It was the sound the boy made that pushed Derek over the edge.
When he thought back to it later on, he was sure that had been what had made him snap.
Him and Laura had smelled the pack from afar, the gang of rogue mutts who'd crossed into their territory in the east, reeking like aggression and trouble. It happened sometimes, when omegas and wolves who had banded together to form something that they called a pack but followed no laws would come calling in their territory. His mother called it the mutts 'testing the waters', and it was nothing highly unusual; they just hadn't seen one in years. The Hales had a strong pack and a reputation, and other weres rarely crossed into their land anymore. No-one was usually that dumb.
These mutts apparently were.
Derek had heard their howls from miles away, and they were loud: like they didn't care who heard them. It was a challenge. Come and get us, it said.
Derek could smell the strangers, and he hated it. They smelled wrong. Other.
Half a mile away, he could hear Peter, Cora, and his mother circling to the other side of the other pack. Laura was just behind him, growling softly. She nudged Derek's side as she brushed past and her eyes flicked to their left. That way. Derek huffed an affirmative noise and they set off on a quiet lope.
They barely made a sound as they slunk through the underbrush. Two quiet shadows in the weak light of the evening dusk, blending in with the forest. Their paws made no noise on the forest floor. They followed the smell of otherness, and the howls, and they ran.
It didn't take long before the hoots and yaps of the mutts reached them and Laura stopped. They were near the edge of the preserve, close to the pond where Mom sometimes took them swimming after full moons. Derek could hear them, their ruckus echoing in the otherwise quiet woods, and he wanted to tear through the forest and chase the intruders off their territory — take a bite out of them if that was what it took for them to understand they did not belong here, this land was theirs.
Beside him, Laura's hackles suddenly rose and a quiet rumble slipped out of her throat
Derek had been staring off into the direction his mother and the others had gone — he hadn't been paying attention enough to pick out the mutts' voices — and hadn't picked up on anything, but he knew Laura had finally spotted them. Her senses had always been better than his, something she'd never let up about when they went for runs.
He made an inquisitive sound and Laura's eyes flicked to him. Her nostrils flared and she pointed with her nose to a small hill — beyond it the tress grew more sparsely, the dim light filtering through to the forest floor. They slunk closer, crouched low enough that the fur in their bellies whispered against the dead, dry leaves on the ground, they could see the clearing through the ferns and tree branches.
Derek heard it at the exact same moment his eyes landed on the scene before him.
The voice was human, and young. It was weak, barely a whisper, and the end of it tapered off to a whimper as the boy it belonged to covered his face with his hand. The sound of a frantic heartbeat was almost loud enough to drown out the word.
Four wolves stood in the clearing. Two were still fully shifted, mangy-looking beasts with matted fur and foul breath Derek could smell all the way from their hiding place. The other two had shifted to their beta forms, laughing like hyenas. They all reeked of lust and adrenalin enough to make Derek's stomach turn.
“Do it, Bud,” one of the half-shifted mutts said. He looked like he was in his early thirties, dressed in a dirty denim jacket and sporting lopsided mutton chops. He was staring at the boy hungrily. “Then it's my turn.”
The boy flinched and went even paler than he had been before. The heartbeat stuttered. He was sprawled on the forest floor, his shoulders against the tree trunk behind him and his knees drawn in, like he was trying to protect himself. There was blood at the corner of his mouth and trickling out of his nose, and his clothes looked torn.
One of the wolves — the one the other mutt had called 'Bud' – was standing above him, shifted enough to keep his claws and his fangs, and he was grinning like a predator that had just pinned down a rabbit. He was older, clearly the leader. His clothes were just as filthy as the other mutt's, but he was wearing only a t-shirt and cut-off cargo pants shorts despite the October chill.
“Now,” he said. “How'd you like it? On your back, or on your hands and knees, ass up in the air?” The muscles in his arms bulged as he flexed his clawed fingers.
Derek could see the boy trembling all the way from where he was. “Please,” he said, voice brittle like leaves shaking in the wind. “Please don't.”
“Did you hear that?” The mutt asked his friends without taking his eyes off the boy. A lightning-quick movement, and he dug his claws in the boy's upper arms. The boy yelped in pain. “He said please.”
The other wolves roared in laughter.
The boy's next words were choked-out enough to make them unintelligible.
“Now, c'mon. I ain't gonna hurt you, darlin',” the mutt said, voice almost a purr. “We just wanna have a little fun.” He flicked one of his claws into the button of the boy's jeans, and it came off completely with a snap. The rest of the wolves hooted and howled, getting louder and louder the more the boy struggled against the guy's hold on him.
Derek's hackles rose. He turned to look at Laura, a low growl rippling from her throat. Her eyes were blazing and Derek knew any chance this might have ended in the rogue pack being just chased off their territory just went out the window — they would tear the mongrels apart.
A sound of fabric ripping made him turn back to the wolves and their prey. Bud had just taken a claw to the boy's shirt, shredding it in the middle and exposing pale, freckled skin to the cold night air and to the jeers of the other mutts. They had circled closer, yelping and snapping their jaws at the terrified kid while Bud yanked the boy roughly up by his neck, and slammed him back down so he was lying on his stomach. “You smell so fucking nice, d'know that?” He said, leaning close to the boy's ear. “Mouthwatering.” He yanked the boy's pants down, leering the whole time. “Can't wait to find out how you feel like.”
When he pulled his own belt open and the boy let out a one last sound, an even weaker than before. “Please,” he said. It was quiet, and weak, and scared. It sounded like someone who had nothing to lose and nothing to gain but still made the one last effort, just for the hell of it.
And Derek snapped. He didn't mean to, he just did.
Before he even knew what he was doing – before Laura had time to do more than let out a warning yip – Derek had torn through the cluster of ferns and lunged to the clearing.
His paws hit the soft earth in a thud that sunk his claws in the mud and sent bits of fallen foliage flying as he bounded forward. The look on the mutts faces might have been comical if the situation had been different: the two fully shifted wolves looked like they might piss themselves, and let out a surprised squeaks as Derek bowled them over. He already heard Laura's snarls following in his wake, she would take care of them. Derek's full attention was focused on the now slack-jawed guy standing over the boy. His hands were still on his belt. The boy had covered his face with his arms and had curled up where he was still pinned beneath him.
Derek saw red. He suspected the roaring in his ears must have been his own blood crashing and coursing through his veins, making his muzzle pull back in a growl that shook trees and startled birds from the bushes.
They were in his territory, hurting someone, someone who was weaker than them and pleading for his life. The boy was scared.
“What the fu–?“ That was all the guy got out before Derek slammed into him from the side and they both went flying, scattering leaves and twigs. His teeth sunk into the guy's upper arm, the metallic tang of blood filling Derek's mouth. He whirled around, twisted, and the guy crashed down on the ground on his back with a loud oomph. Derek planted one of his massive paws on his sternum, and roared.
The guy had went pale as a sheet. “Shit, man,” he stammered, heels kicking the ground uselessly. He lifted his hands in a placating gesture. “We didn't mean nothing, I swear, we just wanted to have some fun. It's just one human, and he was totally asking for it. Fucking around all alone in the forest.”
Behind him, Derek could hear Laura snapping her jaws and the other wolf still in human form — the one with the mutton chops — let out a strangled cry. Laura had most likely torn his hamstrings to keep him from escaping — it was her specialty when they went out for a hunt. The two fully shifted mutts had scrambled out into the dark, dank forest with their tails between their legs, but Derek wasn't terribly worried. They had fled in the exact direction Derek knew his mother, Peter, and Cora were waiting out.
Laura grinned sharply at Derek, and threw back her head to let out a piercing howl. They're coming your way.
Derek turned back to the guy, still stammering pitifully at his feet. He stank like tobacco and stale sweat and gun oil. His eyes were small, like a pig's, and sweat was beading on his forehead. The guy's eyes flitted nervously over to where Laura was probably convincing his friend trespassing had been a terrible idea. “What – What did you do to Harvey?” His eyes returned to Derek. “I swear, man, just let us go and we won't come back.” Derek bared his teeth and flexed his paw on the guy's chest experimentally. He grinned even wider when that made the guy's eyes widen and reek of fresh fear. “Please don't kill me,” he squeaked out.
The smallest whimper from behind him stopped Derek in his tracks.
He allowed himself a fraction of a second to reprimand himself for not having his priorities straight.
The mutt must have noticed Derek's ear swiveling towards the sound, because his eyes flicked over to where his prey still lay, now curled up on his side on the ground. “If you let us go, I can leave the kid,” he said. “You can have him all to yourself.” The guy must have taken Derek's low warning growl for excitement, the idiot, because he went on. “Did you smell him? I bet you're itching to have a go yourself. He smells so fucking delicious, I bet he —”
It would have been easy to kill the mutt then and there — just a snap of his jaws, and the guy would bleed out in less than two minutes. It would have been the quickest way, but Derek wasn't going for the quick solution. This one wasn't gonna be let off easy.
His mother had once said that Derek shouldn't try to grin like a human when he was in his wolf form. She said it made him look wild, and feral, and not at all like he was trying to smile. “You'll scare the birds off the trees, Der,” she'd said. Derek could have argued that was exactly what he was going for — he should look wild. He was a wolf, after all.
He pulled his lips back to reveal his blood-speckled teeth, and let the low rumble building in his throat to slip out from between them. The guy snapped his mouth shut, and a smell of urine filled the air. The guy had pissed his pants.
Laura was watching the two of them quietly. Both of her front paws were planted on Mutton Chops' shoulders, and her teeth were inches from his throat. When she caught Derek's gaze, she tilted her head questioningly. Derek nodded. He counted one, two, three frantic thumps of Mutton Chops' heart before the guy's constant whimpers quieted suddenly. He died without a sound as Laura quickly and efficiently tore out his throat.
She let the body thump back to the ground and calmly stepped over it to pad over to where Derek was standing, her charcoal fur speckled with blood. He didn't have to ask. Laura quietly took over standing watch over the other guy, now a sputtering and blubbering mess, as Derek spun on his heel.
The kid was still where he had curled up by the tree, clothes torn and slight tremors running through him. He looked small, and deathly pale in the faint light. His arm was still bleeding from where the mutt had dug in his claws. When Derek carefully nudged the hands covering the boy's face with his nose, he startled like he'd been electrocuted.
“Don't kill me,” he choked out. “Please let me go.”
The whine slipped out of Derek's throat involuntarily. He wished he could talk, so he could explain he wouldn't hurt him.
With careful steps, Derek edged closer. He couldn't get to the boy's face, so he settled for gently licking at the wounds on his arm and the angry red gashes on his hands. That would be soothing. Laura used to to that to him when he was younger and got scraped up.
The boy jerked away, uncovering his face, and Derek came face to face with a pair of big eyes, liquid and the color of old bronze and fringed with thick black lashes. The boy's pale cheeks were scattered with beauty marks and his nose was slightly upturned. If it weren't for the split lip, his full full and gently curving mouth would have been almost pretty.
Now that he was closer, Derek could see the boy wasn't as young as he had initially thought. He still couldn't have been older than twenty.
“What are you waiting for?” The boy asked. His mouth was set on a grim line, but Derek could smell his fear was — a living thing, cloying and clogging Derek's nose, and he stared back at Derek with a mixture of terror and determination. His heart was like a hummingbird, hammering in his chest.“If you're gonna d-do it, then just do it.”
Derek huffed. As carefully as he could, mindful of his sharp teeth, he took a hold of the waistband of the boy's pants, and tugged them up. He was still wearing his underwear – the mutt hadn't had time to do more than strip him of his jeans — and the button on the jeans was torn off, but Derek still felt the need to try and help the boy cover up. The shirt was a lost cause.
He was stared at Derek with open confusion. “What are you doing?”
Derek huffed out a sound that he hoped would convey how he wanted the boy not to worry and to stay still, and nosed around looking for other injuries. As far as he could tell, the boy thankfully wasn't seriously hurt. The gashes on his chest and hands looked nasty but weren't too deep. The claw-marks on his arms were more on the worrying side, but they would probably heal quickly if cleaned and dressed properly. Derek didn't know for sure — he didn't usually keep company with humans and wasn't very familiar with their physique. He'd have to ask Aunt Rena.
A distant howl had Derek swiveling his head around.
Behind him, Laura tossed her head back and let out and answering howl of her own. Another cry sounded off to their left, somewhere closer, and a third only a half a mile away. A few minutes later, Talia Hale walked out of the forest, back in her human form, naked as the day she was born, and smiling like she was just taking a pleasant walk on a Sunday afternoon.
Her gaze widened just a fraction as her eyes landed on the human lying underneath Derek, but she gave no other indication she was surprised to see him there. She had probably heard the commotion from miles away.
She fixed the mutt under Laura's paws with a piercing stare. “So,” she said, her voice sweet but her gaze hard as iron. “This is one of mutts who decided trespassing on our territory would be a good idea.” She glanced at Laura. “He's the leader?”
Laura made an affirmative sound.
“That explains it,” she said dryly. She stepped over to where Laura was still holding the guy down, and looked down at him. “How many of you are there?”
The guy was shaking so hard his teeth were chattering, but he still sneered up at Talia. “Fuck you, lady,” he spat out.
Without missing a beat, Talia ground the heel of her foot to the guy's throat. “I asked,” she said, calm as ever, as the guy wheezed and gasped, trying to breathe. “How many of you are there?”
Laura dug her claws into the guy's belly. “Four!” He gasped. “Just us four! I swear.”
“Not anymore, there aren't.” She nodded at the dead guy lying where Laura had left him. “That one looks a bit broken. And we took two dingy mongrels down just two miles from here. Dumb things, they were. They didn't smell us even though we were upwind.” Talia smiled down at the guy then, a terrible thing that looked two sharp on a human face. She let her eyes flash red. “Looks like you're the only one left.” She turned her head without taking her eyes off the mutt. “Right, Peter? Cora?”
A wolf the color of sunburned red clay slunk out of the shadows and brushed close to the Alpha. Peter's muzzle was stained crimson, and he was licking his lips with a smirk on his wolfish face. How he managed to look so sardonic even in his animal form was still a mystery to Derek. Peter let out a drawn-out purr and set off on an a lazy pace to circle Talia, Laura, and the now wide-eyed mutt.
Soon after, a tawny wolf emerged from the same shadows, and padded to the clearing. Cora took one look of the mutt, wrinkled her nose, and went to plonk herself down at the edge of the treeline.
Talia took a deep breath. “Right,” she said, tilting her head at the mutt. “If I understood correctly, you haven't only trespassed on our territory, hunted our game, and caused trouble in the close-by neighborhoods, but you have also tried to hurt someone on my land.” Her eyes were still burning scarlet red. “On my watch.”
The guy whimpered pitifully.
“The humans on Hale land are under my protection. Do you know what the punishment is for hurting them?”
This time, he said nothing. The only indication he was listening was the overwhelming stench of fear that wafted off of him.
“We'll get back to this shortly.” Talia turned on her heel, and walked over to where Derek was still standing over the trembling human. The kid's cheeks were stained with tears that made tracks in the dirt caked on his face. Without thinking, Derek turned so he was standing more squarely over the boy, and crouched lower in a protective curl around him.
His mother stopped two feet away, and raised her brows at him. “Don't be silly, Der. I'm not gonna hurt him.”
Derek went stiff. He glanced over to where Laura was staring at him curiously, before looking back at Talia. He knew she wouldn't hurt the kid. Of course not, why would she? To be honest, she was more qualified than any of them to treat his wounds. She was his mother, his Alpha. And yet it took Derek closer to half a minute to carefully step out of the way so she could take a look at the boy. It might have taken less, if it weren't for the fact that the human had apparently decided Derek was the lesser of two evils, and had curled two shaking hands into the fur at his chest, and held on fast.
Derek whined softly at the boy, who was watching him with his big doe eyes, and stepped back out of his reach.
Talia turned her eyes, now kind and soft, back to their natural hazel, to the boy. “Are you hurt, honey?” She asked gently.
The boy opened and closed his mouth a few times before he got any sound out. “I – I don't think so.”
“Those cuts on your arm and hands?” she pointed to the still sluggishly bleeding wounds.
“They aren't that deep.”
“Are there any others?”
The boy pressed his hands carefully to his stomach, then to his side. “No,” he said quietly. “Just br-bruises, I think.”
Talia nodded at the boy's shoulder. “May I?” She asked kindly. After a slight pause, the kid nodded, and Talia prodded carefully at the edges of the wounds. Her hands skated over the boy's arms and legs, gentle but firm. The entire time Talia's hands moved over his skin, the boy kept his gaze carefully averted.
The corner of Talia's mouth twitched. “I'd apologize for my lack of clothing, but I'm sure you understand. Us born wolves rarely think of nudity as something unusual of noteworthy.”
Stiles blushed slightly. “'S okay.”
She pressed down at the boy's shoulder. “Does this hurt?”
He shook his head.
“How about this?” This time, she carefully bent her wrists first up, the down again.
Another head shake.
“That's good. I don't think anything's broken, at least.” She leaned back on her heels to look at him in the eye. “Did they hurt you in any other way?”
Derek knew his mother had probably heard every single word uttered from miles away, and would have been able to smell it if something had actually happened. He figured asking was her way of just keep the boy talking and calm.
Two spots of color rose high on the boy's cheeks while the rest of his face went ashen. “No. They –“ He swallowed, nodded to Derek. “He stopped them. Before they – before they did anything.”
Talia smiled at him reassuringly. “That's good. And we'll make sure the ones who hurt you won't have a chance to do it again.” At that, she glanced behind them where the mutt was sprawled on the ground under Laura's watchful gaze. Derek growled in agreement. They all knew that wolf wouldn't walk out of this forest clearing alive. She turned back to the boy, tucking an errant lock of her salt-and-pepper hair behind her ear. Derek noticed there was dried blood under her fingernails.“I realized we're being terribly rude, here. We haven't even been introduced. What's your name, honey?”
The boy's eyes flicked from Talia to Derek, to Laura and the mutt, and back to Talia. He crossed his arms across his chest, hugging himself. “Stiles.”
“Nice to meet you, Stiles. This here is Derek, my son.” She beckoned to him, and Derek stepped closer again to lick the boy's hand and press his nose to his cheek.
The boy — Stiles — winced. “Uh, it's cold.”
“Manners, Derek,” Talia admonished lightly. “I'm Talia Hale, the Alpha of my pack and this territory.”
Stiles wiped his hand over his face, smudging the dirt and dust on his cheeks. “I kinda guessed as much.” At Talia's curious gaze, he hurried to explain. “I knew this was Hale land. I – I wasn't supposed to come here, but they were chasing after me and I lost my phone and I had nowhere else to run.”
“It's okay, hon. It was them who were trespassing. Not you.” Talia extended a hand and gestured to the rest of their family. “That gray one here holding down the mongrel is my eldest daughter, Laura. The one sitting over there and looking displeased is my other daughter, Cora, and he” — Talia gestured to Peter, still skulking around in circles — “is my brother, Peter.”
Stiles only nodded.
“Derek?” Talia assessing eyes turned to Derek, where he was still standing with his eyes fixed on the boy. “Make sure our guest gets some clean clothes and a hot meal. We'll take care of this.”
Derek yipped and shifted closer.
“He will take you to our house, where you can get cleaned up and rest,” Talia said. “Is that okay with you, hon?”
Stiles seemed hesitant — the acrid smell of fear was getting stronger again. “I...” His eyes shifted to the last living rogue wolf. “There aren't any more of them, are there?”
“No. And Derek will make sure nothing happens to you. He'll keep you safe.”
Derek pushed close enough to the boy to nudge his nose between his back and the tree trunk he was leaning on, helping him sit up. When Stiles was upright enough, Derek turned to bend his flank closer to him. He huffed impatiently.
“Always with the chivalry,” Talia said, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Take a hold of his fur. He wants to help.”
Two pairs of hands twisted themselves into Derek's coat, chilly against his warm flanks, and Stiles hoisted himself up on shaky legs. “What happens to him now?” His question was to Talia, but his eyes were fixed on the mutt.
“We make sure he won't come back for you or anyone else again.”
“You'll kill it?”
“Yes,” Talia said simply.
Stiles' mouth was set in a hard line. He didn't say anything more, only nodded.
They walked through the forest in silence, paws and a pair of human feet soundless in the night.
Beside him, long fingers still curled in the fur on Derek's flanks, Stiles stumbled along. It had taken only a few miles through the rapidly darkening forest before Stiles had given in and leaned his whole weight on Derek. It wasn't like he minded. In his wolf form, Derek was one of the largest wolves in the Hale pack — only Uncle Peter stood taller than him — and he was strong enough to support Stiles effortlessly; even standing side-by-side with a full grown man, Derek's flank would have been level with their waist. Stiles' grip stopped him from actually falling face first into the dirt, but every now and then his foot would get caught in a root sticking up from the ground, or slip on wet moss. Stiles never said a word when he faltered, just held on more tightly.
They had killed the mutt before Derek had led the boy away from the clearing. He had sat patiently beside him while Stiles stood, his eyes fixed on the kicking and flailing limbs of the mutt, before the guy had gone limp, Laura's teeth sunk into his throat. Stiles' gaze had been dark, clouding the brown of his eyes into something stormy, but the hands sunk into Derek's fur had been trembling. Derek had kept himself between the mutt and Stiles, just in case. They had left before the others buried the bodies.
Talia had shifted back and melded into the shadows with Peter ans Cora on her heels to make sure the mutt was telling the truth about the size of his pack. A few feet ahead of them, Laura was leading the way back to the house, her tail swishing from side to side.
After a mile or so, Stiles said his first words since leaving the clearing. “Sorry I'm so slow,” he mumbled quietly. He still smelled like fear, the stale sweat and adrenalin clinging to him, even though his heart rate had quieted down. It was still on this side of too fast, but the rhythm was steadier.
Derek turned his head to brush against Stiles' side and whined softly. He had already tried to press as close as possible when he had noticed the goosebumps on the boy's arms — it was uncharacteristically cold for California spring, night was falling, and the temperatures dropped with it — but Stiles was still shivering.
A ghost of a smile touched the boy's features. “I'll take that as a 'it's okay.'”
Only Aunt Rena was waiting for them when they emerged from the forest. She was standing on the front porch, twisting her hands in the hem of her shirt. Her copper hair was glowing dull red in the porch light shining behind her.
“Oh thank god,” she said when she spotted them. Without raising her voice, she turned to the house: “They're back.”
Chaos erupted in the house. The kids started squealing, and Derek could hear his twin brothers, Louis and Levi, trying to forcefully prevent them from running screaming to the front porch. Jeffrey was trying to calm down the bouncing Ava, his and Laura's four-year-old daughter.
“But Dad,” she whined, “I wanna see Mom.”
“I know, hon, but not now. She'll come inside soon.”
Rena was watching Laura, and her eyes widened when they fell upon the blood matted on her fur. As the only human member of the pack, she couldn't have smelled it from afar like the rest of the wolves in the house. “Laura?” She said, concern making her voice high.
Laura shook her head. Not mine, she meant, and Rena relaxed.
Laura let out another whine, and tossed her head in the direction of the forest. As if on cue, yet another howl reverberated through the night. The one that meant 'all clear.' There were three distinctive voices, even to human ears.
Rena nodded. “Good. Now.” She turned to Derek. Her pale gray eyes roamed over him, then turned to take in the shuddering human clinging to him. Stiles hadn't said a word since they had into view of the house. “I take it we someone who needs medical attention?”
Derek came to a stop before Rena, and let out a whine he hoped was encouraging to Stiles.
“You're hurt, sweetheart,” Rena said. It wasn't a question.
Stiles let go of Derek and pressed a palm to his shoulder. It was still bleeding. “A little.”
“C'mon. Let's get you warm and cleaned up.”
They went in through the kitchen door, across the hall and into the bathroom on the ground floor where Rena kept her emergency kit ('breakable humans' medical kit, she laughingly called it). The ruckus inside had retreated to the drawing room at the back of the house, which meant Jeffrey and the others had heard the conversation and decided they had better clear the room.
Before they had stepped in, Stiles had realized Derek wasn't following, and he blanched. “Isn't he coming?”
Rena smiled. “He's going to use the door for the four-legged. He'll be right back, after he's cleaned up.” She glanced at Derek, looking pointedly at his muddy paws. “Right, Derek?”
Derek yipped, and loped off after Laura.
It took Derek the better part of an hour before he could go back to check up on Stiles.
After leaving Stiles to his aunt's capable hands, he had slipped to the house through the super-sized pet door installed in the laundry room out back, where they could come inside without having to deal with door handles. Laura and Jeffrey had laughed uproariously the whole time they had installed it, but ever since the pack had actually discovered its convenience, the jokes had stopped. Doorknobs and paws did not mix.
Derek shifted, and flexed his sore muscles. He showered in the smaller guest bathroom at the back of the house, washing off the stench of the mutts and the mud off his hair, and dug through the clean stacks of folded laundry for a t-shirt and sweatpants. And the entire time — every minute he spent away from the boy — the wolf in him was whining softly. To go find him, make sure he was okay. Make sure he was safe.
Rena caught up with him before he reached his room at the end of the upstairs hallway. She put a finger to his lips, and pointed to the door hanging slightly ajar. “I didn't have time to empty the guest room of your dad's books, and he was exhausted, the poor thing. I hope you don't mind.”
Through the open doorway, Derek could make out a skinny figure, curled up under his covers and snuffling softly.
“Did you call his family?” He asked.
“I tried his house but nobody was home. Stiles said his dad's probably at work, but the dispatch at the station said he's out on a call. Homicide or something urgent, down in Oak Grove.”
“His dad's the Sheriff. Stilinski.”
In his mind's eye, Derek could see a man in his early fifties with pale eyes and serious mouth. He'd seen his squad car in the town, sometimes, when he'd gone grocery shopping and driven past the police station. He knew the sheriff had a kid, but nothing much else.
“You couldn't reach him?” Derek asked.
Rena shook her head. “Probably doesn't even know the kid's missing. The dispatch lady was really nice, said she knew the Stilinskis and Stiles was like family to him. She said she'd pass on a message and make it urgent.”
“What about his mother?”
Rena shook her head again, this time with an edge of sadness to it. “Not around, the dispatch said, but going by how she spoke about it, I don't think she meant that the mother skipped town. If I remember correctly there was a news article about Sheriff Stilinski back when he got elected. It said he was a widower.”
Something must have shown on Derek's face, because Rena patted his arm consolingly. “We'll try again tomorrow. But the kid's safe, that's the most important thing.”
Derek just nodded.
“I also lent him some of your old clothes. I'd have given him Levi or Louis', they might have fit better, but those two actually didn't have a single clean thing in their closets.” She rolled her eyes. “Pretty sure that room has its own ecosystem.”
“It's okay. I don't mind.”
“I made you a bed on the sofa.”
“Thanks, Aunt Rena.”
She leaned past Derek to look at the mound of blankets, moving with Stiles' even breaths. “I heard from Laura those mutts didn't only claw him up real good. That true?” She was still wearing her peach orange cardigan, her hair in gentle curls and her features lovely as ever, but the look in her eyes was pure steel. It was moments like those Derek could really see why Peter was so taken with her. Why he had taken a human mate.
“Yeah,” Derek said. “They tried to...violate him. I stopped them. But they almost succeeded.”
Rena's mouth settled into a hard line. “You got them?”
“Good.” Rena smiled and squeezed his arm. “You did good, pup.”
She disappeared down the stairs, and Derek stepped into his room, closing the door behind him. The soundproofing in the walls swallowed the noises wafting up from downstairs, where Talia, Cora, and Peter had apparently just walked into the living room.
As quietly as he could, Derek walked to the bedside.
Stiles was a restless sleeper. Even in rest, he seemed to be in constant motion, fingers twitching, leg kicking underneath the covers, and small sounds escaping his throat every now and then. His eyes were moving back and forth under his eyelids. As Derek watched, a tiny, scared noise escaped Stiles' throat, and he curled up on himself under the duvet.
Asleep and his face relaxed, he looked smaller, and younger.
Both of his hands were wrapped in bandages, and the wounds on his upper arm had been cleaned and dressed. Derek could smell the faint smell of antiseptic, and of Rena's perfume she had left behind on Stiles' skin when she had patched him up.
Now that he was closer, Derek could also smell the rest of him much better. He had clearly washed up, maybe even showered — he smelled faintly of soap, and something fruity. But what really felt like a punch to the gut was the way Stiles himself smelled like, underneath it all. Like spices, nutmeg and lemongrass and sage, like warm earth and what might have been ink. And mixed with all that was Derek's own scent, from the worn t-shirt and cotton pants Stiles was wearing. Derek's clothes.
It was intoxicating. And Derek wanted nothing more than bury his nose into the crook of Stiles' neck, into that place in his nape where his skin met his hairline, and breathe it in.
Derek took a step back, then another. The rogue mutt's words echoed in his head. Did you smell him? The mutt had asked, leering. He smells so fucking delicious. Was he really so low he had rescued the kid from serial rapists, only to think something like that himself?
He felt sick, suddenly.
Derek turned on his heels, and fled the room.
He didn't dare to go back until next morning. He probably would have stayed away a lot longer, if he didn't need a fresh set of clothes.
By the time he noticed Stiles' heartbeat had changed from the steady rhythm of sleep, and that it was now drumming with a strange uptick, it was too late.
“Oh my god,” a voice said from behind him.
Derek froze, his hands still in his underwear drawer where he had been digging around for a pair of briefs. He turned around and found Stiles staring at him. Or gaping, more like. He was sitting up in bed, sheets pooling around his waist. His mouth was hanging slightly open.
“I was rescued my an underwear model,” Stiles said under his breath.
Derek blinked. “I – What?”
“Are you Derek? The, uh,” he made a weird gesture that might have been a mime for fur and fangs. “The black wolf? Yea high?”
Derek closed the drawer, and turned to face Stiles fully. Bad decision, really, he realized too late when he noticed how his old, worn Ramones shirt was just a little bit too big on Stiles, and was hanging off his narrow shoulders. Derek could see a slender shoulder and a collarbone peeking out of the collar. He coughed awkwardly. “Yeah.”
“I knew all the Hales were like supermodels and you were really nice as a wolf but I didn't really expect” — he waved a hand to compass Derek's, well, everything — “that.” Derek watched in fascination as Stiles seemed to realize what he had said, like he had realized too late his brain-to-mouth filter wasn't working right, and he blushed gloriously, vividly scarlet red. “I mean...” He said, and snapped his mouth shut. “I'm going to stop talking now.”
Derek cleared his throat. “Are you hungry?”
Stiles' face lit up like a six-year-old's on a Christmas morning. “Holy god, yes.”
“My Mom's waiting for you downstairs. I can hear her worrying about you all the way from here.”
“I am not worrying,” his mother's voice drifted up from the kitchen.
“Kitchen's on the left when you get to the foyer, at the bottom of the stairs.”
“Okay.” Stiles got up from the bed, rubbing his arms. He looked small, suddenly, and vulnerable in the bright light of the morning sun streaming into the room. “And hey, uh, thanks,” he said. His eyes darted to Derek, then away again. “For yesterday.”
“It was the least I could do.”
His head bobbed. “Still. Thanks.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I'm gonna go.”
“I'll be right down.”
After changing into clean clothes, Derek followed his nose to the kitchen. It was a Saturday morning, everyone was home, and it was an absolute chaos. As usual. The noise level alone was astounding.
Stiles was sitting on the kitchen island, one bare foot tucked under him and the other dangling in the air, watching the chaos around him and Talia bustling by the stove. Laura was standing next to her, poking with her spatula at the pancakes on one of the pans.
“Just let me flip it, Mom,” she was saying, “It'll burn.”
“It's not ready yet. God, Laura, give me the spatula before you poke someone in the eye.”
Without taking her eyes off Laura, she smacked Cora's hands with her own spatula. Cora grimaced and pulled back her fingers from where she had been trying to steal a piece of bacon off the pan.
Louis and Levi, Derek's younger twin brothers, were at the table, apparently convincing the increasingly more doubtful-looking Oliver that werebunnies were real, and you could change into one if you just knew how. The six-year-old squinted at his uncles suspiciously. “How come I can't do it, then?” He asked. He was holding a spoon in one hand like a weapon, the other one was curled around a tub of strawberry yogurt.
“Well, you see, you gotta have some special skills for that,” Levi said. “Only the smartest and those who know how to do it can change into what they want. Like me.” Louis kicked him in the shin under the table, hard, and snarled. “Like me and Louis,” Levi corrected.
Oliver's eyes narrowed even more. He turned in his seat, spilling yogurt from his spoon as he spun around. “Mom,” he whined at Laura, “I wanna be a werebunny.”
Derek's father was at the end of the table, setting plates stacked with pancakes and fruit and steaming-hot toast on the table. “Boys, behave. And we talked about table manners, Oliver, remember?”
“Daniel, please.” Talia chuckled from her place at the stove. “Like they're going to remember. They were raised by wolves.”
Jeremy — Laura's eldest, a quiet boy of eight with unruly hair — was drawing in his napkin with a blue crayon. Peter and Rena's two daughters, Savannah and Viola, accepted their plates gracefully and picked up their forks. The preteens seemed entirely unbothered by the chaos. Peter and Rena were sitting facing each other in the corner seats, Peter stirring cream into is coffee and reading the newspaper over Rena's shoulder. She said something quietly to his ear, pointing to a news article at the bottom of the page, and Peter laughed.
“Where's Jeffrey?” Derek asked Cora as she bustled past, carrying stacks of plates piled with breakfast foods: croissants, toast, fried eggs and bacon swimming in grease, fruit and yogurt and a bowls of granola.
Cora shrugged. “In the garden, or the garage. Doing man stuff.” She looked pointedly around. “Avoiding this.”
“Smart man,” Laura said under her breath.
Derek turned back to Stiles just in time to see one of his nieces crawling into his lap. Ava, still in her Turtles pajamas and wearing her fuzzy purple socks, hoisted herself up using the edge of the breakfast bar table, then glared at Stiles until he helped her up and in his lap, looking bemused.
“Are you human?” Ava demanded. She reached out to pinch Stiles' nose, as if that would tell her everything she needed to know.
“Ava, let him be,” Laura said from the stove, waving the spatula at the girl.
“It's okay.” Stiles turned to look at the tiny werewolf in his lap. “So your name's Ava?”
She nodded gravely.
“How old are you, Ava?”
“She's four,” Laura interrupted without glancing back from where she was digging more flour and sugar from the pantry.
“Four,” Ava said, just as seriously. “What's your name. Are you a human? Like Great Auntie Rena?”
“Yes I am,” he said. He smiled gratefully at Talia when she placed a mug of steaming coffee and a fresh stack of pancakes, topped with syrup and a clump of butter, before him. “And I'm Stiles. Nice to meet you, Ava.”
Ava squirmed, but made no move to get off. “Why are you here?” Her nose twitched, as she scented the air. “You smell like Uncle Derek. Are you Uncle Derek's mate?”
Stiles sounded like he suddenly had trouble swallowing the piece of pancake he had just been chewing, and Talia let out a thoughtful hum from where she was frying eggs. Cora snorted, loudly. Peter raised his gaze from the newspaper and fixed Derek with his sharp, assessing gaze.
“Okay, time to go, monkey,” Derek said, ears burning, and hoisted Ava up by her waist. “Let Stiles eat.”
The little girl grabbed a hold of Derek's shirtfront, and leveled him with a serious stare. “He has a funny nose,” she said. “I like it. I think he should stay.”
You're not the only one, he thought dryly as his wolf purred happily at the thought.
“Stiles is only visiting us, pup, he probably wants to go home.”
As if on cue, the phone rang. It was the old land line his father had insisted on keeping, the phone trilling in its cradle on the table by the front door.
Derek's parents shared a look over the hullabaloo in the kitchen. Stiles had stopped eating, and was staring into the direction of the ringing.
“Probably the Sheriff,” Talia said. “Do you want to answer it, hon? Your father must be worried sick.”
A clink of a fork against the counter top, and Stiles got up from his seat. He disappeared to the foyer. Even though the whole Hale family was pretty good at ignoring any and all social conventions about personal space and privacy, they knew when to give someone their space. The breakfast circus resumed with its usual volume, and Stiles' conversation with his dad was almost drowned out.
Derek couldn't make out what the Sheriff at the other end was saying, but he couldn't help but focus on Stiles quiet voice. “Hi Dad,” he was saying. “Don't freak out, I'm fine. I just lost my phone.” A pause. “Yeah. My jeep died, on that back road near the preserve.” Pause. “He didn't know I was coming over, Dad, so he didn't know to worry, Scott couldn't have known.” Pause. “I know, Dad, it was stupid but I thought that I was walking in the right direction.” Stiles sighed. “Yeah, I know.” Pause. “At the Hale house. They...” He hesitated. “Some guys came after me, stray omegas or something. They jumped me when I was taking a look under the hood. I dropped my phone somewhere and –”
Stiles' mouth snapped audibly shut and even from where he was in the kitchen, Derek could hear the Sheriff's outraged squeak across the phone line.
“I said I'm fine, Dad. The Hales helped me. They got rid of the weres.” He swallowed audibly. “I'm safe.”
This time Stiles fell quiet for a long time, like the Sheriff at the other end had gone off on a tirade.
After the tinny sound of the Sheriff's voice through the speaker had gone silent, Stiles heaved another sigh.“I promise. And I know. Love you too, Dad.”
The call ended with a click as Stiles replaced the phone to its cradle. He returned to the kitchen, looking sheepish. “My Dad's coming over to pick me up,” he said to the room at large. “He sounded pretty pissed, and you probably have to witness his 'Stiles You're My Son But You're An Idiot' lecture when he gets here, so... sorry in advance.”
Talia patted him on the arm consolingly. “We better go find your shoes, then.”
The Sheriff's arrival wasn't a surprise to any of them. They heard his patrol car from miles away as it bumped and rattled its way along the bumpy driveway that led to the Hale house.
Talia went to the front porch to greet him, and the rest of the household abandoned their breakfasts to pile near the front door. Wolves were curious by nature, they weren't even trying to hide it. Stiles stood a bit awkwardly by Talia's side, fidgeting with the sleeve of his hoodie. Derek's hoodie.
After they had found Stiles' shoes, he had shyly asked if he could borrow Derek's clothes until he got home and could change. He would bring them back the next day, he said, washed and folded. As nonchalantly as he could, Derek had told him to keep the clothes — and then loaned him a hoodie, ink blue and dug from the far back corner of his closer, that had shrunk in the wash, years ago, and didn't even fit him anymore.
“It's cold outside,” Derek had said gruffly when Stiles had stared him with open-mouthed confusion. He had pushed the piece of clothing even closer to the boy, holding it in his hand like it was a live snake. “You can keep it.”
Stiles had taken the hoodie.
Derek watched him now, fingers worrying the hem and the edges of his sleeves, and tried not to smell the warm scent of him mingling with Derek's own on his skin.
Five minutes later, the Sheriff's patrol car rumbled to the yard. Almost before it had fully come to a stop, its passenger-side door flew open, and a boy around Stiles' age tumbled out. He nearly took the door off its hinges in his haste to get out.
It happened very fast, after that. Derek didn't know what had first triggered it, or what he had been thinking at all. He only remembered noting a head of unruly, dark hair, tan skin, and an uneven jawline before the smell of another werewolf hit him like a sledgehammer. He didn't think. All he knew that there was a stranger on their front yard, he was a wolf, and he was heading towards Stiles at full speed.
His wolf went berserk.
Derek had Stiles pinned against the wall behind him, beside the front door, a low growl rumbling from his throat and his eyes flashing a warning blue before his brain had time to catch up.
The strange wolf stopped at the bottom of the stairs, his own eyes glowing yellow. His lips pulled back in a snarl, mouth full of sharp teeth.
“Derek!” His mother snapped at the same exact moment Stiles said “Whoa, hey, Derek. What the hell?”
The other wolf snapped out of it faster than Derek. Ever so slowly he relaxed and blinked once, twice, before the golden yellow winked out of his eyes. “Shit, sorry,” he said to Talia, eyes flicking from the Alpha to Derek and Stiles. His hands were raised to show they were empty, and his head tilted to the side to bare his neck. A sign of submission. “Alpha Hale. Stiles, hi.”
“Heya, Scotty,” Stiles said. He didn't move from behind Derek but placed a calming hand at his elbow. “I'm gonna go give Scott, a hug, okay, buddy?” He said to Derek. Calmly, like he was talking to a pissed-off predator. “Scott's my bro. It's okay.”
He didn't want to glance around to check, but Derek was pretty sure his whole pack was staring at him with varying degrees of confusion and surprise. Except for Peter, who looked only amused, like he knew a secret no-one else did. Laura was giving Derek an odd look he didn't want to examine any closer.
Derek took a step to the side to let Stiles pass, and let the color fade from his eyes back to normal hazel. “Sorry,” he said to Scott. His mother was still looking at him calculatingly, her arms crossed over her chest, so he said it again. “Sorry. I don't know what got into me.”
A tug on his sleeve had Derek glancing down: Jeremy had slithered from his mother's grip and was standing beside him, dark blue eyes serious. “Who's that?” He asked in a stage whisper, gesturing towards Scott.
By then, Stiles was already in motion. He bounded down the steps and took one gigantic leap, crashing straight into Scott. The boy didn't even stagger, just flung his arms around Stiles' waist and squeezed. “Your dad told me what happened,” he said into Stiles' neck, words mashed into his skin. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, dude. I'm...I'm okay. Derek kicked their asses.”
Stiles hooked a thumb in his general direction, and Scott let Stiles slide to the ground on his feet as his gaze returned to Derek. “You're Derek? You're the one who stopped those mutts?”
Derek just nodded.
“That explains it.” Scott was giving Stiles a strange look, his brow furrowed and his dark brown eyes narrowed. “Thank you,” he said to Derek, and so earnestly Derek didn't doubt even for a second he meant it with all of his heart.
“Stiles.” Sheriff Stilinski had stepped out of his car, still in his uniform and looking like he hadn't seen his bed in over twenty four hours, and held open his arms.
Stiles disentangled himself from Scott and fell into the embrace headfirst. He buried his face into his father's shoulder and the Sheriff's arms came around the boy in such a tight hug it must have been painful.
“'M okay, Dad,” Stiles mumbled. “I'm fine.”
“That was the most idiotic thing you have ever done in your life.”
“I know, Dad.”
“Do you have any idea what it felt like to get that kind of phone call from Ramirez? That you'd gotten hurt and it was urgent? You could have died.”
“You're all I have, kiddo, and it –” The Sheriff tightened the embrace even more, and Stiles exhaled in a shaky breath. “ – it would kill me to lose you. You hear me?”
Stiles wiped his eyes in his sleeve, and leaned back. “I'm won't do it again, I promise.”
“I'm absolutely certain you will, but I'll take that promise anyway.” He gripped Stiles' head in both of his hands and pressed his lips to his temple. “Love you.”
“I'm nineteen, Dad. Not a kid.” Stiles covered his father's hands with his own. “Love you, too.”
His mother appeared at Derek's elbow and smiled warmly at the Stilinskis. “Would you and Stiles like to come over tomorrow and stay for dinner?” Talia asked the Sheriff.
Would you like to stay forever, Derek thought a bit hysterically as he watched Stiles, thinking of that Disney cartoon he had watched with Laura when they were kids (Mulan, he thought it was called.) Please stay forever.
Before the Sheriff drove off, after he had bundled both Stiles and the very clingy Scott into the back seat of his cruiser, he turned to Derek. He had already showered Talia and Rena with gratitude for taking care of Stiles. “I heard what you did for my son,” he said. “I owe you my life.” Derek opened his mouth to dismiss it, but the Sheriff waved his hand. “No, please, I do. I'm pretty sure you and your family are the only reason he's in one piece. So please.” He gripped Derek's shoulder. “If you ever need anything, you know where to find me.”
Derek nodded. He watched the police cruised pull off from the yard — Stiles even waved from the back window — and that was that. The boy was with his father, he was going home, and no harm had come to him. They had done their duty in helping him. Everything should have been absolutely fine.
So why did he feel like something was trying to claw itself up his throat as he waved back at the retreating taillights?