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Kids like horses. That’s what Stiles keeps telling himself as the jeep makes its way down the long drive to the Hale family farm the first week of June. He flicks a glance in his rearview mirror and swallows a grimace at Ree’s sour face. Arms crossed over her chest, glaring out the window.

God. His heart squeezes every time he looks at her, and Ree just… hates his guts. He doesn’t like thinking ill of the dead, but Ree’s mom was kind of an asshole. How could she have hid a daughter from him for over seven years? How could she’ve let Ree think that was his choice?

But he’s not gonna say all that out loud. He’s not gonna push this on Brianne, who isn’t there anymore to even tell them why. It’s been barely a month—he just has to show Ree how much he loves her, and someday, somehow, it’ll all be all right.

Green fields roll out on either side of the dirt and gravel drive, surrounded by split-rail. In the distance, splotches of browns, reds, grays clustered together—horses, Stiles assumes. He doesn’t know a lot about them, mainly because they’ve got big teeth and big hooves and live in his nightmares.

Stiles says, “Hey, look, goats,” and Ree rolls her eyes and sinks even lower in her seat, ignoring him.

He sighs heavily.

He says, “If you hate it, you don’t have to stay, okay?” The Hales have been running a summer camp program out of their farm since Stiles was little. Scott and Kira’s son, Ryan, has been going for the past three years. He’s nine now, and Ree sort of tolerates him, and this had seemed like the best possible activity for her while she acclimates to a new town, a new pack, and a new dad. But he’s totally not going to make her stick to it if she’s miserable.

”Horses are ok,” she says. There’s a rough rasp to her voice, probably because the last words she said out loud to him were I hate you yesterday morning.

Stiles shifts his weight, biting his lip to stop a small grin. He doesn’t look at her when he says, “Horses are terrifying,” and pulls into an open spot in front of the stables. There are small clumps of kids milling around, staring openly as he stumbles down out of the jeep. He stretches and turns back and catches an uncertain expression on Ree’s face as she unbuckles. Her grip is white-knuckled on the doorframe as she slams it shut, but he doesn’t say anything.

A couple younger kids are hanging off the fence, and Stiles’s stomach unclenches a little as he watches Ree automatically head toward Ry and Cece Dunbar.

It’s a little easier to let go, knowing she’ll still be with some of their own pack. Stiles still thinks Liam’s an idiot, but Cece’s six and bossy and was secretly Stiles’s favorite cub before Ree.

“Hey.”

Stiles jerks his head up and swallows hard. Jesus. He’d heard that Derek was back, but seeing him in person kind of makes him want to throw up. “Hey.”

Derek has on faded jeans and a loose fitting t-shirt and a fucking cowboy hat that hides his eyes. Coward. He moves, casually shifting his weight into his hips, and Stiles seriously thought he was past this, but Derek in all his sun-kissed glory, wide shoulders, scruff bordering on beard territory, still has a strangle hold on Stiles’s heart.

It’s been years since he’s seen him, and Derek still makes his teeth ache.

Stiles tips his head up to the sky, skates his gaze over the top of the barn, across the far paddock, until finally resting again on Ree, and the prickly way she holds herself next to an overly-exuberant Ry. He doesn’t have time for the slow, sly smile he can see spreading over Derek’s face out of the corner of his eye.

Derek fucked him out of his system over seven years ago, and Stiles is not stupid enough to fall for all over him again. Derek Hale, middle child, hot asshole, can go fuck himself.

Instead, Stiles focuses on Ree, and he can tell the exact moment Derek notices her—snub nose, a scattering of moles, brown hair pulled back in a low, messy ponytail. She looks mostly like Stiles, except for her blue eyes and dark brows.

“Huh,” Derek says, and his posture squares up, like he’s going to war.

Stiles would laugh, but his throat feels raw. He says, “I’ll be back at four to pick her up.” This is going to be fine. He can do this. He can make Ree happy and avoid Derek and everything will work out okay.

Ree scowls over at him when he says bye, and Stiles ignores the prickling of his neck hairs when Derek’s pensive frown follows him back to his car.

*

Two words. Derek has said two fucking words to him after almost eight years, and Stiles can't stop obsessing about it.

“Just ignore him,” Scott says.

“I am. I totally am.” Stiles is going to ignore him to the best of his ability, but unfortunately Stiles is terrible at ignoring things.

It’s all back, it’s all fresh in his head, and Stiles didn’t expect that. He expected to be over this. He expected to have his mind focused on Ree and their Summer of Successful Bonding, even as rumors of Derek Hale’s return from a bounty hunter stint—god—set the small town of Beacon Hills ablaze.

Beacon Hills had never been enough for Derek. He’d always wanted the kind of exciting life his uncle led: money, intrigue, guns, criminals. Stiles is pretty sure Peter had always fallen on the wrong side of the law, but Derek had hero-worshipped him.

And now Stiles is sitting in Scott’s backyard, slumped over the picnic table, watching Ree and Ryan and Cece hit each other with sticks, obsessing.

The only good thing is that Ree seems to honestly enjoy the Hales’ farm. It’s hard to really tell what she’s thinking, since she still thinks Stiles is the devil, but she’s had a smile on her face each day when he’s picked her up this week, before she noticed him waiting. His dad keeps telling him to be patient, but that’s easy for him to say: for Ree and her grandpa it was love at first sight.

This is what Stiles has learned about Ree in the month and a half since her mom died: she sleeps in socks, doesn’t like her hair being brushed, loves peanut butter, chicken nuggets, and the next door neighbor’s Rottweiler, Gert. She hates carrots and Stiles. She’s obsessed with Apple and Onion. She came equipped with at least fifty stuffed animals, but only sleeps with a striped cat named Ducky. She will only eat Stiles’s mac and cheese if he lies and says he didn’t make it from scratch. It doesn’t matter how many times she tells Stiles that she hates him, she won’t go to sleep unless he’s personally there to tuck her in.

Scott pats his shoulder and says, “You're doing ok.”

“Yep,” Stiles says, dipping his head. If he nods enough times, he’s pretty sure he’ll eventually believe it.

*

Ree is a wolf. It’s not exactly something Stiles regrets, since Ree was the outcome, but there are certain times—mainly late at night, trying to figure out how to make a seven year old stop trying to kick him in the nads whenever he goes in for a hug—when he thinks maybe he shouldn’t have gotten drunk off his head after his single fucking night with Derek Hale and slept with a nomadic she-wolf.

Not an omega, as Brianne’s mother assured him when they’d met, voice thick with tears, but sort of a drifter with a home base. She’d been odd for a werewolf, apparently, and her mother didn’t have any idea what to do with a hurt and angry seven-year-old, either. Stiles was in the will, but the Chase pack didn’t try and fight him over Ree anyway. It makes him angry, some days, for both Brianne and Ree and whatever the hell might or might not have happened to them, but Celeste is nice. Ree gets excited for her calls. She’s already been to visit once.

Fitting Celeste into their lives isn’t hard. It isn’t her fault that Stiles has no idea how to talk to Ree.

Going to the Hale summer camp doesn’t exactly change Ree, but he can still see how being around the horses and other wolves helps. Other kids her age, too, of all human and supernatural persuasion, and sometimes she even forgets herself and grins at Stiles over dinner. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

What drives him absolutely crazy, though, is her attachment to Derek.

“She’s a wolf,” Derek says, hands on his hips, staring out across the yard at Ree.

She hasn’t noticed him yet, but Stiles expects a delighted screech as soon as she does.

He wishes they’d been inside when Derek dropped by, so Stiles could have just slammed the door in his face.

Stiles just says, “Yeah,” though, and glares at him. That was always a thing with Derek. It wasn’t that he hated humans, the Hales have plenty of them in their pack, but Derek got burned enough by outsiders that he never fully trusted them either. Stiles had thought he’d been exempt, that he’d worn Derek down over the years, but, well.

Stiles internally squares his shoulders, and externally lounges back against the porch railing, silently daring Derek to say anything about the fact that Ree’s being raised in a house of humans. Scott’s never been fully on board with the whole pack compound thing, like the more traditional Hales, and most of their members are spread out all over the town.

Derek can’t read him as well anymore, though. Can’t sense the irritation in Stiles’s clenched jaw, or maybe he just doesn’t fucking care—

“She should be around pack.”

“Dad and I are pack,” Stiles says. “You think you’re gonna talk her grandpa into letting her, what? Live with Scott?”

Derek’s grin looks forced and toothy. “Of course not.” And then suddenly his whole body loosens on an exhale, thumbs dropping to the waist of his jeans. There’s a glint in his eyes that makes Stiles both instantly wary and kind of turned on.

Derek says, “I didn’t come here to argue with you.”

Stiles arches an eyebrow.

“Really,” Derek says. “I wanted to ask you to dinner. Both of you.”

“Uh, no,” Stiles says on a choked laugh. His chest feels tight and unhappy. “No way, asshole.”

The pout on Derek’s lips is practiced, and Stiles fights off the urge to punch him in his unfairly handsome jaw.

And then Ree looks up from the garden plot she’d been gleefully ripping apart and shouts, “Mr. Derek!” and launches herself across the yard and into his arms.

Derek laughs, face open, catching her mid-flight and swinging her up onto his back.

Stiles has to look away. Jesus Christ, even playboy asshole Derek Hale is a better dad than he is. He’s so fucked.

“What do you think, Ree?” Derek says. “Should we go get milkshakes?”

Ree says, “Yes!” just as Stiles whips around and says, “No way, I thought you said dinner—” His mouth snaps shut at Derek’s smug, smirking face.

The sun is burning orange behind them, Ree has her skinny arms wrapped around Derek’s shoulders, face buried in his neck, ratty brown hair frizzed out like a golden halo. Derek has one hand on her ankle and the smirk melts off to make way for slit-eyed contentment and all of that is Stiles’s undoing.

He sighs, absently rubs a palm over his chest, and says, “All right, fine.”

*

For the rest of the week, Stiles lives with a sunshine child. She laughs. She talks about goats. She has a favorite pony and asks Stiles to get her chickens.

And Stiles thinks, only a little bitterly, that it has to do with Derek constantly coming around in the evenings. Just that extra helping of Hale seems to make Ree wake up in the mornings asking Stiles for pancakes and leaning into his side and Stiles doesn’t know what to do about all that.

He wants to say thanks but no thanks every time Derek pulls up into the driveway in his fucking ridiculous Camaro. He wants to tell him to go to hell. The words get stuck sideways in his throat, making it burn, watching the soft stretch of fabric across Derek’s shoulders as he waves hello.

His dad offers him worried looks and arched eyebrows and all Stiles can do is shrug.

“Son,” his dad says two weeks into whatever the hell is happening, squeezing his nape as Stiles slumps over the kitchen table, rolling his face onto the cool wood.

“I know,” Stiles says. “I can handle it.” He doesn’t have to look to sense his dad’s skepticism. Stiles has never been able to handle anything to do with Derek.

The worst of it isn’t even Ree.

The worst is the back of Derek’s hand brushing his as they walk side by side. The gradual way Derek’s smiles slide from sly to genuine when he looks at him. The way he murmurs his name when they say goodnight.

“I just don't want you to get hurt again,” his dad says.

They both jerk their heads up at a peal of laughter, watching through the kitchen window over the sink as Ree chases Derek down the back deck and out into the woods beyond.

Too late, Stiles thinks. Every single bit of this is a mistake, but he can’t bring himself to make it stop.

*

Pathetically, it only takes another long week for Stiles to change his mind. How can this be a mistake? Every fantasy Stiles has ever had about Derek coming true; a gentle kind of courtship, a surreal counterpoint to the roughness of their single night together, years ago.

There’s a high likelihood that it’s going to end badly, Stiles acknowledges this.

It’s hard to think about that, though, when they’re sprawled out on a picnic blanket as evening falls, set up in the memorial park field, the echo of little kids laughing and Monsters Inc. around them, pinkies linked as Ree sits enthralled by the outdoor movie theater.

On their backs, Stiles’s knees drawn up, their faces turned toward each other.

Stiles murmurs, “Thanks. For this,” and Derek has a smile on his mouth that Stiles has never seen before, slow-blooming and warm.

He smells like warm earth and grass and the hotdogs they had for dinner and Stiles holds his breath when Derek nudges their noses together.

Sitles’s heartbeat is rabbit fast, and his cheeks flush in embarrassment, knowing Derek can hear it.

“I thought I was an asshole?” Derek says, voice barely above a whisper.

“Oh, you are.” Stiles smiles wider, relaxes into the arm he has folded behind his head.

Derek swings up onto one elbow, lets their hands fall apart.

For one second Stiles sees something tense flicker over his face, a there and gone pull at the corner of his mouth, and then he’s all soft eyes again, thumb coming up to hover over the crest of Stiles’s cheek.

“Okay?” Derek says.

What the hell, Stiles thinks, heart pounding. He’s already in too deep. “Okay.”

It’s a chaste touch of mouths, a subtle brush and damp breath, like Derek’s uncomfortable with PDA in front of Ree. Stiles appreciates the consideration as much as he appreciates the tingle that spreads out from his heart.

He takes a shuddering breath as Derek pulls back.

Stiles studies the side of his face as Derek looks over at Ree, lifts a hand to trace the fond curve of his lips.

“She likes you,” Stiles says, and tries not to think about how much of an understatement that is.

Derek freezes for a split-second before shooting Stiles a grin that looks just a little too forced. “I like her, too.”

There are warning bells going off in the back of Stiles’s head, but they’re muffled by Derek leaning in to kiss him again.

*

The aftermath isn’t pretty. Stiles isn’t going to lie: he freaks the fuck out.

“Holy fuck, Scott,” Stiles says. “He’s going to crush me.”

Scott makes a soft sound and says, “Maybe not?” but he doesn’t look convinced.

The harsh reality is this:

When Stiles first met Derek, he was a high school junior at a rave and Derek was twenty-five and covered head to toe in neon paint and very little else. They made out until Derek realized Stiles was underage, and then five years later he fucked him up against a wall in the Hale family barn, and then again on a tiny cot in the tack room. Stiles woke up sore and messy to find out Derek ran off with Braeden before sunrise.

In between then Stiles had been in love. Noble, kind, hot asshole Derek, with a dangerous smirk but a soft spot for little old ladies and dogs. He had a sweet tooth that Stiles shamelessly fed with cupcakes, and Derek didn’t do a single fucking thing to lead him on—it was ultimately Stiles’s fault, for goading him, and Derek’s fault for fucking off without a single word.

“God,” Stiles says, palm pressed to his forehead. “God, I’m fucked.”

*

Nearly a month passes, July fading into a hot, muggy August. Stiles has daily what-the-fuck moments in the morning, staring at his pale face in the mirror, and then he hears Ree laughing with his dad and thinks about seeing Derek later and his stomach flutters nervously. The shadows under his eyes keep fading, and every morning he sees his mouth tick up into a wider and wider smile.

Ree isn’t at the barn with the other kids when Stiles goes to pick her up on Friday. He’s only slightly worried—she’s probably still hanging out with Derek and the horses. Laura eyes him weirdly, though, from her mothering huddle over the littler ones as they wait for parents, and then Talia steps down off the front porch of the house and calls over: “Stiles, may I speak with you for a moment?”

She looks more elegant than anyone wearing Levis has a right to be outside of a Dynasty episode. Her expression reads tight and polite, which sets his back up. The Hales have always been friendly with the McCall pack.

Stiles says, “Is everything okay? Is it Ree?”

Talia gestures for him to follow her back into the house. “Ree is fine,” she says. “This won’t take long.”

The house echoes eerily silent around them. Stiles winces as his boots thump down the hall. Unease settles in his stomach when they reach what looks like an office, and his chest tightens, he can feel a flush burn up his throat, but he tries to ignore that as Talia rounds a desk and asks him oh-so-politely to sit.

He’s pretty sure they’re paid up for camp. Has Ree wolfed out inappropriately? Stiles swallows hard at Talia’s somber expression and says, “Do I need my dad?”

Talia arches both her eyebrows and says, somewhat ominously, “Not yet.”

He’s having trouble sucking in a breath, vision swimming when Talia slides a piece of paper across her desk to him. He sees Rina Chase-Stilinski and Consent and forces out a ragged, bewildered, “What?”

“Amazingly, I’ve found myself having an issue with you denying Derek his rights,” she says, tapping a sharp-nailed finger on the paper.

“His rights…as my boyfriend?” Stiles says faintly. They haven’t thrown out labels yet, but Stiles is having a hard time processing.

Talia pauses, blinks once. “I wasn’t aware you were in a relationship.”

Oh, of course not. Because they probably aren’t. Why would Derek tell his family about them? He powers on, though, and says, “I’m confused.”

“Derek doesn’t want me to involve the authorities,” Talia says, voice hard. “But I will if you force my hand.”

“The autho…” Stiles trails off, light-headed. He shifts in his seat, failing to calm the way his heart is still trying leap out of his chest. The paper crumples in his fist, there’s a throbbing that travels out from his hands, making his arms feel numb. He takes a deep breath. And then another. He pushes air out through his nose, noisy like a bull, and counts down from ten while staring at the hard look in Talia’s eyes. “Talia. Alpha Hale. I’m… still not sure what this is about.”

“Ree should be with her pack. Her family.”

There’s a thundering noise in his ears, making his head ache. “She is.”

Talia sighs and pushes back her desk chair. She towers over him when she stands, and Stiles clenches his hands on the arms of his chair. She has a dark and sad expression on her face, like she’s disappointed in him, and Stiles has no fucking clue what’s going on.

“I’m sort of freaking out here,” he says. “Do you want to tell me what the fuck is actually going on?”

She takes a deep breath and says, “I’ve decided to forgive you—”

“Good for you,” Stiles says, rapidly tripping past fear and falling headlong into anger. He’s pretty sure he’s never done anything in his life to warrant forgiveness from Talia Hale, unless you count fucking Derek.

“—But you’re making it very hard to follow through.” She crosses her arms over her chest and says, “The Hales are very protective of their children,” an eyebrow arches, “and grandchildren.”

Stiles stares up at her. He squints one eye and then the other. He says, “Am I high?”

The office door opens and closes behind him with a soft thunk, and then Laura Hale is standing next to her mother glaring down at him too.

“I tried,” Talia says to her, long-suffering. “Will you get Mr. Seraph on the phone for me, dear?”

“Mr. Seraph the DA? How is this—no, you know what?” Stiles struggles to his feet. He feels sick to his stomach and hollowed out. “I’m leaving. Is Ree in the barn?”

“Ree is having dinner with Cora’s oldest,” Talia says, any previous pleasantness gone from her tone. “And you will sit.”

“How about fuck you and no?”

Laura growls and flashes her eyes and Stiles feels a creeping sense of doom and fear start up his spine again.

He squares his shoulders and says, “I need someone to tell me what the fuck is going on before I call my father, the sheriff, and tell him the Hale pack has decided to kidnap his granddaughter.”

“You should call him,” Laura says, baring her teeth. “Maybe he can tell us why you didn’t fucking bother to tell Derek about Ree for seven goddamn years.”

“Why would that—” Stiles snaps his mouth shut with a click. He bounces his gaze from Laura, who looks furious, to Talia, who has red cheeks and a tick to her jaw. “Are you kidding me right now?”

No one says anything.

Stiles drops back down into his chair, presses his hands over his mouth and tries to muffle a hysterical snort. Finally, he says, “You think Derek knocked me up?” It sounds even more absurd out loud, and he can’t help the tears that leak out with the laughter. “Christ, Christ,” he says, only semi-aware of the alarming glances Talia and Laura are sharing between them. “I’m,” he swallows hard, palms dug into his eye sockets. “How would that even be possible?”

“Well. You are a mage.” Talia seems uncertain and uncomfortable when Stiles finally shifts back in his seat to look at them.

“Oh,” he says. And then, “Oh,” again, when the greater implication hits him. “So not only did you think Derek knocked me up, you thought I made it happen on purpose.”

Laura bites her lip. “Everyone knew you—”

Stiles holds up a hand. “Stop right there.” Everyone knew he was desperately in love with Derek, yeah. Stiles doesn’t need to hear that out loud, thanks very much. “You guys are fucked. You guys are fucked up,” Stiles says. He doesn’t need any of this. Yeah, once upon a time, Stiles was desperately, pathetically in love with the dashing, adventurous older Derek Hale, and practically crawled into bed—well, uh barn—with him and begged for a fuck, but like. Wow.

“She looks like him,” Laura says.

“Are you still trying to make this a thing? This is not a thing,” Stiles says. He gets back to his feet, skirts around the edge of the room toward the door. “I’m getting Ree. We’re not coming back. And I’m sure her maternal grandmother will get a good long laugh about this when she skypes her later this week.”

God, Ree is going to hate him for this. She loves it here.

And Derek.

It makes so much more sense now. The meals, the movies, the walks in the park. The kissing. Fuck, what was the kissing? Why even do that, if he was just going to sic his family on Stiles to rip him apart like this?

None of that was real. Of course it wasn’t. The only reason Derek even slept with him all those years ago was because Stiles threw himself at him.

Stiles ignores the itchy wetness of his face as he stalks from the room and, of course, runs headlong into a lurking Derek.

Derek steadies Stiles with his hands curled around his biceps, says, “Stiles, what—”

“Go fuck yourself, Derek,” Stiles says, shoving past him in the hallway. The kitchen has to be back here somewhere.

Derek catches his wrist, stopping him. “Wait,” he says.

A certain part of Stiles desperately wants to see confusion on Derek’s face when he looks back at him. Wants to see that he had no idea what his mother was doing, that of course he didn’t think Ree was his, that’s ridiculous.

But Derek just looks guilty.

Something fragile inside of Stiles crumbles. When he twists his hand out of his grip, Derek easily lets him go.

“She likes you, you know. So much,” Stiles says, staring down at his dust-covered sneakers. “She really… this has been fun for her. You’ve been great.” His throat is dry. None of this has been real. Ree is going to be heart-broken.

“She’s a great kid,” Derek says softly.

“Yeah.” Stiles smiles sadly, glances over at Derek again. “Yeah, she is.” He shrugs a little, taking in the slump to Derek’s shoulders, the liquid sheen to his eyes. He must have really hoped. Maybe almost as much as Stiles had. “She’s had seven years of hate building up for me, you know. This isn’t even…she’s not even going to blame you. Don’t worry.”

Stiles has been trying. So hard. And Ree is going to make sure Stiles knows that this is all his fault.

He rolls his shoulders and continues toward the back of the house much more slowly than he was moving before, and finally finds the kitchen, Ree, Cora, and Cora’s eight year old, Sam.

Cora wrinkles her nose at him, but doesn’t stop him when he says, “Ree, we have to go now.”

“But I’m not done my pie,” Ree says, frowning up at him.

“We’ll stop for ice cream on the way home, okay?”

Ree looks from him to Cora and back again, but doesn’t glance over his shoulder, which means Derek didn’t follow him. He’s not sure whether that makes him feel better or not. Everything’s shitty.

Ree says, “Okay,” like the decision between ice cream and pie is so hard.

Stiles snorts a soft laugh, smiles when Ree flashes him a grin—he’s going to hoard this little slice of happiness for a as long as he can.

*

The first time Stiles saw Ree was across a social worker’s desk in Austin, Texas, less than twenty-four hours after the ‘accident.’

The man had said, bizarrely, “You were listed in Ms. Chase’s phone as her emergency contact,” and also, “You only have to sign a few forms before you can take your daughter home,” and Stiles’s memory is kinda fuzzy on this point, but he’s pretty sure he demanded to see her birth certificate immediately. He didn’t exactly make a great impression.

Ree had been too pale and hollow-eyed, gripping her stuffed cat, a small worn duffle bag at her feet and an overly large jacket swallowing her small frame. She’d looked at Stiles like he was an alien.

Celeste had shown up not long after—red rimmed eyes, visibly worn from her pre-dawn flight in from Denver—with a tote bag full of important papers: Rina Claire Chase-Stilinski read her social security card. Stiles’s real name was written on the father line on her birth certificate. He has no idea how Brianne had even known that.

Stiles might have blurted out, “Holy shit, this is real.”

Celeste had given him a look. She’d squared her shoulders and said, “I’ll hire someone to help pack up the RV. You’ll need to get Ree settled.”

And then Ree had started crying.

Stiles had never been very good with kids—Ry and Cece mainly use him as a jungle gym—but he’d gathered up Ree and ignored her small fists digging into his kidneys and prayed she wouldn’t wolf out in front of the nice government employee.

*

Stiles doesn’t mention anything to his dad about the confrontation with Talia and Laura and Derek until a certified letter from the Hale lawyer comes the next morning, because apparently they weren’t giving up on their delusions without a legal fight.

He says, “They want to have a paternity test done,” waving the paper in front of his dad’s face.

“What? Who?” his dad says, looking up from the TV and his bowl of oat bran. “Celeste?”

Stiles sits down on the coffee table. “The Hales.”

“The...” His dad cocks his head, squints one eye. “They don’t think you’re Ree’s father? How is that any of their business?”

“Oh no, they know I’m related to Ree.” He looks up at the ceiling, like maybe the crown molding can help make this make actual sense. “They just think I’m her mom.”

Moving slowly, the sheriff carefully sets his cereal bowl on the table next to Stiles’s hip and holds out a hand. “Give me the letter,” he says, voice gruff.

Stiles gladly hands it over.

After a long minute, his dad says, incredulous, “They actually want to subject Ree to this?”

“I mean, I don’t know how else to get them to believe me, after I already told them to fuck off.” Stiles smiles at his dad’s pointedly raised eyebrow. And then his smile wavers when he thinks of Ree, and how she’s never going to forgive him when he tells her they can’t see Derek anymore.

God, Derek is such a fucking asshole.

*

Stiles spends all weekend tiptoeing around Ree. He makes chocolate chip pancakes for dinner Saturday night, lets her stay up late to watch a movie. They go to the diner and then the toy store on Sunday, and Ree eyes him suspiciously over her new My Little Ponies, but it doesn’t stop her from setting up an epic battle with her Transformers in the upstairs hallway.

His dad claps his shoulder and says, “It’ll be fine.”

“Do you want to tell her that she can’t see her favorite person anymore?”

“I thought I was her favorite person?” His dad pouts.

“Celeste,” Stiles says, ticking off his fingers, “then Derek, then you. Then the dog next door, Susie at the diner, that weird pizza slice dude from Apple and Onion—”

“Stiles,” his dad cuts him off, mouth flat and unamused.

Stiles give him an exaggerated shrug. It’s not like it’s not true, right?

His dad says, “I’m giving you a pass right now, because this has been one tough thing after another for both of you. But don’t expect it to last, kid.”

“Dad, I’m—”

“You constantly putting yourself down doesn’t help you, and it certainly doesn’t help Ree. We’ll take care of this Hale thing, and then you’re going to work on your attitude. Now,” he puts his hands on his hips, “I’m heading in for a dispatcher shift. Maria’s got a birthday dinner.”

“You’re retired,” Stiles says, not like it matters.

“I’m not retired, son, I’m on reserve.”

Stiles mutters, “Only when you want to get out of the house,” and his dad cocks a finger at him and says, “Good luck.”

Stiles is twenty-eight years old. He can handle disappointing his daughter. Yeah.

Fuck.

*

Nothing happens until Monday morning, mainly because Stiles chickened out like champ. He waits until the last minute, when Ree is getting her shoes on, to tell her, “So I thought we could change it up this morning. You can come into the station with me!”

Ree wrinkles her nose. “Why? Mr. Derek said he’d show me how to clean Buttercup’s hooves today. And my class is gonna watch Miss Cora jump Marshmallow over all the big logs in the field!”

“Well, see…” Stiles heaves a heavy breath, crouches down so he’s on level with where Ree is shoving on her scuffed duck boots. He pinches his thumb and forefinger together in front of his face and says, “We’re having a little issue with the Hales. Until everything’s settled, we’re gonna have to stop going to the farm.”

Ree’s eyes get big. “Stop going? What about Mr. Derek?”

“I—” Stiles stops himself, swallows back an I think it’s best, because Ree’s gonna blame him either way, but he’s not going to just hand it to her. “We’re gonna have to wait a little bit, okay, Ree? I promise it’s not for forever.” It might be for forever, god.

“Did you dump him?” she says, scowling. She let him help with her hair this morning, and it’s probably messier than if she’d done it herself.

His heart squeezes painfully in his chest. “No.”

“Oh,” she says. She stares at him like she doesn’t believe him, but she pushes off her boots and reaches for her sneaks instead. She says, “Is Grandpa gonna be there?” without looking at him.

He says, “Later. Maybe we’ll take him to lunch.”

*

All in all, Monday goes better than expected, and then Tuesday Ree has the mother of all temper tantrums in the middle of the driveway, right when Stiles is trying to coax her into the jeep. He’s been looking up alternative day camps, but in the meantime his dad and Maria have volunteered to keep an eye on her at the station during Stiles’s shifts.

She balks at climbing up into her seat and then crosses her arms and glares at Stiles and says, “I want to see Mr. Derek.”

Stiles bites his lip and says, “We can’t right now.”

“Then when?”

“Later.”

“Later today?” she asks, cheeks flushed.

“No,” Stiles says very carefully. “Not today.”

The jut of Ree’s jaw gets stubborn. “I want to see Mr. Derek.”

There’s a very small chance, Stiles thinks, that once his dad has gotten all of Ree’s paperwork together with Celeste’s, and Brianne’s will, and all the documents from the social worker in Texas, and they’ve somehow avoided a blood test debacle, Stiles will allow Derek to see Ree. He manages not to say over my dead body by the skin of his teeth. He doesn’t think it would go over well.

Instead, he says, “We’ll talk about it,” and then Ree starts screaming.

She yells, “This isn’t fair,” and, “I hate you,” and Stiles has gotten used to not hearing that from her, so the words cut fresh and bloody. He has to grab her around the waist and drag her backward when she starts trying to hit the doorframe of the jeep—she kicks her heel into his shin and elbows him in the stomach. Her fingers curl into claws, Stiles can feel her tiny frame shift minutely, right on the edge of wolf.

Stiles feels panic well up in his throat, she’s never been this out of control, not even in the beginning. His voice is rough on, “Ree, honey. Ree, Derek wants to take you away from me,” as he tries to gather all of Ree’s flailing limbs and hug her tight.

She keeps squirming, though, and accidentally chops Stiles right in the throat, hard enough that he jerks away, choking, and she screams right in his face, fangs flashing: “You should let him!”

*

Later, he’s not even surprised when he can’t find her anywhere in the house. He has a small and terrible moment of defeatism, slumped on the couch, face in his hands, like Ree leaving was inevitable, until his dad slaps him hard on the back of the head.

“You are her dad,” he says.

Stiles peeks out between his fingers. “Yeah, I know.”

“She’s seven,” his dad says.

“I know!” Stiles bolts to his feet and starts pacing the room. Ree’s seven and she probably ran off to live with Derek and that’s fine and dandy and terrifying.

“Derek isn’t her dad.”

“Are you actually asking me that right now?” Stiles says, staring at his dad, wide-eyed.

There’s a wry, sad smile on his dad’s mouth. “No,” he says. “I’m telling you. She’s seven and she’s lost her mom and she’s frightened. Do you know how she looks at you when you aren’t paying attention?”

“Like she wants to claw my face off?” Stiles says.

His dad makes a disappointed noise, shakes his head. “Like she loves you so much it scares the shit out of her.”

Stiles blinks, opens and closes his mouth dumbly. Finally, he says, “The feeling’s mutual.”

“Yeah, duh. You think I don’t know how to deal with a grief-stricken kid?” There are deep lines of sadness on his face, and he cups the back of Stiles’s head and draws him in, cradles him into a hug and says into his ear, “That little girl ran away because she desperately wants you to find her. I’d bet my life on it.”

Stiles’s eyes burn. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“You’re doing fine,” his dad says, then lets him go. “You better hurry. It looks like rain.”

*

Halfway to the Hales, the darker clouds give way to spitting rain. The jeep’s windshield wipers squeak across the glass, not quite damp enough to glide. He flexes his fingers, gripping the steering wheel hard as darkness starts to slowly fall.

He doesn’t know what to expect, when he gets to the farm. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if Ree isn’t there.

A couple deputies are checking around town. His dad headed out through their backyard and into the woods, to cover all their bases. She could be a wolf. She could be anywhere. She’s seven. It took Stiles nearly a half hour after finding her gone to get his act together, and that’s unacceptable. If anything happens to her, it’ll all be on him.

Stiles flies up the Hale drive, skidding the jeep into a stop by the front porch, tires kicking up dirt and gravel. He hops down and runs for the front door as a rumble of thunder spreads out from the fields.

When Talia opens the door, Stiles says, “Is Ree here?” through tightly clenched teeth.

“Mr. Stilinski,” she says, almost haughtily. “Have you lost my granddaughter?”

A flash of pure rage blurs his vision. His control on his magic is superb, and yet his fingers are sparking. He shoves them into his hair and the air crackles and pops around him. He’s vaguely aware of a figure coming up behind him as he yells, “She’s not your goddamn granddaughter! I did not give magical birth to her and then hid her for nearly eight years, you fucking lunatics. I am her father, and she’s a traumatized kid who watched her mom get split it half by hunters three months ago, so if you know where the hell she is right now, I’d really appreciate a straight fucking answer!”

Talia has her mouth dropped open, Laura hovering behind her in the doorway, and neither of them say anything over Stiles’s panting breaths.

And then the person looming over his shoulder clears his throat, and Stiles turns stiffly to glare at Derek, too.

Derek says, “Buttercup’s missing.”

“The pony Ree likes?” Stiles says tightly.

Derek nods. He’s got his cowboy hat in his hands, looking anywhere but at Stiles’s face.

“Stiles,” Laura says. “Stiles, I’m so sorry, she called the house phone and I—”

“Shut the fuck up,” Stiles says, sounding ten times calmer to his ears than he actually is inside. “If anything has happened to Ree, I’m pressing charges.”

“Of course,” Talia says faintly.

Stiles has no idea how to find a little girl on a pony. He’s never ridden a horse in his life. He stands still in the rain for long moments, sucking in uneven breaths, before pressing palms to his eye sockets to keep from sobbing.

He flinches when a hand lightly falls on his shoulder, and then looks bleakly over at Derek.

Derek looks like a drowned rat, dark hair plastered to his forehead. He says, “Let me help you find her. Please?”

Stiles sighs. He isn’t going to say no. “Do you know where she could have gone?”

“Not far,” Derek says, squaring his shoulders. “Buttercup hates rain.”

*

Derek saddles up a massive brown draft horse nearly as tall at the withers as Stiles and somehow Stiles manages to convince himself that Derek doesn’t mean for them to get on him until the very last second, standing at the barn doors, staring out into the murky, rainy twilight.

There’s a step stool.

“Can’t we just walk?” Stiles says.

“Hercules knows the terrain,” Derek says, holding out a hand patiently. “And he knows Buttercup. It’ll be fine.”

Hercules flicks his tail and turns to look at Stiles, like he’s wondering what the holdup is. He’s both beautiful and deadly, with a starburst on his forehead and soulless black eyes.

“Christ,” Stiles mutters, but grips Derek’s hand and lets him help him up and over. Stiles is magic. He can totally handle being perched six feet off the ground on an unpredictable beast that could crush Stiles’s chest in with a single hoof.

He’s embarrassingly relieved when Derek tells him to shove forward and slots himself behind him on the saddle. His dick is squished, he still hates Derek with a fiery passion, but he’s thankful for the solid arm around his waist, and the fact that he isn’t responsible for driving.

Derek is a hot, wet wall behind him and he tries not to relax into the cradle of Derek’s thighs and groin, but it’s really fucking hard.

Concentrate, Stiles. Ree is out there in the wild dark, and Stiles kind of got the feeling that when Derek said Buttercup hates rain, he really meant Buttercup hates storms. The thunder has been rumbling and distant, but flashes of lightning are getting closer.

Derek says, breath warm against the back of Stiles’s neck, “This is the main trail path. I don’t think Buttercup would’ve let Ree wander off of it.”

“You don’t think so,” Stiles says. He licks warm water off his lips. It’s a steady rain, now, a roar echoing off the trees as they head into the woods. Stiles is soaked through, even as the taller oaks and pines provide a little shelter. “Ree might be hiding.”

“Call her name,” Derek says.

Stiles says, frustrated and scared, “I can’t even see anything.”

The arm around his waist tightens and loosens. “Call her name. Buttercup’s stubborn; she’s probably got her at a standstill now.”

Stiles takes a shaky breath and yells, “Ree! Rina!” but his voice is dampened by the massive fall of water. “She’ll never hear me.”

“Can I—” Derek cuts himself off.

Stiles can feel the brief touch of Derek’s forehead against the back of his head, chest expanding on a deep breath.

“What?” Stiles says, jostling him with a careful elbow. “Can you what?”

Derek groans and says, “Howl. If that’s okay?”

It’s definitely not okay, but it’s also the only thing that might work, right now. Stiles nods.

The only thing worse than hearing Derek howl for his daughter might be hearing the desperate, thin howl she sends back. And the only thing worse than that, of course, is the thready, terrified scream that follows.

A boom of sudden thunder shakes the ground, and above it Stiles hears Ree’s loud, “Daddy!” and his heart nearly stops.

Derek swings down out of Hercules’s saddle, practically pulling Stiles with him, steadying him with his entire body when Stiles’s legs buckle.

“Shit,” Stiles says. “It’s too dark. It’s too wet. Can you see anything?”

Derek grabs Stiles’s wrist and tugs him forward. “This way. Watch your step. I think Ree must have left Buttercup, gotten too close to a slope.”

Stiles slip-slides on leaves, twists out of Derek’s grip to hook his fingers into his belt, and tries not to panic when they find Buttercup, a plump, dun pony, huddled under the lower branches of a sweeping pine.

“It’s okay,” Derek says, then yells, “Ree!”

“Mr. Derek!” Ree’s voice is loud and strong, now that they’re closer, and then a tinge more desperate on, “Daddy,” and Stiles still can’t see a damn thing four feet past his nose.

Derek pulls Stiles’s hand away and says, “Stay here.”

“Nah uh, no way.”

“You can’t see where the edge is,” Derek says, surprisingly patient. “I’m going to go down and get her.”

Stiles would really love to tell him to fuck off, but he knows Ree’s chances of coming out unharmed are greater with Derek involved. “Fine,” he says, voice clipped. “Be careful.”

Derek cups his hands around Stiles’s face, light and warm, and Stiles is so stunned he lets Derek brush their mouths together before Derek says, “I will.”

*

Ree is pale and covered in mud and dead leaves but whole, and that’s all Stiles cares about when he drags her into his arms. She buries her face in his throat and sobs, sharp wolf nails digging into his back, and Stiles just looks at Derek over her shoulder and says, “How the hell do we get out of here now?”

He can’t see anything. It’s possible that it’s raining even harder than it was before.

“There’s a camping supply shed near here,” Derek says, scanning the forest. “There should be an awning for the horses, too. We can call your dad and wait out the rain.”

“Peachy,” Stiles says, and tightens his grip on Ree.

Ree tightens hers right back and says, voice muffled by his shirt, “Sorry, I’m sorry, Daddy, I didn’t mean it,” and Stiles says, “It’s okay,” and, “I love you,” and, “I’m sorry, too.”

Derek moves ahead of them, shirt plastered to his broad back in ways that Stiles would probably appreciate if Derek hadn’t broken his heart. Twice.

Five minutes later, Ree is calm enough to relax her grip, curled up with her cheek on his collarbone, and Derek holds the door of a ramshackle shack for them, stepping aside to give them room in the small, cramped space.

It smells like mold and rot, but it’s relatively dry.

Derek scrounges for matches and lights an ancient looking hurricane lamp. He wordlessly pulls out a ratty blanket and helps settle an exhausted Ree in between stacks of boxes.

Stiles drops down to sit at her feet, covers his face, and blinks tears away when Ree shifts to curl up against his back. God.

Derek shuffles his feet and says, “I’m going out to find Herc and Buttercup,” and Stiles barely manages a nod.

The door’s propped halfway open, and ten minutes later Stiles hears the jangle of buckles, a stomped hoof, and he closes his eyes, lets the noise fade into the background until the loud creak of the door closing makes him startle.

When he glances up, Derek is sliding down onto the floor across from him. He pulls his knees up, head tipped back against the wall.

“Thanks,” Stiles says, voice hoarse.

Derek laughs faintly. “Right.”

“I couldn’t have found her without you,” he says, slightly miffed at Derek’s dismissive tone. “So thanks.”

Derek shrugs. His eyes glitter in the lamplight. Stiles can’t read his expression, it’s frustratingly blank, and then Derek says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think my mom was going to react like that.”

Stiles stares at him incredulously. “You told your mom that you thought I had your love child and you didn’t think she would act like that?”

The silence is thick and heavy, broken only by Ree’s hitching breaths. Her little fingers are curled into his shirt, but when he glances at her, her eyes are closed.

“She’s asleep,” Derek says softly. He leans forward, arms draped over his knees. The room is small enough that their toes are nearly touching.

Stiles’s throat is dry. “Good.”

“Stiles.” Derek’s fingers brush Stiles’s knee. “I knew.”

Stiles makes himself sit still, lets Derek touch him, carefully watching Derek’s face. “Knew what?”

“Deep down. I think I knew that she wasn’t mine,” Derek says, earnest. “I just really fucking wanted her to be.”

“Fuck you,” Stiles says, ignoring the tragic way his voice breaks in the middle. Fuck Derek, Christ. In a low hush, he adds, “Are we really doing this right now?”

Derek’s eyes have no right to be that deep and watery. “I think we should.”

The rain on the tin roof is a loud, soothing rush of sound and Stiles is emotionally exhausted, but Derek Hale essentially has him trapped here so whatever. He makes a ‘go on’ sweep with his hand and bites the inside of his cheek so hard he tastes blood.

Still, it takes a long stretch of minutes before Derek opens his mouth again.

He says, “Stiles, you were it for me.”

Stiles feels like he’s been punched in the gut. He opens and closes his mouth, feels a flush burn all along his chest. “I was it for you,” Stiles finally echoes woodenly. “That night, you mean. In the barn.”

“I knew it. I knew it since you were sixteen. You were so much trouble.” Derek stares at him with soft, terrible eyes. “I didn’t want anything to do with you.”

Stiles’s, “I thought we were friends,” slips out before he can help himself.

“We were never friends.” Derek’s voice is rough and raw. “You were… a persistent little shit. You were always there. Trailing me through the barn, making faces at Uncle Peter, baking me cookies, stalking me on bonfire nights. You never went away, Stiles. And I was in love with you.”

Stiles licks his lips, heart in his throat. “You know you sound insane, right?”

Derek ignores him, reaches forward to cage one of Stiles’s hands in his. “You were the one, I was in love with you, but I wasn’t ready for that. I handled everything… really badly.”

“Understatement,” Stiles says faintly. None of this makes sense. He looks down at their clasped hands. “You panicked,” he says.

Derek’s shadow bobs as he nods, and Stiles still refuses to look at his face.

“I panicked,” Derek says. “And Braeden was already waiting for me, we had plans, and I just couldn’t…”

“You could’ve,” Stiles says, clenching his jaw and glancing up. He could’ve. It might have been terrible. Stiles might not have been ready either. They might have ripped each other apart, trying to make it work, and Stiles almost certainly wouldn’t have Ree, right now, and none of that actually matters, because none of that actually happened. But he could have.

Derek lets out a heavy breath. “Yeah.”

This has been… a trying day. Not horrible, because he has Ree again, and he has the Hales off his back, and he’s got a bizarre love confession from Derek that he honestly cannot think about right now. He doesn’t have the energy.

Derek gives his hand a final squeeze, then lets him go. “You should call your dad. Let him know you’re both okay.”

Behind him, Ree stirs and says, “Daddy?”

Derek has always had amazing eyes. A kaleidoscope of blues, grays and greens, framed with dark lashes. Stiles has been at an actual loss for words before, gazing into them, even when Derek’s expression gave nothing away. Now, he’s radiating calm and acceptance, like his years of asshole tendencies have been for show—Stiles seriously doubts that—and a small sad smile tilts the corner of his mouth. Stiles still wants to touch him. It’s a terrible affliction.

“Daddy?” Ree says again, uncurling her legs and jabbing him in the back with a knee.

“Yeah, Ree,” he says, reaching back to catch her hand. “We’re okay.”

*

The last two weeks of summer pass with little fanfare. Stiles takes off of work for five days and they fly out to Celeste’s, spend a weekend with the Chase pack in Colorado, and he feels oddly gratified when Ree is eager to get home. And then school starts and Stiles is suddenly driving carpool two days a week, with Cece and Ry and Ree all crammed into the back of his cruiser.

It’s not perfect. Ree still has temper tantrums and won’t sleep for anyone but Stiles. She has nightmares about her mom now, the therapist thinks getting lost triggered them, and some mornings they both wake up from restless nights with raccoon eyes.

Two weeks after that, because the Hales are traditionalists, Scott gets a formal letter of apology for interfering in another pack’s business, along with reparations.

“What?” Stiles says, yanking the letter out of Scott’s hands.

A photo falls out of the envelope and Scott, visibly bewildered, says, “Did they get me a horse?”

“What the fuck?” Stiles says, because that is a picture of a pony; Buttercup specifically, Stiles recognizes her socks. “What does Derek think he’s doing? He can’t give Ree a pony!”

“Technically, I think it would be my pony,” Scott says, grinning at him. “Although I’m not even sure what reparations means.”

“He can’t give you a pony,” Stiles says. “He can’t give anyone a pony. A pony isn’t a gift, it’s something you borrow to ride so you don’t have to worry about paying for its food!” There is absolutely no way Stiles can afford a pony. Ponies are for people with fenced in yards and proper zoning codes. “I’m going to go shove his pony up his ass.”

Scott pouts. “But I really want to keep the pony.”

“You can’t keep the pony,” Stiles says, jabbing a finger at Scott’s nose.

Scott’s eyes are twinkling.

“You suck,” Stiles says. “I’m going to the Hales.”

“Good luck with that,” Scott says, rocking back on his heels.

Stiles flips him the finger, jumps into his jeep, and jerks it into reverse out of Scott’s drive.

Fifteen minutes later, Stiles pulls into a space in front of the Hale barn, and he knows immediately that coming here was a mistake.

A giant, sweaty mistake in a grimy tank top and a beat-up cowboy hat and jeans that—dear god—have what looks like a recent and enormous tear running down the left thigh. Stiles should be nowhere near here, there’s too much temptation.

Stiles falls out of the jeep anyway, though, and yells, “You can’t give Scott a pony!”

Derek frowns, tips his hat back off his face with a curled knuckle. “I meant to give Ree a pony.”

“Either! Or!” Stiles says, stalking closer. He manfully ignores the v of sweat on Derek’s chest, and how hairy his arms are. “There should be no pony giving.”

“We wrongfully caused dissent in your pack,” Derek says, as if he’s practiced it. He shifts his hips and scratches at his scruff and ducks his head like he doesn’t know he’s hot like the fiery sun burning down on them.

Honestly, it’s too fucking hot for September. Stiles’s palms are sweating.

Derek says, “If she doesn’t want Buttercup, she can choose—”

“Stop.” Stiles lurches forward and claps a hand over Derek’s mouth, watches as his eyes widen over his fingers. All of this is a mistake, but Stiles can’t seem to help himself. “You can’t let her choose. She’s seven! She’ll bring home chickens or ducks or baby goats!”

Stiles can feel Derek smile under his palm. Blunt teeth scrape across the pad of his thumb and he jerks his hand away.

Of course, Derek’s smile is actually a smirk. Stiles has kind of maybe missed those, damn it.

“The baby goats are really cute,” Derek says.

“No,” Stiles says.

“No, what?” Derek has his stupid thumbs hooked into his stupid belt loops, forearms flexed, oozing charm. Stiles doesn’t know if he’s faking all that confidence or not, but Stiles is not doing this.

“No to whatever…” He waves his hand around Derek’s entire body.

A hint of somberness leaks into Derek’s eyes. “Are you sure?”

Stiles is definitely not sure. His breathing is fast and erratic, he might pass out. “Yes,” he says.

“You’re lying.” There’s a definite sense of wonder in his voice.

“How can you tell?” Stiles says, fingers tingling. “I feel like I’m trying to eat my own heart.”

Stiles,” Derek says.

“This is stupid. This is a really bad idea.”

“Maybe,” Derek says. “But you’re going to do it anyway.” He doesn’t even sound smug about it. Just happy.

“God, you’re such an asshole,” Stiles says, and then lurches forward and kisses him.

Derek fumbles a little, like he really didn’t expect Stiles to follow through, but Stiles is nothing if not an expert in making terrible decisions.

Derek’s shoulders are slick from the heat, his mouth taste like salt, and Stiles bites his lower lip and says, “Am I doing this all by myself?” He means this kiss, officially, but also Stiles has a horrible habit of one-sided pining with Derek, so what he really means is: I better not doing this all by myself.

“No,” Derek says, hands slowly, tentatively slipping under Stiles’s shirt to spread across bare skin.

Stiles lets out a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding. “Good.”

*

It’s been weeks, but Stiles can’t help feeling a wild bout of jealousy when Ree sees Derek and rushes to throw herself into a hug. Still, he holds the door open for Derek and lets him stagger all the way inside, Ree clinging to him like an octopus.

“Are you ready?” Derek says to him over Ree’s head.

Stiles says, “I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”

“What are we doing?” Ree leans back in Derek’s arms and looks at Stiles upside-down. “Dad?”

Stiles kisses her forehead and says, “Something inadvisable, sweet pea. You’re gonna love it.”

“Are you getting on a horse? Daddy, are you getting on a horse?” She sounds scandalized and delighted.

Derek smiles and says, “He’s getting on a very lovely, forgiving horse.”

“That won’t eat me.”

“That won’t eat you,” Derek dutifully echoes, laughter in his voice.

“You’re so weird, Dad,” Ree says. She squirms out of Derek’s hold, does a mid-air spin move that Scott taught her just to give Stiles daily heart attacks, and then dives for her boots.

Stiles slips a hand around Derek’s back, leans into his side and murmurs, “She really likes you, you know.”

Derek slants him a look. “I know.”

“And you gave her a pony,” Stiles says, letting Derek tug at the front of his shirt, pulling him closer.

Derek says, “I did,” with a smug smile.

Stiles runs a thumb along the collar of Derek’s V-neck shirt, dipping down in the hollow of his throat. “And I know that you know that I know that you have trouble saying no to her cute little face.”

“Are you going somewhere with this?” Derek says, lips brushing the corner of Stiles’s mouth.

“Not really.” Stiles grins. “Just, you know, someday you’re going to have to disappoint her,” Stiles says, pulling away slightly to watch the way Derek looks stunned, for a moment, at the implication of Stiles’s words, that he’s gonna be around long enough to eventually man up and be a responsible adult around Ree and not let her eat chicken nuggets for every meal.

Before that day happens, though, well: Stiles can’t say move in with me, I love you, it’s been, like a hot second since they started this all over again, but. You know. Maybe Ree could.

“Are we going?” Ree says, shoving her way in between them and through, stomping toward the door. “You can kiss on your own time, Buttercup misses me.”

“Coat first,” Stiles says, catching the back of her shirt to slow her down. November finally brought a chill to the air, and Stiles is being an adult about this. Ree can scowl all she wants.

She grumpily jerks on her jacket, though, and then says, “Now are we ready?” with the unzipped ends defiantly open over her t-shirt, chin tipped up. She looks like her mom and she looks like Stiles’s dad, a little bit, and she has a frightening amount of Stiles in her when she’s determined to get her way. Case in point: Buttercup.

He’s still blaming Derek for that one.

Ree holds out her hand and wriggles her fingers in the air, impatiently waiting for Stiles to take it.

“Yeah, okay,” Stiles says, “let’s go.”