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The Grief That Does Not Speak

Chapter Text

“Give sorrow words.
The grief that does not speak,
whispers the o'erfraught heart
and bids it break.”
-- William Shakespeare (Macbeth, Act 4)

-

Derek fit his knees into his palms, gripping them restlessly under the table. The homey restaurant lights were warm and yellow, and the surface in front of him was faintly textured. It was long, this table, and his alpha was next to him, posture both wary and eager.

The alphas across from him? Less so.

A tiny red haired woman calmly regarded his alpha, her chin propped up on a veined and aged hand. Her husband next to her, a handsome man with salt and pepper streaks through his thick hair and beard, leaned back, arms crossed over his chest and expression inscrutable.

Raymundo and Nancy Nunez represented the powerful Nunez pack from Oregon. Eighty werewolves strong, the group had not been in power when Derek’s mother had been alive, nor when the alpha pack swept through the region with lethal force. Instead, like the McCall pack, they slowly built up their alliances and resources over the years. Unlike the McCall pack, the Nunez pack picked up omegas and small groups left and right, continuously adding on to their power.

The McCall pack was notoriously... picky. And diverse.

Derek didn’t need to tell Scott how bad it was that the Nunez alphas had their eyes on Beacon Hills so far south. That they had such a great reputation was irrelevant.

But this meeting wasn’t about the Nunez pack, but rather one of the many packs that they were harboring—the Graysons.

Harboring was a great way to secure alliances and cement friendships. In fact, Satomi Ito harbored the McCall pack ten years ago during their worst of times. Scott had a chance to return the favor recently. The pack or omega being harbored had to follow the rules of their host pack, but if anyone moved against them, treated them wrong, or killed a loved one, well… they had an instant ally.

So, in essence, this was entirely, 100%, Derek’s fault.

He'd killed one of their loved ones.

The lone beta there stared Derek down accusingly, her red rimmed eyes and dark ferocity giving away her second status. She had wispy brown hair pulled up in a bun. The paleness of her skin was augmented by fatigue and grief, turning it faintly gray and pink in places. Her name was Mallory, Derek remembered.

In stark contrast to her was the tiny alpha next to her—female, fifteen, and trying so hard to sit up straight and look like the other two alphas on her side of the table. Her springy, black corkscrew curls were the same color as her eyes, and three shades darker than her smooth skin. Her name was Dana, and she reeked with fear every time Derek met her gaze. Derek didn't blame her. Situation aside, she was the Graysons' chosen alpha.

Derek was technically their actual alpha. If he wanted to push it. He shrunk back in his chair, feeling three inches tall.

“So you understand the situation?” Raymundo drawled. "Hm, Alpha McCall?"

Scott straightened up at that, looking every inch of the thirty-two year old man that he was. “I do. Do you?” He leaned forward on his elbows, expression grave. “After all, Alpha Grayson was the one to attack my pack. Not the other way around.”

“Your pack wasn’t even in your territory,” the second bit harshly, her eyes flashing yellow.

“And your alpha wasn’t in yours,” Scott countered coolly. Derek didn’t say a word. The second--Mallory, he reminded himself--stank of grief and desperation.

This. Was. Derek's. Fault. No matter what anyone else said.

Derek told Scott exactly what happened—everything from start to finish. Scott didn’t grill him. Scott didn’t make him repeat a thing. Instead, he bolstered up the pack, bringing them all back to the house, preparing them for war—the same kind of war they fought over and over in the infancy of their extended family. Derek had greeted the strategy with a sense of guilty doom.

But instead of betas on their doorstep, claws extended, they received a crisp invitation that very meeting, and packet full of kind of contract they would be agreeing to if they proceeded.

Everyone was thrown by this. Scott took the packet and retreated to his office, reading it through. He came back out in an hour, bright eyed and excited. Derek didn’t have to listen to his explanation to know why.

It was formally called an appeals process. In essence, it was a formal complaint from one pack about another regarding the behavior of a member--or groups of members--of a pack. A statement of fact was presented to both parties and a third, neutral overseer. The neutral overseer and the applicant pack then performed a series of tests to prove or disprove the statement of fact. These tests were reviewed and designed by all three parties. It was designed for minimal bloodshed and maximum harmony.

It was also something the McCall pack had absolutely no experience with.

The Nunez pack was notoriously progressivist. Whatever their personal inclinations were, the Graysons had no choice but to follow suit.
Traditionalists fought with fang and claw, addressed conflict and discord with violence and dominance displays. Progressivists, on the other hand, fought with contracts and niceties and agreements. It could be just as vicious and brutal.

His own mother had strayed to the progressivist side, but kept an iron grip on the contracts. Everything was verbal and thus more malleable, and she never let anyone use their pack as collateral—as was standard procedure in progressivist negotiations. If a pack strayed from the agreed upon rules of the appeals process, either of the two other parties had the right to slaughter every last person in the offending pack--from eldest grandparent to youngest child.

It was extreme--too extreme--even if it did insure that people kept their promises. It nevertheless was a quandary Talia Hale never wanted to see someone in.

Nancy and Raymundo were very traditional progressivists. That clause was written into the process itself and would not be changed.

Regardless of the risks, Scott had jumped on the idea of being able to stop the fight cold at a negotiating table. After long hours of debate with his right and left hands, as well as his second, he agreed to meet the packs at the diner. He thought of their future, a new way for their pack to move forward with other packs.

All Derek could think of was the immediate past: Mitchell Grayson coming out of the trees at a run, jumping at him, tearing at him. Throwing him to the floor like he weighed nothing, dripping claws heading for his throat. Mitchell Grayson was an alpha in a frenzy--a feral, uncontrollable rage--and Derek had just barely survived meeting him.

And now, according to the appeals process, Derek was the wolf in a frenzy, not Mitchell. He attacked some random stranger and just so happened to get the jump on a relatively new alpha. It was the only thing that made sense to them.

Derek could understand the doubt. He was a beta. He shouldn’t have had a chance against an alpha by himself, let alone a rampaging one. But he was a Hale. More importantly, he was a Hale in the McCall pack, and the McCall pack was legendary for fighting back when most would lay down and give up.

“They’ve painted themselves in a bad corner by trying to pin the frenzy thing on you,” Scott told him on the way to the diner. “They’d have an easier time if they tried to argue that you killed Mitchell in cold blood. But that doesn’t matter. This works in our favor. We’ll follow the rules of their tests. We’ll let them do their observations. Once they see that you were not—and never have been—in frenzy, they’ll leave.”

“Since when has it ever been that easy?” Derek had asked. Then he asked if he should leave, if he should give Scott some plausible deniability. Scott never liked that question.

But despite Derek’s worst imaginings, this was actually going rather well. Boundaries were laid out, plans were made, and schedules were decided on. The tests were still being designed and thought of, but Scott would be informed before they occurred. Derek, on the other hand, was likely not to know about them until after they passed.

This was going great, considering the alternative. Then Nancy dropped the one question Derek couldn't really answer:

“Where’s your mate?”

-

“How heteronormative,” Lydia drawled.

Stiles snorted in his mouthful of salsa, then tried to pretend it was Liam. She pursued her lips at him, eyes narrowing, and that look of disdain—leveled from Mayor Lydia Martin of the smart business suits and power red lipsticks—was so much more powerful than her high school counterpart’s. Stiles mockingly shook his head at Liam, tsking all the while.

Liam rolled his eyes, leaning away from Stiles. Stiles had that effect on people.

“Not exactly… heteronormative,” Scott replied, though he sounded dubious. He was breaking apart tortilla chips between his fingers, hardly going to town on their table’s spread like Stiles—and, incidentally, like all the rest of the adults. “It goes back to anchor theory. Mates are considered the ultimate anchor, even if they aren’t technically the thing that helps you. They’re a… stabilizing force. I guess.”

Scott’s hesitance didn’t come from his own relationship issues. He and Kira got married after high school and were tight ever since. But back when his anchor was Allison, Scott had an epically hard time maintaining control. Since then, they’ve always taught the betas in their pack to never rest their anchor in any one person. Relationships—even the best of them—can become intensely complicated.

Stiles slid his eyes down the table. Scott had fit the eaves into it to make everyone a space, but it was still crowded. Stiles’ elbows were crammed in Liam and Isaac’s sides, so he had to consciously remember not to make too many gestures. Also present was his and Scott’s parents, Parrish, Mason, Jackson, and Kira.

Five years deep in retirement, John Stilinski was dressed like he was going fishing every day of the week, even if he happened to have an acute loathing of the activity. Melissa was still in her scrubs and Mason clearly forgot to take his vet tech coat. Jackson was the only one douche-y enough to wear a full suit to these things, like he was afraid that they would all forget he was a partner in a major international law firm.

And then there was Derek. He sat at the end of the table, across from Scott but well away from the friendly tangle of limbs that was Scott’s dining room. Always present, always apart, as usual. Stiles narrowed his eyes at that placid face.

After a beat, Derek’s eyes swung from Scott to Stiles. They narrowed as well.

Derek was a handful of years shy of forty—just a handful. But he still looked good. Hard won laugh lines crinkled at the edges of his eyes at all times, which made him a tad more approachable than when Stiles was in high school. And a tad more distracting too. He still had those broad shoulders with a physique that said he never even breathed in a donut, let alone ate a baker’s dozen of them in one sitting, which Stiles did once. (Twice.)

At some point in the last three years, Derek had shifted from semi-attractive stubble to a full on beard and didn’t go back. Stiles wanted to say that alone was unattractive—like, dude, you gave up—but it really, really wasn’t.

Stiles hadn’t seen the guy in a full year before last week, when Derek literally crashed into the garage. They were all lucky it was a separate building and that Scott’s house—the pack house—was parked deep into the Preserve. But all Stiles remembered was running at the sounds of the little ones screaming, and finding that rundown Toyota embedded in the sheet metal.

He was the first one there, peeling Derek out of the driver’s seat, unhooking his clawed fingers off of the steering wheel one by one. He’d been a bloody mess and practically comatose. But no one had been more surprised than Stiles when Derek let out a spine tingling growl when Liam and Mason ran up to help, burning red eyes glaring daggers into them both.

Stiles had to carry Derek all by himself to the house, which he still maintained Derek did on purpose.

“How did you hide the fact that Derek’s single?” Isaac asked curiously, passing Stiles a cup of soda. Mouth full, Stiles rocked into him appreciatively, which the reserved beta pretended not to notice.

“I redirected the question,” Scott replied. His mountain of tortilla chip crumbs was growing. “But we need to be ready for the tests. We need to pretend he’s not single, that he’s being supported by a mate.”

“Three alphas with a combined network of over a hundred and twenty wolves,” Jackson said, eyebrows rising, “and you want us to lie to them?”

Stiles lifted his finger, pointing it at Jackson wordlessly. Douche-boy had a point.

“If we admit Derek doesn’t have a mate, then they’re gonna take that as evidence that he’s unstable. They want a reason to prove that that Derek is the one in the wrong, that he could have gone into a frenzy instead of the other way around.” Scott’s eyes flicked between Lydia and Stiles. “They'll push him harder and harder if they know he doesn't have a mate. They'll try to provoke him. And we all know new alpha instincts can do to a person.”

Stiles looked anywhere but Derek. A lot of the pack had a shared history about what happened before and were likely thinking of what being an alpha did to Peter Hale—either the first or the second time.

But Stiles didn’t think about Peter. He rarely did. Instead, he thought about high school. Scott had been a bit of a douche when he turned, sure, but such times were rare and far between and tended not to last long because of Scott’s inherent good nature. Once he had control, those incidents dropped down to zero. When he turned into an alpha, it barely impacted his personality or the way he operated.

But Derek? Derek did a one eighty when he leveled up, and, worse, he had control the whole time. To Stiles, there were very few things more terrifying than an ally-turned-enemy. Red eyes, a smirk across a street, effortless intimidation—he could deal with an enemy like that, but a former friend? Even when Derek was actively saving their collective hides, that anxious feeling never went away. He was never sure of where Derek stood with them after he tore out his uncle’s throat.

But that was years and years ago. Things were different now… weren’t they?

Despite his own conviction not to look, Stiles’ attention shifted over to that lonely end of the table. Derek was staring at his hands, clasped and empty on the table. He looked uncomfortable, like a third grader getting caught writing on desks.

And, despite himself, despite their history, Stiles winced. He’d been unkind. Derek was hardly a some twenty-something year old with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He’d grown since then. They all had. Derek was the same person who turned his back on a kanima to push Stiles into safety, the same person who tried to capture the nogitsune instead of killing its host, the same person who built their youngest adopted beta Susie a play closet because she didn’t feel safe in open spaces.

“Are we sure honesty’s not the best approach?” John asked.

Scott looked dead straight at his stepfather. “Absolutely.”

John stared at him for a moment longer before nodding once and settling back in his chair. “Okay,” he said gamely, crossing his arms over his chest. “Got any ideas?”

“It has to be pack,” Melissa commented, propping her chin on the heel of her palm. “Clearly.” Her eyes started moving up and down the table, weighing them.

Jackson smirked when she hesitated on him, opening his hands. “My heterosexuality has been well documented.

Lydia groaned softly, looking pained. Isaac muttered something under his breath that, to Stiles’ human ears, sounded like “…holes in your evidence.” Whatever it was, it earned him a livid sapphire eyed stare.

“Mom’s right,” Scott said, ignoring that exchange. “Derek needs a pretend mate, it has to be one of us, and it can’t be me.” He made a bleak face at Kira, who mirrored it.

The two of them were a pretty infamous pair in the supernatural world, which was too bad. They made great pretend partners. Stiles himself had taken them both to annoying police functions. Kira was always hilarious and beautiful, but his best friend cleaned up real nice in a suit and could befriend anyone.

There was a long pause.

“So who is it going to be?” Mason asked nervously. “Certainly not someone who has a human boyfriend who doesn’t know about pack yet?” He glared at them all. It was a sensitive issue for him.

Stiles wasn’t unsympathetic—after college, all of his partners were out of the loop too. And because they were out of the loop, all those relationships ended horribly. Mason had sworn up and down he wasn’t going to follow Stiles’ footsteps, but the strain was already there. It wouldn’t survive pretend-dating their town’s most eligible bachelor.

So Mason was out. Stiles looked around for more options.

Lydia was sizing Derek up with her eyes. She was between partners at the moment, but even fake dating a mayor could have its complications.

Isaac and Liam had relationship issues that Derek didn’t need piled up on him for the duration of their fake relationship.

Parrish was notoriously married to his job—when he wasn’t with Lydia, that is—and Stiles and Scott’s parents were actually married.

Which left…

Which left...

Oh.

Goddamnit.

Stiles dropped his head slightly, saying good-bye to his free time. Then he made a big show of standing. “I volunteer as tribute.”

-

Derek hated the Hunger Games. Passionately. And he wasn’t sure, but he might actually hate Stiles Stilinski even more.

And the hard part about it was that Derek knew what he hated about Katniss’ story. He could write essays on it, even, but he wasn’t so sure what he hated about Stiles. Because Stiles was clearly and accomplished and steady adult, right? He held down a job as a deputy of Beacon Hills for years without any complaints—just the opposite, actually. He was also the left hand of the most powerful alpha in their region, and that was a position he’d literally shed blood, sweat, and tears over.

Stiles was… an admirable person. When you looked at it that way. But he still got on Derek’s nerves, and in ways he couldn’t quite explain.

Maybe it was the way Stiles was so assured and confident about everything. He was such a know-it-all when he was going up. Derek never failed to pass up an opportunity to prove him wrong, but challenging worked less and less as they got older. Through force of will and catastrophic situations, Stiles turned from a wannabe know-it-all to an actual know-it-all. He even knew more about werewolves than Derek himself, which hardly seemed fair.

But maybe it wasn’t that. Derek always appreciated and admired people with knowledge, so it couldn’t have been entirely that... right?

Maybe it was because, of all people, Stiles reminded him of Peter. They had the same sharp eyes and decisive opinions, the same way of looking at a person and seeing all their flaws laid out on a platter.

But… that wasn’t right either, was it? Peter was loyal to no one. Stiles’ loyalty was iron clad, absolute. Scott and Stiles had their difficulties over the years, but everyone knew that Stiles would be only steps behind Scott in any situation, even before Scott’s technical second, Liam.

Yes. Maybe loyalty, Stiles’ most admirable trait, was the reason behind Derek’s intense dislike. Derek knew how deeply it ran. How strongly it held.

How little he deserved it. How little he received.

And maybe Derek also saw Stiles’ eyes as being a mirror of the pack’s thoughts of him. Only that could explain how defensive he felt whenever Stiles’ attention turned on him.

He felt… wanting. As always. Not quite good enough for the pack. Not quite good enough for the left hand of Scott McCall. A failed alpha, a horrible beta, a not very nice person.

And now Stiles was making a mockery of situation he’d gotten them all in, like he wasn’t feeling guilty enough. Smirking, smiling, making a nuisance of himself.

Humiliated, but unwilling to show it, Derek opened his mouth to lay down the parameters of this arrangement, bitterly lamenting bringing this to his pack’s front door. Even if Mitchell's vengeful second had hunted him down and killed him herself, surely running would have been the better option here.

-

Stiles let Derek out of the front door, ears still ringing from the argument that had erupted when they discussed how he was going to pretend to be Derek’s mate. He fumed silently, ears reddening.

He hated Derek Hale.

Look, it wasn’t like he didn’t understand Derek’s reservations—they didn’t even hug, let along hold hands. And it wasn’t like he didn’t understand and respect Derek’s boundaries—above cloth only, no kissing. It was just…

Just…

Ugh!

The way it said. The expression Derek leveled on him. That tone. The man was the werewolf equivalent of a cold shoulder, and he always had been. Stiles didn’t know why he was so surprised.

Either way, this was very difficult for Stiles to stand. He used to look up to Derek, kinda. And still did a little. But it was hard not feeling like a waste of space next to him, especially when Derek treated him with such contempt, such obvious distain.

Stiles used to think it was a human thing. He had a wild moment in his senior year of college when he asked Scott to turn him into a werewolf too, if only to make Derek accept him as part of the pack. He only pulled his head out of his ass because Scott was crying and asking what he did wrong, what he could do to make Stiles finally feel safe—like he didn’t already and wasn’t just being self-conscious.

So Stiles swore he would never make another decision based off of what Derek Hale thought of him. He would meet indifference with indifference, contempt with contempt.

The thing is… it was actually really hard to hate Derek Hale? Especially in their pack.

For example, the blind adoration the betas had for him was immense. Of course, Stiles knew they liked him too—he was the fun one. But Derek was something else entirely—a leather jacketed man of mystery. A hot, less green Yoda, even.

He was also loaded. He’d put his fortune into real estate, investments paying off in a massive way. Now he had a lot of money and time to spend, and he tended to spend it on their pack. He was still awkward as all hell though. When he was younger, his attitude towards people was decided to be creepy, off putting, and even murderer-y. But now he was rich, it was written off as eccentric and quirky.

But his money didn’t matter to the pack. It was enough that he showed up during holidays and birthdays and times of strife. It was enough that he’d spend hours with their pack’s kids, making sure they were alright and doing good in school and practicing their control. It was enough that he supported them so much in so many different ways. If Scott was the head of the pack, and Lydia and Stiles were the hands, then Derek was the heart. And that wasn’t a goddamn sentimental notion, okay? It was the honest truth.

They were lesser without him.

But he never really seemed to fit either, always skirting around the edges of the pack. He rarely stayed in one place for very long. He sat in the desert with his sister until she got sick of him and kicked him out. He rolled around with the wolves in Alaska until it got cold, then came back to Beacon Hills before starting the whole cycle all over again. Always present, never there, kind of thing.

It didn't make sense, but they tried to accommodate him. Because Derek was important to them. Derek was good to them. In fact, if Stiles only knew of Derek, and vice versa, he would have adored him too, and solely for all the great things he did for the pack.

But reality was different. Derek knew him and Derek hated him.

So Stiles hated him right back.

Chapter Text

The first test was simple: observation. Simplest thing in the book, in Derek’s opinion.

Naturally, the pack panicked. Worse still, they hovered. Liam was faintly shrill. Mason was sweating. Jackson loomed in the background in an expensive suit, talking threateningly about his firm every time the strangers were in earshot. Like a true friend, Isaac made himself scarce. Derek wished more people followed his example instead of tripping over themselves.

The children didn’t understand the tension in the air and spent most of their time bobbing and weaving their way into adults, loudly asking questions. Of them all, Jackson’s adopted brood was the worst—except for Susie, of course.

Susie was Derek’s favorite.

Not all was terrible. Scott and Kira were exemplary hosts, of course. No complaints there. Also, by unanimous decision, Parrish, John, and Melissa were going to stay out of this as much as possible, keeping a bird’s eye view on the whole process. They weren’t at the house at all.

The only person who really had to be there was Stiles.

Who was late, of course. Derek silently fumed, internally going over every little thing that would go wrong.

Scents weren’t going to be an issue, he found out. Derek already knew they shared a room at the pack house. What he didn’t know is that, because of this room, he and Stiles always smelled a little bit like each other, even when they were ships passing in the night. To strengthen this connection, they’d been swapping sleep shirts for the last week or so, putting on each other’s clothes under their own before going on with their day.

But that was the limit of their cooperation with each other. They avoided each other completely. No need to start a fight, Derek had reasoned with himself early on. Now, he was kicking himself.

They should have at least talked. Developed a strategy. Gotten to a point where they weren’t sullenly glaring at each other across the room-

“-name’s Stiles Stilinski.”

Derek’s head shot up at that. Dropping his book, he headed out into the living room where a tall, broad shouldered deputy was shaking Nancy Nunez’s pale hand. A moment later, the man was dropping Nancy’s grip and reaching for Raymundo’s with a faint nod. He was clad in a well-fitting khaki and tan uniform ubiquitous to his department. Still wearing his belt and his radio, he looked… sturdy. Put together. Entirely unlike the messy haired male with pillow creases still on his face who had mocked Derek’s situation so blithely in front of their pack.

Where did that man go?

Stiles swung his gaze back, taking in Derek. “Hey,” he said without fanfare, raising his eyebrows. His hair was combed back and away from his forehead and he still smelled faintly of the shaving cream he used that morning, slightly musky notes that added to rather than masking his usual scent.

“Hey,” Derek said after a beat, tone tight.

Something flashed over Stiles’ expression then, but before Derek could decipher it, his “mate” was turning back to the alphas with a polite smile.

Then it was like Derek didn’t even exist. The Nunez couple were immediately taken in by Stiles. His cynical side said they showed the human attention only to get a better handle on the inner circle of the McCall pack, but he knew better than that. When Stiles Stilinski turned his full attention on you, it was like being in a center of a spotlight. You had to perform.

Stiles directed the alphas to the couches, engaging them in easy small talk about Oregon and travel times and the events of the day. Derek slowly backed into the kitchen, leaning against a counter.

He felt… off. Like there was a series of steps he was supposed to follow, but didn’t. Like maybe he shouldn’t have hidden in the library and left Scott and Kira alone with the alphas. But he just… couldn’t. Couldn’t sit with somebody who could hurt his pack. Couldn’t sit with someone who was literally in charge of Derek’s fate. Derek could fake only so much.

Irritatingly, Stiles did what Derek couldn’t, and he did so with ease.

Whatever. He was still late. Even Derek wasn’t late.

Derek looked up at the other occupant of the kitchen. Expensive phone in hand, Jackson texted with a quick and efficient hand. Then he looked up, eyebrows high on his forehead, and turned the screen towards Derek. It was a message from Lydia.

Derek, I swear to God, if you don’t get out there with Stiles, I will end you.

Derek flinched. He looked up at Jackson, eyes narrowed. “Traitor,” he mouthed, annoyed that Jackson was apparently giving their intimidating mayor/right hand live updates of Derek’s suffering.

“To who?” Jackson countered softly, smirking. “You? Please.” He gestured to the living room like Derek was a misbehaving dog.

Shooting Jackson a livid expression, Derek reluctantly stepped back out of the kitchen. He went into the living room, shoulders tight. Stiles and the alphas were sitting in opposite couches. Slowly—too slowly—Derek recognized Stiles’ posture, the intent way he faced and scrutinized the Nunez duo.

Stiles’ tardiness had been entirely calculated. The Nunez pack wasn’t just taken with Stiles—they were intimidated.

The McCall pack was small—twenty-five at the most, and too many of them were children. But their alliances made all the difference. Combined, they had agreements and friendships spanned across four states and into Mexico and Britain. Locally, they had the support of the mayor’s office, the sheriff and fire stations, and two of the three news channels. Hunters were friendly with them—sort of—and many shades of supernatural creatures looked up to them and were allied with them.

They were deeply embedded in their community. If they went missing, an army would come looking. Stiles made that abundantly clear. And every time Raymundo and Nancy settled, thinking they understood the scope of the pack they were observing, Stiles name dropped another connection, another powerhouse, another person or group that this big Oregon pack would not want to cross.

All this, under the guise of tedious small talk.

The tight vice over Derek’s lungs slowly eased. He lowered himself to the cushions, sinking into them.

Stiles leaned back and slipped a hand across his shoulders. It was… thoughtless. Or meant to look like it, anyway. It was also well within the boundaries he’d brusquely set up at the meeting in front of all of Stiles’ friends.

Derek's heart rate betrayed him, picking up as he was vaulted into a memory from a few years back—a post-crisis meal. The pack, smaller then, had crammed themselves in a booth at their favorite diner. Derek was sitting next to Stiles, as he usually did. To make room for Isaac, Stiles had thrown his casted, broken arm behind Derek’s shoulders and scooted close. Their thighs had pressed together. Stiles smiled at him twice. Nobody died. It was good.

Still giddy with surviving an actual demon attack, Derek finally made a decision to do something about the weird push-pull tension between the two of them. Anything was better than what they had then. (What they still had now.)

He talked himself out of it when Stiles left the booth to take a phone call.

(Not strong enough, not smart enough, not good enough, he told himself. And he was right.)

Stiles got up to get everyone drinks. Derek stared after him. Then, too late, he caught himself, swinging his gaze back to the Nunez couple.

Surprisingly, one of the alphas, Raymundo, smiled at him kindly. “He lives up to his legend. You must be very proud of him.”

“I am,” Derek replied. It wasn’t a lie.

-

Stiles led Nancy and Raymundo out the door. Buzzing with satisfaction (and a little bit with alcohol), he waved them off. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, letting out a soul aching sigh.

The pack house was quiet. Scott and Kira had rounded up the kids—and the helicopter-betas--and took them all out for dinner. So Derek and Stiles decided to make Nancy and Raymundo dinner. They weren’t sure about the specifics of what the Nunez pack was looking for—only Scott knew, and he wasn’t supposed to tell. But Stiles also figured good food never went down wrong.

So they cooked and fed the alphas dinner—nothing fancy, of course. Aware that they were being “observed”, Stiles tried to show some truth to their massive lie. Once in the groove of cooking, they were fairly in sync, but Stiles wasn’t sure that was convincing enough. Derek was stiff the whole time.

When they all sat down together, the true grilling began. Thankfully, all the polite questions asked were easy to answer honestly—well, sort of. When he couldn't answer with the truth, Stiles leaned heavily on implications and tangential stories. The expected hard and direct questions, however, never came. Neither alpha seemed particularly interested in challenging the facts that Stiles laid down.

Stiles wondered what that meant, that, to two strangers, Stiles-and-Derek were so obvious that it didn’t warrant an immediate investigation, a canine unit, and a foreseen team to debunk the horrible and cruel lie.

He’d been so ready to be challenged. He was kind of disappointed that Ray and Nancy were more interested in chatting socially with another couple than anything else. They barely even wanted to talk about why they were in Beacon Hills.

When Stiles pressed them on this, they exchanged a look. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Raymundo said slowly.

“Derek’s life is in the balance. Color me very, very worried.” His comment was harsh, out of line. It was also the most honest thing he’d said all night.

Visibly sympathetic, Nancy reached across the table, patting his hand. He liked her. She reminded him of a faintly terrifying grandmother he’d had until he was fifteen. Rest in peace, Nana Stilinski.

“The Grayson pack made a very specific statement of fact,” Raymundo said frankly. “In fact, we advised them against it.”

“There are easier arguments to make,” Nancy reminded them. Like the fact that Derek had simply up and murdered Mitchell Grayson. Yeah, Stiles was aware.

“Something’s going on. Either way, this appeals process is designed to ferret out the truth. If the Graysons are proved right, Derek will… well…” Raymundo’s pleasant voice lowered a bit towards the end of this statement.

Stiles gestured to himself and Derek. “But if we’re proved right, no one gets hurt. Right?”

The Nunez alphas exchanged another look. “Not… usually,” Ray admitted.

“Your alpha is very kind. He didn’t set up a counter-appeal or follow-up action. Usually the counter-appeal is that the applicant pack is lying, which is, as you know…” Nancy paused, looking between the two of them. “…very easy to prove.”

So then. At least one of the alphas was aware he wasn't being entirely truthful. He tipped his chin up at her, staring back challengingly. After a beat, she hid a smile behind her glass and changed the subject.

Sometime after this exchange, the night ended without fanfare or bloodshed, just satiated stomachs and traded phone numbers. Raymundo promised to host the next meal, which Stiles was surprised to realize he was looking forward to. Tensions aside, the couple was friendly. He could potentially swing an alliance out of this.

Their pack hadn’t needed such a big alliance before. But they might in the future. The kids were going to grow up eventually. Flirt. Get married. Go to school. Invent something specular or cure cancer.

They needed all the resources they could get.

With a sigh, Stiles pulled away from the door. Derek had already cleaned up the dining room of dishes and was in the kitchen, roughly scraping off leftover food—of which there was very little, Stiles might add.

So he felt completely justified in demanding, “What climbed up your ass and died?”

There was a long pause—so long Stiles assumed Derek was ignoring him. Plates clicked against plates, and then Derek was muttering, “You were late. And you’re trying too hard.”

"T-trying too hard?" Stiles sputtered.

Derek turned then, irritably rubbing his hands dry. "Yeah. Like it's a game for you. Like it's not my life on the line."

Cold washed over Stiles. Whatever feeling of content he had left him like a deflating balloon. Personally, he would have preferred a bat to the gut. Within seconds, the cold settled into something a little less hurt and a lot more angry.

“This isn’t just about you, you selfish son of a bitch,” Stiles bit out. “This is about the entire pack. There isn’t a damn person here who won’t fight a war for you if those alphas decide you’re guilty. Everyone is in danger. There’s no such thing as trying too hard.”

Without waiting for a response, Stiles turned on his heel and headed back to the front door. He slammed it behind him.

-

As he did most mornings, Derek was running. Whether he was in the forests of Alaska or the deserts of New Mexico or Beacon Hills’ own Preserve, it never changed. Feet hitting the ground. Chest aching. Mind finally and gloriously blank.

By the time Derek had navigated his way back to the pack house, someone was coming down the steps of the porch. From a distance, all Derek saw was the tan lines of a deputy, and his heart jumped. Then he got a better look at him.

The unfamiliar cop squinted back at him before warily offering a wave of hello. Disappointed, Derek did the same. Stiles, he thought with an audible sigh.

Stiles… needed an apology. Derek was an ass yesterday. No two ways about it.

He wanted to do it last night, but Stiles didn’t come back until after two in the morning. He reeked of stale coffee, gasoline, and exhaustion. Instead of jumping on him immediately, Derek resolved to leave it for the morning. He hovered awkwardly in the kitchen, wanting to give Stiles the space to lock himself up in their shared room, if he wanted. Derek could find somewhere else to sleep.

Instead, Stiles went straight to Lydia’s room. This was alarming in a way Derek didn’t care to example. He was embarrassed enough to admit he’d shifted, straining his alpha hearing to listen past the sound proofing around most rooms in the house.

But Lydia’s room was empty. Like most of the adults in the pack, she had her own place to live. She only stayed in the pack house when there was an emergency or she had something she was working through. Stiles was just grabbing the bed most likely to be unoccupied.

Mouth twisting, Derek headed the rest of the way up to the pack house just as the other deputy pulled out of their driveway.

Stiles was in the dining room, eating cereal with one hand and flipping through an evidence folder with another. He was fully dressed and looked just as good as he did the other day. Derek was reminded that he rarely saw Stiles in anything other than his ratty weekend wear. He definitely didn’t bother dressing to impress on his days off.

Stiles didn’t look up. “Swap shirts now, huh?”

Derek froze at that. He didn’t sleep last night, didn’t have a sleep shirt ready for Stiles. After a beat, he pulled his current shirt over his head, dropping it on the table. He went back to the fridge, looking for something to drink.

“Ugh. Sweaty.” Derek looked over his shoulder. He smiled, surprising himself. Stiles was making an exaggerated look of disgust, lifting the cloth with nothing but a pen.

“If you don’t like it, we can trade scents a different way.”

Stiles squinted up at him, visibly dubious. “Such as?”

Derek rubbed his hairline with his palm and smeared his hand over Stiles’ face.

Stiles recoiled, snorting, his face scrunching up. He sputtered a few times before wrestling Derek’s arm away from his face. He decisively pinned it on the evidence folder, shooting Derek a triumphant glare that would have been many times more successful, had it not been paired with a gleeful smirk.

A long moment passed. Derek stood there awkwardly, passively allowing his arm to be pinned to the table. He stared at Stiles, too long, distracted by the darker notes of brown in his eyes, the softening of his mouth, the thickening of his scent. He stared until Stiles’ expression sobered, until those long fingers unfolded from his arm and let him go. Only then did Derek straighten, put some space between them.

Damnit.

Sensing something slipping, Derek said, “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

“You should be,” Stiles replied, tone faintly wobbly. His heart was a twin of Derek's--beating too much, too fast.

“But you were right. It is my fault that they’re here.”

“I’m always right,” Stiles said in typical Stiles fashion. But then his face twisted. “But that is so not the takeaway message.”

Derek cocked his head. Stiles rolled his eyes. He thumped Derek's stomach with the back of his hand.

“Look, shit happens and it hits the fan. Sometimes, it hits the fan so bad, the whole pack gets involved.” Stiles paused for dramatic effect, then did jazz hands. “And that’s pack!” Derek blinked at him.

Somewhere behind him, the kettle started whistling. Stiles pushed back on his chair and stood. “And as far as causing trouble goes, you’re long overdue.” Then, loftily, he said, “We never get the chance to deal with your issues. We should really be thanking you for the novelty you inject in our boring, 9-5, kid raising experience.” With an impish smirk, Stiles nudged his shoulder into Derek’s.

“Don’t push it,” Derek muttered. Very gently, he nudged back.

-

Stiles had a good day.

It was sad that “having a good day” was as simple as getting back on the same page as Derek in his book. They were rarely ever there unless there was a villain clamoring after them both. He wondered how long it would take for it to go away again. Because it always went away eventually. Derek’s hatred of him meant their détentes never grew roots and stuck around.

Which was… sad. And kind of painful, actually.

A lunch sack hit Stiles’ table. He looked up from a report, dazed and broken from his concentration. “Waa-”

It was 12:30 on the dot. Someone in the pack usually swung by, bearing gifts of food—that, Stiles expected. What he didn’t expect was Derek.

Fortunately, Derek ignored that scintillating conversation starter. “Another way we can swap scents-”

He kept his voice pitched low, but Stiles was already shaking his head, smirking. “Have you really been thinking about this all day?” Distracted, Stiles’ eyes moved over the lines of Derek’s dark red Henley. “We need to get you a hobby.”

Derek seemed tense. “Start sleeping in our room at the pack house.”

Stiles paused. “In the same bed as you?”

Don't get Stiles wrong: his tone was dubious, but his spirit was willing. His bed at his apartment was one wrong movement away from a spring gouging out his eye, and Lydia’s bed at the pack house was as hard as stone. Only his pack house bed treated Stiles right, and he gave that up four times a year for a guy who wanted him splattered against a wall 50% of the time.

He was seriously pining for his bed’s sweet, supple curves.

“We’ll take shifts,” Derek insisted. “You work weird hours anyway.” Expecting a catch, Stiles agreed slowly. But there was no catch.

In the end, Derek swapped his lunch for the old coffee mugs lined up in one of Stiles’ desk drawers. This was something Stiles pouted about mightily. Scott let him pretend he wasn't a dirty cup hoarder at work. Derek did not.

(Stiles pretended not to notice his fellow deputy, Rolanda Morris, making a double fisted pump to the air. It didn’t smell that bad.)

When Stiles got home, they had guests again—the Nunez alphas, but also Dana and Mallory. Stiles could see from the doorway that Raymundo was in the kitchen with Isaac, trading tips on the best way to cook spaghetti. Mallory hovered awkwardly behind them.

Scott was with Dana in the front room, sitting and talking with her. They had taken to each other immediately. Scott saw himself in her for obvious reasons and wasn't about to let the sticky situation between their pack stop him from mentoring her.

Dana adored and looked up to him. As protective as Mallory was of her, even Stiles could tell she was stifling Dana, barely allowing her to make decisions and exercise her power. Nancy and Raymundo also tended to gloss over Dana's attempt to represent her pack, defaulting to Mallory whenever they could. Scott was the only one treating her like an actual alpha.

But Scott pulled away from Dana when Stiles entered the house, approaching him and greeting him with a hug. When he pulled away, his smile was faint and diminished by his furrowed eyebrows. Stiles quickly exchanged information with Scott with a series of quick signs. Scott’s hands moved faster than Stiles’ did—they always did.

This was a random visit. They showed up five minutes before Stiles. No, this wasn’t a test. Scott assumed they wanted to see the normal running of the house. And, no, Derek hadn’t noticed them yet.

When Stiles got in a word in edgewise, Scott rolled his eyes and pivoted, pointing to the backyard. Dana watched them curiously. Lydia and Nancy's laughter rose from a room somewhere to the left, pinpointing the location of the last Nunez alpha, but Stiles went straight, walking through the house until he was swinging open the door to the back porch.

The kids were everywhere in the backyard. They hooted and hollered, hanging off everything from the playset—painfully constructed just last year—to the trees. Susie and two of the younger children sat in the sandbox, building up an intense looking castle under the supervision of a very sandy Kira. Jackson stood anxiously under one of the trees, watching his youngest boy struggle on a limb. He didn’t say a word, but Stiles couldn’t help but notice his stance was wide and his arms were half-up, like he was ready to catch a falling child at a moment’s notice.

Derek was on the thickest pad of grass, pretending to wrestle one of Lydia and Jordan’s children, Nick. Nick was very reserved, always hanging back from the group. He looked like a very tiny Scott with light brown hair, and he adored Derek.

When Nick grabbed his leg and pulled, Derek faked a dramatic fall to the grass. Briefly frozen by this predicament, Nick gamely jumped forward. He planted a tiny foot in Derek’s chest, letting out a cherubic howl.

Stiles let out an embarrassing hoot of a laugh, stepping off of the porch. Derek’s eyes, bright green and playful, met his across the yard. Then it hit Stiles, like a punch to the chest.

The thing he hated most about Derek Hale was how very little he hated him at all.

-

Derek hugged his bag of groceries to his chest, eyes moving to his car. Then they moved back to the blockage, the obstacle in his way. Ice cream melted slowly, freezing and numbing him through the thin layer of his shirt.

The man in front of him was thirty-three years old, give or take. He didn't look like one of Scott or Stiles' classmates, but he looked their age. He had neatly kept brown hair and a nicely trimmed beard. His collared shirt hugged his neck in crisp lines and he smelled of cologne and shaving cream.

But beyond those scents, he reeked of desperation and want. “Turn me,” he’d said, like Derek wasn’t just some guy who went out to buy his kid pack mates some dessert. “Bit me and turn me into a werewolf.”

This guy wasn't anyone he knew--anyone he cared to know either. He looked exactly like any number of humans in this town and was just as replaceable.

And yet...

There was a part of Derek that stood up tall at that demand and just… looked. Rudeness aside, the man was sturdy. He smelled like Stiles always did. Like Boyd and Erica and Isaac too. Like prime beta material, waiting to be bit.

Derek adjusted his bag. While being approached like this in a parking lot was a first, this man was hardly the first person to come to their pack for a favor.

He looked around, making sure no one was listening. “Why are you asking me?” he said curtly, bluntly.

“Because you’re an alpha.”

Derek paused, looking at him. Then he nodded sharply, eyebrows needling together. He was, wasn’t he? It wasn’t like he didn’t notice the change—how everything was sharper, more immediate, even a tad surreal. He could lift more and run longer. He felt powerful and settled, like something that had been missing was finally found.

But he was also scared. In the end, there was nothing wrong with being an alpha. Being a Derek, on the other hand, was hazardous.

An hour after he’d ripped out his uncle’s throat, he was sinking his teeth into the most annoying person in the world. Then he threw him in a pond and left him to die—and there was a distinct expectation that Jackson would die. He hadn’t smelled like a good beta candidate at all. Even Peter at his worst had respected that.

Then he turned Isaac and Erica and Boyd, and who among them benefited from it? None of them. None of them at all. Then, instead of saving his first beta, he hunted him. Instead of helping Lydia defend herself against Peter, he pursued her, tried to kill her… because the alpha knew best. Clearly, he knew who was the abomination, who was the reason behind Lydia’s strange behavior (he did not).

The only thing he did right was give up his powers to save his sister.

No, Derek didn’t enjoy being an alpha again at all.

“I understand what you’re telling me,” Derek said slowly, “but the person you should be talking to is Alpha McCall.”

“What?” The human pulled back, clearly confused. “He never turns anyone. Why would I even bother?”

He was right—Scott didn’t turn anyone. Biting Liam was traumatic for everyone involved.

“He has good reason not to.” Seeing the end of this conversation looming, Derek fished for his keys in his pocket. “But if you’d like to join his pack as a human, Scott would be more than happy to meet-”

“I don’t want to be human anymore,” the man interrupted. “I want to be a wolf.” He crowded Derek then, eyes wide and hopeful. “Let me be your first beta.”

Derek stared at him for a long moment, expression neutral. There it was, stirring in the back of his head, the excitement of being an alpha—of being validated, of being seen as strong, and yet… Derek had this once. And he screwed it up.

Derek slowly shook his head. All he could think of was Boyd, hanging off his claws. Erica curled in a ball in the corner of a closet. Jackson and Lydia trembling and holding onto each other. His future anchors, Scott and Stiles, holed up in a house across the street, reeking of determination and fear. Fear of Derek himself.

“I’m sorry. But the answer is no.”

And it would always be no.

Chapter Text

“He passed,” Scott said, a note of relief in his tone. They were holed up in Scott’s office—a tiny thing better suited for towels and sheets than the working space of a True Alpha. Lydia was perched on the corner of the desk. Stiles loomed behind a seated Scott, arms crossed over his chest.

On the other side of the table, Mallory, Dana, and Raymundo stood peacefully. Only Raymundo stood with any ease. Mallory was visibly frustrated, hands clenched into fists at her sides, and Dana was hugging herself.

“I don’t get it. Why do you keep testing his control?” Stiles demanded. “Derek is the poster boy of control." Too much control, even.

“We aren’t convinced that Derek wasn’t the one in a frenzy,” Dana said faintly. She looked ill and kept shooting Scott worried looks. Uh oh.

Looked like Stiles was gonna have to play bad cop.

Stiles stepped out from behind Scott, rounding the desk. “So basically you’re trying to provoke Derek.”

Mallory glared at him. “That’s not-”

Stiles talked over her. “Save your old alpha’s reputation and avenge him in one fell swoop, huh?”

“Stiles,” Scott said in an undertone, a warning.

“What, Scott?” Stiles snapped. Somewhere in his "bad cop" routine, he'd slipped. He couldn't stop. He turned back to Raymundo and the Graysons, and snarled, “I’m so sick of this bullshit!

Dana was rattled, Mallory defiant. Even Raymundo, who had been fairly apathetic and removed from this, looked uncomfortable.

There was a long pause.

Lydia broke it. “It’s an alpha’s number one instinct to turn betas, to build his pack,” she commented, head cocked to the side. “But if he turns a single human while he’s being harbored…”

Scott picked up the thread of that thought, saying, “Then he’s breaking his pact with me. And since he’s never moved against me before, you’d have at least one piece of evidence that Derek’s out of control.” He shook his head. “But breaking a harboring agreement doesn’t mean the guy is in a frenzy. It could just mean he doesn’t like me. You’re grasping at straws.”

Lydia leaned and looked over at Scott, crossing her ankles over each other. “Derek claimed Mitchell Grayson was the one in a frenzy. How come we aren’t looking into him?”

“He’s dead,” Mallory bit out.

Lydia looked at her for a moment before shooting her a blank, insincere smile. “I’m a banshee, sweetheart. Death isn’t a closed book. Not to me.” Mallory bristled.

“The whole point of this appeal is Derek’s behavior, not Mitchell’s,” Raymundo reminded them gently.

“But surely one cannot be discussed fully when there’s an absence of the other,” Lydia challenged. Raymundo looked thoughtful at that.

Mallory visibly swelled, snapping, “The rules of the appeal-”

The door swung open, interrupting her. “Scott, I wanted to alert you to a human who-"

Derek paused mid-report, sweeping his gaze across the room. It was like a bubble popped. Reality had merged into the theoretical realm, and theory didn't mean shit. Not when there was another person on the end. Stiles suddenly felt hot and self-conscious, feelings that increased exponentially when Derek's eyes landed on Stiles.

Stiles could see the second he understood, the moment he put two and two together. “I see,” Derek said coldly. “You already know.”

Without further comment, he turned and walked out.

Aghast, Stiles turned to Scott, who looked just as unsettled as he did. Even Lydia was picking at her pants suit, tugging at non-existent strings. Stiles let out a shaky breath, running a hand through his hair.

-

Derek stared up at the darkening sky, wallowing in the faint feeling of betrayal. He knew from day one that Scott was apprised of and approving the tests he had to undergo. He accepted that... in principal. But seeing Stiles and Lydia there too somehow made that real. Made that worse.

In the end, Derek was always found wanting.

Below him, someone bit out a curse. Derek’s eyes moved away from the sky to the edge of the roof, where a pale hand rose and fumbled with a grip. Brown hair and a sturdy pair of shoulders followed suit quickly. It was Stiles. He was puffing and red faced, buzzing with adrenaline and not a little fear as he inch-wormed his way out of the window and up the tiles to where Derek was laying.

“This. Is. Super. Dangerous.”

“It is… when you hang out of a third story window,” Derek muttered, sitting up.

Stiles settled next to him, only half-supine, his fingers clinging on the tile like a sloth on a branch during a wind storm. “How the hell else am I supposed to get up here?” he snapped.

Derek stared at him for a moment before purposefully turning his gaze towards the dormer window, and the attic beyond it. Stiles followed his gaze. His expression fell.

“Oh screw you.”

“If it’s dangerous, don’t follow. That should always be your rule.”

“I will always follow,” Stiles retorted heatedly. “You’re pack and you’re upset. How can I ignore that?”

Derek made a face and stood. “Don’t patronize me.”

Stiles scrambled up to his feet too. “And you, don’t dismiss m-“

Derek saw the second he lost his balance: his words stopped and his face drained of all color. He started tipping, falling towards the window he'd just exited-

Then Derek jumped forward, looping his arm around Stiles' waist. He hauled him up the roof ungently and deposited them both just under the dormer window.

A bird chirped innocently in the distance, unbothered by things like gravity, winglessness, and human bodies that just wouldn't heal.

Stiles didn’t so much sit down as he floated downwards until the roof caught him. Rattled, Derek followed suit. Together, they stonily watched a pair of leaves lift off and skip over the edge.

There was a long period of silence.

Then--“…I so did not come up here to fight with you."

“It’s okay,” Derek said stupidly, heart still racing, his brain on a loop—white faced Stiles, falling, falling-

“No, it’s not,” Stiles said with an aggravated sigh. He scooted down the tiles about a foot before flopping down, scowling at the sky.

After a beat, Derek mirrored him, sliding slowly on the still warm roof. “I don’t like being tested,” he offered tentatively.

“Neither do I!” Stiles threw himself up on his elbow, gesturing wildly. “We’ve been through enough crap already. Why can’t people just leave us alone?”

Derek had a feeling it was a hypothetical question. His assumption was verified when Stiles dropped back down on his back again, his expression twisting. He was pissed.

Derek, on the other hand, reached and reached for the anger that drove him up here, but it was gone. In fact, he was biting back a smile. Because Stiles was up here with him and spitting mad on his behalf instead of somewhere else, judging him for it.

He turned his head, eyes on Stiles’ profile.

Stiles didn’t do other people well. He didn’t respond well to the insistence that he put another person’s interests and wellbeing above Scott’s, above the pack's. He had few friends who weren't in the known and, for someone who dated as often as he did, he was perpetually single and content with it.

So was Derek, for that matter. Most days, anyway. And on those other days when he found himself watching Stiles and wondering “what if”, he firmly reminded himself that “what if” had never led him anywhere good. Not with Paige. Not with Kate. Not with Jennifer. And certainly not with keeping a pack.

And… yet…

“But it’s okay,” Stiles was saying, tone brightening. “Because, you know what? They got in their tests and we passed them, right? So they’re gonna have to give up. They have no grounds to continue.”

“Except for the fact that I killed their alpha.”

“Yeah. In self-defense. You did nothing wrong. Trust me.” Stiles reached out and rocked his fist against Derek’s knee companionably. “This will all blow over soon.”

Derek turned his gaze back to the sky. The sun was almost gone. The trees blocked most of the wind, but some of it still came through. It whipped once, dragging cold fingers through their clothes and making Stiles shiver. But the roof still had some heat, enough to combat the cold. Enough to let Derek drag this out a little longer.

Just a little longer.

It was peaceful. The day officially ended. Night began. No one spoke.

He found himself looking at Stiles again. “You never questioned my story,” he said finally when the first stars started coming out.

There was a long pause. Then, drowsily, Stiles said, “Why? I trust you.” He turned his head, looking at Derek. As sleepy as he was, the affirmation was steady, uncompromising. Loyal.

Derek’s heart was racing as fast as it had earlier, when he almost lost Stiles. Heat flushed over his face.

Then, very quietly, he said, "Thank you.”

-

Scott sat Derek down that night and explained everything he knew about the tests that had been performed so far—what their goals were, how they were implemented, etc. Stiles tried to stay out of this conversation as much as possible, but he peeked in every once in a while. Scott’s hunched up shoulders and Derek’s stiff face spoke volumes.

If the Graysons were seeking to set alpha against alpha, they were on the right track.

It didn’t get better--not right away, anyway.

News of the Graysons’ meddling was starting to trickle back to the pack house. They’d been out and about, asking the community about the pack and about Derek himself. Although the pack, individually and collectively, was infamous, most people in Beacon Hills didn’t know Derek as well. Others knew Derek a little too well, citing things from his past that better left untouched. The story of Paige loomed large in their house for a full day. Derek made himself scarce.

“When does a test stop being thorough and starts being just plain damn rude?” Stiles complained.

He found Derek later in Susie’s play closet with Susie herself, Isaac, and two of Jackson’s brood. They were working together to build an intricate house with Legos. Stiles squeezed in to help, clearly being the most qualified to build balconies and turrets.

Susie just looked thrilled to have so many people in her domain.

Everyone was restless. They were used to fighting their way through every conflict. Jackson and Lydia spent their nights in the kitchen, poring over the appeals contract to no avail, trying to find some loophole or legality they could use. All they could do now was wait. The Graysons had the upper hand here.

But even they were sick of it, apparently. After a few days, Dana and Mallory set up a meeting with Scott, who invited Stiles and Lydia, as was his customary tactic. They all squeezed in Scott’s tiny office, closing the door behind them. This time, they gave their guests seats. Both Stiles and Lydia took up a corner of Scott’s desk, leaning against it.

The meeting moved through the obligatory small talk into the meat of why the Graysons wanted their time. Running on only three hours sleep, Stiles didn’t really understand what they were building up towards until half-way through their story.

“I am- was Mitchell’s Second,” Mallory was saying. “I respected him deeply. I’m- I’m the one who started this test.” She looked at her tiny alpha bleakly. Dana smiled back, reaching for and holding her hand. Mallory took in a deep breath at that, her smile brittle.

“Mitchell was my best friend,” Dana revealed. “My alpha. We were close.”

Mitchell and Dana were more than friends—they were two birds of a feather, apparently. They both had been harbored by the Nunez pack since they were children. Additionally, they both had inherited the alpha mantle within weeks of each other—one from an aunt and a terrible car crash, the other from a grandfather on his deathbed. They took to each other immediately.

When Mitchell split off and formed the Grayson Pack, he extended the harbor offer to Dana. Mallory used to be a lower level beta from the Nunez pack. When she followed them into Dana and Mitchell’s new pack, she became his Second.

The Grayson pack grew slowly over the last three years, topping off at ten people. Mitchell didn’t turn a single person. Instead, he drew them in by the force of his personality alone.

“Everyone loved Mitchell,” Mallory reminisced quietly, expression saddened.

“But…?” Scott said leadingly.

Dana and Mallory looked at each other. The nostalgia was swept away by haunted expressions. They didn’t say a word—not for a while, anyway.

Then, slowly, Dana said, “Sometimes the power of an alpha doesn’t... sit right on a person.”

“He talked less. Laughed less. Pushed us harder and harder.” Mallory swallowed heavily. “Then Rory died. She was human, his wife. She had some sort of”—she gestured at her chest—“heart problem.”

“He wasn’t the same after that. And then, a month ago-” Dana stopped mid-sentence, expression scrunched up. Then she turned to her second beseechingly. “Mallory, show them.”

Mallory hesitated. Then she lifted her shirt, baring her stomach and lower region of her rib cage.

Stiles stepped forward automatically, fingers twitching. Her lower torso was crisscrossed with bandages—heavy gauze and thick medical tape. Some of them were clean. Others were reddened with blood.

“He attacked me,” Mallory said woodenly. She pulled her shirt down. “And then he ran.”

Stiles looked back at Scott. Scott didn't look surprised.

But Lydia was pushing herself up and off the table. “You knew Mitchell was in a frenzy this whole time,” she accused, tone dark and eyes sparking.

“Not… at first,” Mallory hedged. “I wanted there to be another reason. I wanted him to- to hate me. To be mad at me. To be something other than gone. You can’t- you can’t bring people back after they go in a frenzy.” She looked back at her alpha. "But we've talked and we've come to terms to with it."

“S-so,” Dana said shakily, “We’re withdrawing our appeal of Derek Hale.”

Scott exchanged a look with Lydia and Stiles. “Why?”

“Because we were angry and wanted revenge for an unjust murder. But nothing about your Derek Hale tells us he would have murdered our alpha.” Dana reached out, clasping a hand over Mallory’s arm. After a beat, Mallory covered it with her own. “Or, at least, the version of him we’d like to remember.” The two women looked at each other. Then they stood.

“We’re going to inform the others,” Dana said briskly, stepping away from her chair. “But we thought you should know first.” She headed towards the door, Mallory on her heels.

“Wait,” Scott said, standing. The two turned away from the door as Scott stepped around his desk.

Suddenly, Mallory flattened her alpha against the door, whipping around to face them. Mallory’s eyes were molten gold. Her claws were out. Her stance was protective, even fearful.

Scott froze at that like a confused puppy. He lifted his hands.

“Ow,” Dana complained. “Mal, what the hell…”

Stiles rolled his eyes. “Relax. We’re more than happy to end this without bloodshed.” Privately, he wondered what the hell kind of reputation they must have. And if they could bottle it and sell it on the market.

“Oh,” Mallory said in a small voice. “Then why-”

“You’re not healing,” Lydia bit out, like a testy parent trying to explain cause and effect to a rambunctious three year old.

“We’ve dealt with more than our fair share of alpha wounds,” Stiles said frankly. “We know ways to help, if you’ll let us.”

“I- no. It’s fine.” Mallory shook her head.

“Mal,” Dana hissed, drawing the nickname out. She prodded Mallory like the child she was. "Mal..."

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not,” Scott challenged her. Mallory’s focus shifted from one alpha to the other. “The alpha Mitchell was, the man who you cared about… He wouldn’t have wanted you to suffer like this.” After a beat, Scott extended his hand towards Mallory. “Let us help you.”

Still, Mallory paused. She looked at every single one of them, gaze lingering, on the edge but also horribly conflicted. Then, finally, her eyes landed on Scott. He waited for her patiently. She swallowed harshly before taking his hand.

"Thank you for your trust," Scott said with proper reverence. Mallory summoned up a weak smile for that.

Behind her, Dana was beaming.

-

Derek was working on Susie’s play closet. She’d shyly expressed the need for lighting inside—not for her, of course. She’d presented as a kanima well before Jackson adopted her, and kanimas had better night vision than werewolves. No, instead, she was thinking of Jordan and Lydia’s kids, who hadn’t presented as anything other than human, but also of Stiles and Lydia and “Grandpa John” and “Grandma Melissa” too.

“I want EVERYONE to be able to come play in my play closet,” she told him breathlessly, earnest and wide-eyed. It was one-eighty of how she’d been just a year ago when she wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. Only Jackson could get her to show her human face, and many nights were spent frantically tearing apart houses trying to find the nooks and crannies where a small lizard girl might be curled up for a nap.

To Derek, everything she did was precious. So Derek spent his afternoon alone on his hands and knees, drilling holes in walls and stringing pretty threads of Christmas lights across the inside of Susie’s space.

He was standing, admiring the final product and considering the addition of carpet, when Susie’s door suddenly swung inward, narrowly missing him.

It was Stiles. He was flushed and triumphant. Without any warning, he threw his arms around Derek’s shoulders, rocking him back a step. Bewildered, Derek settled Stiles with a hand on his back.

He barely got in a word before Stiles was blurting out, “Mallory and Dana are withdrawing their appeal of you!”

Derek’s stomach dropped. He dipped his head low in the crook of Stiles’ neck and sighed.

Stiles rocked back on his heels, getting a look at Derek’s face. His smile dimmed. “Don’t you get it? You passed.”

Derek did get it. Really. He was just… strangely disappointed. He opened his mouth, trying to explain it. Then he closed it, taking a step back, removing himself from Stiles’ arms. Stiles was visibly confused.

“I guess here’s no need for you to pretend anymore.” As soon as that was out, he wanted to kick himself.

Because Stiles was flinching, recoiling from him. Then, even worse, he was smiling. “Well, it’s a good thing I don’t give a shit about you!” he said with mock cheer. Quieter, he muttered, “Otherwise, that would have hurt my feelings.” As if to reveal his lie, his scent flooded with bitterness and upset.

It was wrong. So wrong. But Derek was paralyzed, mind horridly blank.

But Stiles was nodding briskly, as if it was expected, and he was backing up and out of Susie’s room. “See you later, I guess.”

“Stiles-” Derek called out, alarmed.

Stiles paused by the threshold. He waited patiently. But when nothing came, nothing emerged eloquent and fully formed from Derek’s chest, Stiles’ expression turned brittle. “…Right.”

He walked down the hallway and out of sight.

Derek finally sagged, resting his head against the door, the beginning wisps of everything he should have said starting to spin in his mind.

“Damn it.”

-

Everything was back to normal.

Yay.

Stiles felt crushed. He tried to shake it off. They were triumphant, right? They won. And even if Stiles came out the other side feeling battered, well… He’d survived worse.

But, you know, usually those “worse” things had an ending. The nogitsune was finally captured. Malia dumped him for the third and final time. The surgeon removed that tapeworm (don't ask). They left scars and some nightmares, sure, but they freaking left.

Derek didn’t leave. And Stiles could handled that! But only if Derek had followed his usual MO, which was to ignore Stiles until he couldn’t ignore him anymore. That hurt, of course, but it hurt the way bruises hurt when you touched them. No new injuries, just old soreness.

But Derek wasn’t ignoring him at all. When he entered the room, Derek’s eyes jumped to him first. When Stiles spoke, he listened. When Stiles reached for something, he passed it over. And when fewer people were in the room, Derek even tried to talk to him.

Stiles couldn’t handle it. It got to a point that, any time Derek opened his mouth, Stiles loudly made excuses and left. He’d taken to hiding out in the bathroom when Derek swung by with his lunch. He stopped going to the pack house altogether.

It was dumb and cowardly, sure. But there was nothing he wanted more at the moment than to blanket himself in bubble wrap and hide under his bed until the bad-hurt feelings went away.

Because he did care. Too much. He cared about Derek's feelings, he cared about Derek's existence, he cared about Derek's opinions... especially the negative one he seemed to have of Stiles.

But, you know, whatever. He’d survive. After all, it wasn’t like that massive soul withering crush he’d been nursing since high school had come back or anything, right? Ha. Ha.

Ha.

A week passed since Dana and Mallory made the call to end the appeals process. They were still in town, though, as the two werewolves were dealing with unexpected backlash. The Grayson pack still wanted justice and the dissent was getting nasty. Nancy and Ray were helping Dana get control over her people so that they could all travel back to Oregon safely, but it was still touch and go. The final meeting to solidify the end of the appeals had been postponed seven different times because of Dana’s issues with her betas, but Scott was confident everything on that front would sort itself out soon.

Everything was hunky-dory on that end. Just not for Stiles.

There’s no need for you to pretend anymore.

Shit. Stiles had laid it on pretty thick for that first observation, so thick that he was now sure Nancy and Ray saw through everything. But after that… Stiles had honestly lost track of what was fake and what was not.

Did he run after Derek after the beta test because Raymundo was there, or did he do it because he wanted to? Did he always default to Derek’s side because it was expected? Or did he do that because he wanted to be there? Was that all part of the act?

It couldn't be. Hugging Derek, talking to Derek, hashing out their differences… that wasn’t part of the lie. He wanted to do them. And, stupidly, he’d taken Derek’s passive acceptance of them as indication he wanted them too.

Stiles was in a foul mood already when he was sent to break up a fist fight in the parking lot of a bar. Rolanda took up his six as they moved in, calling out their presence. A lot of people, both drunk and sober, scattered immediately, but Stiles’ focus was on the brawl between four young man and a scrappy middle aged woman.

Four of the fighters were easily subdued, having had more than their fair share of alcohol that night. Behind him, Rolanda called for backup—for the extra space behind the cage, if nothing else.

And in the space of time Stiles was distracted by that call, the fifth fighter cracked a glass bottle over his head.

It shattered, raining glass over his hair and into his collar. Stiles paused, tilting his head up. He turned his gaze on the idiot, directing towards him a towering look of fury.

Somewhere in that booze-soaked mind, the man realized his error and dropped to his knees, hands raised in surrender. Stiles didn’t cuff him, didn’t accept his offer.

Instead, Stiles… hesitated. A person could read a lot into that hesitation.

Rolanda sure did.

She jumped forward into his field of vision, bringing the perp’s arms behind him and cuffing them up. “Jesus Christ, Stilinski. You’re brutal.” She hauled the man off the floor, leading him to the others before calling in an ambulance.

Before he knew it, EMTs were there as well as his own boss. He got checked out, like the other fighters. He had a couple of tiny cuts, not even a concussion, so they dismissed him quickly. That left Stiles alone and grinding his teeth, watching his coworkers move back and forth—gathering statements and talking to witnesses. He was on edge and everyone knew it.

Parrish side-eyed him the whole time.

It came to no one’s surprise when he was benched for a few days. It was nothing major. Parrish played up the potential head trauma angle, despite the lack of concussion, and everyone gave him sympathetic breathing room. In the end, it was the best choice for everyone.

Stiles needed to get a hold of himself. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He was an adult with taxes, a salary, and people to take care of, and it was entirely on his shoulders to decide how he dealt with his stress and his issues. Being a dick cop or a dick friend wasn’t the answer.

So he stopped wallowing. He brought in donuts for everyone at the station. He talked to his downstairs neighbor about her grandchildren. He went back to the pack house. He got involved again.

The pack was organizing a party for Derek—a little get-together to celebrate the decision to end the appeals process. Food was being made or ordered and invitations were being sent out—close pack and friends only, they said. Kira even wrangled a helium tank, mostly for the balloons. But that didn’t stop Isaac from using it to entertain children with his hilariously high voice.

For his part, Stiles helped hang streamers the morning of the party, altruistically “taste testing” Scott’s famous apple pie and tamales whenever his alpha’s back was turned. By the time he had to leave for his shift, he had a lengthy shopping list to fulfill on his way home. By the time he got back, the party would be in full swing.

Just the way he liked it.

At the station, Stiles finished up his paperwork and then was sent out on a service call. Two douchebags were lurking in the woods and cat calling hikers and joggers on the trails. They were potentially committing a number of crimes, he was told. Depending on the circumstance, it could be any combination of trespassing, loitering, drunk in public, and harassment.

All reports pointed, however, to the men being non-violent and rather timid when faced with voices of authority (such as, hilariously, the bark of one jogger’s huge, ill-humored pug). Parrish wanted him to show up and loom, act as a warning. If they were caught again, they'd be slapped with some charges.

He went by himself, parking on the road near the trail in question. He called in to dispatch, letting them know his status. Then he walked into the trail, carrying his flashlight. Some patches of the Preserve were dark even in the brightest summer day, he figured. Plus, the weighty tool did make a nice impromptu weapon.

He made it to the alleged campsite in under fifteen minutes. When within sight of it, he tsked loudly, eyes on the thin white smoke plume of a quickly extinguished fire. That was illegal right there. Beacon County had strict laws on fires in the Preserve that basically could be summed up with four words: don’t fucking do it.

Stiles announced his presence and hiked his way up the rest of the hill. When he was level with the site, however, he noticed something odd.

Nobody was there.

Frowning, he crouched next to the fire, hand above the ashes. They were still very warm. Cigarette butts and half chewed food were littered around the fire—and into it, he noticed, picking up a charred beer can with a sturdy stick.

He looked left and right. Two camping chairs were knocked over into the bushes. The dirt was disturbed all around them, like the douchebags had left in a hurry. About sixteen feet in front of each of them were bare footprints--two sets, both roughly size 11. He stood, following the trail of displaced dirt.

By the look of the tracks, the men took off running. But why?

After a beat, Stiles shrugged, doing a slow, cursory circle around the area. It was a pigsty of a campsite. He wouldn’t haven’t been surprised if a bored mountain lion or a bitey raccoon decided to poke their noses into things, thus spooking the cat-calling douchebags.

He didn’t see any animal prints. He did find another set of footprints, though.

They were under a tall tree with many branches and a thick trunk. A foot apart and deep, the prints themselves were made in mud and ridged like sneakers. They looked, well…

Stiles looked back at the ashes of the fire. They sort of looked like the prints Stiles made over there when he was crouching. He swung his gaze back to the other prints, scrutinizing them harshly. Because they weren’t size 11’s at all.

In fact, they were very, very small. Stiles crouched down again, reaching reflexively for the tree in front of him. Instantly, his fingers felt furrows in the bark. Unnatural ones. He sniffed his fingers. And freshly made.

Frowning, Stiles looked down at the shoe prints again. It didn’t seem right. They were tucked so tightly behind the tree. They were so singular too. There were no steps leading up to them and no steps leading away.

Water was leaking into them quickly, as if the person who had made them had just…

scratch scratch scratch

Left.

Stiles jumped to his feet as the hairs on his neck stood. He jerked his head up, following the claw marks up the side of the trunk.

At first, he saw nothing up in that dark, many limbed tree. Then something shifted.

Sharp glowing eyes glared down at him.

It sprung.

Chapter Text

The party was in full swing when Derek stupidly entered the front door. He was greeted with an explosion of cheers and thumping bass. He waved awkwardly and made gestures towards the porch, as if he’d forgotten something. They fell for it, letting him quickly retreat out of the limelight.

Isaac met him at the back door. “You’re such a weirdo,” he told Derek before handing him a wolfsbane-laced beer. But he led Derek quietly through the back of the party and into fairly secluded corner under the staircase. There, Derek nursed his drink in relative anonymity, dealing with friends—and friends of friends—one and one as they passed instead of as a mob.

Isaac stuck with him, leaning up against the wall next to Derek and occasionally throwing out a bit of gossip or insight. Lydia got into it with Jackson. The dogs stuck their faces in the punch bowl. Two neighbors snuck into the party and were currently doing a horrified inventory of Kira’s expansive sword collection in the dining room.

“We’ve upgraded from weirdo neighbors to definite serial killers,” Isaac said with no little glee.

Derek snorted. He tugged on one of the streamers plastered to the wall. “Anyway, thanks for the party.” He caught a familiar scent on the loops and dips, and he instantly dropped his hold, allowing it to spring back into place.

“Please, you hate this.”

“Yeah, but…” The pack liked it.

From here, he could see straight through the dining room and to the front door. Tables lined bisecting hallway, and each one of them was covered with food. Unseen was an ancient but sturdy neon green iPod. It was hooked up to a pair of speakers, which were blaring the greatest hits of 2005. Streamers, ribbons, and balloons covered nearly every surface—sometimes neatly and artistically, sometimes not.

Also out of sight—but prominently and embarrassingly visible from the front door—was a messy, paint splattered banner that proclaimed “Congratulations, Derrreck!” It was a monstrosity of glitter and hand prints—and later, he knew he’d want to go over it, touch it, figure out which kid did what and smile at their efforts.

But that was so not what he wanted to see when he entered the door. Derek took a fortifying swig of his beer.

At least he recognized most of the party-goers. Under an open archway, Lydia was shooting Kira a cautious, but meaningful smile. Scott was clasping Kira’s shoulders; the married couple had identical, sunshine-y expressions. Beyond them, Parrish entered the house, carting three cakes and a bag full of wine. The sheriff looked tired, but summoned up a smile for the people that greeted him. He tripped over the rug and gamely caught himself, bringing his haul into restock one of the food tables.

Derek shifted his attention over to the kitchen threshold. Mason was late, but his very human boyfriend was not. The guy—Jack? John? Jake?—was sweating bullets, talking a mile a minute to Liam. The beta was unmoved. Liam had a very good sense of humor but also a stony poker face that had cracked more than one would-be arsonist at his day job at the fire station. Mason’s boyfriend was drowning, visibly distressed by his failure to entertain his boyfriend’s best friend.

For Liam, the enjoyment came from the human’s suffering.

The kids were there too. Upstairs, Liam’s kids were leading a merry game of chase, screaming after each other over perceived violation of undefined rules. Even the youngest, a five year old, was lisping, “Nof air! Nof air!”

Nick, Susie, and Jason were downstairs. Nick was very seriously eating a plate of peas while Susie next to him was drawing a picture on Jackson’s cheek with a magic marker. Always supportive of Susie’s hobbies, Jackson stayed obediently still, even when she slipped and smeared ink over his white collar.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” he told her tenderly. “Everybody slips.” Straight faced, he turned back to his conversation with Beacon Hills’ fire chief, who was desperately trying not to laugh.

Across the room from them, their prickly Jason was red faced and tense. A spitting image of his sheriff father at twelve years old, he flirted awkwardly with Lydia’s assistant by the food table. The selkie, fortunately, had both a good sense of humor and a kind heart. She didn’t immediately crush him with a reminder of the centuries of age difference between the two of them. But she did eventually bring it up.

(“I’m very mature for my age,” Jason insisted. She patted his head.)

Derek was smiling. He loved these people. But there were holes in this tapestry. And Derek was the reason for them.

Derek’s smile fell. He set his half-full bottle down on the closest table, patting his jeans reflexively to pinpoint his keys. “Well, Stiles did good. Tell him that for me.”

Isaac frowned at him. “You tell him yourself.”

“I won’t have time,” Derek replied. “I’m leaving. Today.”

Isaac pulled away from the wall. “What? Why?” And then, on the heels of that—“When will you be back?”

Derek stalled, shaking his head. “I don’t know. Not for a while. Maybe never-”

“Derek-” Isaac bit out, interrupting him.

“I don’t fit here. I didn’t fit before and I definitely don’t fit now.”

Isaac stared at him intensely, as if he was a puzzle to solve. “Why especially now?”

Feeling helpless, Derek shrugged. “I’m an alpha?”

“And Scott’s harboring you. Essentially, nothing has changed except you. So what is it?

Derek wavered, lips thinning. He didn’t want to explain how he felt. He didn’t want to give words to the way he always was on the outside, looking in. He didn’t want to articulate his inadequacies. He didn’t want to give shape to the feeling that he was wrecking the pack somehow—by bringing danger to their front door, by forcing Scott to take sides for him, by constantly displacing Stiles by virtue of Derek’s mere presence.

But, most of all, he really, really didn’t want to talk about Stiles.

Sensing his reticence, Isaac sighed, sagging against the wall again. “Derek, do what you want. I’m not going to stop you. But don’t leave for that reason. That reason is stupid.” Derek scoffed, turning his head away. This earned him a sharp jab and a dark glare. Isaac gestured to the house. “This pack is full of people who love you and care about you and look up to you. Don’t say you don’t fit.” Derek met his gaze, dubious. Isaac’s tone gentled. “I know you have your own issues to work through, but, man, open your eyes. You’re already home.”

Derek gazed at him for a moment longer, then looked over his shoulder at his “party”.

His pack was looking at him now—clued in to the conversation by way of supernaturally inclined eavesdroppers. They looked at him curiously, hopefully. But respectfully too, like they would accept and support any decision he’d make. Even Lydia was smiling at him encouragingly. The back of his neck felt very warm.

He was grateful when the game of chase suddenly exploded, leaking downstairs. One of the children knocked over the speakers—another, the drinks. Adults were sent scrambling, calling out to their respective children to be careful and take it outside. Low grumbling accompanied this and thus Derek was saved from scrutiny.

Susie was now in the game of tag, he noticed. She led the pack, dodging and weaving her way around adults. Her laughter was loud now, no longer drowned by music. Heroically keeping the acrobatics down to a minimum, she slid into the front foyer just out of the reach of the other children. Cackling evilly, she yanked opened the front door, charging out into the porch.

The next thing they heard was a loud, horrified scream.

Everyone dropped what they were doing. Seconds later, Susie flew in, tears dripping from her face. She launched herself three feet forward and into her father’s arms. Jackson curled around her protectively, eyes flashing beta blue.

Kira put a hand on her back. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” All the children crowded around her, looking up at Susie with concern and confusion.

Susie made a miserable noise into Jackson’s neck, letting out a choked off sob. Then she pointed a shaking hand to the front porch.

Scott immediately headed that way—Parrish, Derek, and Lydia too.

And on the top step they saw Susie saw, a sight that no child should ever see.

A grinning skull caked with grave dirt... and with an all too familiar scent.

-

“I ran across an omega, so what?” Stiles said thickly through his broken nose. “NBD.” He poked at the aching cartilage. There was a small strip over it, mostly to keep everything in place. The damage was minimal, or so Melissa said.

John squinted at him, arms crossed tightly over his chest. “NB-what? Is this some sort of slang?”

The sharp lighting of the veterinary exam room did nothing good for his dad’s complexion. His tan skin looked gray around the edges and the lines more pronounced. He looked at least ten years older than he had just the day before. But maybe that wasn’t the lighting at all, but rather the context of the situation at hand. His dad never liked seeing Stiles hurt.

“Hm, it’s very shallow,” Melissa muttered to herself, pulling more sticks out of the claw marks in his shoulder.

“Fucker dropped on me like a panther- OW. Daddy, Melissa hurt me.”

“Sorry,” Melissa said reflexively. Then her eyes focused. “No, not sorry. Watch your fucking language.

Stiles tittered appreciatively, lightening up at her impressive scowl. His dad face-palmed. All three of him. Stiles blinked. No. Just one.

He knew that.

He rubbed a hand over his face, blinking rapidly. So Stiles lost some blood, right? But not that much blood. But enough blood that everything was spinning and nauseating and hilarious. Like the fair! But also like that one time he went to the fair after two all-nighters, four energy drinks, and three midterms.

In other words, he was having a terrible time and he wanted off this ride, thank you very much. Oh boy...

“So he dropped on you out of the tree,” John continued with force. “Did you get a good look at him? Notice anything suspicious?”

Still a cop at heart, Stiles thought woozily. “Other than the werewolf thing? No. He was wearing a hood.” At his dad’s raised eyebrows, Stiles struggled to remember more. “His eyes were gold and he seemed awfully thin, even small. Smaller than I’d expect from most omegas.”

John frowned at him. “How do you know he was an omega?”

“Because after he clawed me up, I got him good on the back of his legs with my flashlight. He ran.” It was obvious.

Melissa paused, leaning back. “So?”

“So he ran because he’s an omega.” Stiles looked over his shoulder, telling Melissa candidly, “Betas tend to hold their ground, the macho bastards.” Seeing some of the bloody mess Melissa was working hard on stitching up, Stiles grinned. He called out, "Hey, Mason, hey, Mason. Come quick. If you look, there might be bone!”

Around the corner came a faint, “Oh God.”

“Don’t torment the poor boy,” his dad said gruffly, shooting him an unimpressed stare. His cell rang and, almost immediately, he picked it up. “Hello?” John stepped outside, a finger in one ear.

Meanwhile, Mason poked his head in, clutching on the door frame. “I’m a grown man,” he bleated in a wobbly voice. He looked sick. Any animal injury, the vet tech could take like a pro. But the second the injury came attached to a human, he was all thumbs and more prone to puking than Jared on a bouncing bus.

Been there, done that, desensitized himself to the t-shirt. Whatever his dad thought, he was only trying to help the guy. Stiles frowned. Actually, he hadn’t meant to subject Mason to this at all. Mason just happened to share the office with Scott, who was a lot better at handling the human grossness that was blood. After the little incident in the words, Stiles stumbled here, expecting (needing) his alpha.

Instead, he caught Mason on the way out, closing up early for Derek’s celebration party that afternoon. Mason promptly panicked and called for back-up in the form of the best nurse around. The ex-sheriff guy she was married to? An unfortunate side-effect.

He kidded. Well, not really. Stiles loved his dad, but he always opted for plausible deniability when it came to his various injuries. The less his dad saw him hurting, the better.

His dad had seen too much already.

Melissa was finishing up the last stitch by the time his dad came back in. John’s expression was dark and tight.

“We have a situation.”

Mason squinted at him. “The omega?”

John shook his head. “Someone dug up some graves an hour ago.”

Stiles puffed up, annoyed. “What? It’s not Halloween yet, is it?” He was disappointed—but not surprised—by the multi-generational douchebaggery that was Beacon Hills’ teenagers.

“It wasn’t just set of any graves, Stiles,” his father chided him.

Melissa straightened, deeply concerned. “Whose graves?”

His dad hesitated. “The Hale Family plot.”

Blood drained from Stiles's face. He slid off the table and batted the hands that grabbed at him, even as his vision went fuzzy and gray, shoving his arms and his aching shoulder back into his bloody uniform. Urgency pushed past the pain, the shock, and the exhaustion.

Because his whole world had narrowed down to one specific point.

“I have to find Derek. Now.

-

But Derek was nowhere to be found.

Chapter Text

“We gave you our full cooperation,” Mallory snapped two days later. She looked cornered—and she was, kind of. They didn’t really give Mallory or Dana the chance to respond to a polite invitation back to Scott’s house.

They just showed up at their motel room door and walked in, the master key hanging from Scott’s grip.

To say Dana and Mallory were startled was… well… an understatement.

Lydia was on the prowl—full on bad copping it in a long, lacy red dress. She left the town for a bare eighteen hours to handle a mayor function but was already back in the game. Strained, operating on very little sleep, she was simply stunning. When she walked, people quailed. Nobody guessed at why someone so beautiful would have such a tough job as Right Hand of Scott McCall.

“Funny how you can talk so much and yet say so little,” Lydia drawled, a strand of red hair falling free of her elegant bun. “Who are you protecting?”

The air was buzzing with dark energy—and not metaphorical energy either. Stiles could feel it, like static against his skin. It vibrated across him, thrumming deep in his side arm, likely reacting to death past, present, future. Stiles wasn’t moved.

Across from him, Mallory could clearly feel it too, half-stuck in a beta shift in pure defense. “I won’t be talked down by a human.”

Lydia smiled, no humor in it. “Keep flashing your eyes at me and you’ll find out how inhuman I can be.”

He had to hand it to Mallory—she had a spine of steel. Where her alpha tried to become one with the wallpaper, she stood up, jabbing a finger at Lydia. “Your pack was in the wrong, not ours! How dare you-”

“Right, wrong, or indifferent, if you put Derek Hale in danger, we would have ended you,” Stiles interrupted.

Oops. He was supposed to be good cop, wasn’t he? He looked back at Scott, who stood by the door, arms crossed, face blank, and eyes red.

Right. No good cop here today.

“But no,” Lydia whispered, eyes wide and gleaming. She stood toe to toe with the growling beta. “You’re the one who wanted this farce of a peaceful appeals process. And it backfired. So you used the only weapon you had left against us. You pretended you’d seen logic, just to lure us in a false sense of security-”

“No!” Dana exclaimed, parting from the wall for the first time. She looked genuinely distressed.

Lydia and Mallory ignored her. “I have nothing but contempt for you,” Lydia continued, green eyes disappearing under bone white. The energy in the room rose, deadly and grasping.

Then Dana was wedging herself between her Second and the mayor of Beacon Hills, arms raised defensively. “It wasn’t us! I swear, it wasn’t us. We’re no longer appealing your pack. We weren’t lying.” She pushed her beta back protectively, gulping at the sight of Lydia in full banshee mode.

Lydia looked down at the tiny alpha with an imperturbable expression, the white sheen falling from her eyes. Then she crooked her bare shoulder at Stiles, who jumped in at this cue.

“But you understand how this looks, right?” Stiles put on his best deputy face. “And we’re not wrong to assume that someone in your pack is responsible, are we?” Under his stare, Dana flinched and looked down at her feet, guilty.

Finally, Scott spoke. “You were very transparent about the fact that you had dissent within your ranks about your choice to end the appeals process. What changed?”

There was no judgment in his voice. No anger. No threat. Just an appeal for answers.

And that, above all other things, seemed to shatter Dana the most. She opened her mouth, gaze beseeching. Then she miserably sunk down on herself, one hand gripping the opposite elbow.

Scott pushed away from the door. “Dana, I want to believe in your process,” he said with feeling. “I want there to be some hope in the world that alphas can sit down at a table and hash out agreements without losing friends and family left and right. I want this to work.” He stopped just in front of her, clasping his hands on her shoulders. “Please meet us in the middle.”

Again, Dana hesitated. Beyond her, Mallory stepped away, rubbing at her nose. It would have been easier if they smirked, Stiles reckoned. If they made vague threats or insulted them or acted like any number of enemies the McCall pack had to face in the past. Instead, the two were strained, caught between a rock and a hard place, deeply conflicted about their role in this.

Scott’s stance—and Stiles and Lydia’s too—was much easier to defend in comparison.

“Right.” All friendliness disappeared from Scott’s voice. His hands dropped to his sides and he straightened to his full height. “The appeals process isn’t quite over yet, is it?”

Dana looked up at the easier question. “I… no. Not officially.”

Scott’s tone was hard. “So you’re still bound by the contract.” Blood drained from Dana’s face. Mallory whipped around, eyes wide.

“That’s right,” Scott continued. “I agreed to your terms. Follow up on your end so I don’t have to follow up on mine.”

Dana took a step back. “I…”

“Grave desecration was not within the scope of the tests I agreed to,” Scott reminded her. “Nothing illegal, I said. Nothing traumatic, I said. You could test his control, but you could not break him-”

Dana was shaking her head. “I know! I know.” And then, faintly, she said, “This isn’t- this isn’t a part of the tests-”

Scott’s expression was like stone. “If you give me a name, I can move forward with the assumption that this person is acting independently. If you don’t tell me who that is, I have to assume you gave them permission. If that’s the case-”

“I know!” Dana shouted at him. She clamped her hands over her head, eyes clenched shut, muttering, “I know, I know, I know…”

Stiles and Lydia exchanged an uneasy look.

Dana’s hands slowly fell. She straightened to her full height, gulping in air. Although her eyes glittered with unshed tears, her expression sobered, smoothing out into something that approached calm. She turned decisively, reaching for a notepad on the side of one of the beds. She pressed the tip of a pen down on the first page.

Mallory instantly crowded her when she saw what Dana was writing. “Dana!”

“You know the agreement as well as I do,” Dana said thickly, ripping the paper from the notebook. She folded it into fourths, and then into eighths. “We violated the contract. We must cooperate fully. Or we lose the whole pack.”

Mallory snuck a quick look over her shoulder at them before hissing, “We have three alphas-”

“Two of whom drafted the negotiations themselves. What makes you think they wouldn’t help Scott?”

Stiles tried to keep his sympathetic wincing down to a minimum. Because Nancy and Ray would absolutely follow through on the contract. They’d made that clear to them all at the start.

Thing is, Stiles always assumed that lethal blade would be aimed at them. So when Scott had brought the agreement to Lydia and Stiles, they went forward with the assumption that, somewhere along the way, their own pack was going to be the one that fucked up and bungled one of the rules.

They had contingency plans set in motion—territory they were willing to trade, counter-traditions they were willing to try, reparations in hand to stop the ax swinging over their collective heads. There was even a thirteen-step evacuation plan for when shit really hit the fan. The McCall pack wasn’t going to be backed into a corner by a tradition they barely knew about.

It was serious business, this appeals process--mutually assured destruction. The only reason why it worked was because both packs put everything on the line. Only when everything was at stake could both packs come together to resolve differences and find peace.

This was... hard to watch.

“Please don’t do this,” Mallory whispered.

“I don’t want to,” Dana replied, pleadingly. The folded up note was grasped between her white-knuckled fingers. “But I have to.” She shared a long look with her Second. And then, with slumped shoulders, Mallory stepped away.

Looking faintly sick, Dana approached Scott, extending her hand to him. He took the note but didn’t unfold it yet, eyes on her face. “How do you know who is responsible?”

“We confronted him earlier. I failed to talk him down and he ran.” She sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, then nodded at Stiles. “I can smell him in your deputy’s wounds.” Dana blinked twice before looking down. “Him and the grave dirt.”

That last bit was mumbled, but loud enough for the room to hear. Confused, Stiles nevertheless kept his thoughts to himself. He hadn’t known his own incident in the woods was connected to all this. He’d assumed the person who attacked him was an omega, not a beta from their visiting pack.

He wasn’t given much time to digest this information; Dana’s head lifted. She looked like the adult she would become and her eyes flared red. Mallory reacted to it and took point at her back. Something in Stiles eased at that.

“We are formally forfeiting the information you seek… as well as any claim we have on his life,” Dana said coldly. “In doing so, we protect the pack and”—here, her façade cracked—“we beg that you show mercy. Now please. Get out of my motel room.”

Scott stared at her for a moment before nodding. He saluted her with the paper and walked out. Lydia glided after him.

Stiles lingered for a few seconds, just long enough to see Dana’s hard expression losing the last of its strength. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. He hurried out to meet the others, deeply unsettled.

Lydia was waiting for him. “We were given a dossier on every werewolf that entered our territory under the guise of this mess,” she said without preamble. Together, they walked down the cement steps to the ground floor. “Between your connections and mine, we’ll dive deeper into this person’s file. Find their job history, their criminal record, their vices, their virtues-”

“I don’t think dangling a twinkie in front of a werewolf is going to get us anywhere.”

“As usual, you lack creativity,” Lydia said with a sniff. She squinted across the parking lot, finally following his line of sight. “What's he doing?”

Stiles didn’t answer. He was trying to figure that out himself.

Scott had emerged from the motel office, having handed off the master key to the owner. He made it to his giant red SUV before he paused, fishing in his pocket and pulling out Dana’s piece of paper. Just as Stiles opened his smart ass mouth with his quip, Scott’d unfolded the paper and froze.

Stiles and Lydia made it across the parking lot just as he was thawing, eyes still wide and clearly in shock.

“Not who you expected?” Lydia prompted, stopping at his elbow and waiting, arms crossed over her chest.

Scott didn’t respond. Stiles stood at his other elbow, jostling it gently with a knuckle. At that, Scott looked up. He had the expression of a deep sea diver who had gone too deep and was trying to figure out how above-water life worked again.

That did not bode well for them.

“Scotty,” Stiles said slowly, tipping his chin up at the note held loosely in his alpha’s fingers. “What are you going to do with that name?”

Scott’s face suddenly closed off, shutting down on him the same way it had shut down on Dana in the motel room. In him, Stiles saw nothing of his best friend, his brother. Instead, all he saw was a steely eyed, stern jawed alpha.

Scott shoved the name back in his pocket. End of conversation, apparently. He glanced at them both, daring them to challenge his decision.

That... stung. And not just Stiles.

“Well,” Lydia said testily, “when you decide to bring me back in the loop, you know where I am.”

Stiles blinked past his hurt. “Lydia-”

“Don’t referee us, Stiles,” she snapped at him scathingly, eyes snapping. She took two steps towards her shiny expensive car before marching back to them, pointing her sharp edged nail under Scott’s nose.

The topic of her ire surprised Stiles.

I don’t like your gamble,” Lydia was hissing with feeling. “I don’t like the idea of whole packs hinging on negotiation and politics. If this is the alternative to fighting every monster that comes our way, find another way.”

With that, she walked off. A moment later, her car was peeling out of the parking lot. Stiles winced, watching her go. Then he turned to Scott, eyebrows high on his forehead.

Scott looked tired. That made Stiles pause. Scott must had noticed that because he busied his hands with the door and his keys. “Call in sick,” he said over his shoulder, climbing into his car. “You need to find Derek.”

Stiles’ mouth thinned. He stepped away from the driver side door. “Yes, alpha, my alpha,” Stiles said bitterly.

Scott seemed hurt by that. Tough shit. Stiles crossed his arms over his chest, scowling.

Finally, Scott relented. “I don’t like this progressivist side of things either. I have the right to kill Dana’s whole pack. Her whole pack. She’s just a kid. She shouldn’t have to go through what we went through. What Derek went through.”

Stiles squinted at him. “Then don’t do it.”

“That isn’t the right way either,” Scott muttered. “I’m not going to be the reason why another one of our enemies comes back to hurt us. I should have killed Gerard. I should have killed Peter, Deucalion. Instead…”

“Instead we’re going to kill someone that Mallory and Dana fought tooth and nail to hide from us.” Stiles dropped his arms, closing the space between them. “Someone she obviously cares a lot about.” He leaned against the frame of the door. “Why am I feeling like we’re the bad guys here?”

Scott looked away. He slowly shook his head. Seemingly making up his mind, he scooted fully into his car, sticking the keys in the ignition. “Find Derek. Bring him home before this gets even more complicated.”

Stiles stepped back again with a mighty sigh, sensing another door slammed shut. Hands on his hips, he watched Scott take the route Lydia had taken moments before.

Find Derek, he said. Like Stiles had a freaking Derek radar that he’d been hiding for the last two days just to be a dick. Pfft.

Stiles rubbed at the bridge of his nose, trying to think. They checked all his usual running trails and local haunts already. He hadn’t been back to the pack house since he bolted, and attempting to follow his scent was a bust, like he’d dropped to four feet and fur to gain more ground.

They were holding off on declaring him officially missing, but the temptation was there, especially for Parrish.

Stiles was personally of the opinion that they should give the guy his space, let him cool his head. His family had always been a sore spot for Derek; Stiles couldn’t even guess what he was thinking at he moment.

Of course, if his mom’s grave, Stiles knew what he’d be doing—he’d regress like no other. Throw some tantrums. Break shit. Scream at people. Lock some doors and wouldn’t let anyone in. He’d spend a good chunk of time, just lying in bed, wrapped in blankets-

But not just anywhere. Not in his shitty, cold apartment he didn’t care about, not in the pack house where everyone would smother him. He’d regress completely.

He’d hole up in his childhood home.

Stiles groaned at the sky at the obvious hidey-hole he'd clearly forgotten.

How could he be so dumb?

-

Wind ruffled through his fur. It was several hours short of noon. After hours of nothing but the sounds of nature and curious rodents, the wolf heard the ancient wheeze of a rundown car. Something in him perked up at the alarming metallic squeal heading closer and closer to him.

But he didn’t move. He kept his belly planted on the ground, his eyes open. Fatigue hammered on his head, reminding him of the hours he’d missed sleeping, hours he could catch now, maybe-

A tattered blue Jeep pulled up on the side of the faded dirt road. It was well away from him, but within sight. Within walking distance, if he wanted. (He did. He didn’t.)

A man pulled out of it—jumped out of it, really, leveraging his long body through the opening. He wore tan and khaki clothing with a thick belt that made his fangs itch.

But then the man was briskly rounding his car, opening up the passenger side door. He pulled off his belt, dropping it in the foot well, and took out whatever was sitting on the passenger side seat—some clothes, it looked like. A carrier full of coffee. A lunch bag.

The man knocked his hip into the door, closing it, turning to face the ruined remains of a place left forgotten. Purple-ish bruises stretched across his face, unfamiliar. The wolf stirred at that, and at the faintest hint of blood hovering around the man's form.

“Derek?”

The man started walking towards the house. The wolf made a warbling noise in his throat, displeased with this. The man—Stiles, he remembered suddenly—turned, doing an abrupt double take. When the wolf did nothing but grumble at him, he sighed and veered off into his direction, avoiding the house.

Good. It was dangerous in there.

“Look at you, all calm and non-murdery.” Knees creaking, Stiles leaned over and set in front of his muzzle a pair of sweats and a faded BHHS sweater. After glaring at them for a moment, the wolf stuck his nose under the fabric, inhaling it noisily. He flipped it so it more fully covered his head, blanketing his cold ears.

He was very, very cold, he realized. And very, very numb. Confused, the wolf let out a whine. A cautious hand stroked over the top of his spine, soothing him.

“I have food for you. Shift back and meet me on the porch.”

Shift back? The wolf planted a paw in the clothes, pulling it off his head. He watched Stiles sit on the porch steps, dirtying his clean work clothes with the dust, ash, and grim that once was…

The wolf blinked, dropping his head.

His home.

Gritting his teeth, he stood, four limbs aching and shaky. Why was he here? Why was his head so fuzzy? He shook out his body, grasping for the deeper human intelligence under everything else. He had the faintest feeling that there was a reason why he was here, a reason why he stayed in wolf form for so long. But Stiles said to shift back, so he had no other choice but to-

The wolf let out a deeper whine as memories pummeled him in a dizzying rush. He sagged back against the ground, exhausted by the onslaught.

It took Derek a while to remember who he was. It took even longer before he could shift back.

When he did, he was greeted by the cold bite of the air. He shivered and stood, whoozy, and clumsily tucked his limbs into the clothes offered to him. Then, head low, he stumbled to the porch steps and sat down.

The first thing Stiles offered him was coffee. When Derek drained his cup, Stiles offered the rest of his own. The lunch bag was opened up to reveal yellow cheese sticks and sharp oranges, almost too ripe to touch. Under that all was a to-go bowl of warm, thick oatmeal from Derek’s favorite coffee shop.

Derek ate everything that Stiles gave him in silence, hands shaking. Stiles didn’t press him for the longest time, giving him the space to piece together the panic that led him from Scott’s party to a rectangle of earth in a patch of the Preserve that no one ever visited anymore.

Derek was chewing on the edge of a protein bar when Stiles finally broke the silence.

“We’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he said, voice rough. “Why here? Why this place, of all places?”

Derek didn’t respond. It was like there was a wall—his thoughts, his own fears, his own imaginings. He couldn’t quite assemble words like people did. Not after two days of being a wolf and in his own head.

“It’s okay,” Stiles said eventually. “You don’t have to tell me.” His tone was awkward, reluctant, like he just realized he was unwanted.

Derek winced, shaking his head. He wasn’t shutting Stiles out, he was just-

Lacking a human way of getting his point across, he leaned heavily on Stiles.

Stiles didn’t seem to know how to respond to this—at first. Then, slowly, he adjusted the way he sat, accommodating the extra weight on him. He wrapped a firm, warm arm across Derek’s back, supporting him.

Derek could finally breathe.

The day warmed up. The biting chill left the area, fleeing under the force of the noon day sun. Birds chirped merrily in the woods around them and rodents big and small scampered, scrounging around for food. Next to him, Stiles quickly tapped out texts to concerned parties. More than one of them read 'I don't know'. But he didn't press Derek for any more details.

This made Derek feel... bad. He ducked his head, knowing he was pathetic. He’d wasted days and worried people just to protect her final resting place by the old house, like that meant anything. Like he hadn’t already failed her, like she wasn’t dead, gone, and buried for almost two decades.

“Laura,” he rasped finally, just to drown out his head. Stiles looked at him quizzically. Derek licked his lips and clarified: “He didn’t get Laura.”

He waited for the explosion. The anger. The rightful condemnation.

He didn't get it.

Instead, Stiles made a small noise in the back of his throat. Then he pulled Derek to him, arm around him tight—almost too tight—anchoring him to the world around them.

"No," Stiles said thickly. "He didn't get her."

-

Crises were averted, pack mates found. Derek went back to Scott’s house without any fuss. It should have been a successful day for Stiles. So why didn’t it feel that way?

Stiles stewed over this extensively. At the same time, he hovered, feeling like a momma owl flashing a defensive posture over her oblivious owlets.

Not that Derek needed protection. He seemed composed. He stayed blank faced and calm as his pack reassessed him. Stiles could almost buy this version of Derek, had he not seen his crumbling expression and the way he tucked his face into Stiles’ jaw back at the burnt out Hale house. Or the way his shoulders hunched when Scott wordlessly cupped the back of his neck, squeezing it once.

In the end, Derek wasn’t even mad—Stiles knew that much. But he was still upset. He just wasn't willing to expose it.

The dick who dug up those graves miscalculated. They must have wanted more from him: a riot of violent, explosive emotion, perhaps. A loss of control, certainly. But they didn't know Derek. They hit a sore spot, yes, but it was one of grief, scabbed over and turning into hardened scars. If they wanted a broiling, out of control rage from a newly turned alpha, they chose the wrong man to fuck with.

But they did trigger someone’s temper--the pack's.

The pack curled up like a porcupine; they turned inward, protective. Daily patrols were set up. Training stepped up. Groups were assigned. No one went anywhere alone.

And everyone—literally everyone—moved back to the pack house.

It was… an interesting experience, especially for Kira and Scott. Despite its name, the pack house wasn’t meant to house them all. Everyone was crammed two to a room, if not more. Stiles was sharing with Derek for reals now. Kira and Scott were bunking with Isaac.

Liam and Mason were together, as usual, as were Melissa and John. Jordan and Jackson and Lydia were housed up in the same room too. What should have been an interesting scuffle and love triangle resulted in Lydia reading calmly in the library while a weird tension brewed between Jackson and Parrish.

They tried not to shift around the kids too much from their usual rooms, not wanting their routines to be screwed up. Wanting in on the ‘fun’, some of the kids, like Jackson’s brood, naturally grouped up when they saw what the adults were doing. Others, like Jason, Parrish and Lydia’s oldest, demanded complete and sole dominion over his room. He stalked the hallway constantly, as if expecting someone to “steal” his room the second his back was turned.

Stiles lied. It wasn't interesting. It was extremely stressful.

The pack didn’t tend to get together a whole lot outside of birthdays and major holidays. As it was the start of February with no major holidays in sight, a lot of excuses had to be made to friends and neighbors. The story was that they were participating in some wilderness retreat in their own backyard, a common lie used on particularly bad full moons.

Stiles didn’t have to justify his absence to anyone. He set his cat up with an automatic feeder and mockingly told the walls of his apartment his plans for the next few weeks. His neighbors didn’t give a shit if he lived or died. He wasn’t entirely sure how much of that was his own fault. He was happy to be back at the pack house, was what he was saying. Even if he did have to share a bed.

He and Derek ended up doing away with the proposed shifts on the very first night, mostly on the account of how exhausted they both were from rearranging the house to fit twenty-five people. Stiles laid down behind Derek, settling in so that they were back to back.

He woke up later, his wounded shoulder screaming under the weight. He itched at the strip still over his nose, achy and hot and tired and so uncomfortable. His body was stiff as a board.

A gusty sigh floated from behind him. Then Stiles was being rolled onto his other shoulder, half on Derek’s arm. “You’re so annoying.”

“You’re double annoying,” Stiles retorted lazily, because this position was so much better. Especially with the pain draining. Stiles kicked the blankets off his legs and scooted closer to Derek. Derek shifted magnanimously, even allowing Stiles to tuck a sneaky arm across his stomach in the name of comfy sleep time. He smelled nice.

Then again, Derek always smelled nice.

Stiles was glad they were pretending to be mates.

-

Liam caught them in bed together, curled up in comfort. Derek stared at him until he backed out of the room. Then he looked at Stiles.

Stiles had his face tucked into Derek’s throat. Sometime during the night, Derek had turned and wrapped both arms around his bed mate. Derek wasn’t surprised.

Derek felt… protective. He always felt this of Stiles in one way or another, but nowadays, the feeling was even more profound. And why wouldn’t it be? Even in his maturity, even with his authority, Stiles was always the target of someone’s actions. And Derek hated that.

Even now, Stiles had some specular late-stage bruising across his face. Derek never even seen the extent of the claw marks on his shoulder, only the pain they caused when they were touched. Even so, it made Derek want to… shield Stiles. Somehow.

So he laid there very quietly, letting minutes pass them by peacefully while Stiles snatched up a few more moments of sleep.

It didn’t last forever. It couldn’t. Eventually, Stiles stirred, pulling away from him to stretch, yawning hugely. Derek gave him space, mutely following as he trudged out of the room like a self-deprived zombie. He followed Stiles a lot these days.

Stiles wasn’t the only one who looked scarred at the appearance of the sun. Isaac’s hair was wild, his expression moody, and Kira looked faintly stunned. Scott had his face buried in his hands at the head of the kitchen table, his deep rhythmic breathing suspicious. Melissa, John, and Lydia were conspicuously absent, likely clinging to their beds for dear life. All three of them were deep sleepers.

The only person who looked chipper was Jackson. On his heels were the kids, who were emerging from semi-unconsciousness to lucidity, sentience, and noise.

Stiles grabbed the seat closest to Scott, immediately leaning on him for strength. He was barely awake. Rolling his eyes, Jackson leaned over them to set down more mugs of coffee. A moment later, Stiles’ hand reflexively reached for it. He started nursing it, wincing at the heat.

Derek busied himself, getting the kids fed and prepared for school. By the time they were ready to go, the group in the kitchen was fully awake and settling on a color coded strategy.

Right. No one went anywhere by themselves. Even the kids, who had little to no idea what was going on, would be accompanied from afar with strategically placed adults within ear shot of the schools. Their pack had been attacked physically and psychologically. They weren't going to leave anyone open to harm.

Car pools went out, kids were dropped off. Derek went with Stiles to work. He found himself cautiously eager to do so. The official word was that Derek was a civilian volunteer. This was hardly the first time he’d done this. In fact, they had a similar set up for a few other members of the pack, mostly to get them and their senses close to evidence. Parrish’s couldn’t always be relied on.

But usually Derek was set up in the opposite side of the station, likely to keep him and Stiles from arguing with each other. This time, they would be working side by side. More or less, anyway.

It was a good day, considering his week. He hoped that the worst was behind them.

He was wrong.

Chapter Text

Another week passed. Patrols were stepped up twice. Liam was pulling vacation time to meet the need. Lydia had to face nosy, dagger-in-hand questions about it at work. Both dealt with it with the same sharp, steely eyed stubbornness that made their allies wince and their enemies tread lightly.

They weren’t the only ones affected. Jackson, for one, passed on several high profile cases, stoically taking the blow to his reputation. Stiles’ dad and Melissa canceled a trip out of town. Isaac just up and quit his job. On the opposite spectrum of employment, Parrish and Stiles were doing overtime, wearily juggling their daily duties and their responsibility to keep an eye, ear, and limb out for anything that threatened their pack.

Even their resident teacher had to respond. In response to the tightened paranoia and security, Kira dropped plans to take her doe-eyed class of seven year olds on a field trip. She agreed readily to faking an illness, but Stiles wasn’t the only one to see how deeply her shoulders slumped, how much she hated letting them down. Everyone was feeling hemmed in on both sides.

Stiles couldn’t tell you how close they were to finding the guy who dug up Derek’s family either. Scott was keeping meetings between the Grayson and Nunez packs to himself. He wasn’t updating anyone on the findings of the patrols either. Even Liam, his Second, was left in the dark.

This left Lydia and Stiles snapping at each other, each exchange more vicious and defensive than the last—that is, until Isaac yelled at them. They warily confronted each other then, circling each other like two territorial tomcats. Three bottles of tequila later, they found the heart of issue between them.

Neither of them knew the name.

He assumed Lydia’d already figured it out through deductive reasoning. Then, of course, she assumed Stiles knew already in the same way Stiles knew everything about Scott from the color of his underwear to his favorite position in bed. They were both wrong.

The threat dragged on. Everyone was buckling under the pressure. And Stiles, he…

He didn’t deal with pressure well. Or gracefully either. Or logically, if he was going to be brutally honest.

It all seemed to come back to that one piece of evidence, that name. At some point, Stiles convinced himself that all he needed was that information. Once he knew which Grayson pack member was acting out, everything would make sense. Scott’s cageyness would be put in context. Mallory’s fear would be justified. The pack’s sacrifices would mean something.

That was it. That was all he needed to know. He ignored the scores of other factors bleeding into this situation, simplifying it in the least functional way possible. Hindsight was always twenty-twenty.

Stiles tried cajoling it out of Scott first, forcing a light hearted tone. He hit a brick wall. He tried again, and again, and a fourth time too. Every time Scott caught on to what he was doing, he’d change the subject, leave the room, or pretend he didn’t hear it at all. Even so, when Stiles dropped all pretenses and asked him directly, he was still shocked when he received an unyielding no.

Stiles blew up at him.

“Give me one damn good reason!” he demanded hotly. Scott had come to the station to drop off Stiles’ lunch. They’d gone into the tiny corner kitchen alone, mostly amiable. At Stiles’ shout, a coffee-seeking coworker immediately turned around and scurried back to his desk.

Embarrassed, Stiles did a ten count, running his hands through his hair. But the temper was still there, simmering, frothing under the steady gaze of his alpha and brother.

Scott didn’t even look stubborn. Stiles could have dealt with that! He could have understood if Scott cold shouldered him like a jackass. Or if he did that thing where he insisted it was “need to know”, and humans didn’t need to know. Stiles could have gotten all fired up and self-righteous about that.

But instead, Scott just looked sad and tired and lonely. Weeks later, Stiles would remember this confrontation and think, heavy is the head that carries the crown, but in the moment of it, in the thick of his temper and holier-than-thou mindset, Stiles was focused on himself and only himself.

Because Scott, horrifyingly, had just lifted a finger and tapped the star on Stiles’ chest.

Stiles had never deflated faster before in his entire life. He staggered back a step, confused twisting heat shooting through him. Then, slowly, voice trembling, he said, “My loyalty is not in question, Scott.”

“I know that,” Scott said quickly. “But maybe this is just one burden I don’t want you to bear for me.” He paused a beat before saying, with emphasis, “Deputy.”

Stiles gaped at him. He immediately rushed what little space there was between them, energy spastic and words shooting out of him. “I’m not your left hand because I’m arm candy.” He gestured vaguely. “Hands are there to… to help you carry stuff… you know?”

Scott was already shaking his head. “Not now. Not this. Not when there’s possibly…” He winced, rubbing his temples. He graced Stiles with an apologetic smile. “Maybe he’s gone and none of us have to deal with this anymore.”

As far as olive branches went, Scott’s attempt was… lackluster. He wasn’t going to budge. But, for the first time in days, Stiles’ focus had shifted away from that mystery name. Because suddenly he had to deal with a problem a lot closer to home.

Stiles felt wobbly and off centered for the rest of his shift. When he came home, he was done—finished, exhausted, and thoroughly drained. He stumbled through the back door, squinting into the kitchen. Only Jackson was there. He was standing, fully aproned, doing something stupidly artistic with an avocado—an introduction to the finer side of cuisine, he’d threatened that morning before Scott turned Stiles’ day into shit.

Jackson looked up, concentration broken. He scowled defensively, shoulders tightening. Ready for another fight, Stiles steeled himself. So he was surprised when Jackson bit out not an insult or a rude invitation, but a harsh “What’s wrong?”

Stiles blinked rapidly, reassessing his pack mate. Jackson had the look of every single parent who swore they’d just have a “little chat” with whatever bratty bully was making their kid’s life needlessly shitty. Stiles couldn’t imagine what his face must have looked like to provoke that; normally, he wouldn’t even count on Jackson to pull him out of a fire.

Stiles recoiled and immediately shook his head. “It’s fine. I’m fine. It’s- I should…” Grimacing, he slid out of Jackson’s line of sight, uncomfortably aware of Jackson’s dubious, laser-like attention. Stiles wasn’t one of Jackson’s brood. He didn’t need coddling. He just needed-

Something else. A new brain, maybe.

It was still light out, but just barely. He could hear a movie in the other room and adults talking above him. Head pounding, he headed for the media room, sliding in soundlessly. Three couches faced a wide, flat television anchored firmly to the wall.

The kids were all there, all accounted for. Gazes glazed over, they watched a movie, occasionally breaking out of their fugue to snap something witty at the others in the room. Some of them sat on the floor. Some of them laid across the couches. One was parked up in reverse, legs up on a cushion, back on the floor, and watching the animated flick upside down.

Whatever. Stiles didn’t judge.

On the longest couch, barely visible past a bouncing Susie and half covered under a hideously purple blanket, was the adult on duty—their very own Derek Hale.
Derek, whose eyes hadn’t left his since he entered the room.

Stiles smiled ruefully and edged in, gingerly taking up a seat on the same couch on Susie’s other side. She shot him a brief, wide smile but instantly turned her attention back to the feature. Grateful, Stiles sank into his seat, tipping his head up to the ceiling. He tried to breathe.

The room exploded with laughter in time with the movie. Susie slipped down off the couch after a few moments, scooting closer to the screen on her tummy. Her feet lazily kicked the air and, for a moment, Stiles was distracted. For a moment, Stiles’ mind was on something else. Then a phantom pressure on his chest threw him back that morning, to Scott’s long face and stubbornly closed lips.

Stiles clenched his eyes shut. When he opened them again, the ceiling was blurred. Shit. He wiped quickly at his face, angry. He dug his fingers into the cushion.

Him and Scott, they’d been through it all together, thick and thin. Being each other’s best friends wasn’t a walk in the park; they’d thrown a lot of shit at each other in the last couple of decades. They’d both made each other’s lives hard and horrible, sometimes even on purpose. But their relationship always stayed strong. Except maybe that was all in Stiles’ mind, because there he was, not being trusted, simply because Stiles did one good thing with his mind and made it a tool for the law in Beacon County.

Stiles had done a lot of terrible things in his lifetime—a lot—but following his dad’s footsteps hadn’t been one of them. He was… proud of it. He did good things. Right?

A blanket fluttered over him, half of that purple monstrosity he’d eyed early with so much judgement. Stiles lifted his head, muzzily watching Derek slide closer to him, adjusting the blanket over them both, eyes still on the TV. Out of sight, Stiles’ tense hand was covered by a warm palm that wasn’t his own.

Stiles went limp, staring down at that hidden touch. He hadn’t realized how much his fingers hurt, how deeply they ached from bluntly gouging into fabric… until now, at least. Slowly, the pain went away, leaving Stiles to wonder how many of Derek’s veins were black under that blanket of his.

Derek’s eyes were on him, but only briefly. He fixed his attention back on the television soon enough. Assured of relative privacy, Stiles got himself under control. He did a couple more ten counts, mentally slapping his cheeks. Then, thoroughly, he laid out the facts for himself, the makeup of the reality he operated in.

Stiles was… overreacting. Again. After all, it wasn’t like Scott didn’t trust him. There was oodles of trust. Trust by the metric ton, even. Scott just… had own issues. His own stupid nobility. Decades of crap and grief and loss meant still something. Scott was simply doing what he always tried to do, which was protect everyone. Including Stiles.

Stiles let out a long and deep breath. He rubbed at his eyes, leaning on Derek’s shoulder. He was exhausted. He sucked in a few more centering breaths and let himself get drawn into the movie. Stiles smiled briefly. Kids. How simple they were. How innocent. How oblivious.

Stiles frowned. Adults, on the other hand… He shifted back into the cushion, looking at Derek’s profile. Derek looked studious, like he was expecting a pop quiz. Stiles rocked his shoulder into Derek. After a beat, Derek rocked back. Stiles bit down on a grin.

Huh.

The night came to a close in a whirl of arguments and laughter and good cheer. The adults descended, making the house feel twice as small. It was loud. The kids were constantly underfoot, demolishing huge buckets of spaghetti, which Isaac made behind Jackson’s back. Jackson, highly offended that they weren’t trying his (still incomplete) masterpiece, swore they were all missing out.

It was a typical pack meal, nothing major. Six separate arguments rose to conflict and ended with bad tempered handshakes by the time Scott came in late with Kira. They had just finished the last patrol of the night and, while Kira tried to smile, Scott couldn’t look anything but grim.

Stiles dodged the debate of who was going to clean dishes by greeting Scott, immediately sweeping his big bad alpha into a giant hug.

Scott instantly sagged into him, relief written in the weight of his body and the grip of his arms around Stiles. With an oof, Stiles had to redistribute his weight—certainly the weight of physically and emotionally exhausted asthmatic sixteen-year-old was easier to bear than its thirty year old and muscle bound counterpart. But Stiles made due.

“Thank god,” Scott said with feeling, “I thought- I was-”

“Don’t worry about me. I get it,” Stiles said begrudgingly. “Kind of.”

Thank you,” Scott said with feeling, burying his head in Stiles’ shoulder. Any lingering resentment Stiles felt for being the bigger person faded like ash in the wind. It left him feeling hollow and achy, sad for the burden Scott refused to set on anyone else’s shoulders. God, if Stiles didn’t love him so much, he’d slap the guy over the head. He was going to name his first gray hair Scott.

Their prolonged broment in the foyer meant they ended up being unanimously “voted” as the most qualified for dish cleaning duty, which wasn’t fair. Kira was out there too! But Scott didn’t seem to mind and smiled the whole time, clearly relieved to have avoided a fight with Stiles. Stiles put up with it for that reason alone.

By the time Stiles crawled into bed, he was exhausted and numb, just the way he liked it. He barely registered Derek sliding in the same bed twenty minutes later, a polite distance away. Soon after, Stiles was dead asleep, deaf to everything but the siren call of slumber.

That ended abruptly when a howl ripped through the house.

-

Heels hitting the ground instantly, Derek sprang up to his feet. Stiles was already at the door, wrenching it open. The second the wood parted from the molding, the whine of fire alarms ripped through the air. Derek had only a moment to despair over the dangers of sound proofed rooms, that nothing short of an alpha’s howl could pierce them. Then he was charging through the door, hounding Stiles’ footsteps.

Smoke curled in his nose—acrid, burning, familiar. Over the balcony, he saw that the foyer and much of the living room was lit up. In his chest, his heart flapped like a tiny terrified bird in a cruelly barbed cage.

Derek and Stiles exchanged a look before immediately splitting and running off into different directions, canvassing the second floor in a room by room check. They weren’t the first. Jackson and Kira were shifted and running down the hallway, holding a kid in each arm. Derek slid by them, running a comforting hand over the back of the closest child as they passed.

Derek ducked into every room along the hallway. He pointed the way for a stumbling Isaac and crammed Jason into his shoes before shoving him along. Wood cracked. The air was sour, smoke curling and thickening in the air, even with the house’s high ceilings.

Derek didn’t dare—didn’t even entertain-

If even one person was left behind-

In the last room, Susie was on top of her shelf, fully shifted. Her kanima tail swished back and forth, knocking down her dolls and action figures. She was hissing frantically, in a full panic, and Derek remembered too late that her kind always had a strong fight or flight reflex—stronger than even a wolf’s.

And the younger the kanima was, the more lethal their venom.

But Mason was under her, reaching up. “Come on, sweetheart, it’s going to be okay. We’re going to get out, we’re going to be safe”—he was in tears—“everything’s going to be fine. You just- you just need to- you just need to come down.”

Derek had half a thought to rip the comforter off her bed and wrap her up tight before jumping out the window. The comforter wouldn’t last against her claws and Derek would be dead before he hit the ground, but maybe, maybe-

Maybe if he landed right-

Derek stumbled ahead, half-baked plan congealing, but he stopped.

Mason was getting through to her. Gold slitted eyes blinked rapidly. She was gulping, the gesture prominent across her green throat. She was focusing, trying to remember everything they taught her about control and retaining her humanity. Then, without any warning, she jumped and landed in Mason’s arms in a ball, remembering at the last moment to keep her claws to herself. She continued to hiss through pointed teeth, staring worriedly over Mason’s shoulder with huge eyes that looked everywhere but saw nothing.

Derek settled back on his heels, letting out a low breath. Mason jumped a full foot in the air at the sound. “Shi- nacks. Snacks. Damn you, Derek.”

Relief made his knees weak and his tone dry. “Heading out now?”

Mason passed him, snapping, “No, I thought I would take the scenic route.”

Derek followed him out and back to the staircase. Stiles met him there, followed by his dad, Melissa, Liam, and Scott. They ran down the stairs as a group, the humans coughing into their fisted hands. Scott caught John in a stumble and righted him. Stiles made a blind turn into the lethal foyer, unable to see through the thick, black smoke, and Derek dragged him back into the back room by the collar of his shirt, his own throat aching and scratchy, his chest tight.

They ran into a pack-sized pile up in the back room. “What the hell is the hold up?” Stiles barked, pushing through the group. His eyes were watering.

“It’s mountain ash,” Jason wailed. Isaac was slamming a chair into one of the wide windows, but to no avail. It was supernaturally reinforced—it had to be with in a pack of twelve children. Stiles slammed his shoulder into the back door. He turned the knob frantically, but there was something behind the door, forcing it to stay closed.

Derek turned around, ready to head back upstairs—not every room was as reinforced as the bottom few—but came to an abrupt stop as fire roared up and tall at him, grasping. He recoiled, pliant to the heavy hand of his alpha dragging him back into the dubious safety of the kitchen. Derek watched in dismay, coughing, as the staircase collapsed, consumed by the blaze.

Derek’s back hit a cabinet. His stomach swooped and his hearing faded. Everything seemed to dissociate. His own heart beat seemed a million miles away, and all he could do was stare.

Nick was sitting on the floor, sobbing into a pillow. Mason dropped to a knee next to him, coughing hard, still clutching Susie. He reached out shakily with one hand, trying to drag Nick’s collar up to block his mouth. Liam intercepted him, leading the humans crouched and low on the floor through the same steps.

Scott was fully shifted—taller, stronger, covered with rippling fur. He heaved the burning dining room table away from them and into the destroyed front room before trying to force the swinging doors closed. Kira was crouched low, shouting rapidly on the phone to whoever she had called—her words like foam in Derek’s ears. Behind her, Stiles continued to throw himself at the porch door, each time weaker and weaker than the last. On his knees, John tried pulling his son down while tenderly holding a wet cloth over his limp wife’s mouth.

Everyone was trying to buy everyone else just a little more time. And all Derek could think of was how everything had come full circle. Derek’s family was stronger, smarter now. But they were all going to die the same way.

And it was all his fault.

Then suddenly a burning hand forced its way through the swinging doors, jerking them open. Scott stumbled back in surprise, ears flattening against his head. Who had they forgot?

The ancient, deadened gaze of the hellhound met them coolly. He was unmoved by their suffering, not beholden to pack ties the way his human half was.

But it was the person behind him that demanded their entire attention.

Lydia stalked around him, eyes glowing bone white. She seemed to float, almost, fire fizzing out before it touched the hem of her silky gray robe. She paused, cocking her head in an inhuman manner at Stiles and his attempts at the back door.

He immediately fell out of her way, stumbling, and the others followed his example, clapping hands over their ears. Those too young or too out of it to know better had their ears covered for them, adults falling over children to protect them with their bodies.

Lydia opened her mouth and shrieked.

-

Stiles was dropped in the grass. He waved two fingers at Isaac in thanks, too busy hacking up a lung to say more. Air had never been so sweet, so crisp, so cool. If he could just breathe, he’d savor it from now until the end of time.

The trees above him swirled. He briefly entertained the thought of what this change would mean for physics before remembering that it was just his head. His barely oxygenated and fragile little brain. He tried to laugh, but the coughing hurt too much.

Stiles sat up eventually, shaking from head to toe, eyes seeking out evidence that his ears had already collected. The pack was a mess—sooty and terrorized and crispy in places. But alive.

Everyone was alive.

Lydia’s scream broke the line of mountain ash. It also sent the barbecue—that heavy son of bitch that blocked his attempts to free them—flying. It took out one of the supporting posts for the balcony and ending up embedded in a tree. Good riddance. Stiles always hated barbecues.

Once they could get through, everyone was pulled, yanked, or pushed into the soft grass surrounding the house. The priority had been the children, then the humans. Scott was the last out. His fur was literally on fire. His giant alpha shoulders slumped slightly when the cold water from the garden hose hit him, but he otherwise took the treatment from Liam with dignity. Once Stiles could breathe, he was going to nail him with at least three wet dog jokes. It was only fair.

Stiles swung his attention to the burning house, dazed at the sight. The porch was on fire too, but just barely. Smoke was pouring out of the house in huge clouds. Stiles winced as the second floor caved, breaking walls and sending glass to the ground. Ouch. This was going to be a pain in the ass to fix. If they even wanted to. Stiles tightened his jaw, forcing his gaze away.

Steps from the house, Parrish was slowly coming out of his hellhound fugue. It tended to hit him at the worst possible times—when a really bad villain confronted him or some wiseass set him on fire. Stiles watched, pained, as his boss circled once, visibly confused, expression falling as he did the math.

Sheriff Jordan Parrish was a man with a huge heart, great loyalty, and a lot of love. But the hellhound that wore his skin cared little about things that ran outside of its interests. In all the years that Stiles had known Parrish, only two things had the power to pull the hellhound off the beaten path—Lydia and the fae. If Lydia hadn’t been here, the hellhound wouldn’t have registered anything of importance in the house—not even his own children. Not sensing the threat, it would have sat down in the flames and waited, as patient as only it could be, for the last ember to die.

Parrish dropped down to his knees next to his closest child, hugging him tightly. Nick complained grumpily, swatting at his father’s broad shoulders. They didn’t understand his fear—and, god willing, they wouldn’t for many years to come.

Parrish scooped Nick up and went straight to one of his oldest, Jason. The kid was wailing. He had some burns on his arm—nothing major. But the younger kids were freaking, swarming their fearless leader. The baby werewolves had muscled in, ignoring Melissa’s calm directions for them to disperse and give the poor kid some breathing room. It took Stiles a second to figure out why, and Jackson a second longer, but by the time the latter jumped in, the kids were already satisfied, black veins disappearing on their arms.

“-not supposed to use that!” Jackson ranted. The guilty parties hardly seemed daunted by this. In fact, if anything, they seemed smug. Jason was no longer crying.

Beyond them, Scott was shaking out his fur, which only served to make him look absurdly fluffy. When Liam attempted to go at him with another pass of the hose, Scott snorted and shoved past him, deep set red eyes scanning the tree line suspiciously. He paced like that, anxiety written into his every step.

Exhausted, Stiles watched him. Someone should probably be telling him to turn back now, he figured. Emergency services in Beacon Hills were a lot more savvy about the supernatural than Stiles would have ever thought, but even they had a limit, and that limit was an eight foot tall werewolf with glowing red eyes and bristling fur.

Stiles looked around, ready to play rock-paper-scissors with Lydia for the unenviable job of getting Scott to put on his human face. But Lydia was off in the distance from them, facing away. Her one girl child, Ariel, stood by her, one fist in her pale robe, but she might as well have not been there at all. Lydia’s mind was off somewhere else entirely. She stood there, hair wild and tumbling, looking like an angel. Or a wraith.

She'd left that night for a meeting and had plans to coop up in a hotel. If she hadn't broken her plans... Stiles couldn’t imagine how many screams she’d suppressed. He wouldn’t ever ask either.

Sighing, resigned, Stiles rose to his feet, wheezing faintly as his chest constricted. He might as well have stayed down, because Scott was still now. He was staring down at his tiny wife, ears pressed flat to his head. Kira looked up at him, fingers skimming his broad forearm. Then, sweetly, she lifted her arms up, reaching out for him. By the time they met halfway in an embrace, Scott was Scott again—half-naked, muscle-y, and covered in soot, but three feet shorter and furless. He had Kira tucked into his arms tightly, his face invisible behind her hair.

Scant moments later, Scott pulled away, his expression a haze of loss and guilt. Kira cupped the side of his face, shaking her head as some silent communication went back and forth between husband and wife. Stiles suddenly knew, without a doubt, who Scott’s real confidant in the pack was—and it wasn’t him. It wasn’t Lydia either.

Suspicions pricked at the corners of his mind and, forcefully, Stiles made himself turn away from it. Not now, he told himself. Not now.

“Is everyone okay?” Stiles called out, voice rough. The woods danced with light and sirens. “Because we got company.”

-

A hand clapped on Derek’s shoulder. It startled him. John gave him an apologetic smile, noticing his reaction. Derek forced himself to relax, dropping his head a little in deference to the former sheriff. Derek might have had his issues with the law, but he trusted John Stilinski implicitly—and had done so, even way back then.

But today… Today just wasn’t a good day.

They were a distance away from the house—still on the property, but near the outer edge of it where they tended to park cars and have picnics. The fire had mostly been subdued with only a few hotspots. Unselfconscious in his Pikachu pajamas, Liam directed his on-duty coworkers to known problem areas of the house. They allowed this with good humor.

“The fire started on the porch,” John said suddenly. Derek focused on him, frowning. “The front door was broken—did you notice that? They must have thrown something inside too.” John’s arms crossed over his chest. He glanced back at Derek. “What I don’t get is how the hell does a house full of werewolves miss the sound of their front door being kicked in?”

It wasn’t judgmental or accusing, Derek told himself firmly. It was a simple question, simply asked.

“The house is significantly soundproofed,” he replied hoarsely.

“Ugh.” The disgusted noise came from Melissa, sitting on the back of one of the three ambulances parked near them. She threw her hands up in the air. “That’s it, we’re getting rid of that,” Melissa said decisively. She scowled at the scandalized looks she received. “People have sex, get over it.” The children made gagging noises.

“Gross!” Jason shouted. The paramedic working on his burns smirked, hiding it badly.

Everyone else who needed treatment had already been taken care of. Even Scott had sought treatment, politely suppressing his healing so the paramedics weren’t outraged over his refusal of services. Although most of their human pack mates had suffered from smoke inhalation, it was concluded that none were bad enough along to warrant the ride to the closest hospital.

“You’re lucky, you know,” one of them had claimed after giving Derek a clean bill of health. Remembering Stiles crumbling against the door, fighting and losing his battle with the smoke, Derek wouldn’t help but agree.

Derek’s eyes cut to the left as the object of his thoughts emerged from the bushes. Of everyone involved, Stiles had inhaled the most smoke, but he accepted little more than a few minutes with an oxygen tank. He was soon up and poking around, his mind circling this problem like a blood hound on a scent—much like his father, actually.

It came to the surprise of no one that, when Stiles returned, he came bearing gifts: this time, a stick with a can attached to the end of it.

Stiles walked up to John and Derek, eyebrows raised slightly. Years older and eons more mature than the kid Derek met so long ago, he was still the pack member with the stickiest fingers. He’d swiped a pair of gloves from the ambulance. He wrapped the end of the stick with them, gripping it like a one-handed sword. Slowly, he turned the stick, flipping over the tightly attached bucket, revealing a slit on the end through which powdery mountain ash fluttered to the ground. It was almost empty.

Melissa distracted the kids, leading them away. Jackson wrapped up a phone call and followed her lead, Isaac sweeping up behind him, picking up the stalling Nick and swinging the kid over his shoulders. Scott wrapped up his conversation with the lead investigator quickly, one eye on Stiles, while Liam looked back once, and only once, before renewing his efforts with his coworkers.

Everyone else converged on Stiles and his find.

“Crude, but effective,” Parrish commented. He reached out. As a hellhound, he was only slightly effected by mountain ash, so he was able to manipulate the can, forcing the end upwards and exposing the jagged cut into the light. “This cut was made with brute force.”

Stiles’ evidence was carefully pulled away from him, discretely held up to Parrish’s nose. No werewolf was asked to do the same—they all already knew the mountain ash would obscure, if not confuse, their senses for this.

Lydia sniffed quietly, still unusually pale. “We’re looking at a werewolf. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Stiles echoed, his tone a tad mocking. She narrowed her eyes at him, clearly questioning his intelligence.

Derek didn’t notice the smirk or the performance that came with it. All he could focus on was the burn mark on Stile’s neck. The faint healing splash of bruises over his face. The stretch of scabbed over claw marks peeking through the loose collar of Stiles’ t-shirt.

Stiles noticed his distraction. “What’s with that face?” he said directly, mildly annoyed.

Derek couldn’t respond. Not yet, anyway.

Stiles faded back in the crowd, stepped in line with Derek himself, his laser-like focus still on him. After a beat, he leaned in, tapping Derek with his shoulder, and, all of a sudden, it was suddenly like Derek had been drowning and finally allowed a breath.

“You okay?” he asked quietly, oblivious to the way Derek’s chest tightened and expanded with suddenly feeling. “I’m not the most tactful person to ever exist, but even I know this might be triggering for you.”

Derek shook his head slowly, blinking rapidly. He’d been numb practically the whole time, even a tad disassociated. Scott and Kira’s whole life was in that house, and it was being burnt up. Even so, Derek couldn’t bring himself to be sad.

Because everyone was out on the grass, milling around and snapping at each other, tempers rising, patience running thin. But so, so alive.

“I only saw the house after,” Derek replied hoarsely. When it was too late to do anything, even mourn. His eyebrows lowered and he shot Stiles a sharp look. “The parallels, though…”

Stiles was already nodding. “Someone is trying to get you to react.” His eyes flicked to the right, anchoring on Scott’s approach. “And it’s about time our alpha quit holding his cards so close to his chest.” He raised his voice only slightly, but it was enough to ensure silence.

Scott assessed him for a moment, expression neutral. “Not here,” he said finally. “The kids are the most important here. We secure the kids first, then we’ll talk.”

-

Life went on, apparently. Mere hours after the almost deadly fire, before it was even extinguished, they were bundling up the kids to get ready for school. Complaints were had in all corners. Very few of them had slept that night and the smell of ash clung to everyone’s skin. It wasn’t the only thing clinging. Smoke had nothing on shaken up pack children.

Everyone gritted their teeth, splitting up the kids across the various households. Liam took his and Lydia took hers. Jackson and Parrish shared Jackson’s brood, and everyone got washed, dressed, and fed in record time before being dropped off at school.

Once they were taken care of, everyone but Isaac doubled back to Liam’s house. Isaac and three of the deputies in the know would keep an eye on the schools. Everyone had their cell phones out, ready for disaster. Everyone was tense, ready for a second attack. Stiles’ hair was rising even at the thought of the whole adult side of the pack being in one place at once. Look what almost happened the night before!

They needed to split up. And they would split up. But first…

Scott had explaining to do.

So all eleven of them crammed around Liam’s shitty kitchen table, jabbing each other with elbows and knees. The full pack, plus or minus a few. Huh. They’d never seemed smaller.

Most of the absences were… what they were, really. Malia wasn’t here. She’d broken off and left after the debacle with her mother. Cora never returned. She stuck with the pack who took her in when their family burned. Peter Hale was dead, of course, the fucker. Chris Argent, who was more pack than even he expected, was training hunters somewhere in Arizona. Deaton was up in Canada, helping a family with some sort of sleeping curse. Braeden, who had come to love the pack as much as any of them, purposefully kept ties thin, knowing her tactics and Scott’s would never truly line up. Scott’s father eventually learned about the supernatural, but was never invited in, and Kira’s parents, though supportive of them, always stayed on the outside.

Other absences were more painful. Corey died late senior year of high school, leaving Mason with broken heart. Allison died in Scott’s arm almost a full year earlier. Before even that, Boyd died by Derek’s own hands as much as the alpha pack’s, and Erica had been left to rot in a closet. Aiden died when Allison did, thinking of his girlfriend instead of redemption, and his twin, too consumed with revenge, came up against a rogue alpha three years later and was butchered. And no one knew where Danny was.

For all of their infamy, they were a Swiss cheese pack, full of holes. But they were a tight pack too. You could see it when they got together like this—the thoughtless touches, the brief smiles, the firm eye contact. A lot of their more abrasive personalities burned out as adulthood and responsibility sunk in. Parrish clapped a gentle hand on Lydia’s shoulder and Jackson pushed out chairs for Liam and Mason. Kira put a cup of tea in front of Derek with a knowing smile, swatting Stiles’ ear when he suggested dosing it with something much stronger. John ruffled Mason’s hair, laughing quietly at something he said. Melissa was clasping Scott’s hands between hers, expression understanding but no words coming between them.

The care was there. The love too. But tension was ramping up quicker, and soon, everyone was silent, eyes on Scott.

With a sigh, Scott pulled away from his mother, his palm landing gently on a tan folder. Lydia had been eyeing it for a while, expression sharp—and why wouldn’t it be? It was familiar to Stiles too, one of the brief dossiers they’d compiled when the Nunez and Grayson packs revealed who they were bringing into town. But it was thin, clearly populated with the least information. He found himself trying to remember who hadn’t earned at least a few pages of their attention.

Without preamble, Scott opened it, turning the folder so it faced the bulk of them. Front and center was a picture of a kid.

Stiles didn’t understand. Not even when his father’s face went ashen. Not even when Scott tapped the picture.

“He's the one who desecrated the graves and attacked Stiles in the Preserve,” Scott said quietly. “Ricky Grayson. He’s Mitchell and Rory’s son.”

“And…” Melissa’s voice was tight. She was blinking rapidly, floored by this information. “…how old is he?”

“Ten,” Scott said grimly. His eyes jumped up, meeting Stiles’. “And he’s in a full frenzy.”

-

Arguments erupted around the table. Denial only lasted seconds in a pack that could tell if you were lying. Even so, the debate took a nasty turn when Stiles pointed out that Dana had given Scott the blank check to kill the kid. Then it soured when Scott didn’t immediately object.

“How far do you expect us to defend ourselves?” Parrish demanded, disgusted. “Against a kid?”

“As far as necessary,” Lydia responded, eyes cold over her folded hands.

Derek could see the cracks in the pack, where this threatened to break them. But then Scott spoke, voice soft and pained. “It makes me sick to my stomach that he’s so young, that his dad’s death is what set him off. I… feel for him, and as much as any of you do.” Derek looked down. Scott’s tone hardened. “But a frenzied ten year old werewolf is just as dangerous to us, to our kids, as one that’s ten years older. We saw that much ourselves last night.”

Derek didn’t think they needed that reminder, but somehow they did. Liam rubbed at his eyes. Jackson silently scowled, staring at his hands. Even Mason’s expression was firm.

John made a circular gesture with his hand. “Can’t we… you know… talk to him?”

“I talked to the Nunez alphas. According to them, this kid is basically feral,” Scott admitted. “Beyond negotiations, beyond speech. And no taser or suppressive method you have would work on him.”

“Well. Shit,” John said eloquently. He looked at Melissa to his left. She smiled at him wanly, leaning her arm into his. He clapped his hand over her hand once and nodded, wary gaze on his stepson. They looked exhausted, but also deeply, deeply resigned. As humans, they’d learned to always be wary of werewolves, even their loved ones. They knew not to underestimate even a young one.

Derek wished his own stance was so easy. On one hand, he’d do anything to defend this pack. On the other…

“I know you’re all thinking it,” Scott said suddenly. “I know you’re all trying to find a way out. But there is no way out. Do you hear me? The Graysons tried everything you’re thinking of, and they failed. And only after they failed did they tell us anything. Do you really they would have let us know any of this if there was a chance they could save one of their own?”

The room was quiet. Any space for argument was gone. Even Derek, with his churning stomach, knew this. He waited for his alpha’s verdict with all the dread of a man meeting his executioner.

“If this kid approaches you, you must defend yourself at any cost,” Scott said, words ringing with authority. “I will not have this pack put in danger over some nebulous what-if.”

Reluctant heads nodded across the tables, expressions ranging from firm to troubled. And then a chair was pushed out, a solitary noise of wood scraping against linoleum.

Parrish was shaking his head. “I won’t do it. I won’t help you. He’s a kid, Scott.”

Scott didn’t look surprised. “He’s already drawn blood. And If Lydia hadn’t been with us last night-”

“I know that,” Parrish blurted out, interrupting him. Lydia's face was ashen. “I know. But I just… can’t.” Parrish swallowed before looking around the table. His eyes lingered longest on Stiles, his deputy. Stiles didn’t return the look.

“I’m sorry, Scott,” Parrish said finally. With that, he left the room.

-

No one goes anywhere alone, Scott said. No one does anything stupid. Fat chance of that, Stiles almost said, but his throat had been dry and his heart had been racing. His mind muttered the joke, but his flesh didn’t utter it.

He should have left with Parrish.

He went to work after his meeting, throwing himself into his patrols and files. He took a brief nap during his lunch break, which was a mistake. A guilty mind threw him in a narrow hallway, coughing up a lung, blindly following where Derek pulled his collar. Derek didn’t look back at him, not even when they started getting crispy, deep fried in a burning prison that got tighter and tighter and-

The dream ended. Then it was the weekend.

He spent it over at his dad’s house instead of his cold apartment. Melissa was welcoming, doing her damnedest not to reference anything going on with their pack. He went along with it, grateful. He played at being the simple deputy son coming home to his loving family, not the left hand of a werewolf pack that was on the verge of putting down a kid. He managed it for a day before the illusion was wrecked.

John Stilinski wasn’t a man who lied about his reality to make himself feel better, and he fully expected his son to be the same way. At the same time, he got where Stiles was coming from, even while prying. It started when John tried to get his opinion on the Grayson’s kid. His opinion was ugly, and his dad could see it, even without him explaining. John didn’t dissuade him from it either, which surprised him. Until, of course, he remembered that John was one of the few survivors of minor on a shooting spree.

John understood kids making bad choices—but the idea of choice was what he got stuck on. The Grayson kid’s frenzy seemed more of a cruelty of biology to him, much like the wildness and viciousness that plagued werewolves until they were able to find an anchor.

It didn’t seem quite as… fair. Or just. And John wanted to know why.

Stiles wasn’t very helpful. While he knew quite a bit about baby werewolves and their control issues, he didn’t know as much about frenzies. So on Sunday night, with his dad at his elbow, he cracked open a couple of laptops and his favorite white board and started researching the topic. For the first time since his dad’s retirement, they worked on a case side by side.

All of this was new for John. But as far as Stiles went, he found himself researching something that wasn’t new, but rather something that put a name on something he’d already experienced.

Peter Hale had gone through a frenzy. He went on a rampage when Stiles was sixteen. Uncontrollable, blood thirsty, not entirely intelligent? Those were three traits of a frenzy. He must’ve regained control by the time they figured out who he was, and didn’t that make sense in hindsight? Peter was not a stupid man, but his first stint as alpha was reckless and short sighted.

Peter’s second stint as alpha was just as bloody, but was much more subtle, his tactics matching his cutting intelligence rather than the worst instincts of the animal inside of him. Being in a frenzy didn’t excuse him of anything… but it sure did explain some discrepancies.

And Peter had been extremely lucky his frenzy fizzled out. If they didn’t snap out of it, a frenzy was basically a death sentence for a werewolf. Old hunter journals described werewolves who keeled over mid-rampage, much to everyone’s confusion and misplaced pride. The most recent entry in the sixties had gone as far as examining the body afterwards, assuming that one of the many rounds of wolfsbane pumped into him led to his demise. In true hunter fashion, the man was callous enough to want to know which one.

Well, maybe that was unfair. Stiles might not have had the best opinions of hunters, but a threat was a threat. Hunters were right to classify frenzied wolves as threats. A frenzy gave a beta the physical power of an alpha, and an alpha the physical power of two. It also gave them complete immunity to the gentler forms of wolfsbane and partial immunity to the lethal ones.

Even after the autopsy, the hunter in the sixties couldn’t figure out what killed him—not initially, anyway. The werewolf’s organ system was stressed, but had clearly been healing itself. There was no poison in his heart and no evidence of a heart attack. He didn’t bleed out either.

It wasn’t until the hunter cracked open the werewolf’s skull did he—or anyone else—get an inkling about what was happening.

The werewolf’s brain had been burnt up in an acute form of encephalitis. Other resources corroborated this information.

It was said that a frenzy was basically a fever. When the wolf was about to burn out, lucidity returned as a symptom of the attempt of the body and its powerful healing abilities to snap the person out of the thing that was killing it. Sometimes, werewolves snapped out of it completely. Most of the time, they didn’t. Periods of thought and sentience lasted anywhere from ten minutes to an hour.

This explained a little why Mitchell Grayson was so far away from his pack. He attacked Mallory right before snapping out of it. When his mind came back, he realized what he had done and he ran. He tried to protect his pack with distance. Derek had the unlucky chance of running across him when the frenzy was burning hot again. Only luck and Derek’s stubborn will to survive won the day.

But only just. Stiles recalled his fingers slipping in Derek’s blood, the weight of him on Stiles’ shoulder, and shuddered.

There was no known cure for a frenzy. Not even the druids knew anything that worked. Either the werewolf snapped out of it or they didn’t, and the longer someone was in a frenzy, the less likely they were to ever be normal again.

Hunter, druid, wolf, other—it didn’t matter who assembled the bestiary or wrote the entries. They all suggested the same thing. Kill on sight.

Stiles stared up at his whiteboard, now a mess of crisscrossed lines and disappointing facts. When nothing jumped out at him, his shoulders fell in defeat. His dad clapped his back.

“It’s like rabies, I guess,” John said before leaving the room.

“Except rabies has a cure,” Stiles mumbled, still staring at the white board for clues. Nothing popped out to him. Nothing would. Defeated, Stiles went back to Liam’s house that night, passing on his findings to Scott. Scott didn’t seem surprised.

In the end, they were still going to murder some kid.

The information rippled through the pack. They swapped all of their ammo with wolfsbane rounds—the lethal kind. One wouldn’t kill the kid, but a whole clip might. Even Melissa was carrying a handgun at this point, and some mountain ash too. She had some limited talent with it—not like Stiles did, but scores and scores more talent that Stiles’ father, who was all thumbs and disastrous sneezes. They were often paired up with each other, sometimes alone, sometimes with Isaac. As for him, Stiles was paired with Jackson most days, and Lydia others. Lydia followed the rules to a T, subdued but accepting their situation in a way that made Stiles tired. On the other hand, Jackson was moody and quiet, likely to end patrols early by doing wide circles around whatever space his children were occupying at the moment. He didn't look hard for Grayson kid--not at all. Stiles never called him on it, but his frustration was mounting. One day, he snapped.

Stiles stormed into the pack house behind his partner. “He's not one of your strays, Jackson! If you don't take this seriously-”

“I'm taking this as seriously as I fucking can!” Jackson shouted defensively.

Isaac and Mason shared a look with each other and promptly disappeared.

Embarrassed now on top of his anger, Stiles followed Jackson up the stairs. “Not seriously enough-”

Jackson stopped abruptly and ran a hand through his hair. Clearly trying to be reasonable, he said quieter, “Look, you're not a father. It's easy enough for you to say 'kill the kid'-”

“I never said that-”

Jackson spun on him, bellowing, “You might as well have!” He was half shifted, and dangerous for it. Stiles stood two steps below him, not budging, jaw hard and unrelenting.

It was Jackson who backed down, but not without a parting barb. "Nevermind. I don't know why I bothered. I forgot you lost your soul at birth.”

That was the last time Jackson paired up with him. The patrols just got worse and worse from that point on. But the worst thing about it was how he had to keep going to work everyday. Stiles liked his boss usually, but all he could summon up nowadays was contempt. Parrish benefited so much from the pack but wasn’t willing to step up when things got tough. And this was tough. No one wanted to kill a kid, but everyone sure as hell wanted the siege to be over.

More days passed. Soon enough, it was the day before Valentine’s Day and Stiles was shooting up in bed, clawing out from under a nightmare. He dreamed he’d had a knife in some kid’s gut. He was idly twisting it, excessively cruel. He looked up, bored, and the kid was Scott, but not just Scott. Scott when they were kids—round cheeks, soft eyes, and a wounded expression.

Then Scott was gone, replaced by gangly Ricky Grayson, human-faced and begging for mercy. But it didn't matter because Stiles didn't have a soul. He was a empty vessel with nothing, no heart, no feelings, no nothing-

And then Stiles was awake, terrified and crying for some kid who he’d never met, who actively tried to kill him. It took him a while to calm down, to believe his clean hands and quiet room. He curled up in bed, hugging his knees to his chest miserably.

Because, one way or another, he was pathetic. Pathetic because he wasn’t protecting his pack. Pathetic because he wasn’t protecting this kid. Stiles clenched his eyes shut. He just... didn’t see a way around this. And he was usually the guy with the plan. Where did his brain go now, huh?

Exhausted, Stiles finally pulled himself from the bed and took a shower. He stood under the torrent of heat, eyes closed and staving off a panic attack. By the time the water switched to icy, he was breathing normally again. He wrapped a towel around his waist and sat down heavily on the lip of the tub. He ran his hands over his wet hair, gaze lost on the floor.

How much of his extreme stance on the kid was his way of trying to prove Scott wrong? That he wasn’t Parrish? That he wasn’t, at heart, more deputy than pack?

He just wished there was some other way. But there wasn’t.

He got dressed slowly, shuffling quietly back to his borrowed bed. He threw himself on it, crossing an arm over his forehead as he sighed up at the ceiling.

Unhappy, he drowsed, moving in and out of a shallow sleep. Until he was suddenly awake, eyes wide and ears intent on the creak of the door opening downstairs. No one in Liam’s house was on patrol that night. He’d color-coded that schedule for this very purpose. Only Isaac, Jackson, and Mason were supposed to be out. And none of them would enter a paranoid household without calling ahead first.

Heart racing, Stiles dropped to his hands and feet silently on the floor. He yanked a lock box out from under his borrowed mattress, nimble fingers undoing the lock.

Armed, he headed down the stairs in a quiet jog.