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If he were a better alpha, he probably would have expanded by now. Wolves weren’t exactly common in America but they weren’t exactly rare either, and most counties had at least one pack kicking around. His mother had kept friendly and open borders with the packs to the North, West, and Southeast, a feat that he was told took no small effort, and he still remembered the interpack gatherings.

The last one, when he was fifteen, had easily exceeded two hundred people crawling all over MacKerricher State Park on the coast. For that weekend, in that space, it felt like maybe no one had to keep any secrets. Humans and werewolves mingled freely, in various states of shift and undress, smelling like salt and earth and shrieking joy.

His pack deserved that experience, at least once. They deserved the occasional taste of freedom.

But he wasn’t a good alpha, and he wasn’t a good diplomat, and two years into what Stiles called Post Nemeton Bullshit he still hadn’t tried to contact anyone. Everyone here knew him, knew how few words he truly had and gave him all the rope he needed. He’d grown comfortable in it. The idea of meeting a bunch of strangers--or worse, people who remembered him from before the fire--and having to perform to a certain level of socialization or risk offending them...it practically locked him up with anxiety.

As it turns out, though, he was always running on borrowed time, and when he made no move to announce himself, the Carmichael pack to the West eventually made a move for him, in a grocery store at two in the morning.

“Emergency at home, Mr Hale?” The voice over his shoulder was cool and patrician, and way, way too close.

He spun on his heels and took three steps back, his cart pushing along for the ride behind him, and came face to face with a tall, broad shouldered woman wearing a smile. Then he glanced down at the bleach still in his hand. Then quickly behind him. The cart held garbage bags and plastic sheeting, practically an advert for body disposal, and he became painfully aware of just how few options he had available here to explain.

“I had heard your territory was calm these days. I do hope that wasn’t just a rumor.”

“Just cleaning,” he offered, not that it helped at all. The woman’s face stayed placid, though, and non accusatory, and she extended a hand with a sort of eerie calm, like there was just no hurry on her end.

“Angelina Prosper. Emissary for Alpha Carmichael.”

His shoulders sagged, a little, and he nodded at her with a thin smile, but he didn’t offer his own hand back.

“Welcome to Beacon Hills.”

She held there for a moment before dropping her arm, and finally, finally , stepping out of his space.

“We’re headed through town on our way to the coast and thought we’d invite you personally, but we wouldn’t want to be rude or break tradition. If it meets your favor could we meet with your pack? Say this weekend?”

He wanted out of this store. He wanted out of this conversation. This woman felt vaguely threatening, in the way that druids always did, and his instincts were screaming at him to shift and climb up and over the shelves of canned goods to get away, but he also knew that his instincts over the years had become a bit...reactionary. He didn’t know the right answer to her question, and until he could consult with someone else, someone smarter, no avenue felt safe.

He ducked his head and then, catching himself, pulled up straight. “Sure thing. At the B25 trailhead, tomorrow, around noon.”

The woman, Angelina, nodded and stepped around him to pass him by.

“Lovely meeting you,” she said. And then it was over.

 

***

 

“You are a demon,” Stiles grumbled. He was wrapped up in the covers of his bed, tightly wound and smelling faintly of sweat, when Derek settled cross legged on the chair in the corner. He wound his own arms tightly against his chest and tucked his chin in, feeling like he was going to face a lot of mockery for tonight’s panicked response. He nudged Stiles with a foot again, until he flailed up and onto his butt, and flung the blanket clear. “What?! What do you want?!”

“We need to talk.”

“Yeah, no shit, but about what? Because I gotta tell ya’, you look way too calm for this to be about a death or a maiming, and I can’t imagine many other things that warrant a three am visit.”

Derek sighed through his nose.

“I think I agreed to something bad.”

Slowly, but with steady progress, Stiles pulled himself out of his blanket nest.

“Okay. What’s our threat level here?”

“I’m not sure,” he ran a hand through his hair, “Another pack is in our territory, they cornered me in the grocery store.”

Stiles’ hackles visibly raised at the idea of a new pack, the alpha pack probably playing in his mind on a loop, but he just nodded shortly for Derek to continue.

“They want to meet with the whole pack, tomorrow. Invited me formally. Or, as formally as you can when standing next to the floor polish.”

“And what do they want to talk about?”

Derek grimaced, glanced over at the wall.

“They want us to come to the beach with them.”

When he chanced a look back up, Stiles’ mouth had dropped wide open.

“Okay,” he shook himself a little, “Okay. Please tell me this is some sinister beach populated by sea monsters and not just friendly interaction from our neighbors, because if you are at Defcon One over friendly interaction, I swear to God--”

“I know , okay?” he snapped, “I know that I’m a moron and antisocial and fucking mean or whatever, but it didn’t happen out of nowhere! She was a stranger, but she knew my name, and she just came right at me and I’m responsible and-- everyone always acts like it’s so easy , just to talk to people, but I can’t just be the person I was before, it’s not--”

“Derek!” Stiles cut him off with a sharp tone, but his hands were hovering over Derek’s knees and he’d ducked down in an attempt to catch Derek’s gaze. He hadn’t even realized he’d sunk down in his chair, his shoulders hunching up around his ears and his eyes screwed shut. “Okay. So. Social anxiety is a thing I should have known about you, like, years ago. But that’s okay. I know now. And I see that this is kind of a minefield for you, so I’m going to help, and you’re going to be okay.”

Derek shut his eyes again and nodded. He heard Stiles shift backward onto the bed, and loosened just a little from the tension he’d been carrying all night.

This was fucking mortifying. He hadn’t freaked out like that in front of anyone in a long time.

“Not to tell you how to live your life or anything,” Stiles said, and of course he was going there, “but that seems pretty intense. Like, I’m really kind of impressed at how well you function if new people scare you that badly.”

He swallowed, his throat full of what felt like sand, and set about uncoiling his arms from around himself.

“It didn’t used to be this bad, it’s just. After everything...everyone seems to target me. Everyone who wants to be friends or asks me out on a date turns out to be some new monster and I just...I thought, once things settled down I would be able to relax, but I don’t know this woman and I don’t remember hardly anything about her pack and now they want all of us to go with them somewhere isolated to see a bunch of other packs I hardly remember and--”

“Derek!” the sharp tone was back. This time he scooted in close and knocked their knees together. Derek took in a deep breath through his nose and then out through his mouth while Stiles seemed to mull something over. “Look, I’m not a therapist. You should probably definitely be talking to one of those. But I do know that a lot of fear based stuff is helped by controlled exposure, and I think you could face them tomorrow if you just had a buffer. And, like, beyond that? Derek, we could use some allies. You especially. As long as the rest of the pack is on board, I think we should go to this thing, and try and make some connections. I promise to stay with you, one hundred percent.”

“What does that…” he paused for a minute, tried to make himself look Stiles in the eye, “What does that mean? Stay with me?”

Stiles smiled. “Dude, I will be stuck to your side like glue. You know how I can talk, so I’ll steer the conversation, and if you ever want a break or someone is making you uncomfortable just squeeze my hand and I can divert us away. ‘Oh, the poor human boy!’” His voice when high and nasally, like a viscount from an old Victorian novel. “‘He does so fear the sun, what with his pale skin like raw chicken! Away we must go to reapply sunscreen so he dost not cook to a tasty golden brown!’”

Derek snorted and Stiles smile grew to a full on grin.

“Okay,” he said, “That’s...okay.”

 

***

 

Strategically speaking, the trailhead was actually a good location. Far enough into the preserve that they wouldn’t be disturbing the neighbors and causing any more suspicious calls to the Sheriff, not quite deep enough to hedge close to the Nemeton or the old Hale house, and populated by a thin stream of hikers and runners, maybe one every fifteen minutes, just enough to remind everyone that there would be no big supernatural battles with all those prying eyes around.

For the most part, Derek and his betas dressed how they always did, in various shades of leather and flannel, looking a little bit like a BDSM club met a truck stop, and Derek had to admit they were pretty out of place sitting around a few picnic tables and passing out the boxed lunches he’d picked up at the deli downtown. But he liked it, for what it was. Their senses of style were all disparate, but there was just enough overlap that it almost looked like a uniform.

The Carmichael pack, on the other hand, had dressed to blend in, all eight of them in khakis and windbreakers like they were about to go on a bird watching expedition. In the crowd he recognized Angelina from before, but she hung back and instead a broad, muscular woman with warm dark skin and bright green eyes sat down at the table across from him and folded her hands together.

“Alpha Hale,” she said, “I’m Alpha Carmichael. Though I’d prefer if you called me Suzanne.”

He nodded, shortly, and waited for her to launch into more explanation when he felt the long line of Stiles leg against his. He glanced to the right, where Stiles was tearing into a turkey and provolone sandwich, but Stiles didn’t acknowledge him other than to flick his fingers subtly towards the alpha.

He wanted Derek to...what? Oh, fuck, names.

“You can call me Derek.”

She offered him a sly smile and leaned in just a hair closer.

“I’d certainly like that.”

Over her shoulder, a bored looking teenage boy held a stack of papers rubber-banded to a clipboard, and he tugged one free to pass to her outstretched hand.

“I wasn’t the alpha when your mother was in charge, but my father knew her and I believe we met once or twice in passing. The Hale pack commanded a lot of respect, before the tragedy,” she leaned on the word ‘tragedy’ like she was hoping he’d reward her for not saying the word ‘fire’, “and I see no reason not to extend that same respect. Part of that is including you in the Wolves of Greater California and our yearly gathering.”

Derek’s eyebrows crept up. “It has a name ?”

“Well sure,” she snorted, “Organizing into hierarchies is a biological imperative for werewolves.”

Stiles barked a laugh and hid it behind his hand, and Boyd had that smug look that said he’d be saving his jokes for the car ride home, and Derek was going to regret being his ride.

Alpha Carmichael didn’t look pleased, but she slid the paper across the table all the same. Underneath an oversaturated image of a wolf with a stock photo watermark, the details were laid out in easy bullet points. A yearly gathering of five packs in total--six if you counted his--at MacKerricher State Park. Campgrounds paid for out of the interpack general fund, or late attendees could pay for RV hookups nearby themselves. Guaranteed privacy, free shifting, bring your own food. Three nights, ending with a group howling event.

A flood of memories swept over him, and he fought not to let his shoulders creep up to protect his head, anxiety over his past and the recollection of it swirling around his head. Stiles’ leg pressed against his again, and while it didn’t really fix anything, it gave him something to focus on.

“And this begins tomorrow?” he asked, although he could see the date at the bottom as well as everyone else.

“It does. We’re headed that way as we speak--this detour notwithstanding. And we would be honored if you would join us. There’s alway good to be had when alphas get in some bonding time.”

Suddenly another leg was travelling up one of his, this time from an angle Stiles couldn’t possibly reach, and Derek’s eyes snapped up from the paper to Alpha Carmichael's cheshire grin. She seemed impressed with herself, for someone with their foot dangerously close to a virtual stranger’s groin, and didn’t seem to register when he tried to shrink back.

“I understand it’s hard to get a rental on a camper so short notice, though. If you want, you could bunk with me.”

He flinched at that, and Stiles lifted a hand to the back of his neck protectively--or maybe just to stop him from doing it again so visibly. Across from him Alpha Carmichael's face fell by degrees.

“I don’t think there’d be quite enough space,” Stiles said, his voice blank of any affectation, “but thank you for your concern. We would be delighted to come, and handle our own logistics.”

A few beats passed with Stiles’ hand on Derek’s neck, a strange foot on Derek’s thigh, and a staring match going each of three directions over the table, before Alpha Carmichael finally pulled back and stood up, rejoining her pack who began filing away.

“Understood,” her eyes stayed mainly on Stiles, “We’ll see you at the beach tomorrow.”

And with that, they were gone, disappeared up the trail and headed toward the dry riverbed that passed for sightseeing in Beacon Hills.

It didn’t take long--only barely enough time for them to get out of earshot--before the questions started up.

“What the fuck was that?” Erica asked, “Did you two have a one night stand or something?”

Derek shrugged, but the blush on his cheeks made him feel transparent.

“She smelled really…” Scott grimaced, “strong. Like, she was so sure that was going to work, it was all smug and pungent, and like--”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Derek huffed.

“No, it was,” Boyd said, “So what gives?”

“Nothing, it’s just...I guess she’s just the kind of person who hasn’t been told ‘no’ enough times in her life.”

Erica snorted, but dropped back into an easy smile.

“Well, that’s just how alphas are.”

 

***

 

They weren’t able to rent an RV, that much held true, but luckily Erica’s parents had an old one from the eighties parked in the alley beside their house, covered in blue tarps pinned down with twine. The interior was dated, definitely, but it slept six people between the couches, the back bedroom, and the fold out bed in the dining area, and it was drivable once Derek replaced the spark plugs and gave it an oil change. By then, the rest of the pack had thrown together three days worth of clothes and toiletries and Scott and Isaac had returned from the grocery store with bags of food and a tank of kerosene for the stove. All that was left was to load up and leave.

He felt petrified.

Still, this was something he owed the betas and it had been dumped into his lap by chance or by force, so even if it killed him he would do this for them. That didn’t mean he was going to drive though. Boyd would do fine. He was taking a nap.

Three hours later, he was woken by Stiles and Scott leaping onto the mattress, whooping and cackling and generally scaring the shit out of him, and he bolted upright with his claws barely under control.

“What the fuck--?”

“Derek! We’re in Redway!”

He frowned, “We just left Redding.”

Stiles rolled his eyes and leaned over Scott’s body to shove at Derek’s hand. He noticed the claws still there and breathed deeply, forcing himself to push them back in.

“No, Redway . It was listed as a stop on the itinerary. I wanted to stop at Mad River and get, like, any merchandise that had that awesome name on it, but apparently we can’t stop anywhere that doesn’t have a gas station because we have a ‘schedule’.” He crooked his fingers into air quotes.

“We do have a schedule,” Scott offered, “and this place has a diner. Come get lunch with us.”

Derek groaned but shoved himself up and out of the bed anyway, headed for the closet set into the far wall that held his belongings. He fished out a new t shirt and changed where he stood, and then pulled out a novel from the very back for when--not if--he got bored of the pack’s chatter.

“Alright,” he said, “Let’s get this over with.”

Boyd crawled out from the driver’s seat and into the main body of the TV and hooked an arm around Derek’s shoulder. “Your lack of enthusiasm for food is really disturbing, man.”

He rolled his eyes, but leaned into the half-hug as they headed for the door.

“It’s just calories.”

“And werewolves are just mammals.”

 

***

 

The diner was tiny, a building in the middle of a wide lot by the gas station with just a few low set windows along the outside. The lines denoting parking spots had faded away ages ago, but the truckers who stopped there--Derek assumed it was for the same reason, only gas for thirty miles--had all arranged themselves into neat rows anyway. Inside there were only ten tables arranged in rows, along with a long bar and bolted down stools, and two waitresses hustling in between the bodies of three wolf packs taking up every available space. Someone had brought in folding chairs from their camper and were crowded in the empty spaces around each table.

They probably should have called ahead. But it would probably be a lot of money for the restaurant. Maybe they could afford to repaint the parking lot.

One waitress caught sight of them standing by the door and diverted her path to greet them, barely grunting out a polite hello before she led them through the throngs of people and against the back wall.

They sat along it, like at a counter only backwards, Boyd and then Erica and then Scott and then Allison and then Stiles and then Derek. The waitress took their orders without providing them menus, general things ike omelets and grilled sandwiches, and then left them to look out onto the room.

Derek pulled in a breath through his nose and then let it out through his mouth. He wished he was sitting in the center of the pack instead of Scott. As Alpha he probably should be. As it was, the warm line of Stiles on his right didn’t make up for the cold draft playing along his left side, and he laced his hands together between his knees in an attempt to stay in his own space alone.

A table in front of them quieted a little, and then the squeal of a metal chair on the laminate brought Derek’s eyes up. A man, maybe forty or fifty, with dark liquid eyes and pale skin had scooted back into his eyeline, one arm slung over the back of his chair and a sly grin on his face.

“Hey there, handsome. Headed the same place as the rest of us?”

Like so many times before, Derek froze in place, and kept a steady glare in the man’s direction in hopes it would dissuade him. Like so many times before, it did not.

“You’re pretty bitter for someone who looks so sweet. Need someone to fix that for you?”

His frown deepened into a scowl and without his permission his hand strayed to the side to press against Stiles’ thigh.

“I’ve got some time before we shove out, and a private bunk. Alpha’s privileges.”

The man’s leer was almost glittering now, so sharp and gleeful. Derek wasn’t sure if his goal was truly to flirt or just to make him uncomfortable, but he seemed moments away from reaching out and laying a hand on him either way and Derek felt like he could hardly move.

No, that wasn’t right. He could move. He wanted to, even. He wanted to bury his claws in the man’s face and use it to shove him bodily out of his way on his path to the door.

Instead of that, though, Stiles unhooked his crossed legs and planted them wide, leaned far forward so the man had no choice but to acknowledge him, if only briefly.

“I wouldn’t say he’s bitter so much as sour. Small change, but distinct, wouldn’t you say?”

The man narrowed his eyes, and allowed them to flash red. Derek’s flashed in response, which seemed to startle him, if the little jerk of his shoulders was to be believed, but he didn’t let go of his goal.

“And who are you?”

“The one best qualified to judge Derek’s flavor . I know you were hoping to fill that position, but I think you’ll cope with the disappointment alright. You seemed basically competent, that way.”

Something Derek had always admired in Stiles was his capacity to look danger in the face, knowing that it was danger and the full extent of harm that could come to him if he provoked it, and not caring beyond his own righteous indignation. He had no respect for anyone who had not proved themselves respectful. The man, whatever his agenda, seemed to see it to--if he had any sense he would see the way it aligned with and mimicked a wolf’s loyalty--because he shrank back and offered a stiff nod before turning towards his own pack and dropping the bone he’d been chasing after entirely.

Later, after they’d received their food and eaten it off their laps, out of their hands, after they’d talked some with some of the friendlier wolves around them and even to a few of the puzzled truck drivers tucked into the empty spaces, after they’d paid for their food and gone out into the cool afternoon air of the parking lot, Stiles cornered Derek by the back tire on the RV, one hand caging him in but the other loose by his side to provide an exit if Derek needed it.

“So, I’ve got to ask. I know this is going to sound a little bit nutty but, well, the world is big and insane and magical species are more nutty than any fiction anyone has ever come up with, so...I’m just gonna ask. It seems weird that you’ve had two alphas all up in your business in two days. Is this something I need to worry about when we all get together at the beach tonight? Did you put on some kind of alpha-to-alpha pheremone cologne? What’s going on?”

Derek cringed, but he nodded shortly in Stiles’ direction. He was right, it was the sort of thing that he should know--or someone should know at least. This was escalating much faster than he’d thought it would, and more of his anxious fears were proving true than he was at all okay with.

“I wasn’t...I wasn’t supposed to be an alpha. They can...tell.”

“And...what?” Stiles asked, “Because they aren’t acting this way around other betas.”

He sighed.

“They’re all alphas. Sort of. It’s kind of like potential. Some wolves are oriented to be alphas, some are oriented to be betas, but since a pack can only have one alpha most stay betas forever. It’s not unusual to smell a beta who’s meant to be an alpha, but it’s uncommon to smell an alpha who was meant to be a beta.”

Stiles offered him a grimace. “So they think you’re, like, weak?”

“No, they think I’m available ,” Derek sneered, “Being beta oriented supposedly makes me more compliant, but still powerful like an alpha. I’ve heard it holds a certain appeal  although I don’t...I didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Didn’t think everyone would go all Uncle Bad Touch?”

Derek shrugged, but Stiles wasn’t wrong. He couldn’t say if Alpha Carmichael and whoever that was in the diner were normally that forward, but it had made his skin crawl either way and he knew he’d be coiled even tighter than usual all weekend anticipating the next alpha to try something.

“Wait, a minute, you said available. Do you smell available?”

“No, I just,” he frowned, “I mean if I had a mate--a partner--we’d be doing all this stuff together. Travelling and meeting others packs and whatever. There’s no one obviously with me with me, so it looks like I’m single.”

Stiles brow furrowed down in a way that Derek took as a warning. He was scheming something.

“Exactly how homophobic are most wolf packs?”

 

***

 

They arrived at the park just before sundown, and parked the RV just along the treeline. It almost hadn’t made it around the last bend in the road, wide as it was, but luckily Erica didn’t know when to quit and Derek could afford to pay for a new paint job to cover the scratches.

A dozen or so campfires dotted the beach, and a few of the tents and campers were strung with Christmas lights, but otherwise it was dark and warm,  a huge half moon of sand bordered by a low grassy hill, and the whole Pacific Ocean staring back at them, indiscernible from the sky.

Scott and Isaac stripped off their shirts almost before their feet had hit the ground coming out of the RV, and tore off towards the shoreline, shifting mid-stride.

“If you start to drown, we’re abandoning you!” Erica shouted, and Boyd snorted a laugh over her shoulder. Together with Derek they started setting up the awning that would stand in as a makeshift porch during their stay, and the small grill, table, and chairs that would make it easier to cook in the evening heat.

There had to be a hundred people in attendance, all ages and a few unique species, and Derek let his eyes stray over each group, taking in his neighbors. Luckily, neither of the alphas he’d encountered so far were anywhere near the spot they’d chosen.

One woman did stand out from the crowd, though, familiar in a way he couldn’t place. She sat in front of one of the fires, her feet propped up on a cooler and one arm thrown over her eyes. Every few minutes someone would approach her, seemingly to ask a question, and she’d give an answer without looking up. Whoever she was, she looked exhausted.

“Hey there, almost done?” Stiles bounced down out of the RV, cooler in one hand and an easy grin on his face. “I was thinking I’d get started on the food while you guys frolic.”

He thunked the cooler down on the cheap folding table and tilted back the lid to reveal rows and rows of foil wrapped discs surrounded by ice.

“What’s all that?” Derek reached a hand towards one of them, but Stiles flagged him off and pulled three off the top himself instead.

“Beef and veggies, cheese fries, and granola smores.” He held up each little package in turn and then set them all down and pulled out more. “It’s the neatest thing, if you prep it just right you can set it in a hot grill, walk away for thirty minutes, and come back to a meal.”

“So what are you going to be doing while the food cooks itself?” Boyd asked.

“Eh,” Stiles shrugged, “Hanging back, staying out of the crowds. I don’t really need to get any bruises on the first night for overexcited werewolves. Besides, I brought a book.”

He glanced up from his task liberally coating the grill in lighter fluid and caught Derek’s eye, something conspiratorial in his eye. He jerked his head toward the far chair, closest to Derek, and then to the couple of novels sitting beside the cooler on the table. He hadn’t even seen Stiles holding those.

“Oh yeah,” he said, slowly, “I did too. You go ahead.”

“You’ll be okay?” Boyd asked.

“Yeah, we’re good ol pals,” Stiles said, and winked.

Erica didn’t need any more persuading and shifted into her beta form and stretched side to side. With a fluid motion she reached over and smack Boyd on the side, shouting “You’re it!” before taking off at full speed and weaving into the trees. Boyd grinned wide and fell forward onto his hands and feet to pursue her, loud happy yips emanating from both of them. In most contexts it would look undignified, but here…? Well, here they were one of dozens running exactly the same way, crashing through the brush and tumbling together into piles. It made the action seem normal. For that small fact, Derek was grateful that he had come.

He flopped down in the chair and picked up the books that were on offer, scoffing at the covers.

“‘Pregnant By The CEO Cowboy’ and ‘Trust Fund Baby: An MPREG Romance’. Really? You had hours to pack and these were your choices.”

“Shut up. And then shut your judgey eyebrows up too.” It might’ve been the heat from the grill but Derek would bet money that it was the embarrassment that had painted Stilles’ cheeks pink. “It’s vacation, and vacation is the perfect time for silly feel good nonsense.”

“Why is there a pregnancy theme? What the hell is mpreg?”

“I’ve just...just shut up, okay, I’ve been feeling kind of nostalgic lately, and I wanted to live vicariously through fictional characters. And mpreg is...it’s...well, I mean men and...they…”

Derek flipped the book over to skim the back cover, and then made a small noise of assent.

“Oh, the dude gets pregnant. Gotcha. That’s...one type of wish fulfillment, I guess.”

“I am so regretting giving you an out from socialization. You clearly did not deserve it.” Stiles stabbed forcefully at the coals, but when Derek chuckled, he smiled a little in response.

“Well, this is an awesome setup.” A voice filtered in from outside the glow of the RV’s string lights, and Derek locked up with that same anxiety from before. He knew they had a plan, they’d discussed it at length that afternoon, and then again with the rest of the pack. He just didn’t know if he could pull it off, if he could do anything but lash out or desperately force himself to keep from lashing out.

“Hey there,” Stiles wiped his hands, a bit unnecessarily, against his jeans and stepped forward to offer a hand. He swiped the other one through Derek’s hair as he passed him, and Derek turned his head to follow it subconsciously, until he’d turned far enough to see their new visitor.

The woman from before--exhausted and splayed out in front of the fire--was standing with her hands in the pockets of her loose cargo shorts and grinning at the two of them. She accepted Stiles’ hand to shake, and ducked her head in a half-not-quite-nod and it clicked inside his head. Rachel Ramona Roberts, the girl who’d spent every summer at his house through the end of middle school gossiping with Laura and shooting rubber bands at Derek and Cora.

She was taller now, by a good few inches, but she still carried herself with the same loose, careless posture, and she still smiled with only half her mouth like she was sharing a secret with you whenever she spoke.

He meant to say: “Holy shit. How are you? When did you get back from your distance course? How’s your brother?”

What came out instead was just a simple and toneless: “Shit.”

She cocked and eyebrow at him but Stiles laughed, and cuffed him lightly around the head.

“Excuse the sourwolf. He woke up on the wrong side of the bed eight years ago and I don’t think he’s over it yet.”

“Makes sense, he was always kind of dour.”

Stiles’ face lit up, eyes suddenly wide and hands fluttering by his sides like he was thinking of taking out his phone to take notes. He stepped back and to the side and made a sweeping gesture with his hand to indicate the empty chair.

“If you used to know Derek, you can have all the smores you want in exchange for embarrassing stories.”

 

***

 

“So what’s up with you two?” she asked, three wolfsbane beers later, “You smell...I don’t know how you smell. Confusing.”

Derek kept his gaze carefully down, and Stiles just hummed and offered a soft smile.

“It’s new. He hasn’t had much of a chance to scent mark me in the last month, not with everything going on in both of our lives. But we’ve known each other for years so I think the potential was always there.”

“Potential for…” she prompted.

“We’re dating,” Derek managed, and then darted a look at her face to gauge her reaction.

She nodded, thoughtful, and rapped her knuckles on the tabletop.

“That explains it. You’re both a mix of beta and alpha and alpha tinged beta and it’s kind of a mess. I’m glad you found each other, though. God knows what some of the little old ladies would’ve done if they thought they had an eligible bachelor to play matchmaker for, not to mention the alphas. It’s weird for me to say this, since you’re still basically Laura’s kid brother, but you smell like pineapple and freshly mown lawns and it’s ridiculous.”

Stiles cocked his head to the side. “Alpha tinged beta?”

“Yeah, you,” Rachel shrugged, “You’re alpha oriented but you can’t carry the alpha spark until you’re bitten so...and Derek has the spark but not the orientation. You’re kind of a match made in heaven.”

“I…” Derek felt like his brain was grinding in a garbage disposal, “Humans can be oriented?”

“Yeah. Everyone is, we seek each other out based on who’s more...like, forward and who’s more backward? That’s not it. What’s the human term for…” she snapped her fingers a few times like that might help her remember.

It seemed to click right away for Stiles and he smirked at Derek before blurting it out.

“You mean tops and bottoms?”

“Yeah, that’s it! Derek’s a bottom.”

Derek flushed dark and buried his face in his hands while Stiles laughed.

 

***

 

Despite the absolute glee Stiles took in his task after that, Derek had to admit it was working. They’d been approached by three more alphas the next day, but all of them backed off once they saw Stiles’ hand laying against Derek’s neck, or Derek with his nose buried in Stiles’ hair. Even Alpha Carmichael gave them a restrained nod from across the bonfire area, seemingly unsurprised to see Stiles as the one Derek had set his sights on. Stiles preened about that too.

Derek stayed out of the conversation most of the time, but he felt the tension in his core lessening with each passing hour, and by the time they were stretched out in the afternoon sun, listening to the gentle splashing of the tide coming back in, he felt good. So far, this was easy.

Stiles was drawing patterns on Derek’s skin with a finger, his face buried in the crook of his arm except for his eyes poking out over the top. He wasn’t sure what the strokes were meant to be except that they were maybe letters? Or runes, although he trusted Stile snot to actually try any spells on him without warning him first. He let his mind drift, happy to let Stiles write out a whole novel if it meant not having to move from his spot.

A set of bare feet appeared in his line of vision.

“Well, aren’t we the happy family?” a deep voice said, and oh fuck. Fuck fucking fuckity fuck. He recognized that man even without the seductive smoothness layered over top. He held his breath and glanced up, only confirming his suspicions. The alpha from the diner.

“Yes, we are,” Stiles said, uncovering his mouth but not bothering to look up from his task, “You, however, are not. And I can’t imagine you have business with us.”

“Oh, I think I do have business with your alpha,” he sneered at Stiles, “if he even calls himself that. Seems he’s happy to trail after you like a duckling so long as you let him pretend to be in charge.”

Stiles snorted. “Dude, I watched him tear out a traychia in order to get his red eyes, he earned them. You on the other hand…” he looked up finally, “Let me guess: daddy retired and you were the oldest? Got it by default?”

The man’s eyes flared red with outrage but he visibly wrestled them back down, and then finally turned a plastic smile in Derek’s direction.

“You know you can do better than a bratty weakling like him, right? There are a lot of people here who will treat you how you’re meant to be treated. Who know about your orientation and know what it is you really want.”

Stiles opened his mouth to speak, but Derek nudged his leg with his foot, and took a deep breath in to steady his nerves. He didn’t have a lot in terms of witty comebacks, but he figured just about any refusal would do.

“You seem really invested in what it’s like to feel dominated. What’s your orientation again?”

“Alpha--” he snarled, but Derek cut him off.

“Now that I don’t believe.”

He laughed--a bit forced but he hoped it looked natural--and ducked his head back down into the sand, Stiles following a second or two after him. The man swore a few times above them, practically vibrating with the need to keep arguing, but eventually he stepped back, and then walked back into  the crowd in the direction he’d come from.

“Oh my god, dude,” Stiles said after he’d left, “That was amazing.”

 

***

 

Stiles shoved Derek forward with a not inconsiderable amount of strength, and Derek wondered for the hundredth time if they should maybe check him for supernatural heritage. He tried in vain to dig his heels into the sand and slow them down.

“Okay, man, next step in the plan--”

“I thought there was only one step in the plan. You act like my partner, end of plan!”

“Dude,” Stiles scoffed, “It’s like you don’t even know me. Of course there’s more steps to the plan. Specifically, this step, where you learn how to interact with people using your man shaped safety blanket. Or training wheels. Whichever analogy works for you.”

“And what will that involve?”

“We are going to play chicken fight with them,” he pointed out into the ocean where a handful of people were milling around, in up to their waists, laughing and splashing one another with salt water. Scott and Isaac were among them, only two to the other team’s four, and Derek knew he was going to lose this fight. He just knew it. Still, he put up a nominal struggle, at least to show he couldn’t be bullied.

“How will that even fix anything? This game is just who has more strength and who can stand being embarrassed the best.”

Stiles shrugged. “It’s dealing with people, and being around people, but you don’t have to do hardly any talking. We’re easing you into it. Plus, you know, you’re strong enough that we’ll probably win.”

Derek craned his neck to glare over his shoulder.

“That’s the real reason isn’t it? You just want to help Scott with whatever bullshit he’s doing.”

Stiles shrugged. “I can help two people at once. Come on, man, you know it’s a good idea. You can’t avoid the other wolves forever and this will be nice and low pressure.”

Derek’s shoulders slumped and he sighed through his nose. Yeah, he’d lost.

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

He straightened up from under Stiles’ hands, causing him to pitch forward a little and only just catch himself, and strode forward with his jaw set. This was fine. This would be fine.

The wolf closest to him, a young guy with dark skin and dyed blond hair, snapped his head up and flared his nostrils, zeroing in on Derek.

Motherfucking fuck. Another alpha.

He smiled wide and kept his glance down Derek’s body and back up brief, then stepped forward and extended a hand.

“Hey man, I’m Alpha Turner. Geoff. Geoff Turner. These are my betas, Timothy, Clara, and Hardison.” He jerked a head over his shoulder at the three standing behind him and they each offered a wave.

“Hi.” Derek said, and then at Stiles’ insistence (read: elbow to the ribs) he took Geoff’s hand and shook it, and offered what he hoped was a smile. It probably wasn’t. “Alpha Derek Hale. It looks like you know Scott and Isaac already, and this is Stiles. My mate.”

Stiles snorted, but he’d covered up his smile by the time Derek turned around to growl at him.

“Sorry,” he laughed, “It just sounds so old fashioned. Like you invited me to your dour victorian mansion to be your mate and companion.”

A little ways off, Scott shrugged. “I mean...the Hale house is still kind of…”

Derek growled under his breath.

“Beautiful,” Scott finished.

“Well whenever you’re ready,” Geoff was still smiling, “we’re all set to kick your asses.”

“Oh please,” Stiles laughed, “You’ve got nothing on our pack.”

 

***

 

It turned out Stiles’ confidence in his friends was a bit overly optimistic. Some part of him seemed to still believe that Derek and the betas were superpowered, rather than just ordinary werewolves, and he threw himself into the game with the confidence of someone with the Justice League at his back.

More than once it resulted in him tumbling off of Derek’s shoulders into the water.

Geoff seemed to find Stiles endlessly charming, which would make Derek jealous except for the conspiratorial looks he kept trying to share with him, little winks and smiles and exasperated huffs. Since they’d enacted their, admittedly shaky, plan there had been no end of people either jealous of or mystified at the fact that Stiles and Derek were together. Only Rachel had really acted like it made sense and even then it was more about matching parts than anything. Stiles was just the guy who had Derek.

Geoff, though, seemed to hold the opposite opinion, that Derek was the one who had Stiles, and it made him feel weirdly proud. It hadn’t bothered him, actively, before this but...yeah. Stiles was a good mate, and a fantastic pack member, and why shouldn’t people be jealous of him for getting to spend time with Stiles. Derek might smell good--pineapples and mown grass didn’t sound all that sexy but he’d take their word for it--but Stiles was good. So he smiled back at Geoff when he laughed and took part in poking fun at his mate and their betas, and in no time at all it was two hours later and the sun was going down. The smell of lighter fluid and burning paper drifted over on the breeze and he locked up for just a few minutes before breathing through the edge of panic rising in his throat. Twenty feet away they were building a bonfire, enough wood stacked nearby to make for something truly impressive.

“Hey, man,” Stiles tapped at his shoulder, “You want to go inside?”

“Yeah, I uh…” he swallowed thickly, “Yeah.”

Stiles’ hand slid down his shoulder and he laced their fingers together, tugging Derek behind him as he picked his way through the sand. He shouted goodbyes behind them, but Derek shut it out, and focused instead on the steady pulse he could see and hear beating in Stiles’ wrist where their hands met.

It was okay. There was no danger. They could trust the people here.

He kept repeating it to himself.

They passed the fire and wove through the tents pitched on the sand, back to their own setup, and he held his breath the entire way. When they stepped under the awning he let that breath out and wrenched open the screen door to step inside and away from all the noise.

“Hmmm, Stiles let out a contented sigh and made for the bed at the back of the camper, his arms stretched up as high as they could go with the low ceiling. He flopped forward onto the bed, landing face down, and when Derek couldn’t come up with any real reason not to, he followed him.

After a few moment he surfaced, and rolled his head to the side to watch Stiles. He was breathing slow and even and his eyes were closed, but his mouth was ticked up in a smirk that proved he was still awake.

“Watching me, creeperwolf?”

“I was just thinking…” he paused. He had an idea--half of one really--but he wasn’t sure if he should really be acting on it. All the same he pushed forward. “I was just thinking that you’ve been really good this weekend, at what you're doing, and I’ve liked...I like it when you don’t leave me alone. I like having you here.”

The smirk turned into a grin and Stiles peeked one eye open.

“Thanks, man. I like being here.”

“It’s not just that though, it’s...god, what was the analogy? Training wheels?”

“Yeah, I’m your training wheels,” Stiles shrugged, “Or your security blanket.”

“Exactly. It’s not that. It’s been more like...a free trial. It felt like I got a free trial of what it would be like to date you and now I want to….subscribe? Buy--buy you? Do the--”

“Oh my god,” Stiles giggle-snorted and buried his head in the blankets again for a second before popping back up, “Is this--are you trying to flirt with me? Is this what Derek Hale looks like when he’s flirting?”

Derek scowled.

“You could just say no, Jesus--”

“I’m not. I’m not saying no.” The smile didn’t dim but he got the laughter under control and cleared his throat. “Derek Hale, would you like to subscribe to Stiles Stilinski’s Amazing Butt?”

“Shut up, I’m not...it wasn’t that bad!”

“It was so bad, dude, but I liked it. I really like how shy you are. It makes you a good alpha, despite what everyone thinks. Cautious, safety oriented. Half of them out there could stand to emulate those qualities.”

“Yeah, well. You’re pretty great too. Almost no one seems to see how lucky I am to be with you, but I am. You push me forward when I need it, and respect when I don’t.  You’re a good beta.”

Stiles waggled his eyebrows and Derek groaned, already knowing what was coming.

“Oh, no Derek. I’m the alpha.”