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It was a sunny, Friday afternoon and the students were straggling about the schoolyard like zombies that had died while holding trash grabbers in one hand and plastic bags in the other, unenthusiastically plucking up an assortment of litter out of the grass. Soda cans, candy bar wrappers, drug paraphernalia, and even a used condom. There was a little bit of everything.

Their principal was a big, booming ex-marine of a man who adored character building exercises and student ownership, and he got this way sometimes, when he was suddenly gripped with the fear that this generation of youngsters were being bred into a bunch of limp-wristed morons. He would cut classes short without warning and shoo them out of the building for a few hours of good old-fashioned manual labor.

Unlike everyone else, Derek had been given a broom and was told to sweep the patio, a tiny, dirty, litter and weed-strewn area to the side of the building where students went to smoke. He knew it was because of his leg, and he had been angry, that anyone would think he wasn’t physically capable of walking around and picking up fucking garbage, but it wasn’t worth arguing over. So he quietly did what he was told to do, sweeping the concrete floor and around the one rotting bench. He now had three tidy piles of cigarette butts.

Up to that point, cleanup had been mostly quiet. Uneventful. Then an omega had come out of the building, dragging out a trash bag half his size to toss into the dumpster and everything had been shot to hell.

“Fuck, I want to fuck that thing!”

The declaration came from Derek’s left, undoubtedly made by some alpha simmering in sexual frustration. And yep, when he glanced up, he saw that Jordan had abandoned his task at hand to watch the omega go by. Derek could practically smell him salivating.

Derek’s first instinct was to turn away and ignore the whole thing. He continued to sweep, eyes trained on the ground. Keep your nose clean, had been his tenet for the past few years – it was a good, sensible tenet – and he didn’t want any trouble.

“What’s stopping you?” said another guy. “Just fuck him, if that’s what you want.”

The wrongness of the words made Derek’s hackles rise, but he had already promised himself he wasn’t going to get involved. Peace and quiet. It was all he asked for these days. Not my circus, not my monkeys, he thought, and shit, if that didn’t send an unexpected pang of sadness through him, because it had been one of his mom’s sayings, back when she was alive. Back when everyone was alive, and he hadn’t been alone.
He hoped that the omega possessed some common sense and self-preservation skills and would quickly go back inside, because there weren’t many who would get in the way of an alpha going after an omega. It was all Derek could hope for.

But the omega wasn’t having it. “First of all, I’m not a “thing” and second, not interested in the least being diddled by any one of you big lugs. So that’s what’s should be stopping you.”

Stiles Stilinski. Derek should have known. The freshman with the big mouth and a thousand and one things to say. And say them he did, spouting off like a broken faucet no one knew how to turn off. Some omegas played the part, acting docile and submissive and oh-so helpless. Stilinski was not one of them. Derek didn’t know if the kid was too smart for his own good, or too dumb. Because standing up for yourself was all fine and dandy, commendable, really, but some things were an exercise in futility. Jordan and his friends belonged to a brood of wolves who took no for yes and yes for yes, and every little thing was an invitation.

And as if proving this: “You want some help with that?” Jordan called out.

“No,” Stiles said.

“Really? Looks heavy,” Jordan said. “Like my dick.”

“Sounds like a serious medical condition. Maybe you should get that looked at,” Stiles said, his voice flat.

“Maybe you should be my doctor,” Jordan said. “Check it out for me. With your mouth.”

No answer from Stiles, and it was quiet for the next minute or two. Then, Jordan must have made some sort of move, because suddenly he was yowling in surprise.

Derek turned around in time to see the trash bag bouncing to a stop a few feet away, like a huge, black beach ball. From the look of things, Stiles had slugged it into Jordan’s face as hard as he could and the alpha was doubled over, hands cupping his face.

“Don’t touch me!” Stiles shouted.

Derek sighed. This was going to end very, very badly. The omega had essentially dug his own grave. Jordan adored his face.

“You little bitch!” Jordan said, making a grab at him.

Stilinski tried to dart away, but Jordan moved fast. In one swoop, he caught the omega by the waist and slammed him to the ground.

“Get his wrists,” Jordan snarled to his friend, who was more than happy to oblige. Together, they pinned him down with ease, even as Stilinski struggled and kicked about like an angry cat.

“You are so fucked,” Jordan told him. Derek could hear the malicious glee in his voice. “If you get my drift.”

Derek leaned the broom handle against the wall and went over.

“All right, that’s enough,” Derek said. “Let him up.”

Jordan looked up at the intrusion and his eyes went contemptuous and mocking.

“Fuck off, gimp,” Jordan said. “Can’t you see we’re busy?”

Derek didn’t feel like exchanging insult for insult. He had never been particularly good at it. “You’re hurting him,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, and he’s going to be hurting a hell of a lot more after I’m done with him,” Jordan said. He peered down with a smirk at Stilinski, who had gone still and was staring at Derek with wide eyes. “You’re going to have the sorest ass in town, aren’t you?”

Jordan turned his back to Derek. Bad move. Derek grabbed a handful of that spiky, bright yellow hair and yanked. It was like pulling a rotten turnip out of loose soil and Jordan landed splat on his ass, stunned, upper lip curling in a snarl. He twisted around with the fluid movements of a beast, hunching into a fighting stance. Red pooled in his eyes.

Derek looked at him patiently. He didn’t know why people kept thinking that he didn’t know how to fight anymore, just because of his leg. He still had his fists, and he still knew how to use them. But that was the thing. You diminished into a ghost, a shadow that skimmed over the walls and drifted over the floors. Guess Jordan was going to find out the hard way that Derek Hale was still more than capable of wiping the floor with him. He could still break every bone in Jordan's body.

Something must have shown in his eyes, though, because Jordan slowly pulled himself up, and the red bled out. His friend looked at him uncertainly, as if silently asking if they weren’t going to jump Derek, but Jordan ignored him. "Whatever. Take him, he's all yours. I wouldn't touch his diseased dick for anything."

Derek kept quiet, his eyes never leaving the other alpha.

“See you around, slut,” Jordan told Stilinski, because pride mandated he get in the last word. He smacked the omega on the ass, swift and hard, making Stilinski jump with a wince. Derek decided to let that one go and Jordan sneered meanly at him as he left.

Derek waited for a few seconds, making sure that Jordan was actually leaving, then went back to the pathway, where his broom and dustpan was waiting for him. Stilinski tagged after him like a leashed puppy.

He hoped Stilinski wasn’t going to ream him out for helping him, going on about how he had it all under control. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t true – it could have ended very badly for Stilinski – Derek was tired, his leg was throbbing and he was cranky. The last thing he needed right now was some chippy little omega berating him for being chivalrous.

Derek turned his back to him, hinting that Stiles should leave him alone. He didn’t.

“I’m Stiles,” he said instead.

“I know who you are,” Derek said. Everyone did, for two reasons. First, he was an omega, one out of the scant handful at the school. Second, he talked a lot. It was very difficult to not notice a classmate who refused to shut the hell up. Sometimes, you could hear him from two classrooms over.

Stilinski perked up. “You do? Wow, that’s amazing! I really mean that. And here I was, thinking that you didn’t even know I existed.”

“Yeah, I bet that really kept you up at night,” Derek said dourly.

“Heh,” said Stiles.

Derek would have ignored him but Stiles continued to stand there, watching him in a way that set Derek’s nerves on gritty edge.

“Do you need something?” Derek said tersely, after a while. His leg was beginning to hurt and he knew he would need to sit down soon if he didn’t want to buckle. He preferred no one be around when he did.

“No. No. Don’t mind me,” Stiles said, and continued to stand there.

“Go away,” Derek said, when he couldn’t take it anymore.

“No, it’s okay. I’m done inside and don’t have anything to do. Can I help with anything?” Stiles said.

“Go away,” Derek said again, making his eyes flash.

Stiles was not in the least cowed. “Alright, well, bye for now.”

He stood there for another long moment, just staring at Derek like some weirdo, then gave him a cheerful wave before finally going back inside. Derek went back to sweeping and wishing the bell would ring so he could go home.

 


 

After that, Stilinski was everywhere, the human equivalent of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. He would pop up like a whack-a-mole from hell, all chipmunky smiles and bright eyes, all Derek this and Derek that, as if they were friends or something. At Derek’s locker while he was taking out his textbooks, the hallways as Derek limped to class, the outside table where he ate lunch by himself, overlooking a grassy field that had been a second home to him back when he was the captain of the lacrosse team a lifetime ago. Then, once, in the boy’s restroom, while Derek was holding his cock and taking a piss.

“Derek! There you are! I was looking all over…”

He trickled off mid-sentence, and it wasn’t rocket science figuring out what had caught his attention. Derek threatened to smash his face flat as a pancake if he didn’t go away right this instant. Stilinski looked up at him as if dazed, lips parted and cheeks flushed pink, stinking to high heaven of arousal.

“Huh?” he said distractedly.

There was nothing more embarrassing than having to repeat a threat because someone failed to hear it the first time. Derek quietly zipped himself back up and left. He knew it was no use getting upset. While omegas were considered to be in a perpetual state of horniness, Stilinski was fifteen and Derek could see that he was going through the changes associated with that age. He was beginning to smell different. Fertile and ripe, like a swollen fruit about to burst open with juice. Febrile, as if his entire body was turning into a pulse point emanating heat, announcing to the town that he would soon be ready. Ready for that biological imperative to be fucked and bred.

And Derek wasn’t the only one who noticed. By now all the alphas were tripping over themselves in their haste to be honey-nice to him, to be the first one to bite into that sweet and plump flesh. They showered him with presents, little bags of chips and gummies from the vending machine, cold sodas and chocolate bars. They performed for him out on the field, stripping their shirts off to reveal their sweat-glistening chests, boasting how virile they were, how good they would be for him.

But each time Derek looked up, it was him Stiles was staring at.

 


 

School was over for the day and the students spilled out through the doors. It was time to go home. Derek limped out slowly.

His car had broken down a few months ago, the second time that year, and he didn’t see the point of getting it fixed. He suspected that it would only break again in a matter of months, and he didn’t feel like throwing a few hundred dollars down the drain. So he usually walked everywhere, when the weather was nice. It would have made more sense to take the bus, far less taxing on his leg, but... he was just masochistic, he supposed. He had never been a cheapskate, but after the fire, he hated spending money on himself.

Soon into his trek, Derek realized he was being followed. A thin, plaid-shirted figure was scurrying after him, darting behind corners and popping back up from behind potted plants. Derek turned around and a fuzzy head ducked down behind a restaurant sidewalk sign. Passersby were staring at him strangely. Derek didn’t blame them.

He took a right. Stiles took a right. He took a left, Stiles took a left. He stopped at a pedestrian light, Stilinski stopped at a pedestrian light.

“Stop following me,” Derek finally said, when he’d had enough. The kid majorly sucked at stealth.

“Dude. Egotistical much?” Stiles said, affronted. “I’m not following you. Is this your special sidewalk? Do you own it? I don’t think so.”

The light lit up green and knowing he couldn’t win, Derek walked across the street in his crooked gait. Stiles chased after him.

The houses gradually turned drab and shabby, smaller, the panels sagging like the beer belly of a middle-aged man who spent his hours on the couch. The grass turned yellow and long. Derek continued on until he eventually reached a squat, ugly apartment complex painted the color of a baked tangerine. The parking lot was fairly empty and he didn’t see anyone about. The place always bore the appearance of being abandoned. A cat mewled from somewhere close by. Derek knew that stray tabby well; it was missing a chunk of an ear and was mean as a pirate.

His place was on the second floor. By now Stiles was making no bones about the fact that he was, indeed, following Derek, and he trod up along the stairs with him, then waited behind his shoulder as Derek reached for his keys. He looked at Derek belligerently, as if daring Derek to tell him to fuck off. Derek didn’t bother. He unlocked his apartment door, then pushed Stiles away when he tried to follow inside.

“Come on, seriously?” Stiles cried.

Yes, seriously, Derek didn’t say.

“Derek!” Stiles said.

He shut the door in the kid’s face, and dumped his bag on the floor. He was exhausted and as it always did after more than twenty minutes of walking, the muscles inside his left leg felt as if they had been scrubbed with hot coals. 

The apartment was as plain as plain could be. He had been living here for the past year and a half since the fire. During the summer, it was hot but tolerable. The cold winters had never bothered him much when he was younger, but now his leg ached horrendously each time the temperature dropped. His neighbors were mostly Weres who were old or disabled like him, considered a burden to society and a waste of oxygen, and they all shared the mutual desire to be left alone.

He washed up in the bathroom, and changed into a worn shirt and sweatpants. He sat on the bed with his legs straight out, elevating his foot on a rolled-up towel. Sometimes that helped. Knowing that his mind had a tendency to roam dark, depressing corners if he didn’t give it something to do, he reached for a book and started to read where he’d last left off. He managed to read a good portion of it without any distractions.

He hadn’t necessarily forgotten Stiles’ was out there, but he was startled when the bright voice piped up, talking to one of the residents.

“Heya, cutie. Whatcha doing out here?”

Yolanda, from four doors down, who had once been a legendary cage fighter until an opponent ripped off an arm like a chicken drumstick. Her career was dead as dust now, but she still looked more than capable of punching out an elephant. The ongoing rumor was that she had forayed into the world of adult videos, but Derek highly skeptical of this, because if there was one thing Weres were grossed out by watching, it was crippled people having sex, followed shortly by old people having sex.

“Oh, just my jerk of a boyfriend,” Stiles said loudly. “Won’t let me in.”

“Really? He did?” Yolanda sounded concerned. “He’s inside and he won’t let you in? He locked you out?”

“Yeah, he’s being a mean old grumpy face."

“Oh, honey,” Yolanda said. “That’s so sad. You shouldn’t let him treat you like that. It’s not right.”

Stiles sighed dramatically. “I know. But he has so much on his shoulders, you know? He’s going through a lot right now. I keep telling him it doesn’t matter to me one bit that he has erectile dysfunction and irritable bowel syndrome. Flatulence will not keep us apart. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no picnic. It’s like a sewage in there. Like, his stomach is a septic tank. It's so bad, you have no idea.”

Yolanda made commiserating sounds, urging him to go on.

“I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but he has trouble controlling his sphincter muscles. Sometimes, I have to put diapers on him because he’ll go, in bed, right in the middle of the night. Just sploosh."

Derek sat there, scowling as he listened to Stiles make up a pile of bullshit, replete with sound effects.

“But everything I do, I do it because he’s the one. We’re going to get through all our hardships together. I know he can hear me right now, and I want to say, Derek, no amount of diarrhea will smother out my love for you.”

Yolanda was touched. “Oh, hon, I don’t think he deserves you.”

“I know. I know he doesn’t deserve me. But I can’t stand to leave him. I love him, poopy-pants and all. He’s been my hero since the fourth grade.”

Derek opened his front door before Stiles could go on. Stiles was standing with Yolanda, looking like kindergartner next to the one-armed amazon.

“There he is,” Stiles said. Yolanda frowned ponderously when she saw him.

“You treat him right!” Yolanda said. Derek would have told her to mind her own business, but didn’t quite feel like spending the next hour picking his teeth off the floor.

Stiles was fighting down a grin as Derek stepped aside to let him through.

“You done defaming my character?” Derek said.

“I haven’t even started,” Stiles said cheekily. “Serve you right for not letting me in and making me stay out there for three hours.”

“You’re really not as cute as you think you are,” Derek said, then felt that familiar sting again. Another one of his mother’s sayings.

“Please. I’m as cute as a button.”

Stilinski scanned the apartment, the tiny kitchen, the little eating nook with the single chair, the single-sized bed pushed into the corner, then the closed door that led into the tiny bathroom. It was Spartan, to say the least. His eyes roamed the walls and Derek knew he was looking for pictures. Derek had none. The only photo he owned, he carried in his wallet. But if Stiles was surprised by the sparseness of the place, the utter bareness of the walls and the lack of furniture and furnishings, he didn’t show it.

Stiles settled himself down on the chair and rested his arms on the counter.

“I’m hungry,” he announced.

“What do you want me to do about it?” Derek said.

“Derek. I’m hungry.”

Derek sighed and clumped over to the kitchen. There was plastic bag half-full of sliced bread on the cupboard shelf. He tossed it in Stiles’ direction without looking, and the other boy let out a small oof.

Derek set a jar of peanut butter on the table next to the bag of bread, along with an old spoon he took out of the drawer.

“This is all I have,” Derek said, both defensive and embarrassed. He was still an alpha, such as it were, and the instinct was still there, the need to feed and take care of a potential mate. To show off that he could provide.

“Better than nothing, as I always say. Ooh, sweet, it’s the crunchy kind.” Stiles rustled out four slices of bread, then spread peanut butter on one side with careful, clean strokes of the knife. His cheeks bulged out like a chipmunk’s as he ate.

“I have apple cider,” Derek said, remembering. His next door neighbor had left him a bag filled with unwanted groceries when he moved out a month ago, just dropped it in front of his door without a word. “The kind you mix into water,” he said, feeling even more stupid.

“Peanut butter sandwich and apple cider?” Stiles said. “Sounds yummy.”

Derek heated a battered kettle over the stove. When the water came to a boil, he poured it into a mug – the cleaner one out of the two he owned – and emptied the pouch inside. The powdery cloud of artificial cinnamon made him cough. Smoke inhalation from the fire had caused some damage to his lungs, which never fully healed, and it was easily irritated.

Since there were no other chairs, Derek perched himself on the defunct steel radiator screwed to the ground, and wondered what the hell he was doing.

Once Stiles was done with his two sandwiches, he made two more. Then when he was finished with the bread and there weren’t any left to make sandwiches with, he began to scoop and scrape the peanut butter out of the jar and eat that. He didn’t stop until the jar was empty and the spoon was glistening clean.

“Sorry I ate all your food,” Stiles said. He paused. “Guess I should have offered you some.”

Derek laughed. It soon turned into a cough, and as he was hacking into the crook of his elbow, he missed the way Stiles watched him, his eyes soft and affectionate.

When the coughing fit subsided, he straightened up. It was that time of day when the late afternoon was slowly fading away into evening and beyond the window, the sky was turning into the deep, swollen cerulean blue that Derek liked. Strips of dark blue on darker blue, as if a dome was being placed over the town by giant invisible hands, slowly snuffing out the remaining sunlight. Derek had always been nocturnal. He had always loved the night, with the stars and the imperturbable silver moon.

“Can I stay the night?” Stiles said, just as Derek was opening his mouth to say that he needed to go now, before it became any darker.

“No.”

“Come on, Derek,” Stiles whined. “It’s late and it’s a long way back.”

“Don’t you have curfew?”

Stiles rolled his eyes and made a scoffing noise. Derek half-expected him to say curfew shmurfew, the way Cora would have done. “They don’t care,” Stiles said.

Not for the first time, he wondered about Stiles. The kid was an orphan, that much he knew. Derek didn’t know what happened to his mother, but for a long time it had been Stiles and the sheriff. Then Mr. Stilinski was gone too, an unfortunate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time a bullet was passing by, if Derek remembered correctly, and after that, it was just Stiles. As a minor, he wasn’t allowed to live by himself, and he was sent to the home for stray omegas, or whatever the hell the name of the institution was.

“You can’t stay here,” Derek said firmly. The last thing he wanted was for Stiles’ scent to be on everything, for Stiles to get the wrong idea. Feeding him had been bad enough.

“That bed looks big enough for the two of us,” Stiles said.

“It’s not,” Derek said.

“Then I can sleep on top of you. How about that? Keep you warm.” Stiles waggled his brows. “Be your blanket.”

“I’ll walk you home,” Derek said, getting out of his chair. The neighborhood wasn’t the worst, but it was dangerous for Stiles to roam about alone.

“You will?” Stiles said. “That’s so sweet. Are you worried someone will kidnap me?”

“Five minutes with you and they’d dump you right back on the street, so no,” Derek said.

“You suck,” Stiles grumbled.

Stiles gathered his things and waited while Derek locked the front door. Not that there was anything to steal, but force of habit was a hell of a thing, Derek supposed.
They went down the stairs together and crossed the deserted parking lot. Stiles pressed against him, and tried to tangle their fingers together, but Derek shook him off.

He left Stiles when they were nearly there but not quite, when he knew Stiles was in safe territory. Stiles complained, asking him to take him all the way home, but he turned around.

“Bye, Derek!” Stiles’ voice cut through the gloam. The sounds of children running around and giggling in a nearby playground drifted through. A couple passed by, laughing, lost in their own little world. Summer was almost over, and the air was fragrant with the deepening foliage.

Derek tried not to think about how lonely it suddenly was, walking home by himself in the dark.

 


 

Derek was in the gym storage room, lying on a spongy mat that stank of rubber. It was where the old gym equipment was kept, and he liked to come down here when his leg became too much to handle and concentrating in class was out of the question.

It was raining heavily outside, and maybe it was because of the weather, but he was especially maudlin today, and no matter how hard he tried not to, his thoughts kept drifting to his family. Cora, his mom and dad. His grandparents. Laura, her husband and their unborn child. Even Uncle Peter, who had more often been a thorn in his side than not with the relentless teasing. Sometimes he couldn’t believe they were all gone, wiped out in one fiery sweep, leaving him alone in the world.
It seemed like an elaborate practical joke, and that they would one day jump out and shout “Surprise!” And he would be so angry, but of course, he would forgive them and give them all great, big hugs and…

For the first few weeks after the fire, Kate had stayed around and he had thought he would be okay, he would get through to the other side, together, with Kate. But her parents hadn’t approved of a crippled boyfriend, and in the end, Kate agreed. He could hear her voice inside his head at times, overlapping with the crackling of fire and the shattering of glass.

Do you think its fair, expecting me to stay with you? Do you not comprehend the magnitude of how fucking selfish that is? You’re shameless.

And that had been that. A two year relationship gone poof. It didn’t hurt as much now, and when he thought of her, what he mostly felt was the red-hot embarrassment of how desperately he had clung to her during those bleak, bottomless days. But he understood now, how true Kate had been when she said those things. He would have ruined her life.

The door quietly opened and shut, and footsteps approached. Moments later, a pair of skinny legs connected to a pair of grubby sneakers came into view. Stilinski.
The kid lowered himself on the mat uninvited.

“I missed you at lunch,” Stiles said.

“Yeah,” Derek said distantly.

He hadn’t felt like eating. Today was one of those makes-no-sense days when his brain was being treacherous and sadistic, and he saw his family in every little thing. His heart would stutter and stitch when he saw women with dark hair or teardrop earrings or wearing a certain shade of lipstick. The tater tots from the cafeteria lunch reminded him of how Cora would bake an entire pan and eat it by the handful with spicy beer mustard. And one of the teachers had spritzed on dad’s cologne, and a football game with dad’s beloved team was being broadcast in the teacher’s lounge and the sports announcer dad hated was screaming into the microphone and...

Stiles leaned in and he could detect the milk lingering on the omega’s mouth. He smelled like a baby, clean and pure and innocent. Stiles lowered his face and rubbed his cheek against Derek’s chest.

“You smell so nice,” Stiles whispered into his shirt. They lay that way for a few seconds, the room quiet and all that could be heard was the rain. Derek’s skin was pleasantly warm where Stiles was draped over him. And then Stiles’ round, cropped head was drifting away from him as he trailed down the line of Derek’s chest, dropping gentle kisses along the way.

Stiles sucked an opened mouthed kiss on the V of Derek’s legs, right on the spot where his dick was covered under his jeans. He then slowly moved back up, dropping kisses just as he had on the way down, on the dip of Derek’s bellybutton, his sternum, his stubbled jaw.

“What are you doing?” Derek said, when Stiles came closer. A mouth pressed against the corner of his lips.

“Trying to seduce you,” Stiles said. He peered down at Derek. “Is it working?”

“No,” Derek said. He shucked the kid away. “Get off. You’re heavy.”

“Are you calling me fat?”

“Yes. Get off me.”

Stiles grudgingly did as he was told, tucking his skinny legs against his side. Derek stared up at the ceiling.

“So,” Stiles said. “Sooooo.”

Derek didn’t say anything.

“So,” Stiles said for the third time and Derek kept ignoring him. “Derek? Aren’t you interested in what I have to say? Come on, you have to be a tiny bit curious. I bet you’re dying to hear what I have to say.”

“No, I’m not.”

A spider was crawling along the plaster. Cora had always liked spiders, forbidding anyone from killing them whenever one was discovered inside the house. Which had driven Laura nuts.

“Derek,” Stiles said.

And Laura. Laura. His favorite sister. His partner in crime. His…

“Derek. Derek. Derek. Derek. Are you listening to me? Derek. Derek.”

Holy shit, the kid was annoying.

“What?” Derek said grumpily.

But now that he finally had Derek’s attention, Stiles was quiet.

“What?” Derek said again.

“My first heat is coming up soon,” Stiles said at last.

Derek closed his eyes, disinterested. He knew where Stiles was going with this.

“I was thinking…hoping, really,” Stiles said. “Maybe you could stay with me during that time.”

Derek snorted at the euphemism. Stay with me. As if Stiles was asking Derek to hold his hand and wipe his forehead with a wet cloth and play Florence Nightingale. And unless Florence Nightingale had gone about fucking her patients, he wasn’t.

“No,” he said.

“Why not?” Stiles said.

“Because I don’t want to.”

“You’re saying no to free sex? Free sex, Derek. Free. I mean, I know it’s with me, but still. Free.”

“I’m saying no. Ask someone else.”

Stiles’ voice was wobbly. “But I want you to do it.”

Derek simply turned his head away. He imagined Laura chiding him to stop being an idiot, hopping up and down in that way she did when she was frustrated and wanted to strangle something…

You deserve to be happy, the voice he carried in his mind said. Maybe it was Laura’s voice. He wasn’t sure anymore.

“No,” he said, for the third and final time, answering both of them.

 


 

Stiles stopped following him after that. But Derek could still feel his eyes on him, unhappy and desperate. The kid was still raiding vending machines, eating everything in sight. His scent grew even more enticing and fat with hormones, and Derek knew he would soon be ready.

Stiles tried one last time, coming up to Derek at the lockers as he was starting to head home.

“Derek, please?” he pleaded. “Could you please reconsider - ”

But Derek turned away. His answer remained the same.

 


 

Stilinski’s heat started early in the morning one day during class.

Derek was sitting at his desk in the back row when it hit him with the force of a bus. The smell was so thick, so violent and pungent that it nearly whited Derek out. The world sizzled. When he snapped out of it, he saw that Stiles was staring at him, helpless and horrified.
As Derek stared back, Stiles slowly turned and glanced down at his lap. He was trembling like a leaf, more out of fear than pain at that point. Derek could sense his panic, his distress at the unfamiliar, alien sensations that were slowly beginning to unfurl within his body. Then suddenly, he slumped over the desk and let out an exhale of pain.

Derek didn’t understand. How could anyone be so fucking stupid? So fucking irresponsible? There was absolutely no reason for an omega to not have anyone to help out, even when it was someone as infuriating as Stiles Stilinski. There were volunteers a phone call away. What had possessed him to forgo that help? Derek should have known Stiles Stilinski was as far from sensible as the moon was from the earth.

Another sharp moan, tinged with pain that Stiles was desperately trying to ride out.

Harris, who hated Stilinski and would have happily stood back and watched as he was devoured alive by hissing cockroaches, gamely continued to write on the blackboard, droning on and on about molecules and compounds. But none of the alphas were even pretending to pay attention to the lesson anymore.

Soon, they wouldn’t be able to help themselves (or pretend that they couldn’t help themselves), lining up to take the omega, one after the other, trying to plant their seed deep within him. It would turn into a feeding frenzy, right in the middle of the classroom. It had happened before.

Stiles turned his head and rested the side of his forehead against the desk. His face was flushed, fever spots rising on his skin, sweat dotting his forehead. Thin fingers curled on the desk as his lower body clenched and unclenched, seeking friction to ease the agony. He looked obscene, utterly pornographic, and Derek knew that if he was thinking these thoughts, then the rest would undoubtedly be as well.

A whimper had the teacher whirling around.

“Go to the nurse,” Harris said impatiently. “For fuck’s sake.”

Stiles tried, he did. He tried to push himself up to his feet, but collapsed back down seconds later. He was in no state to walk anywhere.

“Malia, open the window," Harris ordered one of the students. He regarded Stiles with distaste before facing the blackboard again. "Everyone, eyes up here.”

Stiles had begun to cry silently.

Derek pushed back his chair, and stood up. The other alphas all followed him with glinting eyes. Derek ignored them. Walking over, he scooped a hand around the twiggy arm and tugged at the kid to get to his feet. He had to do it again before Stiles came up like a giant doll being pulled out of the lake, waterlogged and heavy.

“Come on,” Derek said. He wrapped an arm around the waist. Stiles was nearly dead weight, stumbling blindly as Derek led him out the room. The hallway was empty, and the air was cool. Not that it seemed to be helping Stiles much; his forehead was beaded with sweat and his eyes were glassy, unseeing.

“Where… where?” Stiles said.

“I don’t know,” Derek said. He caught sight of the restroom, but three feet away from the yellow-dripping urinals while lying on the grubby, cold tiles was not where he wanted to be doing this. Then he saw the entrance to the boy’s locker room, and knew he didn’t have much of a choice at this point.

Stiles was still crying quietly, overwhelmed and scared, a hand pressed against his lower stomach. He let out a gasp, legs buckling. 

“Derek. Please.”

Derek pulled him up, holding him tighter. “It’s okay. I got you. Come on.”

He shouldered his way in, half-dragging Stiles along, and the stink of sweat and unwashed uniforms welcomed them. Inside, some junior was folding towels.

“Leave,” Derek bit out. The guy took one look and did as he was told. The door swished shut and they were alone.

He lowered Stiles onto one of the slotted benches, not taking his hands away until Stiles’ head was resting on the wood. But when Derek reached for the button of Stiles' jeans, a badly shaking hand clasped his wrist.

“No,” Stiles said, then cried out when another cramp hit him. “You don’t want this.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Derek said angrily. “It needs to be done. It’s not going to go away on its own, you know that.”

The pain would be unrelenting, and not taken care of, could last up to a week.

“But you don't - ”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Stiles' chest hitched, tears wetting his temple. Derek wondered what he was thinking, whether he was even capable of thought in his heat-addled state. Derek didn’t think he had ever seen anyone look so hopeless.

“Or do you want someone else?” Derek said.

Already his wolf was rearing its head, snarling viciously at the thought of ceding Stiles over to another alpha. But he needed to ask. “Stiles. You want someone else, you need to tell me now,” he said roughly. He wasn’t going to be one of the multitude of animals who took whatever they wanted, just because they wanted.

“I want it to be you,” Stiles said. "Derek, I want - "

Derek nodded that he understood. God, he was so fucking selfish. It wasn’t right, him doing this, it was the epitome of selfishness, but he wanted so much…
He tried to focus, setting aside his guilt and self-loathing for the moment. Now was not the time for that. He pulled Stiles’ pants off with some difficulty, sliding it off his ankles and dropping it to the floor. The front of Stiles’ white underwear was drenched see-through and Derek peeled the fabric away. Stiles’ erection lay heavy on his flat stomach, the tip so shiny and swollen, so virulently plum-red that it looked almost fake. Derek fumbled a bit with his own jeans. Both their shirts he left on, a way to remind himself that this wasn’t… wasn’t anything meaningful. Stiles was watching him, face screwed tight in pain, flushed, impatient, fearful that Derek would change his mind midway.

Derek slowly positioned himself between Stiles’ trembling thighs. He left his useless leg to dangle off the bench, knowing he wouldn’t be able to bear much weight on it.

He pushed in, inch by inch, and Stiles’ back arched, bucking and twisting in surprise. With a gasp, both his hands shot out to clutch Derek’s arms, fingers digging into his flesh as he tried desperately to hold himself still.

“Derek,” Stiles said. His name, spoken like a prayer, a balm along a wound that had been festering open for years, and Derek felt like crying upon hearing it. He began to stroke in, and Stiles’ breathing turned whimpery and ragged. He writhed in frustration, trying to get Derek in deeper.

The next few hours became a blur, lost to the fever of having a warm body against his, the act of becoming one with Stiles. He was intoxicated by Stiles’ heat, the way Stiles held him close and refused to let go, at the words that Stiles whispered into his ear, the lips skimming his cheek like a caress. He took Stiles again and again, until, eventually, he lost count of how many times it had been. And it still wasn't enough.

Through it all, he had almost forgotten about his leg. For a while, it was nothing more than something set to the side, a minor buzz in the background. But as Stiles’ heat finally began to dissipate and exhaustion sink in, his limbs turned wooden after hours of holding himself up, and his movements grew slow and sloppy.

One badly-angled thrust bumped his knee all wrong against the wood and he sucked in a hiss when razor-sharp pain danced up his leg. He had to stop, and he rested his forehead against Stiles’ sweat-damp shoulder. Stiles made a sound of distress and his hips rolled helplessly.

“Derek. Don’t. Don’t stop,” he panted. “I need you. Hurts.”

“Yeah, just…” He tried to catch his breath. “Give me a minute.”

Stiles seemed to understand. Hands touched each side of his face reverently, stroking the skin there. “It’s okay. Slow. Slow,” Stiles murmured, still in no state to form coherent sentences. “I’m okay.”

Derek began to move again, wearily, almost wretchedly. He hated himself, because this was all he could give Stiles, this unsatisfying, limited, this utterly pitiful attempt to take care of his m – of Stiles. He couldn’t give it to Stiles as hard as he wanted, as hard as he needed, and here, even through his haze, Stiles was reassuring him and soothing him, when it should have been the other way around...

Stiles pulled him down and pressed their foreheads together, one hand brushing Derek’s dripping hair away from his eyes.

It was nearly over now. The urgency was gone, turning their movements languid and unhurried, less frantic. Derek knew this would be the last time he would ever hold Stiles against him, and the knowledge filled him with the same keen, black despair he experienced when he was given the news by an apathetic doctor that his family was gone.

Stiles was peppering his jaw and cheek with kisses, kisses so sweet and tender that it broke Derek’s heart. “I’m glad it’s you. I’m so, so, glad, Derek. I’m so grateful - ”

And that was too much. Derek came quietly, with a shudder, head wrenched to the side so Stiles wouldn’t see the tears welling in the corner of his eyes, and Stiles followed soon after, as if determined to follow Derek to the bitter end.

Stiles tilted his chin up, silently requesting a kiss, but Derek turned his own head away. The heat was gone now, as if it had never been, and there was no need for any of that. Stiles went still, skin going from furnace-hot to clammy and he began to shiver. He reached out, wanting to wrap around Derek and hug tight, but Derek was pulling away, in every sense of the word.

"No," Stiles said disconsolately, clenching as he tried to keep Derek from slipping out. But Derek got to his feet, gritting his teeth at the unpleasant ant-crawling sensation of feeling returning to numbed muscles.

Stiles pulled himself up from the bench slowly, spine aching after being locked in one uncomfortable position for the past few hours, and his eyes searched Derek’s face with sickening anxiety, looking for signs that Derek might be angry at him. Derek refused to look at him.

“Go in and wash up,” Derek said roughly, indicating the shower room.

Stiles’ mouth parted as if he had been socked in the stomach. “You’re leaving?” he asked, in a small voice.

“No. I’ll be here.” He could do that much, at least. Stiles didn’t deserve to be treated like a one night stand, waking up to empty space on the bed the day after.

Stiles stood for moment as if he didn’t believe Derek, then slowly disappeared behind the tiled wall. There was the squeak of a faucet and the splash of water.

Derek sat on the edge of the bench, the pain in his leg for once in the back of his mind. Only now was he starting to realize all the mistakes he had made. He hadn’t prepared Stiles in any way, no lube, no stretching, simply thinking, if he had been thinking at all, that the heat slick would be enough, and he remembered, horrified, the way Stiles had cried out, sharp and pained, when he entered him. His body seizing up in shock at the sensation of being penetrated.
He hadn’t worn a condom, and there was a chance of pregnancy, he hadn’t secured an optimal location, safe from predators, and anyone could have come in and pried Stiles away and finished the job in his place. God, he was such a fucking joke.

The one, single consolation was that he hadn’t knotted Stiles. It would be okay. It was almost impossible for a bond to form when a knot hadn’t occurred. So it would be okay. It had to be. Stiles wouldn’t have to be tied to him forever, doomed to spend the rest of his life with a useless, useless wolf.

And as he was thinking this, Stiles stepped out. He had washed with nothing more than water, as quickly as he could, and Derek realized Stiles had been scared he would leave despite his promise that he wouldn’t.

Wordlessly, Derek headed into the stall. There were enough showerheads that taking turns wasn’t necessary, but he couldn’t bear the thought of having Stiles naked and in close proximity to him. He quickly scrubbed himself clean under the stream of hot water, sluicing off the fluids coating his stomach. When he came back out, Stiles was sitting quietly on the bench, clothed, staring down at his lap. Derek reached for his clothes and dressed as quickly as he could.

When they left the locker room, Derek saw that someone had written ‘out of order’ on a sheet of paper with a black marker and taped it to the door. Underneath, in a different colored pen and handwriting, was “omega fucking in session” in small, crude letters.

The hall had been empty when they entered the locker room and it was just as empty now. School had ended some time ago and the building was deserted. The sun was setting over the horizon and the sky was two-toned in orange and blue. They met the janitor in the dim corridor and his wrinkled, dusty face brightened.

“You two all done? Mind if I lock up now?”

“Yes, we’re done,” Derek said. “Thank you.”

“Not at all. Not at all. He take good care of you?” the man said, chuckling. Stiles nodded stiltedly, eyes cast on the floor.

Neither of them said a word as they fetched their bags and left the school grounds. The air was nippy and Stiles soon began to shiver in earnest. Derek took off his jacket and they both stopped so Stiles could put it on. Derek kept his distance, trying not to breathe through his nose, because Stiles smelled so much like he belonged to him that it was taking him all he had not to knock him down and clamp his teeth into the cords of the pale neck until he tasted blood and Stiles was mewling in submission.

This time, Derek walked him all the way. The building was shaped like a huge brick made up of smaller bricks, punctuated with murky windows and limp curtains. An air of dreariness hung over the entire area. Out front, a large sign read Browne’s Boarding House for Omegas.

He went up the path leading to the front door, and Stiles trailed behind him, looking like a waif wearing a too-large jacket.

“You need to take the pill,” Derek told him. Stiles glanced up, startled, and nodded.

“Yeah. I’ll do that,” he said quietly.

Derek nodded. This was as far as it went between them. He took a step back.

“Derek,” Stilinski said forlornly. “Wait - ”

“You can give me my jacket back tomorrow,” Derek said. He turned around and forced himself to walk away.

And it was saying something, that in a long list of hard things he’d had to do in his short time on earth, this was one of the hardest.

 


 

The next day, it was all over school, that cripple Derek Hale had been the one to see Stilinski through his first heat.

“Were you even able to get it up?” Jackson sneered at Derek.

“That would be so humiliating,” said another girl, “having to do it with someone who’s, you know, handicapped.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Jackson said. It was hard to believe, once upon a time, that they had been good friends.

They went on, as if he wasn’t even sitting in the room with them a few feet away, as if his ears had gone bad along with his leg. Derek kept his eyes locked on the textbook in front of him and let them talk. It didn’t matter.

 


 

“Derek.”

Stiles was calling his name from the other end of the hallway. Derek didn’t bother turning around and instead kept going.

“Wait. Derek. Stop.”

There was the rubbery squeak of sneakers on the tiles. One of the curses of having a leg that hurt when you walked was that you couldn’t get anywhere fast. No matter where you went, it was at a snail’s pace. Stiles caught up to him easily and stood square in his way, blocking him. His determined, set face filled Derek’s view.

“We need to talk.”

Derek shook his head. “I don’t have anything say.”

“Well, I do! So you’re going to listen,” Stiles said,

Derek gestured angrily with his arm. So talk. He had no choice but to listen. It wasn’t as if he could run off. It would just embarrass everyone involved.

“How are you doing?” Stiles said. He made as if to reach out and touch him, but Derek drew back, going rigid.

“What do you want?” Derek said. He wanted to tell Stiles to stop fucking looking at him that way. The gentle concern in Stiles’ large eyes was unbearable.

Stiles lowered his arms to his sides. The color had returned to his cheeks, but he looked small and lost, fragile. “I wanted… to thank you, I guess. I know you didn’t want to do it. So thank you.”

Derek had known this would happen. He hadn’t wanted to do it because it wouldn’t be like how it was for other alphas, who were merely responding to the mindless, animalistic compulsion to fuck anything in heat. They could walk away after the deed was done without so much as a backward glance, washing their hands completely of the omega they had fucked. But that wasn’t the case for him. The past few weeks with Stiles had been nice, comforting, and without knowing it, the lonely wolf in him had responded to the offering of companionship, to the attention, and the deep-buried desire to form a pack again and have someone to take care of had been awakened. And it was tantamount to a death sentence. He wanted Stiles now, he wanted him so much that it was a physical ache, as tangible as the pain he carried in his leg, the endless pain he carried in his heart, and he didn’t know why, but his wolf kept insisting that Stiles was his

“There’s nothing to thank me for. You needed help and I gave it to you,” Derek said curtly. End of story. It had been nothing more than inserting tab A into slot B. An act of charity. It was foolishness, making more of it than it actually was. He would only hurt Stiles by doing so. As for his wolf…it was just confused, that was all.
He tried to step around Stiles, but hands reached out, stopping him in place.

“So, what? You’re never going to talk to me again? Is that your brilliant plan? Gee, Derek. I didn’t think you’d be a ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’ kind of guy.”

“Well, I guess you were wrong, then. You don’t know anything about me.”

“Derek, you're not – ”

Derek interrupted him. “I’m late for class,” he said. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing more to say, on both their parts. He limped off.

 


 

Derek started avoiding Stiles after that. It was difficult, seeing Stiles’ miserable little face everywhere, but the kid seemed to have gotten the message and he no longer followed Derek around like a second shadow. He was withdrawn and he seldom spoke in class, so different from how he used to be, but he left Derek alone. That was the important thing, Derek kept telling himself.

Inexplicably, life went on. But another layer of torture had been added to it now. Because now Derek knew how Stiles tasted on his tongue, knew how Stiles looked as he came, the beautiful noises he made. He could still hear Stiles’ voice in his head, telling him how grateful he was, how he had always wanted Derek.

He cursed the fire for taking everything away from him. Not only his family, but any possibility of happiness with a mate. If it hadn’t been for his leg, he would have courted Stiles properly. He would have been able to be a good alpha – powerful, demanding respect, an excellent provider and protector – one that Stiles would have been proud to be seen with. As it were, he was a godawful joke.

At night, alone in his apartment, he would crawl into bed and lay awake, his leg burning as if it still carried within its bones the fire that had killed his pack, and with all his might, try not to think of the dreary future that awaited him.

 


 

A new resident had moved into the apartment building. During the early hours of a weekend morning, a small moving van pulled into the parking lot, the size indicating that newcomer didn’t have much. Two stocky men in uniform carried a scant number of furniture and boxes into the first floor apartment, then disappeared in a cloud of black exhaust gas.

After they were gone, Derek could make out a faint trailing noise, as if something large was being rolled on the floor, and wondered what it was.
Two days later, he met her. She was in a wheelchair, which Derek realized was the source that mysterious noise. A bumper sticker had been pasted on the back of the seat, and Derek read in black letters: Stop fucking staring at me! Beneath that, there was another one, a cartoon drawing of a middle finger.

The apartment lacked a wheelchair ramp, and he saw that a rudimentary triangular block of wood had been pressed up against the balcony floor so she could enter and exit through the wider double doors. She was swearing strenuously as she tried to bump a large cardboard box forward and get it to move up the ramp.

“Here, let me,” Derek said. He waited a moment, because Weres were sensitive about other people putting hands on their belongings – more so handicapped Weres, whose pride had already been obliterated by being constantly treated like helpless dirt – and you could end up a pile of raw meat trying to be a Good Samaritan. Only when she gave him a sardonic be my guest smile did he bend down and pick up the box. His leg gave a twinge, but nothing happened, and he straightened back up with a quiet sigh of relief. He stood to the side to let her roll in first, and followed behind her.

Inside, he saw that the layout was the same as his own, and the furnishings were just as meager.

“Just toss it over there,” she said, pointing to the corner. He did as he was told, adding it to some more boxes and a pile of clothes. She had not yet unpacked most of her stuff.

“Thanks a bunch,” she said. “I’d have been out there for hours attempting to get that inside.”

“Not a problem.”

She cracked her neck from side to side. “Fuck. To think there’d be a day when a fucking box made me its bitch.”

She swore a lot, he was beginning to see. He regarded her quietly. She was a few years older than him, maybe by five or six years. Her hair was dyed a vibrant copper red that was beginning to show an inch or two of dark brown at the roots. She had on a black tank top and both arms were covered in sleeve tattoos, most of them pack tribal signs. The artwork was beautiful, but none of that interested Derek anymore.

He would have left but something about her intrigued him. The fact that she was in a wheelchair and couldn’t use her legs put him at ease.

“I’m Derek,” he said impulsively.

“I’m a centaur,” she said.

“Excuse me?” he said, taken aback, already regretting his attempt to strike up a conversation.

“I’m a centaur. Only instead of being half horse, I’m half wheelchair.” She laughed at his expression. “Oh man, you should see your face. You’re thinking I’m insane, aren’t you?”

He didn’t know how to answer that. Luckily, she wasn’t expecting one. Chortling at her own joke, she wheeled herself up to a cabinet under the sink and dipped her head down. There was the clink of glass. When she came back up, Derek saw that she had procured two bottles of beer.

“I’m Paige,” she said. “And I love my booze. And since you so kindly stopped to help, I’m willing to share.”

She expertly smacked the cap on the edge of the counter, sending the lid spinning along the Formica, and then passed the bottle to him. He wasn’t legally allowed to drink yet, but fuck it. No one gave a shit.

He took a polite sip, then immediately struggled to swallow it down before he could rush to the sink and spit it out, which was what he wanted to do. His eyes watered and his chest burned. He knew alcohol for wolves were notoriously strong, but holy crap, this was pure battery acid. It felt as if his organs were being liquefied. Why would anyone pay money to drink this shit?

“First time?” Paige said with a wicked grin.

“Yeah,” he wheezed out, setting the bottle on the counter. He was horrified to see that Paige pried open her own cap using her teeth. She began to drink, chugging it down like a whale and as if she didn’t have a gag reflex.

“Wondering what happened to me, huh?” Paige said.

He was curious, although he would never say as much.

“Spinal cord injury,” she said blithely. “Doctor said I’d never walk again.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.” He refrained from asking for details, but she was forthcoming.

“That’s life, I guess. One moment you’re happily cruising along, then the next thing you know, a coked-up son of a teenage bitch smashes your car into smithereens, you have a wheelchair permanently attached to your ass, and your pack is telling you they never want to see your face again.”

He was trying to figure out whether she meant she’d been hit by a teenager, or the son of a teenage mom and it took a moment for the more important part to sink in. “Your pack disowned you?” he said in disbelief.

She grinned savagely. “Yeah. Can you believe that? My own pack kicked me out. Said I was no use to them anymore like this. Said I’d sully their reputation. The fuckers.” She tossed her head back and took a long swig of her beer. 

Derek was stunned. Your own pack. Your own flesh and blood telling you to get lost, you weren’t wanted anymore. The thought frightened him, made him sick to his stomach.
Would his parents have kicked him out? It was all too easy to imagine Peter turning him away, telling Derek that he was cramping his style, but his parents? Laura and Cora? For one terrible moment, Derek was glad he would never find out. He wiped his mouth, wanting to get rid of the bitterness. His hands were shaking.

Paige wheeled towards the box Derek had brought in. Pulling out a pocketknife from her jacket pocket, she stabbed it into tape holding the sides together and dragged it through. She rummaged around the box, taking things out and setting them to the side. A book. A green sweater. A large dartboard.

“I have no idea why I bought this with me. Should have smashed it repeatedly over his fucking head until his skull cracked,” she said irately.

Derek had no idea who she was talking about, but didn’t ask.

“What happened to you?” she said, still looking down at the dartboard she had set on her lap. She was stroking it almost absently. “Don’t be shy. Tit for tat.”

He supposed it was only fair. “There was a fire. At home.”

“And you burned your leg?”

He still found it difficult to talk about and he spoke haltingly. “No. I mean, yes, that too. But the ceiling collapsed and landed on my leg, broke it in four places. It didn’t heal properly, for whatever reason, and it never went back to normal. I can’t use it very well.”

“Yeah? Is it one of those legs that can’t feel anything?” She held up a dart, her grin mischievous, and flicked her thumb along the pointed end. “Like if I stick this in your thigh without you knowing it, you won’t notice it at all?”

“No, I’ll feel it. All it does is hurt.” He didn’t add that sometimes the pain was so bad it kept him up at night.

“Hmm. And your pack?”

His mouth moved, but he couldn't get the words out.  "Dead. All nine of them," he finally managed to say.

“Oh,” Paige said somberly. “I'm so sorry. That fucking sucks.”

“Yeah.” It kind of did.

“C’est la vie,” she proclaimed. “That’s French for ‘life fucking sucks.’”

He stared glumly out at the parking lot and the old, rusty cars. “Yeah,” he echoed.

He glanced up when a hand patted him on the shoulder.

“Well. Nice to meet you, fellow leg cripple,” she said.

Had anyone else said it, it would have pissed him off, but he supposed he didn’t have the right to get pissy, not when she had lost the use of both legs. He felt a strange affinity towards her. Fellow leg cripple, indeed.

“Nice to meet you, too,” he said.

He stayed, making small talk until she finished her beer, and then his beer, and then another beer out of the cabinet. And true, it didn’t take her all that long to finish the three bottles, maybe ten minutes, tops, but as he left her place, telling her goodnight, he realized it was the most he had spoken to anyone in a very long time.