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            They’d been following her for the last block and a half, and she knew what that meant. She knew what they wanted, and with no one to help her, Erica knew that they would probably get it. She was still too far from the shelter to make a run for it; the men tailing her would have her wrapped in rune nets before she got within sight of the guy that guarded the shelter entrance.

            But there were only two of them, she reasoned. She’d been in a few fights with humans. If she faced them head on, she might have a chance. She might be able to dodge the magic they threw at her if they weren’t very talented. Most casters on the streets weren’t, and judging by the scent of unwashed clothes, she guessed these two didn’t have much proper training.

            Making a decision, she whipped around and let loose a snarl that stopped them both dead in their tracks, fingers on the black tattoos down their forearms. “I’m not going down easy, shitheads!” she snapped, claws out. Sometimes just a display was enough to send would-be harassers scampering away. These two didn’t flinch.

            “Wouldn’t be any fun without a fight,” one of them sneered, fingers twisting off a rune that flared red, elongating into a bolt that missed Erica’s foot by inches. The guy stood up a little straighter when she didn’t flinch, either.

            “Looks like we got ourselves a fighter,” the second guy said. The words were slower, more confident. This was the one she needed to watch, she decided. This was the dangerous one.

            Her school bag slid off her shoulder, and she tossed it to the side. The sound echoed down the alley to her left, and came back garbled, sounding like footsteps and whispered voices. A chill crawled up her spine when she realized that wasn’t the echo. Someone else was here, and she couldn’t spare a glance to see who or what.

            A second bolt, this one tinted with green, seared past her shoulder as a reminder that distraction would get her killed. She ducked down, dropping close to all fours, ready to fight as the guys began to trace runes on their forearms. If she could get close enough to them for a few blows… if she could get them to start a cast she could outdistance, maybe she would make it.

            “Hey!” shouted a voice from the darkness of the alley before she could come up with a reasonable plan. Erica stiffened as the two men stopped tracing, the runes shimmering under their fingertips as if awaiting instructions.

            Erica lifted her head a little, nose filling with the scent of two unfamiliar werewolves. They were in full wolf form, something Erica had only seen a handful of times in her entire life, their eyes shining bright in the darkness as they strode forward. One was considerably larger than the other, all sleek black fur and long white teeth. The other was tawny, his fur wavy enough it almost curled, and his eyes were blue, blue, blue. She knew what that meant.

            What concerned her more was the human boy standing between them. He was a little taller than her, with shaggy brown hair and golden-brown eyes that could have belonged to a wolf. Black runes traced all over his skin, from under his ear, down his throat, disappearing under his shirt and flourishing all down his arms.

            He didn’t smell like the streets. He smelled like clean clothes and nice soap and magic. He smelled like a wolf, but she could see the way his fingertips lay softly in the thick fur of his canine companions, and her stomach sank. They belonged to him, the same way she would belong to some rich runecaster like him when this was over.

            She might have been able to escape the two thugs, but not this guy. This guy wouldn’t miss, and he wouldn’t relent.

            His attention shifted slowly from her, to the two considerably confused thugs, and he smiled. On the surface the expression seemed cordial, but even from where she stood she could feel the ice in it. The magic that had been held in thrall died beneath their fingertips as they cowered back away from the newcomer.

            “This one’s mine,” the kid said evenly.

            Not without a fight , she promised him silently, looking down at the two wolves at his heel. Not her. Not like that, not ever.

            “She ain’t got a collar on,” the first guy said, but Erica could hear his voice shake.

            The black wolf took a step foward with a deep, sharp growl, lips still pulled back from his teeth, and the thugs both took a step back. The newcomer just smiled benignly. “Neither do these two. Would you care to try to take them from me as well?”

            Despite the fear in her belly, Erica felt a small bubble of satisfaction at the way both guys mumbled “no” under their breaths like chastised children. Their fingers were nowhere near their runes anymore.

            “I didn’t think so,” the new guy said. “I would suggest cutting your losses for the night, gentlemen.”

            Though they both shot scathing glances her way, they grumbled something about not wanting her anyway, and having better things to do as they shambled off the way they’d come. Erica wasn’t about to relax, however; she knew very well that she had fallen out of the pot and into the fire.

            When the newcomer finally turned his attention to her, she bared her own fangs. It was a useless, desperate threat, and they all knew it. She was no match for the three of them.

            The boy just started laughing as he began to trace a small rune on his arm.

 


 

            “And how many years ago was the Equal Rights act first put into action?” Derek asked, carefully writing out Equal Rights for Lycanthropes Act on the whiteboard behind him. When he turned to look, two kids had their hands up. “Tiffany?”

            “Ten,” she said primly. “But it was only enacted in three states until two years later.”

            “And what happened two years later?” Derek prompted, pointing to one of the boys who raised his hand. “Isaac?”

            “The runecaster regulation laws were proposed, and implemented later that same year,” the boy said, glancing sideways at the guy next to him. Derek had seen the two hanging out and although he didn’t meddle in the affairs of his students, he assumed they were friends. Except when Isaac needed help answering questions in class, apparently, Derek thought with a small smile. “And um… it… uh…”

            “And runecasters were only allowed to get runes scribed onto their forearms,” a voice interrupted. It was his newest student, a young girl named Erica, with curly blonde hair and a glare to make even the most confident of wolves in his class wither. “It alleviated a lot of the violence toward werewolves, because they couldn’t cast heart-bound runes, so they were limited to smaller magics.”

            “Very good,” Derek praised. “Except for…?”

            One of the boys at the back raised his hand, and Derek nodded. “Registered guardian rune-casters employed by the state to enforce the Rights Act and the Regulatory Act,” he said. “They’re dirty though,” he added, and murmurs of agreement shifted through the classroom.

            Derek held up his hands for silence. “How do you mean, Ben?”

            A sneer twisted Ben’s face. “Fucking- sorry. Those guardians don’t help us any. Just as often they’re helping bounty hunters net us in! The humans want to pretend everything is okay, and we’re out here having our parents taken and our brothers and sisters kidnapped.”

            “They’re pushing to have us wear collars,” Isaac’s friend spoke up, voice low.

            “Boyd?” Derek questioned, looking over as the rest of the class fell silent.

            Boyd shifted uncomfortably at the attention, but he sat up a little. “My- Someone I know, he keeps up on everything with the government. He says there’s legislation in the works to amend the Rights Act so that werewolves have to wear identification. Collars.”

            “I haven’t heard anything about that,” Derek said slowly, because he hadn’t. He kept up fairly well with the news as well. If there were something so atrocious being discussed, he would know.

            “Wouldn’t put it past them,” sneered one of the girls at the back. “I hear they keep werewolves as pets in some circles still. Why not collar the rest of us?”

            “Cora,” Derek said sternly. She wasn’t even supposed to be here, wasn’t even a student anymore, but she loved crashing Derek’s classes when she had a chance. “No one is going to be collaring anyone, okay? Let’s not start any rumors we can’t properly source.”

            “Can we start them if we get proper sources?” Erica asked, and Derek shot her a withering look. She just smiled back as the bell rang to release them.

            Students began scrambling to pack their bags, and Derek raised his voice to talk over the sudden noise. “Remember, your midterm papers are due Tuesday, so try not to put them off until Monday, yeah?”

            There were groans from all around. “It’s the weekend , Mr. Hale!”

            “I think you can take two hours out of your weekend to bullshit a paper for me!” he called as they slung bags over their shoulders. “You might even learn something! You might even enjoy it!”

            He knew that most of them would spend more than two hours on it, knew that most of them had already spent more than two hours on it, bringing him drafts and asking him questions. They were interested in their history, interested in learning about the war that had brought them to this point, to where they were truly beginning to integrate into society.

            There was still segregation in some regards - their entire school was werewolves, still - but Derek remembered the days when humans still actively hunted them without restrictions. When humans were allowed to wear their pelts, and wore necklaces strung with their teeth and claws. He remembered silver bullets and hunters with serrated-tipped arrows and sonic devices that kept them away from whole swaths of human habitation. These kids were too young to remember anything but the very tail end of the war, and for that he was grateful.

            He was in no rush to pack up his own stuff. Cora watched him for a few minutes, and then shoved his shoulder and told him she would see him at home. He told her to behave, knowing that was a useless command; her entire job started after school, guarding the kids from humans on their way to and from school, until they were safely home at night.

            The parking lot was mostly deserted by the time he got there, the two buses that always waited at the curb already loaded and off with their charges. Cora had taken off with the group of kids that went to the local shelter after school, and she’d be there until dark. Derek spotted a couple of his kids getting into a van with their parents, and as the van cleared out, he saw something that was not familiar.

            Erica was standing on the curb, her forearms folded on the open window of a ratty old Jeep Wrangler, talking to whomever was inside. Whomever , Derek could see, was a young man, maybe mid-twenties, with messy hair and a wry smile. Whomever, he noticed, had tattoos running up the side of his neck from beneath his shirt, where he most definitely was not legally allowed to have them.

            With a growl, he started toward the vehicle, intending to put himself between Erica and her would-be kidnapper. Before he had taken three steps, however, Erica was pulling open the door and climbing inside.

           “Hey!” he called sharply, holding up his hand.

            Both of them turned to look at him, and Erica shoved at the guy’s shoulder as the Jeep switched gears to drive. Derek scowled but, though he could see her lips moving, he couldn’t hear what she was saying over the engine. The Jeep wheeled to the right and trundled off through the parking lot. For a split second, Derek considered chasing after them, but he couldn’t shift to run fast enough to keep up with a car in his work clothes.

            Instead, Derek pulled a pen out of his bag’s side pocket, and wrote the license plate down on his palm. Laura would be able to find him again, and they would just deal with it themselves. He knew the law, despite what he told his kids, would not actually do much to help Erica if she had been taken.

 


 

            Derek rubbed at his eyes, trying to focus on his lesson plan for the day. They were supposed to be picking up where they left off, and going into the legislation that was currently underway, but he was having a difficult time focusing. He had spent his entire Friday night on the phone with the local cops - who said they couldn’t do anything until Erica proved to actually be missing - or Laura - who told him the last time the license plate he wrote had been registered was fifteen years ago to some lady named Claudia Stilinski, now deceased.

            In all, it had been a very restless weekend for Derek. He’d come back to the parking lot to try to track the Jeep, but the scent trail had been almost non-existent after the evening traffic obscured it, and he lost the trail entirely around an intersection downtown. After that, he’d been forced to retreat home and wait to see if Erica returned.

            Kids began to file in just a few minutes early, and he greeted them with smiles and nods and questions about whether or not their papers were finished and if the weekend was worth it. Isaac and Boyd showed up together just as the bell rang, and Derek froze. Erica was walking in step with them, shuffling some papers in her hand and paying only half attention to them.

            She flashed him a smile as she passed, and raised both eyebrows at the look he returned. He didn’t get a chance to ask her anything before she was past him, and taking a seat on Boyd’s other side instead of where she had been sitting last week.

            As subtly as he was able, Derek raised his nose and took a sniff, trying to pick their scents apart from one another, something niggling at the back of his mind. They smelled like one another. They smelled like pack .

            Which they shouldn’t, he thought. None of these kids smelled like pack, because none of them were pack. Almost none of these kids had packs anymore; they were orphans or runaways or at best, omegas.

            There was no chance for him to ask questions, though, as class time had begun and all of his students were looking at him expectantly. He cleared his throat, and welcomed them back to class.

            The lecture went as well as it could have gone, with how distracted Derek was. He knew that if Erica had been hurt, there was very little anyone could do to her that would still show. There would be no bruises, no lacerations left. Not even broken bones would last more than a few hours.

            But she also displayed no signs of other trauma. She looked up when she answered questions, wrote all her notes in the messy handwriting that gave Derek headaches trying to interpret, and smirked every time Boyd refused to save Isaac when he talked himself into a corner. She was acting perfectly normal, as if she hadn’t climbed into the passenger seat of a rogue runecaster’s car a few days prior.

            When the bell finally rang, he was about to call her name to keep her behind when she started heading for his desk, a few papers in her hands. “Hey, Mr. Hale,” she said as she approached, big smile on her face. “Um, I just had a question about my paper? If you have a minute?”

            “Of course,” he said, holding out one hand to accept the papers. He could feel Isaac and Boyd watching him closely, as though he were the one they needed to protect her from. He ignored them, listening to Erica explain her formatting problem, and then corrected what she needed with his trusty red pen.

            “Thanks,” she said, eyes roaming over the markings he’d made when they were done. Isaac and Boyd were still waiting, although they had moved into the hallway to be less conspicuous. It didn’t matter, Derek could hear them.

            “If you need more time, Erica, you can take it,” Derek told her quietly. “You got here almost three weeks after the paper was assigned.”

            “Nah, it’s fine,” she told him with a pleased smile. “Those two losers outside are helping me, and… you know, people. Anyway, I can do it, no problem. And then I’ll be all caught up!”

            “Yes,” he said slowly as she shoved the papers haphazardly into her bag. He leaned his hip on the edge of the desk and searched for the right words to ask what he needed to know. “You know that… if there’s something you want to talk about, you can come to me. Or any of the adults here.”

            She glanced up and gave him a strange look. “Yeah, sure,” she said, like she had no idea what he was talking about.

            “I mean, anything at all,” Derek tried again. “If… if there’s anyone hurting you.”

            The sharp laugh she gave brought a flush to Derek’s cheeks. “There’s no one hurting me, Mr. Hale,” she assured him, glancing toward the door. Derek looked up to see Isaac, who was also grinning, and he could still hear Boyd standing nearby. “You think those two would let anything happen to me, even if I couldn’t take care of myself?”

            “I- I- I don’t know,” he stammered, looking between her and Isaac and straightening up, trying to keep from crossing his arms. He certainly hadn’t been expecting this reaction. “I just wanted to be sure you were okay. I saw… well, it doesn’t matter.”

            She gave him another look, head tipping, brows furrowing, and a little confused smile. “Well… thanks for the help,” she said, patting her backpack. “Have a good night, Mr. Hale.”

            “You too Miss Reyes.” He watched as she shouldered her back and exchanged a look with Isaac that probably made fun of Derek in some way, and then they were out the door and whispering to one another down the hall.

            “ What was that all about ?” Isaac asked.

            Derek heard the shift of fabric as she shrugged. “ He saw me get into the Jeep with Stiles on Friday ,” she said.

            “ So? ” Boyd asked.

            “ So? He’s a runecaster? ” Erica told him, like it should have been obvious. Derek pushed away from the desk, but there was a scatter of footsteps and then the door at the end of the hall was squeaking open, and he knew they’d heard him and bolted.

            He sat back down, and scrubbed a hand over his face. Now it was three of them involved with something he knew they shouldn’t be doing.

 


 

            It started with an offhand comment about half an hour locked in the freaking freezer again by Isaac as students were shuffling in to hand in their midterms. The trio had slid in the door just as he started class, so he hadn’t gotten a chance to confront any of them. Erica shot Isaac a warning look in plain sight of Derek, and Isaac ducked his head.

            Derek did his best to keep his eyes off of them, smile plastered on his face as he accepted papers from other students, but they had to know that he could hear them.

            “ You got out ,” Erica hissed back to him, elbowing him away from her like she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “ At least it wasn’t rope training.

            Beside her, Isaac smirked. “ I made it out in less than an hour the first time he tied me up, ” he murmured back, teasing. Derek stiffened.

            “ Couldn’t have tied you very tight, then, could he? ” Erica shot back. “ Now shut up before he hears you.

            They fell quiet after that, and Derek had been forced to wait until they were at his desk before he could address any of them. “I want you three to stay after school,” he said.

            Erica made a little indignant noise and glared at Isaac, who blushed at the silent chastisement. “Are you giving us detention?” she asked.

            “No,” Derek said slowly. They weren’t in trouble with him, and he technically couldn’t hold them there for anything they had done. “I just want to talk.”

            “We have plans,” Boyd said from behind the two younger kids. “It’s not the best day to stay after school.”

            “Come at lunch, then,” Derek suggested.

            "We’re eating lunch at lunch,” Isaac pointed out.

            “You can eat it here,” he said, and all three kids groaned.

            However, asking the three of them anything only turned into a mess of confusion, where they ran him in verbal circles for twenty minutes. If he asked where they lived, they said together. If he asked where they lived together, they gave vague answers that did nothing to set Derek’s mind at ease. They walked to school, they packed their own lunches but couldn’t coherently tell him where the materials to do so came from, and when he asked if anyone else lived with them, they just asked who else was supposed to.

            They were actively hiding something from him, despite that he could hear they weren’t telling lies outright. He couldn’t tell if they were protecting themselves, or the human Erica had gone home with, and before he could find a way to determine this, the class began to filter back in, and Derek had to let the issue go in order to keep teaching.

            They disappeared like ghosts after class was over, and he was forced to wait. He talked to Cora that evening, and she confirmed that Erica hadn’t been to her shelter in weeks, despite having at least visited frequently before.

            The second day, the three scampered to lunch without so much as looking his way, and he was forced to leave the classroom to try to get close enough to hear whatever they were talking about in the small cafeteria. They knew he was there; they had to, there was not enough room to miss him.

            "Does it still hurt? ” Boyd asked Erica, voice low and even.

            Erica shifted uncomfortably in her seat and nodded. “ I didn’t know burns stay so long, ” she mumbled, rubbing at her collarbone. Derek noticed she was wearing a shirt that closed up at the base of her throat, covering more than her usual clothing.

            Boyd dug into his bag and slid a small container across the table to her, some kind of cream or balm by the looks of it, and tapped the top. “ Try that, ” he said. “ Should stop the ache until it fades.

            “ Do the marks really stay? ” Erica asked dubiously, opening the container and looking skeptically at what was inside. She dipped a finger in but Derek wasn’t able to see what she started rubbing onto her skin beneath her shirt. He could smell it, though he couldn’t place the ingredients. “ Like, forever?

            “ Yeah, ” Isaac said. “ He won’t have to do it again, don’t worry. I mean, he will if you ask. If you’re into that sort of thing.

            She tossed him a withering glare, and capped the container, passing it back to Boyd. “ Thanks, ” she said, and then looked straight past Boyd to Derek, catching his eyes with a smug little smile that Derek had no idea how to interpret. “ There’s a lot of things I’m into, Isaac. Getting branded isn’t one of them.

            Derek’s stomach sank. The human had branded them? There were humans that did it, Derek knew, people in social circles out of his reach, the sort that really did still keep werewolves as pets. But there was no one down here, and no one that drove Wranglers that were practically on their last legs.

            The next day wasn’t any better, with them passing notes the entire class time and whispering about fighting and weapons and attack scenarios through the entirety of the group project work he put them to doing for the second half of the day. By the time the bell rang, Derek felt like his nerves had frayed for these kids, that something terrible had been done to them, that maybe they were suffering under the delusion that they had to stay where they were obviously in danger.

            “Isaac,” Derek said as the boy passed his desk to get out of the classroom with the other kids. “Erica, Boyd. Stop.”

            They froze like prey animals, exchanging looks they surely thought he didn’t see. “Is something wrong?” Erica asked, voice wobbling a little like she thought she was in serious trouble. Isaac’s heart was beating faster than a rabbit’s and Derek could practically smell how ready Boyd was to get the three of them out of there however possible. What had been done to them, Derek wondered.

            “You’re not in trouble,” Derek assured them, though it sounded far more stern than the words suggested. “Not with me, anyway. But I’m afraid I can’t let you go home yet.”

            “That sounds like trouble,” Boyd said.

            “Well, it’s not,” Derek told him firmly. “But don’t think that I haven’t heard the three of you talking the past few days, about what has been going on in your home lives.”

            “Spying on us?” Erica accused, though her heartbeat racheted up to match Isaac’s.

            “If that’s what it takes to keep you safe,” Derek said. He was so done taking their shenanigans. He wanted answers, and he suspected that if he kept these three here for long enough, their human would come looking for them. Derek would make sure he didn’t leave again if he had been hurting these three.

            “Mr. Hale, you don’t understand-” Erica began hesitantly.

            “I think I understand enough,” he said. “Have a seat. We’re going to wait to see if your… friend will come to check up on you, unless one of you wants to get him here faster?”

            The trio traded looked, shifting around guiltily, before Isaac pulled out a little folding cell phone. Derek plucked it from his fingers before he could dial, unwilling to let their captor be warned. Isaac made a noise of protest, but he made no move to grab the phone back.

            “What’s the contact name?” he asked, though he had heard them say the name Stiles . He wanted to see if they would lie to him about this, try to protect him.

            “Stiles,” Erica said blandly. “But sir-”

            Sir . Derek kept his lip from curling, but only just. “Will he answer a text?”

            “Yeah,” Boyd said. “He wouldn’t ignore us. It’s not what you think-”

            “We’ll see,” Derek said, already clicking the numbers to get a short text out to the contact saved under ‘Stiles’ in the contact list. We are inside the school, come get us .

            "We were just joking,” Isaac tried in a last-ditch effort. “It wasn’t funny, okay? But we were just-”

            “You’re lying,” Derek told him. They could all hear the dip of Isaac’s heart. They hadn’t been joking. Derek hurt for how insistent they were that Stiles be protected. He had to get them away from the runecaster. “Have a seat. I suspect he won’t be long.”

            Sure enough, it was hardly fifteen minutes later that Derek heard the front door of the school swing tentatively open, and someone calling for the trio softly. They perked all at once, but none of them made a peep as the human began walking down the hall like he might be trespassing.

            “This isn’t funny, guys,” Stiles called. “You know I’m not supposed to be in here.”

            Damn right he wasn’t, Derek thought as he got to his feet and tossed a look at the kids that told them to stay put. “In here, Stiles,” he called out, putting himself between the kids and their human. The guy had frozen in the hall, and Derek stiffened as he caught scent of the burnt-sage smell of magic in the air. “I don’t want a fight.”

            “Yeah, well, you should have thought about that before you held my kids captive,” Stiles called out, still not moving.

            “We’re ok, don’t hurt him!” Isaac yelled, and Derek turned to give him a glare, not sure who the boy had yelled at.

            “Isaac?” Stiles called. Confusion sparked within Derek when he heard the genuine concern in the human’s voice. “You’re okay? Are the others with you?”

            “We’re fine,” Isaac answered, looking straight at Derek. “It’s just our teacher, Mr. Hale.”

            The scent of magic dissipated as quickly as it had begun, and Stiles began walking hurriedly down the corridor until he reached the classroom. Derek remained where he was, guarding the kids. Stiles took in the situation in one swift sweep, and then held up both of his hands, rune tattoos visible coating both his arms.

            “What’s going on?” Stiles asked, looking between them all.

            “You tell me,” Derek said hotly.

            “Boys?” Stiles asked, glancing past Derek to Isaac and Boyd. “Erica?”

            “We may have misled Mr. Hale,” Erica admitted guiltily, ducking her head. At that, Derek turned a little to look at her too. “We were talking about training, and…”

            “We maybe made it sound like… bad,” Isaac finished lamely. Behind him, Boyd snorted. “Like maybe you… had captured us?” He winced as he finished.

            “Oh, fantastic,” Stiles said dryly, then turned his attention to Derek, though he still spoke to the kids. “And what did we learn?”

            “Not to listen to Erica,” Boyd said, earning him a scathing look from Erica. He shrugged, like he couldn’t help that it was the truth. Derek was getting more confused by the second.

            Stiles raised his eyebrows at Derek, as though to ask if he was satisfied enough not to cause a fight right here in the classroom, and Derek relaxed his stance, putting away claws he hadn’t even realized he’d let out. “You didn’t… capture them? Torture them? Burn them?”

            “Oh my god,” Stiles said, looking at the now-cowering teens. “Is that what you told him? Geezus, no. I don’t fight werewolves, I fight for werewolves.”

            Derek fell completely still, just staring at Stiles for a long moment as that began to sink in. “You- you’re an activist?”

            “Well, yeah,” Stiles said. It was most decidedly not as obvious as he made it sound like it should be. “I mean, not the crazy kind, but yeah. I do my part. Including adopting those three troublemakers.”

            “Adopting?” Derek asked skeptically. Stiles couldn’t be older than 25, and the kids were 15 at the oldest.

            “Well, not exactly, I mean, I didn’t sign any papers,” Stiles said. “But I rent a pretty big house just outside of town, with more than enough rooms for all of them to stay.”

            “Stiles saved my life,” Erica blurted out. All eyes turned to her, and she clenched her jaw for a second. “I was walking back to the shelter and these two guys caught up to me. They were gonna… it wasn’t going to be good. He saved me. They saved me.”

            “I heard her shout through the alley where she’d decided to very foolishly make a last stand,” Stiles explained when she fell quiet. “We’d been walking to the corner store, and we crossed the alley to come help.”

            Erica’s face did something Derek had never seen it do, scrunching up like she was in pain, and then she let out an exasperated noise. “Stiles took me in when no one else wanted me. They took me home, and gave me a pack to belong to, and taught me how to defend myself, how to get away if something like that happens. Everything we said to joke with you is true, but not how you think, okay? Mostly we just do our homework and eat all our vegetables and sleep in nice beds, and it’s fine.”

            “Yeah,” Isaac agreed quietly, and Derek looked to Boyd as a final confirmation.

            Boyd rolled one shoulder in a shrug. “If you want to get him still, you’re gonna have to go through us.”

            “He could be controlling you,” Derek said. “I can stop that, if you give me some indication. I can set you free from him if you need it.”

            “Come by,” Stiles said before any of the teens could disagree. Derek looked over to him, a little confused. Stiles just shrugged. “Come over and see. We haven’t got anything to hide, it doesn’t matter if you come over. Then you could see for yourself.”

            “So you can trap me too?” Derek asked, raising an eyebrow. He kept his claws in check, but only just. If he didn’t have to fight, he wouldn't. “I’ve dealt with runecasters like you before.”

            “No you haven’t,” Isaac said stubbornly. “Stiles uses his runes to counter other runecasters. Just look. Look at his left arm.”

            Stiles extended his left arm as though he’d been ordered, and Derek lifted his chin a little to peer closer. He wasn’t a caster, and he didn’t study rune magic very closely mostly because of the deleterious effects it tended to have on werewolves, but he knew enough to recognize that all of the little black marks on Stiles’ arm were written backward. The kid was telling the truth. These runes would only work to counteract a rune spell that had been cast correctly, and the only reason to have runes like that was to fight other casters.

            “So?” Stiles asked softly, lowering his arm.

            “Fine,” Derek spat, still feeling like all his feathers had been ruffled. He’d go with them, see where they lived, and when it turned out the runecaster was lying, Derek would just… take care of him.

            Stiles visibly relaxed, heartbeat slowing. He then turned his attention to the kids. “Do you want to ride with us or meet us at home?” he asked.

            All three of them wrinkled their noses. “Meet you,” Isaac said, speaking for all of them as he hopped off the desk he’d been perched on. Stiles nodded, and the three betas disappeared out the classroom door like there was fire chasing their heels.

            “Shall we?” Stiles said, motioning for the exit in their wake. Derek managed not to make a face as he followed Stiles to the parking lot.

 


 

            At first Derek thought they must have missed a road, and that Stiles pulled into the drive to turn around and go back, but then the engine shut off and the human glanced over at him expectantly. They had made the entire fifteen minute drive in silence, Stiles letting the radio play softly between them to fill the void. It irritated Derek that Stiles seemed to know exactly what to do and how to do it in order to keep Derek as at-ease as he could possibly be in this situation.

            The house wasn’t the largest, but it had two stories and a yard fenced in with short, white pickets. There was a cobblestone path leading into the back of the house, and Derek could see that most of the yard was taken up with what appeared to be vegetable gardens. In the back corner he could even see a tiny pond with a tiny fountain.

            “Are you okay to get out?” Stiles asked, still watching him like he might bolt.

            Derek let out his softest growl, and wrenched at the door handle. He could smell the garden as soon as he was out of the car, but also the scent of the three young teens. It was everywhere, front yard and back, leading into the house and out of it, and mixed into it all was the scent of Stiles.

            “This way,” Stiles beckoned as he padded toward the front door.

            Rounding the nose of the Jeep, Derek followed after him. The interior of the house wasn’t new in any sense of the term, but it was cared for . There were three backpacks in a neat row next to the front door, sat beside an old radiant heater. The wood floors were old, but clean. The furniture was a little shabby, but looked comfortable, as if it had been worn thin by use and love. Everything had just enough dust to suggest it was taken care of weekly, but wasn’t so clean that it indicated the kids had cleaned up before he came.

            He picked up the cling and clatter of people in a kitchen, which turned out to be Boyd and Isaac when they arrived.

            “Pasta?” Stiles said, leaning a shoulder against the wall by the doorframe beside Derek.

            Isaac was setting out plates and silverware and napkins on a small, wooden table. There was a blue cloth covering it that muffled the impact of each plate. “Erica wants garlic bread but Boyd said it was too hot to turn on the oven, too,” Isaac informed him, without looking over.

            “Erica can use the toaster oven,” Stiles suggested, in a voice that was just louder than normal speaking volume. Derek couldn’t help but hear Erica’s answer from upstairs, spoken just loudly enough for the wolves in the house to hear, but not Stiles.

            “She says that’s fine,” Isaac reported a few seconds later. Derek’s eyes widened when he realized that they were communicating like a pack. They were treating Stiles both as an alpha and as a wolf who suffered an impairment, becoming his ears for him.

            “Is Mr. Hale staying for dinner?” Boyd asked, crossing his arms and leaning back against the counter. If he was aiming for intimidating, the large wooden spoon in his hand really ruined the look.

            Stiles looked over and raised his eyebrows at Derek. “I don’t know. Are you staying for dinner, Mr. Hale?”

            Then everyone was looking expectantly at him, and Derek opened and closed his mouth a few times before finally giving in. “Uh… sure. If you don’t mind.”

            Boyd turned back around to stir the pasta in the huge pot on the stove. “I already put in extra pasta,” he said. Isaac did a bad job of stifling a snicker, and Derek noticed there were already 5 place settings.

            “Do you need help with anything, Vernon?” Stiles asked.

            “No,” Boyd said, nose wrinkling a little at the use of his first name.

            “Okay,” Stiles said, pushing himself away from the wall lightly. “Then I’m going to take Mr. Hale on a tour.”

            As they turned to go, Isaac slid in behind them, obviously intent on going along for the tour. Stiles didn’t say anything about it, so neither did Derek, he just kept himself between Stiles and the kid as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. At the top, Erica stuck her head out of the bathroom, dressed in a bathgown, and told Stiles she would be out in a few minutes.

            Stiles acknowledged her, and then turned to head down the hall to a set of rooms. The first one he opened clearly belonged to one of the boys. “Isaac’s room,” Stiles informed him, stepping back so Derek could look inside.

            It looked… normal, he thought. There was a bed and a dresser and some mishandled photos that had made it safely into frames, photos of what Derek knew had to be Isaac’s family; there was a boy who looked just like him, if a bit older. There were a couple of posters on the wall between the short bookshelves that were installed into the walls. It smelled so strongly of Isaac, Derek thought he must have been living here for years now.

            “Boyd’s room is there, and Erica’s room is on the other end of the hallway, near my father’s room. Mine’s downstairs- it used to be a study, but, well,” Stiles said, as if that explained everything.

            “Your father?” Derek echoed. He just barely caught the scent of another human, now that he was looking for it.

            “He’s not around much,” Stiles said. “He’s got some pretty long shifts at the station - he’s an officer of the law - and he often stays late because they are understaffed currently.”

            Derek’s brow crinkled. “And he’s okay with you just…” He waved his hands around at everything around them, not really sure what words could encompass all of it. Taking in strange werewolf kids didn’t begin to cover it.

            “He likes kids,” Stiles said with a shrug. “He knows the shelters aren’t the best places, and that the streets aren’t safe. As long as we all stay out of trouble, he tends to leave us alone.”

            “This is all very strange,” Derek told him, not sure what else to say.

            “Wait until you see the training room,” Isaac supplied helpfully. Stiles rolled his eyes, but Derek felt a surge of righteousness. Stiles was training the kids for something, and that had to be bad. He knew there was a catch.

            “You should show me,” he said to Isaac, though he kept his eyes locked on Stiles.

            “Downstairs,” Stiles said tiredly. “Go on then, you brought it up,” he added to Isaac.

            Without waiting for further instruction, Isaac bounded down the stairs. Derek followed at a slower pace, not letting go of the railing on the way down - he hated stairs - until they reached a large, heavy, wooden door. Isaac undid the latch and heaved it open, and gestured for Derek to go down first.

            What he found was… confusing. There were chairs and ropes and tables piled with tools of all sorts, though not the sort people built stuff with. These were lock-picking tools, survival tools, tools used in defense. Isaac brushed past him and picked up a length of rope, holding it out to Derek.

            “Tie me up!” he said, plopping down in one of the chairs and putting his hands together over the back of it. “I bet I can get out of it in less than a minute.”

            Derek just stood there, holding the rope and staring at Stiles. “What… I don’t…”

            “A lot of people are telling these kids that they are safe,” Stiles said. “That there are laws out there to protect them, to make them equal to humans. But you and I both know that’s not true. There are a lot of people willing and able to hurt them. I want to stop those people as much as you do, Mr. Hale, but in the meantime, I want the wolves to be safe. So I teach them.”

            “You’re protecting them,” Derek said, mystified.

            “I’m teaching them to protect themselves, and each other,” Stiles said evenly. “Do you still believe I would hurt them?”

            “No,” Derek said, surprised to find it was true. He’d been wrong. Stiles wouldn’t hurt these kids. He was on their side.

            “Dinner’s ready!” Boyd called from upstairs. Isaac popped out of the chair and darted upstairs and, with a look to Derek, Stiles began to follow.

            Slowly, Derek replaced the rope on the seat of the chair, and trudged up the stairs after them. When he reached the kitchen, everyone except for Stiles was seated, and the human was just setting the last of the serving dishes on the table. The kids all sat still, with their hands in their laps, and watched as Derek crossed the room and took a seat at the table that was clearly set for him.

            “Guests first,” Stiles said as soon as they all were seated.

            Self-consciously, Derek dished a portion of the pasta to his plate, and passed the bowl to his left, to Erica. She took some, and passed it to Boyd, who passed it to Stiles. In this manner, all of the bowls got passed around the table, until everyone had what looked to be an amazing dinner on their plates.

            “Anyone want to say thank you?” Stiles asked, before touching his food.

            “I’m thankful Mr. Hale can come and have dinner with us,” Erica said quickly, ducking her head a little as she smiled at him.

            “I’m thankful I don’t have any homework tonight,” Isaac said, grinning at the other two. They all looked pleased about that fact.

            “I’m thankful Erica decided to stay with us,” Boyd admitted. He shot Erica a quick smile, and Derek caught her returning it.

            “I’m thankful for our whole little pack, and for the delicious dinner you’ve made,” Stiles said earnestly.

            Everyone turned to look at Derek, and he could feel heat jump to his cheeks at the scrutiny. “I, uh- I’m thankful I was wrong about all of you,” he managed after a moment. “And that you… and for being invited to share in a meal with you.”

            “You’re welcome to come by anytime, Mr. Hale,” Stiles said, lifting his fork and setting the tines into the mess of spaghetti on his plate.

            “Please,” Derek said, finally offering a smile to Stiles. “Call me Derek.”

            “Derek,” Stiles said slowly, testing the name on his tongue. Derek swallowed the feeling of appreciation for the way he said it, and hoped the blush that colored his ears at Stiles’ returned smile wasn’t too obvious. “Well, then, Derek, you should visit more often.”

            “I will,” he replied softly, and was surprised to find that he meant it.

            This would be nice to be a part of, he thought, helping to look out for the kids, learning what Stiles was teaching them so that maybe he could teach others. Getting to see a real family pack made from the orphans of the street. Seeing Stiles again, seeing that warm, happy smile, hearing him say Derek’s name so gently, had nothing to do with it.

            Well, he admitted to himself as he twirled a length of noodles onto his fork and caught Stiles looking at him from under his lashes. Maybe just a little to do with it.