, like, buy supplies or whatever while I clean us up. She’ll need diapers, and something to eat, and dry clothes, and a crib or a playpen or something to sleep in, and like...you know, baby stuff. So go be the alpha by providing for her, since that’s what you’re actually sort of needed for right now. I can handle clean-up.”
Before Derek could growl or protest, Scott spoke up. “Stiles is actually really good with kids. His mom used to run a daycare in their home, so he’s not incompetent. A little out of practice, maybe, but you can trust him with...um, does she have a name?”
“No idea.” Stiles admitted, sighing in relief as Derek grudgingly handed the baby over. Her warm weight in his arms was settling. “Her dad said something in...I dunno, Gaelic, I‘m guessing, since he was a kelpie, but I don’t think any of it was a name. We’ll probably have to pick something eventually.”
“We’ll worry about naming her later, once we’re sure she’s safe and after we’ve determined if she’s truly alone in the world or if she’s got more family hiding in the preserve.” Derek grabbed his wallet and the Camaro’s keys off a small table near the door, then added. “Erica, you’re in charge here. Allison, you’re with me.”
Allison kissed Scott’s cheek, then smiled sunnily at Derek. “You just want me to handle any sales people we might have to deal with, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Derek said without hesitation. “Call Lydia on the way. See if she’s gotten anything else. Either way, have her and Jackson meet us back here. I want everyone regrouped and ready to discuss this new...development by the time we get back from the store.”
When they were gone, Stiles sighed again and nodded towards the stairs. “Alright, I’m going to take her up and shower with her. I’ll keep her in the water until they get back. I’ll leave the door unlocked, so someone just bring me a diaper, some pajamas for her, and a blanket to swaddle her in as soon as they’re back.” He got halfway up the stairs before thinking to add. “Oh, Scott...scrounge up something dry for me, too. I might have something clean here, I don’t know. If not, just steal me something from the ‘emergency clothes’ stockpile.”
Scott saluted mockingly and Stiles continued up the stairs to the second-floor bathroom (his personal favorite). In just a few short minutes, he had both himself and the baby stripped down to nothing and standing under a warm spray in the stall shower. The baby had woken up the second the water touched her, but she was cooing and babbling happily so Stiles wasn’t worried about it. As long as the hot water held out until Derek and Allison got back, he didn’t really care about anything else. The shower’s strong spray washed away the mud and grime, leaving him and the baby with clean, pink skin. Stiles started pruning up almost right away - unsurprising given how long he was out in the rain - but the baby girl seemed unphased by the extended exposure to moisture.
Closing his eyes, Stiles sank down onto the bench built into one side of the large shower and relaxed back against the cool, damp tile wall. The baby’s warm weight against his chest was reassuring and soothing and Stiles let it lull him into a sort of waking-doze. He was in no danger of actually falling asleep or dropping the baby, but it was nice to let his mind settle into white noise and relative calm for a little while. He had a feeling life was about to get a lot more interesting and chaotic.
Derek was pulling open the shower door a few seconds later, hands held out for the little girl and eyes firmly on the tile above Stiles’ head. Stiles snorted softly as he handed her over, watching Derek spin around and head towards the counter while he shut off the water and reached for a towel. “Way to make a guy feel unattractive, Derek. I know I’m not all muscled like the rest of you, but geez.”
“I was raised to understand that humans have a need for modesty we wolves don’t share.” Derek’s low rumble of a voice was soothing and familiar as Stiles finished drying himself and grabbed for the clothes Derek had brought with him - a pair of boxers and jeans he recognized as his own and a soft, dark blue henley he was almost 100% certain was Derek’s. “It’s got nothing to do with how you look. It’s just me trying to be polite.”
“Oh, well.” Stiles grinned as he shifted closer to Derek the second he was dressed. “In that case, my modesty thanks you. My ego’s still smarting a bit, but it’ll recover. Always does.” He watched as Derek finished zipping a soft, fleecy-looking pink sleeper over the white onesie and disposable diaper he’d already put on her. “Do you mind if I swaddle her? That was always my favorite thing to do...”
Derek hesitated for a minute, but nodded and stepped out of Stiles’ way. The teen quickly settled the baby where he wanted her on the white cable-knit blanket Derek had gotten her, deftly folding and wrapping it around her in a few swift motions that mostly came from long-ingrained muscle memory. Then he scooped her up and held her against his chest, cooing softly even as he smiled at Derek. The alpha was watching him intently, a funny look on his face, and Stiles wondered for a moment if he’d done something wrong or if Derek swaddled differently before the look was gone and Stiles shrugged it off as nothing.
“So, what are we feeding the little darling?” He asked, following Derek as he headed out into the hallway and towards the stairs. “She’s little yet, I think, but I’m not sure formula would be good for her...”
“We need to see if she’s got teeth yet.” Derek said. “If she does - and memory’s telling me she should - then she’ll eat fish. If not, we’re going to have to figure something else out, but I honestly don’t know what.”
“Huh.” Stiles paused halfway down the stairs to look at the little girl, who he figured probably wasn’t even a year old yet. “Dude, if she’s got teeth, it’d be like...one or two, right? Probably no more than four, if she’s small for her age or I’m misjudging it. But still, not really enough to eat, like...fish-fish. Maybe pureed fish...”
Derek huffed out a sound halfway between amused and annoyed, shooting Stiles an exasperated look over his shoulder. “She’s not human, Stiles. She won’t develop the same way. In fact, I’m willing to bet she can already swim and breathe under water. She might even be able to shift, though I’m not entirely sure about that. But teeth? Yeah, she’s most likely got a mouthful.”
“Wow.” Stiles stared at the little girl and her wide eyes - the same shade of too-green her father’s had been - then shook his head and resumed walking down the stairs. “Magical babies, man. Intense.”
Derek didn’t say anything, but Stiles had a feeling he was rolling his eyes.
Once they got to the kitchen, Stiles was immediately swarmed by the rest of the Hale pack. Cora, Erica, Lydia, and Allison all pressed close immediately, cooing over the little girl’s huge green eyes and the damp curls - a deep greenish-black in color - and her pale, cherubic little face. Scott hovered right next to Stiles’ shoulder, peering down at her and making silly faces to try to get her to smile or laugh, though she didn’t seem inclined. Isaac was hanging back, but his eyes were locked on the baby the same way everyone else’s were. Boyd had reached over Erica’s shoulder and let the little girl curl small, pale fingers around one large, dark one of his and the contrast was startling but somehow not alarming. If anything, the way Boyd’s face softened into an indulgent smile was oddly sweet.
Jackson was feigning indifference beside Lydia, but Stiles could see the interest on his face as he studied the orphaned kelpie. Jackson was a douche about a lot of things, but if there was one thing he understood - in ways no one else in their group really could - it was having no memories of the people who’d created you; who’d brought you into the world...and no possibility of ever getting any. Sure, Cora and Derek and Isaac - and even Allison and Stiles himself, to a degree - knew what it was to lose a parent, but they all had memories. Jackson had nothing, and never would. It didn’t matter how much the Whittemores loved him, or how wonderful they’d made sure his life was, because he was - and would always be - missing that crucial piece of himself.
Stiles cradled the girl a little more securely against his chest and silently vowed he wouldn’t make the same mistakes the Whittemores had with Jackson. She would always know her parents had died and that she’d been taken in, and loved, and kept safe by people who’d chosen to do so. She would never find out accidentally, or after years of living a lie. There would be no betrayal of trust; no shattered lies scattered around her like shrapnel and grief and pain. She would always know she hadn’t started out as theirs - as pack - and she would always know they’d chosen to love her anyway. Hopefully that would spare them all some drama down the line.
Stiles startled a little as the baby squirmed and wiggled in his grasp, slowly working herself free of the blanket he’d so carefully wrapped her in, leaving it tangled between her back and Stiles’ arms. “Awww, come on...” Stiles pouted at her and she simply stared back, face serious. “But you were such a cute little burrito.”
“She needs to eat anyway.” Derek pointed out and Stiles sighed but nodded, turning to where the alpha was standing next to a highchair. “You can wrap her up again to put her to sleep tonight, if it’ll make you feel better, but odds are she’ll wiggle free before morning.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Stiles couldn’t resist pressing a kiss to the baby’s forehead before he settled her into the chair, tossing the blanket at Derek’s face so he could more-easily settle her in. After buckling her into place, he settled the tray onto the chair and cooed. “Are you hungry, baby girl? Huh? Want some food? Let’s get some food...”
A drawling voice from the door leading outside had Stiles whipping around, one hand clutching at his chest like he was having a heart attack. “She should probably have a name, sooner rather than later. We can’t all be calling her ‘baby girl’ for an indefinite amount of time, you know.”
Stiles scowled at the older wolf for a minute before turning back to the baby. “You’re such a fucking creeper, Peter, god. And we’ll name her soon. Derek wants to make sure she’s really alone before we go naming her, since it’s silly to do if we aren’t going to keep her.” Stiles ignored the ache in his chest at the idea of giving her up; he barely knew her, after all, and if she had family it was best she was with them.
“Well, there aren’t any more kelpies in the preserve.” Peter wandered a little closer, after shutting the door, head tipped to one side as he studied the baby. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she? Of course, the fae usually are. I found her mother’s body - or what remained of it - but no others. I do believe she’s alone in the world.”
Derek cleared his throat. “We’ll worry about naming her tomorrow, when everyone’s had a chance to rest. For now, let’s just worry about feeding her.”
Oddly solemn now, everyone nodded and murmured their agreement. Stiles sighed, then asked. “Do we need an audience for this? It’s not feeding time at the zoo. Disperse, people, come on. Give the kid some breathing room and go, like...I dunno. Do something. Somewhere else.”
It took a few minutes - and Derek had to flash his eyes a little - but eventually the kitchen was mostly empty. Cora was lingering, and Peter had stayed under the pretext of making himself a sandwich - incredibly slowly - and Derek hadn’t budged from his spot next to Stiles, but given how many children the Hales had lost...well, Stiles figured it was understandable they’d be drawn to this new - young - pack member. He picked up a small fish - he had no idea what it was, only that Derek had bought it from the fresh sea food section of the grocery store, where they kept whole fish on ice - and brought it over to the baby. Her eyes had gotten wider and, as Stiles’ watched, the pupil dilated and nearly swallowed all of the green.
“That’s a good sign, right?” Stiles wasn’t sure who he was asking, but Derek rumbled something that sounded like an agreement so Stiles held out the three-inch long fish.
Small fingers curled around it and that little rosebud of a mouth opened, revealing two rows - on both the top and bottom - of tiny triangular teeth with serrated edges. She eagerly shoved the entire fish into her mouth and Stiles made a sound as he shifted forward, worried she might choke.
“Wait...” Derek’s arm was in front of his stomach, holding him back. “Give her a second, okay? Remember, she’s not human.”
Stiles stilled, though his body was thrumming with nervous tension. A few moments of chewing later, she swallowed and opened her mouth, making a soft sound that was clearly a request for more. “Um...how much do you think she should eat?”
“Honestly? I have no idea.” Derek reached for another fish, this one a bit larger, and held it out to her. After she’d taken it, he shrugged at Stiles. “I say we feed her until she stops being hungry, because I don’t have a clue about a kelpie’s metabolism but shifters tend to eat a lot and who knows when her parents were last able to feed her properly if they were on the run.”
With his throat tight at the possibility of this beautiful little baby going hungry, Stiles simply nodded and watched her bite the second fish neatly in half, chewing happily. After a moment, Peter said curiously. “I wonder if she’d eat a live fish.”
“We are not testing that!” Stiles retorted, turning to glare at the wolf, who shrugged unapologetically before biting into his sandwich. “You’re disgusting.”
“Shifters are known for liking live prey, especially the fae.” Cora sounded reasonable, and a bit thoughtful. “It’s something to consider, anyway, though maybe not until she’s a bit older.”
“Maybe. One day. Maybe.” Stiles repeated sternly, still glowering. “And if I catch anyone feeding my baby live fish before I say it’s okay, I’ll have a wolf-pelt for a rug, we clear?” He raised his voice louder at the end, making sure all of the wolves could hear him.
A shouted round of agreements from other rooms had Stiles nodding in approval. “Good.”
There was a pause, then Derek said softly. “She’s not your baby, Stiles.”
“Like I said before, her father gave her to me.” Stiles flicked his fingers at Derek, nudging the wolf back a few inches and making Derek’s eyebrows do their doom-thing in response to the push of magic. “Pretty sure that makes her mine, oh mighty alpha.”
“You’re still in high school. You can’t raise a kid.”
“Excuse you?” Stiles snapped, even as he handed the baby another fish. “The hell I can’t! There’s plenty of teenage parents who manage it and I’ve got better time management skills than anyone, including Lydia. I’m also second in our class, and only a few midterms and one semester away from graduation. I can handle a kid.”
“Yeah? How are you going to pay for her?” Derek demanded, narrowing his eyes and moving in, closing the distance Stiles had gained with his magic and then some. “Do you have any idea what diapers cost, Stiles? Or fresh fish? Or clothes, or wipes, or sippy cups, or the pack’n’play I bought her, or a crib, or a toddler bed, or shoes, or anything? What about daycare when you’re at school? You have to think about what’s best for her!”
“And that’s a broody, gloomy, run-into-danger-and-martyr-himself alpha?” Stiles sneered, refusing to back down despite the fact that their toes and chests and noses were practically touching; despite Derek’s eyes burning red and the fangs he was baring mere centimeters from Stiles’ face. “You’ve got an entire pack to look after and train, and patrolling to do, and how the hell is that going to work with a baby? You going to strap her to your chest while you run the boundary at night? Throwing money at a baby isn’t all it takes, Derek! It takes love, and affection, and time, and all sorts of attention and dedication. That is what’s best for her, dammit. Someone who’ll be there.”
All of a sudden sharp claws and long, thin fingers were pressed firmly to his chest, easing him back. The same was happening to Derek, and Cora was bodily between them the second she had space. She shot Stiles a sharp look, saying coolly. “First off, implying my brother isn’t capable of giving a baby love and attention is a bullshit shot to take, and you know it. Second off...”
And then she turned to glare at Derek. “You know he’s right about things like time-constraints where you’re concerned. You do patrols at night and sleep part of the day while we’re all in school, which is a problem if there’s going to be a baby in the house. So we’re going to need teamwork to get through this. All of us are going to have to step up and make adjustments, and I think Stiles has just as much say in how this is going to play out as you. You’re our alpha, but Stiles is right about having been chosen by the baby’s father. He’s not walking away, but he’s going to need help. So help him. Don’t fight about it.”
There was a pause, then Peter offered. “I can do the second half of the night-patrol.”
“That’s when Chris does patrol as well.” Derek growled, shooting Peter a narrow-eyed look. “We can’t afford to have you fighting with him.”
Peter held up both hands, smiling innocently. “I won’t fight with him. I have no beef with the remaining Argents, Derek, you know that. Have I ever once harmed a single hair on the precious Allison’s head? Of course not, because my fight is not with that dear girl, nor is it with her father. I simply offered so that you might get some sleep during the night hours, nephew, enabling you to watch the sweet little girl while Stiles is at school.”
Stiles was about to loudly declare his continued distrust of Peter when the man added. “If you’d rather do night patrols yourself, I can always watch her while you sleep and Stiles is at school. I’m just trying to offer up solutions here. A little appreciation wouldn’t go amiss.”
“Let him run patrols.” Stiles snapped, glaring heatedly at Peter. “Like hell I’m letting him watch my baby.”
Peter shot Stiles a hurt look he probably wouldn’t have believed if it weren’t for the quiet, serious words he offered with it. “I was a father once, Stiles. I could no more harm a child than you could. I accept your usual mistrust with grace because I’ve certainly earned it, but I will not allow this slander. She would be safe with me. That much, I can promise with absolute certainty.”
Stiles cleared his throat awkwardly, then nodded. “Right. Sorry. I just...I really don’t even want to leave her with Derek. If I thought I could get away with it, I’d just take her to school with me, but...”
“Of course.” Peter inclined his head slightly. “New parents are often over-protective. I was much the same way. My offer to run the second half of the night patrol stands.”
There was a long moment of silence, then Derek sighed and nodded. “Okay. You’ll run the second round. Stiles, you’ll have the baby at night and during at least part of the afternoon, during training. I’ll watch her while you’re at school.”
“Perfect.” Stiles watched as the baby gnawed half-heartedly on the fish he’d just handed her and sighed. “I think she’s finally full. She’s just playing with this one. And now she’s all...fish-smelling and gross so she needs another bath and a new outfit, so I’m hoping you picked up more than one.”
“I had a teenage girl with me.” Derek said dryly, rolling his eyes. “We have more than a dozen outfits for her, just as many sleepers and pajama sets, and twice as many onesies. Give the girls a few more days and we’ll probably have three times that much.”
Stiles laughed as he removed the tray and handed it to Cora, who wrinkled her nose as she set it in the sink. “Fair enough.” Then, feeling oddly generous, he held the baby out to Derek. “You want to clean her up and change her before I take her home for the night? I can get what I need for tonight together while you’re doing that. Save some time.”
Smiling slightly, Derek took the baby with ease. “Of course. Don’t forget to grab the carseat I bought and install it in the jeep. If you can’t figure it out, Peter can help you. Everything else is the den. Have someone bring me one of her towels, her baby soap, a baby washcloth, a diaper, and a new onesie and sleeper.”
Stiles watched him walk away with her, then headed for the den. He relayed Derek’s requested items to Lydia, who determinedly grabbed a bottle of something called ‘Baby Magic’ as well, along with a thing of baby powder. As she made Jackson carry everything except the adorable green-and-white striped pajamas she’d picked out, Stiles ripped open the carseat box and stared at its contents in silence for a long minute. He glanced at the installation instructions for a few seconds, then back at the box. Finally, he sighed in defeat.
“Peter, come put this damned thing in the jeep for me.”
“But of course.” Peter was in the doorway a heartbeat later, smiling charmingly. “Anything for our esteemed emissary.” Normally Stiles hated when Peter acted smarmy, but he took the box and headed for the front door so Stiles let it go in favor of getting the carseat installed.
“Okay, now...what will I need for tonight...”
Stiles hummed thoughtfully and quickly sifted through Derek’s purchases. First he located a diaper bag and began loading it up. In went diapers, wipes, baby powder, diaper rash cream, and a pacifier he had no idea if the baby would use. Next he added a couple of small toys, an extra set of pajamas, four clean onesies, and an absolutely adorable dress and set of baby leggings. Then he threw in two pairs of baby socks and tucked a sippy cup into an outside pocket. After zipping the bag, he located the pack’n’play Derek had mentioned in the kitchen and set that next to it; it would do as a makeshift crib for the time being. He also grabbed up a soft, fleece blanket to line the pack’n’play while the baby slept.
Finally, he turned to Scott and asked. “Can you go pack a few of the fish, in case she wakes up hungry during the night, and grab her knit blanket? I think it’s on the counter in there.”
Then, with everything prepped and ready to go, Stiles sank down onto one of Derek’s sofas and waited for the alpha to finish giving the baby her bath.
“What’s up, kiddo?” He was halfway to the jeep when he added jokingly. “Did you bring home a stray or something?”
“Ah...sort of?” Stiles leaned out of the backseat to smile brightly at his dad. “So, question...do you prefer being called Poppop, or Grandpa, or like...something traditional like Opi?”
Noah stared at Stiles in silence, then practically ran to the jeep and peered into the backseat. “Stiles, why the hell do you have a baby?”
“Oh, well, see...her parents were killed by hunters. Don’t worry, Peter and Chris took care of them, no bodies for you to worry about.” Stiles finally managed to undo the straps and lifted the baby into his arms before motioning for his dad to step back so he could exit the car. “And before he died, her dad gave her to me. So...Dad, I’d like to introduce you to your new granddaughter. She doesn’t have a name yet, but she’s super cute.”
“That’s really not funny, kid.” But Noah had already reached for the blanket-wrapped wriggling bundle and was holding her carefully a moment later. “You guys understand you’ll have to hand her over to the proper authorities, right?”
Stiles snorted as he closed the back door to the jeep and walked to the back to open the hatch. “Yeah, okay, and explain to her foster parents that she’s got two rows of shark-like teeth and eats raw fish? Good luck with that one, Daddy-O. No dice. She’s staying with the pack, for everyone’s safety. Especially hers.”
Noah stared down at the baby for a minute, then looked back up in time to see Stiles swinging the diaper bag’s strap over his shoulder before hauling out the pack’n’play and the small cooler bag with the fish in it, and shutting the jeep. “So, what, Derek is going to raise her? Or Peter? I don’t understand why she’s here for the night.”
“Because she’s mine.” Stiles explained, sighing in frustration when Noah stopped halfway up the walkway to the door to gape at him. “Okay, Dad, I know it’s a lot to take in but can we please do this inside? This crap is heavy and I don’t think we want the neighbors witnessing your inevitable temporary breakdown before we reach the acceptance part of the evening.”
It was a testament to how weird their lives were that it only took a minute before Noah was squaring his shoulders and marching the rest of the way into the house, with Stiles hot on his heels. The second the door was closed behind them and Stiles had set everything down in the living room, the Sheriff was glaring at him.
“Don’t you now dad me, Stiles.” Noah snapped, patience worn thin by everything he’d dealt with the last couple of years. “You’re a kid, dammit. You...you can’t just pick up a stray baby! That’s insane. If Derek wants to, that’s one thing; he’s an adult. But this...it’s ridiculous.”
Stiles held up one hand and conjured blue-white flames, cradling them in his palm for a moment before closing his fist and putting them out with a thought. “Yeah? What about my life isn’t crazy these days? All of the werewolves, maybe? Or the magic lessons? Or the fact that I’ve turned down half a dozen scholarships to top schools because being that far from my pack would mean giving up my title as emissary? Dad, my whole life is insane right now, and that’s not going to change any time soon, or like…ever. But it’s my life, and I chose it knowing what it would be like.”
Stiles moved in close enough to take the baby, smiling down at her as she shoved her arms free of the blanket and smiled back, baring two pearly-white human teeth and a bunch of gums. “She’s not human, Dad, and I know she’s not my blood, but she’s mine. Her dad gave her to me, to protect and raise, and I can’t explain why but there’s this connection. And maybe it’s magic...” Stiles shot his dad an apologetic look. “Maybe it’s because her dad was dying and asked a favor of an emissary, and I said yes because what else could I do, and I don’t know all the rules but agreements like that are probably bound in magic, but...whatever the reason, I can feel that she’s mine now and I can’t walk away from that.
“And if you try to make me, I’ll walk out that door right now.” Stiles hated leveling the threat, but he knew he couldn't walk away from this little girl; couldn’t hand her over to someone else to raise, not even Derek. “I won’t like doing it, but I have to do what feels right here. And I need you to understand that.”
“Goddammit, son...” Noah sighed, looking down at the green-eyed little girl in his son’s arms. She stared up at him, wide-eyed, dark curls gleaming green-ishly in the lamplight, and Noah sighed again. “She is beautiful, isn’t she? I don’t like this, Stiles. Not one bit. But...you know I don’t want you to leave.”
“Awesome. So...Opi?” Stiles laughed at the cross look his dad shot him, then held the baby out to him. “Or Poppop works, too. Whatever you want. Can you just...hold her while I put the fish in the fridge and get her pack’n’play set up in my room? We’ll get her a crib soon, I promise.”
“Yeah, okay.” Noah took the baby, shaking his head even as he felt something in him soften as she settled against his chest, clearly sleepy. “God, I’m too young to be a grandfather. You’re killing me here, Stiles, you know that?”
Stiles just laughed and headed for the kitchen. “You’re already in love with her, aren’t you?” Noah grunted in reply and Stiles laughed again. “I knew it! You big softie, you. Don’t worry about it; it’s going to be fine. Cora’s working out a schedule so everyone can help out with her, and Derek’s going to have her during the day so I don’t have to worry about school. It’s...it’ll be fine, Dad. Promise.”
Noah just sighed and muttered something under his breath. Stiles ignored him in favor of hauling the pack’n’play up the stairs.
“Sorry.” Derek’s soft apology took Stiles a little off-guard. A second later, the alpha was standing over the pack’n’play, staring down at the sleeping baby. “She went down okay?”
Stiles yawned and nodded at the same time. “Yeah, fine. Was that all you needed?”
“I...” Derek glanced from Stiles to the baby and back again. “I could just take her now, so you don’t have to worry about bringing her to me in the morning before school...or am I picking her up? We didn’t really discuss it...”
Stiles sighed, flopping backwards on the bed and whispering back. “Dude, I don’t know. It’s late as hell and I don’t want you waking her up by trying to move her, so...”
Stiles jumped a little when his bedroom door opened, revealing a bleary-eyed and glaring Sheriff. “Derek, just go sleep in the guest bedroom, before you wake the baby up like you did me and Stiles. Work out the logistics of baby-trade-off tomorrow, please, when we’re not all trying to sleep.”
Stiles couldn't be sure in the dark, but he was almost 100% certain Derek was blushing. “Sorry. I’ll...go sleep now. I didn’t mean to wake anyone, I just wanted to check on her.”
Noah walked away, muttering under his breath something about ‘new parents are idiots’ and Stiles would’ve resented it except Derek was standing in his bedroom in the middle of the night, staring down at a sleeping baby, and Stiles was so tired he couldn't find it anything but endearing, so...yeah. Idiots was about right. “Go to bed, Der, and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
Derek nodded jerkily and let himself out of Stiles’ room. Stiles shook his head over the weirdness of his life, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
For a long moment, Derek and Stiles stared at each other in silence, then Derek said. “I...heard her...”
“Yeah, so did I.” Stiles replied dryly, rolling his eyes and continuing to sway his body in an attempt to soothe her. “I think she’s hungry and she probably needs to be changed, so...why don’t you get a couple of fish from the fridge and put some water in her sippy cup while I change her?”
Derek nodded and rushed from the room while Stiles quickly spread a towel out on his bed and laid the baby down, cooing at her. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m gonna change you, and Derek’s getting you some fish. You want some fish, baby girl? Mmmm, yummy fishies...”
The sound of someone snorting in the doorway had Stiles turning to look even as he continued stripping the baby from the waist-down. “Did she wake you up, too? Sorry...”
“It’s fine.” Noah moved closer, watching with a soft smile as Stiles carefully cleaned the baby up and settled a clean diaper under her butt. “Hardly the first time a baby’s woken me up. You took forever to start sleeping through the night, you know.”
“Yeah, mom always said I had night terrors, too...until I was, what, seven or so, right?” Stiles didn’t really remember the nights he’d screamed himself hoarse while sleeping, but he’d been told about them often enough that he might as well have. “Guess I can’t complain about her needing a change and some food.”
“Part of being a parent.” Noah agreed, smiling a little wider as Stiles finished redressing the baby and picked her back up, holding her carefully against his chest. “At least she’s stopped screaming.”
Stiles glanced down and saw her green eyes go mostly black as her pupils dilated and laughed softly. “My guess is Derek’s on the stairs with her fish and she can smell it.” And sure enough, a few seconds later the alpha was stepping into the room, holding a sippy cup and a plate of small fish. “And there’s your food, darling...see, I told you it was coming.”
Derek handed her a fish immediately and Noah sucked in a startled breath as she bared twin rows of teeth and swallowed the fish down after chewing for only a few seconds. “Holy shit, that’s weird.” Noah shook his head, and added. “Yeah, okay, I see what you mean about not human. She seemed so normal earlier...”
“She is normal.” Derek pointed out as he handed the baby another fish, flashing a fangy smile at the Sheriff as the baby shoved the whole thing in her mouth again. “She’s just a normal kelpie. She’s doing exactly what she should be doing at her age, for what she is.”
“Just think of it as her having special needs.” Stiles advised, watching as the baby’s eyes started to droop and she gnawed sleepily on the third fish she was handed. “Okay, I think you’re done eating, sweetie. How about a drink before you go back to bed?”
He carefully pulled the fish out of her hand and set it back on the plate Derek still held, taking the sippy cup in exchange and pushing the flexible straw against the baby’s mouth. She sucked greedily, draining the cup in just a few seconds before yawning and closing her eyes, turning and nuzzling into Stiles’ chest.
“I’ll take it back downstairs.” Derek whispered, taking the cup from Stiles and headed back towards the door. “Go back to sleep. She should stay down the rest of the night now.”
Stiles nodded and carefully laid her down in the pack’n’play before stumbling back to his bed. With the immediacy of the moment gone, he was suddenly exhausted again. He felt his Dad pull the blanket up over him, and place a kiss to his hair. “You’re not half bad at this, kid.” Noah murmured.
“Love you, too, Dad.” Stiles mumbled back around another yawn, burrowing down into his bed. “G’night, Dad. G’night, Derek.” Sleep came just as easily the third time as it had the first two.
“Hey, so I’m heading to school. She’s still asleep, so I figured I’d leave her that way.” Derek nodded, face still buried in a pillow, and Stiles added. “I’d offer to pull the carseat out of my jeep for you but I can’t really figure it out, so maybe we should pick up a second one for the Camaro later? I’m just sorry to strand you here with her...”
“Just take my car.” Derek said, turning his face to squint blearily at Stiles, clearly not fully awake yet. “Keys are in my coat pocket, over there...” He gestured vaguely and Stiles hurried to find them, because like hell he was turning down a chance to drive the Camaro. “I’ll head back home with her once she’s awake, so just...come there after school and we’ll talk about names and stuff. And you can get your jeep.”
Stiles nodded, though Derek’s face was back in his pillow so he probably didn’t see it. “Yeah, okay. I’ll see you after school. Call me if there’s any problems with her, okay?”
Derek made a sound that was possibly an agreement, so Stiles left it at that. He grabbed a pack of poptarts on his way out the door and eagerly slid behind the wheel of the Camaro. It was actually really easy to handle and Stiles silently hoped the carseat stayed in the jeep for a while just so he could keep driving Derek’s car to school. It was certainly a hell of a lot more badass to pull up in, as much as he loved his jeep. The pack was crowding around the car the second he got out and Stiles had to flail a little extra-wildly to get some breathing room.
“Whoa, whoa...why are we all up in Stiles’ business this morning?” He demanded, arms pinwheeling wildly to make space for himself. “Everybody just ease back and take a breath.”
“You’re driving Derek’s car.” Erica pointed out, looking scandalized. “Does he know or did you, like, steal it? He’s going to kill you, Stiles.”
“He told me to take it.” Stiles rolled his eyes and started walking towards the building, kind of loving the way everyone else fell into step around him.
Scott made a sound somewhere between disbelief and jealousy. “Why did he do that? Derek never lets anyone drive the Camaro!”
“He won’t even let me drive it and I’m his sister.” Cora complained from the other side of Stiles. She curled her fingers around his forearm, claws peeking out just a bit to press threateningly even through several layers of fabric. “I don’t get it, did you blow him or something?”
Stiles immediately tripped over nothing and had to cling to Scott’s arm to stay upright, before he whirled on Cora with wide eyes and an excessive amount of limb-flailing. “What? Oh my god, no! Jesus, Cora, what the hell is wrong with you? The carseat is in my jeep, so he told me to take the Camaro.”
Cora shrugged and Lydia said in a bored-sounding drawl. “It was a reasonable question, Stiles. Everyone knows Derek doesn’t let anyone drive the Camaro, after all.”
“So your minds go straight to sexual favors?” Stiles demanded, opening his locker with a huff. “First off, it’s kind of shitty that you guys think I’d pimp myself out for a car, even one as sweet as Derek’s. Second off, I’m the least desirable and most virginal of all of us, so what the hell. And third off, Derek would never take advantage of anyone that way.”
Everyone sort of shrugged, and Stiles rolled his eyes. “I need better friends, oh my god, you guys all suck, and not in the fun way.” Slamming his locker shut, he glared at everyone. “Alright, look. This is going to be weird. I get that, believe me. There’s a baby factoring into our lives now and she’s basically splitting time between me and Derek which is going to be weird enough without factoring in all of the other weirdness in our lives, so. Absolutely no jokes about it. No jokes about co-parenting or mom-and-dad or anything. If I have to back that with a push, don’t think I won’t, but you know I don’t like pulling out the spark-thing so let’s just...keep it clean. Understood?”
Allison immediately gave him her sunniest smile. “We wouldn’t dream of teasing you over the whole baby thing, Stiles. It’s like you don’t know us at all.”
“Shut up.” Stiles said with a laugh, sticking his tongue out at her when she just grinned wider. “Okay, fine. Teasing and ribbing is allowed, but not at school. The last thing we need is someone calling in social services before we’ve got some sort of story in place.”
“Fair enough.” Lydia linked her arm with Stiles and pulled him off towards their AP Trig class, waving casually over her shoulder to the others as she said. “So, I was thinking about names...”
Stiles sighed in defeat and just let her drag him along. It was going to be a long day...
On the upside, it was Friday, so Stiles would have two whole days to sort out their schedule better with Derek before he had to worry about school again. Silver linings and all that.
As soon as he parked, Stiles was out of the car and halfway across the yard, not caring at all about the others who were still exiting the Camaro. Stiles was halfway up the porch steps when Derek opened the door and everything tight in Stiles’ chest relaxed. “Gimme.” Stiles demanded, arms already out.
Derek sighed but handed the baby over, jerking his head inside. “Come on, then. Let’s talk about names first, because I’m already sick of referring to her as ‘the baby’ and it hasn’t even been a full day yet.”
“Right, okay.” Stiles nuzzled into the baby’s cheek, and she cooed and babbled happily at him, slapping drool-wet fingers against his cheek as she chattered. “Hey, sweetheart. You ready for a name? Yeah?” He pressed a kiss to her nose as he sank down onto the couch, startling a little when Derek sat down right next to him. “Uh, hey. Okay, so, about the name...”
“I thought maybe we could call her Talia, after my mom.”
“Wow, right out there with the dead mom card.” Stiles huffed out a weak laugh. “Luckily I have that same card - mine is called Claudia, by the way - which gives me strong veto powers. No. No dead people names, Derek, because they just make everybody angsty and uncomfortable and I am not doing that to a baby.”
Derek pouted for a moment, but finally nodded. “Fine. What do you suggest then?”
Stiles hummed thoughtfully for a moment, struggling with the baby as she strained to one side. “What?” He asked her, readjusting her on his lap only for her to whine and struggle to tip herself sideways out of his arms. “Oh my god, fine! You want down? Here...”
He set her carefully on the floor and watched as she sat there for a moment before falling forward onto her hands and crawling quickly across the carpeting, eyes locked on a brightly colored stacking ring set that was a few feet away. “She’s going to be fully mobile before we know it, geez.”
“Right.” Derek was smiling softly at the little girl, looking for all the world like a proud father. “We’ll have to baby-proof before she’s walking, at least to an extent. There’s not a lot that could hurt her, but still. Stuff like your magic supplies will need to be secured better.”
“Of course.” Stiles nodded, then sighed and turned to look at Derek. “Okay, so I was thinking we should chose a Scottish name for her since she’s a kelpie and all. Like, for the sake of her heritage. Lydia suggested Brigit but I think that’s a crappy old-lady name so ugh, but like...maybe Maggie? Maggie’s cute, right?”
Derek tipped his head, looking at the baby with a frown, eyebrows pulled together in concentration. “She doesn’t really look like a Maggie. What about Kenzie?”
“Pretty, I guess.” Stiles considered if for a moment, then shook his head. “It just doesn’t seem quite right. What about something traditional, like Moira, or Siubhan?”
Derek stared at Stiles for a long moment, then asked flatly. “You, of all people, would saddle her with a name no one will be able to pronounce right?”
Stiles immediately felt himself blushing. “That is a very fair point and not something I thought through all the way before suggesting it.”
The older man’s mouth twitched a little and Stiles knew he was fighting a grin. “What about Vanora? It can be spelled with one or two N’s but I think one looks better.”
“Vanora...” Stiles tried it out on his tongue, quickly pulling up the name on his phone. “White wave...well, it’s a water-based name, which is nice, considering.”
“We could call her Nora for short.” Derek added, and Stiles had a feeling this was a name Derek had been thinking of seriously. “It’s pretty, right?”
“It is.” Stiles agreed. “When did you think of it?”
The tips of Derek’s ears turned red and he cleared his throat a little awkwardly. “I...may have spent a little time this morning googling baby names.”
Stiles grinned. “I did the same thing at lunch, though I didn’t come across Vanora. I like it, but...let’s see if she does, okay?”
Stiles got up and walked over to the baby, saying softly. “Hey, Nora...do you like that name? Vanora...”
The little girl looked up and smiled, baring her couple of human teeth and gums, drool running down her chin as she laughed. “Yeah, that’s right.” Stiles laughed, crouching down to get closer to her. “Is that what we should call you? Baby Nora...”
She squealed happily and held her arms up, making grabby-hand motions and babbling. “Okay, then, baby. Vanora it is.” Stiles picked her up and stood, groaning a little at the strain on his thighs. “Dear god, this is going to be hell on me and I’m not even out of shape!”
Stiles glanced over at Derek and froze, because the alpha had that same, funny look on his face from the night before. “Uh...you okay there, big guy?”
“He’s fine. He’s just adjusting to an aspect of being an alpha he didn’t realize existed.” Peter’s tone was casual, but the amused look he was giving Derek had Stiles feeling uncertain. “Derek, you’re going to need to do something about that…urge you’re feeling. One way or another.”
“Shut. Up. Peter.” Derek snarled, baring his fangs and flashing red eyes at his uncle. “I told you last night, I’ve got everything under control.”
“Of course you do.” Peter smiled and it was dismissive and patronizing and smug all at once. “Now, before we get blindsided by a social worker - because you know someone is going to say something about Stiles here suddenly having a baby at some point - we should get everything in order for her, paperwork-wise. I’m thinking, a one night stand that resulted in the child, and mommy-dearest either signed over parental rights or died? Death is probably simpler, in terms of obtaining the false documents needed, but it’s really up to you. And for her last name, we’ll need to make a decision.”
Stiles didn’t even hesitate. “Stilinski, of course.”
But even as the words were leaving his mouth, Derek was speaking as well. “It should be Hale.”
There was a long pause, then Stiles glared heatedly at Derek, bouncing Nora in his arms at the same time. “Um, excuse you? How the hell do you figure that? If she’s my daughter, her last name should be Stilinski.”
“Because I’m the alpha, and legally an adult, so it makes more sense to claim she’s my daughter.” Derek pointed out, added a little more softly. “Besides, people will be more likely to believe a twenty-three year old went out and fathered a child than that a seventeen year old did.”
“They’re more likely to believe you got laid, is what you mean.” And Stiles couldn’t help how much that hurt because, okay yeah he was a virgin, but he was busy. And he was actually really smart, and funny, and not horribly disfigured, and it shouldn’t be some huge stretch that he’d slept with someone and fathered a kid. “Thanks, Derek, that’s awesome. You know what, fuck you. I’m not having this fight every day. She. Is. Mine. I can feel it the same way I can feel the pack bonds, so you don’t get to argue about it.”
He turned to Peter and added sharply. “Stilinski. She’s Vanora Ness Stilinski. Make her ten months old right now because that seems about right; I don’t care about her exact birthday, just make sure I know what you pick. The mom can be dead, that’s fine.”
Stiles shot a cold look at Derek and added tersely. “I’m taking her to Deaton for a checkup in an hour. If you want to come, you’d better back off on who’s making parenting decisions, are we clear?”
Derek nodded, a sharp sort of movement, and turned and stalked out of the room. When he was gone, Stiles sighed and set Nora in her pack’n’play with a few toys before sinking down onto the couch. “What the fuck is his problem?”
“That, Stiles, is the million dollar question, now isn’t it?” Peter’s sickly-sweet voice had Stiles groaning loudly because the cryptic older wolf was nothing if not frustrating.
“I get the feeling you know exactly what’s going on with him, don’t you?” Stiles opened one eye to check Peter’s self-satisfied expression and sighed again. “Of course you do. And you’re not going to tell me, are you?”
Peter laughed softly. “Most assuredly not. Why on earth would I put a stop to all this fun?” After a moment of silence, Peter sat down next to Stiles - albeit with an entire cushion’s worth of space between them - and gave him a serious look. “You know, Stiles, it shouldn’t be that hard for you to figure out. Derek’s a simple man, the alpha part of him even more so. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be, for either of you.”
He got up and left the room before Stiles could do more than gape at him, and he shouted in frustration. “What the hell is that supposed to mean, you freakin’ zombie?!”
“It means stop being an idiot!” Peter called back, followed by the sound of the front door closing. Which, Stiles figured, effectively ended that conversation.
Sulking, Stiles decided he was going to pack up Nora’s things and leave for Deaton’s early. Maybe he’d stop and buy her a stroller on the way; she’d surely need one of those anyway. And more fish. She was definitely going to need more fish. Fuck Derek, and fuck Peter, and fuck the whole stupid town who were probably going to doubt that Stiles had fathered a baby. It didn’t matter; it didn’t. Peter would obtain air-tight documentation proving it and no matter what anyone thought or believed, Stiles would have an irrefutable claim on the baby. No one would be able to take her away from him, even though he was a minor and technically didn’t have any financial means of supporting a child aside from the pack, which he couldn't exactly explain to a social worker if things came down to that, and...
Stiles scowled and yanked out his cell phone, shooting off a text to Peter. Make her a Hale; list Derek as her biological father. Keep mom dead. We can’t risk social services sticking their noses into Pack business. Her safety comes first.
A few minutes later, even as Stiles was angrily shoving baby supplies into the diaper bag, Peter texted back. A smart decision. Consider it done. A few minutes after that, as Stiles was strapping Nora into her carseat so he could run inside and grab the rest of her things without worrying about her getting into anything, his phone vibrated with another message. She’s still yours. Everyone can feel it through the pack bonds, especially Derek. It’s part of why he’s so moody. Don’t fuck this up, Stiles. It’ll hurt everyone if you do.
“Stupid, cryptic, undead asshole.” Stiles muttered, covering Nora’s lap with a blanket and handing her a rattle before closing the jeep’s door and heading back inside to grab her pack’n’play and a couple of other things. “I have not had enough sleep to deal with this bullshit.”
“Where are you going?” Cora was halfway down the stairs, watching with accusing eyes as Stiles grabbed four bags full of baby supplies in one hand and the pack’n’play in the other. “Where’s Derek?”
“Your brother ran off in a huff because he’s a giant douchecanoe.” Stiles retorted. “And I am taking my daughter to her doctor’s appointment, and then I’m taking her home. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lot to do today and none of it involves being here.”
Cora didn’t say anything else, but Stiles could feel the weight of her eyes on him as he stormed back outside and loaded up the jeep. Refusing to give in to the slowly growing feeling of guilt he had over taking Nora and leaving, Stiles got in the jeep and threw it in drive, heading out of the Preserve. If Derek wanted to see Nora, he could man-up and apologize and come find them. Until then, Stiles wasn’t going to just sit around and take crap. He was not that guy. He was an emissary - a druidic spark - and a pretty badass one at that. He would not give in to puppy dog eyes, or accusing stares, or cryptic comments.
Holding tightly to his anger - and to his firm belief that Derek was the one who was wrong here - Stiles ignored the mournful howling coming from the woods as he drove into town. The alpha knew where to find him, after all.
“Deaton’s not the one keeping you out.” Scott said, eyes narrowed at the alpha. “Stiles doesn’t want to see you right now.”
“I’m here for Nora’s appointment, so go tell Stiles I’m here so he can let me in.” Derek bit out from between clenched teeth. “Now, Scott.”
Unable to resist his alpha’s command, Scott ducked into the back. He wasn’t gone more than a minute and he shot Derek a careless shrug when he returned. “Stiles says you don’t need to be at his daughter’s appointment, so you can go home.”
The howl built in his throat before he realized what he was going to do. Seconds later, it was spilling past fangs and shaking the tiny clinic, reverberating eerily. Before the sound had finished echoing, Stiles was standing on the other side of the counter, glaring. His eyes were glowing softly, practically beta-gold as they shone with magic, and he was nearly vibrating with fury. Derek had never summoned his emissary before; never exerted his alpha status over the human, though he had used it on his betas when the occasion demanded. He respected Stiles’ agency as a human member of the pack too much to violate it, but now...now he was furious.
“Let. Me. In.”
“Go fuck yourself.” Stiles snapped back. “And don’t you ever do that again. I mean it, Derek. I don’t appreciate being forced to obey.”
“She’s my responsibility too, Stiles. Let me in.” Derek had planned on being reasonable about this; had planned on apologizing for his momentary possessiveness and attempting to explain about alpha-related urges. But Stiles had placed a locked door - more than that, a magical barrier - between them. Between Derek and the child, and between Derek and Stiles. Calm and reasonable went out the window in the face of that.
“Why, so you can take her from me?” Stiles’ voice was firm and cold, but Derek could hear the nervous fluttering of his heart and smell the anxiety radiating from him. “I gave her your last name, for her sake. I’m putting her needs and safety first even though it goes against everything my magic is telling me. What the hell else do you want from me, Derek? I’m not...I can’t...”
“I’m not going to take her from you.”
Derek honestly couldn’t imagine doing that, not when seeing Stiles with Nora in his arms made everything in him strain to get closer; to protect; to claim them both for himself. And that was wrong, on a thousand different levels, and Derek was resisting because he was a responsible alpha, dammit, but it didn’t change how he felt. How his wolf felt. Peter said it was an alpha thing. An unmated pack member with a child would drive Derek’s instincts; his wolf’s need to expand his pack, and to have children, and...well. Derek had told Peter he could control it, and he could,but that didn’t make it easy. It did mean he couldn't stomach the thought of Stiles and Nora being separated from each other. He wanted nothing more than to watch Stiles hold and feed and play with the little girl his wolf insisted was theirs.
None of which he could explain to Stiles, leaving him with less-than-stellar explanations to choose from, though he was certainly going to try. “I...you’re good with her, Stiles. I want you to help with her. To raise her. I can feel that she’s yours. But I’m her alpha, the same as I’m yours, and I need to see to her well-being. I need to provide for her and make sure she’s healthy and happy. Shutting me out - cutting me off from her - is going to set my wolf on edge, and it won’t end well. Trust me.”
And the funny thing was, Stiles did trust Derek. Had for quite some time. He never would have agreed to become the Hale Emissary - to train with Deaton, who he did not actually trust, the cryptic bastard - if he didn’t have complete and absolute faith in Derek’s alpha abilities, and in Derek as a person. Which made him wonder why he was having so much trouble letting Derek near Vanora; why he bristled so much over the alpha werewolf stepping in and helping with her. It made no sense, and Stiles had learned to be wary of things that didn’t make sense.
So even though his instincts - nudged by his magic - were screaming at him, Stiles took the few steps needed to reach the swinging door and opened it, letting Derek past the barrier. “I don’t know why my magic is resisting the idea of letting you near her, but I do trust you.”
Deaton cleared his throat and both Stiles and Derek - who had just come around to the other side of the counter - turned to look at him. He was standing in the door to the exam room, holding Vanora. “I believe I can explain, if you’ll both join me.”
When the door was closed behind them, Deaton set Vanora on the metal exam table and turned to them, face as serious as ever. “Stiles, I’m going to need you to take off your shirt for a moment to verify something.”
After only a moment’s pause, Stiles shed his plaid overshirt and the tee-shirt under it. Deaton circled him for a few long moments, sharp eyes tracking over his skin, and finally Stiles snapped. “What? What the hell are you looking for right now?”
“If you’ll turn and look in the mirror...” Deaton gestured to the full-length wall-mounted mirror on the back of the door. “On the inside curve of your left shoulder blade, you’ll notice a mark.”
Stiles craned his neck to get a look at the mark in question, and Derek circled him to see it as well. It was simple black lines, and it almost looked like a capital H except the center connecting line was the longest of the three and the two outer lines curved a bit. So maybe like a wonky sideways capital I...Stiles wasn’t really sure. All he knew was that it definitely hadn’t been on his shoulder a few days ago. Which could be a very bad thing, potentially. Deaton’s placid demeanor didn’t really mean anything, either, because the man could probably tell you that you were dying without batting an eyelash. It was part of why Stiles didn’t trust him.
“Is that her bit?” Derek asked, eyes wide. “That...shouldn’t it be on her? I mean, I thought...”
“When she’s older, it will be.” Deaton said, in that same level tone. “It will only be physically manifested when she shifts into a water horse, while in her human form it will rest somewhere on her skin. But she’s a child and at her young age it would normally be on a parent. That it’s on Stiles’ skin says to me her father found a way to push it onto him before his death. Which explains Stiles’ intense possessiveness and concern for her.”
“Well, Stiles is still lost, so if someone could explain properly that would be fantastic.” He scowled as he dragged his shirts back on, then scooped Nora up into his arms, cradling her securely against his chest.
Derek sighed, but obligingly explained. “Kelpies have a bit. Like, a horse-bit. It’s the caveat to their magic; their greatest weakness. Gain possession of it and you can control them. It’s on you, meaning you’ll function as her anchor for now. It’ll prevent her from wandering off because of the call of the water - a pull she’ll feel her whole life and have to learn to resist, the way wolves learn to resist the pull of the moon.”
“So my magic is interacting with it, and telling me to keep her close.” Stiles said, eyes widening with growing understanding. “Because she shouldn’t be separated from her bit. It’s meant to be close to her, if not on her, at all times. She’s vulnerable away from it; away from me.”
“Precisely.” Deaton gave Stiles a faint smile, the way he did whenever Stiles mastered a new bit of magic or remembered lore correctly. “What I would suggest, if I may, is learning how to transfer it. It shouldn’t be on her until she’s old enough to resist the water’s call, but if you can pass it between yourself and Derek it will make it easier to leave her with him when necessary. As she gets older, it will also prevent her from running away from whomever is watching her in an attempt to find you, Stiles, and by extension her bit.”
And while part of Stiles was screaming out a protest at the very idea of handing Vanora’s bit over to someone, even Derek, mostly he was just relieved. He smiled tiredly at Derek. “I’ll figure it out as fast as I can, I promise. In the meantime, I just...need you to cut me a little slack on this. It’s not magic I’m familiar with, or used to, so resisting it is hard. I hate being separated from her, at all. Even seeing other people hold her drives me nuts. So just, tone down the alpha-instinct-crap until I figure out her bit, and I’ll do my best to keep a leash on the awesome fae magic fucking with mine. Deal?”
Derek nodded, looking relieved as well. “Of course. I’m sorry I didn’t realize sooner. I didn’t even think about her bit when I gave her a bath last night. I never looked for it, or realized it wasn’t on her, and I should have. It would’ve made this easier if we’d known what we were dealing with.”
Stiles nodded, then carefully held out Vanora. “Want to carry her to the jeep? Deaton already did her checkup and she’s healthy as a horse. Or, you know...a kelpie.” Derek smiled slightly and took her with ease as Stiles added. “I was going to just head home with her, but, um, you’re welcome to join us, if you’re interested. You know, have dinner and play with her and stuff, before you have to run patrol. If you want.”
“I’d like that, thank you.” Derek’s smile widened as he followed Stiles towards the door.
Stiles really, really hoped he could figure out the bit-transfer quickly. He hated fighting with the alpha, as it disrupted the entire balance of the pack. Not to mention, he was quickly coming to hate the clawing need to keep Vanora close all the time. It was unnatural and unpleasant at best; at worst, it reminded him of panic attacks and how out of control he felt during them. He wanted back on an even keel, quickly.
Derek didn’t say anything for a long moment, and Stiles finally turned his head and blearily opened one eye. The alpha was standing next to Stiles’ bed, staring down into the pack’n’play, eyes glowing red. Stiles knew he could see better in the dark that way, and wondered if he was watching Vanora breathe. Stiles had done that earlier, when he’d first put her to sleep. Something about the way her little chest rose and fell while she slept was soothing; comforting. Of course, Derek could also hear the little girl’s heartbeat, which meant he could tell she was alive and well from across the house. Stiles sort of wished he had that ability.
Shaking his head, Stiles yawned and turned his face back into the pillow. “Go to bed, Derek. I don’t have school in the morning and I want sleep.”
Derek spoke hesitantly. “Can I...I mean, do you think your dad would mind, if I...”
“Just go.” Stiles interrupted, pointing towards his bedroom door. “If this is gonna be a regular thing, I’m making you a fucking key. My window is not a viable point of ingress.”
“Sorry.” Stiles felt Derek pull the blanket up around his shoulders, then felt fingers lightly brush his hair. “If she wakes up again, I’ll go and grab fish and water so you just have to soothe her.”
Stiles nodded into the pillow and listened sleepily as Derek let himself out of his room. By the time the door across the hall had clicked open and shut, Stiles was asleep again.
Derek glanced up at Stiles from the floor. Vanora was on his lap, squealing and babbling happily as Derek helped her with a set of light-up stacking rings that also played a short burst of music with each ring added, and played a full tune when the final piece - a star with a smiling face on it - was added on top. Stiles slumped backwards into the couch cushions, though he kept his eyes on Nora. She was such a happy baby, though Stiles had noticed she spent a significant amount of time looking around as though searching for something. Or someone. He’d also noticed she took a moment to study everyone around her. Again, as though looking for someone in particular. It made Stiles wonder if she was looking for her parents. If she missed them. If she understood, because her bit was now on Stiles, that they were gone. If she was waiting for them to come back...
Stiles didn’t know how much a normal baby would understand of parents, and caregivers...and he had even less of an idea of how much a kelpie baby might understand. He wondered if her lack of tears - the way she didn’t cry out for her missing parents, though she was clearly searching for them - was because of the magic now binding her to Stiles. If it made her feel safe, or loved, or cared for in some intangible way Stiles would likely never be able to fully understand. He wondered how he was supposed to transfer the bond - Nora’s bit - when he didn’t understand anything about it.
“It might take time to figure it out, Stiles.” Derek carefully lifted Nora off his lap and set her on the floor before joining Stiles on the sofa. “Look, you’ve been staring at that book since breakfast. How about we go and pick out a crib for Nora, and get some lunch.”
When Stiles shot him a considering look, fawn eyes wide and intrigued under long lashes, Derek added. “We can pick out stuff for her to have a proper nursery at the house. God knows I’ve got enough rooms.”
Stiles chewed on his lip for a minute, then nodded cautiously. “Yeah, okay.”
He couldn’t really object to Nora having her own room at Hale House, considering he had one that was technically his. He’d move into it officially after graduation, as the Hale Emissary, but it was already his. And if they were going to have to deal with a social worker - which they no doubt would, at some point - it was important for Nora to have her own space set up in what was, for all intents and legal purposes, her father’s house. And goodness knows she needed a crib, but...
“Should we buy her two cribs?” Stiles asked, frowning, even as he picked Nora up and checked to see if she needed to be changed. “I mean, technically we could just buy one and put it here and just move it to your place when I move in at the end of the school year, but then if a social worker wants to do a walk-through of the house we’d need to explain why she doesn’t have a crib. Or rather, what you’re doing at night that means she’s sleeping somewhere other than your house.”
Derek sighed. “We can just get her two. It’s fine.” Derek started cleaning up the toys scattered across the living room floor while Stiles laid her down on the floor to change her diaper. “Do you know what else you want to get for the nursery? I mean, I know some of what she’ll need. A changing table, for one. A small dresser. Storage for her toys and things...”
“I actually have a list.”
Derek snorted, before shooting Stiles a smile the teen chose to think of as fondly exasperated. “Of course. Why am I not surprised?”
Stiles just shrugged and went back to redressing Nora.
When Derek stopped to talk to a store clerk about the stroller he was looking for, Stiles didn’t pay much attention. In fact, it wasn’t until they were standing in front of it and Derek was checking out the features on the display model that Stiles bothered tuning in. He let his eyes drift to the sign, which read, Bugaboo Cameleon3 Stroller by Diesel $1359.99. Stiles choked on his own saliva.
“Holy shit, that’s fucking expensive!” The words just sort of exploded out of Stiles’ mouth without any real input from his brain and certainly without a filter. “Derek, there’s no need to get her something like this. This is like, a designer stroller.”
Derek shrugged. “She’s worth it, I think. Besides, it’s an all-terrain stroller. It’s built to be sturdy and to handle getting jostled on trails. And it’s not like I don’t have the money.”
“But...” Stiles started to argue, but Derek shot him a glare and - when the clerk discreetly averted her gaze - flashed his eyes red. Stiles sighed, shoulders drooping, and nodded, because he had told Derek he’d let the alpha provide for Nora. “Okay. Sorry.”
“Great!” The clerk enthused, beaming. “Did you want any of the accessories for it?”
“What the hell could you possible add to this thing that it doesn’t already have?” Because yeah, Stiles still didn’t have a filter. “Like, for that price, it better have a built in lojack and be able to take her for walks by itself!”
“Stiles...” Derek’s voice had the faintest hint of a subvocal growl lacing it and his eyebrows were doing their disapproving-thing. “You said I could buy her whatever she needs. And if I’m the one paying, I get to decide what I’m willing to spend on her.”
“It’s just...you know this is stuff I’d never pick for her, right?” Stiles shifted Nora in his arms, rubbing his cheek against her soft curls and making her coo and babble some more. “Like, I’d never ask you to spend that kind of money on her. Ever.”
Derek sighed, but nodded. “I know, Stiles. You’d go to a thrift store and garage sales and Walmart, and get her the best value for the basics. But is there any reason for me not to spoil her? Is there any reason I shouldn’t buy her the absolute best?”
Stiles shrugged, his mouth twisting up on itself. “No, I guess not. It’s just...hard for me, I guess. I mean, you know me and Scott never had a lot of money. I think it’s different, for Jackson and Lydia and Allison, when you spend money on us, because they always had it.”
Derek reached out and took Vanora from Stiles’ arms, gently nuzzling her cheek and neck, making her giggle as his scruff tickled her. Then he settled her against his chest, and said softly. “I want to provide for her, Stiles. I don’t want you to worry about what I’m spending.”
When Stiles nodded again, Derek turned back to the store clerk with a charming smile. “I want the Cameleon3, and I also want the Bugaboo camouflage seat liner, mosquito net, and parasol which are all by Diesel, too. And I want the Bugaboo universal stroller organizer, and the Bugaboo smartphone holder.”
“Actually, the mosquito net comes with the complete stroller set you’re buying. Did you have a color preference for the smartphone holder? I think black is the one designed for the Cameleon3’s color scheme, but we carry a couple of options.” The clerk chirped, eyes gleaming even as she watched Derek pass Nora back to Stiles. “Did you also want the Bugaboo Comfort Travel bag? It holds the base stroller, though if you’re using the bassinet addition, that part won’t fit in the bag.”
“Black is fine.” Derek said. “And sure, I’ll take the bag as well.” He turned to look at Stiles, who had wandered over to a shelf and was stroking his fingers over a blanket in a gorgeous blue-green-grey color. “Also, isn’t there a conversion stand for the bassinet attachment to make it into an actual free-standing bassinet? And it can turn the seat into a high chair...”
“Of course, the Bugaboo stand.” The clerk - Derek absently noted that her nametag said Elena - was eagerly jotting things down on a notepad. “Did you want these delivered somewhere?”
Derek shook his head. “No, Stiles has a jeep. Easy loading.”
Elena nodded. “Okay. I’ll have one of the stockers bring up everything you selected to the front, and they’ll bring it all out to your car, too.” She glanced over at Stiles and Nora, adding. “She’s beautiful.”
Derek smiled back, barely noticing the way the clerk’s cheeks flushed or the stutter to her heartbeat. “She is. Stiles is wonderful with her.”
“He’s so young to have a kid.” Elena tsked softly, shaking her head, before smiling sweetly at Derek. “It’s so generous of you to help him out. You know, financially. Is he a family friend, or...?”
Derek frowned, then snapped at her, albeit softly, so Stiles wouldn’t overhear. “He’s mine. So is Vanora. Make sure my stuff is at the register by the time I get up there.”
Elena cringed back, and Derek huffed in annoyance as he stomped over to Stiles. The teen was still lingering near the blankets, and Derek reached out to feel one. It was soft; probably the softest thing he’d ever touched. “This is nice.” He said. “Which color do you like?”
“It’s a hundred and ten dollars, Derek.” Stiles laughed softly. “I mean, it’s Merino wool, and this Petrol Blue color is gorgeous, but more than a hundred bucks for a blanket? That’s crazy.”
Derek just shrugged and took the blanket from the shelf, ignoring the funny noise Stiles made. “Come on, let’s go check out. We still have a lot of shopping to do.”
“You’re insane.” Stiles pointed out, but he followed behind Derek without further protest. It wouldn’t do any good, anyway.
Derek took the time, in the parking lot of Babies’R’Us, to put the thing together. He set it up with the bassinet addition, that way they could hopefully let Nora take a nap while they shopped. As Derek put the stroller together, Stiles fed Nora a couple of fish from the cooler they’d brought with them. He did it as discreetly as he could, considering they were in a semi-busy parking lot. No one seemed to notice that a baby was eating raw fish, anyway, so that was something. Thankfully, it didn’t take Derek long to get the Cameleon put together and Nora was yawning and sleepily sucking her thumb as Stiles settled her into the bassinet. He covered her with the stormy blue-green blanket Derek had paid way too much money for, then smiled at the alpha.
“Do you want to push her?”
“No, I’ll push the cart.” Derek said, and Stiles nodded before heading towards the store.
And yeah, okay, the stroller was awesome. It even had little spring-shocks on two of the wheels. He still couldn't imagine ever paying what Derek had for the thing, but...it was nice. More than, really. And Derek was right about it being his money, and it seemed to make the cranky alpha happy to provide for Nora. Since it was for the baby’s benefit, Stiles decided it wasn’t worth it to argue. He’d just make sure Derek didn’t go overboard with the crib or anything.
An hour later, Stiles was laying in the middle of the floor, in an aisle full of cribs and books that showed the furniture they had available for order-and-delivery as opposed to in-stock in the store. Derek has his head together with yet another saleswoman, who kept shooting Stiles semi-concerned glances. Derek eagerly selecting wildly expensive furniture from the book was occupying most of her attention, though. Nora was sleeping soundly in the stroller, and Stiles was on the verge of tears. Who the hell would ever want to have a kid, given how insanely expensive they were? Stiles had had no idea. None. He felt a strong urge to call his father and apologize about a thousand times over.
“Stiles, you’re okay with the arctic grey, right?” Derek asked, utterly unconcerned by the way Stiles was sprawled across the floor, looking miserable. “I want to do something like the petrol blue of her blanket for the walls - a sort of stormy ocean color - and I think the grey will look perfect against it.”
“Sure, grey is fine.” Stiles bemoaned, tone stressed and anxious around the words. “Grey, white, gold-plated...it’s your money, right? God, how can she possibly cost so much? She’s so fucking small...”
Derek huffed in amusement, then nudged Stiles with his foot. “It’s not that much, Stiles. And if you’re not going to weigh in on the furniture for her nursery, could you at least pick out the crib for your house? She’s going to need somewhere to sleep for the next five months, until you guys move into my house.”
Stiles scrubbed his hands over his face, groaning loudly in frustration for a long minute. But he pushed to his feet after that, and stomped over to the portable cribs the store had in-stock. It didn’t matter much if the stuff Derek ordered for the Hale House would take a couple of weeks to be delivered - designer furniture, fuck - because Nora didn’t need it just yet, but she really did need one for Stiles’ house. The pack’n’play wasn’t the best place for her to be sleeping on a nightly basis, after all. He sort of resented the way Derek dismissed what he was spending on the nursery stuff, though, because as much as he’d been trying not to, Stiles hadn’t been able to avoid listening in as the saleswoman talked.
The Oxford Baby London Lane furniture set Derek had picked out was not cheap. He’d opted to buy six of the pieces from the set - the chifforobe, the seven-drawer dresser, the changing topper that would attach to the dresser, the 4-in-1 convertible crib, and both the toddler guard rail and the full-sized conversion kit that would let the crib grow with Nora as she got older. All of which ran up a bill over two and a half grand. Before tax. And that didn’t even factor in a mattress for the crib or a changing pad for the changing topper or bedding for the crib or the second crib and mattress that Stiles was supposed to be picking out. To be entirely fair, the set Derek had picked was gorgeous and durable and, like...designer. It was just more money than Stiles could imagine spending on much of anything.
Shaking his head - and sternly reminding himself, Derek’s money, Derek’s decision - Stiles forced himself to look over the portable crib selection. It didn’t take long before Derek and the saleswoman - Vicki, according to her name tag - joined him, Derek pushing Nora’s stroller.
“See anything you like?”
And Stiles normally didn’t mind salespeople or their cheerfulness - which was, after all, mostly faked for the sake of their jobs - but he was getting really sick of it. Probably because every purchase Derek approved just got them more excited, while it made Stiles feel more and more useless and inept. Sure, he was watching Vanora at night and in the afternoons, when Derek was on patrol and doing training. But Derek was there for half the night, and would have her during the day when Stiles was at school, and Derek was paying for everything. It was Derek’s name that would be on her birth certificate. Derek who would hold legal say over everything from Nora’s medical care to where she went to school. If it wasn’t for the fact that Nora’s bit rested on Stiles’ skin, he’d have no claim to the little girl at all. And even that small claim was only enforceable so long as Derek allowed it. It wasn’t like it would hold up in a court of law. Stiles might as well be her babysitter.
“Why are they all so expensive?” Stiles asked, and he sort of hated how sharp and unfriendly his voice sounded but he couldn't do much about it.
The woman blinked wide blue eyes, then glanced uncertainly at Derek before saying. “I don’t really have anything to do with the prices. I was under the impression that money wasn’t really a concern, but if you want, I can narrow your options by a specific budget...”
“Money isn’t a concern.” Derek replied, rolling his eyes. “Stiles is just a little dramatic.” He poked Stiles in the ribs and added. “Tell Vicki what you like, Stiles.”
And because he was at the end of his rope, and he couldn't bring himself to fight about something as seemingly inconsequential - to Derek, anyway - as money, at least when it was being used for Vanora, Stiles pointed to the display model they were standing closest to. “This one is fine.”
“Oooh, the Dream On Me portable model; a very nice choice!” Vicki was beaming again. “This is the birch one, which is so much nicer than the pine one, if you ask me. You both have great taste. The only thing I recommend, since you mentioned that this will be used as her primary sleeping place for several months, is that you upgrade to a better mattress. The pad it comes with is fine for once-in-a-while, but not great for everyday use.”
“What do you recommend?” Derek asked, and oh, great; he was shooting the woman the smile that flashed his dimples and looking like the perfect picture of a doting father. “Both for this one, and for the other crib, of course. I want her sleeping on the best.”
“Well, portable cribs are a different size than regular ones. So for that, I’d say the Dream On Me three inch foam mattress. It’s phthalate and lead free, and it’s got a hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial waterproof cover. We carry it in-store, like the crib, so you can carry-out today rather than placing an order and waiting for shipping.” Vicki smiled wider when Derek nodded agreeably and continued. “For the other, it really depends on what you mean by the best. Are you interested in all-natural, organic, chemical free? Or are you more into top-of-the-line technological advances?”
“Organic and chemical free, definitely.” Derek agreed, and Stiles had to resist the urge to throw himself on the floor and start kicking and screaming. Because Derek was standing there, practically throwing money at the store and asking about organic mattresses, of all fucking things, and Vicki looked like she wanted to melt into a puddle of goo at his feet.
“Then Naturepedic is the best.” Vicki giggled and launched into her sales pitch, and Stiles sort of wanted to bang his head against a wall because she probably didn’t even need to do it. Derek seemed content to buy whatever she directed him towards. “The Organic Cotton Ultra 252 is phthalate and lead free, and has a waterproof surface so pure it meets food contact standards. And the company as a whole meets the strictest GREENGUARD standards for reducing chemical emissions, as well as being Global Organic Textile Standard certified. It’s the most natural, safe, chemical-free sleeping surface available for babies and toddlers on the market today!”
Stiles ground his teeth together as Derek readily agreed, without even asking for a price. Vicki explained it wasn’t kept in-store and would need to be shipped, but since the rest of Nora’s nursery furniture was being shipped as well it didn’t really matter. Unable to bear the massive amounts of money being spent like it was nothing - or, more accurately, unable to bear feeling so completely useless - Stiles took Nora’s stroller and walked away. Derek would be able to find them quickly enough when he was ready. And for the moment, Stiles wasn’t contributing anything to the purchasing process. He should have just stayed home with Nora while Derek shopped. Like the babysitter he clearly was.
It didn’t help that he’d only known Vanora for a couple of days, or that he wasn’t related to her in any way, or that the strength of his bond almost certainly stemmed from the stupid bit still resting on his shoulder blade. All that mattered was that he loved her, fiercely, and was forced to accept that he was utterly unsuited to raising her. He may have been chosen by her father, but it was painfully clear the man had been dying and desperate and would have asked anyone to take his daughter. Stiles had just been the one there. It didn’t mean he was the right person for the job, or that he’d get to keep her.
“See anything you like?” Derek asked softly, hating the sour scent that had been clinging to Stiles all day. He didn’t know what to do to dispel it; didn’t know how to help.
“Does it matter?” And yeah, that was Stiles hurt tone, which sounded a lot like his pissed off tone if you didn’t know him very well or weren’t listening carefully. Derek could always tell the difference. “Buy whatever you want, Derek. It’s your money.”
Derek considered, briefly, just ignoring the mood. But he’d been trying that, and it didn’t seem to be working. As loathe as he was to do so, Derek knew he was going to have to confront the issue head-on. “I need you to tell me what’s wrong.”
Stiles laughed, but the sound was bitter and damp around the edges. “I want to be enough for her. But I’m not, so what’s the point in wishing for it?” Stiles whirled around, and oh...those were tears making his amber eyes glitter, and he looked so sad. “She needs so much that I could never hope to give her. Even if I didn’t buy the best, like you’re doing. Even if I just got her the bare minimum, I could never afford...”
Stiles shook his head, cutting himself off. “I just want to go home and work on getting her bit off of me. I need to stop feeling this way about her, when she’s not mine to keep. Because the longer it’s on me, the more I’m going to actually love her, and I don’t think I can handle that, Der. Not when she’s your daughter, not mine.
“I’m fine with helping out; with babysitting.” Stiles added when Derek opened his mouth to say something. “But I can’t keep thinking of her as mine when we both know it’s not true.”
“It’s true if we let it be.” Derek retorted, because the idea of Stiles not doing this with him had his wolf snarling and baying madly; practically foaming at the mouth in fury. He knew his eyes were red, but couldn't gather the control to stop it. “I told you I wouldn’t take her from you, and I meant it. Who cares what her paperwork says? That’s only to protect her, legally speaking.”
Derek curled his fingers to keep from touching Stiles, but stepped closer and added lowly. “My job as alpha is to provide for all of my pack. That includes Vanora, and you. Taking care of you and your daughter isn’t a burden, and it’s not me trying to make you feel inadequate. It’s something I want to do. It soothes the wilder parts of me; helps me feel settled and in-control. So please, pick whatever you want for her and let me buy it, but don’t think for a second that she’s not yours.”
Stiles blinked rapidly a few times, then turned his face away and cleared his throat awkwardly before looking back at Derek. “Wow. Way to use your words there, big guy.”
Derek didn’t say anything, just stared solemnly at Stiles until the teen sighed, shoulders drooping. “Okay. I’m sorry, I just...can’t help feeling like I’m failing her because I can’t afford this stuff.”
“You helped create a pack that will protect her, and any other children you might have one day. You became a powerful emissary and chose to bond with the pack you helped build. The pack you chose has an alpha capable of providing anything you or Nora or any children of yours might want.” Derek let his lips curve up a little, into the barest hint of a smile. “From a wolf’s perspective, you did the next-best-thing to being able to be a good provider on your own. You found a pack that can do what you can’t. You’re one of our strongest defenses and offenses, with your magic, not to mention the best strategist. You balance Peter, Lydia, and the Argents’ battle styles and make plans that use the best parts of their ideas which means we not only win, but usually do so with minimal damage to our pack. And you’re the most nurturing; the one who makes the pack feel like a cohesive unit most days, by making everyone feel loved and cared for and bonded. So let me do my part, as your alpha, and provide.”
Stiles sniffled a little more, then gave in and swiped at his eyes, dashing away the stray tears. “Yeah, okay. Way to make me feel useful. Do you have speeches like that prepared for when any pack member gets a little meh?”
“No.” Derek admitted, grinning when Stiles laughed brightly. “It’s easier with you. To talk. To be open. If anyone else was moping, I’d just make you talk to them.” Stiles laughed again and Derek added. “I mean it, about you being important to my pack. You make us stronger; better.”
“Thanks.” Stiles smiled slightly, then used his shoulder to nudge Derek a little, adding. “I really needed to hear that, actually. Sorry I’ve been so unhelpful today.”
“Everyone’s entitled to a bad mood, Stiles.” Derek nodded towards the mobiles again. “Did you see anything you like, or were you not really looking?”
Stiles rolled his eyes. “Way to change the topic there. Guess we’re done with the feelings portion of our day?” He snickered when Derek eyebrowed at him. “Yeah, okay. I actually was wondering if it’s speciesist - specist? I don’t know, anyway...would it be bad to have horses on her mobile?”
Derek shrugged. “It’s sort of the equivalent of having little humans on one for a human baby, I guess. Or wolves on one for a werewolf.”
“Definitely speciesist, then.” Stiles hummed softly. “What about having ocean or water-stuff as the theme for her nursery?”
“That would be like putting moons all over a werewolf nursery.”
“So that’s worse, then.” Stiles snorted, then picked up something and held it out to Derek. “In that case, this is the one I like best.”
Derek took the box, studying the deep blue and white mobile, which had four little blue-and-white penguin plushes hanging from it. The company name read Lambs and Ivy, and listed the mobile as part of their Mason collection. It was cute, and apparently played Brahm’s lullaby. “It’s cute. Did you want to look at the rest of the collection, and see if there’s anything else you like in the same color scheme?”
Stiles nodded, giving Derek a small smile. “Sure. Also, how cute is the company name? Lambs and Ivy, like the nursery rhyme, right?” When Derek shot him a baffled look, Stiles stared at him in stunned disbelief. “You know, the whole...mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you? I said a kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you. And you say it fast and it sounds silly and like nonsense words?”
Derek grinned, then laughed when Stiles smacked his arm. “Sorry, I just wanted to hear you say it.” Derek nudged Stiles and nodded to the stroller. “Come on, then. Let’s go find someone who can show us the rest of the collection, and then we can go look at clothes.”
They’d also picked up some more clothes, though Stiles was content to leave that area of Nora’s care primarily to Erica, Allison, and Lydia. He had also found an adorable owl nightlight that glowed, projected stars, and played either lullabies or nature sounds. It was actually sort of fun, picking out things for Nora without having to worry about the cost. Derek’s words about his importance - to the pack, and in Nora’s life - had helped a lot, though Stiles had politely excused himself at the register under the pretense of getting Nora settled in the car and putting the stroller up. It was better if he didn’t see the total.
It didn’t take Derek long to fill the jeep with their purchases, and Stiles waited patiently behind the wheel. When Derek got in, he asked. “You hungry? I thought we’d hit the diner.”
“Yes!” Stiles grinned and threw the jeep into gear, heading towards the mom-and-pop place he’d been going to for most of his life. As he drove, a thought occurred to him. “Hey, won’t it look weird if Nora doesn’t eat anything?”
Derek shrugged. “We could probably give her some cooked fish, or some fruit. Those aren’t likely to make her teeth come out, and she won’t like it as much as raw fish but it shouldn’t hurt her any.”
“Worth a shot, I guess.” Stiles decided, and kept driving.
It was pushing two am on Saturday when things came to a head, in a way Stiles hadn't really anticipated.
“I can't take this any more, kiddo.”
Stiles blinked blearily at his father, nowhere near awake enough to parse the meaning behind the words he was hearing. Derek was halfway between Stiles' window and the door where Noah stood, framed in the light spilling in from the hallway. The alpha looked guilty and distressed and unhappy, which Stiles' sleepy brain did not like, because Derek was a good person who'd spent way too much time unhappy as it was. He frowned at his dad, pushing up to sitting with one arm, the other coming up to stifle a yawn that was interrupting the efficacy of his attempted-glare.
“I'm sorry.” Derek's apology was soft and sincere and sounded about as miserable as he looked. “I can...I mean, I won't...” Derek glanced over at Nora's crib, now tucked neatly next to Stiles' desk, and looked stricken. “I'll stop coming here at night. I'm sorry.”
“What? Dad, no!” And Stiles couldn't have said why he was protesting, except that Derek looked so upset. “It's not Derek's fault that my window opening wakes you up, right? I'll get him a key made tomorrow, problem solved.”
“Because the door won't wake me up.” And yeah, okay; Stiles came by his sarcasm naturally. “Stiles, I have to be up at six am almost every day, now that Parrish is taking the majority of the overnight shifts I was stuck on for years when no one else wanted to do them. Six am. It's currently two and we both know I'll be woken up at least once more tonight by Vanora needing to be fed.”
“Okay, but Derek staying away doesn't fix that.” Stiles pointed out quickly, because it didn't.
Noah rolled his eyes. “I never said it would. I also didn't suggest it, if you remember. Derek did.” He shot the alpha an exasperated look. “And while I appreciate the offer, you being here really is not the issue.”
There was a long pause, then Derek said softly. “Nora is.”
Stiles immediately let out an aggrieved sound, and Noah held up both hands in a placating gesture. “Stiles, you know I love my granddaughter, adopted or otherwise, so don't start acting wounded. She's an angel and a gift and I'm going to spoil her every chance I get for the rest of my life. But I need sleep. I can't work if I'm too exhausted to hold a gun steady, son.”
“But...” Stiles was looking between the crib and his father, heartbreak etched into every line of his face. “I'm supposed to get her at night. She...she's mine, and I'm supposed to have her at night. I don't...Dad, what do you expect me to do here?”
Noah sighed, then nodded at Derek. “I expect you to do what you're going to be doing at the end of the school year anyway. I know we haven't talked about it much, and I know I initially protested the whole thing, but given the circumstances...I think it's for the best. At least for the next few weeks, while you're on winter break.” He added with a pointed look at his son. “We'll revisit the issue when school starts back up in January. And I still expect you home for dinner at least a couple of nights a week. But...”
“I...” Stiles glanced at the crib again, then at Derek, who looked about as stunned as Stiles felt. “Is that...okay? With you, I mean. It is your house, after all. You...you definitely get a say in this.”
Derek's face did something complicated - it involved the odd twist to his mouth that Stiles usually only saw when Derek watched him with Vanora, and some serious eyebrowing, and a flash of red in his eyes - before he smoothed his expression out and nodded slightly. “Of course you can stay at the house. The whole pack has an open invitation, Stiles, you know that. You two are welcome to stay for as long as you want.”
“Fantastic.” Noah sighed, rolling his eyes, though Stiles wasn't really sure why. He did note that it made Derek duck his head, which was interesting. “On that note, I'm going back to bed for the two hours of sleep I'll manage before Nora wants food. Then I'll go back to sleep again for the two hours before I need to go to work. Tomorrow night, I expect uninterrupted sleep. We clear, boys?”
Derek and Stiles chorused the words, and Noah gave them each a hard look before disappearing back into the hallway. He closed Stiles' door behind him, and the room was cast into shadow; the faint light from the nearest streetlight seeping through Stiles' curtains was the sole source of illumination. Stiles wished the dark was more soothing, but with his dad's words hanging over him it wasn't. Derek's continued presence in his room probably should have made his discomfort worse, but it didn't.
Because he had someone to talk to, Stiles did. He groaned, scrubbing his hands over his face and feeling frustratingly awake after that whole ordeal. “I can't believe I just got kicked out of my own house.”
Derek made a soft sound of protest, before sitting carefully on the edge of Stiles' bed, next to the teen's knees. The closeness almost let Stiles get a clear read on his expression, despite the lack of light. Almost. “You know he wasn't actually kicking you out, Stiles. He's just...not used to having a baby around and he's exhausted. Sleep-deprived people get crazy sometimes.”
Stiles laughed, a little hysterically, though he still had the presence of mind to keep his voice down. Nora tended to be a deep sleeper, but that was no reason to tempt fate. “ Yeah, I get that. I do. It just...it amounts to the same thing in the end, doesn't it? Me, not living here anymore.”
“I thought you wanted to move into the pack house.”
And oh; oh no...that was Derek's hurt voice. “Of course I do.” Stiles leaned closer, reaching out and curling his fingers around Derek's forearm, trying to convey his sincerity. “Derek, I do, really. It's just...I figured I had another six months of living at home, with my dad, first. I get that Erica and Boyd are cool with spending more time at the house than at their parents' houses, and that Jackson's basically got an even-split these days, but like...I wasn't ready for this to happen just yet. I thought I had more time.”
For several agonizingly long minutes, no one spoke. Then, Derek sighed and slowly - as though braced for Stiles to stop him - laid down. He gently reached out and tugged Stiles down onto the mattress beside him, and Stiles carefully edged closer until they were snuggled up together. It wasn't uncommon for the whole pack to do something similar when one or more members was upset, or stressed out, or - god forbid - sick or injured. And Stiles had been present when only three or four pack members were there to get in on the pack-bond-snuggle that he affectionately called a puppy pile, much to the wolves' consternation. But Stiles had never been part of a one-on-one snuggle before, especially not with Derek. But then, Stiles imagined Derek had spent plenty of nights wrapped up in Laura's arms, letting his alpha comfort him - and comforting her in turn - as they grieved for the family they'd lost. For everything familiar that had been snatched away from them; turned to ash and soot and pain almost between one breath and the next. He wasn't exactly a stranger to the whole two-equals-pack thing.
And Stiles was just tired enough - and anxious enough - to soak up the comfort and strength and assurance washing through the pack bond. He always felt Derek the strongest. Well, now Derek and Vanora, but still. Derek, as alpha, had the strongest tie to Stiles, as emissary. It was Derek he could find the easiest; Derek he could gauge the emotions of best; Derek he could feel more strongly than any of the others. It had brought them closer, since Stiles had chosen to accept the role at the end of Junior year, and Stiles was willing to take what he needed from Derek without feeling embarrassed or ashamed of it. So he snuggled into the alpha's chest, and closed his eyes, and let the sound of Derek's heartbeat beneath his ear lull him back to sleep.
The comforting heat of Derek's body against his own, and the strong arms curled protectively around him, certainly didn't hurt.
“G'night, Derek.” Stiles mumbled, already halfway to unconscious. Derek said something in reply, but it was lost against Stiles' hair and his mostly asleep brain couldn't be bothered to try to sort out what it was. With a soft exhalation of breath, Stiles was asleep.
The answer, he figured out a moment later, was that he was apparently pinned under six feet of well-muscled werewolf.
Somehow, while they'd been sleeping, Derek had rolled them over. So they were still pressed together, Stiles' back to Derek’s chest, but now Stiles was laying on his stomach with Derek on top of him. Stiles’ face was smushed into his pillow, his right arm was pinned under his body and numb, and their legs were tangled together in a way that promised awkwardness if Derek’s body decided to wake up the way Stiles’ typically did. As in, with an erection, which would undoubtedly end up pressed snugly against Stiles’ backside.
It wouldn’t be the first time Stiles had wound up with a pack member pressed intimately against him. He’d felt Isaac, Scott, and Jackson’s dicks during various puppy piles, either due to prolonged snuggling or because the group had fallen asleep together and waking up with teenage boys meant happy dicks. And goodness knows more than half of the pack had felt Stiles’ dick wake up during the proceedings, because the pack was full of really attractive people and Stiles was far from immune to any of them. But this would be the first time he felt Derek’s dick, and he wasn’t sure if it would be awkward or if they would shrug it off the way the pack always did; an inescapable side-effect of being part of such a close-knit group being that, eventually, you were going to see each other naked or feel (or in the case of the wolves, smell) each other’s arousal.
Deciding it was probably best to try to avoid the issue altogether, Stiles used his left arm to elbow Derek in the side, hissing lowly. “Get off me, Sourwolf, I can’t breathe.”
“Hmmm...?” Derek made a questioning sound and nuzzled into Stiles’ neck for a moment before taking a deep breath in through his nose and mumbling. “Morning, Stiles.”
“Still crushing me.” Stiles retorted, voice a little sharper but still quiet because he hadn’t heard Vanora stirring yet and he didn’t want to disturb her. “Get off, dude.”
Derek huffed, ruffling Stiles’ hair with the exhalation, then groaned and got his hands under him, pushing himself into a roll. He landed next to Stiles on his back, but swiftly turned onto his stomach and buried his face in Stiles’ spare pillow, wrapping his arms around it as well, like it was a teddy bear. “Sorry.” His voice was muffled, but Stiles was close enough to make out the words anyway. “She’s not up yet. You want me to make breakfast or d’you want to stop somewhere on the way home?”
Stiles rolled onto his side, facing the crib, and yawned. “We can stop on the way, I guess. I’ll pack some stuff once she’s awake, if you don’t mind getting her dressed and getting her stuff ready. Don’t forget her pack’n’play, ‘cause her crib won’t be at the house until Monday.”
“M’kay.” Derek mumbled, sounding sleepy and soft and warm. “M’gonna sleep til she’s up, ‘kay?”
Stiles hummed his agreement, closing his own eyes again. If everyone else was sleeping, he would too. No sense in being up before he had to be.
Instead, Stiles and Vanora slotted into Derek’s life as though they’d always been there. Vanora’s room was on the third floor of the rebuilt Hale house. It was nestled into the east side of the floor, along with Derek’s master bedroom and ensuite bath, and a small staircase that led to the fourth floor, which housed two more bedrooms and a bathroom. Cora and Peter occupied two of the four bedrooms on the west side of the third floor, along with two more bathrooms. Boyd, Isaac, Jackson, and Erica all had rooms on the second floor and the original plan had been for one of the four unoccupied rooms to be assigned to Stiles. Nora had changed that plan.
Because putting her room on the second floor - far enough from Derek’s room to be out of a human’s range of hearing - would be suspicious if they got a visit from a social worker. So her room had to be near his. And Stiles wanted to be near her, so his room wound up on the third floor as well. He grumbled a bit at being in the room that shared a bathroom with Peter’s, but the alternative was sharing an adjoining bathroom with Cora. The possibility that he might accidentally walk in on the she-wolf when she was less than fully clothed was terrifying to Stiles, because the girl might just kill him if he saw her naked. Peter was the lesser of two evils, in that instance, rare as that was.
Stiles sleeping in his own room hadn’t lasted longer than a single night.
When Vanora woke up for her typical 4am feeding, Stiles didn’t hear her. Derek did, of course, and he had no problem feeding and changing her and putting her back to sleep. Stiles, however, was furious when he woke up on Sunday morning and realized what had happened. And that was enough of a reason for him to throw a fit, until Derek offered to let the emissary sleep in his room. Originally, Derek had planned on sleeping in Stiles’ room, but after they got Vanora back to sleep early on Monday morning, they wound up crashing in Derek’s huge bed. So Stiles had shrugged and suggested they just share. It wasn’t as though there wasn’t plenty of room, after all, since Derek’s custom-made bed could easily hold the entire pack and then some.
So technically Stiles had his own room, but he’d basically moved into Derek’s. And the alpha knew he shouldn’t like the way Stiles’ scent saturated his sheets and mingled with his own, but damned if Derek could help it. Figuring he was already screwed where Stiles was concerned - and he had been since before Vanora, really, though the baby’s presence was certainly making him fall faster - Derek just went with it. He had near-perfect control, after all, so if he spent a few minutes breathing in the scent off the pillows after Stiles got up in the morning, that was no one’s business but his.
Almost immediately, Stiles had taken to cooking for whichever pack members were present. Breakfast, lunch, dinner...Stiles had it all covered. Stiles had even invited Noah to come by for dinner whenever he wasn’t working, and Derek had been a little surprised when the Sheriff took him up on that on Monday and Tuesday night. On Wednesday, when Noah had to work a double-shift - holiday hours, he explained, were always longer - Stiles swung by the station to drop off a tupperware container with some casserole in it for him. He brought Vanora, because the betas were training with Derek at the time, and most of the Sheriff’s station staff had wound up cooing over her while Stiles beamed like a proud parent. If one or two employees - newer ones who hadn’t known Stiles since before he was born - frowned at him disapprovingly, Stiles hadn’t even noticed.
On Thursday, Stiles dragged Cora and Isaac with him and Vanora to the grocery store. They went first thing in the morning while Derek was still sleeping, having run a later boundary-check shift the night before since Stiles was out of school for the week and he’d wanted to confer with Chris about a few things. He’d wound up not getting back to the house until after 3am so he’d opted to sleep in a little.
The cashier had looked at them funny - probably in part because they’d bought a weirdly large amount of whole, raw fish - but Stiles had been distracted by a fussing Nora and barely noticed. He wound up leaving Isaac and Cora to bag and pay - with Derek’s credit card - while he took her to the jeep in the hopes it would settle her down. By the time the teens got all of the groceries put away and Stiles started in on cooking a proper breakfast for everyone, the cashier’s behavior had mostly slipped their minds.
Stiles sighed, then motioned for the betas to stand down. “Don’t go getting all paranoid on me, okay? Maybe Lydia ordered something for Vanora.” He held out the spatula to Boyd. “Here; I trust you not to burn them. I’ll be right back.”
When Boyd had taken over pancake-duty, Stiles scooped Nora out of her high chair on his way out of the kitchen because if it was a threat, he wanted his daughter in his arms where he could protect her. Cora silently followed Stiles, and the emissary didn’t argue because a set of claws never went amiss when you were facing the unknown and neither did a little bit of backup. Settling Nora on one hip, Stiles cautiously opened the front door.
Standing on the front porch was a woman in a dark blue pantsuit and sedate black heels that were only about an inch high. She had honey-blonde hair pulled back in a twisted bun, and Stiles figured she was about thirty. She was holding a clipboard and frowning slightly, though Stiles supposed it was possible she just had a resting bitch face. It was a phenomena he was familiar with, after years around Derek. He supposed she was pretty enough, though his personal view on hotness had been skewed by the supernatural creatures who surrounded him.
Smiling, Stiles used his polite voice. “Hello. Can I help you?”
“Well, that depends.” The woman’s voice was clipped and brisk and fairly unfriendly. “I was told I might be able to find a, uh...” She frowned at her clipboard, then said. “Miss...Mees....Muh-sss-ch...”
“Oh god, don’t strain yourself, please.” Stiles said, laughing in embarrassment. “Everyone just calls me Stiles, which is really for the best. My Babcia and my mother were the only people who could pronounce it right.” Smiling charmingly, he added. “What can I do for you?”
The woman’s lips thinned and she said. “I’m Karen Marsh, Mr.Stilinski, and I’m from the California Child and Family Services Division.” She glanced down at the clipboard again, then added. “We received some...concerned phone calls, regarding you suddenly having a child in your custody, seemingly without reason. I’m going to have to ask you some questions.”
Stiles swallowed hard, but took a step back from the door. His arms tightened a little around Vanora, but he nodded agreeably. ”Of course. Please come in, Miss...Marsh, was it?”
“Yes.” She stepped into the entrance hall without another word.
Stiles glanced at Cora with a raised eyebrow. The she-wolf whispered something he couldn't hear, tipped her head to the side as she listened to an answer, then smiled a little sharply at Karen. “We can talking the living room. Right this way.”
Stiles followed Cora, and Karen followed him. When he entered, he was relieved to see that the occult books he’d had on the coffee table were nowhere in sight. Neither were any of his spell ingredients, or weapons. He silently thanked the other wolves, who must have done a quick run-through to clean the room up. Stiles settled Vanora in her pack’n’play with a couple of toys, then moved to sit on the loveseat. Cora had chosen a seat on one of the recliners, while Karen was perched on the edge of one of the cushions on the larger sofa. She was smiling, but it was tight around the edges.
“I’m assuming that’s the child I’ve been hearing about.” Karen hummed thoughtfully when Stiles nodded, silently wondering where the fuck Derek was. He’d gone for his pre-breakfast run, but he should’ve been back already. “Is the child’s mother here?”
“She’s dead.” Stiles said quietly, doing his best to keep his voice steady. “I can get her death certificate for you, if you’d like, as well as Vanora’s birth certificate and any other paperwork you might want to see for her.”
“Hmmm.” Karen’s lips pursed a little. “And how did the child come to be in the custody of a seventeen year old boy such as yourself, Mr. Stilinski?”
Stiles’ throat went tight and he swallowed hard, hoping his voice wouldn’t come out as a croak or a squeak. Before he could test it, Cora was speaking. “I’m sorry, I’m Cora Hale. My brother, Derek, is my guardian and he’s Vanora’s father. Stiles and I go to school together. We’re both seniors at Beacon Hills High School, and so is Derek’s other ward, Isaac. When Derek found himself with a daughter unexpectedly, Stiles offered to help with her. His mom used to run a daycare, so he’s got experience.”
Karen blinked, then looked between Stiles and Cora. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. The calls we got reported that Mr. Stilinski was referring to the baby as his daughter, referring to himself as her daddy, and that the Sheriff - who is Mr. Stilinski’s father - was referring to the child as his granddaughter.”
“Stiles and my nephew have a tendency to jump ahead by a few steps.” Peter’s voice was a welcome distraction, as far as Stiles was concerned. So was the folder he was holding, which contained all of Vanora’s paperwork. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I thought I’d bring in Vanora’s documents.”
“And you are?” Karen asked, though she held out her hand for the folder.
Peter handed it over with a dazzling smile before taking a seat on the couch as well. There was a respectable distance between them, but Stiles knew from personal experience that Peter had a way of making you feel crowded from across the room. “Peter Hale. Derek and Cora’s mother was my older sister.”
Karen blushed a little and Stiles sort of marveled at how humans could be so blind to how dangerous Peter could be when he was being charming. “Well, then.” She made a show of flipping through the documents she’d been handed before shooting Peter a look from under her lashes. “You were saying something about Mr. Hale and Mr. Stilinski jumping ahead on things...?”
Peter hummed, blue eyes gleaming wickedly as he leaned a little. His tone was conspiratorial, though he was speaking loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear. “Derek’s always been a hopeless romantic and Stiles is an impulsive teenager, naturally. The mature thing to do would be to wait a little longer, of course, to make sure their relationship is going to last before they go around calling Stiles’ Vanora’s father, but...”
Peter shrugged, as though to say ’What can you do?’ and Stiles kind of wanted to thank him and punch him at the same time. Derek’s growling voice from the door had everyone looking over. “Peter...” There was a warning in Derek’s tone that promised retribution as soon as the human was gone. “I think that’s quite enough from you, don’t you agree?”
“But of course.” Peter held out his hands in a peaceable gesture, smiling sweetly. “I was only trying to help, Derek, as ever. Excuse me.”
As Peter walked towards the door, Derek said softly. ”Cora, go with him, please. Help Erica make sure everyone else is behaving themselves.”
“Of course.” Cora inclined her head at the social worker. “It was nice meeting you, Miss Marsh. I hope you find satisfactory answers to all your questions about my niece.”
Karen nodded, though she was watching distractedly as Derek picked Vanora up out of the pack’n’play and nuzzled her hair in greeting. Nora cooed and laughed, patting his cheeks with drool-wet hands before she started babbling nonsensical baby chatter at him. Derek crossed to the loveseat with her cradled against his chest, sitting next to Stiles and settling Vanora on his lap. When she immediately lunged for Stiles, Derek passed her over without a fuss, much to Nora’s delight. She shrieked happily as Stiles took her.
“Hey, baby girl.”Stiles murmured, letting Nora gnaw on his finger with dull human baby teeth and firm pink gums. “I know your breakfast got interrupted, but we’ll eat in a little bit.”
Almost as soon as Stiles said it, Isaac popped his head into the living room with a dimple-flashing boyish smile and cherubic curls bouncing. “Hey, I just wondered if you guys wanted me to feed Nora while you talk to this nice social worker.”
“Thank you, Isaac.” Derek nodded and Isaac came to take her, shooting Stiles a reassuring smile.
As soon as Isaac was out of the room, Derek turned to look at Karen. He flashed a single dimple and his adorable bunny teeth at her. “Sorry, it can get a little chaotic around here. I’m Derek Hale, Vanora’s father.”
“Yes, I see you’re listed on her birth certificate.” Karen cleared her throat and Stiles noticed her blush had deepened. Not that he could blame her, because Derek was unfairly gorgeous, but that wasn’t really the point. “I just need to ask some questions, since we’ve received three separate calls expressing concern.”
“Of course, I understand.” Derek kept right on smiling, though he’d reached out to capture Stiles’ hand and was squeezing it just a little too tightly. Stiles tried to push reassurance along the pack bond, but he felt more than a little shaky himself so he wasn’t sure how well it worked.
“I’ll be as quick as I can.” Karen reassured, sounding much friendlier than she had when she’d first started talking to Stiles. “Your sister mentioned you’re her guardian, and also mentioned another ward...?”
Derek nodded. “Isaac, the one who just took Vanora. His father was killed when he was sixteen, and there was no other family. I took him in. Cora...was technically under our older sister’s guardianship from the time she was eleven until she was sixteen, when Laura was murdered. That’s when I became her guardian.”
Karen was scribbling away on her clipboard, though she gave Derek a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry about your other sister. Can I ask why she had guardianship of your sister in the first place?”
Derek’s mouth moved silently for a moment and Stiles immediately started talking for him, because he could feel Derek’s distress through the pack bond. “A psychotic serial killer - the same one who was responsible for Laura’s more recent death - burned their house down and killed eight people in the process, including Derek’s parents. It was just Laura, Derek, and Cora for a while, because Peter was comatose for six years. The killer was killed during the manhunt for her, almost two years ago.”
Karen’s mouth twisted sadly. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bring up bad memories. It’s just that I have to understand the home environment.”
“It’s fine.” Stiles said quietly, giving Derek’s hand a squeeze. “It’s just hard for him to talk about.”
“I can’t even imagine.” Karen flipped a couple of pages on her clipboard, then asked. “How old are you, Derek? And what do you do for a living?”
Derek cleared his throat awkwardly. “I’ll be twenty-four on Tuesday, and I don’t work. I’m independently wealthy so I don’t need to.”
Karen raised an eyebrow at that. “Independently wealthy. This house is brand new, and large enough to take considerable upkeep for bills and taxes and the like. You have two teenage wards, and now an infant daughter as well. That’s quite a formidable amount of financial responsibility.”
“My parents were multi-millionaires.” Derek bit out, a little bit sharper than might have been strictly necessary but it was a touchy subject. “Then there were life insurance policies for eight family members, and more recently for Laura. The house is rebuilt because the old one was burned down, but the land has been owned by my family for over two hundred years. Do you need bank statements or can we be done talking about money?”
Thankfully, Karen seemed to understand where Derek’s temper was stemming from and she hastily changed the subject. “I just need a quick tour of your daughter’s room and the kitchen, to confirm that the living conditions are suitable for an infant. I’m sure they will be, based on what little I’ve seen of the house so far, but it’s procedure for me to check.”
Stiles wasn't sure how Karen was going to react, but when Derek stood to lead her towards the stairs he didn't let go of the teen's hand. So Stiles found himself pulled along, hand help captive, fear and distress and a little bit of anger pulsing along the bond. Stiles took a couple of slow, careful breaths and pushed back as much calm and support as he could, because it was all he could think to do. Together, they mounted the stairs, bypassing the landing at the second floor and continuing up to the third. Then, they walked into the east wing, Karen following behind while quietly asking Derek more questions about Vanora.
Do you have a pediatrician? (Derek gave the name Deaton had given them to use; a specialist from the next town over, but still in Beacon County, who dealt solely with supernatural children.) How often do you feed her? (Derek explained they were doing a feed-on-demand system rather than a feeding schedule, which Karen seemed fine with.) How many people live in the house full-time? (Four; five if Vanora herself was counted; this wasn't even a lie, since the only full-time residents were Derek, Peter, Cora, and Isaac. Derek did mention that Stiles would be moving in as well, after graduation, and while Karen frowned a little at that she didn't say anything so Stiles figured they were doing okay.)
When Stiles opened the nursery, stepping inside first with Derek right behind him, he couldn't help smirking a little at the soft gasp the social worker let out. He was grateful, now, that Derek had insisted on the best of everything and that they'd let Lydia (and the rest of the pack) go a little crazy picking out toys and clothes and other things for Nora. The nursery was like something out of a magazine; the sort of room Stiles imagined royalty had set up for their kids. It was full of beautiful things, and it was clear that Nora was being well provided for.
Karen cleared her throat, after jotting down some things very quickly, then said. “I wouldn't normally ask this, but given the size of the house...do you have a way to monitor her during the night or when she's napping? I'd imagine if you were downstairs, it would be practically impossible to hear her crying, so...”
Stiles lips twitched up and he turned away, fussing a little mindlessly with the supplies spread out by the changing pad, because the idea of Derek not being able to hear Vanora from anywhere in the house was absurd but he knew he couldn't laugh. Behind him, he heard Derek explaining that they had a video baby monitor, and that his bedroom was just next door, ensuring he could hear her perfectly at night. Karen asked a couple more questions, and opened a couple of drawers and the chifforobe's doors, checking to see what sort of supplies they had for Vanora. Stiles sort of wanted to bristle, but he figured half of it was probably just the woman's curiosity over all of the beautiful things in the room and the other half was the woman's job.
He imagined if anyone had ever done a proper job of looking out for Isaac, he - and the pack as a whole - might have a better opinion of social workers. As it was, he refused to let himself blame this woman for the fact that somewhere out there, someone in her field hadn't done their job and someone he cared about had been hurt because of it. Because the same could be said for any of the deputies who'd been called out to deal with Mr. Lahey when he was drunk and loud and the neighbors complained, and Stiles wasn't blaming his dad for the fact that some of his officers - dead now, mostly, thanks to Jackson - hadn't picked up on the abuse. You couldn't blame the world for being ignorant, however willfully; it was just a sad fact of human nature.
By the time they got to the kitchen - Karen was making noise about checking that the sink worked, and the house had hot water, and that there was food available - Stiles just really wanted the woman to leave. Derek was chatting with her amicably enough, answering her questions with ease now that they weren't about his family or his tragic background, and Stiles trailed a little ways behind them. He didn't want to intrude; didn't want to risk saying or doing something that would make the woman suspicious. There was enough of that as it was.
Stiles hadn't thought much about Nora's eating, but Isaac had thankfully wiped both Nora and her high chair clean of any fish-remnants. Instead, as Stiles went to check on her and pet her dark hair, she was happily gnawing on a fistful of some sort of red, fruit-smelling mush that Stiles was pretty sure had been a strawberry at some point before she’d destroyed it. Derek stepped back while Karen poked through the - fully stocked - cabinets and fridge, letting her see whatever she wanted.
In truth, Stiles was so focused on Nora that he didn't even realize anything was going wrong until Karen was asking Isaac waspishly. “Is there a reason you're glaring at me?”
“Just wondering if you're one of the social workers who left me with my father all those years.” Isaac admitted, utterly shameless about it. His voice was casual, but there was a sort of glittering hardness to his eyes that spoke volumes. “I'm not good at remembering all of them - there were a lot, especially when I was younger - and I just wondered. I never got to thank any of them, you see, for all of the time I spent hiding bruises or locked in a freezer.”
Karen sucked in a stunned breath, taking a step back from the venom in Isaac's voice. Almost immediately, Stiles had put himself between them, redirecting Isaac's attention to him. “Hey, Isaac...come on, don't. I know you hate how none of them saw it - how none of them helped you - but you can't take that out on someone who's just trying to do her job, okay?”
Isaac glared, mouth opening, and Stiles kept talking. “No, okay? Just no.” Because there was so much rage pouring along the pack bond that, even though it wasn't anywhere near as strong as the one he had with Derek, Stiles could still feel it perfectly, and it was tangled up with shame and fear and a half dozen other things. “Even if she was one of the ones who missed it, you have to let it go. Derek saw what was happening, and he was making strides to get you out of there even before your dad was killed. You're safe now, and you never have to worry about someone hurting you like that, ever again. Okay? So you have to let it go.”
“I just moved here.” Karen whispered it, sounding horrified and a little close to tears. She nudged past Stiles, who stepped out of her way, and gave Isaac a pleading look. “I swear, if I had been one of your social workers, I would have done everything I could to help you. I can't promise that I would have seen the abuse - sometimes, we miss things - but I would have taken the time to look at everything and if anything seemed off, I'd have kept pushing until I was sure you were safe. I'm so sorry that others failed you. I'm sorry they didn't protect you. I can't fix what they screwed up, or make it better, but I can promise you that I will always do the very best I can to make sure no one else is hurt the way you were.”
Isaac swallowed hard, a sweet smile curling his lips even as he blinked back tears. He did that thing he did sometimes, where he curled into himself because emotions were still hard for him to show and he didn't always want to be touched when he was feeling overwhelmed, but he nodded and answered a little hoarsely. “Thank you, and I'm sorry I snapped at you. It's just...no one ever did more than ask my dad a couple of questions and he was hurting me, but you were grilling Derek and he...”
“He tried to save you.” Karen said gently. “I understand, Isaac. I'm glad you have so many people who love you now; who want the best for you.” She turned to smile at Derek and added. “I'm going to have to check in again in six months, to see how things are going. But I can see that you're a loving father, and that you have a wonderful home and are surrounded by good people. Your daughter is clearly in good hands.”
Derek smiled back, dimple flashing in his cheek. “Thank you. I'll walk you to the door, unless you need to see anything else or ask more questions?”
“No, no. We're all done here.” Karen smiled briefly at Isaac and Stiles, then followed Derek out of the kitchen.
Stiles slumped back against the counter, blinking in surprise when Isaac's mood seemed to shift between one breath and the next. Even the emotions he'd felt pouring through the pack bond were suddenly gone, replaced by a faint hint of smugness and satisfaction. Stiles mouth fell open and he simply gaped at Isaac for a long minute while the wolf hummed happily and poured himself a glass of orange juice.
“Were...were you faking?” Stiles demanded when he found his voice, ignoring the other pack members as they slipped back into the kitchen from wherever they'd disappeared to before. He couldn't even be amused at the way they were all holding various breakfast dishes - Boyd had an entire frying pan in one hand, an uncooked pancake still in it, for heaven's sake - because he was stuck on Isaac.
“Not exactly.” Isaac shrugged, mouth lifting a little at one corner. “I'm always sort of angry and stuff over what happened, but I don't let myself focus on it. If I do, it's...not pleasant. Letting that slip for a few minutes wasn't exactly fun, but I figured if she saw Derek as someone who helped a kid get away from an abuser, she'd be more likely to trust him. It'll help her ignore anything suspicious she might see or hear when she's checking in.”
“You didn't have to do that.” Derek rumbled as he walked back into the kitchen, sitting down and smiling at Cora as she set a plate of food in front of him. “We were doing fine.”
Isaac shrugged again as he sat down and started back in on his own half-eaten breakfast. “I didn't mind. Pack protects each other.”
Neither Stiles nor Derek could argue with that.
Jackson was still calling out apologies from the porch as Stiles shifted the jeep into gear, so he nearly jumped out of his skin when Derek got into the passenger seat. “I need a couple of things for dinner.” Derek said, smiling sheepishly. “So if you're heading back out anyway...”
Stiles sighed, but nodded. “This is what we get for letting the betas do shopping runs.” Because Erica had been in charge of doing the grocery shopping, and Stiles and Derek had given her lists but of course she'd still managed to forget things.
“It happens.” Derek's tone was mild, and Stiles tried to let that calm seep into him; soothe him. He reached for it through the pack bond and Derek let him, shooting him an amused look that Stiles pretended not to see.
Now, incorrectly sized diapers and the need for fresh pineapple and cherry tomatoes and yeast because Derek was baking bread were not enough to make Stiles fall to pieces. No, that came from an unexpected run-in with one of the other guys on the lacrosse team, right there in the produce section as Stiles was putting two packs of cherry tomatoes in the cart.
“Yo, Stilinski!” Stiles turned, giving Taylor a cautious smile and a little wave, because they weren't friends but they'd been on the same team for years so he wasn't going to be rude. Taylor stopped next to Stiles' cart, where Nora was sitting and babbling, gnawing on a teething ring. “I'd heard you were walking around with a kid, but I wasn't sure I believed it. How drunk did you have to get the mom before she said yes to you?”
Stiles felt his face heating up because, oh, right. This guy had been one of the assholes who'd always jumped on Jackson's douchebaggery and made it a thousand times worse. And before Stiles could say anything, Derek was walking back with a pineapple in his hands and murder in his eyebrows.
“Hello.” Derek's voice was soft, and pleasant enough, but Stiles knew he'd heard everything Taylor had said and he was furious. “I thought I'd met all of your friends, Stiles.”
And because he felt humiliated and hurt, Stiles answered as cuttingly as he could. “You have. This is Taylor. He plays lacrosse with me and the others.”
“It's actually Chad.” Taylor said, rolling his eyes at Stiles. “Stilinski here never seems to remember my first name.”
“I can't imagine why.” Derek said dryly, then he turned to the cart and set the pineapple in it, cooing at Nora. “Hey, baby girl. Were you good for Stiles while I was gone?”
“Oh my god, Derek, you were gone for two minutes.” Stiles said, though he could feel his throat closing up because he knew...he knew they had to make an effort in public so that people would accept that Derek was Vanora's father but it wasn't easy for him; not at all.
Derek hummed, and Stiles turned back to Taylor with a forced smile. “Anyway, we're a little busy shopping, so.”
Taylor tore his eyes away from the way Derek was talking softly to Nora and snorted. “Yeah, right. I should've guessed she wasn't yours, Stilinski. Everybody knows you're going to graduate as the same awkward virgin you were when you started high school.”
Once again, Stiles was cut off by Derek before he could speak. Strong arms wound around Stiles' waist from behind, and Derek's chin hooked over his shoulder, stubbled cheek nuzzling lightly against his own. “I don't know who you think you are, but don't ever talk about Stiles like that again.” Derek growled, and Stiles couldn't see it but he just knew Derek's face was doing the serial killer thing he did when he was contemplating ripping someone's throat out. “Now, if you'll excuse us, we still have to get diapers for our daughter.”
Then, ignoring the strangled sound Stiles was making - and the wide-eyed way Taylor was gaping at them - Derek unwound himself from Stiles, captured the teen's hand, and tugged him along while using his other hand to push the cart.
And Stiles knew that Derek was trying to help; that Derek was playing along with the story they'd told the social worker because people had to believe. But it fucking hurt, to think that all of it was pretend. Stiles had no legal claim on Vanora, and he had no claim at all on Derek, and that was just how things were. It was fine, of course, because Derek was one of the best friends that Stiles had ever had - strange as that was sometimes - and he wouldn't trade that for anything in the world. Their friendship had been hard-won, between near-death experiences and Stiles learning to control his spark and the overwhelming reality that was high school for those in the supernatural-know. So Stiles loved being Derek's friend, and knowing he was the one Derek trusted best, and he was grateful that Derek was doing everything he could to protect both him and Vanora.
But it still hurt, because once upon a time, before he'd realized how much Derek's friendship and trust meant to him, he'd maybe had a crush on the alpha werewolf. It had started as a fear-boner, and morphed into the sort of crush he imagined most male-inclined people had for the bad boy with a tragic past at least once in their lives. And then it had turned into a sort of desperate imagining of what it would be like to fall into bed with Derek, or even into whatever sort of ill-fated relationship they could manage between disasters. But then Stiles had become Derek's friend, and Derek had asked him to be his emissary, and Stiles had realized that what he had was so important and so special that fucking it up for sex was stupid, and everyone in the pack knew Derek didn't do intimacy.
Stiles totally understood, of course, after Kate and that whole disaster. Not to mention the whole thing where the Darach had briefly tried to seduce Derek with magic, before they'd managed to stop her. But still, it hurt. Because Stiles had accepted that friendship was all he was getting with Derek and the very idea of having to pretend to be more than that - for any reason - was killing him. It made Stiles want, more than anything else, for the bit that rested on his shoulder to be on anyone else because if he could just get away from this whole mess, it would save him so much heartache in the end. He was sure of it.
Now, Derek wasn’t so sure.
He wished, despite the vicious twist of jealousy it brought up, that Stiles had dated. That one of the other pack members had hit it off with Stiles, or even that someone random from school had noticed him. Because Stiles deserved to have someone tell him how awesome he was. That he was smart, and funny, and gorgeous. And sure, the pack told him those things but it was interspersed with teasing and insults because that was just how their packed worked. The betas were like unruly siblings - excepting the ones who were dating each other - and needling each other was just a part of their dynamic. Besides, words like the ones Stiles clearly needed to hear - ones reassuring him that he was desirable - needed to come from a romantic partner, not a friend. They’d never mean the same thing, otherwise.
Part of Derek longed to tell Stiles those things himself, but one of the things his mother had always stressed to Laura was how she must never abuse her role as alpha. An alpha never made the first move, romantically. An alpha never just took from their pack. Peter might make noise to Derek about his urge to claim, but Derek knew he would never act on it. Not unless Stiles took that first step. Because Derek was the alpha, and it wasn’t fair for him to put Stiles in that position - in a situation where he might not reject Derek out of fear of losing his place in the pack. So Derek had kept firm control over his growing feelings for Stiles, taking solace in their friendship.
It hurt, of course, that Stiles had slowly gone from smelling spicy and sweet with lust around Derek to smelling comfortable and settled; that the teen’s pulse had stopped jumping wildly when Derek was too close. But their friendship - and Stiles’ happiness - mattered most. So as much as Derek wanted to reassure him, he knew he couldn't. Telling Stiles that he found him desirable - that he wanted him - would open a can of worms Derek had no intention of touching.
Instead, he let Stiles stay quiet, silently sending friendship and comfort and support along their bond. Giving only what Stiles had expressed an interest in wanting from him. Telling himself it was enough.
Some words are easier to say when it’s dark; when the world is quiet and still and it feels like there’s no one in it but you and the person you’re talking to.
Some words are harder to hear in those conditions.
Nothing sucked more than when both of those things were true for the same words.
Derek wished he could feign sleep; wished he could get up and leave; wished anything he could say or do would forestall whatever Stiles wanted to talk about. But he knew that tone in Stiles’ voice. Knew what it meant when the teen was solemn and serious that way. Knew there was no getting him to change his mind or back down from what he felt needed to be said or done. Once Stiles made a decision, that was it. And really, he’d been half-expecting this since their grocery store trip that morning. So Derek rolled onto his side, facing Stiles, and waited in silence. That was usually all the invitation Stiles needed.
Still, it took several agonizing moments of silence for him to speak.
“I know why everyone said what they did on Friday.” Stiles voice was quiet and tight around the edges like he was trying not to scream, or snarl, or something. “I understand that a reason for all the things that didn’t make sense had to be given. I just...Der, how long can we keep it up for? How long before it becomes obvious that we’re not dating even though Nora calls me dad? Or...or both of us Dad, even. How long before the whole thing becomes too suspicious to be ignored?”
Derek took a measured breath in, then let it out again with just as much control. After two more, he felt calm enough to speak without giving himself away. “Stiles, I won’t force you to pretend to date me. I wouldn’t have ever said that to the social worker, either. I’d have passed it off as a joke on your part. Said your dad and I are close because of the loss of my own parents, so I asked if Nora could call him Poppop. But once Peter said it, I wasn’t sure how to take it back. But we can. We can say we broke up, or that it was never that serious, or that we realized we’re better as friends. Whatever you want.”
“This isn’t about wanting, Derek.” And Stiles’ voice had gotten thick, sounding almost damp. There was a salty tang to the air, something bitter and sharp that spoke of sadness and tears and pain that went deeper than physical. “It’s about being rational. I can’t...we can’t carry on like this forever. Pretending to be together, I mean.”
“Why not?” And though he cursed his tongue - though a part of him wished the words back behind his teeth the second they were said - Derek let the question lie, there in the dark space between them on the bed.
“Because it’s not fair.” Stiles said, choked and miserable. “It won’t be real and I can’t...you can’t ask that of me, Derek. You can’t ask me to settle for fake, when all I’ve ever wanted was something real. Please don’t ask me for that. I think it would kill me.”
Derek felt like Stiles had suckerpunched him. Or worse, like Stiles had shoved a fistful of wolfsbane powder and mountain ash down his throat. But Stiles was right; of course he was. It was horribly unfair to trap Stiles in a fake relationship he didn’t want, preventing the younger man from seeking out a real relationship with someone he loved. Just because the only person Derek wanted was currently lying mere inches away didn’t mean he could selfishly keep Stiles for himself. The only thing Derek wanted more than Stiles was for Stiles to be happy so, as much as it hurt, Derek knew he had to let him go.
When Derek finally spoke, his voice was flat and Stiles could just picture the cold, blank look that was no doubt on his face. It made him grateful for his own poor night vision. “Feel free to look for something real, Stiles. I won’t stop you. Tell people whatever you want about our supposed relationship. I’ll go along with it.”
Stiles felt the air catch in his throat; felt the tears spill down his cheeks; felt something in his chest shatter to pieces at the confirmation of what he’d always known. He and Derek had become friends, somewhere along the way, but Derek would never want anything more with him.
“I’m sorry.” Stiles gasped, because he’d been wrong; he was going to cause a scene. As much as he didn’t want to, he didn’t think he could stop himself. Before he even realized what he was going to do, Stiles was pushing himself off the bed and running across the room.
He heard Derek say his name - questioning and concerned - but he couldn't listen; couldn't hear apologies for hurting him. Not yet. In truth, he didn’t think he’d ever want them. It was stupid, to apologize for not loving someone the way they loved you; stupid, when you considered that Stiles hadn’t gotten to choose how he loved Derek and it was unfair to expect more of Derek than what he himself had been capable of. So he didn’t want apologies, or excuses, or promises that nothing would change between them. Because as much as Stiles treasured Derek’s friendship normally, right then the words would be like knives to his heart and he knew that.
He pushed himself into a run as he hit the hallway, thundering down the stairs, uncaring who heard. He could hear Derek behind him, but surprise at the unexpected flight had slowed the alpha down, and Stiles cleared the front door before anyone could stop him. Heedless of his bare feet, and the fact that he wore nothing but one of Derek’s long-sleeved Henleys and a pair of flannel sleep pants, he rushed outside, into the cool night air. As he dashed off the porch Stiles did the unthinkable, activating the mountain ash boards the porch was made of. It only sealed the front door, but it would slow Derek down as the alpha would slam into the barrier and be forced to go through the house and out the back door before following Stiles into the trees.
As he ran, Stiles muttered under his breath, calling his spark up from where it rested under his skin and using it to mask his scent and the sound of him crashing through the underbrush. Stiles might not be a werewolf, but the magic inside him was tied to the land; to the trees; to the very air in the forest he was running through. If he didn’t want to be found, no force on earth would discover him. Not in his woods. So he kept running, lungs straining for air as his muscles screamed out a protest at the unexpected exertion. Every part of his body was screaming for him to stop, but the pain in his chest was too strong; too wild. It spurred him on; urged him to go just a little further; just a few more steps...
Suddenly, Stiles felt Derek tugging on their pack bond. He could feel the others, too; less-invasive and more questioning but still there. Still seeking. Still trying to find him. They were nothing compared to Derek; nothing against the way he reached out. There was desperation there, and fear. There was confusion as well, pushing at Stiles, demanding an explanation for his own panicked flight. Derek asked questions wordlessly and Stiles had no answers to give. At least, none that wouldn’t hurt them both more.
And while Stiles was confident in his ability to hide from the others, he knew his bond with Derek - the bond between alpha and emissary - would lead the wolf right to him. No amount of masking his scent or footsteps, and no distance he could put between them, would ever be enough. There was only one thing Stiles could do and, as much as he knew it was the only way, even the thought of it hurt. Stiles wasn’t sure he could do it, though he certainly knew how.
In the end, it was another firm push from Derek - another desperate seeking across the bond - that let him find the strength he needed to do what had to be done..
He slammed his magic down across the bond linking him to Derek - to the Hale pack - like a guillotine. He felt the connection to Derek cut off, followed almost instantly by the rest of the pack bonds. They were, after all, shadowy extensions of his link with the alpha. With that gone...
Stiles ran for another few minutes, finally staggering to a stop in a spot where several downed trees had fallen against several living ones and made a sort of triangular shaped structure. He didn’t recognize the place; had never been in this part of the Preserve, though that wasn’t surprising given the size of the forest. The trees in this place were huge and close together; undisturbed; old; wild. Stiles let himself collapse to the forest floor, crawling forward with gasping breaths and shuddering sobs until he was sheltered by the fallen trees; surrounded by bark and moss and dead leaves and dirt. As safe as he could rightfully expect to be, given the situation.
The pain in his chest was searing, amplified somehow by the empty space where the pack bond with Derek was supposed to be. He wondered at how loud his breathing sounded even though he felt like he wasn’t getting enough air. His hands and face were going numb, heated and flushed despite the sharp bite of winter in the night air, and Stiles knew what was happening. Knew he was having a panic attack. Knew he needed to control his breathing, or else he’d pass out. Knew all of the breathing exercises and focusing methods he’d learned when his mom had died and the whole world had seemed to lack oxygen for months afterwards. But knowing and being able to do were two very different things, and Stiles could no more slow his breathing than he could steal the moon from the sky and call it his own.
As the world spun dizzily around him, Stiles reached desperately for the severed bond with Derek. It was a mindless action; something done in self-preservation because his magic would only hold for so long if he was unconscious and he was vulnerable and human without it. The woods were full of dangerous things, and Stiles had learned very quickly to be terrified of them; a fear tempered only by the presence of his pack and his own magic. If he couldn't have one of those things, he’d need the other. But the bond was cut cleanly, not frayed or worn down, and there was nothing where it stopped; no Derek to reach for or ask for help. Black crept into the edges of Stiles’ vision and he silently prayed to whatever higher powers might be listening that of all the things that called the forest home, his alpha might find him first.
It hurt so much, Stiles thought he might go mad from it.
A sound from the doorway had Stiles’ head coming around fast, and the relief he felt at seeing Noah - because he was in so much pain, and he wanted his dad - was tangled up with grief that it wasn’t one of his pack. That it wasn’t Derek.
“Dad...” Stiles managed hoarsely, and seconds later his dad was on his bed, folding him into a hug that promised safety and security and love; that promised that Stiles would never be alone, so long as those strong arms were close enough to wrap around him.
Stiles buried his face in his dad’s shoulder and sobbed. His tears soaked Noah’s shirt and his heaving breaths shook both their bodies, but Noah held tight and let Stiles cry.
When the tears finally slowed - not because the pain had lessened, but because Stiles was too exhausted to continue on as he had been - Noah finally spoke. “What happened?”
Choking a little on the words, and unable to find the will or the energy to explain everything, Stiles said only the most important thing. “He doesn’t love me.”
Something in his dad’s voice - some note of love and sympathy that was wrapped around exasperation - brought Stiles’ head up. “What?”
Noah was smiling at him like he was quite possibly the dumbest person in the world. “I’m assuming you mean Derek, and you’re wrong. That man loves you like you wouldn’t believe. He loves you so much I can’t even be mad about the age difference. I think he’d kill himself if he thought it would make you happy.”
“That’s just his martyr complex.” Stiles managed around more tears. “I know he cares, Dad. I even know he loves me, in a way. But not...” And here Stiles’ breath hitched again, getting all tangled up with his tongue at the back of his throat. “Not the way I love him.”
Noah studied Stiles’ face, finally asking. “What makes you so certain?”
And there; that brought the tears back full-force in an instant. Around body-wracking sobs and desperate, too-quick lungfuls of air that Stiles knew would make him pass out again, he managed three words. “He told me.”
And not even the Sheriff could argue with that.
“Before what?” Derek growled, an edge of alpha creeping into his voice. “Before he decides to leave in the middle of the night, regardless of danger? Before he uses mountain ash to keep me from following? Before he cuts the pack bond between us? Too late, Cora.”
Cora flashed her eyes at him, and snapped.”No, you idiot. Before you lose him forever.”
Derek let out a laugh that sounded more hysterical than amused. “Can’t lose something that wasn’t mine, Cor.” His sister opened her mouth - to say what, he didn’t know - and he cut her off sharply. “Stiles made his choice. He didn’t choose me. I won’t - I can’t - fight that.”
Cora shook her head, face twisted with disgust, and stormed out of the room. Derek winced when the door slammed behind her, then scowled when Peter hummed thoughtfully from the foot of the bed. He had Vanora cradled in his arms, as Derek had been useless since Stiles left the night before and Peter had the most experience with children.
“You know I don’t typically agree with any of the pack, except Stiles, but your sister is right.” Peter shrugged when Derek growled warningly at him. “You don’t have to like it, but it’s true. I don’t know what you said to hurt Stiles last night, but I’d advise you to apologize and make it right. In the spirit of Christmas, if nothing else.”
“I didn’t say anything.” Derek muttered, looking away. “Stiles said he didn’t want to be with me, not even for Vanora’s sake. He said he wanted to find someone else. Something real. It was his choice, Peter. All I did was tell him it was okay to make it.”
Peter shook his head. “You’re an idiot. I don’t know what either of you said, but I’ll say this. Stiles loves you. He has for a while. And the good lord knows you love him. So whatever conversation you think you had last night? Have it again. Only this time, use your words. All of them, Derek. Tell him how you feel. Because if you don’t...” Peter gave Derek a hard look here. “If you don’t, you’re going to lose the best thing that’s ever happened to you. Trust me when I say, you don’t ever come back from that. Not fully.”
And Derek swallowed hard against the lump in his throat when he thought of Amelia. His aunt; Peter’s wife and the mother of his children. The only person who’d ever seemed to settle Peter inside his own skin; who seemed to tame the savage parts of his uncle, who’d been too close to feral for comfort most days. He’d always wondered which loss had been the one to finally push Peter over the edge. His sister and alpha...his two young children...or the woman he’d chosen as his mate. He guessed he had his answer now. Amelia had meant everything to Peter, and without her...well, he’d never be right again.
Derek wondered if losing Stiles would push him into madness as well.
As he touched the place inside where Stiles’ pack bond had been - felt nothing there but emptiness and the cold certainty that Stiles had severed it on purpose so Derek couldn't find him - Derek thought it just might.
“Why did you leave?”
Stiles felt every muscle in his body tense; was sure the sound of his racing pulse must be deafening to werewolf ears because it was the only thing he could hear for several long moments. He couldn't speak. Didn’t know what he would have said, even if he could find his voice, because nothing was the right answer. Nothing - not the truth and not any lie he might spin - would salvage this; would make this easier to bear. So Stiles made himself a little smaller under the covers and said nothing. Maybe if he was still and quiet enough, he’d be left to his misery.
So either Derek was missing something, or Stiles was, or they both were. Whichever was the case, Derek wasn’t leaving until it was sorted out.
“Everyone says I hurt you.” Derek started, and the words were hard to push out because words were always hard for Derek.
But Stiles wasn’t talking, and for the first time Derek found a silence uncomfortable because he was so used to Stiles filling the air between them with noise. So if Stiles wasn’t going to say anything - and clearly, he wasn’t, since all Derek’s words resulted in was Stiles’ heart beating a little faster and his scent flooding even further with misery and hurt - then Derek was going to have to. Even if he didn’t know what to say.
Deciding honesty was all he had left, Derek said softly. “I’m not sure how I hurt you, but...but I think it’s hard for me to understand anything when it feels like you reached into my chest and burned everything there to ash. It’s hard for me to see past my pain to yours, but I’m trying. Because I’d never hurt you on purpose, Stiles, and I hate that I somehow did it by accident.”
Derek swallowed hard, hating the way his voice kept cracking around the edges of his words, but he pushed on because Stiles was sitting up now in the middle of a nest of bedding, and staring at him with those wide fawn eyes, and that was progress, anyway. “But I...I don’t understand how you get to claim to be hurt when...when you’re the one who left. Who cut our bond. Who walked away. From the pack. From Vanora. From me.”
“You told me to leave!” And Stiles’ voice was harsh; his words sharp and angry. “I...I told you I couldn't do it, Der. I told you faking it with you would kill me. I laid myself bare. Did everything but beg you to be with me and you told me to look somewhere else. So what was I supposed to do? I had to leave. Staying when I knew you didn’t want me hurt too much.”
And suddenly, Derek realized what he’d missed. What words Stiles hadn’t said, but which were easy enough to hear now that he knew they were supposed to be there. Stiles wanted something real with Derek. Stiles...Stiles wanted everything Derek wanted. He’d made the move Derek had been praying he’d make for so long and Derek had missed it so badly he’d thought Stiles was rejecting him; turning him down flat. So Derek had wound up rejecting Stiles in turn, without ever meaning to; had hurt the person he loved best because he hadn’t understood that Stiles was handing him his heart. Had hurt Stiles so much that he’d felt the need to destroy their pack bond, something Derek couldn't imagine being able to do himself.
It was horrible, what they’d managed to do to each other without meaning to. The pain they’d both caused, neither of them ever realizing how much the other was hurting until the damage was well and truly done. But all Derek could think about - all he could focus on - was that Stiles wanted him. Nothing else mattered.
When Derek finally lifted his head, Stiles was panting heavily and a little dazed but he still heard every word Derek leaned down to whisper in his ear. “I love you, Stiles. I love you.”
Stiles brought his hands up to Derek’s chest and pushed, just enough to get Derek to draw back so he could meet those gray-green-blue eyes. “You...you told me to look for real somewhere else.”
“I thought you wanted someone else.” Derek admitted, and Stiles would have marveled at how easily Derek was speaking except he could see the discomfort written across the alpha’s face. “You said you wanted something real, and I didn’t realize you meant with me. Letting you go was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done, but if it made you happy, I’d have managed.”
Stiles sucked in a stunned breath, mind racing as he thought back to what had been said the night before. He tried to remember his exact words and realized Derek was right. His phrasing had been ambiguous at best, if someone didn’t already know how he felt. And suddenly, Derek’s cold tone and the blankness to his words made sense. He had thought Stiles was rejecting him; that Stiles didn’t love him. That Stiles wanted someone else. And when he’d tried to do what he thought Stiles wanted, Stiles had retaliated by running off and destroying their pack bond.
“Holy shit...” Stiles whispered. “How did we manage to fuck up this badly?”
Derek let out a small huff of amusement, leaning down to rest his forehead against Stiles’. “We’re just extra-good at miscommunicating, I guess.” After a minute, he added. “You’re going to fix the bond, right?”
“Of course.” Stiles agreed before tipping his head up and capturing Derek’s mouth in a sweet kiss.
He let his spark reach out, smiling against the alpha’s mouth when he felt Derek’s alpha-spark reach back, the two curling around each other and recreating the broken bond. As he drew back, he felt the bonds with the rest of the pack flare back into life as well, relief and joy flooding along each of them only seconds later. He laughed, overjoyed at feeling the pack again, and then Derek was pouring love along their bond. It was strong, and pure, and brought tears to Stiles’ eyes even as he pushed back with every bit of what he felt for Derek in turn, wondering how they’d ever managed to hide it from each other.
As Derek rolled them to the side and pulled Stiles fully into his arms, Stiles asked softly. “How’s Nora doing? Do you think she misses me?”
“Of course she misses you. Peter’s been taking care of her, because I was kind of a mess.” Derek admitted, adding quietly. “I guess something good came out of this whole mess, though, since you managed to get Nora’s bit onto me. How’d you do that, anyway?
Stiles pushed himself out of Derek’s arms, gasping. “I did what now?”
Derek blinked, then shoved up his left sleeve, showing Stiles the inside of his forearm, where Nora’s bit rested. “I noticed it when I got dressed to come over here. I just assumed you’d done it on purpose.”
“Oh my god.” Stiles laughed, a little too wild to be normal but mostly that was just relief because he was suddenly positive about how he’d done it. “I...I did that in the grocery store. I was frustrated and hurt and I just really wanted the bit off of me. Like, I really wanted it off. I didn’t even specify you but we were touching at the time, so it must have just...jumped.”
Derek reached out with a thoughtful expression, fingers curling around Stiles’ wrist, and seconds later the bit faded off of Derek’s arm. Stiles couldn't see it, but he suddenly knew the bit was back on his shoulder. Derek smiled, flashing a dimple and bunny teeth at Stiles. “That’s handy.”
Stiles couldn't help it; he just laughed.
Derek watched him until he managed to get ahold of himself, then the alpha kissed him softly before murmuring against his lips. “Merry Christmas, Stiles.”
Stiles grinned and kissed him again before he replied. “Happy birthday, Der.”
“It makes more sense to celebrate her birthday on a Friday, first off, since otherwise most of the pack would have school tomorrow and might not celebrate fully or be able to crash here tonight.” Derek soothed, pulling the teen into his arms as he added. “And, technically, she doesn’t have a birthday this year, so I think celebrating today makes at least as much sense as celebrating yesterday would have.”
“Trust Peter to have given her a Leap Day birthday.” Noah said as he stole his granddaughter from her uncle, cooing at her. “Silly werewolves. Right, princess?”
Nora grinned and squealed happily at Noah, while Peter rolled his eyes.”I thought it was too perfect of a chance to pass up.” He nodded at Stiles, then said to Derek. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pick up the cake.”
“Thank you, Peter.” And Derek really meant it, because there was way more that went into a one-year-old’s birthday party than he would have expected. Especially since it was just pack attending, since Nora didn’t exactly have any friends yet. And Derek knew they’d need to get her into daycare at some point, and socialize her, but that was a worry for when she was a little older. For the moment, everything was perfect.
“I’m proud of you, kiddo.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Stiles sniffled a little, then laughed, because fuck it, he’d just graduated high school and he could laugh and cry at the same time if he wanted to.
He laughed a little louder when Nora lunged out of Derek’s arms, reaching towards him, because if Derek hadn’t been a werewolf she’d have wound up on the ground. “Hey there, baby girl.”
Stiles took her from Derek, who pressed a kiss to his temple, grinning a little wider as she patted his cheek and chanted. “Da-da-da-da-da.”
“Yeah, baby. Daddy’s here. Did you watch me graduate?” He nuzzled into her hair, making her giggle and squirm, still babbling excitedly. Stiles rested his cheek against her dark curls and smiled at Derek, saying softly. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself.” Derek leaned down and kissed Stiles’ mouth before murmuring. “Congratulations, Salutatorian. I’m so proud of you.”
Stiles could feel himself blushing, but he couldn't have stopped the grin if he’d tried. “Yeah, well. Obviously I wasn’t going to beat out Lydia for Valedictorian, but if I’ve gotta be second to someone, I’m okay with it being her.”
“Everyone’s second to that girl.” Noah pointed out, making Derek and Stiles both chuckle. Then he nodded his head towards the parking lot, adding. “Since the pack’s doing a big group celebration tomorrow, I’m assuming I get to steal you three for dinner now, right?”
“Of course, Daddy-o.” Stiles immediately handed Vanora to his dad, sliding his hand into Derek’s as they headed for the jeep. He’d never been happier.
The daycare teacher stood frowning behind her, her face pinched sourly. “She shouldn’t be getting coddled right now.” The woman chided Derek brusquely. “She’s lucky she isn’t being banned from returning, given today’s little stunt.”
“I sowwy.” Nora whispered into Derek’s throat, where she’d buried her face. “I din’ mean to.”
“I know you didn’t, baby.” Derek told her soothingly, because the hell if he wasn’t going to comfort his daughter when she was this upset, regardless of whatever she’d done. He frowned at the teacher over her head. “What happened?”
The dour-faced woman crossed her arms over her chest and snapped. “She ate the classroom pet, Mr. Hale! I have half a mind to call Child and Family Services, given how disturbing that fact is.”
Derek winced, then asked hesitantly. “The class pet was a...?”
“Fishy.” Nora whispered, turning her head to peek at her teacher before swiftly hiding her face again. “I sowwy, Papa. I sowwy.”
“Ah, damn.” Derek muttered, then managed a weak smile for the teacher who didn’t seem in the least bit impressed with it. “Look, I’ll obviously pay to replace the fish. And we’ll have a long talk with Nora about not eating classroom pets. But, uh...in light of the situation...maybe it’s best if she doesn’t come back. I think we may have rushed her into this whole daycare thing. I mean, she’s not quite three yet....”
“Mr. Hale, my recommendation as a college graduate with a degree in child development is that you take her to see a therapist immediately.” The teacher sniffed and added. “Any three year old - or almost three year old - who gulps down a goldfish like it’s an animal cracker needs serious psychiatric help.”
Derek nodded, because there wasn’t much else he could do, and managed another weak smile. ”Right, of course, a therapist. I’ll do that. Thank you so much for the advice.”
Then, Derek hastily grabbed Nora’s things from the assistant teacher who was holding them out to him nervously and all but ran outside to the jeep. He got Nora strapped into her carseat, got himself behind the wheel, and proceeded to laugh so hard he cried. By the time he got control of himself, Nora was humming softly to herself in the backseat, clearly understanding that her father wasn’t angry with her in the slightest. Shaking his head, Derek shot off a text to Stiles before pulling out of the parking lot.
Need new daycare option; ur daughter ate pet goldfish.
At the next red light, Derek read the reply and couldn't help laughing again. When she’s eating live animals she’s YOUR daughter, not mine.
As they passed each other, the little boy growled and flashed golden eyes. Nora, in turn, bared twin rows of shark-like teeth and snapped them at him. “Nora!” Stiles admonished immediately. “That’s not how we behave.”
“To be fair, Adam started that.” The woman laughed, pausing to smile at Stiles. “You’re Alpha Hale’s mate, aren’t you? And his emissary.”
“I am. My name is Stiles.” He shook the woman’s hand, adding. “This is our daughter, Vanora, though she’s obviously adopted.”
The woman’s smile widened. “Clearly. I’m Cheryl Calix and this is my son, Adam. We’re members of the Ito pack.” Stiles nodded to show he knew what she meant and she continued. “I apologize for my son. We’re having some issues with socialization, since it’s not really safe for him to be in a regular daycare.”
Stiles groaned. “Oh my god, tell me about it! Nora’s been through four already and I’m losing hope that we’ll be able to find another one to even try.”
Cheryl tipped her head to the side - a movement that screamed wolf to Stiles after so long with the pack - and asked slowly. “Do you think...I mean, they’re about the same age, right? Maybe a playdate or two...?”
But Stiles’ brain had already rushed ahead and he was shaking his head while grinning widely. “No, no...forget playdates. What we need is a supernatural daycare.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing.” Cheryl said with a roll of her eyes. “At least, I’ve never heard of one, and believe me, I know a few other parents who’d be thrilled if one existed. But, well...who’d even run that?”
“Me.” Stiles said with a laugh. “I mean, I’d need a little help from someone more equipped to wade-in if any of the little ones get out of hand, because my magic only takes me so far. But I’m sure I can recruit one of Derek’s betas, easy-peasy. Isaac’s always whining that he’s bored anyway.” Because the more he thought about it, the more he absolutely loved the idea. “My mom ran a daycare, so it’s not like I don’t know how.”
Cheryl looked intrigued. “Let me get your number. If you actually decide to do this, I can get you some clients right away. It would be seriously perfect.”
“I’m doing it.” Stiles decided, handing over his phone so Cheryl could put her number in. Because Nora needed playmates, and this...this was the best idea he’d ever had. All he had to do was get Derek to agree.
“Gladly.” Derek rumbled before leaning in and capturing Stiles’ lips in a fierce kiss. When Derek drew back, his husband was flushed and panting a little and Derek couldn't help smiling. “Are you happy?”
“Ecstatic.” Stiles admitted, smiling back.
Derek knew people were cheering, but couldn't spare a bit of attention for them. Their pack, of course. The friends Stiles had made since opening a daycare for children with preternatural gifts. And even a couple of the deputies who were in the know - either because they’d seen too much, or because they, themselves, were supernaturally inclined - who’d made friends with Derek when Noah finally convinced him to join the force. They didn’t matter, though; Derek was wholly focused on his new husband.
Suddenly, a solid weight slammed into Stiles’ legs before wiggling between them. “Daddy! Are you gonna adopt me now?”
Stiles laughed, even as Derek leaned down and scooped Vanora up while Stiles answered.. “Soon, angel.” The younger man leaned in and nuzzled Nora, rubbing his cheek against hers. “Now, are you ready to eat and dance and have cake?”
“Yes!” Nora wiggled excitedly in Derek’s arms, green eyes bright and happy.
She was wearing a pretty cream-colored dress with a wide green sash around her little waist. The small white basket looped over her arm had been full of flower petals, though it was now empty. Her cream-colored shoes, Derek noted, were in Stiles’ father’s hands and Nora’s white-stockinged feet were stained green from the grass. He imagined her pristine dress would soon suffer the same fate, once she and the other little ones started playing. The hazards of an outdoor wedding, Derek decided fondly.
He watched as Stiles reached out and tugged lightly on one of Nora’s green-black curls, then asked her. “Are you happy, darling girl? I mean, are you really happy?”
Vanora smiled wider, cheeks still rounded with baby fat at the age of five, and nodded. “I’m very, very happy. I have the best daddy and papa in the world, and a pack who loves me, and friends.” The question was one Stiles and Derek asked her frequently, and therefore one she was accustomed to answering. “Are you happy you married Papa at last?”
“I am.” Stiles assured her, shooting a warm look at Derek over her head. “I love your papa very much, and it was more than time we made things official.”
Nora nodded, then craned her neck to look up at Derek. “Papa, are you happy to marry Daddy?”
Derek laughed, giving their daughter a little squeeze before answering. “Of course, baby. I’ve loved your daddy for a long time, and even though we weren’t officially bound he’s been my mate almost since we got you.”
“I brought you together.” Vanora declared, a fact she’d been told many times over the years and one she was always quite proud of. “You loved each other before, but I’m why you both said it, right?”
Derek nuzzled Nora’s face on one side while Stiles leaned in to nuzzle the other, making her giggle and squirm again. As he drew back, Stiles answered. “You are, darling. You’re the best thing that ever happened to us, and we love you very much.”
“Why don’t you go find Adam?” Derek suggested as he set Nora on her feet, calling after her as she darted quickly away to find her best friend. “And get your shoes from Poppop! Even if they’re not on your feet, you know better than to make someone carry your things.”
Stiles laughed, leaning into Derek’s side. “Dad doesn’t mind. He’s wrapped around her finger.”
Derek hummed in agreement, then said. “Not the point, though. She does know better.”
Stiles laughed again and Derek knew they should cross the lawn to the big white tent where tables and a dance floor were set up so the guests could start eating, and he could dance with Stiles for the first time as a married couple, and they could cut the cake. And they would do that, in just a moment. First, Derek wanted a few minutes to just breath in his mate; his husband. Because Stiles was finally his - officially, in every way - after four and a half years, and he was going to savor it.
“Nora...” Stiles kept his voice low and soothing; clung to his patience desperately. “We’ve talked about this. You’re old enough now and in control enough to handle it. Adam will be starting this year, too, so you’ll already have a friend.”
Nora sniffled, her angry posture slipping into miserable defeat between one blink and the next. “What if the kids are mean to me? What if they make fun of me ‘cause I was homeschooled, or what if I don’t know as much as them ‘cause they went to school sooner?” Her green eyes were shiny and tears were streaking her cheeks as she whispered brokenly. “Wh-what if I...if I mess up? If I lose control...”
Stiles’ heart ached as the root of Nora’s temper tantrum was revealed. “Oh, baby girl...” Stiles dropped to his knees, opening his arms. Nora launched herself into them, sniffling wetly into his shoulder and seeming much younger than nine. “Baby, Papa and I wouldn’t send you if we weren’t sure you could do this. Just like Auntie Cher wouldn’t send Adam if she didn’t think he could do it. You’ll both be fine, and you’ll have each other to help you if you start to slip.”
Sniffling again, Nora nodded against his shoulder before mumbling. “I’m sorry I threw stuff. I’ll clean it all up, I promise.”
Stiles hid his smile against Nora’s dark curls, and replied softly. “I forgive you, baby. You’re scared, and I understand that. But it’s going to be okay. I promise.”
Nora nodded again, and Stiles held her just a little bit tighter for a minute, wondering when the hell his baby girl had gotten so big.
Derek glanced across the kitchen at Stiles, who was humming while making up a bottle of goat milk. “Well, we don’t really know yet. Right now, we’ve been asked to foster him. But, if it goes well - if he forms a pack bond with us in the next few months - then yes, Daddy and I would like to keep him.”
“Would you like that?” Stiles asked as he crouched down in front of the chair Nora was perched on, handing her the bottle. “Having a baby brother, I mean.”
Nora nodded as she nudged the bottle’s nipple against the baby’s mouth, smiling when he latched on and began to drink eagerly. Scott and Allison had two children - seven and five, Boyd and Erica had three - eight, six, and three, and Lydia and Jackson’s daughter was three, so at eleven years old Nora had plenty of experience with babies. She smiled up at her dads and said. “It might be nice, having a sibling. He’s beautiful. Does he have a name?”
“Not yet.” Derek said, letting his arms settle around Stiles’ waist when his mate leaned back against him. “Satomi’s friend, Noshiko, said his mother was killed before he was born. Apparently, Noshiko barely managed to cut him out of her in time and she had to fight the hunters while her daughter fled with the newborn. Bringing him to Satomi was all Noshiko could think of to protect him. They decided letting whoever adopts him name him would be for the best.”
“I don’t like hunters.” Nora said softly, though she quickly added. “Except Aunt Ally and her dad. Mr. Argent and Aunt Ally would never hurt someone innocent.”
Stiles hummed his agreement, then said. “Some hunters just don’t understand that just because you’re different that doesn’t mean you’re not still a person.”
Nora nodded, still feeding the baby. “I hope we can keep him.” She finally said. “He needs people to love him, who can help him control his powers.” Without taking her eyes off the baby, she asked. “You said Alpha Satomi’s friend brought him to her. Is he a wolf, then?”
Derek and Stiles exchanged a look, then Derek answered. “He’s actually a fox, not a wolf. A kitsune. He won’t really have any powers until he’s older, though he won’t get sick even as a baby. We won’t even know what kind of kitsune he is until he’s a teenager, and that’s when he’ll start healing faster and get strength and speed.”
Nora nodded again. “That’s okay. We can protect him while he’s little, until he’s big and strong enough to protect himself. That’s what family - what pack - does, right?”
Derek felt his throat get tight and he wasn’t sure he could speak without his voice breaking, so it was Stiles who answered her. His voice was a little hoarse, too, but mostly steady. “That’s right, baby girl. That’s exactly what pack does. You’re going to be an amazing big sister.”
And as Nora cooed at the baby boy while setting the bottle on the table and shifting him to her shoulder to burp, Stiles and Derek shared a meaningful look. Because Derek could already feel the beginnings of a bond forming with the baby. It was tentative - a series of three gossamer threads tying the baby to himself, and to Stiles, and (now) to Vanora - but it was there, and if all went well that bond would only strengthen as time went on. If all went well, the baby would soon be theirs.
Derek sent love and happiness along his bond to Stiles, telling him without words how happy he was that their little family was growing. Stiles reflected those feelings back at him like a mirror, and Derek knew accepting the baby from Satomi had been the right choice.
Stiles rubbed at his temples, turning from where he’d been cleaning up toys left behind by eleven children, all under the age of eight. “Honey, Ryu is only three. He’s going to get into things and you know he’s quick. I’ve told you, if you don’t want him in your room then you need to lock your door. Besides, he was only in there for about three minutes before Jackson caught him.”
“Well, Uncle Jacks didn’t get to him before he pulled a bunch of books off my bookshelf.” Nora snapped, folding her arms over her chest angrily. At fourteen, she was often temperamental and waspish. “And he put them back wrong, Daddy. I don’t want people in my room!”
“Then lock your door.” Stiles snapped back, at the end of his patience with his daughter, and his son, and the myriad children who attended his daycare. It had been a long day and he had a headache, which made him short-tempered. “I’m not having this argument again, Vanora. Lock your door, or don’t, but if you leave it open then I don’t want to hear it when someone goes in uninvited. Are we clear?”
Nora’s mouth pinched tight and she glared at him even as her eyes gleamed wetly. Stiles never yelled; had always been the patient one while Derek was the disciplinarian. “I hate you.” She hissed, and Stiles winced again as she turned and thundered back up the stairs, her door slamming shortly after she reached the top.
Stiles cursed and kicked a wooden block wagon, swearing again when it toppled over and scattered alphabet blocks across the carpet. Derek hummed thoughtfully from the doorway, making Stiles tense up. “I’ll talk to her.” Derek promised as he crossed the room to fold Stiles into his arms. “But first, how about you tell me what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” Stiles admitted, shrugging awkwardly. “I’ve been moody and impatient the last couple of days, and nauseated on and off, and I have the worst headache right now...”
“Hmmm...” Derek curled his fingers around the nape of Stiles’ neck, carefully drawing out the pain from his mate and smiling when the younger man melted into him with a pleased sigh. “You’re probably just stressed, Stiles. Is this about what Nora’s doctor told us?”
Stiles shrugged again, drawing back to stare up at Derek with a funny little twist to his mouth. “I just...I mean, you see her, Derek. She’s all...hormones and attitude these days. Which, yeah, is normal for a teenager, but...is this really the right time to start testing her control against the water? To start putting her bit on her skin? It seems like such a needless risk...”
Derek nuzzled Stiles’ hair, breathing him in for a minute before he spoke. “I know you don’t want to admit it, but she’s not a baby anymore. She’s old enough now for this to be done, and even if we’re scared it won’t go well, we need to give her the chance to try this. It’s time, whether we are ready or not.”
Stiles sighed, resting his forehead against Derek’s collarbone for a few minutes before he finally nodded. “You’re right. I know you’re right. I’m just scared.”
Derek slid his arms around Stiles’ waist and pulled him in close, murmuring. “We’ll manage this the same way we manage everything. Together.”
Derek knew her pain in a way he wished he didn’t; in a way he wished she didn’t. She dug her fingers and toes into the sand, body straining forwards even as she tensed every muscle in her body to hold herself back. She looked like she was being torn in half. Like her body was fighting her mind, which it was. The logical part of her brain was warring against instinct; against her base drives; against a magic that had governed her bloodline since long before she was born and which would continue to govern her descendants long after she was gone. The pull inside her was something she would fight against every second of every day of her entire life.
Derek wished he could save her from it, but it wasn’t an option.
“I know it’s hard.” Derek said, as soothingly as he could. “Baby girl, believe me, I know. But you can do this, I promise you. You can do this, and every time you try it’ll get easier. Like strengthening a muscle.”
Nora sucked in a trembling breath, her eyes drawn from Derek’s face to the water lapping against the shore. It was a beautiful day, and the ocean sang to her. The sound of the waves moving was hypnotic; was a pull she didn’t know if she could resist. She sucked in another breath, hating how it shivered past her lips and down her throat, then dragged her eyes back to Derek. She focused on him. On the strength and stability of him. On the way he’d always been so solid; so stubbornly insistent that she could control herself. First she’d learned to control her strength and speed, then her teeth around the scent of raw fish, and - as she grew older - the call of her bit when it was on someone who wasn’t near her, like when she was in school. This was just another step in the overall process, and she’d mastered the others so surely she could master this as well.
She flicked her eyes back to the water as the sound of laughter tickled her ears. She clenched her jaw angrily at the sight of her younger brother - three years old and precocious as anything - playing in the waves with Stiles. “It’s not fair."
“What’s not fair?” Derek asked, not taking his eyes off of Nora. If she failed - and this was the first time she’d been so close to the ocean without Stiles or Derek holding her bit; without anchoring her to themselves, so she very well could - he needed to be ready to race after her and stop her from disappearing.
"It’s so easy for him.” Vanora’s eyes welled with tears as she struggled to hold herself back; to stay on land. “He doesn’t know what it feels like at all. Control is never something he’ll wrestle with. He won’t ever understand how hard this is for me.” She looked at Derek and added. “For us.”
“No, he won’t.” Derek agreed, smiling a little sadly. “I know it seems like you got the short end of the stick here, and I definitely felt the same way when I was your age. Always having to fight for every inch of control. Always having to lie about who and what I was. Feeling like there were two halves - not even of the same person - fighting for control of my body.”
Nora sniffled a little. “Do you still feel that way?"
Derek shook his head, giving his daughter a happier smile this time. “No, baby. Not at all. The problem was, I was so busy trying to fight against the other half of who I was that I couldn't reconcile the two. I had to learn to accept that both parts were still me. They weren’t separate at all, not really. It was only that I was making them seem that way, because I couldn't see how they connected.” He reached out, curling his fingers loosely around the back of Nora’s neck in a way that was supportive and comforting. “You’re not two things. You’re just you. And once you accept that, you’ll find control comes much easier."
Nora smiled wanly back before she spoke again. “Can I...can I be done? For today, I mean. I’m not giving up, I just can’t do this anymore right now. Please?”
“Of course.” Derek let Nora curl her fingers around his wrist, then said. “It’s okay to know your limits, and it’s important to respect them. Never feel bad about doing that. Taking care of yourself is important.”
Nora nodded, watching as her bit took its usual place on Derek’s forearm, but she didn’t speak again. After a few minutes of silence, Nora calmly got up and went to walk along the water’s edge, the waves lapping at her bare feet and dampening the hem of her jeans. Derek let her go, knowing she was tethered snugly. The ocean would always call to Vanora, but it couldn't claim her so long as one of her pack held her bit.
He wondered if his mother had ever feared losing one of her children to the pull of the moon. If she’d watched them struggling for control - especially Derek, who’d always found it much harder than his siblings had to retain control over the wolf parts of himself - and worried the moon might take them. If she’d worried that one of her children might give in to the moon one day - would just cede all control to it - and let it take them, forever. If she had ever been afraid that Derek - or one of his siblings - would one day decide that being a wolf was easier than being a human and shed their human skin for good. He wondered if this fear he had that Nora would give in at some point and let the water control her was something Talia would have understood; sympathized with. If she would have told him it was a normal fear to have.
Derek wasn’t sure - didn’t know if the pull of the moon could ever really compare to the pull of the water, when one factored in that the moon’s pull waxed and waned - but he did know that he wasn’t alone in his fear. And as long as he and Stiles were a team, he knew they could get through anything.
The woman’s lips twitched up, and she rolled her pretty blue eyes. “Honestly, Stiles. I’m surprised you didn’t figure it out on your own. The Hale pack is quite prolific. Surely you know the symptoms.”
Stiles blinked again, then said pointedly. “Pretty sure one of the symptoms is missed periods, Ava. Something I decidedly do not have, seeing as I am without the appropriate organs for that.”
“Ah.” Ava bit her lip, clearly trying not to laugh, then schooled her face into something resembling sympathy. “If I’d realized how lacking your education was, I’d have explained this much sooner. You’re a spark, Stiles; a very strong and actively practicing one who’s also Emissary to a powerful pack. You’re mated to the alpha of that pack. This is hardly unprecedented, or even rare.”
“Oh.” Stiles pressed a hand to his stomach, which had been getting a little thicker lately but he’d just put that down to his love of curly fries and milkshakes, as well as getting older. At thirty-one, he was no spring chicken after all, and his metabolism was bound to slow down at some point. Finally, he asked softly. “So, how far along...?”
“I’d say you’re about four months along.” Ava reached out and patted his shoulder with a motherly smile, though she was probably only a year or two older than Derek. “We’ll know more precisely after the first ultrasound, which you’ll want to schedule before leaving today.”
Stiles nodded, head still spinning dizzily. By the time he finished up at her office and managed the drive back to Beacon Hills and the house in the Preserve, he’d blown through stunned, gone straight passed panicked, and landed somewhere squarely in the middle of exceedingly pissed off. The emotion felt oddly comfortable after the rollercoaster he’d spent the previous hour on and he let himself ride the crest of it easily. He slammed his way into the house, magic crackling around him like a lightning storm, his entire countenance screaming fury.
“Daddy?” Nora’s tone was cautious as she paused halfway down the lowest section of stairs, off to Stiles’ right just a little. “Is...is something wrong?”
“Where.” Stiles bit out from behind clenched teeth, doing his best not to unleash his temper on his innocent daughter. “Is. Derek.”
“Um...” Nora flicked her eyes in the direction of the hallway that lead to the library, then looked back at Stiles. “I think Papa’s in the library, reading to Ryu. What’s wrong? What happened?”
Stiles was about to answer when Derek came striding up the hallway, face anxious, holding Ryu. Ryu, who was going to be four in a month...and who was a handful...and who Stiles would now have to juggle with a new baby. “Stiles, what’s wrong?”
“Nora...” Stiles did his best to keep his voice calm, but he knew he was failing by the way Nora startled. She’d turned fifteen two months ago and this wasn’t the first time she’d seen Stiles lose his temper but he rarely lost control of his magic and the way it was sparking in the air around him was making her justifiably nervous. “I want you to take Ryu upstairs. Please. I need to have a word with your father.”
The coltish teenager hurried down the rest of the stairs to take her brother from Derek, then just as quickly bolted back up them again. It left Derek and Stiles standing across the entry hall from each other, the air full of anger and tension and Stiles’ magic. Stiles almost wished Derek would speak again. That he would ask what was wrong so Stiles could start unloading everything building up inside of him. But Derek just stood there, staring at him with a confusion that bordered on bewilderment, waiting.
Finally, Stiles hissed. “Did you know?”
Derek’s expression turned wary. “Did I know what?”
“Don’t you dare play stupid with me, Derek Hale!” Stiles snapped, practically vibrating with his anger now. “I swear to god, if you knew and you didn’t tell me, I’m going to castrate you! I shouldn’t have had to find out like this. I shouldn’t have been told by someone else. So if you knew you were going to be a fucking father again and you kept it from me, I swear on everything, I will-”
“Stiles!” Derek shouted, cutting him off and looking pale and shaken. “Stiles, stop. What...what the hell are you talking about? I’m not...no! You know I’d never be unfaithful. I don’t know what would make someone lie about that, why anyone would claim I’d gotten them pregnant, but I swear, you’re the only one I’ve been with. I promise you, Stiles.”
And oh. Well, that answered whether or not Derek was aware Stiles could get pregnant, anyway. Stiles felt the anger drain out of him so fast he got dizzy. The world spun sickeningly and Derek was suddenly holding him bridal-style against his chest, striding towards the living room. He placed Stiles carefully on the sofa, and he was saying something but Stiles couldn't focus on what because the world was still spinning and his vision was blurry around the edges and a metallic taste was at the back of his throat.
“I’m going to be sick.”
“Shit, Stiles...” Derek was suddenly thrusting a small garbage can - the one from under the desk on the far side of the room - into Stiles’ lap.
Stiles heaved a few times, but he hadn’t eaten since breakfast and he’d been sick at the doctor’s office, so there was nothing left to come up but some sickly-sweet bile that burned and made his teeth feel fuzzy. Stiles wondered blearily where Derek got the glass of water he pressed into Stiles’ hands, urging him to rinse his mouth, but decided it didn’t matter. He scrubbed roughly at his teeth with a single finger, mouth full of water, before spitting it out. It didn’t help much, but it was better than nothing. As Derek moved the garbage can and water glass off to the side, Stiles let his head loll back against the arm of the couch he’d somehow wound up stretched out on.
When Derek was back at his side, kneeling on the plush blue carpeting they’d chosen together a few years ago when they’d redone the room, Stiles said softly. ”Ava says I’m pregnant.”
For a moment there was silence, then suddenly Derek was howling and whoever else was in the house - Stiles wasn’t really sure which pack members were present - was echoing the sound. As the sound died out and pack members rushed in, Stiles found himself with Derek’s ear pressed to his belly, clearly listening for the heartbeat he’d wondered if the alpha had heard and kept silent about. Obviously Derek hadn’t heard it, which made Stiles a hell of a lot less angry than he’d been. He glanced up at the pack - and holy shit, nearly all of them were there, which Stiles really could have done without for this particular revealing moment - and then nodded towards the door with a pointed look.
Lydia immediately nodded back and began shooing everyone out, until it was only Stiles and Derek and their two children. Ryuichi was being held by Vanora, his face peeking out from where he’d half-hidden it in Vanora’s neck, her long green-black hair obscuring him a bit. And Stiles wondered what this would do to their family, having a baby who was his and Derek’s by blood. Stiles couldn't imagine loving any child more than he loved Ryu and Nora, but he wondered if they would feel at all displaced by the new baby. Wondered if this would hurt the children they already had, something he would never do if he could avoid it.
“Papa...?” Vanora asked, voice hesitant. It brought Derek’s head up, a look of wonder and love on his face, and she added. “Is Daddy really pregnant?”
“I think so.” Derek answered, voice hoarse with emotion. “There...there’s a heartbeat. I don’t know how I missed it, except that I wasn’t expecting it so...I don’t know. I should have known.” He shot Stiles an apologetic look. “I’m so sorry I didn’t realize.”
“S’okay.” Stiles reassured him, reaching down to stroke his fingers through Derek’s hair, a fond smile curving his lips because Derek was looking at him like he’d hung the moon and that...that was something Stiles didn’t think he’d ever get tired of. “Are you happy?”
“Ecstatic.” Derek whispered back, leaning in to kiss Stiles softly on the mouth before ducking his head down to press a kiss to his belly. “You’re the best, Stiles. The perfect mate. Every time I think you’ve stopped surprising me, you find a way to give me more.” He rested his cheek on Stiles’ stomach and smiled up at the younger man. “I love you. And I can’t wait to meet our newest child.”
Stiles looked over at Vanora and Ryuichi, asking softly. “And you two? How do you feel about getting a new brother or sister?”
Ryuichi spoke first, voice high and strident with the confidence only small children could manage. “I want a brother to play with.” Derek laughed against Stiles’ stomach as their son added. “But I can love a sister if I have to.”
There was a pause, then Stiles raised an eyebrow at his daughter. “And you, Vanora? How do you feel about all of this?”
“I want you to keep my bit.” Nora whispered, and Stiles made an aggrieved sound when a tear slipped down her cheek, followed swiftly by another.
She put Ryu down and Derek scooped the little boy up, moving them both out of the way as Nora threw herself onto the sofa, curling up against Stiles and sobbing. “Please. Please, Daddy. I love you all so much and I’m so scared I won’t be able to control myself. I love you, and I don’t want to lose you. Not any of you, and not the new baby, and I...can’t you just keep it?” She was crying harder now, her thin frame shaking with it, and Stiles didn’t know what to say as she begged him.
“It doesn’t hurt me, Daddy. It just keeps me safe.” Nora lifted her head, green eyes wide and damp and pleading as she whispered. “Please, Daddy. Please just keep it.”
“Vanora...” Stiles pulled his daughter close him, shushing her soothingly while rubbing circles into her back. His shirt was growing damp from her tears and the sound of her misery was breaking his heart. “Baby girl, I love you more than I can put into words. You know that. And that’s why I can’t say yes.” He pressed a kiss to her hair even as she let out a keening sound of anguish and promised. “I won’t rush you. We can take your control lessons at your own pace, I swear. But baby, you have to learn. It’s not fair, keeping you chained your whole life. I know you can do this, okay?”
Finally, Nora sniffled wetly and raised her head, nodding. “Okay, Daddy. I’ll keep trying.” She patted his stomach and added. “I just...I love you all so much. And it scares me, that if I screw up I might lose you.”
“I believe you’d find your way back to us.” Derek told her softly, moving closer with Ryu now that the worst of her tears had passed. “I know the water would hold you for a while, but Nora, baby girl...you love us and we’re your pack and there’s a bond there that no magic can break. So maybe the water could steal you for a time, but I believe you’d come back. That our love - our pack bonds - would be strong enough to pull you back.”
“Thank you.” Nora whispered, smiling through the tears. “For loving me, and for believing in me.”
And as they all curled into each other - Ryu oddly quiet for once, but seeming to understand that his sister was hurting and petting her soothingly despite not fully grasping what all the drama was about - Stiles wondered how he’d gotten so lucky. Because his pack - his family - was everything he’d ever wanted and a thousand things more he’d never thought to wish for but was grateful for anyway.
Now Stiles was talking sleepily with his dad, mostly about how he couldn't wait to go out in public again. He’d been secluded in their home since his belly had gotten too big to hide, since a pregnant man wasn’t something easily explained away. Derek had felt guilty about it, but Stiles had seemed content enough with his ability to wander the preserve and with their ever-growing pack to keep him company. And, of course, with a wide assortment of supernatural friends in the area, he’d had no shortage of visitors looking in on him. It was clear now, though, that he was quite eager to resume mundane tasks such as grocery shopping.
Derek shifted across the huge bed he and Stiles had shared for over fourteen years, moving further from his husband and mate and closer to his daughters. Vanora turned her head, smiling at him. “Papa, can you pass me my bit, please?”
Stiles’ head snapped around so fast Derek was certain he heard his husband get whiplash. He tensed a little, but nodded because Vanora’s bit belonged to her and, if she wanted it, he had no right to refuse. “Sure. Let me just give Tala to Poppop and then I’ll put it on you.”
“I can hold her.” Vanora said simply, the same soft smile still curving her lips. When Derek hesitated, her lips shifted into a small pout and her too-green eyes went wide and pleading. “Please, Papa? Trust me?”
Derek glanced at Stiles, and the younger man nodded slowly. “We’re in the house, Der. Not in direct sight of water, or even all that close to any. There’s plenty of pack between her and any outside points of egress. It seems safe enough, even if she’s holding Tala.”
Trusting Stiles’ opinion on the matter, Derek reached out and curled his fingers around the back of Nora’s neck. Her bit shimmered into view just as he lifted his hand away, her hair covering it seconds later as it settled back into place now that Derek’s arm and hand weren’t in the way. Nora hummed softly, and Derek sucked in a startled breath when he felt a soft tug on his pack bond with her. Beside him, Stiles and Noah gasped as well, clearly feeling something similar. It wasn’t uncomfortable; more like someone - Nora, apparently - had strummed her fingers over the bonds, like someone testing the strings on a harp. It was resonate, but not unpleasant.
“What did you do?” Stiles asked, sounding impressed.
Nora shot him a blinding smile. “I realized why I was having trouble with control, and I fixed it. I can hold my bit from now on.”
Noah was the one who finally asked the question Derek was sure they were all thinking. “How did you fix it?”
“My bit was my anchor when I was little because my bit pulls me, the same way the water does.” Nora explained, voice soft and sweet as she did her best not to wake Tala. The infant was sleeping peacefully in her arms, and made her feel settled and content. “But my bit can’t pull me away from the water when it’s on me. So I needed a new anchor. One that was strong enough to pull me back from the water’s call.”
Derek blinked, because he hadn’t even thought to suggest Nora use something other than her bit as an anchor. The bit had anchored her for her whole life; he hadn’t realized something else could. “What did you choose?”
“My pack, of course.” Nora laughed softly when everyone gaped at her in surprise. “Papa, it was you who gave me the idea. You said you were sure that my pack bonds would lead me back home, if the water ever managed to claim me. And I thought about what was stronger - the water, or my pack - and when I realized it was the pack, and how much I love you all, it seemed so easy. I’m anchored to you all because we chose each other and there’s nothing stronger than that. Not even the water.”
“It’s how I anchor against the moon.” Derek admitted, glancing at Stiles with a soft look. “My pack reminds me of my humanity and that gives me the strength to stay in control.”
“Love anchors best.” Nora agreed, leaning into Derek’s side and resting her head on his shoulder. “The water tries to call me home, but my home is here, with the family who raised me and made me one of their own. No call is stronger than that; than home and pack.”
Derek had to agree.
“You’re beautiful, baby girl. Always. No matter what shape you take.” Stiles could feel tears stinging his eyes, because his daughter was so grown up now; well on her way to adulthood. “I’m proud of you.”
Derek was playing with Tala at the water’s edge, carefully because the baby was only just starting to walk and was fairly unstable. Stiles apologized to her on a daily basis for her lack of coordination and grace, her clumsy nature clearly inherited from him. Ryuichi was playing in the water as well, though at five he could swim quite well and required only the bare minimum of supervision. Especially since Vanora could reach him in seconds if he started to drown. The water was her domain, after all.
When Vanora shifted back, her t-shirt and jeans were clinging to her damp skin and she was laughing in delight. Her arms were around Stiles seconds later, snuggling into him happily. “I did it! Daddy, I shifted, I really did, and I went swimming like that, and then I came back.”
“You did good, Nora.” Stiles nuzzled into her wet hair, still feeling a little choked up but also overwhelmed with love and pride. “You’re growing up so fast. I can’t believe you’re sixteen already.”
“I could be fifty and I’ll still be your baby girl.” Nora promised, letting herself feel small again as she curled into Stiles’ embrace. “I love you, Daddy.”
Stiles nodded, then asked softly. “And you’re happy, baby girl? I mean really happy?”
Nora smiled against his shoulder at the familiar words. “I’m happy. I have you, and Papa, and Poppop. I have Ryu and Tala. I have all my aunts and uncles and cousins. I have a whole pack, to love and be loved by, who anchor me to where I belong; to my home. Of course I’m happy.”
And if Stiles heard any trace of uncertainty or hesitation in his daughter’s voice, he didn’t say a word about it. So Nora didn’t either.
But Nora also knew that something was missing.
So, at the huge graduation party for her and Adam and a couple of their other - supernatural - classmates, Nora tugged her best friend aside and asked him the biggest favor she could imagine. He said yes, and promised to be there when she told her parents, and it eased something inside her chest. Some tight and terrified part of her, which settled down - just a little - once she had Adam’s support. Because everything was just a little easier when he was there.
The next morning, Adam stood side-by-side with Vanora as she faced her family. Tala was three and relatively unconcerned with anything as she played on the floor. Ryuichi was seven and curious enough to sit calmly on the couch between his dads, waiting to see what his big sister was going to say. Then there was Stiles, face open and curious and utterly calm. And, of course, Derek - the newest Alpha Hale in a long, long line of them - who was the one Adam was most worried about. Vanora seemed more concerned with Stiles, but Adam had always thought the emissary was far more laidback than his alpha-mate.
“Daddy, Papa...” Vanora squeezed Adam’s hand tightly, anxious but determined to do this. “I need you to ask me my question again.”
Stiles and Derek shared a look over Ryu’s head, then they looked back at her and Derek asked softly. “Are you happy, baby girl? Are you really happy?”
“I am.” Vanora assured them, though her voice wobbled a bit, breaking around the edges of some of her words as she continued. “I love you all, so much. This is my home, and Papa you will always be my alpha. I have not just a family, but a pack, and I think maybe I’m the only kelpie in the whole history of the world to have that. I will always be able to find my way back here, because the pull of pack is stronger than any distance and stronger than the magic in my blood that calls me away. But...”
Vanora’s breath hitched awkwardly, but she pushed on. “But it does call me away. To a place that smells of heather and peat moss fires and salty air. To a land that borders the sea in places, and has gorgeous lowlands in others, and rises in unforgiving highlands in others still. To a place that’s green and lovely in summer but harsh and unforgiving in the colder months. To a place I’ve never been, at least as far as I know, but which I remember anyway. A place I know I have to see, or I’ll never be satisfied.
“And I know...” Nora sniffled a little, then said bravely. “I know that no matter how strong the call of that land is, and no matter how much I love it, I will come back. And what makes me the happiest is that I know that I can. I know that when I do come back, you’ll all be here. Waiting for me. Missing me. Loving me. And what I need right now, more than anything, is for you to understand why I’m going. Why I need to do this.”
“Of course we understand.” Stiles said, and she could tell he meant it. “But do you have to go alone? Is that really the wisest thing to do?”
“She won’t be alone.”
Everyone turned to stare at Adam when he spoke, except Vanora who stood beside him with pink cheeks and stared intently at the floor.
“I’m going with her.” Adam continued when it didn’t seem like anyone else was going to say anything. “And I swear, if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll bring her home again.”
Nora nodded, leaning into Adam’s side and letting him put his arm around her. “Adam has my bit. He’ll keep it - and me - safe while we’re away. He won’t let me get lost, so far from home. I need to go. I am going. But I’d like to go knowing you’re okay with it.”
“We’ll miss you.”
Derek said the words first, and Stiles quickly echoed the sentiment. Ryu threw himself at his sister’s legs, clinging tightly and telling her he loved her over and over. And Vanora’s heart swelled with love, because no one in the world was more lucky than she was. Surely no one, anywhere, had people this wonderful to love them. So she kissed them all and grabbed a bag and left a stack of letters to her aunts and uncles and cousins and friends; apologies for going and not saying goodbye and promises to come home soon and iterations of love. It could never be enough, but it was all she had. Because she had to go and nothing could make that okay until she was safely home again.
Which meant that all there was to be done...was to leave.
So she left.
Her hair had reached her waist when she’d left, more than two years earlier, and now it curled around her face and ears in a pixie-like cut. She’d always favored jeans and t-shirts and sneakers when she was a child and teenager, but now she was wearing a skirt that flowed around her long legs and a tank top that bared her shoulders and arms to the open air and showed off just how grown up his little girl had become. Beside her, carrying their bags, was Adam. His hair had been a golden-blonde when they’d left but it had darkened to a sort of honey-brown while they’d been away, though his eyes were the same bright blue they’d always been. He wore a simple pair of jeans and a white cotton t-shirt, and stark against his upper arm was Nora’s bit. He looked good, Stiles had to admit; more grown up and filled-out than the teenager he’d been when he’d accompanied Vanora across the ocean.
“Daddy!” Vanora raced across the grass and into his arms, nuzzling into his throat the same way she always had; fitting into him just right. “Oh, I missed you. Where’s Papa, and Ryu, and Tala, and...oh, everybody. And tell me all about this!”
She laughed as she stepped back and pressed her palms to Stiles’ belly, which was curving rather fully, and said chidingly. “No one told me, though I talk to someone at least once a month.”
“We didn’t want you to feel like you had to come back, just for this. It’s a boy, by the way, but we haven’t picked a name yet.” Stiles spoke softly, though he really wanted to shout with joy. “We wanted you to be ready when you came home, not obligated. I...we didn’t know you were coming back. You didn’t say...”
“She wanted it to be a surprise.” Adam said, rolling his eyes as he set three suitcases down on the porch. “You know how she loves surprises.”
Stiles nodded, then pulled Vanora back into his arms. “God, I missed you, baby girl.” He squeezed tight, gratified when Nora pushed into him and squeezed right back. “You’re home now? For good?”
Nora laughed, the sound wild and delighted and carrying thunder behind it though Stiles wasn’t sure how. “I’m back, Daddy. Forever. This is my home, and I missed it while I was away. But I learned so much about my magic, and I met other kelpies, and I...oh, it was wonderful. I kept a journal, and I’ll tell you everything, of course. But right now, I just want the whole pack to crawl into yours and Papa’s bed so I smell like you all again. Please?”
“Of course.” Stiles laughed as well, overwhelmed with joy at having his daughter home.”I’ll have to make a few phone calls, since pretty much everyone is out, but we can have some tea and cookies while we wait for them to get here.”
As Nora and Adam followed him into the house, Stiles knew he’d never be happier than he was in this moment. He had three beautiful children, and a fourth on the way. His daughter was home again, and it seemed like she’d chosen her mate. His alpha, husband, and mate was Derek Hale, who was undoubtedly the best person Stiles had ever met and his best friend, too. All was right in their little corner of the world.
It wasn’t long before Derek came home, his two middle children and father-in-law in-tow, and the rest of the pack already back or not far behind. Soon enough, they had all curled up on the enormous bed Stiles and Derek had shared for nearly twenty years.
As the Hale pack - grown from nearly nothing to a pack to rival almost any for size and power - settled in to silently welcome home their wayward member (and her mate), the magic of the Hale territory opened its arms and welcomed her back as well.
And right there, it rained a little harder.
~ The End ~