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Just Breathe

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            Sometimes in his life, there were things Derek did that he didn’t regret. He didn’t regret moving back to northern California after college, or picking an apartment a few towns over from his hometown. He didn’t regret spending his summers out in the preserve his family owned, helping his older sister repair the house their family used to live in when he was a kid. He didn’t regret seeking out and gifting the bite to small handful of humans, and he certainly didn’t regret how close they had all become as a part of his pack.

            What he did regret was giving them all keys.

            “It’s only a few classes, Derek,” Boyd said, exasperated. “We wouldn’t be asking you to go if I could possibly skip this, but they need me to wrap things up overseas so everyone else- Derek! Are you even listening?”

            Derek scrunched his eyes shut and when he opened them, Boyd and Erica were still standing in his family room, staring at him. He sighed. “I’m listening. I told you to take the classes earlier.”

            “You are being such a baby,” Erica told him with an eyeroll that would have made Laura proud. “You’re supposed to be an alpha. Our alpha.”

            “If you two had started this whole deal when I first suggested it-” Derek began.

            “Oh my god,” Erica groaned, uncrossing her arms and reaching for his phone. “I’m calling Laura.”

            Derek shot upright at that, putting his hand over the phone before Erica could get to it. “No you’re not,” Derek said. “Unless you’re planning on asking her to go with you.”

            “Your sister lives too far away, and you know it,” Erica told him.

            “Look, take Isaac with you,” Derek said reasonably. Isaac was better with people than Derek was, and they all knew it. “He likes kids.”

            “There aren’t any kids,” Boyd pointed out.

            “No, just lots of cranky pregnant ladies,” Derek countered, snatching his arm back before Erica could hit him. They exchanged glares. “One is more than enough for me.”

            Boyd groaned, rolling his eyes up toward the ceiling, obviously counting to ten in his head before he spoke again. “I have to be out of the country. Laura is far away, Isaac has school, and you chose to turn orphans so guess what? You’re our family, and you’re going with Erica to her lamaze class while I’m away.”

            “You are fully capable of surviving casual encounters with real human beings for a couple weeks,” Erica added. “I’ve seen you do it.”

“Fine,” Derek relented, keeping a straight face despite how much he wanted to smile at how Erica’s eyes lit up.

            Of course he was going to go anyway. There was no way he wasn’t going to have his nose in Erica’s business for the next few months of her pregnancy; her child would be the first werewolf born into his pack. It was exciting, regardless of how he felt about sitting in a cramped room with a gaggle of pregnant ladies learning how to survive the pain of childbirth. But he rarely missed an opportunity to tease his betas.

            “Do I get to name the kid if I go?” he asked, letting a little bit of a grin onto his features.

            “Not even remotely,” Erica told him.

            “Worth a shot,” he said, shrugging at the look Boyd gave him. Then he clambered to his feet, forcing Erica and Boyd to give him room. He laid a hand on each of their shoulders and began steering them toward the door. “Of course I will go,” he assured them. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world than right here helping both of you however I can.”

            “So you’re kicking us out?” Erica said dryly.

            “You live next door,” Derek reminded her. “You’re not exactly going away, now are you?”

            “Can’t get rid of us that easily,” Erica retorted, but she opened the door to the apartment and let Boyd precede her out. She hesitated just long enough to flash Derek a smile. “I knew you were a softie.”

            “Get out,” he growled, snapping playfully at her as she scooted out the exit.

            He closed the door with a gentle click, but he didn’t leave until he heard them return safely to their own apartment. Tipping his head the other way, he listened for Isaac’s heartbeat on the other side of the hall, but there was only silence. He was probably still at class, Derek told himself, padding across the apartment to his bedroom. As he flopped down onto his bed, he snatched up his cell phone.

            Apparently starting lamaze classes with Erica next Friday.

            He let the glow of the phone’s screen fade as he waited for Laura to reply. When it vibrated back to life, it was Erica’s name attached to the little text.

            YOU OWE ME TWENTY BUCKS FOR TELLING HER

            Laughing, he swiped to the new text that had appeared from Laura while he was reading.

            I knew she’d sucker you into it. Thanks little bro.

            He didn’t bother sending a reply, just set the phone on the night stand and rolled onto his belly to stretch out. Lamaze classes. Newborn wolf pups. Family, pack. He put his face into his pillow, still smiling at how good all of it felt, and that was exactly how he fell asleep.

 


 

            Two weeks later, Derek found himself standing outside the glass doors of a squat, little building with the words Health Resources Center in no-nonsense letters on the front. The sign was even redder than the bricks, glowing a little even in broad daylight. It was a little intimidating, like being stared down by a building, and Derek said so as Erica dragged him through the doors.

            “Don’t be such a baby,” she told him, slim fingers pressed into his upper arm. “And quit dragging your feet or we’re going to be late.”

            “And that would be a tragedy,” Derek said, purposefully walking a little slower.

            She growled at him low in her throat, and he laughed, but relented, stepping faster to keep pace with her. They navigated the industrial-carpeted hallway past six doors to reach the one at the end of the hall. Where a number should have been on the little wooden plaque affixed beside the door, there was instead a puppy silhouette. This seemed particularly unhelpful, as they had been given a room number on the website, and he exchanged a look with Erica that told him she felt the same.

            However, Derek could hear the low murmur of people discussing their pregnancies inside, and he could see at least one couple through the short, narrow hall that lead to the room, so he motioned for Erica to precede him. She shrugged, and he followed her into the classroom.

            He wasn’t sure what exactly he had been expecting - a replica hospital bed, a bunch of desks to learn behind, shelves full of books with weird medical or self-help titles - but it wasn’t the bright, easy atmosphere of the room. It wasn’t the soft work pads or the baskets of what looked like exercise equipment or the very normal looking young people seated in pairs or trios on the mats. At least there was a book shelf along the back wall, and it did appear to have a lot of help books crammed into it.

            “Welcome!” chirped a middle-aged woman at the front of the classroom. She laid her hands gently on the shoulders of the couple she had been talking to, dismissing them with a smile before she waved Derek and Erica into the room. “Welcome to the class! You’re a little early - people usually are to the first one - so feel free to have a look around while we wait for our last couple.”

            “Thank you,” Erica said before Derek could make any corrections to the instructor’s assumptions. He decided he didn’t care; they weren’t going to know anyone here long enough for it to matter if they thought he was with Erica. There were many less-complimentary assumptions people could make, after all. “I’m Erica, and this is Derek.”

            “Oh, yes! That’s wonderful!” she exclaimed as she crossed the room to them. “We don’t see a lot of werewolves in the clinic; you folks have some amazing healing abilities.”

            Erica smiled politely. Though it was decades in the past, there had been a time when werewolves had a good reason to stay away from humans and it had nothing to do with their healing ability. “Unfortunately the healing doesn’t come without the pain.”

            “Of course,” the instructor agreed quickly. “And like my mother always said, it never hurts to have a little more knowledge up your sleeve in a pinch! My name is Pamela.”

            She didn’t touch either of them as she had done with the other couple, which suggested that she knew more about werewolves than Derek had expected her to know. She just indicated an area of the floor where they could have a seat, and Derek helped Erica down next to the small basket of items.

            “It’s actually pretty comfortable,” Erica said, bouncing a little on the soft pad beneath them. It squished a little as Derek sat on it, but it was a lot better than sitting on bare floor. “And look!” She pulled a booklet from the basket and passed it to him. “You can read this instead of being a social creature.”

            He gave her a bland look, but flipped through the booklet anyway. There were little diagrams and charts, the white space in between filled with blurbs of text. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught her picking up what appeared to be a firm, blue ball of some sort and squeezing it gently. Her heartbeat was a little faster than normal, and he reached over and laid one hand over hers.

            When she sighed, he pressed against her shoulder with his own for a second. “You’re going to be fine,” he told her. She huffed in quiet exasperation, and shouldered him lightly away again.

            “I know,” she said. “It’s just… weird. Vernon should be here.”

            “We’ll skype him tonight and you can tell him every detail,” Derek told her.

            “I’m going to make you demonstrate,” she replied before shoving the ball back into the basket.

            Derek wrinkled his nose, but he just turned his attention back to the booklet instead of answering. After a moment, he felt the weight of someone’s stare, and looked up to find the lady on the two mats over watching him with wide eyes. He gave serious consideration to ignoring her and continuing to read about childbirthing techniques, but Erica pinched his leg and he said: “Hi.”

            The woman straightened like someone had put a rod in her spine the second he addressed her. “Sorry!” she breathed, trying to look busy with her own booklet. “I didn’t mean to- I’m sorry.”

            The man with her turned to see who she was talking to, and Derek didn’t know what to say so he just stared. He could feel Erica shaking with barely-contained laughter beside him and vowed to get her back somehow as he managed to come up with “It’s okay, I’m Derek,” like somehow his being Derek would fix whatever human social problem they were currently having.

            “I’m Danielle,” the woman told him softly. “This is David.”

            “Oh,” Derek said. Erica turned her snort of laughter into a cough, but showed no inclination to rescue him. “This is Erica.”

            “It’s nice to meet you,” Danielle said, smiling hesitantly. Her heartbeat skipped and Derek remembered why he hated interacting with humans. They had a lot of phrases they didn’t mean. “Both of you. I’m surprised so many husbands came along for this. I thought it would just be, you know, us ladies.”

            “I think I resent that,” David said from beside her, and she patted his hand just as the instructor began waving for their attention. The sense of relief Derek felt was almost palpable.

            “Since we’re five minutes past,” the instructor began, “I think our last parents may not be showing up, so we’re going to get started. You all have your booklets?”

            Derek passed the reading material to Erica and he contained a sigh when he realized the first part of the class was going to consist of an overview and introductions. He didn’t want to know the rest of these people. He wanted Erica to get her information, maybe some practice, and go home. He was just beginning to regret not signing up for the one day class instead of the five session class when the door banged open.

            A breathless young man spilled into the room, all long-limbs and flushed cheeks, and very nearly toppled to a stop on the pad next to Derek and Erica. Everyone turned to look just as the door opened with much less of a battle and a young, red-headed woman entered behind him. She looked at where the man was flailing for balance and then rolled her eyes.

            “Excuse us,” she said politely. “Sorry we’re late. We got stuck in traffic.”

            “It’s perfectly all right,” Pamela chirruped from the front. “Have a seat, we were just doing introductions.”

            The redhead surveyed the room with a superficial smile. “Well, don’t let us stop you. Sit down, Stiles.”

            The guy dropped to sit like a well-trained dog and Derek couldn’t help but wonder what their home life must be like. Erica let out a breathy laugh beside him as the instructor picked up where she had left off, circling around the room to get everyone’s names. Derek and Erica reintroduced themselves a moment before they learned the redhead’s name was Lydia and her husband’s name was unpronounceable, just call me Stiles. Everyone does.

            “I hate introducing myself,” Stiles confided to Derek when the instructor had moved on to the last two couples. “Like, we’re not in grade school anymore, you know?” He rolled his eyes like Derek was supposed to commiserate with him about how silly the concept was.

            Derek gave him a politely disinterested look and ignored the elbow-jab Erica gave him. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to small talk with a gorgeous stranger; he just didn’t want to small talk with a gorgeous taken stranger. He was bad enough at interacting with humans when his attention wasn’t consumed by counting the beauty marks on their skin or watching their long fingers tap a rhythm against the curve of their knee.

            “I mean, it’s not like we’re going to see anyone here again, right?” Stiles continued, as if Derek’s silence didn’t mean a damn thing. “Maybe if it was another sort of class, like cooking or basket weaving-” basket weaving? Derek thought, unable to keep himself from turning to look at the guy. “-or something. But lamaze, like, you’ve got a kid soon afterward. That’s kind of supposed to consume your whole world, I hear.”

            “Supposedly,” Derek rasped out, entranced by the movement of Stiles’ lips. He was going to have to sit at the front of the class next time, just to avoid him. He glanced to Stiles’ partner, but she was studiously paying attention to the instructor. It didn’t make him feel any better.

            “Hey, did we miss anything?” Stiles asked him, leaning closer, like it was a conspiracy. “I hate showing up late, but man, Third’s like a solid block of cars. There’s a light out, so if you gotta go that way, just-”

            “You do realize we’re supposed to be learning this stuff along with them?” Derek interrupted, gesturing to both Erica and Lydia. Stiles seemed genuinely surprised that he had noticed and was fishing around for some sort of intelligent response.

            “Yeah, but it’s not like we’re going to be actually doing it, right?” he finally said, sounding exasperated. “I mean, having kids!” he corrected quickly. “I mean, obviously, you’ll have a kid, but not like actually-”

            “Stiles,” Derek interrupted, unable to watch Stiles put his foot any further into his mouth. “It’s fine, just.. pay attention.”

            “Right, of course,” Stiles said, studiously facing front. “Paying attention.”

            “Not getting distracted by our handsome neighbors?” Lydia asked, not even bothering to look over at him. She’d clearly been paying attention to the entire conversation instead of the instructor, just like her partner.

            “Definitely getting distracted by them,” Stiles told her, but he stayed stock still, staring at the instructor like she was going to give them the answer to life, the universe, and everything. “But I’m paying attention now.”

Lydia gave a little, breathy puff of exasperated laughter. “I’ll bet,” was all she said.

            Derek waited a few heartbeats, but neither of his neighbors seemed inclined to continue the conversation and so he finally turned his attention back to the booklet in Erica’s hands. She murmured handsome neighbors at him so quietly only another wolf could have heard, and he couldn’t find a good way to elbow her without drawing attention to them both, so he just let it slide.

            He wanted to ignore the guy, to just focus on the reading material and forget Stiles was even sitting next to them at all. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, Derek reasoned, if Stiles wasn’t so damn attractive. All those lanky limbs, the easy smile, the brown eyes so bright and intense they looked positively golden. Even the guy’s hair had Derek shooting furtive glances his way any time he thought it was safe.

            All of which would definitely not have been a problem at all, except that the guy was clearly in the taken-with-a-baby-on-the-way category.

            Which only made it more irritating that he couldn’t seem to stop.

            When the instructor finally told them they were done for the night, Derek was so busy paying attention that he didn’t notice until Erica nudged his arm and made him help her up. They were on their feet and out the door before anyone else, Derek practically fleeing the building to the sound of Erica’s laughter.

            She hadn’t even closed the car door when she said: “So how about that cutie?”

            Derek groaned, grip tightening on the steering wheel. “Can we just not?”

            “We can, but we’re so gonna,” she said gleefully. “I can’t believe you managed to not talk to him the entire class!”

            He sighed, and put the car in reverse. “As titillating as conversation about traffic is, I thought it would be better to listen to what we were there to learn.”

            She snorted. “Can you even name three things Pamela said in that whole entire hour?” When Derek opened his mouth and produced exactly nothing in response, she grinned. “That’s what I thought. But I bet if I asked how many moles were on the right side of Stiles’ face, you could tell me.”

            “Whatever,” he said hotly, and tried to forget all eight moles and told himself freckles didn’t count. Every one of them was taken, and it was none of his business anyway.

 


 

            The second class, Derek made sure that they arrived early enough to attempt a seat at the front of the class. He’d expected they could grab a seat away from any distractions, maybe the mat practically beneath the instructor’s feet. As he drew open the door and let Erica precede him in, he had to stifle a groan at what awaited them.

            “He’s all alone today,” Erica remarked. The glee in her voice was both unmistakable and completely unnecessary, in his opinion.

            He didn’t bother responding, just started skirting the edge of the room where he hoped Stiles would be so engrossed in the book he was holding that he wouldn’t see them. However, Erica was having none of it, raising her hand to wave for his attention. Stiles broke into an unfairly pleased smile when he noticed, snapping the book shut and heading toward them.

            “Hey!” he exclaimed happily when he arrived. “You made it back!”

            Erica tipped her head a little and shot a glance at Derek like she had no idea what he meant, either. “Why wouldn’t we?”

            “Oh, well I just, you know, werewolves,” Stiles said, as if that should explain everything. Derek had to tamp down on the urge to get between Stiles and Erica, protect his pack mate; Stiles hadn’t heard the instructor announce that they were werewolves, and neither he nor Erica had told him. “Faster pregnancies and all. I thought-”

            “How did you know?” Derek demanded. He didn’t care what conclusions the human had drawn from the knowledge. Erica laid a hand on his arm, but it did little to sooth his unease.

            Stiles gave them a funny look. “Everyone knows werewolves have shorter-”

            “How did you know we were werewolves?” Erica asked before Derek could jump in again. “It’s not exactly… it’s not something you can just see.”

            “Oh!” Stiles said in a rush. “Oh! It’s not super obvious, but when you see enough werewolves, you just kinda get used to telling. It’s little things, like, the way you hold yourselves, and that little sniff you give when you come into a room.”

            Derek’s heartbeat faltered when he realized that even though Stiles hadn’t looked up or acknowledged them in any way, he had still noticed them entering. “You’re not a hunter?”

            “No! No, of course not, no,” Stiles assured them, both hands raised defensively. “No, my best friend is a werewolf, I’m kind of… part of the pack. We all hang out a lot, is all.”

            Derek felt himself relaxing, could feel Erica doing the same beside him. “An integrated pack,” she said with a smile. “I like that.”

            “Is yours…?” Stiles inquired, glancing between the two of them.

            “All wolves,” Derek replied. He’d seen packs that kept human members; they were becoming more common, especially in large cities like this. “Six of us.”

            “We have six, too,” Stiles said, breaking into a hesitant smile. “It’ll be seven soon, though! That’s pretty exciting, right?”

            Derek glanced around, suddenly realizing that Stiles wasn’t just standing alone by the books, he was actually alone. “Where’s Lydia?”

            Stiles followed suit, looking around himself like he just realized she wasn’t there. “Oh, she couldn’t make it today,” he said. “Doctor’s appointment. I promised I’d come, though, and teach her everything I learned when I get home.”

            “What a good partner,” Derek said smoothly, smiling despite the curl of disappointment in his belly. “I’m sure she appreciates the support.”

            “It’s really the least I could do,” Stiles says with a laugh. “Allison - our alpha’s mate - drew the short straw on taking her to the appointment; Lydia’s always really cranky afterward.”

            “Can’t imagine why,” Derek said dryly. He’d been to one of those visits. He’d had to drive Erica home while listening to her bitch about the entire appointment, and every reason why no, changing doctors right now would be too much of a hassle, it’s fine, Derek.

            “As nice as this is,” Erica interrupted, “I’m gonna go sit down.” When Derek turned to follow her, she held up her hands to stop him. “No, no, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you from chatting with your new friend!”

            Derek scowled. She was entirely too pleased with herself, abandoning him to interact with the human. The annoying human who was in no way attractive when he tipped his head in ways so reminiscent of a wolf that Derek found himself taking an extra sniff just to be sure he wasn’t.

            “You don’t have to stay,” Stiles told confided to him in a secretive voice, even though they both very well knew that Erica could hear them. “I should probably, you know, pay attention. Lydia’s kind of counting on me.”

            Though he told himself he wasn’t disappointed, he didn’t know what else to call the unpleasant tightness of his chest at the reminder. “Okay,” he said, glancing over his shoulder to where Erica had managed to lower herself onto the floor mat. “You can come sit by us,” he offered lamely. “Erica seems to like you.”

            “Yeah,” Stiles said, the breathy word riding a laugh that sounded like resignation. “Erica does seem to like me.”

            All the words he wanted to say seemed to stick in his throat, so he just retreated to where Erica sat holding her breath so she wouldn’t laugh aloud.

            “I hate you,” he muttered, and she lost it, cackling laughter turning hysterical as she scooted to make room for him. It wasn’t beneath Derek’s notice that Stiles took him up on his offer, plopping down like a little kid on the next mat over.

            Before he had a good chance to say anything else, Pamela whisked through the door like a whirlwind of authority. Erica quieted and leaned into Derek’s side as the instructor strode to the front of the room, setting down bags of what looked like some kind of torture equipment.

            “Hello, hello!” she chirped, ever cheerful. “I hope everyone had a good weekend! We’ll get to breathing and pain management on Wednesday; today I thought we could go into some of the after-birth care, starting with the first thing you’ll be asked to do- breastfeeding and pumping!”

            Beside him, Erica burst into helpless laughter again, earning her a look from the instructor because breastfeeding wasn’t that funny. However, the instructor hadn’t heard Derek offer to let Stiles sit by them in case he needed a partner for anything, and Derek was beginning to question his life decisions. He could hear Stiles’ racing heart without having to turn around, and knew that his own face would be flushed right to the tips of his ears so he just scowled at Erica.

            “You could be-- partners!” she gasped between her attempts to stop laughing. “Oh, please. Stiles!” she said, scooting around to look at him. Derek growled, just under his breath, enough for her  to close her mouth.

            “It… It’s okay,” Stiles assured them, studiously watching Pamela passing out the equipment she’d brought. “I don’t think I really need a partner for this. Those are, like, breast pumps right? They come with instructions.”

            “There are a lot of different types,” Pamela said as she pressed one into Stiles’ hands. It was made of clear plastic with little grey and blue bits and Stiles held it like it might turn into an angry, venomous snake at any second. “So, if you don’t don’t like one, try another. Pumping is something you will have to do quite a lot if you intend to breastfeed, both to keep your milk flowing and to make a back-up supply.”

            Erica took the pump that was offered to her and Derek, and turned it over in her hands. “I heard some people were making ice cream out of it.”

            Pamela stopped before moving to the last couple. “You what?”

            “Yeah,” Erica said with a shrug. “I heard there were some people paying a lot of money for breast milk, to make into ice cream.”

            Derek caught the face Stiles made. “That’s disgusting,” the human said. “Anyway, who would waste it?” He gave the handle a little squeeze and the device made an unpleasant sound. “Babies are voracious eaters, right?”

            An undignified noise escaped Pamela. “They’re not- No, not always,” she told him, obviously trying to maintain authority despite their little group’s best efforts. “Some babies can be very finicky eaters. Some of them are terrible breast-feeders, and in those cases you need to pump to fill bottles.”

            “Or feed them formula and sell it,” Erica said, causing her own pump to mimic Stiles’. Hers appeared to be battery powered, however, and thrummed as well. She raised both eyebrows at Pamela, who opened and closed her mouth like a fish out of water.

            “No one is selling their milk,” Derek interjected, deciding to rescue Pamela before things got out of hand. “It contains a lot of antibodies that newborns need to develop a healthy immune system.”

            He didn’t like the grin that bloomed on Stiles’ face. “Yeah, but c’mon, man. You’re werewolves, right? You don’t need any of that; you’ve got crazy healing powers.”

            “You know what else we don’t need?” Derek said as Pamela took her cue and retreated to the front of the room. “Money. I’m fairly certain we can raise a pup without having to sell breast milk.”

            Stiles flushed a little at that, back-pedaling. “Of course you can!” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to imply-”

            “He’s just grouchy he didn’t think of it first,” Erica told him. “Hey, do you think she’d let us try these on?”

            “I think you could get it on before she noticed,” Stiles said.

            Derek turned to regard him with scrunched eyebrows. “I’m not sure that’s the same thing.”

            Stiles blinked back at him. “Don’t be such a sourwolf. She needs to experience these things”

            “Yeah, Derek,” Erica repeated smugly before he could hackle. She started playing with the pump, not looking at either of them. “I need experience.”

            He sighed and watched the two of them fiddle with the pumps like little kids. It was cute, in an incredibly uncomfortable way, to see a human, a veritable stranger, playing so easily with his pack. Everything, from the way he smelled to the way he held himself, told Derek that it was okay to let him come close to Erica. It made his skin itch until he wanted to scratch himself raw to rid himself of the out-of-place feeling. It shouldn’t be like this. Not with a human.

            It was, though. He watched Stiles correct Erica’s hold on the pump and felt no threat response, no need to interfere. It was just… nice. It was nice to see her smile, to feel like they fit into society in a way werewolves rarely did. It all seemed normal.

            Before he could say anything, the instructor began talking and everyone turned their attention to the front. Stiles tossed Derek a careless, easy smile before turning the entirety of his focus to the front of the room, and it was like watching him flip a switch. One second he was the mischievous, bright-eyed guy chattering easily with Derek’s beta, the next he was laser-focused on the instructor.

            Derek tried to do the same, but his attention seemed to have other plans for the class. Some part of him was aware that the instructor told them about pumping breast milk, and at some point she switched to breast feeding and he was pretty sure there was an interlude where she discussed formula and digestive issues to watch for, but when she asked for questions, the only one he had was what else might Stiles listen to and learn that intently?

 


 

            The classes, as it turned out, were actually a sort of highlight in his life. He reasoned that he did have to spend an hour sitting with Erica learning about childbirth and newborn care, but at the same time, he got to spend an hour with Erica. He had decided that having to sit next to Stiles wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Listening to Erica tease him about it for twenty minutes on the ride home was, but that really just meant Derek could leave grouchy e-mails for Boyd to respond to with “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself so thoroughly.” Jerk.

            At any rate, he figured the classes were a break from his normal routine and it was never so evident as the day after the second class, when he came home to an empty apartment.

            An… actually empty apartment, he realized as he closed the door behind him.

            The throw was gone from the back of his couch, along with both pillows. They were supposed to add life to his living space, according to Erica, and they were the absolute worst shade of green Derek had ever seen. He raised his nose, taking in a few slow breaths, but there were no unusual scents in the air. Nothing to say that an intruder had been there. Only his own scent, stale from the morning, and Erica’s scent over the top.

            “Erica?” he called tentatively, tipping his head to listen for any sign of her.

            Nothing.

            He let his claws out slowly as he paced into the apartment on high alert. He couldn’t hear any other heartbeats, nothing in the kitchen or the bathroom or the bedroom, but when he checked the dish towels with little embroidered wolves on them that Laura had gotten him when he moved in were missing. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he looked in on the bathroom and found the bath towels missing as well. Bewildered, he checked the bedroom, and every last piece of bedding was gone.

            He stood in the middle of his bedroom, staring at the barren bed and trying to determine exactly who or what would come in and steal bedding when there was a $1200 widescreen in the front room. Just to be certain, he opened the thin little linen closet just outside the bathroom, but it too had been stripped of whatever extra material Derek might have had stashed.

            Without another moment’s hesitation, Derek turned and headed for the exit. Erica’s scent was the only other scent in the apartment, which meant that she probably had knowledge of what was going on. Her apartment with Boyd was next door to his own and the front door was open when knocking proved ineffectual. Boyd’s scent was a week stale, swirling up underneath Erica’s as Derek opened the door.

            “Erica?” he called softly. He could hear her heartbeat in the bedroom, but he didn’t want to intrude. He could see that even the cushions on her couch were missing. “Are you okay?”

            He heard her shifting, caught the groggy noise she made as she roused from sleep. “Derek?” she mumbled, not bothering to raise her voice.

            The door clicked shut behind him, and he padded across the fluffy apartment carpet to her room. He had just opened his mouth to ask if her bedding had disappeared as well when he saw where all of his bedding had gone.

            Into the giant nest currently consuming about half of her bedroom.

            The missing couch cushions made up the base of it, with the largest of the blankets laid over them. He could see smaller blankets, towels, curtains, and even clothing -- hers and Boyd’s -- tucked into the wrinkles of the nest. Curled up half-asleep in the middle of it was Erica, giving him a foggy, confused look.

            “What… what’s going on?” she asked, sitting up a little and looking around herself. “What is all of this?”

            He raised both eyebrows and shook his head a little. “You tell me,” he said. “I came home from work and all the bedding in my apartment was gone. I came over to see if you were okay and…” He indicated the massive nest.

            Her brows scrunched and she lifted the closest piece of bedding, an old t-shirt of Boyd’s. “You think I did this?”

            “Or your wolf,” Derek suggested, stepping into the room with his palms up and chin down. She scooted back in the nest, accepting his presence. “It’s possible you experienced a shift beyond your control.”

            The color in her face paled. “Would that hurt the baby?”

            “No,” Derek said quickly. He didn’t know a lot of specifics about pregnancy, but he vaguely remembered his mother shifting when she was pregnant with Cora, and that had been into full wolf form. “You probably looked ridiculous, stalking around the hallways as a betawolf with armfuls of my bedding, but no harm done.”

            She relaxed, lying back against the blankets. “Good,” she said as he crawled over the edge and into the small bowl she’d made. “This is really weird.”

            “You should call Laura in the morning,” Derek said, lifting his arm so that she could snuggle into his side. “I bet she knows exactly what happened, and she’ll tell you it’s all going to be okay.”

            “Okay,” she agreed, closing her eyes. “I’ll call. Thank you for not… freaking out.”

            He smiled, tucking her in a little closer before scooting down to get comfortable. “Nothing to freak out about,” he assured her. “What’s a few blankets between pack mates?”

            “You’re going to send pictures to Boyd, aren’t you,” she accused lightly.

            “You bet I am,” Derek said. She jabbed him in the ribs with one finger and he couldn’t help but laugh.

 


 

            The next class was far less exciting than the first two, though Derek wasn’t certain that was saying much, all things considered. Lydia was back, following serenely after Stiles just as the class was getting ready to begin. The instructor had brought back a set of pumps and gadgets that they had learned last week just for her to see, and Stiles spent a few minutes showing her which ones Erica had liked best and why.

            Derek watched from across the room until Erica elbowed him in the side. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” she told him, and he made a face back.

            “I wasn’t staring,” he said, trying not to feel too cranky about it. He’d been staring. They both knew it. They both knew why he shouldn’t, but he couldn’t seem to stop.

            “Oh?” she said in a tone that meant nothing but trouble. “What exactly were you doing, then? Because it looked a lot like- Hello, Stiles! Good to see you back, Lydia,” she greeted as the couple arrived and started to take a seat next to them.

            “Good to be back,” Lydia said with a smile. “Looks like you guys learned a lot without me.”

            “I’m sure Stiles was able to catch you up,” Erica replied. “He paid very good attention the entire class.”

            Lydia shot Stiles a look that was unmistakably full of pride. “Well, there’s a first time for everything,” she told Erica. Stiles made an undignified noise of protest.

            “Hey, I was perfect,” Stiles told her. She just rolled her eyes, and scooted a little closer to Erica, leaning in conspiratorially.

            “Do you think you could tell me a little more about the blue pump before class starts?”

            Derek missed what followed when Stiles slapped at his shoulder with the back of his hand. “Fast friends,” he remarked, and Derek gave a weak smile in return.

            “I guess,” he admitted. “It’s… weird.”

            “Because we’re not pack?” Stiles asked, tipping his head just-so. It was such a wolf-like gesture for someone who smelled so incredibly human. “You know, our alpha’s not a born wolf. He was bitten when we were in high school.”

            Derek’s brows scrunched. “He wasn’t eighteen?”

            “Nope, sixteen,” Stiles confirmed. “It’s against the law, but I guess there was a rogue alpha in the area. We still don’t know what happened to it, but before it disappeared, it bit Scott.”

            I’m sorry was on the tip of Derek’s tongue, but he knew it wasn’t his fault and the apology wouldn’t change what had happened. “They should never have done that,” he said instead. “I assume he didn’t have a pack to help him through it.”

            Stiles scoffed, nose wrinkling. “What am I, chopped liver? Maybe he didn’t have other wolves, but he had a pack.”

            At the front of the room, the instructor started talking, and Derek dropped his voice. “I didn’t mean to imply-”

            “But you did,” Stiles said under his breath, just loud enough for Derek to hear. He was obviously well-practiced in talking to someone with better-than-normal hearing. “It’s okay, man. We’re kind of a weird little pack, I know that. Just, you know, he was my best friend, still is.”

            Derek swallowed and shifted a little closer, eyes flicking up to the instructor. She was talking to them about the various medications and pain-killers most hospitals use and what each of them does and which ones were easiest to do without. A quick glance to the girls told him that they were soaking up the knowledge just fine without either of the boys.

            “It’s… unique, is all,” Derek admitted. Guilt needled at his insides; Stiles was everything he wanted humans to be but he was having such a hard time believing he was real. However tolerated wolves had become in society, he knew that he couldn’t transform in public, couldn’t actually be himself. “Most people wouldn’t stick around through a transformation. It gets dangerous without someone guiding them through their first moons.”

            “We dealt,” Stiles said with a shrug. A smile cracked his lips. “You know, I didn’t know a whole lot about werewolves by the time he first shifted. I thought I could handcuff him to a radiator and call it good.”

            Derek’s eyes widened and he drew back a little. “Did that work?”

            “No, oh, hell no,” Stiles said, letting out a laugh just loud enough to grab the attention of the instructor, who cleared her throat at them. He ducked his head, the line of his jaw flushing with pink. It was a few moments of listening to the instructor answer some lady’s question about epidurals before Stiles was brave enough to speak again. “He got out in, like, under three minutes. I had to track him down and tranq him with my dad’s gun.”

            “Your dad’s a hunter?” Derek hissed, louder than he intended. They got another dirty look, and a cold feeling swirled around in Derek’s gut until Stiles finally answered.

            “No, he’s not a hunter,” Stiles said hotly. “He’s the sheriff in our hometown. He had the gun for the alpha that was running around.”

            “And he just let you have it?” Derek asked incredulously.

            “Let is a really strong word,” Stiles corrected with a little wince. “I had it back in his car before he noticed it was missing anyway. I wouldn’t have, except Allison -- his mate -- turned up. Now she was a hunter, an archer. She helped me track him down before he got into trouble, and let me bring him in.”

            “She didn’t hurt him?” Derek asked. Memories of Kate flashed through his mind, and he shoved them forcefully away again. Hunters were the worst part of humanity. “Wait, mates?”

            Stiles covered his mouth to contain his laugh, and they both shot furtive looks to the front. The instructor was absorbed in listening to a man who apparently worked in a clinic, explaining about a new drug that was more natural than some of the older ones.

            “It’s a really long story,” Stiles admitted when it was safe. “She’s not a hunter anymore, obviously. She’s more like… a guardian. Anyway, she and her dad helped us tell the other parents what happened and everyone was really cool about it.”

            The others in the room started shifting around, and Derek forced himself to turn away from Stiles to look at Erica for information. “Pain control,” she told him as she scooted a little on the mat. “You’re gonna have to help with this one, so no more puppy eyes at the human for a little.”

            Derek could feel Stiles’ eyes on him, but he resolutely kept his focus on Erica as the instructor taught them how to breathe and how the women should hold their bodies to lessen the pain, and how to push and breathe together. It was a headache, and Derek wondered how Erica was possibly going to remember all of this when the moment came and there actually was an inappropriate amount of pain with which to cope.

            The time passed quickly enough, and Erica seemed to get the hang of it all very quickly. The proud smile she flashed him when the instructor praised her warmed his heart and he reminded himself that he didn’t have to worry so much. Erica was brilliant and strong and she would get through all of this like she got through everything else in life- one moment at a time.

            When the instructor finally released them for the evening, Derek helped Erica to her feet. Beside them, Stiles was doing the same and Derek caught a snippet of their conversation about seeing Scott that weekend and grabbing dinner before going home. Derek wasn’t eaves dropping, but Lydia said more than loud enough that Stiles should invite Derek and Erica along.

            Stiles’ heartbeat shot through the roof the moment the words were out of her mouth. “I’m sure they have other plans, Lyds. We can’t just-”

            “We don’t have plans,” Erica piped up. She apparently had no compunctions about eaves dropping on humans, and they both turned to look at her in surprise. She just shrugged. “Well, we don’t, and I’m starving, and there’s a great little hamburger joint about a block from here.”

            Stiles raised both eyebrows and looked to Lydia as if asking permission. She rolled her eyes so hard it was a wonder they didn’t fall out, but she nodded and motioned for the door. “I’m not going to keep you away from hamburgers,” she said in defeat, then gave both Erica and Derek a look Derek couldn’t interpret. “Or new friends.”

            “You are the literal best,” Stiles said with a huge smile. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek in thanks, and then turned to Erica and Derek. “So, do you two want to come to dinner with us? I hear there are some great hamburgers to be had nearby.”

            It was Erica’s turn to roll her eyes, but she was smiling and Derek could practically smell the happiness she felt. She loved people, and ever since he’d turned her a few years ago, her life had been decidedly lacking in people outside of their pack. He told himself that was why he nodded agreement, and why he followed Stiles out of the classroom.

            He told himself a lot of things as he walked to dinner, listening to Stiles talk, but he could hear his own heartbeat whispering liar with every catch.

 


 

            Stiles sat on the edge of the counter, kicking his heels gently against the cabinet beneath him as he watched Scott checking the roast in the oven. They’d both gotten out of work later than usual, and Scott had had to call Allison to have her take Lydia to the lamaze class. She’d left the two of them in charge of the roast and I swear to god, Stiles, if you let him dry it out again I will castrate you, don’t think I don’t know how.

            So, Stiles was making certain that Scott was meticulous about keeping an eye on the food, much to Scott’s exasperation he was certain. “I kinda miss it,” Stiles said as Scott closed the oven. “The class.”

            “You miss child-birthing class?” Scott said, giving him a deadpan look as he removed the oven mitts and placed them on the counter beside the oven.

            “Well, I mean not- Yeah, kind of,” Stiles countered. It had sounded more convincing in his head. “I was learning a lot.”

            “Lydia says you were talking a lot,” Scott said idly, leaning against the counter opposite Stiles and giving him a knowing grin. “To a certain alpha werewolf.”

            With an overzealous scoff, Stiles rolled his eyes. “You can’t just not talk to your neighbors, okay? He’s just sitting right there on the next mat, being all-” Stiles waved his hands around like it was supposed to indicate exactly what Derek was.

            “Hot and taken?” Scott supplied helpfully.

            “Yes, thank you,” Stiles said. “I was looking for the exact words to express how amazingly tragic my life is right now, but that about sums it up.”

            Scott gave him a weird look, and crossed his arms. “You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to,” he offered. “I’m sure Allison could take her to the last class, too.”

            “No it’s- it’s not- it’s okay,” Stiles said, shaking his head and then sighing. “I mean, yeah, it’s fun talking to him and imaging all the places we’re definitely never going, but I kind of promised Lydia I’d be there for her. Besides, it’s been kinda fun pretending to be a dad.”

            “Yeah?” Scott asked, a fond little smile edging onto his lips. “You know, you could be like Lydia, and just do it by yourself. I mean, obviously not completely by yourself, but I know you could adopt a kid.”

            “Yeah… it’s not exactly easy for single people to adopt kids, Scott,” Stiles said, kicking his heel against the cabinet. Scott let out a little huff and annoyance and Stiles stopped and looked up to the ceiling. “Besides, part of it’s getting to raise a kid with someone. Both of you teaching them stuff, watching them grow up and all that. So, whatever.”

            “I get it,” Scott said. He made a face when Stiles nodded toward the oven to indicate he should check on the roast again. “I do get it, Stiles. I’m just saying you don’t have to wait to find the right person to do that with.”

            “I might have to wait anyway, if you and Allison are any sort of example,” Stiles said pointedly, thoroughly enjoying the way Scott flushed at the reminder. “When are you two getting on that, again?”

            “We’re not,” Scott said firmly. “Seriously, you and I have this conversation every week.”

            “I keep hoping I’ll get to be a grandpa someday,” Stiles said, like it was perfectly reasonable. It was, in his opinion. He should get to be a grandpa to Scott’s kids.

            “Dude, you wouldn’t be a grandpa even if I had kids,” Scott told him. It was an old argument. It sounded like an old argument, the way he said it.

            “Great Aunt?” Stiles suggested, somehow managing to keep a straight face. “I could totally pull off Great Aunt Stiles.”

            “Is it too late to ask for a new best friend?” Scott asked the roast. “I want a refund. I think this one is defective.”

            “I think you mean perfect,” Stiles countered, kicking his heel against the cabinet for emphasis. And maybe a little to annoy Scott, he admitted to himself. But just a little.

            “I think I mean what I said,” Scott said as he returned to leaning against the counter.

            “What if I adopt a kid and tell her that you’re her great aunt?” Stiles wondered, tipping his head a little.

            “I would be the best great aunt in the world,” Scott told him.

            “Would you wear a sundress and big sunglasses and teach her how to drink iced tea?” Stiles asked.

            “I’d teach her to howl at the moon and how to bury bones in the backyard,” Scott said.

            “You’re so fired from being a great aunt,” Stiles said with a shake of his head as they both ceased being able to keep straight faces, their laughter pinging around the kitchen. When they finally settled once more, Scott gave one last, amused snort.

            “You’d make a great dad,” he said softly.

            “Yeah,” Stiles agreed, fingers tightening on the counter. “Maybe someday I’ll just adopt a kid, whether or not I find someone to share with. Lydia’s doing it all by herself, how hard can it be?”

            “Amazingly hard, dude,” Scott said. “But you wouldn’t be alone. Lydia’s not alone, either. You’d have us. You know we’d all have your back if you wanted to do it.”

            “I know, and I appreciate that, man,” Stiles told him, smiling ruefully. “It just, you know, it would be great.”

            He could feel Scott watching him, and when he looked up, Scott gave him one of his best, adorable-puppy smiles. “It would. And, honestly, I’ve thought about it. With Allison. It’s just… intimidating, you know? You become responsible for this tiny human being and all the stuff that goes into shaping a child into an adult. That’s a lot of responsibility. I still leave the toilet seat up sometimes, I don’t know how I would take care of a child.”

            “Well, I’ve got good news,” Stiles said gently. Scott looked up and Stiles spread his arms to indicate the kitchen, the apartment, and everything it meant. “It wouldn’t be just you. We’d all be there for you, too.”

            Scott broke into a slightly embarrassed smile. “Thanks, man.”

            Stiles returned the smile. “Now check the roast. Allison will be home soon.” They made faces at one another, but Scott pushed away from the counter and did exactly that.

 


 

            If there was one place on the entire face of the planet that Derek hated more than any other, it was the mall. It reeked of humans, so many humans, and of all the food from the food court, and all of the brand new merchandise that still smelled of factory and transport. It never smelled clean and there were always people pressing in from every direction, and on top of all of that, it was loud. It was so incredibly, unfathomably loud that Derek had a headache after only a few minutes.

            “We’ll be quick,” Erica promised him, her own nose wrinkled at the cloying scents all around them. “Isaac, see if you can find the shops we need on the mall map?”

            With a nod, Isaac slipped away, maneuvering through the crowd like it wasn’t even there. Derek stood tensely at Erica’s side, alert for any sign of danger to her or Isaac, watching his beta run a finger just above the glass of the map. With any luck they had managed to park at the correct entrance, closest to the baby outlet store.

            “It’s down the right hand hall,” Isaac said, speaking just loud enough for them to hear him over the bustle of the crowd. It was a Thursday, Derek thought. Was all this shopping really necessary on a Thursday? “Just past the food court.”

            “Okay,” Derek said. “Start heading that way.” He held out his hand to Erica, who took it gladly, and began to intimidate his way through the crowd on an angle to intercept Isaac. They met up a few yards down the hall, where the crowd thinned away from the entrance. Up ahead was the large, open food court and thankfully most of the people gathered in and amongst the tables rather than in the hallway.

            “So many people,” Isaac complained, sticking close to Derek’s side. Of all the pack, he was the one who liked people the least. He didn’t want to be touched, didn’t want to be looked at. Derek would have happily killed Isaac’s father if the deed hadn’t already been done by another.

            “We’d be somewhere else if there was another baby store that was closer,” Derek said. “But Laura sent us here, so here we are.”

            “Maybe Laura can come here herself, next time,” Isaac groused. But he didn’t press the issue any farther, and Derek let it go.

            The food court, as they passed it, was every horrible thing Derek remembered it being. A horde of humans making chewing noises and small talk while eating so many different kinds of food the smells became overwhelming. Derek started breathing through his mouth just as Erica swatted his arm.

            “Look!” she said excitedly, pointing into the sea of people. “It’s Lydia and Stiles!”

            Derek scanned the crowd, eyes catching on the ruffled hair of the obnoxiously perfect and clearly taken human. “Wonderful,” he said flatly, starting to move in the opposite direction. When neither of his betas proceeded to follow, he turned back around and contained a long-suffering sigh.

            “Who’s Lydia and Stiles?” Isaac asked, trying to pick out their unknown faces from the rest of the humans.

            Erica pointed again. “Third table, fourth row,” she said. “The redhead and the guy next to her.”

            “Which one?” Isaac asked. There were two guys on her side of the table, one at each of her elbows, and another boy and girl across from her.

            “The one with enough spots to be Bambi.,” Erica snickered. Derek shoved her shoulder lightly at the remark. Stiles wasn’t that young.

            Isaac whistled low and smirked at Derek. “He’s cute,” he said. “You have good taste.”

            “Not,” Derek told him. “He’s with the girl. We met them at lamaze class.”

            “Oh. Really Derek?” Isaac said, turning back to look at the small group. He squinted a little and tipped his head. “You like the- hey, isn’t that… isn’t that guy on the other side the McCall alpha?”

            “What?” Derek asked, taking a step forward and looking closer. There was a guy on Lydia’s other side, talking animatedly at the two across from him. Derek couldn’t pick his voice or scent out of the crowd, but the almost-fluffy hair and offset jawline were vaguely familiar, like maybe Derek had seem the guy on the street.

            It would make sense, he reasoned, if Stiles was out with his pack. There were only five of them, but it seemed likely. Isaac was nodding as he watched the little group talk. “Yeah, that’s Scott McCall. His pack just moved in a couple months ago from Cali.”

            “You met them?” Derek asked. There was a time he might have been able to excuse his curiosity as being concerned for his pack’s territory, but living within a large city’s boundaries meant that his pack had to forfeit holding a large territory. He was just curious, and both Isaac and Erica smiled because they knew it.

            “I ran into their alpha the week they moved in,” Isaac said. “Caught his scent at the grocery store.”

            “And you didn’t feel compelled to mention this at any point between then and now?” Derek asked casually. A guilty blush colored Isaac’s cheeks.

            “I sort of just… forgot?” Isaac offered sheepishly. “It was a busy day, and I thought he’d come say hello.”

            For a moment, they all stared at the other pack, and then Erica straightened up a bit. “We should go introduce ourselves!” she said happily.

            Derek grabbed her arm before she could make it too far away. “We came here to get baby supplies,” he reminded her. “And they don’t need us invading their outing.”

            “Who’s invading?” Erica said, shrugging out of his grasp. “They’re practically friends!”

            He moved faster than she did, getting between her and the other pack. “Then if they are friends, we don’t need to introduce ourselves. We have errands to run, and I don’t want to be here longer than we have to.”

            “What errands?” Erica scoffed, though she backed off. “We have to pick up one-”

            “Erica.”

            She rolled her eyes, her body following the motion, and sighed. “Okay, whatever. You’re the alpha.”

            “Yes I am,” Derek agreed, steering both of his betas away from the food court and in the direction of the baby-goods store.

            If he had waited just a moment longer or the crowd hadn’t been quite so loud, he might have seen Scott lean toward Lydia and Stiles. He might have seen the other alpha point to them, or heard him ask Stiles why they were being stared at for so long. He might have seen Stiles look up in time to catch a glimpse of them as they sank into the anonymity of the seething sea of mallgoers.

            If he hadn’t been quite so intent on getting away, he might have heard Stiles reply that yes, that was the hot, taken werewolf he had a crush on, please stop pointing, Scott.

            But the crowd had already swallowed them up, and he didn’t notice any of it.

           


 

            Since the debacle with the bedding, Derek had allowed Erica to sleep over at his apartment. Laura had told them that sometimes nesting instincts would take over as wolves neared their due date, and Erica was only a couple of weeks away now. Derek had helped her to recreate the nest of bedding, sans his own and some of the towels and necessary soft things for the apartment, though she had mostly been sleeping in Derek’s bed.

            He’d taken to sleeping on the couch, though she insisted that he drag it into the hall so he would be close. No matter how many times he explained that he could hear her perfectly no matter where he was in the house in relation to her, she had continued just staring at him until he started dragging the couch. She’d sat down on it for good measure, staring at him as he moved it into the hall.

            “You’ll have to climb over it if something happens,” he told her as they sat on it afterward, her feet in his lap for a massage.

            “I have faith you’ll move it,” she mumbled, eyes closed as she enjoyed his hands working out the soreness her healing powers had gotten fatigued with soothing.

            In a way, they were both right. As he had said he would, Derek heard her call for him despite that he was in the kitchen making a bowl of cereal because he couldn’t sleep. He hurried into the room, vaulting over the couch to get there because this had sounded different, only to be almost overwhelmed by strange scents when he opened the door. Erica was sitting on the edge of the bed, clutching at her swollen belly with one hand, the other keeping her upright.

            “It’s too early,” she told him. He’d never heard her sound so small.

            “It’s okay,” he said immediately. It was early, but not too early, not so early that it was hopeless. The wetness on the bed where she’d been laying was clear, not bloody. It carried the scent of Erica, but not of death, not of wrong or of injury. “I need you to remember what they told you at class. Erica, look at me.”

            She turned to look at him, eyes wide and worried, but she forced her breathing into slow, even breaths. “You’re going to drive me,” she said.

            “It would be better if-” he began.

            “I don’t want an ambulance,” she said firmly.

            “If something’s wrong-” he tried again.

            “I rode in enough ambulances when I was human,” she practically begged. “I don’t want one now. You can get there just as fast.”

            “Okay,” he said. “I’m going to move the couch, and go get the car.”

            She nodded, and he dashed out of the bedroom, dragging the couch back into the front room much faster than he’d moved it into the hall. Then he was grabbing his cell phone and keys and making a dash for the exit. The below-ground parking garage was accessible by the elevator in the emergency stairwell, so he headed there first, dialing Isaac’s number.

            It rang and rang, finally switching to voicemail. Derek cursed and hung up, mashing his finger into the elevator button as he dialed again. He was only across the hall, but Derek didn’t want to stop moving long enough to fetch him. The elevator dinged and Derek took it down to the garage level.

            The camaro was parked two rows away from the elevator, nestled between a lumpy looking Toyota and a truck that was definitely compensating for something. He slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key and-

            Nothing.

            The engine did not even attempt to turn over.

            “No… no, no, no, NO!” Derek shouted, banging both his hands on the steering wheel. “I do not have time for this!” He turned the key again, but the same dead silence met his efforts. For good measure, he viciously turned the key a few more times, before practically hurling himself back out of the car.

            Isaac’s number rang and rang all the way back to the apartment. Derek banged on the door when he got there, but there was no response. Fishing out his keys, he unlocked the door, but he had no better luck once inside; Isaac actually was gone, not just ignoring him because it was three o’clock in the morning.

            His belly sank as he returned to the apartment, not sure what they were going to do. He could call a cab, if they were desperate, but he’d taken the cabs in this city and three out of four times they took him to the wrong location the first time.

            “Can we go?” Erica called when she heard him enter.

            “The car won’t start,” he said as he moved for the bedroom. “Isaac’s not picking up, and you don’t want an ambulance. How do you feel about a cab?”

            Her nose wrinkled. “Call the other pack,” she suggested. “Call Stiles. He’s got to be ready for this kind of thing, with Lydia being closer than I was.”

            This really wasn’t the time for matchmaking, but Derek just sighed. “I don’t have his number,” he said. “I’ll just call a cab.”

            “It’s in my phone,” she said before he could start dialing.

            “There’s a cab in your phone?” he asked, confused.

            She made an irritated noise, and began to climb off of the bed. “No, his number, his number is in my phone. Will you just- he knows about werewolves and he’s in the same situation as we were two hours ago, just call himmm.” Her last word trailed off into a strained hum of pain as she grabbed at her abdomen.

            Derek let out a helpless whine of sympathy, then snatched up her phone and found Stiles’ number. He picked up after the first ring, sounding just as sleepy as was appropriate for the late hour.

            “Stiles? It’s Derek,” he said quickly, listening to the human shifting around in bed, maybe moving away to keep from waking Lydia. “I’m sorry to wake you up.”

            "It’s fine,” Stiles told him groggily. Derek could hear the big yawn he stifled. “I’d ask how you got my number but I think I’ll just blame Lydia. What’s up?”

            “It’s- my car won’t start,” Derek said, eyes meeting Erica’s. “And Erica’s gone into labor.”

            “Oh shit!” Stiles exclaimed. Something in the background crashed. “Oh, man, shouldn’t you be calling an ambulance?”

            “I can’t,” Derek admitted. “When she was a human, she had a lot of seizures, and had to be in a lot of ambulances. Boyd’s still overseas and Isaac’s not picking up his phone. My sisters don’t live nearby. I hate to ask this, but-”

            “Sure, no, of course,” Stiles contradicted himself so that Derek wasn’t sure what the answer was. “I can come get you two, no problem.” Muffled sounds of clothing and shoes being put on filtered in from the other side. “Where am I heading?”

            Derek gave him an address, then went to get Erica back on her feet while they waited. Isaac had said that the other pack wasn’t far, and there would be no traffic at this hour. Erica mostly carried herself to the front door while Derek circled around the apartment grabbing whatever he thought they might possibly need or be able to use in the next two days.

            They managed to make it down to the front of the building, where the woman at the desk immediately began making a fuss, pulling around her wheely-chair and insisting that she sit in it because it had padding the bench did not. Derek silently thanked Laura for finding them a building that was so wolf-friendly.

            It wasn’t long before Stiles pulled up to the curb in a block, blue Jeep Wrangler. “I’m sorry I don’t have a better car!” he said as Derek opened the door. Stiles was already getting out and pulling the driver’s seat forward so that Derek could get in after seating Erica in the passenger side.

            “It’s fine,” Erica said, pulling her legs in. “If we run into any mountains along the way, we’ll be set.”

            Derek choked on his laugh and closed her door for her, then skirted around the nose of the Jeep. Stiles gave him a quick smile, then Derek was climbing into the backseat, helping Stiles pull the driver’s seat back into position, and they were off.

            The entire ride, Derek and Stiles both babbled whatever they could remember from the classes while Erica mostly ignored them in favor of breathing and bracing herself for the couple of contractions that came. Stiles didn’t bother with the front entrance of the hospital; he practically drove the Wrangler into the emergency entrance and began yelling at everyone like it was his job…

            Until Derek realized that the people there were responding to him like they knew him, and that it was entirely possible this was his job. Derek had no idea what Stiles did for a living. He could very well work at the ER, and Derek found that the idea didn’t surprise him at all.

            A moment later, Stiles began herding him out of the way as attendants whisked Erica away in a wheelchair, asking questions as fast as she could squeak out answers for them. He took a step after them, but Stiles grabbed his arm and shook his head. “Let them get her checked in. You’ll be in the way and slow it down if you follow her in now, and she’ll be in good hands with them. I gotta go park the car, if you want to come with.”

            Derek took a deep breath, watching Erica and the others disappear beyond a set of double doors before turning his attention back to Stiles. “Park the car,” he echoed slowly. When Stiles nodded, he mirrored the action, feeling a little numb. “Okay.”

            He clambered into the passenger seat Erica had so recently vacated. It was a little damp, but he barely noticed as Stiles got in beside him and the car began to move. He knew Stiles was talking to him, but the words were more like a background tone than anything he understood. There was going to be a baby, a puppy, a tiny little creature that would mean his pack was as real as the one he had lost in the fire that destroyed his home.

            “Derek?” Stiles called, in a tone that said he’d been calling Derek’s name for some time.

            “Sorry,” Derek breathed, scrabbling at the tiny door handle. “Sorry, I just- we should get in. We should go see her.”

            Stiles didn’t argue, just walked at his elbow until they had reached the entrance. He lead Derek inside and pointed to one of the stations. There was a pleasant young man behind the counter, and Derek gave him whatever information he could about Erica and himself.

            “We can take you back to see her,” the man told him, getting to his feet. “Thank you for waiting out here, not many fathers do. It’s easier for us to not work around worried family members.”

            Derek opened his mouth to correct him, but realized that they might keep him out if he contradicted the information, so he just smiled weakly. Stiles gave him an encouraging smile, and then he was being lead away down the same hall Erica had taken. He dug in his heels, and looked back to Stiles.

            “Thank you,” he said quickly.

            “Go on!” Stiles laughed, shooing him away. “She’ll need you, go on! I’ll stick around until you’re out again.”

            Derek gave him a grateful smile, relief washing through him at the reassurance. He didn’t need the support, he told himself, but there was something comforting about knowing that he and Erica wouldn’t be alone. Their pack had spent enough time fending for itself. A small part of him admitted that it was nice to think the first person they had to lean on would be Stiles.

 


 

            Derek’s forehead had been pressed to the window for so long it was starting to go numb and the glass had turned warm against his skin. Throughout the birth, Erica had kept it together much better than he had, remembering all of her breathing techniques and pushing perfectly. The labor had been short - only four hours - and all of the humans had said over and over how good she was doing. None of them seem concerned that she was a week earlier than planned, which had relaxed both Erica and Derek.

            For the better part of the last twenty minutes, Stiles had been standing next to him, watching the nurses and technicians bustle about the room on the other side of the glass. They were checking machines and taking vitals on all of the four babies in the nursery. The smile Stiles’ his face rivaled the one on Derek’s own.

            “Sometimes, when it’s a slow day, I come down here, just to look at them,” Stiles said softly.

            “Imagining seeing your own?” Derek asked. He was amazed he managed to keep the note of bitterness out of his voice. He just sounded… tired.

            A little, sad laugh escaped Stiles. “Yeah, I guess so.” Derek looked over, but Stiles was just looking at the newborns with fondness. “Hey, we’ve been here a while, but I’m still not sure which one’s yours.”

            Derek pointed, finger smudging the glass. “Second one from the left,” he said. The little girl was far from asleep, her fists waving about in the air and her face scrunched in displeasure about some tiny, newborn worry.

            Stiles shifted, and turned to look at Derek with wide eyes. “But you’re not- did you-” He stopped himself, and then glanced back to the child. “She’s not…”

            Straightening up, Derek shook his head as he realized what Stiles was so impressively failing to find a tactful way to say. “Ha! She’s not- I’m not the father.”

            “Oh,” Stiles said, a bunch of strange expressions trying to cram their way onto his face all at once. “Did you two go to, like, a clinic or something?”

            “Oh, no!” Derek said quickly. “I mean, I’m not the father at all. Her husband, Boyd, is overseas for business right now. He was supposed to be back before all of this, but she went into labor early.”

            “Are you- Are you kidding me?” Stiles asked incredulously, staring at him in disbelief. “You’re not- are you- you’re not married, you’re not even dating her. You’re just- we-”

            “Breathe,” Derek said, demonstrating the breathing they had learned in class, and Stiles socked him on the shoulder. They both laughed, and Derek gave the human reaction of rubbing his arm like it hurt, even though it didn’t.

            Stiles groaned and banged his head softly on the glass. “I thought you were together. We could have been making out all this time.”

            Startled, Derek looked over. “What?” he asked with a little shake of his head. “What about Lydia?”

            “Lydia’s a friend,” Stiles said carefully, enunciating each syllable. “She’s a goddam queen, and she wanted to have a baby, so she’s having a baby. She’s single, but she’s not alone; the pack is helping her. I- I just volunteered to take her to lamaze classes.”

            “You’re joking,” Derek said faintly, staring openly now.

            “I’m not,” Stiles said, dead serious. “God, look at the two of us. If Lydia hadn’t-” He stopped, choking on how fast he drew in a gasp of realization. “Oh my god, she knew. Lydia knew- oh I am going to kill her.”

            “You sure?” Derek asked, tipping his head a little. “Like you said, if she hadn’t given your number to Erica…”

            “Are you saying I owe her?” Stiles asked, squinting a little to try to hide his smile.

            “I’m saying maybe you shouldn’t kill her,” Derek reasoned. “Maybe she deserves a kiss, instead, for being so clever.”

            The smile vanished from Stiles’ lips as he looked into Derek’s eyes. “I don’t want to kiss Lydia,” he said softly.

            Derek hesitated for just a heartbeat, wanting very badly to believe that Stiles was on the same page as he was right now. “I don’t want you to kiss Lydia, either,” he finally admitted.

            He could hear the click of Stiles’ throat as he swallowed. “Who do you want me to kiss?” he asked.

            “Me,” Derek said, and before he could lose the nerve, he closed the step between them, right into Stiles’ personal space. He needn’t have worried; the moment he was close enough, Stiles had his hands on him, fingers threading into his hair as he pulled him forward into a kiss.

            Behind Derek, someone cleared their throat. “Mr. Hale?”

            Derek growled, pulling away reluctantly as Stiles laughed and released him. He turned to look at the nurse, who was giving him a very stern look. He was tempted to show off his fangs, but decided it would make a bigger ordeal than he wanted. “Yes?”

            “We’re taking Abigail back to her mother. I was told you are their alpha?” the nurse asked, polite and clinical. Derek nodded affirmation, and she beckoned him along. “You can bring Stilinski, too.”

            “Thanks Margaret,” Stiles shot back. She gave him a disgusted look and turned to go back into the nursery. He had the good grace to wait until the door closed before he laughed. “I put hot sauce in her coffee on April Fool’s and she still hasn’t forgiven me,” he explained.

            “Gold star for friend-making tactics,” Derek commented dryly. Stiles made a face, and pointed at where the nurse was removing the baby’s trundle from the nursery.

            Together they followed all the way to Erica’s room, tip-toeing inside just in case she was asleep. She smiled the second she saw them both, and they relaxed. “I hope it’s okay I stayed,” Stiles said as the nurse swaddled up the baby and placed her in Erica’s arms. She gave them both very stern looks and Stiles made faces behind her back as she left them alone with Erica.

            “It’s fine,” Erica said, nuzzling her newborn. “As long as you don’t mind what I’m about to do.”

            He shook his head, and glanced to Derek with a little smile. Derek nodded permission to stay while Erica began to feed the baby. Stiles crossed the room and folded himself into one of the chairs next to the bed, and Derek came to stand beside him.

            “She’s so little,” Stiles breathed.

            “Didn’t feel so little,” Erica murmured, tucking the thin blanket in more comfortably around her.

            Derek shifted uncomfortably, but Stiles just chuckled. “You gave her a good name.”

            “It was my mom’s,” Erica said fondly. “Abigail. Abby.”

            They fell into silence for a while, all of them watching the baby intently. Derek wasn’t sure he could describe the warmth that settled in his chest as he listened to the tiny heartbeat, watched her curl and uncurl her bitty fingers. It was love, and family, and pack. It was more than just that; there was an overwhelming sense of pride for his beta, and protectiveness toward the creature cradled in her arms. He didn’t need to ask himself if he would die to keep them both safe- he knew he would. He would do anything.

            “She’s beautiful,” he managed to choke out around the feeling of belonging that constricted his chest. “I’m so proud of you, Erica.”

            Her warm smile melted into a gentle smirk as she glanced over to the two of them. “I’m proud of you, too. Finally figured it out?”

            Derek snorted. “I was trying to be nice.”

            “Ah,” she said, and he knew before she opened her mouth again that he’d made a mistake. “So that’s how he caught you.”

            Stiles turned his laugh into a cough, but Derek still whacked him gently on the shoulder. “Ow!” Stiles said, exaggerating the amount of force Derek had used. “He wasn’t being nice at all!”

            “You haven’t left,” Erica said, turning her attention back to Abigail. She cooed softly, and Abigail opened foggy blue eyes to look up at her.

“What can I say?” Stiles said with a shrug, looking up to Derek. “I’m a sucker for tall, dark, and handsome.”

Derek just rolled his eyes.      

           


 

Four years later...

 

            Stiles shifted and fluffed his suit jacket for the millionth time, checking his sleeve cuffs immediately afterward, like a ritual. Seated beside him, Derek counted to ten, and then watched him start over again. They’d been in the waiting area for almost twenty minutes now, and there was no sign that Stiles was getting any less nervous.

            “It’s going to be fine,” Derek told him, laying a warm hand on his thigh.

            “What if she doesn’t like us?” Stiles hissed. The scent of his anxiety was thick around them.

            “She’s barely a week old,” Derek reminded him. “I think she’ll probably like whoever feeds her and rocks her to sleep at night.”

            “We need to recheck everything when we get home, to make sure she can’t get into anything,” Stiles said. Derek could practically see him ticking off checklists of things in his head.

            “She can’t even roll over on her own, what on Earth do you think she’s going to get into? Stiles.” Derek waited until Stiles looked over at him before smiling. “It’s going to be fine. You’re going to make an amazing father, she is going to love you more than anyone else in the world and neither of us are going to let anything hurt her.”

            “Promise?” Stiles said, wiggling his hand underneath Derek’s so that he could thread their fingers together.

            “Trust me,” Derek said. “Abigail and Luca adore you, and Claudia will, too.”

            Stiles took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I was pretty awesome at Abigail’s birthday party,” he conceded.

            “You were,” Derek agreed. “And you’ve prepared for this. We have prepared for this.”

            “Two years,” Stiles murmured, giving Derek’s hand a little squeeze. “We were on that list for two years.”

            Derek smiled, but before he could respond, the heavy, wooden door on the far side of the room opened and they both popped to their feet. The woman who appeared gave them both warm smiles, and motioned for them to follow her. A helpless noise of excitement squeaked out of Stiles, and Derek laughed as he was practically dragged across the room and through the door.

            They went down a short hallway, and the woman opened the door to a small room. Inside was another woman, who was gently rocking a bundled up newborn. She, too, smiled when she saw them.

            “Hello, Misters Hale,” she greeted, softly enough not to wake the child.

            “Hello, Jane,” they said together, trading a smile before Derek continued. “Thank you for bringing her to us. In more ways than one.”

            “Of course,” Jane said, smiling in return. “They’ve said you signed all the paperwork, and are ready to go. Are you ready?” She lifted the baby slightly and then got carefully to her feet.

            “Is anyone ever actually ready?” Stiles said breathlessly, unable to pry his eyes away from the little, pink face amid the blanket as Jane moved closer to him.

            “Never as ready as they think they are,” she said, placing the newborn very carefully in Stiles’ open arms. Derek couldn’t help but marvel at how he lit up, almost seeming to vibrate with happiness.

            “Oh god, she’s beautiful,” he whispered, looking up to the woman, and then to Derek. He looked ready to combust from elation. “I’m holding her…”

            Derek somehow managed to look away long enough to lay his hand upon the young omega. “Thank you,” he said, enunciating his gratitude in both tone and posture. She flushed with the sentiment. “We will care for your child, and my offer stands. If you’d like to join the pack-”

            “I’m glad she’s going to a good home,” Jane told him, interrupting. “A real pack.”

            Derek nodded, understand everything that came with the admission. She straightened up as soon as he removed his hand, and got close enough to run her hand over the baby’s head and give her a quick kiss. Then she smiled to both of them, murmuring about leaving them to get acquainted and to sign the last papers. The click of the door was loud in the silence.

            Stiles looked up to Derek as he gently rocked the baby. “Nothing’s ever going to be the same again, is it…”

            “Good,” Derek said, crowding in close and putting a hand on the baby’s messy hair. She cooed at both of them, and he nuzzled into Stiles’ cheek to give him a kiss before turning his attention to her. “It just keeps getting better from here.”

            “It will,” Stiles agreed, smiling and leaning against Derek’s shoulder so they could both look down upon their new baby.

            Derek leaned into him in return, content to soak up all of the happiness Stiles had brought into his life since they had met. He had finally found the last two pieces to the puzzle of his life, and it felt so, so right fitting them into place and finding that he was exactly where he belonged.

            There was a soft knock on the door, and the woman who had lead them to the room poked her head into the room. “I need to borrow one of you for just a few minutes to finish signing these last papers.”

            Stiles shifted and passed Claudia over to Derek like she was made of spun glass, and the followed the woman out of the room. Derek gently rocked her, murmuring soft nothings at her until her eyes cracked open. They were the deep, dark blue of a newborn creature, and she reached up one little hand, fingers wide. He pressed the top of his finger into her palm, and his heart fluttered when she grasped onto it.

            True to her word, it was only a few minutes before the woman returned with Stiles. Together they managed to get Claudia into car seat, profusely thanking the woman as they all traveled toward the exit. She waved them off as they loaded into the car, and took the journey back to the apartment.

            Despite Derek’s offer, Stiles insisted on carrying the portable car seat all the way up. Derek couldn’t keep his smile to himself as he flipped through the keys on his keyring to find the one to their own apartment. The rest of the pack, and most of Stiles’ pack, took up most of two floors of the building. It had been strange, adapting to living so close to another alpha, but they had worked it out eventually.

            He hesitated with the key in the lock, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. Stiles was too busy fussing with the blankets in the seat hooked over his arm to notice the pause. There were heartbeats in their home, though after a moment of listening, he realized they were familiar. He schooled his expression, deciding to allow Stiles to experience the surprise lying in wait for them.

            At first glance, Derek didn’t see anyone in the front room, but he could hear heartbeats everywhere. He stepped to the side and reached out to put his hand on the handle of the baby seat, happy that Stiles actually released it to him in order to take off his own coat. The hushed giggle of a small child did not alert Stiles, although he froze when he heard the quiet okay, go that followed.

            “SU-PISE!!!!” two little voices squealed as the rest of both packs rose from behind the furniture. Stiles startled, getting tangled in his coat and nearly toppling over in the process. A second later they were bombarded by four year olds.

            “Uncle Derek, Uncle Derek!” the little girl shouted. “Did we surprise you?”

            “Can we see the baby?” the little boy asked, reaching with grabby hands to peer over the top of the carrier.

            “Only if you’re quiet,” Derek told them, flashing red eyes at them. Both children ducked their heads and put their hands behind their backs immediately.

            “Oh, be nice,” Erica chided as she rounded the edge of the couch and came to collect her daughter. Abigail looked up between her mother and her alpha, and smiled tentatively.

            “I was being nice,” Derek said, smiling at her. Gently, he lowered the car seat to the floor and pulled back the blanket they had put over the top to keep out the sun while they drove.

            In a heartbeat, both children were on their knees, crowding close and peeking over the top. Erica and Derek watched them closely as the rest of the pack moved a little closer. “What’s her name?” Luca asked, not taking his eyes off the still-sleeping baby.

            “Claudia,” Stiles said, crouching down beside them.

            “Claaaaw-dia,” Abigail repeated, drawing out the word like she was tasting it. She leaned way over and sniffed at him, and then her face lit up. “She’s a wolf!”

            Everyone burst into laughter at that, and Erica picked up the now-squealing child and began giving her kisses all over her face. “Of course she’s a wolf, you little brat!” she said while Abigail squirmed and giggled. “What else would she be?”

            “A human!” Luca guessed, pointing at himself. “Like me!”

            “That’s right,” Lydia said, worming her way through the small group to pick up Luca and remove him so that the happy fathers could actually move into the apartment. The packs backed up as Derek lifted the carrier and headed for the nursery. “And what else?”

            Luca threw his arms around Lydia’s neck and held tight as she carried him to one of the couches. From across the room, Abigail shouted a guess of her own. “Pack members!”

            “Pack members!” Luca echoed, as if it were his own idea.

            “That’s right,” Lydia said. “And what are pack members?”

            “Pack members are family, no matter what,” both the kids chorused.

            “Mom?” Abigail asked, waiting until Erica gave her full attention to her. “Who is Claudia’s pack?”

            “We are, baby girl,” Erica said. “All of us.”

            “Even Alpha Scott?” she insisted.

            “Of course,” Erica affirmed. “Claudia is part of both of our packs, now.”

            Abigail’s nose wrinkled as she thought about this. Then her expression cleared, and she shrugged. “Okay,” she said. “Can we play with her now?”

            A soft chuckle rippled through the packs, and Erica smoothed a hand over Abigail’s curls. “Not yet. She’s still just a little puppy. We have to be careful with her. No claws or teeth, okay?”

            “Okay,” Abigail said, flopping back just as Derek and Stiles returned from the nursery.

            Stiles set a baby monitor on the end table beside the couch and for a few seconds everyone listened to the peaceful silence. Then Derek cleared his throat and smiled at everyone.

            “Thanks for coming by,” he said.

            “She’s beautiful,” Scott said finally. “She’s really beautiful, Derek.”

            Derek flushed a little, and Stiles slipped his hand into Derek’s. “She is,” Stiles said. “She’ll probably sleep for a while, if everyone wants to stay for lunch. Who wants pizza?”

            Everyone raised their hands and the two children leaped to their feet squealing me me me and bouncing until they were shushed. Stiles smiled, glancing to Derek and raising his eyebrows. Derek rolled his eyes and sighed fondly. “I’ll call, but you’re figuring out what everyone wants.”

            As the group began exchanging orders, punctuated by the excited clapping of the children, Stiles caught Derek’s eye. Derek flushed again, this time out of happiness, and Stiles just smiled.