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Barking Bad

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At twenty five years of age, Derek had pretty much accepted that he was never quite going to get the smell of wet dog off his skin. Working at, and practically running, an independent dog grooming salon, was something that Derek had entered into very reluctantly after his skin-of-the-teeth graduation from high school. He’d lost interest in school after the fire that had claimed the lives of his parents, leaving Derek and his sisters to muddle through as best they could. Laura had stressed over him, claiming that he had the wrong work attitude and that he’d never go anywhere. Well, Derek had gone somewhere. He’d gone six miles down the road to a very messy 9-to-5 job that suited him perfectly because his customers couldn’t talk (and the ones that did, he let Cora handle).

Derek’s day started considerably earlier than 9am. Getting in a run was important if Derek was going to cope with the bundles of energy that frequented The Den, particularly when the rest of the staff were lazy and preoccupied and entirely too prone to cooing over the customers and taking pictures of them on their phones instead of actually working.

‘I wish you wouldn’t call the dogs “customers”, Derek,’ Cora complained, rubbing an acetone-soaked rag over her jeans to get the paint splashes off. ‘It’s not like they pay or anything.’

‘I cut off their nails and Kira pins bows to their collars,' Derek said, flatly. 'They pay, alright.’

Cora had done slightly better in school. Their parents’ death hadn’t affected her as long-term as it had Derek, because she’d only been nine to Derek’s fifteen. She was currently in her first year at art school and suddenly everything in Derek’s apartment was covered in paint. And she didn’t even live with him anymore. Cora had only taken the job at the Den to help pay for her wardrobe and social life; she was still receiving generous donations from the Laura Hale “big fancy Seattle lawyer” foundation, which she was definitely not too proud to accept so she could afford art school, art supplies, and a small apartment, but Laura had drawn the line at supplying Cora’s wild recreational activities. ‘I looked after you for nine years,’ she’d told her sternly. ‘I bought your damn sneakers. Now it’s your turn.’

There was also the fact that nowhere else would let her fuck around with her painting as much as the Den did. The manager, a well-meaning but very distracted singer-songwriter named Archie, had been left the establishment by his equally well-meaning father, and didn’t really know what to do with the place. Derek had been working there since he was sixteen, and had quietly taken over most of the management since then. Therefore he’d felt justified in letting his incredibly talented sister take charge of the decoration, which was long overdue for such a popular salon.

‘Nothing about this screams “cute”,’ Cora had said critically, when she’d first been granted access to behind the scenes at the Den. ‘Has this place ever been painted?’

Derek had shrugged. ‘The dogs don’t care,’ he’d argued. ‘Just paint the outside and the waiting room. Something with paws, I don’t know.’

Cora had rolled her eyes. ‘Maybe some bright colours in here would cheer you up too,’ she’d commented, and within a week, Derek found himself bathing puppies under yellow sunflowers, and administering flea and tick treatment in bright blue rooms with cleverly worded dog puns floating across the skirting board in appealing, artistic lettering. Derek hated dog puns, but there was literally no point in trying to reign Cora in once you’d given her the go ahead, so he suffered phrases like “This room is a doggone mess!” and “You’re gonna look PAWsome after a trip to The Den!” painted all around the building.

Nearly eight years working at the Den had provided Derek with ample time to get trained by a vet in the precise art of animal care (in other words, how to clip a nervous doberman’s nails without losing your fingers), particularly because none of this time had been spent attempting to get any further in education. If he was honest with himself, nothing had ever interested him after he graduated from teenager to adult in very abrupt fashion. People in general bothered him. Cora called him grumpy and anti-social, but he wasn’t really. He loved listening to the customers - the paying ones - chatting on the phone or to Cora or to each other in the waiting room. He secretly liked listening to Kira and Danny organise their social calendars or discuss mutual friends. But none of this appealed to him in an actual participatory mode, and he didn’t interact with Kira or Danny too easily, though he liked them well enough. It was just easier to look after the dogs. He subjected them to all manner of uncomfortable and shaming grooming rituals, and they still wagged their tails and scooted closer for hugs afterwards. They didn’t mind that Derek didn’t have much to say.

Derek opened up shop at 8:30am so he could get the salon warmed up before the first appointments at 9:30. Mostly this just involved Derek wandering through the rooms, making sure there were enough treats and toys on hand, laying out clean towels, answering various emails from Archie, and going over the customers’ history on their electronic files to see who was anxious about what and if anyone had any relevant medical conditions. Cora used to do that, but she didn’t quite understand the kind of information Derek needed to know. There was nothing worse than spending ten minutes getting a dog all relaxed and happy, then walking him into the bathing room and having the dog go as stiff as a plank the second he hears the water running. Sometimes the dog would bolt completely, often out into the waiting area if the door to the back rooms was left ajar. Highly embarrassing for everyone, including and especially Derek, who’d had to chase after a puppy more than once and try to catch it while it hid under chairs.

Kira and Danny arrived promptly at nine, bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Cora trailed in at around 9:20 with coffee and sunglasses. ‘The lights aren’t that bright,’ Derek commented irritably, as Cora planted herself at the receptionist desk that made up the front wall of her little office, and laid her head on the table.

‘I’m still adjusting from outside,’ she said quietly. Derek heard the hangover in her voice, debated giving her a lecture about underage drinking, but then decided it wasn’t worth the argument.

Today’s morning was nothing out of the ordinary. Puppies came in, and puppies went home, smelling much nicer and considerably less likely to get fleas. Older dogs, grim veterans of the grooming process greeted him with cursory sniffs and tail wags, accepted their treats, and bore their grooming with admirable tolerance. Derek enlisted Kira’s help for some paw and nose cleaning, showing her how to look for hidden thorns or cuts that might get infected, and how to clean their ears. Kira was the most enthusiastic about the job, and spent a lot of her time asking Derek very interested questions that Derek could have answered properly if she didn’t catch him off guard every single time. Kira was a history major, and taught some kind of martial arts (Derek could never remember what) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so her strength came in handy when they were dealing with over-excited customers. Sometimes she had too much pep for Derek to handle, but Cora wouldn’t hear a word against her.

‘She’s like the poster child for a family-friendly establishment, Der,’ she’d explained patiently when Kira had left him spinning after bustling in like a little whirlwind holding newly-printed Den flyers and asking about colour patterns and distribution. ‘We could power the building using her sunshine. She works hard. You work hard. Be nice and don’t scare her off.’ She’d fixed him with her sternest look and then flicked paint at him.

Derek ate lunch in the back garden. It wasn’t that he was paranoid that the place would fall apart under Cora’s leadership while he took an actual lunch break - there were legitimate reasons why he needed to be there. A dog could come in with behavioural problems and no appointment. Or they might get a nervous first-time puppy who needed to be given lots of attention and reassurance before they could even be brought near the tub or any of the other equipment. Or Cora might accidentally cause the place to collapse. Anything was possible.

The back garden was mainly used when the dogs needed a bit of a play before or after grooming, so they could associate the experience with something fun rather than something stressful or frightening, or for when there was a queue for the shower. Derek didn’t like putting them in the cages to wait for longer than was necessary, because it tended to cause stress. So he sat outside on the sturdy swing set that was a remnant of when Archie had been growing up in the building, and ate his sandwiches. No one lived in the rooms above the salon anymore, and Derek had converted them into office and storage space a few years ago.

Derek didn’t like going up into the office space, because that’s where he had to go to look over the finances with Archie at the end of each week, and also where he spent quite a lot of time convincing Archie not to sell the Den to the PAWfect Grooming Company, who, besides having a dreadfully stupid name, were trying to convert The Den salon into one of their own. Derek glared up at the little window behind which he’d stood every Friday for the last five weeks, patiently explaining to Archie that the Den was doing quite well, had a solid stream of regular customers as well as walk-ins, and that there was no need to sell. Archie would run his hands through his flyaway red hair and talk about the figure PGC were offering him and Derek thought anxiously about Cora and Danny and Kira’s jobs, which would most likely go to trained professionals if a takeover did happen. Derek didn’t know when he’d become responsible for so much. It seemed like his entire life revolved around shepherding teenagers and small dogs and trying to keep them all healthy and happy.

Avocado had been a good choice of sandwich, Derek mused, as he brushed crumbs off his trousers. He stepped back into the salon, thinking about the next customer, an exuberant red setter/collie cross who usually bounded in full of energy and left with even more energy. His owner, a friendly guy named Scott, was rarely fazed by Jasper’s energy; Derek had seen him lift Jasper up in the car park on more than one occasion, when the dog had refused to jump into the backseat of Scott’s jeep. When Cora yelled his name five minutes before the scheduled 2:15 appointment, however, Derek hurried into the front room to find not Scott but a skinny, pale, tousle-haired guy being dragged around the waiting room by Jasper, whose coat looked matted and too dark even from a distance.

Upon catching sight of Derek, Jasper let off an incredibly loud bark and launched himself delightedly at Derek, dragging the helpless guy along with him. Derek knew how to handle Jasper. He stood tall, squared his shoulders, and pushed Jaspers head down and away from him until Jasper was back on all fours. ‘Down!’ he commanded firmly, and Jasper sat obediently, panting. The guy on the end of the leash nearly collapsed, looking between Jasper and Derek as though witnessing the second coming of Christ.

‘He would not do that for me,’ he said, sounding amazed while simultaneously trying to control his breathing. ‘I said “down” like five hundred different ways but all he did was lick my face? Dude, how the hell did you do that?’

Derek raised his eyebrow as he watched the skinny kid double over with his hands on his knees. ‘Man, I’m out of shape,’ Derek heard him sigh. He watched silently as this kid, who was definitely not Scott nor anyone related to Scott, fumbled around in his bag for Jasper’s medical file, disgorging a number of not-relevant papers and notebooks in the process. Cora leaned on the desk and took in the encounter with an amused look on her face. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ the kid said hurriedly, as he finally handed the file to Derek. ‘He’s had shots since last time I think - it’s all in there. Or it should be. Scott normally does this, uh, I don’t actually own a dog so I don’t really know. I just live with him.’

‘It’s fine,’ replied Derek, glancing at Jasper’s updated file. ‘What did he roll in?’

The guy hesitated. ‘It’s not so much what he rolled in as what was spilled on him. And then what was allowed to dry for about two hours in the sun.’ He looked between Cora and Derek rather nervously - they tended to have twin expressions of disapproval, or so they were told - and help up his hands.

‘Hey,’ he protested, ‘it was definitely not my fault. This is entirely Scott’s fault. He was severely, uh, preoccupied. I wasn’t even there at the time.’ He paused, then held out a hand to Derek. ‘Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Stiles.’

Derek ignored the outstretched hand, barely suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. Kira had told him kindly that customers didn’t like that. ‘What is it exactly?’ he asked.

Stiles made a face. ‘It’s honey,’ he said, and Derek’s heart sank. Honey.

‘How did he manage to get this much all over him?’ Cora asked, who had come out from her office to let Jasper sniff her hand. As she examined his fur, Derek could see that parts of it were, as he suspected, rock solid.

Stiles shrugged. ‘Scott said something about breaking the jar and having to save what he could. He swears he had the bowl covered, and maybe he did, but tables under six foot stand absolutely no chance against this dog. He has eaten more of my dinners than I have.’

‘Bet he never eats Scott’s,’ Cora smirked.

‘Well, no,’ Stiles agreed, looking annoyed. ‘This dog hates me.’

‘He doesn’t hate you,’ Derek disagreed, crouching down to rub Jasper’s head.

‘Oh, good,’ replied Stiles happily.

‘He just doesn’t respect you,’ Derek added, glancing up at Stiles.

Stiles shrugged. ‘Well, neither do my boss or any of my coworkers so I guess I can get used to that. But at least they don’t knock me down or eat my food.’ He frowned. ‘How come he respects you then?’

Cora butted in. ‘Because Derek’s the alpha here,’ she said, glancing at her brother and smiling faintly. ‘Jasper always knows.’

Stiles looked at Derek appraisingly, and Derek suddenly felt very self-conscious.

‘You’re Scott’s roommate then,’ Cora said, standing up and looking at Stiles with a faint air of recognition. Scott had never mentioned a roommate to Derek, but then their conversations were usually limited to topics strictly Jasper-related. Cora had more social interaction from behind that desk than Derek ever did.

‘Yeah,’ nodded Stiles, looking away from Derek and running a hand through his hair. ‘He’s got a dinner with Isaac tonight, some big ceremony thing, and I said I’d help out by taking care of the one element that refuses to fit neatly on a schedule.’ Stiles gestured to Jasper, who barked happily, as though he knew they were talking about him.

Derek closed the file and tossed it to Cora. ‘That’s fine,’ he said, holding out his hand for Jasper’s leash. ‘Just a bath?’

‘Uh, no, teeth and claws too please,’ Stiles said quickly. ‘How long do you think …?’

Derek examined Jasper critically. The dog was straining against the leash now, eager to get behind the scenes and smell everything. ‘Probably about an hour, maybe two, depending,’ he replied honestly. ‘He has a lot of fur, and he doesn’t like water or the nail clippers. Takes a while to get him to relax.’

Stiles nodded. ‘It’s cool, I can wait. My jeep’s in for a service so I’m walking him home afterwards.’

‘Probably a good idea,’ Derek advised him. ‘Jasper gets kind of worked up back here.’

‘Oh, great,’ Stiles replied, sounding distinctly less-than-thrilled. Something about the way his mouth moved made Derek want to extend the conversation further, but Jasper was practically whining now. He headed into the back without another word, wondering why he couldn’t stop thinking about why Stiles’s boss and coworkers didn’t respect him, and what those notes in his bag might have been, and that stupid little way his mouth had pursed and his brow had crinkled when Derek had made Jasper sit. He’d looked impressed. Derek was confused and distracted.

Jasper was very sweet natured, but a total wuss; Derek had to take him out back and let him run around and play for at least ten minutes and throw him a few of his favourite treats as a reward for coming back in and just being in the same room as the tub. It wasn’t actually a tub at all, it was actually more of a sloping-down shower area with a hose. Real tubs meant that little dogs felt intimidated by being placed into it, and big dogs were just a plain bitch to get in, because they had to climb in for themselves and you usually couldn’t pick them up. Not that Derek wasn’t strong enough or anything. But sometimes the big dogs didn’t like it.

‘Quick reminder that you work with smaller staff members who can’t bench press a doberman,’ Cora had said when Kira had tentatively suggested to Derek that they get rid of the old tubs. ‘No one’s questioning your super strength, Derek.’ Derek had tried not to pout; he’d never thought they’d question his super strength. It just made bathing the dogs a much wetter experience.

‘Come on, Jasper,’ Derek said gently but firmly, kneeling on the edge of the shower area and holding out a treat. ‘Good boy, come on.’ Jasper whined, ears back, looking miserable because he wanted to obey Derek but knew that the shower meant water and water wasn’t fun.

‘Every time,’ Derek sighed, watching as Jasper slowly backed away. Because Jasper was just nervous about the situation, and not actually frightened, Derek managed to get him in position by gently leading him on his leash. Jasper wasn’t happy about it, but suffered the apparent indignity of having his coat shampooed and little cotton buds placed in his ears to stop the water getting in. The honey was, as Derek predicted, a nightmare. Very hot water would have gotten it off much easier, but he couldn’t turn up the temperature too high. They used tea tree oil to get tree sap out of dog fur, so Derek figured it would probably work on honey too. Unfortunately, Jasper didn’t take kindly to the smell being so close to his head (a lot of the honey was around his neck), and the result was a lot of spinning around to get a look at what Derek was doing, and Derek ending up on his butt in the shower like a true professional, getting absolutely drowned while Jasper rolled around on the floor.

‘Shit!’ Derek yelped, as he struggled to get the hose under control. He slapped the water button off, and struggled to get to his feet. ‘Ok Jasper, almost done, just come here please …’

But Jasper was under the impression that they were done. He stuck his butt up in the air and barked at Derek as if to say ‘Phew! Glad that’s over! More playtime?’

‘No, not more playtime,’ Derek argued, frowning at the dog’s enthusiasm. ‘Come here.’

Sometimes, when a dog is in a certain mood, there is no way to approach them without initiating a one-sided game. Derek once witnessed a child in the supermarket consume five packets of Skittles on the go-around, and then ten minutes later he was running along on top of the checkouts. Dogs were very like children in that way.

Derek took a step towards the dog, and Jasper bolted. He skittered over to the door which Derek had stupidly, stupidly, left half ajar, not wanting to make Jasper feel boxed in. No fear of that now. Jasper was off, setting the kid of pace that maximised the optimum splash ratio, with a few mid-stride shakes for good measure. He made a beeline for the waiting room before Derek could catch up, and he heard startled voices that grew increasingly louder as Jasper’s victims discovered just how much water he was carrying in all that fur.

Derek nearly slipped coming into the waiting room. It was chaos. Stiles was on his back trying to fend off Jasper, while a lady cowered in the corner holding a small white ball of fur who was eagerly cheering on the display with very loud yaps. Cora was trying to drag Jasper off Stiles, whose tail was wagging frantically as he tried to persuade Stiles to play. Cora glared at Derek as though it was all his fault.

‘Ok Jasper, you found me!’ Stiles was saying, cover his head with his arms as Jasper pawed him. ‘You’ve had a whole lot of coffee, buddy.’ He was laughing, but there was most definitely a full-sized red setter jumping on his chest at the same time. Derek flushed. This was what Laura would call A Scene.

‘Ow, claws,’ said Stiles loudly, and Derek realised he should be intervening. He got his arms around Jasper and pulled him back enough to let Stiles roll out of the way. The dog was calming down now, remembering that he was covered in water and started trying to shake himself dry. Everyone present groaned and shielded their eyes as drops of water pelted them, and Cora threw a half-hearted punch at Derek’s shoulder before ducking into her office for a towel.

‘I’m sorry, oh god, I’m so sorry,’ Stiles was babbling. Derek frowned at him as Jasper circled his legs. ‘He’s so bad, I should have exercised him more before I brought him in,’ Stiles said, biting his lip in a way that distracted Derek far more than it should have. Jasper licked his hand, and he jumped.

‘It’s fine,’ Derek said quickly. ‘I shouldn’t have left the door open. He got a surprise when I put the tea tree oil on him.’

Stiles sniffed his hands delicately. ‘Oh yeah, I recognise that smell.’ He looked at Jasper, frowning slightly. ‘He got a surprise?’

Derek nodded, rubbing Jasper’s ears idly. Cora was apologising to the woman with the small yappy dog in the corner; Derek felt safe enough to make conversation. ‘It was a sharp smell, and unfamiliar. He just got a bit excited,’ Derek explained quietly. He really didn’t want people thinking he couldn’t handle the customers. Specifically he didn’t want Stiles thinking he was bad at his job. He wasn’t sure why that was.

‘Oh, ok,’ Stiles said, still looking a bit concerned. ‘Are you sure I shouldn’t just take him home? Maybe I could get it out myself…?’

‘It’s fine,’ Derek said, sharper than he’d intended. ‘Honestly, he’s a good dog. Just over-excited.’

‘Dude seriously, I am so hopeless with him,’ Stiles said, looking frustrated. Derek watched his long fingers rake through hair that looked like it had been mussed a thousand times today already. It was oddly mesmerising. Derek’s mouth was suddenly very dry. ‘Scott loves Jasper, but he’s trying to do so much for college, and he’s got his relationship with his boyfriend, Isaac, and I really want to help out because all I do is write articles for the paper and it’s so easy, all they give me is the kids stuff and I can write that crap in my sleep, you know?’ Stiles rolled his eyes, looking very wry and long-suffering. ‘I graduated last year. Basically walked into my first job at the Gazette and then two days later realised why. The place is a total bourgeois hierarchy and I am the bottom rung serving coffee. Last month I wrote a story about an old woman who turned one hundred and one. In Wisconsin.’ Stiles widened his eyes at Derek as though this was an outrage and Derek too should be outraged. ‘Wisconsin! I had to drive there. God damn, so irrelevant …’ Stiles trailed off muttering, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Derek wanted to help. This was literally the only thing he could feel right now, the overwhelming urge to do something nice for this awkward, overly talkative kid who had spoken more to Derek, a complete stranger, in the last three minutes than Derek had probably ever spoken to a customer in his life.

Then a crazy impulse came over him and suddenly his mouth was saying things his brain hadn’t fully authorised.

‘Do you want to come back and help?’ he said. He felt like he was floating somewhere above his body. ‘All the other staff members are busy, and I could do with an extra hand, if you wanted to see how to handle him? That way if you have to deal with one of his … I mean, if he acts up at home, and Scott’s not there …’ Derek’s ears were full of white noise but Stiles seemed to get it.

‘Dude! Seriously? I mean.’ Stiles looked abruptly very excited. ‘That’s not against the rules? You won’t get in trouble or anything?’

Derek shrugged. ‘I basically run the place,’ he said, offhandedly.

So that’s how Derek found himself kneeling down beside a very unhappy Jasper, whose lease was now clipped to the ring on the wall, carefully dabbing tea tree oil on the hard patches of fur, which were gradually softening under the heat of the water and the oil. Stiles was kneeling at Jasper’s head, soothing him and giving him occasional treats and talking a mile a minute.

‘This is such a cool set up, I mean there’s no flooding and - is that a filter? For the dog hair? We really need one of those for our shower, Scott’s an animal. You’re so good with dogs, dude, Scott always said you were good with him but you’re like some sort of dog whisperer, man!’

Derek must have winced, because Stiles got a mischievous look in his eyes. ‘Have you been called that before?’ he asked, sounding amused. The knees of his jeans were getting wet and the skin on his neck showed bright red scratches that hadn’t bled but were raised and livid. Stiles didn’t seem to care. Derek sincerely hoped he wasn’t blushing, but the room was so warm from the steam that it was hard to tell.

He cleared his throat twice - it felt like a dead engine trying to start - and muttered something about how he’s always been good with dogs.

‘Did you have pets as a kid?’ Stiles asked, and Derek was amazed at how genuinely interested he sounded. He tried to concentrate on Jasper as he spoke. Derek was waiting to feel irritated with Stiles - and the kid was overly chatty and borderline hyperactive, Derek should have been ready to put his fist through a wall - but so far all he was feeling was a desire to talk to Stiles. Actually talk. Derek’s fingers nearly fumbled the bottle of tea tree oil.

‘Yeah, we had dogs. Cora had allergies, but she just had to get over it.’

Stiles looked surprised. ‘Oh, I didn’t know Cora was your sister.’ He paused, looking thoughtful. ‘Yeah, I definitely see it. It’s the eyebrows.’ Derek looked at him skeptically and Stiles grinned delightedly ‘That’s exactly the look, oh my god,’ he crowed, giving Jasper a treat and rubbing his head happily. Derek felt slightly dazed in the face of Stiles’s almost tangible aura. He radiated light. Derek felt warmer inside than he did from the heat of the water that was slowly turning his fingers to prunes.

Stiles talked easily and constantly for the next fifteen minutes - about work, Scott, his dad, Scott, two other women named Lydia and Allison, and Scott’s boyfriend Isaac, and back to Scott again. Derek surprised himself again by actually contributing to the discussion. He told Stiles how long he’d worked at the Den, and that he’s training Kira in because he qualified a year ago (‘It’s nothing major really, I just got examined by our vet, and he said that I - why are you laughing?’) and once he’d stopped blushing he’d actually even told Stiles that he had an apartment about a miles downtown, and sometimes he jogged to work as part of his morning workout. Just saying the words should have made Derek cringe into the floor but Stiles listened attentively, and he talked so much himself that Derek felt as though the spotlight was entirely off both of them.

They towel dried Jasper once it was clear that his fur was as good as it was going to get, and washed away all remaining traces of tea tree oil in case he licked them off. ‘What now?’ asked Stiles, looking around as they stretched out their legs after kneeling for so long. Jasper was looking eagerly at the door, so Derek let him out the back to sniff.

‘I’ll give him a few minutes and then I’ll clip his nails and brush his teeth,’ Derek answered, wondering what he was supposed to do with his hands and where he was supposed to look now that Jasper was no longer there as a buffer between him and this incredibly charismatic and undeniably hot guy, who simply would not stop taking an interest in Derek.

‘Dude, your job is way more fun than mine,’ Stiles said sadly, shaking his head as he watched Jasper chase his tail. ‘Even though if I’m close enough to appreciate that kind of cute at home, I’m also close enough for him to knock me over with it.’

‘What’s so bad about your job?’ Derek asked, grasping for the offered topic. He noticed that he hadn’t picked up and put away the damp towel he’d used to dry Jasper with yet. He practically ran to do it; he felt as edgy as the dog had. Maybe Derek needed to go chase a tail, too.

Stiles didn’t reply immediately. Derek straightened up, towel in hand, and raised his eyebrows expectantly at Stiles. Stiles snapped to attention and looked a bit flustered.

‘Uh, just - my boss is a jerk. You know, usual boring job stuff. Which clearly don’t apply to you.’

‘It’s not all fun,’ Derek argued. ‘The dogs are constantly marking the unfamiliar territory, so it smells like pee in most places. And some of them spend the whole day here until their owners can pick them up, so there’s all the barking. And I have to do the accounts.’

Stiles rolled his eyes. Derek’s stomach fluttered stupidly. ‘Oh no,’ he said sarcastically. ‘Accounts.’

‘I’m bad with numbers,’ Derek protested.

Stiles brightened. ‘I’m great with numbers. Hey, have you ever thought of getting someone to help you? I mean - ’ He faltered. ‘Unless Cora or someone already helps you. Or a girlfriend, or whatever - whoever - uh, you know.’ Stiles rubbed the back of his neck and looked away.

Derek shook his head. This was verging on potential embarrassment. He wasn’t sure why he suddenly cared, but he didn’t want Stiles to think he had no friends. ‘No, I do them myself,’ he said, slowly. ’We make enough money to get by and pay the staff, but there’s always the possibility that someone else might want to buy the place.’

Stiles frowned. ’Would that be so bad?’

Derek tossed the towel into the faded white hamper in the corner, sighing. ‘Not for me, probably. But there’s no way they’d keep the rest of the staff on. They’d want to bring in their own trained professionals. I dunno, this place is kind of a home away from home.’ Derek paused. ‘Well, with Cora here it’s more like actual home.’ That sounded incredibly sad and Derek wished immediately that he hadn’t said it.

Stiles, however, was looking interested. ‘Dude, this could be a great local interest piece. It has a great vibe, and the artwork out front is amazing. You said you guys have regular customers?’

Derek shifted under the sudden scrutiny. ‘Yeah, a few,’ he said, cautious. ‘People generally come back to us.’

‘Yeah, ok.’ Suddenly Stiles was digging out a notebook that had seen better days and a pen with hardly any ink left. He started asking for names and contact details - Derek’s contact details? - and how long the place had been open, and other questions that seemed to not require answers, since Stiles was writing almost as fast as he spoke. ‘Have you ever thought about doing a fundraiser?’ he asked, looking up at Derek hopefully.

Derek blinked. ‘Uh, no,’ he said. ‘Fundraiser?’

‘Yeah, like a big picnic to raise money and awareness,’ Stiles said, still scribbling. His long fingers were wrapped around the pen like they were rarely without one and Derek found himself fascinated by his quick movements. ‘You could have a barbecue, and people could bring their dogs - that’s actually a great idea, I’m a genius.’

Now that Stiles mentioned it, Derek had heard Kira say something about doing something for publicity once or twice. ‘I guess that’s something we could do,’ Derek agreed, slowly. Jasper was barking at a butterfly now, and the sound was intruding on Derek’s already very muddled thoughts. ‘Listen, Stiles…’

‘Oh dude, sorry, don’t worry about it. This is a lot of information.’ Stiles was grinning at him, and for a moment Derek couldn’t hear the dog’s barking. ‘I’ll speak to Cora out front, let you get on with your thing, your dog whispering - man this is so cool, this is honestly the first time I’ve ever been interested in any kind of local crap. I mean, not that this is crap - this is awesome. My editor will love this. I think he has a dog. Something small, it bit my ankle once, though it might have been one of his kids, they’re ankle-biters too.’

Stiles had run a hand through his hair a few times during all of this, so Derek wasn’t sure if he’d agreed to anything or if he’d even replied to anything Stiles had said, but Stiles was now backing out the door, promising to come back and do interviews with the staff and get testimonials from the customers. Derek even thought he heard him say something like “I’ll call you,” but he hadn’t given Stiles his phone number, had he?

Then he was gone and Derek was alone in the room, feeling like a hurricane had just blown through and left him with bright after-images of Stiles’s long fingers and his enthusiastic smile as he’d talked about how awesome Derek was.

Then Jasper gave a particularly booming bark, and Derek jumped about four feet in the air, realising he’d been staring into space for a while. He looked down at the dog, confused, and then his expression cleared. The door creaked open a few moments later.

‘Forget something?’ Derek asked, not turning around so Stiles couldn’t see him smiling.

‘Well I was just - I thought you were going to bring him out to me,’ Stiles blustered, slinking into Derek’s view and clipping on Jasper’s leash.

‘You left, didn’t you.’

‘What? No, I didn’t ... I - I did, yes.’

‘Goodbye, Stiles.’

 


 

 

Derek thought - or hoped - that Stiles might call, but instead he turned up two days later out of the blue, at around 10am. Derek found him leaning over the desk talking to Cora and Danny in the office; there was lots of hand waving and excited tones, and even Cora was looking interested.

‘What’s going on?’ Derek asked, poking his head around the door into the waiting room where Stiles was. He was in the process of hosing down one of the cages - sometimes dogs had really nervous reactions to grooming. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, oh boy.

‘Stiles’s editor wants to do a full piece on the Den,’ Danny said, flashing his dimples. ‘You’re gonna be famous, Derek.’

‘Uh,’ was all Derek could come up with. He was still leaning around the doorframe, wearing special elbow-length rubber gloves and an apron, and didn’t really want to come any further into the room in case Stiles saw.

‘You should do a profile on Derek,’ Cora said to Stiles, who was looking at Derek’s awkward pose with interest.

Derek glared at her. ‘No.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Yeah you’re right, on second thoughts maybe just include a picture of him. I’m sure I can photoshop a smile on to make it presentable. Do the interview with Kira instead, or Danny.’

‘Derek said it’s kind of a family business?’ Stiles said, looking from one to the other. ‘I’d really like one of you for it, honestly.’

Cora snorted and Derek cringed. ‘Family business? Yeah I guess you could call it that. There’s enough of Derek’s blood in the partition wall for it to be family, yeah.’

‘You put that wall up yourself?’ Stiles asked, looking like a hound who’d scented blood.

Derek shrugged, uncomfortable. ‘We needed the extra room,’ he explained.

‘You don’t want this wordsmith,’ Cora repeated, turning back to Stiles. ‘I’ll do it.’

Derek huffed for no good reason, and Cora shot him a look. ‘Derek, I know where your strengths lie, and they’re not in charming conversation,’ she said, frankly.

‘Don’t worry,’ assured Stiles, who looked like he was trying very hard not to grin. ‘I feel like both of you should have an input in some shape or form. And I’m a great spin-doctor. I can make anyone look good. Like, anyone. Seriously. I can send you some of my stuff to read if you want? Just so you know what you’re getting into?’

‘Getting into?’ repeated Derek, dubiously. ‘Well, now I’m worried.’

‘It’s a figure of speech, sourpup,’ Stiles said, grinning. ‘And trust me, from what you told me the other day, I won’t need to do a whole lot to make you look like more of a goddamn saint than you already are. This place will be a pseudo singles club before you know it.’ He said that like it was a good thing. Cora had the most shit-eating smirk on her face and Derek had a strong sense of foreboding.

‘See, Derek?’ said Cora, after Stiles had left and Danny had taken the next customer. ‘Someone thinks you’re interesting. This will be good for you, and for us. The whole business could benefit.’ Derek’s expression must have been less than enthusiastic, because Cora leaned forward in her seat and fixed him with a stern gaze.

‘Derek,’ she said. ‘It’s good publicity. That guy thinks you’re, like, Captain America, saving adorable puppies or something.’

‘And what about when he finds out I’m not?’ stressed Derek, some of the intended venom leeching from his tone due to actual concern about this.

Cora shrugged. ‘Then we do something that’ll re-convince him. He did suggest a fundraiser.’

‘I bet he did,’ muttered Derek, snapping his rubber gloves moodily and thinking about all the work that would have to go into a project like that.

‘I think it’s a good idea,’ insisted Cora. ‘Publicity, Derek. You’re so bad at this.’ She squinted at the screen while Derek lounged inside the door, reluctant to go back to cleaning in case Stiles came back for the three old pens and bundle of crumpled receipts he’d left on the counter. Stiles tended to leave debris everywhere he went.

‘Hey, I just got the invoice for this month’s dog treats,’ said Cora, slowly. ‘This can’t be right, can it?’ She swivelled the screen around to Derek, forcing him to stomp further into her little room to investigate.

‘Um, yeah, that’s about enough for the apocalypse, Cora.’ Derek smacked the side of her head, but with love. ‘Where the hell did that extra zero come from?’

‘Uh, sticky fingers, I guess,’ Cora said guiltily, wiggling paint-stained fingertips at him. ‘At least we won’t have to order any again for a really long time.’

‘Yeah, but this amount isn’t in the budget for this month,’ Derek said, frowning at the screen.

‘You could hand them out to customers as freebies and just add it to their service charge?’

‘That’s dishonest, Cora.’

‘So was Wall Street, Derek, but we have bills to pay.’

‘Hey,’ Derek said, temper rising. ‘How about I make you pay for them, since you’re the one who screwed the order up?’

Cora examined her nails and pretended not to hear him.

‘We could do the fundraiser?’ Kira’s voice piped up from behind them. She was loitering in the hallway, looking a touch sheepish for eavesdropping, but determined to say her piece. ‘I have a lot of ideas about how to get this place really noticed. And it would be perfect now that Stiles wants to do an article on us. Our name in the paper will get people’s attention, and the fundraiser will be a follow through on our story. Maybe another paper will do a follow up piece based on the fundraiser itself.’ She finished her speech with a great gulp of air, and looked nervously at Derek.

‘Kira, step into my lair,’ Cora said grandly, leaning back in her chair and sweeping her arm out, deliberately smacking Derek in the chest. Kira stepped in tentatively and Derek backed up to make room for her, nearly knocking over the easel that definitely had no place being there.

‘We should have done this ages ago,’ Cora was saying. ‘No complaining, Derek. We need the money, right?’

Derek swallowed guiltily as he looked between Kira’s eager face and Cora’s dollar sign eyes. ‘Yeah, we do,’ he muttered, wondering just how much he’d need to raise for Beacon Hills’ small community in order to buy out the huge national chain trying to woo their manager.

‘Then go away and let us plan,’ Cora told him, shooing him out. Derek retreated to the safety of the dog cages, attacking the mess with such vigour that he ended up making more of a mess of himself than anything, and had to go hose himself down out back.

 

 


 

 

Stiles, as promised, turned up quite frequently over the next few days, ostensibly to “interview” them. What that turned into was painting with Cora, petting puppies with Kira, getting in Danny’s way, and definitely getting in Derek’s way.

‘What’s your favourite kind of dog?’ Stiles asked, pen in his mouth. Derek was trimming a Bichon Frise, who were notorious for exploding with energy without any warning at all. This could be hazardous when you’re using a sharp object on them, so Derek needed to concentrate. Unfortunately, concentrating on anything when Stiles was around besides Stiles himself was becoming very difficult for Derek. Every time he ran into him at work (which was becoming a habit now) he found excuses to stay and talk to him, or to be talked at.

‘I don’t have a favourite,’ Derek replied, snipping away. The dog panted happily under his hands.

Stiles scoffed. He was perched on a stack of towels by the door, and Derek was aware that he would have snapped at anyone else for doing that - they might fall down and get dirty - but it was the only seat and having Stiles nearby made him feel a lot less lonely than if it were Kira or Danny, or even Cora. They were all focused on either work or their own lives. Stiles was always focused on Derek.

‘You have to have a favourite,’ he insisted. ‘If parents can have favourite kids, and I know mine does, then you can have a favourite breed of dog.’

Derek looked up at him. ‘Aren’t you an only child?’

‘Who’s conducting this interview, Derek?’ Stiles responded. ‘Do I tell you how to do your job?’

‘Yes,’ Derek pointed out. ‘Frequently.’

‘Favourite dog, Derek,’ Stiles reminded him, smiling at Derek in a way that made him want to get up and do something to make him keep smiling. ‘Pick one, or I’ll make up something embarrassing.’

‘Fine, uh … I like the little terriers,’ Derek admitted. ‘They’re tenacious. And … scrappy.’

‘Kinda cute, too,’ Stiles added, scribbling. ‘I prefer big dogs. Jasper would be ideal for me, honestly, if he wasn’t so intent on knocking me down all the time.’

‘Scott told me he got him when he was a year old?’ Derek asked, tickling the Bichon behind his ears idly, before he made a move on cutting the fur around them.

‘Something like that, yeah,’ Stiles agreed, not looking up. There was ink on his fingers and a faint blue smudge just under his left ear. Derek drank in these details without even thinking these days. The more he saw Stiles, the more about him he unconsciously committed to memory.

‘Big dogs like that, they should be trained as young as possible,’ Derek informed him. ‘Bad habits set in way too easily when they’re pups. For a dog that went an entire year without training, Scott did a pretty good job with him.’

‘Uh huh,’ Stiles agreed, stabbing a full stop with a flourish. ‘Ok. Did you have any pets growing up? Anything that helped teach you how to be so awesome with them?’

Derek figured he could lie, but it would be too awkward if he somehow got caught out. ‘Yeah,’ he said, trying to sound casual. ‘We bred border collies. When I was ten my dad gave me one of my own, told me to raise it.’

‘What was his name?’

Derek half-smiled, remembering. ‘Cap,’ he said. ‘Like Captain America. Only because dad handed him to me wrapped in this old Marvel bath towel.’ Derek expected more follow up questions - where was Cap now, did his family still raise dogs - but when he looked up he saw Stiles, elbows on his knees, with his fist curled to his mouth, looking at him with an expression so soft that Derek almost let go of the dog. Derek didn’t know where to look, but Stiles seemed quite comfortable in holding their little moment together, so he stared right back.

‘I spoke to Cora the other day. She told me about your family,’ Stiles mumbled, slipping his fist down to prop up his chin. ‘But I forgot not to pry, I’m sorry.’

Derek was definitely taken aback now. He’d come to expect a lot of things from Stiles, but tact wasn’t one of them.

‘Don’t worry, none of it will be in the article,’ Stiles assured him. ‘I wasn’t even going to ask you that, but Cora said you got this look on your face when you talk about the dogs you used to have, and …’ He shrugged. ‘Had to see for myself man.’ He looked contrite, but there was so much damn warmth in his eyes. Derek realised he hadn’t spoken in a while. He kind of wished Stiles would go on saying stuff like that about him forever. Even if it did make him remember that it wasn’t just people he lost in that fire.

‘It’s fine,’ he said at last. The Bichon in his arms was looking up at him curiously, wondering why the petting had stopped. He gave an impatient little yap, trying to get some more attention. Derek didn’t want the dog to start rioting, but he couldn’t make himself look away from Stiles. He wanted to keep this going. This kind of open-ended conversation they’d been having over the last couple of days had been getting slowly more heated and intense until here he was now, stuck in an awkward cramped crouch with an excitable dog in his arms, caught hook line and sinker on the end of this beautiful guy’s thousand-yard stare.

Stiles hopped down off his perch, absently placing his notebook and pen on the floor, and half hopped, half crawled over to Derek. Normally Derek would have the dog up on an adjustable table with a hook for the leash, but there had been incidents before with Bichons and jumping off things that led to breakages and embarrassment.

Tentatively Stiles reached out a hand and rubbed the Bichon’s head. The dog sniffed him gratefully, and consented to the attention. ‘I never had a dog growing up,’ Stiles said, voice low. ‘My mom was allergic, and then after she died I couldn’t really focus on wanting anything specifically for a long time. I kind of stumbled through high school, and raced through college because I still didn’t know what I wanted. I don’t even know if I want this job or not. It pays rent, but …’ He looked up. Derek hadn’t looked away the entire time. ‘I’m getting better at figuring out what I want, I think,’ Stiles said.

There was only about a foot of space between their bodies. Derek felt like he might overbalance at any moment. Surely Stiles could hear his heart beating. The dog sure could. It was whining and looking between the two of them, very concerned. Derek attempted to soothe it, but his fingers collided with Stiles’s and that was very nearly game over. They were so long, and smooth. Tangled in dog fur, they brushed over Derek’s hands like electric currents. Derek didn’t know what his facial muscles were doing - he couldn’t even feel his face - his entire emotional range was multiplying exponentially because Stiles was touching him. And his goddamn eyes, jesus, Derek could fucking drown in them.

Stiles didn’t look too composed either; his breathing was a little fast, and his pupils were huge. Was that a good sign? Derek felt like it was a good sign. They were slowly, almost imperceptibly, leaning in towards each other. Derek wanted to kiss him so bad it was stupid. He was a grown man with a career and responsibilities and they could all go to hell right now if it meant he got one taste of Stiles. Were those lips as soft as they looked? Derek was about to find out.

The most shrill and piercing of barks exploded in a volley between them as the Bichon reached his limits. Stiles flailed backwards with a yelp, landing painfully on his ass, Derek landing in much the same way. The dog leapt up and away, barking at nothing and skittering around on the tiles, delighted to be moving again.

Derek blinked, dazed. He felt like he’d just come up from underwater. ‘Oh my god,’ he whispered, rubbing a hand over his face. ‘Oh my god.’ Stiles was making quiet noises of pain, and Derek never wanted to open his eyes ever again. There was a quiet sound of movement, and then a hand was gently pulling his away from his face. Derek found himself once more looking into Stiles’s eyes, but they were amused now, and a little embarrassed.

‘Dude, your customer kind of ruined the moment,’ Stiles said, smiling sheepishly at Derek. He was kneeling beside Derek, who was still sitting unattractively on his butt. But he was also still holding on to his hand.

‘Yeah,’ he replied, brilliantly. ‘Yeah, that’ll happen.’

Stiles shrugged. ‘It’s ok,’ he said, lightly. ‘I understand. You’ve got work to do, and the dogs come first.’ He paused, and gave Derek’s hand a tiny squeeze. ‘That’s what I like about you.’

Derek raised his eyebrows. ‘Or at least, one of the things,’ Stiles amended, throwing him a wink. Derek’s heart thumped happily, and he smiled, despite himself. ‘You have a nice smile,’ Stiles murmured, letting his eyes rake over Derek’s face.

‘Derek!’ Cora hollered, and Derek jumped again, annoyance popping his happy little bubble.

He glared at the door. ‘She’s fired,’ he growled, and Stiles laughed.

‘Dude, you can’t fire your sister,’ he said, amusement animating his face into the most glorious expression. Derek’s brain flipped wildly through the ways he could possibly make Stiles laugh like that again, just like that.

‘I can,’ he tried, and Stiles grinned again. Derek wanted to pull him in close and kiss every part of his face. ‘You need her for the fundraiser,’ Stiles reminded him. ‘Or you’ll be broke forever and you won’t be able to take me out to a really fancy restaurant.’

Derek blinked. Somehow he managed to separate the part of his brain that could think from the part that was just kind of yelling dimly, and said ‘How come I have to pay?’

‘You pay, I’ll put out,’ Stiles said simply. Derek’s hand tightened its grip.

Derek!’ Cora shrieked again. Derek barely heard her.

‘Go on,’ Stiles smiled, nodding towards the door. ‘We’ll have plenty of other moments.’ His eyes promised a whole lot more than that.

Derek gulped. ‘We’d better,’ he managed. He stood up and backed away, as though Stiles might disappear if he stopped looking. ‘Catch the dog,’ he added, hand on the doorknob. ‘Please.’

Stiles nodded easily, as though nothing had happened. Derek’s last sight was Stiles bending over and slapping his knees with his hands and saying ‘C’mere doggie!’ Derek closed the door, cutting off the startled ‘Oof!’ as the dog launched itself at Stiles.

 


 

Derek didn’t normally groom two dogs at once, but the owner was in a hurry.

‘I’ll pay extra,’ she said, desperately. ‘Please, I’m getting married tomorrow and they’re supposed to be ring bearers and just look at them.’ The two labrador puppies, who had once been golden, were now caked in so much mud it was hard to tell. They blinked solemnly up at Derek, the picture of guilt.

‘My sister let them out just after it stopped raining,’ the woman said, sadly. ‘We don’t have a bath in my apartment and we’re leaving in less than two hours. Can you help?’

‘It’s fine,’ Derek said, hefting the two warm messes in his arms. ‘I’ll have them done in an hour.’

The woman left in a flurry of thanks and praise, and Stiles held the door open for her as she left. He came in, shooting Derek a smile that was somehow different from his usual greeting. Behind him came Jasper, looking about as bad as the puppies and not half as guilty.

‘Hey Derek,’ Stiles said, eyeing the puppies. ‘Wow, I guess it’s not just a Jasper thing.’

‘Dogs will roll in anything,’ Derek informed him. ‘These aren’t even the first today. I’ve gotta get them done fast. Danny can take Jasper.’

‘That’s fine, uh - ‘ Stiles stopped him quickly before he could get Cora’s attention, his free hand on Derek’s arm. ‘I was on my way here anyways with an ulterior motive.’

Derek blushed all the way to the roots of his hair. This was neither the time nor the place but what was it about Stiles that made him want to destroy his own life just to touch him?

‘Uh, Stiles, this really isn’t a good - I mean, I would, I mean, if you - but I can’t - ’

‘Not that, idiot,’ Stiles grinned, and Derek came back down to earth with a thump. ‘Though I do love where your head’s at. I’m here to take pictures.’

‘Pictures? Of …?’ Derek was still slightly thrown by his own mortification.

‘You,’ Stiles said, as though it were obvious. ‘And the dogs, and the building. Hey Derek, did you know I’m writing an article on you guys?’

‘Shut up, I didn’t know there’d be pictures,’ Derek grumbled as Stiles laughed at him. ‘Stop laughing at me, I’m very busy.’

‘I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you,’ Stiles teased, squeezing his arm. One of the puppies started to delicately lick Stiles’s fingers, as though not entirely sure what they were doing clinging to Derek so possessively, but willing to accept that fact. ‘Hey, little guy,’ Stiles said quietly, tapping the pup’s nose. The other one began to squirm, wanting attention too.

‘They’re probably really uncomfortable with all this mud,’ Stiles commented.

‘Yeah, it makes them hot, and itchy,’ Derek informed him. He liked being able to explain things about dogs to Stiles. It made him feel like he had a better grip on their conversations.

‘So is it cool if I photograph a few things?’ Stiles asked, as Jasper began to whine.

‘Yeah, I guess,’ Derek said, shifting the weight of the puppies in his arms. ‘I mean, I’ll have to ask the owners if they’re ok with their dogs being in the newspaper, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.’

‘Great!’ Stiles enthused, digging out his camera. ‘Someone take this mutt away from me and lets get started!’

‘I’ll get Danny,’ Derek muttered, wondering how many unflattering candids he’d have to veto until Stiles took that power away from him. That’s if he even let him veto in the first place. Stiles bit his lip as Derek made a move for the door. ‘Damn, that’s cute,’ he muttered. Derek’s ears went red.

 

‘Yeah Derek, that’s great, just move your hand so I can see - yep, perfect. That’s perfect. The camera loves you.’ Derek paused in the act of scrubbing puppy #1’s fur to glare up at Stiles.

‘Don’t,’ he warned. Stiles pressed his lips together, stifling what would surely be a huge dork grin. Derek glared, but went back to scrubbing. The pups were mournful, one shivering beneath his hands and the other squeaking from a cage behind Derek, awaiting her turn.

‘This is your own fault,’ he told the little one in his hands, sternly. ‘Stop complaining, the water’s warm.’ The click of the camera distracted him every time. He kept wanting to look at Stiles, because he was probably wearing the most wonderful expression of concentration, but he was on a clock here.

‘Mm, yeah speak stern alpha talk to the camera, Derek.’

‘Stiles, I’m warning you.’

‘Yeah, what are you gonna do?’ asked Stiles, sounding unconcerned. ‘Can’t scare me with those little babies in the room.’

Derek reached for the hose. ‘The only reason you’re still dry is because of that camera. Put that away and we’ll see how brave you are.’

‘Please,’ snorted Stiles. ‘You’re kneeling on the ground with an adorable puppy in your huge man hands. There’s nothing remotely scary about you.’

When both puppies were finally clean and dry, Stiles and Derek spent a few minutes indulging themselves, petting the puppies and letting them play around in the day room. Dogs sometimes needed time to be rewarded after going through their little ordeals, and Derek had a feeling that these pups were about to spend a long time travelling in a car to somewhere unfamiliar.

‘You have so many toys in here,’ Stiles commented, looking around.

‘Yeah, and they still always go for the towels,’ smiled Derek, watching the two pups tug an old rag between them. With Stiles’s help he’d finished with them earlier than predicted, so he sat down on the floor and leaned back against the wall, comforted by the sound of playful dog shenanigans.

‘You look tired,’ Stiles commented nudging him with his toe.

‘I am tired,’ muttered Derek, running a hand over his face. He’d been up late the last couple of nights running over his personal finances again, trying to predict his income and their expenditures for the next few months, wondering where he could save money. He really wanted to make a proper bid for the place soon. The last time he’d met with Archie, he’d got the feeling he was running out of time.

‘This job feels so cathartic,’ Stiles commented, sitting down beside him. ‘I mean I know it’s actual work and all, but as jobs go, it could be worse.’ He was watching Derek, but Derek kept his eyes trained on the puppies. ‘Definitely better than mine, anyways. This article is the only thing keeping me going right now. Hey, that’s your quality assurance right there. If my editor doesn’t like this one, I’m probably fired.’

Derek swivelled his head to look at him. ‘Seriously?’ he asked, examining Stiles’s faced. He hadn’t been coming off as stressed or worried at all.

Stiles shrugged. ‘Yeah,’ he said carelessly. ‘I’ve hated this job for so long that it hasn’t really hit me yet that I really do love journalism. So maybe it won’t be such a bad thing to find somewhere new.’

Derek shifted uncomfortably. ‘Have you started looking for interviews?’

Stiles smiled crookedly at him. ‘Dude, I’m not fired yet,’ he joked. ‘This article could be my saving grace, you know. You guys might just save my career.’

Derek leaned his head back against the wall. ‘Yeah, and you might save ours.’

Stiles frowned. ‘Wait, what?’

Derek huffed a sigh, wondering if it was wise to be talking about this with Stiles when he hadn’t even discussed it with Cora, but he was quietly desperate for any help he could get. ‘There’s a big company putting in a bid for this place,’ he said softly. ‘They’re just waiting beside the dotted line, and the owner wants to sell. The thing is, he’s a nice guy. I’m pretty sure he’d sell to me if I could come close to what they’re offering. But I’m not even halfway there, and that’s including if I completely bankrupt myself. I’ve been asking Archie for more time for ages, but it’s not fair to make him wait. He has a life of his own and a career he wants to get going with. He could sell any day now.’

Stiles was frowning. ‘Dude, I didn’t know it was so intense,’ he said, quietly. ‘Have you told Cora, or the others?’

Derek shook his head. ‘I’m still hoping I can figure something out,’ he replied. ‘But I guess I probably should. In case they want to start looking for alternative employment. Then I guess it’s just a matter of time.’ He hadn’t said any of this out loud before; just having the thoughts floating around in his head had been bad enough. Now that he was airing them, it was starting to seem a whole lot more inevitable. His shoulders sagged and his head drooped slightly.

Stiles, however, was suddenly animated by his side.

‘But Derek, this is, like, the perfect opportunity for you!’ he was saying, excitedly. ‘I write this article and get you noticed, and I mean properly noticed. You may not be aware but a whole lot of people in this town read the Gazette. I’ve seen people in your waiting room reading it! And then you can do the fundraiser, and - ‘

Derek groaned quietly, and Stiles stopped.

‘Ok seriously, what is your issue with that?’ Stiles asked, bluntly. ‘Kira told me you’ve been hesitant about it ever since she brought it up first, like, months ago. It’s a fundraiser, emphasis on the fun. You’re not selling drugs, ok? You don’t have to break bad to make a little extra money to help your business.’ He fixed Derek with a shrewd gaze. ‘What’s up with you?’

Derek was supremely uncomfortable with this discussion, but Stiles was like a dog with a bone. Or a towel, he thought, glancing at the puppies’ tenacious battle of will and tiny teeth.

‘I’m just not very comfortable with … talking to people,’ Derek forced out. ‘Crowds kind of freak me out. And I’m not good at being charming, or sociable, or whatever. All those qualities you need if you want to convince people to give you money.’

Derek was expecting Stiles to scoff, but he just rubbed his chin ponderously. ‘Ok, I get that,’ he said, finally. ‘But you wouldn’t have to be as directly involved as you think. You’ve got some pretty cool staff, Derek,’ he smiled, jerking his head towards the closed door. ‘And some very loyal customers, who I’m fairly sure won’t say no to a big dog party in the park with barbecue and face-painting and little classes on how to properly look after your dog, especially if they’ve got kids, because kids love that crap and parents love tiring their kids out at shit like this, trust me. Scott would come, and Isaac, and they’d bring Jasper, you could demonstrate on him. He’s a good dog, mostly, right?’

Derek watched Stiles rattle off all these ideas, eyes sparkling with excitement and enthusiasm, and his chest suddenly felt tight. Stiles was genuinely trying to help Derek out, even though he was already writing the article. He felt a very odd tug on his heart, towards Stiles, as though it were aware that in this moment, right here, he belonged to Stiles. Stiles had come into his life and rolled all over everything and now he was most of what Derek thought about every day. Every time he found an extra pen lying on some surface, he’d think of how Stiles’s long fingers wrapped around it, tucking it into the corner of his mouth or dropping it when he got excited. Yeah, Stiles had him all right.

‘You’d just have to put on a brave face and do some demonstrations, maybe answer a few questions, just like you answer all of mine. Except, maybe with less frowning and sighing, yeah?’ Stiles grinned at him, and Derek rolled his eyes.

‘That sounds like something I’d need to be charming for,’ Derek pointed out. He could barely talk to the customers half the time.

But Stiles was shaking his head. ‘Dude, you have no idea how you come across to people. Like, you’re this huge, gorgeous, scary-looking beefcake of a guy, like an actual bodybuilder hunk - ‘ Stiles ears were going pink, but he soldiered on - ‘and then you bend down and let the tiny cute dog sniff your hand, and you stroke its back so damn gently, and pick it up and let it sniff your ears - ‘ Stiles broke off, waving his hand incredulously. ‘Seriously, Derek. It’s - it’s fucking disarming, is what it is. Cute guy with puppy. I’m pretty sure there are mommy porn sites with similar content.’ His eyes brightened with the spark of an idea. ‘Hey! Backup plan. If this doesn’t work out.’ He nudged Derek suggestively until Derek finally laughed.

‘Besides,’ Stiles added. ‘You charmed me in five seconds, man. This’ll be cake for you.’

Derek snorted, thinking back to that first meeting and wondering how on earth that could be perceived as charming. ’Seriously?’ he asked, looking at Stiles skeptically.

Stiles nodded solemnly. ‘God’s honest truth,’ he said, putting one hand over his heart. He was smiling, though, and Derek couldn’t help smile back at him. Their shoulders were brushing and their bodies were nearly lined up beside one another. Derek was suddenly very aware of all the contact between them, and how Stiles’s legs were longer than his even though their hips were lined up, but Derek had a longer torso. He imagined what all that would look like with no clothes to hide any stray inches. You’re thinking about leg measurements, he marvelled, slightly dazed, as Stiles’s lips became all he could see.

‘I really want to help you with this, Derek,’ Stiles murmured, eyes intense and golden brown and utterly beautiful. Derek didn’t know when Stiles had become this important to his life but suddenly here he was, drowning in his goddamn eyes like a swooning idiot. All of that was secondary, though.

‘I think you’ve been helping me ever since you walked through our door,’ Derek replied, hoping that Stiles would make a move because he himself was pretty paralysed right now.

Stiles, thank god, was apparently aware of this fact. With the hint of a smile ghosting around his lips, he started to lean in. There wasn’t far to go between them; Derek’s heart was doing ninety, and his breathing was probably very embarrassing but it didn’t matter because they were about to kiss, and -

‘Derek! Are the puppies ready - oh.’

Derek jerked away from Stiles and jumped to his feet like he’d been burned. Furious, he threw a murderous glare at Cora, who was clinging to the door handle like a lifeline, even though his face was the colour of a fire engine. Stiles was somewhere behind him, gathering his things.

‘Their owner’s here,’ Cora said quietly, eyeing Stiles with a not-amused look on her face. Derek quickly scooped up the dogs and slipped out past his sister, determinedly not looking at her.

In the waiting room, there was much cooing and celebrating the puppies’ new shiny coats and general happiness after their playtime - the soon-to-be bride had brought her friends with her, and Derek went through a lot of sincere acceptance of thanks and blushing through praise and hearing all about how the dogs were going to carry the ring purses down the aisle before they finally paid and left. Kira had been deftly moving through their ranks, handing out fliers for something that Derek couldn’t quite get a look at, and from the attention she was getting, this was only going to encourage her.

And amidst all this commotion, Stiles managed to slip out the door before Derek could catch him.

Chapter Text

Cora didn’t say anything about what she'd walked in on, to Derek’s surprise. Or at least, not right away. She actually left him alone for the rest of the day, and didn’t even call or text when he got home. He’d been meaning to ask her to move the rest of her spare art stuff out of his linen closet (or “storage”, as she’d called it six months ago) and nearly texted her to come over and do just that when he opened it up to look for towels and nearly got brained by four sketch books. But it seemed like tempting fate, so he continued to suffer in silence.

Two days later saw three new clients get added to their books, lots of mysterious fundraiser plans that Derek wasn’t allowed participate in because “you’ll just stress yourself out”, and more loaded looks from Cora than he could handle. And still no Stiles.

‘Just spit it out,’ he sighed finally, as they closed up on Thursday night.

‘What?’ Cora asked calmly, stacking a bunch of coloured leaflets neatly on the corner of the reception desk.

‘You’ve been trying to start up something about Stiles ever since you walked in on us the other day,’ Derek snapped, annoyed that Cora was making him say it.

Cora shrugged. ‘Not really,’ she said. ‘Once I spoke to Stiles about it I kind of lost the energy, to be honest. Your love life isn’t all that interesting to me.’

‘Wait, you spoke to Stiles? About what?’ Derek’s sense of growing horror was making his toes go cold. ‘What did you say?’

Cora’s lips twitched but she continued in a casual tone of voice. ‘Uh, nothing too serious. Just how you’re kinda sensitive and quiet and don’t like to be touched all that much, and that you have issues with - ’

‘Cora!’ Derek gasped, dismayed. He was so shocked that he forgot to be angry.

Cora’s face split into a wicked grin, and she sat down happily in her chair and stretched, looking utterly content.

‘Two days, so worth it,’ she sighed. ‘All for that one moment.’

Derek sagged against the doorframe, weak with relief. ‘You’re fired,’ he muttered, rubbing his temple.

‘You can’t fire me from your life,’ Cora pointed out, spinning around on her swivel chair.

‘I can try,’ Derek argued.

‘Don’t argue with me, Derek,’ Cora said, still spinning. ‘I just gave him my best glare and told him to get lost and come back when we were less busy. So you could make out in a more intelligent location next time. Far away, where I can’t see it.’

‘That wasn’t, uh.’ Derek squirmed, and wanted to leave very fast, but Cora was twirling the keys around her little finger and he needed those to open up in the morning. He felt more than a little trapped.

‘It was,’ Cora replied. Derek caught a flash of her unimpressed expression before it disappeared in a whirl of hair again. ‘And that’s ok,’ she continued. ‘I mean, keep your gross romantic emotions away from me, but whatever. But Derek?’ He looked up at her; her brow was pinched as he fixed him with a serious stare. ‘Don’t get all fucked up over this, ok? I need your head in the game for this fundraiser. Drool over Stiles on your own time.’

‘I - ok,’ said Derek, lamely.

‘You’ll be good?’

‘I’ll - be good, yeah,’ muttered Derek, rolling his eyes. Cora planted her feet and abruptly stopped the spinning, fixing Derek with a steady gaze.

‘Good.’ She tossed him the keys, and stood up unsteadily but proudly. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

Her first step was unsteady, and she was listing to the right.

‘Do you need help - ‘

‘I’m fine.’

Derek stepped back silently as she wobbled past. ‘See you in the morning,’ Cora added steadily, as she made her way very unsteadily to the door. Derek had to admire her determination, even if he did hate her quite a bit.

Kira informed Derek of his fundraising duties a week before the big day. Apparently, Cora thought much the same as Stiles about Derek’s abilities, which is why she had him down for giving three - three - classes on proper dog grooming and care (‘One each for long-haired dogs, short-haired dogs, and puppies. Because not everyone will be able to come for the whole day, that’s why. This is why I’m in charge, Derek’) as well as meeting and greeting potential new clients, and being nice to people and children in general. Preferably while holding a puppy.

‘That’s what the smiley face beside the little paw drawing is for, I think,’ Kira added, pointing at the squiggle at the bottom of the page in Derek’s hands. ‘I’m not too sure though. That was Stiles’s idea.’

Derek frowned down at the list. ‘Just how much has Stiles been helping you two?’ he asked, partly out of curiosity and partly because he was afraid for his life.

‘Oh, so much!’ Kira beamed. ‘He emails us, like, every night. His dad’s the sheriff, so it was really easy to get us a public permit to use the park for the whole day. Stiles knows the whole system. He’s a pretty nice guy; he asked me all kinds of questions during my interview.’

‘He interviewed you?’ Derek asked, thrown. ‘Like, officially?’

Kira’s brow wrinkled. ‘Yeah, I mean, ages ago. He did you too, didn’t he?’

Derek frowned momentarily, but brushed it off. He felt a bit wrong-footed. Stiles hadn’t actually interviewed him really, he’d just hung around Derek and conversation kind of happened. Over a period of days. That wasn’t an interview, was it? It seemed Stiles’s tornado effect was just as devastating even when he wasn’t around.

Scott turned up midweek, with Jasper in tow. Derek’s stupid heart had a brief moment of confusion when he saw Jasper but not his now usual head-wrecking partner.

‘You didn’t have to come all the way down here,’ Cora was saying. Scott shrugged easily.

‘I was taking him for a walk anyways,’ he smiled, rubbing Jasper’s head. ‘Figured I’d give you guys the ok in person.’

‘Ok for what?’ asked Derek, from where he was lurking in the hallway. ‘Hey, Scott.’

Scott grinned at him, and Derek immediately regretted making contact. Of course, Scott would probably know everything.

‘Scott’s agreed to let us use Jasper for the demonstration,’ Cora explained, elbowing pointedly past Derek so she could crouch down in front of her desk to rub Jasper’s ears. ‘He’s the long-haired dog. Yes he is, yes he is.’

‘Oh, right,’ Derek said, belatedly. ‘Thanks, we appreciate it.’

‘No problem,’ replied Scott, brightly. ‘Stiles took such an interest in this place, hasn’t stopped going on about it ever since he first brought Jasper here. I swear, every time he comes home from work he’s bought more dog treats from you guys. He actually blamed me the other day for not telling me how awesome it is here.’ Scott shrugged at Cora, like he was a mom telling another mom how overexcited his kid got about going to kindergarten. Cora gave Derek a very meaningful look. She reached around and pushed Jasper’s muzzle so he was looking up at Derek too. Derek flushed and looked away from both of them.

‘Yeah, you’re um, good customers,’ he forced out.

‘Can’t wait to read this article Stiles is writing on your guys,’ Scott continued, and Derek would now have paid money if it got Scott to leave, or at least stop talking about Stiles. ‘I’ve never seen him so pumped about actual work before. I seriously hope he can find something else to keep himself entertained after it’s finished.’

‘Oh, I’m sure he’s already got something else to play with locked down - ‘

‘Hey Cora, how’s that order form coming along?’ Derek asked loudly, cutting across her. ‘Is it done yet? It’s almost four.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’ Cora rolled her eyes and stood at a leisurely pace. She smiled warmly at Scott, and gave Derek the ocular equivalent of the finger when she turned to brush past him back into her office.

‘Dude, I’d better go, he’s getting the fidgets,’ Scott said apologetically. Now that Cora was gone, Jasper was straining at his leash.

‘Sure,’ Derek replied distractedly. ‘Thanks again, Scott. See you Saturday.’

But Scott wasn’t fully out the door yet before Derek called him back. He felt very stupid about it, but his mouth had already done the damage. Scott raised his eyebrow, one arm extended out the door as Jasper refused to come back inside. Derek took a breath.

‘Stiles is, uh. I haven’t seen him in a while.’ Derek didn’t normally fumble for words, but here he was. ‘Is he, uh - ?'

Scott smiled. ‘Dude, it’s cool. Stiles is just super busy right now. I mean, the article and all this fundraiser stuff, and he’s helping his dad renovate their house. I think they’re knocking a wall today.’ Scott’s expression clouded slightly. ‘And his boss is making him chase down a whole load of other stories too, because he doesn’t trust Stiles or something. He had to drive up to Stanford yesterday at like 6am.’

Derek raised his eyebrows. He had a feeling Stiles didn’t fully materialise in the world until at least 10. ‘Bet he loved that.’

Scott grinned. ‘Exactly. So he’ll be around, don’t worry. I kind of thought you’d be grateful for the break.’

‘I’m not,’ Derek said automatically. Scott raised his eyebrows, and Derek’s insides withered, but for once he stood his ground.

‘What?’ he groused, defensive. ‘He grew on me.’

 


 

 

For the first time ever, Cora beat Derek to work.

She was sitting on the stoop outside with a coffee in one hand and a rolled up newspaper in the other, and as Derek approached, she eyed him from under the brim of her sun hat, pushing her sunglasses down as he approached her warily, keys in hand.

‘What?’ he said, apprehensive.

She held out the hand holding the newspaper. ‘Guess.’

Derek huffed a sigh, brushing past her to unlock the door.

‘Aren’t you gonna read it?’

‘I’ll read it at lunch,’ Derek replied gruffly. ‘Don’t make me do all the work for your fundraiser by myself today.’

‘It’s pretty awesome you know.’

‘That’s fine. I’ll read it later.’

Derek continued to avoid the issue admirably. He fended off Kira and Danny’s enthusiastic reports by running to accomplish some other task before they could say more than “Stiles’s article - !” All customers received luxury treatment that day. Derek was feeling in a very thorough mood.

He wasn’t entirely sure why he didn’t want to read the article, but he was dreading seeing those well-thumbed copies of the Gazette almost as much as he was the fundraiser. Pet owners kept bringing the goddamn things in with them to point out the article, as if they didn’t already know about it. And still no sign of Stiles. Derek wondered if he’d given the wrong vibe. Maybe he’d looked like he couldn’t wait to get away from Stiles, or that he was embarrassed. Come to think about it, he hadn’t really given Stiles all that much encouragement had he? All he’d done was kind of just let Stiles be Stiles. He hadn’t even asked for his number.

The article was probably amazing, because everything Stiles did was amazing. Judging by some of the admiring looks he’d been getting from various pet owners, it probably said a lot of very complimentary and untrue things about Derek himself. Derek was just afraid that Stiles had reached the end of his fling with the Den - and with Derek. Scott was the one who’d said that Stiles would be moving on to a new project. Stiles probably did that all the time, flitting like a butterfly from flower to flower. He had so much energy and enthusiasm and seemed to genuinely love people; listening to Kira and Danny talk about him as though they were his own special friends kind of sucked, but Derek soldiered on.

Guys like Stiles were just universally liked, and he clearly flourished under that attention. Derek couldn’t blame him for wanting to absorb as much social contact as he could. They’d had a cute little almost-thing, but now Derek was preparing himself for the inevitable drift away. Because everyone Derek loved always left, in the end.

‘Derek that poster is seven kinds of crooked,’ Cora pointed out, as he stretched to pin the top of the colourful hand-made poster to the front door. Well, not everyone left him.

‘It doesn’t have to be perfect, Cora,’ Derek replied through gritted teeth. ‘It just has to tell people where to go.’

‘Well right now I’m blinded by the crookedness. I’m not even reading what’s on it,’ Cora said frankly, tapping at her temple. ‘The left side needs to go up like an inch.’

‘An inch?’

‘Have you read that article yet, Derek?’

Derek dutifully unstuck the offending corner of the poster and raised it the required inch.

 

‘I saved you a copy.’

Derek swivelled around from where he was furtively recycling all the leftover copies of the Gazette. He met Cora’s eye guiltily as she waved the paper at him.

‘Just take it with you,’ she pleaded. ‘Please, Derek. It’s really good! And it’s important that you read it.’

‘Important to you?’ he snorted.

She stiffened. ‘Yes,’ she said shortly. ‘And to Stiles. He worked hard on this, Derek. This is all so you could buy the place, or had you forgotten?’

Derek blinked. He had forgotten. But evidently Stiles hadn’t.

‘What’s Stiles been saying?’ he asked, slowly. He leaned back against the edge of the counter in their small communal kitchen. Kira and Danny had gone home for the day, exhausted from having taken twice the usual number of clients in order to free up Friday for full fundraiser preparation. Derek himself was wrecked, and he definitely smelled bad. But he sensed an argument in his future.

Cora rolled her eyes. ‘Derek, if you think I haven’t know this place was gonna sell since I started here, I don’t know what to think of you.’ She eyed him critically. ‘You have been beyond stressed every Friday; you’re tired all the time, and you leave your account books on your bedside locker.’

‘That’s not - hey what were you doing in my room?’

‘Looking for condoms,’ challenged Cora. Derek didn’t even blink.

Cora sighed. ‘Ok fine, I was borrowing socks because I didn’t have change for laundry,’ she conceded. ‘But can we focus, please? Derek, one google search was all it took. I know we’re about to get eaten by a franchise if you can’t cough up. This fundraiser will help, I promise it will. And Stiles - ‘ she faltered. ‘Derek, you’re so withdrawn. You never tell me anything, ever. Laura moved on, but you …’ She hesitated. ‘You’re still right back there, Derek.’

‘Cora, don’t,’ Derek said, firmly. ‘I’m over it.’

‘Yeah maybe, but you haven’t done anything!’ Cora exclaimed. ‘You’ve been living under a dark cloud for as long as I can remember, but Laura always says you weren’t like this before the fire. I never understood what she meant, but when I see you around Stiles, suddenly I just get it. You might not think you need anyone, Derek, and maybe you don’t. But he is good for you. And I’m sick of you stressing and working yourself into the ground and refusing to lean on anyone, and pushing away the one person who seems actually eager to put up with you!’

The silence between them rang deafeningly after Cora’s mouth snapped shut. The two of them hadn’t had a heart to heart in, well, ever. All they did was snark and complain at each other, with occasional banter when Derek’s “dark cloud” wasn’t a downpour on his head. Derek thought about arguing back at her, but really there was no point. He suddenly felt very small.

He rubbed his arm, unsure of what to say. Cora’s arms were folded, but she looked uncomfortable too.

‘It just feels weird,’ he muttered at last. ‘That I actually might be able to buy this place. That I could make it permanent. It’s always just felt like I’m saving the space for someone else. But if I was really going to do it, I wanted to do it on my own. I didn’t want help. I’ve always just … done things on my own.’ He bit his lip, and then added, ‘And Stiles is so loud.’

Cora laughed, surprised, and Derek smiled a little too.

‘He is, I mean,’ he shook his head. ‘He just kind of barrelled in here and took charge, and suddenly I was telling him things, and then all this fundraiser stuff started up, and I didn’t even know what I was agreeing to half the time. It felt like I’d lost my grip on the reins. And then he just - ‘ Derek made an irritable gesture with his hand ‘ - he disappears! And now I feel like everything’s going to disappear.’

Cora leaned against the wall. Her arms were still folded, but she looked less tense now.

‘You’re kind of being a big baby about all this,’ she confided, quietly. Derek rolled his eyes, but he wasn’t annoyed. ‘I don’t know about Stiles,’ she continued, ‘but Saturday is going to work, Derek. It just is. I’ve been doing some of the numbers myself, you know. And I spoke to Archie.’

Derek looked up sharply. ‘Cora,’ he said, warningly.

She raised her hands. ‘Calm down, it wasn’t anything serious,’ she said. ‘I just wanted to know the situation, whatever he could tell me, and he was happy to fill me in. And you know you don’t have to meet the actual asking price, right? Archie’s a good guy, he’s not looking for millions here. He just wants a fair price. He wants to give you this place, Derek.’

Derek sighed. ‘I know,’ he muttered. ‘And I really do want it. And I’d love to be able to take a step back from it too. Hire more staff, maybe knock a wall or two and expand. But every time I think about not being here when you’ve all got the run of the place?’ He shook his head. ‘Can’t do it.’

Cora snorted. ‘Gee, thanks Derek.’

‘It’s my own fault,’ he explained. ‘I feel like if I’m not on top of things, this whole place will - ‘

‘Burn to the ground?’

Derek looked up and met his sister’s gaze. ‘Yeah, alright,’ he said, finally. They looked at each other, and for several long moments, there was quiet.

‘You know,’ Cora said, eventually, sounding thoughtful. ‘You stepped back when Stiles was around. In fact, when he was here, hardly anything got done. I mean, we were awesome.’ She tossed her head. ‘Me, Danny, and Kira kept this place afloat, man, because you were in some room canoodling with our journalist.’

‘I was not - ‘

‘Whatever.’ Cora spoke over him. ‘The point is, the place didn’t fall apart. We handled it, and you were fine. You were so fine, Derek, I think I even saw you smile twice in the same hour!’

Derek knew when he was beaten, but he still had a lot to think about, so he looked down at this hands and said nothing.

‘You should call Stiles,’ Cora said.

‘I know.’

‘And read his damn article.’

Derek nodded, even though he didn’t actually end up doing any of those things, but he really did think about it. Especially after he arrived home to find a copy of the newspaper in his mail slot, rolled up and tied with a red ribbon. There was a little red tab sticking out of its pages, presumably to mark the location of Stiles’s article. Derek’s heart pounded all the way up the stairs.

But still, he left the newspaper on his kitchen table and went to bed without dinner.

 


 

 

Cora seemed to have felt she’d said enough on the subject of finances and Stiles. The next day was a haze of work and painting and organisation, and for once Derek felt like he was just a cog in a machine, rather than every single component plus the driver.

They had about six customers to get through who really couldn’t make the fundraiser. Cora had helpfully set up a donations box at the counter, which was helpful, especially for the walk-ins they got who were just looking to buy treats and dog toys.

Meanwhile in the back, it was mayhem. Danny was in charge of all the barbecue supplies. Cora was very firm on the notion that food would bring crowds, and thanks to Danny’s parent’s restaurant business, they got hot dog supplies for days at a price haggled down to a steal by Cora, plus candy and chips for the kids. Danny spent the afternoon cleaning an old barbecue Kira had produced from somewhere (‘Just leave it in the same gross state you found it in afterwards and we’ll have no problems,’ she told Danny seriously).

Kira was absorbed in making ribbons and prizes; she appropriated the entirety of Cora’s office and most of the reception room for crafts. She and Cora spent most of the day covered in glitter and glue but actually managed to make several pretty good winner’s ribbons for first, second, and third place. In a fit of genius they came up with printed certificates that said something predictable like “No. 1 Dog Owner” and Kira dashed out at the last minute and returned with two bags of plastic medals on striped ribbons. Thankfully they just said something generic on them, but Kira tied small baggies of jelly babies to each medal to make the whole thing more acceptable to the runners up.

Cora herself had apparently spent a lot of time painting for the event, and the culmination of this process turned up at the Den that evening in the back of Danny’s truck. Derek was actually blown away by what she’d produced; as well as all the individual fliers and promotional posters she’d created on her computer and stuck all over town, she’d painted six single posters of various dogs in exquisite colour and detail - Derek definitely recognised Jasper, he almost looked alive on the canvas - to be sold too.

She’d also designed all the colourful banners and signs to go with each display. Derek cringed when he saw his own name painted artistically on the ‘Pet care’ banner.

‘Cora, these are amazing,’ Danny said, as they all admired her work. ‘How did you manage to get these done on time?’

Cora preened shamelessly. ‘A lot of late nights and coffee,’ she said, lightly. ‘It’s all for a good cause, right Derek?’

‘Right,’ Derek agreed, chest swelling with pride.

Derek hadn’t much organising to do. He just had to make sure that all of his supplies were set up in their boxes, and labelled so he knew where everything was. It was weird seeing the supply closets so depleted; they weren’t sure how many dogs were going to be on show, but Cora advised him to average up, just in case.

Every so often, Derek would glance at the front door. Whenever the bell tinkled to announce a customer, he’d try to bargain with himself, tell him he could only go out to the front after two minutes to listen at the door to see if it was Stiles. Because if he kept barging in and looking around, only to slink out again two seconds later, it was going to get more than embarrassing for everyone concerned.

A delivery guy from the gourmet sandwich shop down the street turned up at around three with food. They all stared blankly until Cora read the delivery receipt and announced, ‘They’re from our literary benefactor.’ She grinned at Derek. ‘How thoughtful.’

They were all labelled. Derek’s sandwich was the only one with avocado. He tried to eat without smiling.

Finally, after a long day, everything was ready. Derek was ready to drop from sheer nerves.

‘It’s gonna be great,’ said Cora, happily, as they boxed up the last of the supplies, to be shipped over in the morning. ‘We’re gonna make a ton of cash and save the business, just like in a Nickelodeon movie.’

‘I love your optimism,’ Derek sighed, worrying about whether the donation boxes looked too needy. It wasn’t until he was alone in his apartment that evening, earlier than usual, that the enormity of the situation crashed down on him. Tomorrow was going to be exhausting. There would be so many people, and he had to do his best. He realised guiltily that Cora, Danny, and Kira were relying on him to really sell this. They’d put in so much effort, and gone to such lengths to make this a success. If buying the Den didn’t utterly bankrupt him, he’d take them all out for drinks afterwards.

He stared at yesterday’s newspaper, still lying rolled up and unread on his kitchen table. Of course, there was still one person he’d yet to thank at all.

In true Stiles fashion, he managed to interrupt before Derek had finished thinking. His phone rang in his pocket, and Derek wasn’t at all surprised to see the blurry picture of Stiles and Jasper appear on the caller ID.

‘Hello?’

‘Why did I have the feeling you wouldn’t pick up?’ Stiles sounded like was eating something.

‘Is that why you sound like you’re eating?’

There was a pause. ‘Maybe.’

Derek huffed a small laugh. He felt lighter already.

They talked about the fundraiser. Stiles wanted to know everything, because apparently Cora’s nightly emails weren’t enough for him. Derek described everything as best he could, but he found himself getting carried away praising his team.

‘They’re all colourful and glittery, I almost want one for myself. Kids are gonna go nuts for them, I bet. And the art Cora did - you’ll just have to see it for yourself, Stiles, it’s so good I can’t describe it. I hope Scott likes the one of Jasper, he’s kind of the star of the show tomorrow, I guess.’

‘Scott’s gonna take him for a run in the morning to tire him out some,’ Stiles said, sounding amused. ‘Or as best he can, anyways. You know what Jasper’s like.’

‘I’m sure he’ll be fine,’ Derek said, and was surprised to find that he was actually fairly confident about this element. He knew dogs. They tended to get hyped up by crowds and excitement, but Jasper lived with Stiles. He was definitely used to it. And Derek had never met a dog he hadn’t been able to calm down eventually. Maybe he really was the dog whisperer, he thought, wryly.

‘So … did you read my article?’ Stiles hedged, casually.

Derek had been wondering whether or not to lie about this, and he still hadn’t decided when Stiles sprung this on him.

‘Um - ‘

‘It’s fine if you didn’t,’ Stiles interjected hurriedly, and Derek blinked. ‘I mean, I know how busy you’ve been the last couple of days, and I’m really sorry I haven’t come around and helped like I said I would but it’s just been so crazy at work - especially today, my editor actually loved the article, and we’ve been pouring water under the bridge all afternoon - but I get it, you know? I get that this is a big deal and it’s not just an article or a fundraiser for you, it’s like, the future, you know? So you probably don’t want to jinx it by reading it yet, or maybe you’re saving it until you know the fundraiser goes well so it doesn’t seem like false hope, or maybe it’s just not that big a deal honestly because you have so much going on and I - ‘

‘Stiles,’ Derek interrupted, slightly dazed. He’d been fully prepared to let him ramble, but he had to stop him there. ‘I do care,’ he said, firmly. ‘This article is … It’s just, with everything you’ve done for the Den, and for me, really … I kind of got overwhelmed. Stupidly overwhelmed, I guess. And yeah, maybe it’s because I’m kind of suspicious and don’t want to jinx myself because I have exceptionally bad luck, but no, I haven’t read it yet.’

He could almost hear Stiles nodding. ‘Yeah, that’s cool, it’s fine it’s totally fine, it’s no big deal really what’s in it, it’s all about the support and the awareness, right?’

Derek rolled his eyes. ‘Well, yeah. But that’s not it.’

‘Derek, seriously, it’s fine.’ Stiles was babbling now. ‘I don’t need you to tell me you’ll read it if you get time, or that you’re sure it’s really good. Honestly it’s no big deal, it’s only a - ‘

‘It is a big deal!’ Derek snapped, and Stiles stopped. ‘It is a big deal because you’re a big deal for me. Stiles, what you’ve done is - it’s above and beyond, ok? It’s way more than I expected or deserved and I kind of got thrown by that, but the reason I haven’t read your stupid article is because I’m afraid that when I do that you’ll be gone, and this whole thing will be over. And you won’t come by anymore, and I’ll go back to working at the Den and the only difference will be that I have a badge that says "Manager" instead of "Staff".’

Derek stopped speaking abruptly, aware that he was breathing rather fast. Stiles sounded like he was too. There was a long, awkward pause that seemed ten times longer in Derek’s head before Stiles finally spoke.

‘Oh,’ he said. It was a very weighted syllable.

There was another pause.

‘So … you want me to stick around?’ Stiles asked, cautious. ‘You want me to - ‘

‘Yes, I want you to,’ Derek interrupted stupidly, rolled his eyes to heaven when he heard how that sounded, and then decided to stand his ground again. ‘I want you,’ he said, softly. ‘Stiles.’

‘Oh,’ said Stiles again. It was the most mono-syllabic Derek had ever heard him.

‘Is that … ok?’ Derek spent a nightmare second spiralling into the void as he thought about what would happen if he’d gotten the whole thing wrong.

Stiles made a noise that sounded like all the breath was whooshing out of him in one go.

‘Is that - yeah, Derek, yes! Yes that’s ok, that’s - man, that’s what I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time.’ Stiles sounded like he was on the verge of laughter - delighted, breathless laughter, and Derek could feel a smile tugging on his own lips. He could see Stiles’s expression so clearly it was like they were standing in the same room.

‘Ok, well, good,’ Derek replied, still smiling. ‘Glad we sorted that out.’

‘Right, yeah,’ Stiles said, sounding dazed.

‘I’d, uh, better go,’ Derek admitted. ‘Fundraiser tomorrow, and all that.’

‘Right! Right yeah, totally, I’m beat too,’ Stiles agreed, though he still sounded completely hyped up. ‘I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.’

‘Yeah. Twelve o’ clock,’ Derek reminded him.’

‘Ok. Um, bye.’

‘Bye.’

They hung up, and Derek spent a whole minute standing completely still in his kitchen, hardly daring to believe what had just happened. Cora, he thought distantly, would actually be proud of him.

Then he realised that Cora would probably kick his ass for hanging up like that. For still standing in his kitchen, for that matter. What was he still doing here? Why wasn’t he with Stiles?

He was halfway to the door, keys in hand, mission uncertain but destination definitely known, when the damned newspaper caught his eye again. And this time, Derek didn’t ignore it.

It was a full page spread, not the small column he’d been expecting. Derek skimmed the parts about Kira and Danny, and about The Den in general. Stiles wrote well, but Derek's attention wandered through it for mentions of himself. He grinned at the photographs, mostly candids of them with various customers, their names and the dog names as well as their owners credited in the captions. Derek was amazed that Stiles had refrained from using even one dog-related pun.

To no one’s surprise the main shot was of Derek and the labrador puppies. He was on his knees, letting the puppies get used to his smell; they were gazing up at him, and Derek was looking stern but fond. Were his hands really that big, or were the puppies just small? He paused to examine his hands, holding them up to the light, then decided it was just the photo.

The Derek part of the article was below that, and it’s where Derek’s eyes kept shooting back to until finally he let himself read it in full.

 

I didn’t know a whole lot about dogs when I started writing this article, apart from the fact that I live with one, and that his favourite meal is whatever’s currently on my plate. Within five minutes of meeting Derek Hale, 25, for the first time, I’d learned that the reason for that is because the dog I live with doesn’t respect me (still doesn’t). He did, however, respect Derek, because at The Den, Derek’s the alpha.

Derek nearly abandoned the article right there; only the judgemental little thumbnail of Stiles beside the opening paragraph kept him going.

I spent our first meeting in a state of awe and intimidation that quickly turned into a real curiosity about the main man at this dog grooming salon. Within minutes, Derek had my offending dog, Jasper, calmed down and relaxed, despite being normally very nervous around water. Through amazing powers of persuasion, this journalist was allowed behind the scenes to see Derek Hale work his magic.

The salon rooms at The Den are very bright, clean, and spacious, designed to provide maximum comfort and security for particularly nervous “customers”. Veterinary-certified Derek explains that some animals retain their fear of water, or their discomfort with being closely examined, regardless of how often they go through the grooming process.

“The same memories trigger the same stressors,” he says. “Dogs are instinctual animals, and they rely mostly on their sense of smell. So if they smell something they normally associate with fear or an uncomfortable experience, they’ll react the same way every time.”

Derek’s face falls to concentration as he cleans Jasper’s teeth and clips his nails. This journalist usually stays far away from those particular canine features, but Jasper is good and patient - and extremely out of character - as Derek does his work. His movements are quick and confident, and his presence creates a reassuring atmosphere for both dog and journalist. I almost wanted to ask him to do my teeth and nails afterwards.

Throughout the process Jasper didn’t look at all perturbed. This is the same dog I’ve seen knock over a chair at the sound of the shower turning on. “If I’m not worried, then he’s not going to be so worried,” Derek explains. “He’s away from his owner - you don’t count, sorry [Derek was positive he hadn’t really apologised for saying this] - and experiencing something he’s not really into, and the whole thing makes him uncertain. But he knows I’m in charge, and he senses that I’m calm. And nothing I’m doing has hurt him. Which is why grooming is always a more enjoyable experience than going to the vet.” Jasper looks positively Zen after his time under Derek’s careful hands. I had to ask around; what was Derek’s secret?

“Yeah, he’s kind of like the dog whisperer, I guess,” says sister Cora Hale [19]. “Our family used to breed dogs, so growing up we had to learn to take care of them. It was just how we were raised. Derek always just had a way with them, though. It’s something about his presence.”

Derek and Cora have continued their family’s legacy by investing a lot of their time and energy into making The Den a reliable, family-friendly establishment that provides top care and attention for all dogs. As well as providing discounts for regular customers, Derek has been known to do pro-bono work for rescue shelters and veterinary clinics.

“People don’t want to take home dogs who don’t look perfect,” he explains. “It sucks, but it’s the truth. And they only reason they [the dogs] get this way is because people don’t take care of them.”

Derek would like to keep doing this kind of work, but unfortunately it’s becoming difficult for him to keep The Den running in this way. Owning and caring for dogs has been Derek’s entire life, and he is now in talks with manager Archie Hall to purchase The Den from him, in order to prevent it from being bought by the PAWfect Grooming Company. In order to preserve their unique way of caring for animals, they need to raise a significant amount of money. Which is why this weekend’s fundraiser at Blessington Park from 12pm-4pm is so important in raising both funds and awareness of proper pet care.

“There’s enough of Derek’s blood in the walls for this place to almost be a relation,” Cora joked, after Derek had helped a very nervous dog (and journalist) relax in an unfamiliar environment. I’d actually asked Derek a question about The Den being a family business, but he hadn’t been listening. He’d been focusing on watching Jasper poke around the reception area, to see how he was feeling after his ordeal. It was kind of cute, actually.

I’ll be down at the fundraiser this Saturday the 12th, helping this little family out in keeping The Den open. For anyone who hasn’t been along to check it out, The Den is located between 51st and Napier, and the staff are always willing to stop and discuss dog grooming and care, even if it’s just by taking a few minutes to answer some very basic questions from yours truly. And to be honest, this journalist left The Den feeling more than a little attached to the place, to its caring and energetic staff, and more than a little in love with its very gentle, enigmatic, and utterly charming alpha.

Derek read the whole thing, and then read it again. He couldn’t remember saying half that stuff - and he could kill Cora for bringing up the dog whispering thing again - but he had to admit it was good. It was exactly how he wanted people to think about The Den; not as some big chain of stores that just washed and dried and made the dogs look good, but as a place that actually cared about them and their wellbeing.

All of these observations, of course, were entirely secondary and being pushed back even further by that last line that was reverberating around Derek’s head like a bell. It was just an article, just a figure of speech. Even so, Derek ended up leaving the apartment without his jacket and with the newspaper still clutched in his hand.

He got all the way down to the front of the building to where his car was parked, before he had to stop. Because Stiles was standing outside the building, keys also in hand, also minus jacket, staring at him like he’d run into a brick wall.

‘I’m sorry - you’re heading out,’ he stammered. ‘I just …’

‘No,’ said Derek quickly. ‘No I was just - ‘ He stopped, and held up the crumpled newspaper. ‘I read your article,’ he said. ‘I think I was on my way over.’

‘Oh,’ said Stiles, for the third time that night. But this time Derek could see him smiling.

He walked up the steps to where Derek was standing. When they were on the same level, Derek allowed himself a long, leisurely look at Stiles, and everything that had come to be so familiar and comforting to Derek. His long limbs, and how they managed to look both graceful and endearing when they moved. His pale skin, dotted with moles that Derek hadn’t had nearly enough time yet to count. But he would, with his eyes and then hopefully with his mouth. Stiles had the most amazing eyes, and lips, and nose. Each one of his features was designed to make Derek weak. There was a twinkle in his eye as he looked up from beneath his eyelashes at Derek, almost shy. Stiles was never shy. Derek wanted to kiss those lips, and then kiss every bit of him until he could taste Stiles in his mouth when he swallowed.

‘This took way too long,’ Stiles breathed. His eyes were dark, and there was a delicate flush on his neck. Derek imagined he looked much the same.

Their bodies drew closer together, the need to close to gap until they were touching growing entirely uncontrollable. Stiles’s hands found Derek’s, and they twined their fingers together like they were never going to be apart again. Their heads tilted, and Derek could feel Stiles’s breath on his skin. Their bodies shifted and reacted to each other, the space between them full and electric, eyes flickering to each other and then down to lips and neck, then back up again as they each asked the question: will you go first, or will I?

Their toes scuffed one another’s. Derek felt Stiles’s knee bump his, then his hip. The rough slide of denim on denim seemed so loud to Derek’s ears. They watched each other carefully, almost amused, so close now.

Stiles’s lips ghosted over his, dry but with the promise of warmth and wet to come. Derek caught the tip of Stiles’s lip between his teeth; Stiles gasped, and the tension snapped like a crack of thunder on a hot day.

The kiss was hot, and endless. Their hands separated only to cling to each other’s bodies, grabbing whatever they could find and holding on, desperately, as they kissed. It was messy and uncoordinated and Derek loved it. Stiles’s lips were bewilderingly soft and pliable beneath Derek’s, his skin hot and flushed beneath his fingertips, his mouth soft and demanding and perfect on his. The whole world faded away, and Derek felt his dark cloud float away with it.

 

 

Derek was too nervous to feel stupid as they rushed up to his apartment. He didn’t know what had become of the newspaper, but he wasn’t about to stop to find out.

‘You didn’t even lock up?’ Stiles demanded, as Derek opened the door.’I mean, I kind of love the fact that you just rushed right out of here, but seriously - ‘

‘Is this what you want to talk about?’ Derek snapped, arousal making him flustered.

Stiles bit his lip, and Derek’s stomach lurched. ‘Oh yeah, yell at me again,’ he said, sounding incredibly strained, before jumping on Derek.

He slammed him into the wall, hands clutching at the material of Derek’s shirt. Derek grabbed Stiles around the waist, clutching him closer. The heat off him was incredible, but there were still too many layers of clothing between them.

‘Why do you dress like it’s fucking winter,’ Derek complained against his mouth, as he struggling to get his hands on Stiles’s skin.

‘I’ve gotta leave something to the imagination,’ retorted Stiles, trailing his mouth down Derek’s jaw. ‘We can’t all be runway models like you, Derek.’

As the layers began to be removed, Derek was surrounded by scents like ink and paper and milkshakes and fast food and generally all the things that Derek caught tiny traces of while Stiles hovered around him at work. It was heaven; like when your food finally arrives at the restaurant, after so long of just smelling and imagining it. Derek’s hands slipped under Stiles’s waistband, and he felt Stiles’s body stiffen. Then he staggered up on tiptoe as Derek grabbed and pulled him closer. They were dangerously close to toppling over, so Derek hoisted Stiles up, knowing he’d be just as on board with being carried as Derek was.

Stiles wrapped his legs around Derek’s waist and kissed the life out of him as Derek staggered through the apartment. His hands were gripping Stiles’s ass and Derek had a brief out-of-body experience where the saw himself carrying Stiles through his apartment and wondered how he’d ever been smooth enough for this to happen.

‘Typical you would have to have your bed as far away as possible.’

Derek should have known that Stiles would be able to talk and kiss simultaneously. ‘How is that typical?’

‘It just is, you’re so difficult - ohmygod,’ Stiles gasped, very gratifyingly, as Derek ducked his head to bite one big hickey into Stiles’s collarbone, which was very helpfully on show.

‘Shit, oh fuck,’ Stiles moaned, clutching at Derek’s hair, legs squeezing tighter around his waist. Derek hadn’t known he could kiss and walk; he was learning all sorts of new things today. Like the fact that Stiles had the most sensitive skin and creating hickeys was similar to full-blown orgasm potential. Derek immensely enjoyed the noises Stiles was making as he squirmed in his arms.

They made it to the bedroom with no injuries, but with two very sensitive boners. Stiles had managed to kick his jeans off lightning-fast, and as Derek lowered Stiles on to the bed and continued to let his mouth roam over everything, he tried very hard not to go straight for the beautiful bulge in Stiles’s bright red underwear.

Stiles was running his hands up and down Derek’s back, trying to pus his shirt up and off until Derek paused to do it himself. ‘I fucking knew you’d look this good,’ moaned Stiles, staring up at him with eyes hot with arousal. ‘God, I used to imagine it all the fucking time.'

Derek couldn’t stop touching him. His fingers burned as they scraped over his skin, Stiles’s own lighting up patches of Derek like candles. He nearly ripped Stiles’s shirt getting it off him so he could get his mouth all over him and taste that heat. Stiles fit perfectly between Derek’s legs. He thrust his crotch up helplessly as Derek pinned him, tonguing his nipple and feeling the heat pool in his stomach at every tiny whimper and gasp. Stiles was incredibly sensitive; his whole body bucked and shivered under Derek’s touch.

‘Fuck you are such a goddamn - fuck - fucking asshole,’ Stiles gasped, writhing. ‘I swear to god if you didn’t have a very public appearance tomorrow I’d mark you up so fucking bad you’d - ‘

The rest of Stiles’s threat was choked out by the most sinful, shocked moan Derek had ever heard outside of porn, and he stopped grinding their hips together briefly to wonder how exactly to find that perfect sweet spot again.

‘Jeans are - the devil,’ Stiles panted. ‘Get your fucking pants off dude, please.’

Instead of responding, Derek got his arms under Stiles and flipped them so that he was lying on his back, with Stiles now straddling his hips. Derek’s hand went straight to his own belt, shoving the jeans and underwear down as best he could, just so he could see the perfect pink O of surprise as Stiles felt Derek’s rock hard dick against his ass.

‘Shit,’ he breathed, arching back, palms braced against Derek’s chest. The tip of Derek’s cock was rubbing Stiles’s flushed skin, but Derek may as well not have owned a dick for all the attention he was paying it, because how could he look anywhere else but at Stiles right now?

His eyes were half-closed, his beautiful mouth slack and sinful as he rubbed his ass up against Derek’s dick. One of his hands was straying to palm at his own situation, and Derek could have lain there and just watched the whole show.

‘Fuck, that’s gonna feel so fucking good inside me,’ Stiles whimpered, as though the words were being dragged out of him, and Derek’s brain short-circuited. He thrust up between Stiles’s cheeks, hating the underwear and everything about them. Stiles’s dick was poking up over the rim; he’d dragged them down and was now wrapping his long fingers around himself. It was utterly debauched. Derek wanted to fuck him so badly he was almost blind with lust.

Stiles’s eyes suddenly focused, and darkened with intent. He threw one leg back over and crawled off Derek, but he didn’t go far. Turning on his hands and knees, he pushed Derek’s jeans and underwear down the rest of the way until they were finally gone. This presented Derek with an excellent view and access to all of Stiles’s ass. As Stiles’s hands started to slide towards Derek’s dick, Derek let his own pull Stiles’s underwear down inch by inch. Stiles stiffened and relaxed by degrees as Derek slowly let his fingers roam over his rim and balls. He wasn’t entirely sure that Stiles really did want to get fucked tonight, so he was hesitant about actually putting fingers in places.

‘Oh fuck, please put something in me,’ Stiles begged, and that was that.

As Stiles put his mouth over the tip of Derek’s dick, Derek raised his head to Stiles’s ass and pressed gentle kisses to the skin, gradually moving closer until he was tonguing the rim, prying him open. Stiles was digging his fingers into Derek’s thighs as his tongue did terribly effective things to Derek’s dick, and Derek had to concentrate very hard on what he was doing, in case he went slack-jawed and collapsed backwards like he wanted to. Stiles was shuddering every time Derek’s tongue went a little deeper, his whole body twitching with the contact. Occasionally his mouth would pop off Derek’s dick with a slick, wet noise that nearly made Derek weep, just to curse and rant at Derek for ruining his life.

‘You’re fucking killing me, oh my god,’ Stiles moaned, pushing backwards to get more of Derek in him, and Derek decided he needed to step things up. He grabbed Stiles’s hips as best he could reach them, and tugged a little, until Stiles sat back, mouth so gorgeous and wet with Derek’s precome. The position was awkward and involved some leaning, but he couldn’t resist pressing a kiss hot and hard to that mouth, wanting Stiles to make that deep mmf of surprise and desire every damn time they kissed.

‘On your back,’ Derek breathed against his mouth, and Stiles went horizontal in an instant. Derek crawled across to his bedside locker where there were a few condoms and a half-used bottle of lube lurking (the half-used was an illusion of promiscuity - Derek just liked a little less friction when he jerked off). By the time he got back to Stiles, he was leaking on to his chest and trying very hard not to touch himself. His hands were fisting the sheets as he glared at Derek.

‘Do something,’ he forced out through gritted teeth, and Derek was grinning.

‘You are so damn hot like this,’ he sighed contemplatively, as he popped the cap on the lube. ‘I cannot wait to fuck you.’

Stiles threw his head back with a groan and wiggled his butt around until Derek caught his thighs, laughing. ‘Hold as still as you possibly can, please,’ Derek muttered, slicking up his fingers. ‘I don’t want you to come accidentally and not in my mouth.’

Stiles’s head jerked up comically, and Derek chose that moment to insert the tip of one finger gently into Stiles’s hole, causing Stiles’s head to hit the pillows again.

‘Fuck,’ he moaned, drawing out the word into something beyond obscenity as Derek worked him. He pushed it slowly in and out, relishing every quiver and jerk of Stiles’s body, like he was hardwired directly to Derek’s hand. He kept going until it was sliding smoothly in and out of Stiles, teasing his hole to add another while Stiles gripped the bedframe and cursed him out. Stiles was so delightfully noisy, every sound he made so utterly raw and sexual, making Derek shiver and his dick swell almost painfully.

‘You want another?’ Derek asked, as he scissored the two he already had in there. Stiles was barely capable of words, but he managed to gasp out an affirmative before Derek started to stretch him again, and he nearly bucked right out of Derek’s grip. Derek couldn’t take his eyes off Stiles. He wanted to lower his mouth on to Stiles’s cock so badly, but he was genuinely worried that Stiles could come from just fingering alone. He mentally filed that away under “Things to do to Stiles” and concentrated on working him open, until Stiles was a loose, shaking mess under his hands, begging for Derek to fuck him.

‘Derek, please, fuck me,’ he panted, torso twisting around on the bed, trying to roll over. ‘I’m fucking ready, Jesus, please.’

Derek removed his hand and Stiles got on his hands and knees. Derek’s legs were trembling as he rose from his position to line himself up. The sight of Stiles just presenting himself was staggering, and it hit him like a gut punch.

‘You are so fucking beautiful,’ Derek murmured, scrabbling around on the bed for the condom while trying not to take his eyes off the gorgeous piece of ass that Stiles was currently serving up, just for him.

‘Fucking do something about it,’ Stiles whined, and Derek lightly spanked Stiles as his other hand closed on the condom. Stiles stiffened, and Derek paused, wondering if that wasn’t good.

‘Fucking do that again,’ Stiles breathed, and Derek nearly dropped the condom again in his haste to get it on.

‘You like that?’ murmured Derek, running his palm over Stiles’s ass as he lined himself up.

‘Trust me, no one is more surprised than I am,’ said Stiles, sounding determined. Derek contemplated his options. He pressed the tip of his dick against Stiles’s rim, watching him tense up, and then slid it up and over between the crack, following it up with a sharp slap. Stiles’s breath whooshed out of him, and he cried out softly at the contact.

‘You good?’ Derek asked, voice tight.

‘I’d be better if you hurried the fuck up, Hale.’

Derek slapped him again, and Stiles cried out a little louder this time. Derek slid his dick through Stiles’s crack again, pushing at his entrance a little harder. Stiles’s ass was turning the most gorgeous pink colour, and he’d cry out so wonderfully every time the pressure against his rim was relieved by another slap. His voice was slowly starting to get wrecked; Derek wondered if he’d be able to talk at all tomorrow.

Derek let the tip of his dick catch on his rim, and then he slowly started to push in. Stiles was breathing so damn fast, and Derek gripped his hips to keep himself steady as the feeling of the most incredible tight, wet heat made him moan deep in his chest and bite his lip. ‘Fuck, you’re amazing,’ he said, voice low and uneven. He delivered another slap, this time on the other side, and rubbed the soft skin afterwards as he continued to push in.

‘Oh my - hnng - keep going,’ Stiles ordered him, voice loud and demanding now. ‘God, deeper, please.’

Derek got all the way down to balls without losing his mind; the slow slide back out nearly did it for both of them.

‘God, you’d better start fucking moving,’ Stiles cried, twisting around suddenly to drag Derek down for a kiss that was mostly teeth and tongue and sheer, uncompromising want. Stiles bit his lip, and Derek spanked him again, grabbing on and squeezing until Stiles fell back down on to his hands. Derek pushed in, and then barely pulled out halfway before slamming back inside Stiles. He tried to keep his thrusts even and measured, but it was so hard not to go as hard as he could when Stiles was openly begging him for it, in the most sinful language possible.

‘Oh god, spank me again,’ he moaned, voice muffled because he was biting his goddamn arm. Derek obliged, and Stiles’s cries of half-pleasure, half-pain, were something he could happily listen to for the rest of his life. Derek was chasing that high; he could feel it building inside him. Stiles’s voice was better than anything else for making him feel just on the verge of coming.

He started to fuck him harder, hands sliding over his body, just feeling him tense and shake as he took everything Derek gave him. The bruising force of their bodies colliding, the loud smack of skin on skin and the tiny, desperate gasps that Derek seemed to be fucking right out of Stiles with every thrust. Derek was alive with sensation, as the bed began to creak. Derek hands slid to Stiles’s shoulders, his thrusts becoming more erratic and uneven as he slammed into him. One hand shot out to brace himself against the headboard, and the other found Stiles’s hair. Stiles craned his neck back, making senseless noises of pleasure. His body arched back under Derek, and Derek pressed a kiss against his slick skin, somewhere, everywhere.

‘You’re so fucking good, you’re amazing,’ Derek breathed. ‘Fuck - can I come in you?’

‘Yes,’ whimpered Stiles. ‘Oh fuck, yes.’

Derek’s hips snapped like pistons as he felt the heat building inside him, legs shaking, toes curling. He bent right over Stiles and fucked him until the headboard rattled, until Stiles was sobbing and Derek’s orgasm whited out his vision, mindblowing pulses of pleasure seizing his body like flashburns. Stiles stayed on his hands and knees, just. Derek’s hand slid down under his ribs, just in case, as he breathed through the aftershocks, feeling his dick throbbing and shooting out the last of his come inside Stiles. Shakily, he kissed the back of Stiles’s neck.

‘God, you’re unbelievable,’ he whispered. His body felt entirely unsteady and all he wanted to do was collapse, but Stiles had yet to come and taking all of that deserved multiple awards.

‘Just - just let me - ‘ Stiles was having difficulty with words, but as Derek pulled out to get rid of the condom, he wriggled around to face him. Stiles cheeks were splotchy and flushed, his collarbone and shoulder was bruised red, and he looked half out of his mind. ‘Can I just - ‘

‘Whatever you want,’ replied Derek honestly, tossing the knotted condom off the bed and spreading his arms. He’d probably have signed over his apartment to Stiles at that point. Stiles nodded. He scrambled to a sitting position, back against the headboard, scattering the pillows. Derek crawled after him, settling between his legs.

‘What do you want,’ he whispered, running his lips over Stiles’s jaw, before sucking gently on his lip. Stiles had one hand wrapped around his dick, and he looked completely at the end of his rope.

‘Just - just finish me off,’ he begged. ‘With your mouth. Please.’

Derek smiled against his lips, kissing him quickly again before sliding back in the bed so he was on his stomach. He took Stiles in his hand, wanting to go nice and slow to reward him, but Stiles was beyond that.

‘Oh god, faster,’ he breathed, as Derek took him in his mouth. He cradled his balls with one hand, and used the other to half-jerk him off, mouth working the top as Stiles made wrecked, gasping noises and tried not to jump right off the bed. Since Derek had already answered the whole come-in-your-mouth question, he kept his mouth in place as he jerked him until Stiles was coming in hot, quick spasms, back arched in blind pleasure. Derek swallowed every bit, gently working his dick through it until they were both gasping for air.

‘Fuck,’ panted Stiles. ‘Fucking hell. Dude, I knew you were good with your hands but that was other level, man.’

Derek wasn’t even bothered to respond to that. He dragged himself up until he was somewhere around kissing height again, and their lips met in a dazed, heated smush that ended with Stiles dragging them both down in the bed until they were entirely wrapped up in each other, linking fingers and pressing kisses to knuckles. Derek’s eyes were slipping shut, and when he felt Stiles’s cold toes against his own, Derek tucked them between his own feet.

‘You’re perfect,’ sighed Stiles.

‘Mm,’ Derek said in agreement, because there was little he liked more than the sound of Stiles laughing. Maybe the sound Stiles makes when Derek spanks him. Maybe.

‘We should probably, like, shower or something.’

Derek made a less pleased noise, and Stiles laughed again.

‘Five more minutes then,’ Stiles mumbled lazily, tucking his head into the gap between Derek’s neck and shoulder. ‘You’re pretty comfy, for a bodybuilding hunk.’

‘Your article was amazing.’

Stiles tensed up, and when Derek opened his eyes he found Stiles peeking up at him.

‘Really?’

Derek nodded. ‘I think I dropped it outside. You have that effect.’

Stiles beamed at him. ‘Dude, I bought like ten copies. I was gonna send you one a day until you read it.’

Derek rolled his eyes, wrapping his arms more securely around Stiles and snuggling him closer. ‘Of course you did.’

 

 

Stiles stayed much later than either of them intended. They ordered take-out and ate it on the couch, something Derek had never done.

‘I say this with love, but you need to live a little, dude,’ Stiles commented, as Derek fussed over the cushions.

They camped out on the couch for the rest of the evening, tired and full and happy (and a little sore), until Stiles started to nod off and Derek suggested bed. Stiles sighed regretfully and stretched.

‘Ugh, I’d love to, but I can’t,’ he yawned. ‘If I get in a bed with you again I’ll probably climb on top of you and we’ll be up all night. And you’ve a big day tomorrow.’

Derek pouted. ‘Don’t remind me,’ he muttered. He was just about to spiral into another pity party at the thought of the fundraiser, but Stiles surprised him out of those thoughts by pressing a warm, deep kiss to his lips, one hand sliding through his hair to pull him closer. ‘If you get through tomorrow, I’ll be your reward,’ Stiles murmured.

‘Go. Quickly,’ Derek instructed, eyes half closed with desire. ‘Before I start taking off all your clothes again.’

Stiles laughed and hopped off the couch, looking energised. ‘See you tomorrow, Derek,’ he grinned, backing away towards the door, one hand straying to his crotch to palm himself suggestively.

Derek covered his eyes with his hand. ‘I can’t even look at you right now,’ he muttered, inexplicably embarrassed at himself. Stiles’s laughter echoed all the way down the hallway.

Chapter Text

To no one’s surprise but Derek’s, the fundraiser went brilliantly. The sun came out and the air had a lazy summer afternoon feel to it as they all turned up at 11:30 to set up their area. Cars began to pull up shortly after midday, people and dogs spilling out with a rush of chatter and noise, and Derek barely had time to prepare himself for the chaos before he was called upon to smile and nod and shake hands.

Thankfully, he wasn’t in charge of the donations table (that was under Cora’s careful supervision), but he didn’t have time to think about money anyway. The demonstrations went far smoother than he could have hoped. For the short-haired session he’d been given the loan of a tiny smooth-haired terrier called Buffy, who was one of those dogs who’d grown up around grabby, loud children, and therefore behaved like a long-suffering Hindu cow for everyone who handled her. Derek had her up on a folding table with a clip for her leash, so everyone could see her tiny paws and ears better. Derek found it much easier to answer the constant flow of questions when he could just address the dog, like he was talking to her.

‘That went well,’ he commented to Stiles afterwards, who had one of Kira’s painted paw prints on his cheek.

‘Yeah, I think the dog learned a lot,’ replied Stiles earnestly, laughing as Derek glared. He could see the edge of a violent hickey poking out from under Stiles’s high-necked t-shirt, which took the edge off his annoyance considerably. Especially when Stiles caught him looking and blushed but made no effort to hide the evidence of their night together.

Scott and Isaac turned up at around one with Jasper in tow. Behind them came two women, accompanied by a tiny golden Pomeranian, and a magnificent black German Shepherd, who Jasper was desperately trying to engage in a game. With all the other dogs around, Derek was surprised he was directing all his energy to this adult dog who was steadily ignoring his pleas for playtime.

‘Hey Derek! This all looks amazing.’ Scott greeted him enthusiastically as always. ‘Hey, these are some friends of mine, Allison and Lydia. Allison’s with the sniffer dog unit down at BHPD.’

‘Nice to meet you,’ said Derek politely, shaking hands. Stiles was suddenly by his side, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

‘Hey guys, hey Pom-pom,’ Stiles cooed, going straight for the fuzzball in Lydia’s eyes. She rolled her eyes but smiled indulgently as Stiles whisked the dog out of her arms for cuddles.

‘Stiles is like the fun uncle,’ complained Lydia. ‘He gets all the fun parts of owning a dog but none of the actual hassle.’

‘Sounds like Stiles,’ agreed Derek, watching him not fondly, definitely not, though the cuddling was getting stupidly cute. Pom-pom was licking Stiles’s ear now.

Eyes flickered to Derek at his tone. Derek wanted to sink into the ground, but settled instead for crouching down to the German Shepherd, who regarded him stonily. He clicked his tongue gently, and the dog cocked his head. Derek held out his hand, eyes slightly lowered, head tilted away, and allowed the dog to dutifully sniff his hand before permitting contact. His fur was luxurious; this dog looked retired, and happily so.

‘Ex-sniffer dog?’ he asked, looking up at Allison, who nodded, smiling.

‘Yeah, just recently,’ she said. ‘His handler, my old partner, died a few months ago, and Smoke got really depressed, so they had to retire him. I’m working on bringing him back to life, though.’

Derek nodded, looking at Smoke again. The dog blinked at him, still sitting motionless by Allison’s side. ‘Must take a lot of looking after,’ he commented. ‘Especially the grooming. Big dog, probably doesn’t like the probing.’ He stood up again, watching how Smoke’s ears twitched slightly towards Allison as she replied.

‘Yeah, he doesn’t like the attention,’ she replied. ‘He wanders away every time I try, and I don’t like to push him, so I have to wait until he’s sleepy.’

Derek could see that. Police dogs weren’t trained to be petted and cuddled, unfortunately.

‘My unit has been looking for a grooming company that can work with police dogs,’ Allison continued. ‘Somewhere that’ll actually take into consideration the individual temperaments of our dogs. A lot of the animals we work with have been through some difficult situations in the service; they can’t be handled like ordinary pets.’

Derek looked back down at Smoke. He seemed to have the usual friendly dog personality in there somewhere - he was incredibly tolerant of Jasper’s attentions - but he’d obviously have to take a full history before he tried putting him near any kind of stressful or unfamiliar situation. ‘I think we can work something out, yeah,’ he said, feeling oddly pleased.

Allison smiled, and before Derek could figure out a kind of smile to give her in return, she was digging out her phone and they were exchanging contact details, and Derek could practically hear Cora making a cash register noise in his head.

At some point throughout the day, Kira got a small blue paw print painted on Derek’s cheek. Stiles told him off for trying to smudge it off until he stopped. Derek spent a lot of time crouching down to talk to children and pet their dogs, and Stiles reminded him that the face paint made him look more approachable. Scary people, he explained, do not wear face paint.

Stiles acted a bit like Derek’s personal assistant and lifesaver, constantly at his side to field any awkward questions and gently steer the children away when a dog began to get too worked up. He also took down contact details and dog names as more and more people wanted to sign up for their weekly pet care email.

‘What pet care email?’ Derek hissed at Stiles, as he unpacked the long-haired dog brushes.

‘We’ll talk,’ Stiles reassured him, winking.

Jasper fidgeted throughout his session, prompting Derek to use stern words, which only made the crowd laugh at Jasper’s antics. Scott, god bless him, had been one of those pet owners who’d started off teaching his dog all the cute party tricks, so Jasper could roll over and shake hands like a pro. The children were lining up to pet him afterwards, and Jasper’s tail was going ninety as he basked adoringly in the attention. One small child was reluctant to come forward when it was his turn, even as his mother urged him to.

‘I’m sorry,’ she apologized, when the child balked again. ‘We have a dog at home too that he just can’t get used to, either.’

The kid looked in total awe of both Jasper and Derek, both of whom were fairly huge from his point of view, but there was undeniable fear in his eyes.

‘It’s ok,’ said Derek quickly. He addressed the child. ‘Did you know that dogs can smell how you’re feeling?’

The kid shook his head tearfully, eyes trained on Jasper in case he might suddenly lunge at him, which was impossible. Derek had seen stoners more alert than Jasper right now.

‘See, right now Jasper’s happy and relaxed, because there are all these happy children around him, giving him hugs and telling him he’s a good boy,’ Derek explained, feeling like Barney the dinosaur. ‘But if Jasper knew you were sad, he’d be sad too, and he’d try to give you a hug. So if you’re scared of your dog at home, what do you think happens?’

‘Bella gets scared too?’ asked the boy tremulously.

‘That’s right,’ Derek nodded.

‘She’ll think that there’s something to be scared of. So, how about you practise not being scared on Jasper? I promise he’s not gonna hurt you. Remember, he doesn’t even know you and he already likes you. See how his tail is wagging?’

The boy surveyed the situation critically, but Derek saw a spark of interest in his eyes. He fixed Derek with a severe stare, as though trying to make sure he wasn’t being tricked. But eventually he started to approach Jasper, stretching out a hand to stroke his neck. Usually sneaking up on a dog wasn’t wise; it was predator behaviour, and dogs got suspicious about it. But Jasper’s heart of gold had him holding steady until the child was standing confidently beside him, sinking his fingers into the shining bronze fur.

‘He’s so soft,’ the boy murmured.

‘He’s very well taken care of,’ Derek said. ‘Do you brush Bella’s fur?’

The boy shook his head. ‘I think she’d like that,’ Derek suggested. ‘Does she have long or short hair?’

Between the two of them and the boy’s mother, they set him up with a small kit of brushes for dealing with a golden retriever’s soft coat. The boy threw a longing look back at Jasper as his mother led him away. Derek wrapped an arm around Jasper’s body, pulling him close to him for a moment. ‘You’re a very good boy,’ he murmured, rubbing his ears. The dog panted happily at him.

As their crowd started to disperse to look at other things, Derek was finally able to relieve Jasper of his duties. He handed him over to Scott with a more heartfelt thanks than his one from during the week, adding a pre-prepared hamper of treats and grooming products that Kira had prepared as an extra thank you for the owners of the dogs they’d borrowed. Scott treated him to his thousand watt smile and of course thanked him five times more than Derek had.

‘It’s nothing,’ Derek insisted, rubbing the back of his neck. He caught Stiles watching him with a very strange look on his face. What had been smug throughout the entire day now almost looking emotional.

‘What?’ challenged Derek, as Scott led Jasper away.

Stiles shrugged, smiling fit to burst, but slightly pink around the cheeks. ‘Nothing, I guess,’ he said. ‘That was just …’ He shrugged again. ‘I mean, when I’m right I’m right.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Oh that’s right, I’m sorry,’ Stiles said sarcastically. ‘You were so engrossed in helping a scared little kid overcome his fear and discover the wonders of man’s best friend that you didn’t even notice the crowd of mothers wiping away tears.’

Derek rolled his eyes. ‘Looks like you’re the only one getting emotional here,’ he commented, tucking Stiles under his arm. Everyone else was looking the other way, and Derek just wanted to thank him without having to say it just yet.

Stiles sniffed, half-laughing, as he snuggled into Derek’s hug. ‘Man’s best friend,’ he muttered. ‘More like man’s best wingman. This is the real reason you wanted to buy the Den, isn’t it? All the singles?’

Derek sighed. ‘Damn, you saw through my cunning plan.’

‘You can’t get anything past me, Hale, I’m a journalist.’

’And I would have gotten away with it too,’ Derek said regretfully. ‘If it weren’t for you meddling kids. And your dumb dog.’

Stiles pulled back in shock. ‘Derek. Was that - ’

‘You heard me.’

Stiles’s face split into a grin. ‘I’m gonna need you to say that again. Like, five times. Same exact expression.’

‘Not a chance,’ smirked Derek, feeling buoyant.

‘You haven’t even heard my offer yet.’

‘There’s very little I’d accept,’ Derek argued.

Stiles raised his eyebrows. ‘Is that a challenge?’ he said slowly, and the twinkle in his eyes had Derek closing his own in sudden despair.

‘Can we go home yet,’ he complained. His eyes snapped open again as a laughing Stiles pressed a quick kiss to his lips, heedless of anyone around them.

‘The next part’s the fun part anyways,’ Stiles murmured against his mouth.

‘What are you talking about? Every part has been the fun part,’ Derek deadpanned, his heart fluttered as Stiles chuckled fondly.

‘Puppies, Derek,’ he reminded him, happily. ‘Puppies.’

The puppies were indeed the main attraction. More people were arriving with their own pups, Derek saw, as he plucked one of the hot dogs off the barbecue. Cora unreasonably told him off for skipping the queue, but Derek just pointed at the growing crowd and mumbled ‘Puppies,’ around a mouthful of food, slipping away before she could push him away.

The two labrador puppies from the other day were the stars of the last show. Derek called Cora down to help him with them, since he felt she’d been far too behind the scenes so far. She grudgingly knelt to hold the girl pup while Derek groomed the boy. Just to tease her, Derek would occasionally mention something to the crowd like ‘Cora always had these really bad allergies when were were kids. The animal hair made her sneeze like a hundred times a day,’ and the crowd would laugh delightedly, and Cora would suppress a terrible glare and grind her teeth. Derek quietly reminded her that she was holding a little baby and maybe she should look happier to be here.

It was a lot easier to perform, Derek realised, when he still had the taste of Stiles lingering on his lips, despite having eaten an entire hot dog.

The puppy demonstration was shorter, because they got tired quickly, so a lot of it was done with Derek standing up and holding them, occasionally getting Cora to point out different parts of the dogs to make his point. He explained how best to exercise puppies and young dogs, and what they should and shouldn’t eat. The crowd ate it up; he even saw a few people taking notes. And of course, there were so many iPhones pointed in his face throughout the entire demonstration that he had to wonder how many Instagrams he was going to end up on.

‘Learn anything?’ Derek asked afterwards, nodding at Stiles’s notebook which had been out and in use the entire time.

‘What? Oh, no, I already knew all of that stuff,’ Stiles said dismissively. ‘On account of how I asked you as many questions I could think of when I first met you, just to see you go all intense and caring alpha when you explained how to tell when a dog is dehydrated.’ Stiles smirked, teasing.

‘Careful,’ Derek murmured, in his ear. ‘Don’t make me pinch the back of your neck.’ He rested his hand there just to enforce the point, and Stiles leaned unexpectedly into the touch, fixing Derek with a warm gaze before flicking back through his notes.

‘Well that’s definitely going in the follow-up article,’ he muttered. ‘Derek Hale, dog whisperer extraordinaire, also does neck massages.’

Derek peered over Stiles’s shoulder at the notepad, hand curling around over his shoulder as he read snatches of Stiles’s atrocious handwriting. ‘Follow-up article?’ he questioned.

‘Yep,’ Stiles replied. ‘My editor insisted. He’s here, actually, uh - over there, with the King Charles Spaniel and the other three mutts.’

‘His children?’

‘Yeah, those.’

Derek huffed a laugh and pressed his lips to Stiles’s temple. ‘Puppies are ok, I guess,’ he decided. ‘Weird names though. I don’t get some people.’

Stiles pulled away. ‘Wait, what? You didn’t get Wednesday and Pugsley?’

‘Should I have?’

Wednesday and Pugsley, Derek!’ Stiles looked appalled.

‘Oh, well now that you’ve repeated it…’ 

Stiles sighed. ‘I had hopes for you. That Scooby Doo reference, man. We were so close.’

‘Don’t be dramatic.’ Derek rolled his eyes and pulled Stiles in for another kiss, ruefully deciding that he’d have to google the names later.

Just as Kira and Danny were getting ready to start the best groomed pet competition, Derek noticed a sleek black car pulling up at the edge of the park. He frowned, and then smiled wide as an elegant bare leg in heels poked out of the driver’s side.

‘Should I be worried?’ Stiles asked, following Derek’s gaze.

‘Laura!’ Cora’s yell was delighted; she flew past them all until she collided with their 6 foot beauty queen sister. Laura caught her deftly, despite the heels, and swung her around like she’d been doing since they were kids. Derek felt a familiar warm weight settle in his chest.

‘Feel like meeting the loudest mouth in my family?’ he asked Stiles, who was looking slightly awed but determined.

‘Not to be indelicate, but your sister is intimidatingly gorgeous,’ he stated, swallowing nervously. Derek rolled his eyes, slipping his hand into Stiles’s and squeezing.

‘She could also throw your ass in jail,’ he said helpfully. ‘Or get you out just as easily.’

‘Figures,’ sighed Stiles. ‘Ok, lets do this thing.’

Derek had rarely seen Laura out of business suits in the last few years, but today she was wearing a cream dress patterned with roses, and a wide-brimmed floppy sun hat. She smiled, ruby-lipped, as she caught sight of Stiles’s hand entwined with Derek’s. Derek let go to wrap his arms around his sister, who’d come dangerously close to beating Derek in an arm-wrestling match last time they’d hung out.

‘You look good,’ she said in his ear as she hugged him warmly. ‘Who’s the piece?’

‘Behave,’ Derek muttered, smiling despite himself. They stepped back, and Derek gestured to Stiles.

‘Laura, this is Stiles Stilinski. He’s a journalist, and basically organised this whole thing.’ Cora opened her mouth indignantly behind Laura’s back at that, but Derek’s swift glare had her closing it again, sullenly. ‘Stiles, this is my sister, Laura.’

‘Nice to meet you.’ Stiles was using the same voice he’d been using all day to converse sympathetically with parents. Derek only noticed because he’d seen the fear in Stiles’s eyes as Laura trained her expert gaze on him. But thankfully Laura wasn’t wearing her prosecutor pants today. She shook Stiles’s hand and smiled brightly, complimenting him on all his work, and saying she had loved his piece in the Gazette that Cora had sent her.

Together they walked back to the crowd, where the dog competition was now ongoing. Little kids hauled or were pulled by their dogs around a makeshift ring lined with rope, to the encouragement of their parents, as Danny and Kira stood in the middle holding ribbons and pretending to take notes. Stiles excused himself to dig out his camera and moved forward to take photos of the victors and get their names for the paper.

Laura sidled up to Derek, who braced himself. ‘So how long has this been going on?’ she asked, expression perfectly schooled into one of benevolent kindness and enjoyment as she watched the antics before them.

‘Not long,’ Derek admitted. ‘It kind of took a while to, you know, get going.’

Laura nodded. ‘So that hickey that you’re doing a terrible job of hiding then …?’

‘Please don’t,’ begged Derek, smiling determinedly at the children.

Laura laughed, bumping their shoulders together. ‘It’s so good to see you happy, Derek.’

He glanced at her. ‘How long are you staying?’ he asked.

She shrugged delicately. ‘Thought I could take you guys out for dinner and drinks, to celebrate the day. My treat.’ She flashed her perfect teeth at him. ‘Since I can’t stay more than a few hours.’

Derek nodded. ‘It’s ok,’ he said, watching Stiles act all excited for the victors, patiently writing down their names, and of course their dog’s names. Kira and Danny were handing out ribbons to everyone, laughing as the kids discovered the candy and cheered. Cora was warning them all sternly not to give any candy to their dogs, and giving out small bags of chocolate drops as substitutes.

‘Yeah?’ asked Laura, watching him carefully.

Derek nodded, feeling oddly at peace. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I’ve got people now.’

As the afternoon began to drift into evening and the families began to gather their children and pets and various purchases, Derek and the others began to pack up. Stiles helped Kira and Danny to secure the donations boxes in the back of Danny’s jeep, while Derek and his sisters moved among the crowds, thanking and shaking hands. People remarked upon them and their similarities, as they were all clearly related, and Derek supposed it was helpful when all three of them were tall and dark-haired, particularly Laura and Cora, who moved graciously among the families, smiling and bidding them farewell like it had been a grand party in a mansion or something. Laura was probably used to that sort of thing, but apparently grace ran in their family. The female line, anyways.

‘You all look so similar,’ Stiles commented, sneaking up beside him. ‘Especially your sisters. Seriously dude, when I turned around and saw the three of you watching me? It’s pretty striking, ok.’ He was smiling, cheeks delicately flushed from the packing up, hair mussed and fingers stained blue as usual.

‘Yeah, they do come in handy sometimes,’ Derek remarked, wryly. Laura and Cora were talking quietly to each other a few feet away, now that the exodus was ending.

‘Laura’s taking everyone out for food and drinks after we drop off the stuff at the Den,’ Derek informed Stiles. ‘Are you gonna come?’

‘Ah, my favourite question,’ said Stiles dreamily, and Derek snorted.

‘You’re disgusting.’

‘I might have been talking about the food,’ Stiles argued, but Derek just laughed. Laura’s head whipped around at the sound of Derek’s laughter. Cora’s eyes followed hers, and they both smiled identical small smiles. Stiles blushed, but he was smiling too.

‘Laura doesn’t scare me anymore,’ he confessed.

‘Yeah, she’s not so bad,’ Derek commented, as Laura came into earshot.

‘Why aren’t any of you helping?’ she asked critically. ‘Derek, god gave you those arms for a reason.’

‘This is why I have staff,’ Derek explained. ‘Come on Cora, I’m hungry.’

Cora glared, and Laura laughed, tugging on the end of Cora’s hair gently. ‘Stop scowling, Cora,’ she admonished. ‘Think of all the money you made today.’

The magic words. Cora’s eyes brightened immediately, and she scattered to check on the security of the donation boxes yet again.

A polite cough from behind Derek got his attention. He turned and found himself facing a man he’d probably seen four or five times that day, but was only now noticing the sheriff’s badge clipped to his belt. He could have died. The civilian clothes - and that traitor, Stiles - had lulled him into a false sense of security in which the proud father and likely recipient of all Den (and Derek)-related news would not be attending the fundraiser specifically for beloved only son’s topic of interest.

‘Dad! I totally forgot - Derek.’ Stiles turned to him, with an oddly pleased look on his face. ‘This is dad.’ He introduced him grandly, and the sheriff gave Stiles a look.

‘You can call me John,’ he informed Derek, holding out his hand. Derek shook it quickly, hoping his grip was just the right kind of firm.

‘It’s very good to meet you - sir,’ said Derek awkwardly. ‘John.’

‘I saw your demonstration,’ the sheriff said, gesturing to the remains of their displays. Kira and Danny were currently laughing and having a finger-paint fight. ‘Very interesting. Learned a lot. Been thinking about getting a dog myself.’

‘Since when?’ Stiles exclaimed.

‘Since I saw the demonstration,’ replied the sheriff, deftly fielding Stiles’s animated indignation in the impressively experienced manner of a long-suffering parent.

Derek made the appropriate interested noises as Stiles squawked - ‘You never let me get a dog!’ - before managing to say quietly, ‘I hear you’re renovating your home?’

The sheriff nodded, explaining some of his plans to Derek, who found himself liking his easy manner and friendly expression and general comfortable dad-ness (and despite the badge). Derek offered to come over and help him knock a wall, and the sheriff offered him a place to watch the game at the weekend in return.

‘Well this is lovely,’ Stiles butted in. Derek was amazed he’d kept quiet that long. ‘But I’m kind of starving.’

‘I think we all need drinks,’ Laura agreed, coming up beside them. ‘Sheriff?’

She smiled so engagingly that the sheriff had to resort to patting his badge regretfully, saying he was technically still on the job. He gave Stiles a very loaded look before bidding them all a polite goodbye and heading back to his cruiser, which was parked just out of sight.

‘What was that about?’ Derek asked Stiles, as they headed back clean up the last of the debris.

‘That was my dad’s abbreviated non-verbal version of The Talk,’ Stiles explained. ‘If only he knew he was a day late and a dollar short with this one.’

‘I feel like if he knew that, that conversation would have gone a lot differently,’ Derek said seriously. Kira and Danny were wiping pink finger paints off their faces, not even bothering to look embarrassed. Derek grinned at them, which he think might have startled Kira slightly. ‘Drinks are on us,’ he told them warmly, and they looked thrilled. Laura began making arrangements - ‘Because you all need showers first, everyone smells like wet dog’ - and Stiles was talking about calling Scott and Isaac, Allison and Lydia, and Cora was pinning a leftover ribbon to her shirt. She rubbed her nose as she did so, and left a smattering of glitter across her face. Derek snorted softly, but didn’t say anything.

Stiles’s hand slipped into his again, and Derek didn’t have to look at him to know he was smiling.

‘Can I stay at yours tonight?’ he asked softly.

Derek squeezed his hand in response.

‘Can we order breakfast in the morning?’

Derek smiled. ‘If you want.’

Stiles’ sighed happily, then paused. ‘Can you say that in a Scooby Doo voice? Because I know - ‘

‘Never,’ Derek said firmly.

He squinted through a burst of late sunshine as a ripple of laughter reached his ears from one of the other cars. The park looked no worse for wear after its long day.

‘Do we have everything?’ Stiles asked, scanning the clearing one last time, juggling his camera, notebook, and two bags of candy as he searched for his car keys. Derek looked at him, marvelling at how one face could be so expressive and lovely, even in the simplest of moments.

‘Yeah,’ he replied, feeling sure. ‘I have everything.’

 


 

 

Epilogue

 

Derek bought The Den two weeks later.

He immediately placed an advertisement in the Gazette looking for staff, and received 67 applications in four days. After a long and thorough interviewing process and four separate arguments with Cora, they eventually hired a confident, slightly intimidating blonde girl studying physiotherapy, and a muscled, kind of Zen guy in his first year of veterinary school.

Cora had been adamant that having someone else with actual veterinary knowledge while Derek wasn’t there was a very good idea, and told Derek he was just jealous over the muscular and intellectual competition. Derek maintained that a veterinary student wouldn’t be able to give as many hours during term time as other students, but he was shouted down by everyone.

‘I’m the manager now!’ he protested. ‘You can’t yell at me.’

‘I retain shouting privileges on account of being related to you,’ argued Cora. ‘And I’m also the chief of staff and speak for the people.’

‘Chief of staff? This isn’t a government, Cora.’

‘Staff supervisor then, whatever. You’re out-voted, Derek.’

Fortunately, this turned out to be very fortunate for The Den. Erica and Boyd were fast learners, hard workers, and incredibly charismatic and good with animals. Even Boyd, who was more of the strong, silent type, seemed to be able to charm both customers and pet owners with roughly four words.

But Derek found himself comfortably allowing Kira to open up a few mornings a week, even taking evenings and the occasional full day off. Stiles was obviously a huge incentive here. It was no secret that the reason Derek only showed up at midday sometimes wasn’t because he liked to sleep in.

Stiles continued to have a hurricane effect on Derek’s life. But it was a hurricane that brought him breakfast in bed, and sometimes blowjobs for afterwards. Stiles dragged him to his dad’s house for lunch and beers and baseball on tv, and the occasional attempt at home renovations. Derek let Stiles choose the restaurant and Stiles let Derek drag him on early morning runs, on condition that they stop at the bakery on the way home.

Derek found himself talking to customers more. Usually they talked to him, but answering wasn’t as difficult as it used to be.

Cora bought Derek a "World’s Best Boss" mug for his birthday, except the "Best" part was an erasable gap that you could write on and then rub out with a special marker. Derek purposely left it lying around at work to see what the staff came up with, and then pretended to be annoyed.

The rest of them all signed up to work extra hours for one full week so Stiles could steal Derek away for seven days of birthday activities, including two nights away at a spa resort where Derek discovered his back had muscles he’d never known about, a music festival, a baseball game, a day at the beach, and the most energetic, inventive, intense sex Derek had ever had. By the time the weekend rolled around, both of them were bruised, exhausted, and walking stiff.

‘There’s one more surprise, actually,’ Stiles said, as they pulled up outside Derek’s building. Derek caught the deliberately mysterious tone of voice, but was distracted by Danny’s jeep parked outside.

‘What’s Danny doing here?’ he muttered. Then he looked at Stiles properly. ‘Seriously? Ok I’ve loved this week, really I have, but I don’t think either of us have enough energy left for another activity.’

Stiles rolled his eyes. ‘Dude, don’t you think I know that? We nearly broke the bed last night, Derek. Geez, did you not see the effort it took me to race you to the car?’

‘You still did it, though.’

‘Yeah, and I still beat your ass,’ Stiles smirked. ‘Go upstairs. I need to talk to Danny.’

Derek frowned, wondering what else Stiles could possibly have planned, but obeyed. He’d learned that Stiles had the ability to think five steps ahead and generally bypassed steps 1-4. His thoughts weren’t linear, like Derek’s; they spiderwebbed faster than Derek could keep trap of. Letting Stiles plan his week felt a bit like 5 days of trust falls for Derek, but Stiles never failed to catch him. 

An eternity later, Derek heard the door open, and Stiles called for him to close his eyes.

‘Seriously?’ he called back, as he rattled around in the kitchen, looking for something to clean or put away.

‘I can’t believe you don’t know me well enough by now to respect my value in the element of surprise, Derek.’

‘But I already know - fine, fine!’ Derek closed his eyes. ‘Now what?’

Derek heard Stiles shuffle into the kitchen, and immediately tensed up.

‘What do you have?’ he asked, suspiciously. ‘Is someone with you?’

Stiles huffed, sounding incredulous. ‘Jesus, how do you … Hold out your hands, you ninja.’

Derek obliged. ‘If you’re going to drop something into my hands, at least tell me how big it is, or how heavy.’

‘It’s really not that big,’ Stiles said quietly, and he was right in front of Derek now.

Soft fur, tiny nails. Derek’s eyes flew open.

‘I know she’s not the kind you used to have growing up,’ Stiles said quickly. ‘But I remember you saying something to me about terriers.’

She was a shrimp, hardly a weight in Derek’s hands at all. So soft she was barely there. All her substance seemed to come from a round, warm belly, and big, bright eyes. She had reddish brown fur, with four white paws and ears, and a few speckles on her back - the exact inverse to regular terrier coats. The puppy yawned, and Derek’s heart exploded.

Stiles was watching him with extreme caution. ‘Why aren’t you moving?’ he asked quietly. ‘Are you - is this a stroke? Should I take the puppy?’

‘Do not take this puppy,’ Derek replied, faintly. Then he looked up at Stiles. ‘Is she … she’s mine?’ He looked back down at the puppy, then back at Stiles, as though one of them was going to disappear.

Stiles’s face lit up. ‘Happy birthday!’ he cheered.

‘I love you,’ Derek said. He’d been tossing those words around in his head all week, wondering when was the best time to say them. Typical of his life for a dog to make the decision for him.

Stiles’s eyes went wide. A slow smile spread over his face as his cheeks turned pink, and he looked down at the puppy.

‘Well, of course you do,’ he said, practically bashful. ‘I got you a promotion.’ As Derek stared at him, just marvelling in the presence of what he’d been considering all week as his real birthday present, Stiles froze.

‘You meant me, right? Not the dog? Tell me I didn’t just - ‘

Derek ducked his head to press his lips to Stiles’s mouth, unable to control his smile as he did so. Stiles oof’d a little, like he did every time Derek interrupted him with a kiss, and wrapped his arms around both of them. Derek felt safe, and warm, and - very warm.

‘I think the dog’s peeing on me,’ Derek said against Stiles’s mouth.

‘She's actually peeing on both of us,’ Stiles replied, leaning back to look at Derek. His eyes were bright and his expression so alive, but there was no hectic energy in his limbs. They rested softly together, the confused puppy still cradled in Derek’s hands.

‘Smells like work,’ Derek murmured.

‘I love you,’ Stiles replied.

 

Derek named the dog Penny. Stiles drew up a birth certificate and a statement of “legal” part ownership between him and Derek of ‘Princess Penelope Stilinski-Hale.’ And then framed it.

Cora painted Penny on every wall at the Den, and created a digital image of her to go on their weekly pet care newsletter.  For such a small dog, she easily outran Derek, and beat him to work every morning. She was a great mascot for the Den, if only to provide a shining example of the very best pet care by parading her shiny self around the waiting room for pet owners to coo over. Derek was absolutely positive that Stiles had taught her that. Penny did get a little intimidated when Derek started taking on some of the police dogs and older veteran, particularly Smoke, and on those days Stiles would take a little field trip from work that involved Penny and a park somewhere. Stiles never even got in trouble for it, because now his editor was one of the Den's regular customers. Derek missed Penny on those days, because even though she was more of a distraction than a help, she was just as wonderfully annoying as Stiles was. And they both regularly tripped him up, too.

. And a few years later, Penny allowed Derek to attach a small, velvet box to her collar so she could help him ask Stiles a very important question. There was a lot of shouting and tears and laughing after that, but this didn’t alarm her at all. She was, after all, a very well-trained dog.