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John had known William Hale since they were boys together in elementary school, and he'd considered him a friend since they were on the lacrosse team in high school. He'd been an usher at the man's wedding to the beautiful Emmaline, and he'd been one of the first non-family visitors to meet their first child, their daughter Laura.

It was no surprise, then, that when John met Renée, when he started dating her, when he fell in love with her, when he asked her to marry him, Will and Emma were there every step of the way. It was no surprise when Renée and Emma became fast friends, and it was no surprise when occasional social gatherings turned into weekly and even bi-weekly get-togethers for the two women.

All in all, John was just grateful his wife had someone here. She'd moved here for him, left her entire network of family and friends back in the southeast to be with him, and when those people hadn't approved, had tried to force her to return home, she'd cut them out of her life. For him.

John never thought he was worth all that, and he'd tried to argue that with her, but Renée was as stubborn as she was passionate, and he'd never stood a chance.

So it was good, Emmaline taking her under her wing, being a friend to her when John's long hours at the station got to be hard on her sometimes. John wished there was a way he could thank her for it without sounding awkward, but he figured she knew anyway. Emma was a smart woman, and she and Will were good people.

John knew what a lucky bastard he was to have them and Renée in his life.

~

Stiles trudges down the stairs feeling like he's going to topple over any second. He made the mistake of looking in a mirror when he went to the bathroom, so he knows what he looks like: bloodshot eyes with dark half-circles underneath, bits of patchy stubble on his face where he'd been too bleary-eyed to see the missed spots when he shaved, skin that looked way too pale for a kid enjoying the first bright and beautiful days of summer vacation.

School is out. The Kanima is gone. Gerard is dead. Derek and his pack are blissfully (if a little suspiciously) silent. These should all be good things, comforting things, and they are. That's just not helping Stiles sleep any better than he was before they happened.

Falling asleep is like an exercise in torture; tossing and turning and flopping himself over every which way, so tired he can't think straight but so wired he feels like he's buzzing out of his own skin. When he finally does fall asleep, it's a fragile thing at best, and he wakes at the slightest, most miniscule, most ridiculous sounds. Even when he does manage to catch some z’s, it's never for more than a few hours before he's jolting awake again, usually well before any normal teenager would be caught dead waking up during school break.

Which is why he's in the kitchen at six-thirty AM on a Sunday, starting the coffee (decaf) for his dad, who should be stumbling in from work any minute now, and listlessly pouring himself a bowl of the most sugary cereal he can find in the cupboard.

He's halfway through the bowl, sitting with his elbow on the table, chin propped on his hand while chewing mechanically, when his dad walks in. Scoop, slurp, chew, swallow, repeat. Even more exhausted than he's been since the year his mom died, he can at least manage that much.

"Jesus, Stiles," his dad says, stopping in the doorway.

"Huh?" he responds, looking up. He's not, perhaps, at his most articulate this morning.

"Did you get any sleep?" His dad comes further into the kitchen, grabbing a mug for his coffee and pouring while shooting worried looks at Stiles from the corner of his eye.

"Yeah, no, course I did, what do you mean?" Stiles asks. He winces, because that sounded even less convincing than usual, and his dad just raises an eyebrow and stares at him. He rubs his hands over his face to stall for time, and when that doesn't work, he closes his eyes and leans back in his chair with a sigh. "Not really," he finally admits. "I'm fine though, Dad, don't worry about it."

"Yeah, right," his dad replies, taking a seat at the table. "Listen, I know those kids did a number on you after the game, but you can't keep going like this, son. Maybe I can schedule you an appointment with –"

"Dad, stop." Stiles opens his eyes again so he can give his father his most reassuring look. "I'm fine, I'll be fine. I don't need to see the counselor again, okay? Once was bad enough." He cringes. "Seriously. I just need to get my mind off it, that's all."

His dad sighs. Stiles impulsively leans over to hug him, because, well, it looks like one of those times his dad needs a hug. Or thinks he needs a hug anyway. And he's impossibly grateful that there isn't even the slightest pause before his dad hugs back. They've still got a boatload of crap to work out between them, but they're doing it, slowly, sort of. Stiles just wishes he didn't have to keep lying. There's nothing he hates more than lying to his dad, and knowing that his dad knows it and can't trust him completely because of it.

"Well look, maybe I have something that'll help." His dad pulls away with a gleam in his eye Stiles doesn't entirely like. "I was thinking, it's really time to go through the attic again, get rid of the stuff we don't need up there."

"Ah, Dad," Stiles groans, but it's really just for appearance's sake. Actually, going through the attic sounds like the perfect thing right now. Mindless and exhausting – maybe even enough to sleep if he's lucky.

His dad pats him on the shoulder, taking another sip of coffee and nodding decisively. "Sounds great, kid, you can start today."

Stiles gives him a halfhearted glare, but can't help grinning as he ducks away from his dad trying to muss up his too-short hair.

~

The thing about the stuff in the attic, and the thing Stiles let himself conveniently forget while he was talking to his father (and the thing his father probably conveniently forgot when he asked), is that a lot of it is his mom's. Things that only she ever used, but things she loved so much that his dad couldn't bear to get rid of it after…after.

Not all of it, obviously. There's a lot of junk from when Stiles was a kid, and there's a lot of junk that his dad has packratted away, and there's a lot of junk from the previous owners that his parents never got around to getting rid of when they bought the house before Stiles was born.

But it's his mom's stuff that draws his eye first. Of course it is. Stiles can't remember a day that's gone by in six years where he hasn't missed her in one way or another.

One whole corner is dedicated to her cases of art supplies. Stiles makes his way over there first (he has to hunch to avoid colliding with the low rafters), and smiles a little sadly when he opens the first one to find her collection of paints. He wonders if paint goes bad or if they can be salvaged. Underneath the bright, paint-spattered tubes of oils and acrylics are a few unused canvases, two paint palettes, and a truly insane array of paintbrushes. Stiles picks one of the larger brushes up, running his thumb over the soft bristles. Flashes on his mother's laugh and the way she brushed over his nose whenever he tried to distract her, and hastily sets it down again.

"Well, this is gonna be fun," he mutters, but there's a part of him – the part that isn't still curled up in the corner of his closet sobbing and gasping and choking and crying out for his mama – that needs this. Needs to be with her things, needs to remember stuff like this. Needs to remember her.

He rubs a hand over his hair distractedly and does a slow turn around the attic. Breathes out a gusty sigh at the amount of work and feelings before him.

Better to get started now instead of putting it off longer, he decides.

~

Around noon, Stiles takes a short break to shove a PB&J sandwich down his gullet, then heads right back up. He’s getting into a groove now, although he still hasn’t made it past the art corner.

He's figuring his dad is going to have a tag sale with a lot of the crap he digs out of here, but he's spent the better part of the past four hours wondering if there's any other fate he could give these well-loved relics. A month ago, he might have talked to Allison to see if she wanted them, but now…

Well, maybe Scott's aboard the forgive and forget train, but Stiles is having trouble getting past the way Allison actively hunted some of his friends recently. And maybe she didn't know what her grandfather was doing to him personally the night of the game, but…well, there's a reason Stiles hasn't been sleeping. Right now, Allison's last name is a neon glowing reminder he doesn't want to deal with quite yet.

There are a lot of things he could donate to the local library, maybe. The craftier stuff, like his mom's rainbow collection of every color glitter known to man, or the boxes of origami paper. Pipe cleaners and googly eyes, dozens of little snap-cases full of beads, strips of multi-colored felts and fabrics (even a half-finished quilt), one whole box dedicated to more yarn than Stiles ever wants to see again, spools of embroidery thread, stickers and stickers and more stickers…

His mom had loved all of it. If it was creative in any way, chances were good she'd tried it at least once. A lot of the color Stiles had in his life as a kid has disappeared since she died.

She wouldn't have wanted the stuff rotting away up here, and she'd have hated the idea of selling it to strangers, so Stiles can get behind donating it. She loved the library, and they'll be happy to have it for their kids craft time they do twice a week.

Which just leaves the professional supplies, her drawing and painting things.

Stiles sighs. There'll be time to figure that out later. Maybe when he's feeling a little less jumpy, a little less ragey. Or maybe Lydia would like it, she used to like drawing.

Stiles only remembers he doesn't want to think about Lydia when the memory of her and Jackson's…reconciliation stabs him right in the chest. Ruthlessly, he stamps it down and goes back to the task at hand.

He's reached the smallest case, hidden behind the pile of the rest, and he knows what's inside well before he actually opens it. Stiles has been waiting for this one. Her sketchbooks were the most important thing in the world to his mom, and these, at least, aren’t going anywhere. Except maybe in his room, hidden away where he can take them out and look at them any time he wants, like he does with the crinkled photograph of her he keeps buried under his mattress (a candid, just her from when she and his dad first met, nothing at all like the family photo of the three of them he keeps framed that it doesn't hurt his dad as much to see).

There are little white labels in the corner of each book with the dates they were started and finished. They go all the way back to her childhood, and it's not the first time Stiles has looked through those ones, although it's only now that he's old enough to notice that he realizes there are a lot of missing pages. He wonders what happened to them, or what was on them that was too painful for his mom to be reminded of. He doesn't think she'd have gotten rid of any of her sketches without a good reason, and he can't help his curiosity.

Not that he has any way of asking her, but that won't stop him from worrying at it in his brain like a scab.

Still, he enjoys taking his time looking through what drawings remain of the family he never knew. His mom's parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and pages and pages dedicated to her brother. The happy, smiling faces even in the more childish drawings make Stiles wish he'd been allowed to know them.

The next book he picks up is from 1994. He grins at the first page, a study of his dad snoozing on the couch. From the way his head is reclined and his mouth is open, Stiles bets he was snoring while she was drawing it. She told Stiles once that his dad was her second favorite subject, whether he knew she was drawing him or not. (Her first favorite, she'd told him, was Stiles himself. He still remembers the rush of pleasure his child self had felt at that.)

He flips a few more pages, and then stops, brow furrowed, on a picture of a woman he doesn't recognize. She's pregnant and smiling, staring down at the hand resting on her stomach, dark hair pinned back out of her eyes. Sitting on a rocking chair on a porch, though there's only the impression of a wooden floor and railing before the sketchy lines fade just before reaching the edges of the page.

None of that, though, is what catches his attention. Instead, he's staring at the caption along the bottom in his mother's flowing, curvy handwriting. Emma and Our Baby, and below that, Stiles' name – his real name, the one no one but his mother ever spoke – in parenthesis.

~

Stiles doesn’t know what to think, so he does his best to forget about it. Which works about as well as you can expect, given he remembered to take his pills today so he could actually focus on his chore, and now he's uber-focused on nothing except the picture.

It's just…it doesn’t make any sense. He tore through the rest of his mom's sketchbooks and couldn't find a single other drawing of this Emma chick. Lots of the little scraps of paper that get caught in a notebook's spiral when you tear a page out, but no drawings of people he didn't already recognize.

It doesn't make any sense.

He looks at the drawing every which way, notices that it, too, is torn at the top, next to the spiral, and the corner is a little crinkled. Like someone had tried to tear it out and then changed their mind.

Like his mom didn’t have the heart to destroy this one.

Stiles isn't an idiot. He can put two and two together and get four nine times out of ten, and the one time he doesn't usually means that one of the twos isn't actually a two at all. He knows his mom had a pretty serious medical condition that eventually got the better of her and killed her. It was something she'd lived with as far back as he, at least, can remember. So maybe it was something that meant she couldn't have kids. It's not a hard leap to make that she would try another route, because she and his dad talked all the time about how they'd always wanted children, how Stiles was their miracle.

He can get his head around that easily enough, without making his brain explode. And he looks too much like his mom to be worried that he's not actually hers, so…a surrogate. Doctors can do shit like that, right? He thinks he remembers hearing about it in biology last year.

But that's gotta be expensive, and his dad was a deputy back then while his mom taught kindergarteners and sold her artwork and crafts on the side. They were never exactly rolling in money.

And anyway, why is it something his parents would have felt the need to hide? Even when he was a kid, they'd always been honest with him about important stuff, even when his mom got sick. So why hide this?

Stiles rubs his forehead, trying to figure it out. He doesn't know what all of this adds up to, but he knows it adds up to something. It's going to eat at him now until he knows what.

He could ask his dad, but he hates – more than just about anything in the entire world – the look in his dad's eyes when Stiles asks about his mom. Like it still breaks his heart into tiny fragmented shards to think about her, even though he clearly thinks about her every day.

Sometimes Stiles wishes –

Ruthlessly, he puts a sword straight through the heart of that thought, because what's wishing going to get him?

Stiles needs to figure this out, without hurting his dad or making him suspicious. He doesn’t care if he's right, if someone else actually gave birth to him. All it really means is that his parents wanted him that damn much, and that's…well, it makes something feel warm inside Stiles. It's important to him. But he has to know for sure, and maybe he's a little (a lot) curious about the person who helped them out. Maybe she could be someone special, a connection to his mom he didn't know he had. She must have meant something; it's there in every line his mom drew.

So, step one: figure out who this Emma person is. He's going to need to find someone older, someone who maybe remembers the town and the people better than he does. Someone who won't immediately go blabbing to his dad, which means the librarian (and most of the adults he knows, let's face it) is out.

Stiles hates – hates – that the first person he thinks of who might be able to help and probably won't ask stupid questions is Derek.

He hates that Derek is somehow always the first person he thinks of, lately, for anything.

~

They got pregnant at nearly the same time, which of course made the girls laugh with delight while John and William stared at each other in good-natured horror.

In reality, John was thrilled. Terrified, but so happy. He and Renée had been wanting a baby since before they'd married, and it felt like a puzzle-piece slotting together in their lives, to know it was happening for real.

Laura Hale was three years old by then, and no one was happier than her to find out she would be having a little brother.

Renée joked that she hoped they had a little girl, because then she and Emma would be able to set their two children up when they were older, and then they really would be family.

Emma took her hands and they spun together, laughing until they were dizzy with it.

William kissed her on top of her head and told her they were already family in all the ways that mattered.

John kissed her on her lips and told her it didn't matter what they had, because it would be one of the most loved kids in the whole world.

Two months later, Renée had her first miscarriage.

~

Stiles' dad sleeps late that afternoon. He's still down for the count when Stiles goes downstairs to check on him and start dinner, so Stiles decides to get a head start on clearing things out instead. He lugs most of the art cases down and into his car and off to the library.

He fights with himself the entire way there, straight through Mrs. Thompson's gushing thanks and hugs, and the entire way home. Derek or his dad, which is the lesser of two evils?

He wonders if he can find a way to word his request that won't do such a number on his dad; considers the question while he puts together a vegetable lasagna. From upstairs, he hears the floors creak, meaning his dad is finally awake. He forces all his attention onto the lasagna.

His dad finally comes into the kitchen with a wide yawn. "Looks good enough to eat," he says, peering over Stiles' shoulder.

Stiles swats him away. "Still has to bake, so you've got about forty-five minutes."

"I don't tell you often enough that you're a pretty great kid." His dad grins at him, and Stiles' heart squeezes in his chest at how awesome that is to hear. Lately, he hasn't thought of himself as any kind of decent son, but he's really glad his dad still thinks there's hope for him. "So how goes the attic job?" his dad asks.

"Not bad." Stiles shoves the lasagna into the oven and tries to look casual as he straightens back up. "Found some pretty cool stuff already. Took a lot of it to the library – you'll be fending off Mrs. T's cookies for a year." He pauses, fidgeting. He's still not sure he wants to bring it up, but as usual, his mouth starts running all on its own before he can stop it. "Hey, so, there was this…thing. Addressed to an Emma? I was wondering if maybe you knew –"

"She's no one."

It's so abrupt, so sharp, so very unlike his father that Stiles stops short, mouth gaping, heart pounding. "Uh…"

His dad's eyes close and he pinches the bridge of his nose the way he does when he's frustrated. It does nothing at all to help Stiles' sudden anxiety. "Sorry," he says. "Sorry, Stiles, that was…harsh. Really though, she's no one. Nothing you need to worry about, okay? Forget it. Just…just get rid of it, whatever it is."

Stiles blinks, his mouth closing with a snap. Doesn't even know what to feel until the anger suddenly blooms red-hot in his gut. Because seriously, is it that big a deal? For his dad to be honest? Doesn't Stiles have a right to know this stuff? Does his dad just…not trust him with the knowledge?

Something inside him goes cold when he realizes these are all the exact same things his dad has been thinking about him and his issues for months.

~

This is probably the stupidest thing Stiles has ever done (okay, fine, if ever in this instance means in recent memory, and possibly not even then), but apparently that's not enough to stop him. He just…he can't let this go. He needs to know. The longer it takes to find out, the more he wants to know, so there's really nothing else for it.

The Hale house hasn't changed since the last time he was here. Stiles doesn't know why that surprises him, but it does. Maybe just because he knows people are living here, have been living here now for a couple weeks. Derek and Isaac and…

Nope, not thinking about the creepy psychotic uncle, definitely not going there.

Except, damn, he's probably inside with Derek. It's not like he has a car for Stiles to take note of, like the Camaro that's parked just around the side.

Crap, this was a really stupid idea.

Stiles is all set to turn around and gun his engine and make for the hills, except then the front door opens and there's no point, because Derek is already standing there with his arms crossed and his eyebrows raised and his perpetual frown in place. Stiles bangs his head against his steering wheel a couple times, calls himself a moron for good measure, and scrambles out of the Jeep.

Derek doesn't move. He could seriously be carved out of marble for how much he isn’t moving right now, and it would probably kind of freak Stiles out except his heart is already pounding for a hundred other reasons. And, well, as dumb as he knows it makes him, Derek in general stopped freaking him out a long time ago.

"What do you want, Stiles?" Derek asks just before Stiles can climb the stairs up to the porch.

"Um." Stiles tries to peer around him into the gloomy darkness of the house, but if anyone else is in there, he can't tell.

"Peter's out," Derek says shortly, correctly interpreting Stiles' hesitation.

He's careful not to ask what, exactly, a madwolf who's been presumed dead could be out doing, because he's sure he really doesn't want to know. "Okay, awesome, that's…awesome."

Derek gives him another look, so Stiles makes his way up to the porch and drags the hastily-made photocopy out of his back pocket. "So, there's this thing I found in my attic," he says, feeling awkward. "I was cleaning, 'cause my dad's worried I have too much time to think and that's why I haven't been sleeping much, and it's a mess up there, seriously, and – you don't care about any of this." He slowly backs away a step at the look in Derek's eyes, which he thinks might be hiding a tinge of red. "Uh, so anyway, you know the town pretty well, and you're older than me so maybe you remember…I'm trying to figure out who this is?" Stiles holds the paper out to Derek, waits till the werewolf rolls his eyes and snatches it away before continuing. "It's…well, it's to do with my mom, so I kinda didn't want it getting back to my dad, y'know? He doesn't –"

Stiles is cut off by the way Derek suddenly goes rigid, the way his eyes go wide and his nostrils flare and he looks like he's having an honest-to-god heart attack. Stiles has never seen that expression on his face before, and anything that can put it there has to be something big. The dude is staring at his mom's drawing like he wants to devour it with his soul.

Or like it's going to come alive and eat him any second.

"Derek?" Stiles says.

"Where did you get this?" Derek growls, and yeah, his eyes definitely flash crimson this time, but weirdly, it makes Stiles want to get closer instead of backing away again, makes him sort of want to pat the guy on the shoulder and tell him, It's okay, man, it's okay.

Jesus, Stiles needs sleep, he's clearly cracking up. "It's, uh. My mom drew it. It was in one of her sketchbooks. So…you know who that is?"

Derek's holding onto the crappy photocopy of the drawing so tightly his knuckles are white and it's being slowly crushed to death in his fist. His eyes close, and for a second, Stiles actually aches for him. He should have forced the issues with his dad, he realizes, should have made him understand why he was asking, because this is worse, the pain radiating from Derek is so much worse than it would have been from his dad, why is he always such an idiot?

"It's my mother," Derek says, very quietly, and Stiles' brain screeches to a halt.

"Come again?" he asks, when he's gaped at Derek for a very, very long moment. There's this weird white noise in his head, buzzing louder every time he tries to think, like it's telling him, nope, not yet, you can't handle that yet.

Derek glares at him, like repeating it is going to make him spontaneously combust. Too bad, Stiles thinks, meanly, and he knows it's mean of him, but he needs to know.

"My mother," Derek repeats, louder this time, and more growly. "Emmaline Hale."

Emma.

"Holy shit," Stiles says.

~

Derek lets him come inside, Stiles guesses because he probably looks shocky or sick or something. It's just…what? Like, it's one thing to learn that your real mom wasn't your birth mom. It's another entirely to learn that your birth mom is the mom of the creeperwolf who climbs through your window some nights and saves your life every once in a while and depends on you to do the same, and oh, yeah, it’s also the same mom who burned to death two weeks after your real mom died.

And what the hell kind of timing is that, both moms dying at the same time? One of whom burned in her house with almost her entire family, Jesus Christ, how is Stiles supposed to cope with that now?

Oh, he thinks very suddenly.

Oh, hell, that really might explain something about his dad's reaction. Shit. Shit, Stiles owes him the world's biggest apology for getting so mad at him.

First he needs to stop gaping at the wall like it holds the secrets to the universe. Huh.

"Seriously, is this a really big deal to you or something?" Derek asks, sitting on the stairs looking like the world's most broody brooder. "So they knew each other, it's not like my mom passed along something contagious."

"What?" Stiles blinks, shakes his head, passes a hand over his hair while trying to just think straight for two damn seconds. "No, it's not…that's not it. There's something else, I didn't…"

"Spit it out," Derek demands.

There's no way Stiles can say it. It sounds too ridiculous even for him, even after werewolves and hunters and kanimas and all the rest of it. "I can't, I…the sketchbook, it's in my car, let me just…" He backs away, stumbling out the door, and then makes a break for it.

~

He thinks about driving away. Okay, so he's not exactly proud of it, but he can't help thinking about it anyway.

He opens the sketchbook in his lap with trembling hands, stares down at the page and thinks, I wish I could've known you.

It's that thought more than any that keeps him from jamming his key in the ignition and taking off. Because maybe he's lost his chance to know her, but he hasn't lost his chance to know of her. He already shares a connection – of sorts – with her son, and maybe her son can help Stiles know who she was, who Stiles' mom would have known her as.

Granted, her son is a big angry werewolf who might eat Stiles' face when he realizes what exactly is going on. In which case, not so much with the sharing session, probably.

Stiles sighs and, because he's clearly got no survival instinct to speak of, he disregards that thought and gets back out of the car, sketchbook in hand.

Derek is sitting exactly where he was when Stiles fled, wearing almost exactly the same expression – a mixture of disdain and annoyance and grumpiness with just a tiny sliver of the curiosity he hasn't managed to stamp out yet.

"So before I show you this, can we make an agreement ahead of time that you won't use your teeth or claws or, like, fists on any part of my person? Because I swear, it's not my fault, I just found this and I'm as shocked and surprised as the next guy, but I just wanted to know, and I can't –"

"Stiles," Derek cuts in, his face expressionless and his tone flat. He holds out a hand.

"I, ah, I cut off the bottom of the sketch on the photocopy," Stiles says, flipping to the right page. He worries his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment before squeezing his eyes shut and handing it over. "This is the whole thing."

The book vanishes from his grasp, and he crosses his arms tightly over his chest, head down as he waits for whatever explosion might be coming.

It's exactly one minute of perfect silence – he counts every single second in his head – before he can't take it anymore and he dares to open one eye. Then the other one as he actually registers what he's seeing.

Derek's fingers are tracing the lines on the page over his mother's face, and he's got the most heartbreaking expression on his face. It's longing, Stiles realizes; it's the same look in his eyes that Stiles has whenever he pulls out the photograph of his mom. It's desperate and grief-stricken and horrible and everything Stiles has spent six years trying to hide in the mirror, and he suddenly feels some tether between him and Derek snap tight into place. Because this is something you don't just get over, something no one who hasn't been there can understand. And no one else Stiles knows has ever been there the way he has.

He can't imagine how much worse it must be for Derek, who's lost everyone. At least Stiles still has his dad. All Derek has is the uncle who killed his sister.

"I…" For the first time in a long time, Stiles doesn't know what to say. He can't really apologize; that will just piss Derek off more. Stiles knows, he's been there. And all his other words just sort of freeze in his throat, so all he can do is close his mouth and shift uncomfortably.

"It makes sense," Derek says suddenly, unexpectedly. He's not looking at Stiles, can't seem to drag his eyes away from the drawing, but that's okay. Stiles isn't sure he's ready for the intensity of that stare to be focused on him yet.

"It makes— What, really?" Stiles blinks a few times. "I'm having trouble envisioning a universe where this –" he waves a frantic hand at the space between him and Derek, "– makes sense."

Derek's mouth quirks. It's the tiniest most itty bitty thing, but it's there; Stiles knows what he saw. "I don't mean I know why or how or anything," he says. "But it's the kind of person she was. If they were friends, and I guess they probably were, she'd have wanted to help." Finally, he raises his gaze to meet Stiles'. "And you've always smelled just a little bit…different. Not wolf, but not entirely…normal."

Stiles wonders if he should be offended by that. "She wasn't my biological mother," he says quietly.

"No. But she was a werewolf. Who knows what that could've affected?" Derek shrugs a little, looking back down to the sketch. "I'm just saying, it might explain some stuff."

Well, that is true enough, Stiles admits to himself. Like the way he always seems to find himself right in the middle of all this werewolf nonsense. Or why he'd always felt…something between him and Derek, from the first time he saw him in the woods after Scott was bitten. "I don't really know what to say here," he finally says.

Derek looks up again, eyebrow raised, smirking. "First time for everything." There's a small pause, then, "Why were you looking for her?"

Stiles can't be anything but honest. "I wanted a connection to my mom. Figured maybe if they knew each other…" He lifts a shoulder. "And I wanted to know who she was, too. Get to know her. Not, like, a replacement mom or anything, just… It means something, y'kow?"

"Yeah." Derek shifts, looking uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, Stiles. That you can't…"

"S'all good, dude," Stiles speaks quickly over the pause, because Derek looks so out of his element it's almost depressing. On a whim, he says, "You can have that, if you want." He nods toward the sketch.

Derek's eyes fly to his. They're filled with such raw emotion it cuts Stiles in half. "I can't, it's— She was your –"

"She's your mom," Stiles says, as gently as he can. "I have dozens of sketchbooks, and a hundred pictures of mine. I'm guessing you don't have any left, right? This is the only sketch left of her, so. You should take it. Just. Please?" He tries a tiny grin. "You can even tear off the bottom if you want."

"I wouldn't," Derek says, too softly.

Stiles feels like he's in a weird twilight zone, everything too quiet and fragile, leaving him afraid to move just in case he breaks it, which leaves him needing to break it because it's just too much pressure. So he says, "Just…two conditions," and waits for Derek to look up at him. "One, you never, ever speak of that name."

Derek snorts. "I couldn't even pronounce it, don't worry."

Stiles grins a little wider before letting it sober again. "And two…just, take care of it."

"I will." Derek doesn't – or maybe can't – look at him when he says, "Thank you."

~

Stiles drives back home in a daze, and it's only after, when he's sitting at his desk staring at his hands as he runs through the entire day on a loop in his head, that he realizes he's…calm. Not, like, zen master levels or anything, and he's got a lot of crap in his brain he doesn't even know how to process yet, but it's not the nervous-jittery-can't-sleep-constant-pressure he's been under either. Hypervigilant, he remembers Ms. Morell calling it.

Yeah. He's not that anymore. For the first time in a long time, he feels like he can take a few seconds to just breathe.

He falls onto his bed without bothering to even take his shoes off, stares at the ceiling for a while before drifting off into the longest, deepest, most dreamless sleep he's had in months.

~

The next afternoon is for running errands while his dad works the day shift, but Stiles wishes he could skip it entirely when he sees how jam-packed the grocery store is. It gets even more annoying at the checkout, because Stiles doesn't like being in crowds to begin with, and the guy behind him in line is pressed up so close that the chains hanging from his jeans are digging uncomfortably into Stiles thigh.

The post office is an easy enough trip, but the pharmacy isn't much better than the grocery store was, and the gas station is worse than both of them combined.

By the time the smirking jackass on the motorcycle cuts him off and almost causes a five-car pile-up when he's trying to get out of the station, Stiles has had enough. He drives home way above the speed limit, slams his car into park, and stomps all the way into his house, slamming the door behind him just for his own tiny satisfaction.

Then he takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and reminds himself that it's the beginning of summer and people are always idiots then. He reminds himself that it's a good day, he got real sleep and everything, and he's just on edge because he wants to talk to his dad and hasn't had a chance to yet.

Thus calmed (sort of), Stiles marches into the kitchen to unpack the groceries, and then spends the next several hours up in the attic mindlessly sorting through the giant musty boxes of his dad's financial records from the last thirty-plus years.

It's good work to lose himself in, because he's too busy reading and figuring out what he needs to keep to think too hard about Derek or Derek's mom. Stiles hasn't thought of a way to ask Derek if they can talk about her yet, and he knows if he lets himself, he'll obsess about it. He saw a side of Derek yesterday he hadn't expected, and it's left him feeling…something. Something he doesn't want to look too closely at yet.

So looking at old phone bills and receipts for appliances that were replaced a decade ago is just easier.

He loses track of the time and doesn't realize how late it's gotten until he hears the front door downstairs. "Oh, crap," he says, and scrabbles over to the ladder to make his way downstairs to greet his dad.

His dad, who is standing in the hallway with Isaac and showing him where to hang his jacket. Stiles stops dead, thinking, what?

"Hey, champ," his dad says to him with a tired smile. "Whatever you're cooking, hope you can make enough for one more?"

Stiles' eyes are locked with Isaac's in a furious battle of eyebrows, but he turns to his dad and pastes on a grin. "Sure, dad! But, uh, what's the occasion?"

"Found your friend here lurking by the front door. He didn't seem to have the bravery to knock, so I figured I'd invite him in for a warm meal." His dad shrugs out of his own jacket, hangs it up next to Isaac's on the coat rack while Stiles fumbles for words and gapes at Isaac.

Isaac just shrugs, shaking his head like he has no idea how this happened either.

"Stiles." His dad nods toward the kitchen. "Can I talk to you a minute?" He glances at Isaac. "You mind, Isaac?"

"Not at all, Sheriff," Isaac says easily. Stiles eyes him. Like the werewolf isn't going to listen to every word they say.

He stumbles after his father anyway, spins on him the second they're in the kitchen and hisses, "You remember the part where you arrested him for killing his father?"

His dad's eyebrow goes up. "Yes, which was a mistake, I seem to recall." He spreads his hands. "Look, son, he looks like he hasn't had a good meal in weeks. I don't know where he's been or who he's been staying with, but it's my job to look out for kids like him. I just need to know he's okay, or if I should be making some calls to –"

"Okay, okay, fine," Stiles says with a wince. All they need is his dad figuring out that Isaac has been staying with Derek Hale. "Look, we're not, like, best buds or anything, but I hang out with him sometimes, I know he's doing okay."

His dad sighs. "Of course you do."

Stiles stares down at the floor.

"So, what's for dinner?" his dad asks after an awkward moment.

Freshly-killed rabbit, probably, if Isaac had his way. Stiles grins evilly. "Vegetable stir-fry," he decides on the spot.

His dad groans.

~

They get through dinner with minimal discomfort, which is nothing short of a miracle as far as Stiles is concerned. His dad shoots a few long looks Isaac's way, like he's measuring the gauntness of his face, the shadows under his eyes, the hunched way he holds himself when he's not concentrating on looking like a big badass werewolf. But overall, Isaac does good, making polite conversation, eating every bite on his plate but not devouring it like an animal, and smiling when the situation calls for it. He's the perfect guest.

It's bizarre.

After dinner, Stiles' dad goes to wash up and relax on the couch with the television, and Stiles drags Isaac straight up to his room.

"What in the ice cold bowels of Hell was that?" he demands, flailing.

Isaac plops himself down on Stiles' bed and grimaces. "My fault. Couldn't get out of sight fast enough."

"That's…that's so not…that's not even the point, you ludicrous excuse for a canine!" Stiles has to fight to remember to keep his voice low enough that his dad won't hear, but it's tough when he watches Isaac's eyebrow begin to climb and one side of his mouth curl in amusement. "The point is," he continues determinedly through gritted teeth, "What were you doing here to begin with?"

"Oh." Immediately, Isaac begins to look shifty. Like that's not the world's biggest clue right there.

"Derek." Stiles scrubs his hands over his hair in sheer frustration. "Why? Why does he have you following me?" When Isaac opens his mouth to answer, he holds up a hand. "Keep in mind that I may not be able to hear your heartbeat, but I'll know if you're lying." He gives Isaac a side-eyed glance.

Isaac scowls. He looks like a particularly petulant ten-year-old, but Stiles wills himself to remain unmoved. With a sigh, Isaac folds his arms and mutters, "He wanted to keep an eye on you just in case."

"In case what?" Stiles demands. "What does he think I'm going to do?"

Isaac blinks at him. "It's not about you, Stiles. It's about the Alphas." He winces, and Stiles knows that look; that's the look of someone who knows they said too much.

He zeroes in on Isaac with laser-focus. "Alphas?" he demands.

Isaac buries his face in his hands, groaning. "Derek's going to kill me," he says under his breath, but he looks up again and meets Stiles' gaze steadily. "Fine. Yes. Alphas. There's a pack of them in town. We don't know what they want, but some of them have been stationed around, keeping tabs on people connected to the pack."

Stiles tries to process that. "Not the pack themselves?" he asks.

Isaac shrugs. "Me and Peter and Derek would notice them, they probably know we could smell any one of them. Scott might, but he wouldn't recognize the scent as Alpha wolf, and you can't. They tried tailing the doc, but he slipped them easy." Isaac looks entirely too smug about that. Clearly their friendly neighborhood vet has weaseled his way into Isaac's heart.

"Jesus," Stiles says, collapsing into his computer chair. "Jesus, we just got done with Gerard, couldn't the universe have a little pity?"

Isaac gives him a look that's probably supposed to be sympathetic. "That's why Derek didn't want to tell you. He said you'd done enough, you needed a break. He…I think he wanted you to be able to make things right with your dad." He fidgets a little. "I don't know what you guys talked about yesterday when you were at the house, but afterwards he seemed more worried about you. So I figured I should step up my detail, keep a closer eye for a couple days."

That's…surprisingly thoughtful of Isaac. Stiles knows he got under Scott's skin, even before the big showdown. Clearly, Stiles' classmate has some hidden depths. "Well, I…appreciate that," he says slowly. "Because I gotta admit, I like being in one piece and not Alpha chow." But ugh, he really wants to kick Derek's ass for keeping him in the dark when it turns out he could be in mortal peril. Again. Stupid secretive sourwolf. For right now, though, there's nothing he can do about it. He refocuses on Isaac. "But come on, dude, you're one werewolf. Why's it all on you, where's –" He stops short at the look that comes into Isaac's eyes, but it's too late.

"There was…" Isaac swallows hard, hands clenching in the fabric of Stiles' comforter. "We found blood. Theirs. A lot of it. They cut themselves off from Derek, so we don't know for sure…but it didn't look good."

"Damn." Stiles releases a slow breath. "Damn."

"Yeah."

They're both utterly silent for a few moments, and then Isaac jumps up. "I should go. Derek'll want an update. We're kinda…neither of us really trusts…there isn't anybody else, y'know?"

"Yeah, there is," Stiles says quietly, before he even realizes he's spoken. When he chances a look up to meet Isaac's gaze, the werewolf is grinning crookedly at him.

"Stick around, Stilinski, huh? He needs more friends like you."

"What, moronic and suicidal?" Stiles snorts.

"Too stubborn to let him push them away." Isaac gives him a nod and slips out before Stiles can even start piecing together a response.

~

He decides to hold off on the talk he wants to have with his dad till morning. His sleep isn't nearly as restful as it was the night before, too many thoughts in his head that lead to dreams of Alpha wolves with their jaws gaping wide, fangs on display, claws out and ready to dig into skin. When he wakes up in a cold sweat and shaking, he presses the heels of his hands against his eyes until he's no longer seeing Peter's face. It doesn't work; that smirk will linger in his mind for hours. Peter's the only Alpha he knew besides Derek. Even if he's not an Alpha anymore, Stiles thinks he'll always associate the word with him. With death and the smell of burning skin and the sound of his screaming howls rending the night.

Stiles makes his way into the bathroom, splashes cold water on his face to try and get the gritty feeling out of his eyes. Stares into the mirror for a long time and tells himself that it's going to be okay, there isn't any reason for him to be panicking. He doesn't even know what this Alpha pack wants, and it's to do with Derek, really, anyway, not him or Scott. The only reason they're being watched is because the pack can tell they're connected to Derek somehow. He tells himself that he's not in any danger, and even if he was, Derek is looking out for all of them, probably out of a perceived sense of guilt or duty or who knows what.

He talks to himself for a good ten minutes, and it doesn't help him feel better at all. Maybe because he knows that Derek can't take on an entire pack of Alphas on his own. Even if they don't actually come after him or Scott, what about Derek and Isaac? Derek's pack may have Chris Argent on their side now – and it's really questionable if Chris is actually on their side – what can they really do against an entire pack of Peter Hales?

He takes a breath. Reminds himself that he doesn't know what they want. Maybe they're not evil, power-hungry assholes. Like, some Alphas have to be cool, right? Derek isn't psycho like his uncle was…a little psycho in other ways, maybe, but not like that. His family wasn't, either. They were peaceful, right? So maybe…

All of his rationalizations sound extremely flimsy inside his own head.

Stiles thinks there may be a war coming. And he's starting to think that sitting on the sidelines with his best friend and hoping for the best may not cut it this time.

~

His dad is already sitting on the couch reading the paper when Stiles makes his way downstairs. Stiles had planned to make a pancake breakfast to help smooth the way before getting into a painful discussion that was going to be difficult for both of them, but suddenly it just feels like too much effort, and he…he needs his dad. He needs a hug, or at least the look in his dad's eyes when he tells Stiles he loves him.

Stiles needs them to be on the same page, for once. He needs honesty between them about this one thing, when everything else keeps going to hell around him and he has to hide it all the time.

He sits down on the couch and waits for his dad to lower the paper, fix him with an inquiring look. "Morning, dad," he tries, even though he knows everything he's feeling is written across his face.

"Stiles?" his dad asks, putting the paper aside and placing a hand on Stiles' shoulder. "Son, what is it?"

"I…" Stiles hesitates, because damn it, this stuff is hard. They don't talk about this stuff, they never talk about it. They went almost a whole year barely speaking with all the things they weren't talking about after. He takes a deep breath, lets it blurt out of him in a rush of words he has no control over. "I know why you didn't want to tell me who she was, and I get it, and I'm sorry, but please, please talk to me now, because I'm kind of freaking out and I'm kind of confused and I don't know what to do with the knowledge, and I miss Mom so much it hurts all the time, and I know it hurts you too, and I'm so sorry, but this is big, dad, this is huge, and you didn't tell me. And I just, I need to know it wasn't because you didn't trust me to handle it, because I can, I can, but I need…I…"

He only stops because the tears are already leaking from his eyes and the sobs are building in his throat, and his dad's grip on his shoulder is hard enough to bruise, and because his dad looks like he's going to crack in half any second. He stops because the words are plugged up behind too much emotion and his dad is pulling him into an embrace so hard it knocks all the breath out of him, and he can't stop pulling in huge gasping gulps of air and releasing them in broken sounds against his dad's chest, and he didn't know, he didn't realize he was feeling so much, he didn't know.

There's so much, so much else in his life he has to bottle up and keep inside and carry around with him everywhere he goes. And he's scared ninety percent of the time, and when he's not scared he's angry, and when he's not angry he's depressed, and this is the only thing he can release, so he does. He lets go of it, he lets his dad take it from him because he doesn't think he has any other choice or he'll explode. And he hates himself a little for the burden he's putting on his dad's shoulders with this, but he loves his dad more in that moment than he'll ever, ever be able to tell him.

They stay like that for a long time. Stiles buried in his dad's chest with his dad's arms wrapped around him like he's trying to protect him from the whole damn world. That's what he and his dad do, try to protect each other, but Stiles thinks they've both done a pretty lousy job of it lately, and he thinks most of that is his fault.

Finally, he pulls away, wiping his face with the hem of his t-shirt, which makes his dad roll his eyes and all but throw the box of tissue at him from the coffee table that's right there. For a second, it's almost like nothing is sitting between them like a giant elephant, except then he looks up and his dad's got tear tracks down his cheeks too.

"Jesus, kid, don't pull any punches, huh?" his dad says, his voice rough.

Stiles flushes with shame. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize." His dad sighs. "Don't, Stiles; I'm the one who should be sorry. I should have known…how did you find out, anyway? What did you find?"

Stiles sniffs, blows his nose, stalls for every second he can get, which isn't much now that his mouth already ran away with him. "Mom's sketchbooks. There was one…the girl was pregnant. 'Emma and Our Son', it was called. My name on the bottom. I mean, it wasn’t a tough deduction, y'know?"

His dad cringes a little. "I remember that one. I wish you'd told me, Stiles. I'd…well, I probably still would have handled it badly, but I could have tried to explain…"

"You didn't need to, Dad, I get it." Stiles tries for a smile that probably comes out more of a grimace, but maybe he gets points for effort. "I know Mom had health stuff, and that…it doesn't bother me, okay? I get it. I'm grateful, and I love you guys so much. It's just…Emmaline, she…"

The name makes his dad's eyes close. "She was your mom's best friend, you know, for a long time. The gift she gave us…there aren't words for it." He sighs, refocusing on Stiles. "How were you able to find out who she was? I didn't think there were any pictures left."

"I…" Stiles flushes again, ashamed for a whole new reason. A broken-sounding laugh cracks out of him. "I, uh, I pulled a me. I decided to see if Derek Hale maybe had an idea."

"You what? Oh God," his dad groans. "Stiles, is he okay? Are you okay?"

Stiles spreads his hands as wide as he can with the couch blocking him on one side. "Alive and kicking," he says. "I think Derek's okay. I mean, surprised and stuff, but we…talked? A little? He didn't seem angry, anyway. I think maybe it was…good for him in a way, to be honest. He kinda…"

"Holds everything in?" his dad asks, raising an eyebrow. Stiles nods. "Yeah, his dad used to be the same way. And that kid's got a lot of anger to hold inside." He sighs. "I thought after you tried to get him arrested – twice – you might be horrified to find out. Not to mention the timing…the fire and everything was so close to…with your mom…" He trails off, his eyes impossibly sad. "Your mom and I wanted to wait until you were old enough to get what we were talking about, we thought maybe when you were a teenager. And then after the fire, I just couldn't… I always meant to tell you, Stiles, but how do you bring something like that up?"

"I know," Stiles says. His voice comes out sounding small. "It's a crappy situation all over, and I get why you didn't tell me. I only went searching because I wanted…I thought maybe it could be a connection to Mom. And then Derek told me and it felt like…I don't even know. Like losing her again, I guess. Stupid, but –"

"Not stupid," his dad says.

Stiles gives an embarrassed shrug. "Anyway, me and Derek are…not friends, exactly? But sort of." Ish. "And I kinda…I mean, he's a pretty intense guy, you know? So most of the…conversations we've had stuck with me. It's a little..not weird, really, but…okay, yeah, weird. To realize there's…that."

His dad makes a considering sound. "You know, you two aren't brothers; biologically you're not related at all. But for the first year after you were born, you were pretty much inseparable."

Stiles stares. "Really?" He can't even imagine it.

His dad smiles softly, sadly. "Really. If you had to go a day without seeing him, you'd cry straight through the night. Derek was…five, six maybe? Emma and your mom switched off babysitting just so you two could play together. Or, well, so Derek could watch over you. He was…protective. Like a mama bear with her cub, it was…pretty adorable." His dad starts laughing at the look on Stiles' face. "I wish Renée had kept some of the photos, God, you'd probably really be horrified."

Stiles can't stop gaping. He can't stop trying to picture it. And as impossible as he knows it is, he can't stop trying to remember. "But then…I mean, what happened, why didn't we…"

"We all just sort of lost touch, unfortunately," his dad sighs. "It happens sometimes, I guess, but I regret it now."

There's something in his face that makes Stiles think he's not being completely honest – because really, who would destroy all evidence of a friendship if they just drifted apart? – but he lets it go because his dad looks like he's aged twenty years in ten minutes, and even Stiles isn't sure how much more he can take.

"I wish I could remember that year," he says quietly, looking down. "I'm kinda surprised Derek doesn't."

"Derek went through an extremely traumatic event," his dad replies. "I think it made him forget a lot of the good things from before."

Stiles glances up at him. "You think maybe that's why he's such a grouch?" he asks, lips quirking.

His dad snorts, putting his hand back on Stiles' shoulder and squeezing gently. "I think maybe that's why he could use a friend in his life." He shakes his head. "The sheriff in me wants to tell you to be careful, but the dad in me…and the place where your mom stays in my heart…just wants to be happy you got the chance to re-connect. I think she'd have liked that."

"Yeah?" Stiles likes the idea of her smiling over him befriending Derek. He's not sure if Derek really sees them as anything even close to friends, but it makes Stiles want to try.

"Yeah." His dad pulls him in for another hug, thumping him on the back a couple times and mussing up Stiles' hair when he pulls away again. "So, what do you say, breakfast?"

Stiles nods, grinning as he jumps up. "Yeah. Pancakes, and I'll even let you have a couple pieces of bacon this once."

"You're a prince among men," his dad replies dryly, but Stiles notes the eager look in his eyes as he says it.

He pauses in the doorway, hesitant. There's no easy way to fit it into the conversation they just had, but… "Hey dad, remember when you said I was a…a hero?"

His dad nods, looking at Stiles questioningly.

"Do you really think so? 'Cause I mean, I'm not…I'm not, you know, brave, or anything, and sometimes I feel like…I just…I need to be, sometimes. But I don't know how, and that's not…it's not really hero-like, is it?" Maybe his dad will assume he's talking about Derek. It's not entirely a lie, anyway.

"Stiles," his dad says, his face set in that serious expression he only gets when he's trying to be really earnest. "You do what needs to be done, when it counts the most. You don't do it because you want recognition for it, you do it because it's the right thing to do, and you do it even when it's hard and you feel like you can't. That's the definition of a hero in my book."

If you're going through Hell…

Stiles doesn't think he'll ever believe it, really, but maybe that's the point. Right now, hearing it and knowing his dad believes it is almost enough.

…Keep going.

~

It had already been a long day; between the new family in town whose teenage daughter was already causing trouble and the vandalism at the high school, John was beat. He was completely unprepared for the way his wife came home from the Hales' and threw herself into his arms, sobbing uncontrollably.

"What happened?" John asked, and it was a question Renée never really answered, that day or the next, weeks or even months later.

"Just, please, John," was what she said, curling against him and crying against his chest. "I don't want to talk about it. We just can't see them again, all right? Please, promise me."

"But Derek and –"

"No!" she almost shouted.

"All right. All right, sweetheart, we won't,” he promised her, completely taken aback by her raised voice. At that moment, he would have promised her anything. "Whatever happened, it's going to be okay." He touched her hair, carding his fingers through the silky curls while whispering endearments to try and soothe her.

Upstairs in his crib, freshly wakened from his nap, their son began to wail.

~

"You came back."

Stiles wonders if he should be offended by how genuinely surprised Derek looks. "Well, yeah? We had a moment, dude, I figured that meant we were practically buddies!" He tries a big grin. Derek responds with a constipated face.

"You shouldn't have." Derek doesn't specify if he means You shouldn't have come back or you shouldn't have figured such an asinine thing, you stupid human, but Stiles doesn't plan to listen in any case, so it doesn't much matter.

"Yeah, well, when have I ever done the intelligent thing anyway?" He plops himself down on the front steps next to Derek and nudges him with an elbow. "So how are you?"

Derek side-eyes him. "Did you take drugs?"

"Nope! Well, my Adderall, but I figure that doesn't count." He also figured he should go into Operation: Railroad Way Into Derek's Life with as clear a head as possible, but he keeps silent about that part. "C'mon dude, we've saved each other's lives how many times? I figure I'm allowed to be a little worried about you when a fuck-ton of Alphas suddenly come into town looking sinister."

Derek goes rigid. "You've seen them?"

"Chill," Stiles says. "And no. Isaac didn’t even tell me what any of them looked like. I just assume it's probably sinister and creepy and ridiculously unfairly attractive. Seems to be a werewolf thing."

For a long moment, Derek just stares at him. "You're kind of a freak."

Stiles beams at him for, like, three whole seconds before sobering. "Okay, look, honestly? My house is kind of a pit of depression today, which is my fault for making my dad cry. And I can't escape to Scott's because he's so busy pretending not to mope that he's even worse than when he's moping. And that leaves…well, you." He hesitates, then says seriously, "I can go if you want, I just –"

"It's fine," Derek says abruptly. He doesn't look at Stiles. "But fair warning, Peter will be back soon."

Stiles makes a face. "I'll manage. As long as he doesn't get handsy. Or bitey."

Now Derek does look over, raising an eyebrow. "What?"

"Dude, I hate to break it to you, your uncle is a creep," Stiles grumps. "And that was before he was undead. Now he's an undead creepy creature of the night, which I shouldn't have to tell you is probably not someone you want around."

Derek's lips twitch, almost like he wants to smile. Stiles' new life mission is to bring that smile out, because he thinks he wants to see it. He thinks he wants to be the cause of it.

"He used to be different, you know," Derek says.

Intrigued, Stiles tilts his head. "You don't talk about your family much, from before." He cringes. "But, dude, there's a reason I don't talk about my mom. I don't want to pry. Sorry, forget I –"

"Shut up, Stiles," Derek sighs. It comes out sounding…almost amused. "Do you want to hear about them or not?"

Stiles wonders if this is what winning the lottery feels like, this floaty glowy warm excitement that bubbles up in his chest with the knowledge that Derek's offering him a gift. Derek is trusting him with his family. Stiles doesn't know how he's earned something so precious from someone who doesn't trust anyone, ever, but he wants it. He wants it desperately.

"Yes, please," he says.

~

Peter does come back, eventually. Stiles has lost track of time, but Derek is telling him about his young twin cousins in a slow, halting voice (the same way he's talked about all of his family so far, and he hasn't touched on his parents or Laura at all yet) when Peter saunters up to the house and says, "Ooh, have I missed storytime?"

Derek's glare could melt glaciers and crumble stone, but he also looks…guilty.

Peter holds his hands up, his expression pure innocence that Stiles doesn't trust for a second. "Please, don't stop on my account! I'm just surprised is all, you're rarely so…chatty." His lips curl up. "I assume this means our dear Stiles finally realized his connection to our pack?"

Stiles' heart skips a beat or seven. Beside him, Derek is frozen; he looks as stunned as Stiles feels.

Peter looks between them with an expression of deep pity. "Oh, come on, really? You figured it out, but didn't consider the idea that of course I knew. Everyone in the pack did; it's hard to miss your Alpha being pregnant." He scoffs at them. "Hopeless, the both of you."

Stiles is still stuck on the idea that Peter Hale knew his mother…processing anything else is well beyond him at the moment. He's aware of Derek looking at him, and he's aware of Peter making to climb the stairs around them, and he acts before he thinks because that's just what he does best. He reaches out and curls a hand around Peter's ankle just as he's clearing the step above them.

Peter stops, glancing down with a raised eyebrow. "Yes, Stiles?"

Stiles gapes for a moment, his mouth opening and closing without his say-so, and then the fog clears and his brain catches up and he pulls back as if burned. Clutches his hand close as though Peter might eat it if he doesn't guard it. "I…" He has to stop and swallow. "Why did she leave? My mom, how come she didn't…" It's the only piece missing, and he needs to know.

Peter's expression changes. Suddenly he looks sympathetic, which is deeply disturbing because it almost makes him look human, and Stiles doesn't want to believe him capable of human emotion, not really. "I'm sorry, I don't know," he says. He bends down to squeeze Stiles' shoulder and doesn't seem to care when it makes Stiles flinch. "One day, Emmaline just told us Renée wouldn't be back, and we weren't to go causing trouble for her or her family." He pulls away again, his fingers brushing Stiles' cheek.

From what feels like a great distance away through his fear-filled haze, Stiles hears Derek's warning growl.

Peter smirks back at him. "I'm leaving, there's no need to get your panties in a bunch. By all means, continue telling him tales of our pack. I believe you were at the part about my daughters."

He vanishes through the door without another word, but the cold feeling that's been in Stiles' stomach since he appeared doesn't vanish with him.

~

Stiles doesn't think much of it when Derek grabs him by the wrist and leads him to his Camaro. Honestly, he's not thinking much of anything except the way he still feels like things are crawling over his skin. He lets Derek deposit him into the passenger seat without a single argument, and doesn't say a word when Derek starts the car and drives them away from the house.

In fact, he doesn't say anything for a long time after they start driving. His gaze alternates between the scenery outside his window and his hands twisting together in his lap. They've been on the road for almost an hour by the time he manages to dig himself out of his own head enough to ask, "Where are we going, anyway?"

Derek responds with a grunt.

"Well that's helpful," Stiles mutters. He sighs and goes back to staring out the window.

There's a sigh from the seat next to him. "We'll be there soon."

Stiles glances over at him curiously. "Okay."

Derek's eyes flash to him before darting back to the road. "You going to tell me what that was about?"

In his lap, Stiles' hands clench into fists. "I told you he was a creep."

"Yeah, and I get that," Derek says. "But there's something there besides just his general…" He waves a hand. "…creepiness. What am I missing?"

Stiles' mind tries to shy away from it, from remembering that night. He never talked about it, shoved it deep and locked it away in a box labeled 'DO NOT OPEN' and left it at that, and he doesn't want to think about it now. But Derek is living with the bastard, letting him stay with his pack, and maybe it's sheer desperation on Derek's part, but Stiles guesses he deserves to know what he's letting in.

"He kidnapped me," he says, haltingly. "The dance, he…he attacked Lydia, and then he forced me to leave her and go with him. It…he said stuff, sometimes, it was just…I mean, he's really broken, y'know? I'm sure he used to be a stand-up guy, but— Anyway, so he was looking for you, it was when Kate had you. He made me –" Stiles hesitates, shifting uncomfortably. "He threatened me, it kinda sucked. I mean, I'm used to it now, but –"

"You never get used to it," Derek says quietly. Stiles notices his knuckles are white where they're clenched around the steering wheel.

"Yeah," Stiles agrees, equally soft. "I know." No matter how much he tries to convince himself different. "Anyway, so after, he left. Let me live because…I dunno, he implied because he liked me, or because I was useful, anyway. He…he offered me the bite."

The car jerks, making Stiles gasp and grab for the dashboard, but Derek rights it and keeps driving like nothing happened. Stiles takes a few deep, calming breaths, glaring at him. Derek doesn't look over.

"Anyway, if you're done trying to kill us." He huffs. "I was…I was really close, you know? Partly because I was afraid he'd kill me if I didn't let him, because hello, psycho. And partly because…" He stops, swallowing. "I wanted it. But he was…he was really…I never wanted it like that, anyway." He stares so forcefully out the window that it's surprising the trees aren't exploding as they pass. "So that's it. That's my big Peter Hale horror story. After that, I tried to set him on fire, I guess that was sort of like therapy, which made it suck even harder when it didn't work, and you know the rest."

Derek stays silent for a long time, until suddenly he's pulling off to the side of the abandoned road they're on, parking his car and flipping the blinker on.

Stiles blinks. "We're not there yet," he says. "Right? I mean, we're not really anywhere, so –"

"We're close, and I want this conversation done with before we get there," Derek tells him. He unbuckles his seatbelt, turning in his seat to face Stiles head-on.

Stiles maybe gulps. A little. "Um."

"I'm sorry," Derek says. "About my uncle, and for what he did to you. And I'm sorry you didn’t think you could tell me before."

That's…Stiles doesn't even know what to do with that. Derek is apologizing? Derek never apologizes, and especially not for things that aren't his fault. "I didn’t tell anyone," he mumbles. "Wasn't anything in particular against you. And don't…don't try to take it on like you're the one responsible, okay? You're not, and I know I'll never get an apology out of him – I wouldn't want one anyway, Jesus – but that doesn't mean you have to pick up his slack."

Derek's eyes are intense as they track over Stiles' face. Stiles doesn't know what he's looking for, but whatever it is, he doesn't think Derek finds it, because he huffs and looks away for a second. "I'll talk to him," he says, his voice just shy of a growl. "He won't bother you again."

Stiles looks down. Admittedly, the idea of never having to feel Peter touch him again is incredibly appealing. Stiles doesn't doubt he'll find ways around whatever restrictions Derek tries to place on him, but it's a nice idea anyway. "Thanks," he says. "I appreciate the effort."

Derek nods. "As for the bite…"

Stiles cringes. "Look, can we just maybe not talk about that? Like, seriously? It's not a big deal, just pretend I never brought it up."

Again, there's a long bout of extreme staring. If staring were a sport, Derek would have gold medals for sure. Stiles can't help but flush under the scrutiny. When he finally speaks, his voice is low and serious. "I'm never going to ask you if you want it," he tells Stiles. "And this is the only time I'll ever mention it. But you should know that I'm not going to turn you away if you ask, either."

And with that, he turns back to the wheel, re-fastens his seatbelt, and pulls away from the curb like he didn't just drop a bombshell right on top of Stiles' head.

The worst part is that Stiles doesn't even have that much time to stare at him gape-mouthed, because suddenly Derek is taking a right onto a dirt road that seems to go right off into the dense forest they've been driving next to for several miles now. Stiles has never been more confused.

Just after they hit the tree line, there's a gate blocking their way with a big sign that very clearly states "NO TRESSPASSERS PLEASE", but Derek climbs out of the idling car and…unlocks it. With a key. A real key, as far as Sties can tell, and not some sort of magic ultra lock pick. What?

"Where are we?" Stiles asks when Derek gets back in and proceeds to drive through.

Derek glances over at him, lips quirking. "You'll see."

The dirt road is more of a path at this point, eerily reminiscent of the way Stiles uses to get to the Hale house, except maybe not quite as well traversed or cared for. He doesn't know how long they drive for, except that a while later, the trees thin again, and then they're pulling out of the forest and the ocean is suddenly there in front of them, lapping at the beach a couple hundred yards away, glimmering in the evening twilight. To the right, maybe a quarter mile from where they are, there's a rocky outcropping with a lighthouse perched on top like something off a postcard.

And suddenly, Stiles knows. Recalls it with perfect, startling clarity. "I've been here," he murmurs.

"More than once," Derek responds. He parks right there, halfway between the treeline and the waterline, and gets out of the car. Stiles scrambles after him.

"What? What do you mean, more than once?" he demands. When Derek hoists himself onto the hood of the car, Stiles doesn't think anything of it to follow suit, totally ignoring the raised eyebrow he gets when he settles in next to Derek. "No, seriously, come on. I remember my mom taking me here once, I was seven or eight? She said she wanted me to see it just once, because it was special to her. But that's it, that's the only time."

Derek stares out at the water. "This is Hale property, Stiles," he says with a small sigh. "When we were kids, my parents would take us out here to teach us to control our wolves. We could practice here, without any danger of the town seeing us if we lost control and ran out of the forest fully shifted. We were kids, control didn't come easy to us, but we were safe here."

It makes sense, Stiles realizes. Even without being seen, a little kid running through the forest? Surely they'd want to howl right up to the moon, and wouldn't that cause some questions and speculation around town. Of course the Hales had a safe place to help raise their wolf-pup kids. They were good parents, they'd do everything they could for Derek and Laura and their tiny cousins.

"I don't…there isn't a lot I remember from that young," Derek says. "But I've been trying, and I think…I'm pretty sure I remember coming here with my mom and Laura and you and your mom when you were a baby." He shakes his head. "It's not very clear, but I remember…I remember a baby laughing. Laura shifted and you laughed when she leaned over you and let you touch her face."

Stiles can't be sure in the dwindling light, but he'd swear Derek is blushing right now. He stays silent, because this seems like too fragile a moment to shatter with his own words.

"I think maybe I yelled at her," Derek adds, sounding sheepish. "And she hit me for being 'too big a worrywart'. And I shifted and chased her, and you just…kept laughing." He folds his arms over his chest like he's trying to protect himself. Or his heart, at least. "It's not much, but you wanted to know about her…my mom. This is the best place I knew how to start telling you."

"Derek…" Stiles doesn't know what to say. It's becoming a problem more and more often lately. He never thought he'd miss his penchant for babbling.

Derek looks over at him again, and this time that's a real smile on his face. Small, but definitely there, imprinting itself in Stiles' mind so he can pull up the memory as easily as he'd pull out a photograph, anytime he wants.

A crescent moon begins to rise over the water, and they each lie back against the windshield, close enough to feel each other's warmth even if they're not touching. Derek's voice, when he starts to talk, blends perfectly with the sound of the waves. To Stiles, it sounds almost like a lullaby.

~

They talk for a long time. Or, well, Derek talks and Stiles listens, mostly, which is a novelty for them both. Stiles got a taste of it back at the house, listening to those first tentative stories of Derek's extended family, but now there's something more to it. Something in Derek's voice when he talks about his mom that makes Stiles just want to drink it in forever. He could happily stay silent for the rest of his life, he thinks, if it meant he got to hear Derek sound like this all the time.

But then he'd have to share it, and he…he sort of likes it, knowing this is just for him. He's the only one who gets to see Derek this way, probably the only one who's seen it in a long time.

He likes knowing that Derek is willing to open himself up to Stiles like this.

It gets to be late – really late – and Stiles finally has to nudge Derek's arm to get him to pause for a second so he can call his dad and tell him where he is.

"We can stay the night if you want," Derek says, nodding toward the lighthouse. "Or I can drive you back now. Didn't realize how late it was."

"It's cool," Stiles reassures. "I didn't either. But this is great, this is…" He doesn't have words, really, for how much it all means to him. He's learned more about Derek's mom tonight than he ever could have found out before, and he feels a little bit like maybe he knows her now. It's not as good as it might have been to really meet her, but it's something. It feels good. "This is great," he finishes lamely, because it's all he's got, and he means it wholeheartedly.

Derek gives him that tiny grin again, the one that's more smiling with his eyes than his mouth, and goes back to staring up at the moon while Stiles calls his dad (who is surprisingly cool with the whole thing and simply tells Stiles, "Don't do anything illegal, be careful, and be home in time for lunch tomorrow. That attic isn't going to clean itself, son.")

"Everything okay?" Derek asks when he hangs up.

Stiles stares at the phone, a little perplexed, before beaming up at Derek and sliding it back into his pocket. "Yep!" He stretches his arms up, then folds his hands together behind his head in a makeshift pillow. He glances over and finds Derek staring at him. "What's that look for, dude?"

Derek shrugs, looking away again. "Nothing. You tired yet?"

"Nah." Stiles is a little too used to being up until the wee hours of the morning, either playing computer games or doing research for creatures of the night who are all incapable of using Google themselves. "But if you are, we can head over and you can show me where I'm bunking down for the night."

"No." Derek is quiet for a moment, then, "I'm actually pretty restless. Need to run."

Stiles watches him curiously. "I thought you were out in the woods practically all the time at home?"

"Not since Peter came back," Derek mutters. "Can't let my guard down."

Stiles can't help but think of all the ways in which that royally sucks for Derek, and for Isaac too, probably. But yeah, it makes sense, and he's glad Derek's at least got that much self-preservation instinct. "Well, hey, go for it if you want," he says, waving a hand behind them toward the woods. "That's what this place is for, right? Why waste a perfectly good night?"

Again there's the freakish staring. "You're okay with that?" Derek asks, sounding bewildered.

"Do you really think if I weren't I'd have suggested it? Really? This is me, dude, I'm not lacking for words when I have a problem with something." Stiles nudges him again, feeling bold. "You want to run, so run. I can stay here and stare out at the ocean or something." Like remember his mom for a little while.

Derek still hesitates, but he's sitting up now, staring back towards the trees. "Can I…" He pauses, looking like he's trying to find words. "I've been an alpha for more than half a year, but I haven't…"

Stiles blinks at him, totally confused. Derek's still looking away, completely unhelpful with his jaw clenched, but something about his face, or his posture, clues Stiles in. It hits him like a ton of bricks. "Oh," he says, also sitting up now, turned just slightly towards the werewolf. "You haven't fully shifted yet. Like how when we found Laura, she was a real wolf." He winces at how insensitive that probably sounds. "That's an alpha thing, right?"

Derek nods slowly, staring down.

"So what's stopping you?" Stiles asks. Man, if he could turn into a full wolf at will, none of that hairy-sideburn-and-ridgy-forehead thing the werewolves he knows have going on, he'd do it in a heartbeat. God, he can't even imagine the freedom.

"You remember Peter when he was an Alpha?" Derek asks quietly.

"Hell yeah I do, like I'm ever gonna forget that monst…oh." And there's the proverbial lightbulb. "Wait, c'mon, you're actually scared you'll turn into that? Why?"

Derek's eyes flash crimson, but nothing about it makes Stiles want to back away. It's not a threat, he knows, it's just a reaction to Derek's own fear. It makes Stiles want to comfort, not run. "An Alpha form is based on the sort of Alpha the wolf chooses to be." His hands clench into fists by his side. "And I'm harsh and brutal with my pack. I've already gotten more than half of them killed, and Scott –" He cuts himself off with a growl.

"You're desperate," Stiles corrects him. "And scared. And lonely. And you're trying your hardest, and yeah, maybe you've screwed up and made some bad calls, but that happens, and it's not all on you. You can't be perfect, and you're still learning, and the situation has sucked balls, okay? But you care about your pack, not just because of the strength they give you, but about them as people. That's way more than Peter ever did." He pauses, then adds, "And for what it's worth, Scott's always been kind of a moron. He's going to come around." He puts as much conviction into his voice as he can.

"I…don't get you," Derek says after a long moment of more inscrutable staring.

Stiles grins at him. "What's not to get, I'm like an open book," he says. "Come on, Derek, you're gonna have to give in eventually. Have a little faith, huh?"

Instead of answering, Derek slides off the hood slowly, still looking at Stiles. He backs away several paces, and even in the dark, Stiles can see his jaw clench tight again. His throat bobs when he swallows, and he tears off his shirt like it's mortally offended him. His pants follow, and Stiles tries not to look at anything except the sand where they end up getting thrown. "You sure you want to be here?" Derek asks gruffly.

If Derek was going to hurt him, he's had a zillion opportunities by now, wolfed-out or otherwise. He trusted Derek even before he wanted them to be friends, and now… "Do it," Stiles says, and he makes his voice rise in challenge. His eyes slide back to Derek without his permission, and then he can't look away. You can do it, he thinks, as loudly as he possibly can. Believing in Derek as hard as he can because Derek never believes in himself enough. You've got this. Do it!

It's nothing at all like watching Peter change had been. Derek's eyes close, and it's sort of like a ripple washing over him. It seems like a trick of the eye – it flows over him, and one moment, he's standing, and the next, he's falling to all fours. A blink, another ripple, and this time when it passes over him, fur sprouts up in its place. One more, and instead of a man, there's a wolf standing in front of him, huge and black, with eyes that blaze with that familiar Alpha-red.

He's beautiful.

Stiles has to swallow around the dryness in his throat a few times before he can make himself speak, and when he finally does, his voice is quieter and a lot more reverent than he means it to be. "I told you," he says, and then he has to laugh at the way Derek ducks his head like he's embarrassed. "I told you," he says again, louder, wanting to punch a fist into the air because this feels like some kind of victory, and they don't get very many of those.

Derek trots up to him with a whine, resting his great big head against Stiles' knee, and that's…Jesus, Stiles can't take it. He just can't. He doesn't say a word because he's positive his voice will come out shaking. His heart beats wildly in his chest, and it's bad enough realizing that Derek can hear it, might mistake it for fear.

He reaches out a hand slowly, hesitating. Wanting to touch but not sure if he's allowed, except Derek moves first, tilting his head right into Stiles palm and nuzzling. Nuzzling, for the love of god. Stiles' fingers card through the soft fur, scratching just behind Derek's ear. Giddy laughter bubbles up in his chest, and he releases it into the night because there's just no holding it in. Derek looks up to him and turns his head just slightly, just enough to lick Stiles' wrist.

"Go on, you big goof," Stiles laughs. "Go run."

Derek does, after a last long look. He bounds into the forest and howls his joy up to the sky like every clichéd werewolf ever, and Stiles is torn between being dizzy with the happiness he suddenly feels, or wallowing in jealousy because he's not out there with him.

The muscles in his legs twitch, and he has to dig his fingers into his skin hard enough to bruise to keep himself seated on the car.

He's never wanted to run so badly in his entire life.

~

Stiles does manage to make it home in time for lunch the next day, although it's more like breakfast since he didn't eat anything with Derek. His dad gives him a look when he comes in, but if he has any thoughts about his seventeen-year-old son spending the night in a strange place with a person he once arrested for murder, he doesn't say anything outright. Stiles guesses it might have a lot to do with what he said before, about Stiles' mom and how she probably would have been glad.

"I'm heading out to the station," is what he does say, and Stiles nods, giving him a grin as he greedily devours his bowl of Frosted Flakes while standing at the counter. His dad claps him on the shoulder on his way out, and Stiles vows to himself to get back to work on the attic just for that. Because his dad is awesome, and the attic is really the least Stiles can offer him in return.

That doesn't mean he has to do it alone, though, and he abruptly decides that Scott's been not-moping for way too long.

"Hey," he barks into the phone when Scott picks up, sounding groggy. "Get over here, I'm recruiting you."

"Stiles," Scott says, drawing the name out into a long whine.

"No excuses. Make like Speedy Gonzales." He hangs up before Scott can utter another word in protest.

He doesn't even realize how good a mood he's in until he's clambering up the ladder and staring around, trying to figure out where to start today. It hits him then, with the musty smell of old books and clothes in his nose making him want to sneeze, that he hasn't stopped grinning since he woke up, curled on a threadbare cot in the middle of a drafty, dusty old lighthouse with Derek Hale watching him from his own cot across the room. It's the first day he's felt really good in…a hell of a long time.

And he knows it isn't the lighthouse that did it.

But even knowing that, letting the implications simmer in his mind that it's Derek who made him this…this giddy…doesn't chase the cheerfulness away. It makes him want to explore it, want to pick at the threads of it until it all unravels in his mind and he can figure out why and how and all the other questions that go along with it. Like if it's something he could maybe get to keep.

Scott arrives, breaking Stiles out of his thoughts as he trudges up to the front door like it's the gate to Hades. Stiles sees him out of the teeny tiny attic window and opens it enough that he can holler down to his friend "Door's unlocked!"

Scott scowls up at him but comes inside. A minute later, Stiles hears him coming up the ladder and then there he is in all his scowly, mopey glory.

For a second, it looks like Scott's going to tell him he's a mean and terrible best friend (Stiles already has it on the tip of his tongue to remind Scott of every time Stiles has risked life and limb for him since Scott got bitten), but then Scott stops. Sniffs. "What…"

Stiles raises an eyebrow. "Use your words…" he prompts, because he knows sometimes Scott needs a little bit of a push.

Scott's scowl grows bigger. He's probably going for fiercer, but it really just makes him look like a puppy whose toy got taken away while he was playing. "Why do you smell like that?"

"Like what?" he asks, rolling his eyes before his brain catches up and he remembers exactly what it is he probably smells like. Or rather, who.

"You smell like Derek," Scott says, and Jesus, is he actually pouting? "What are you hanging around Derek for? I thought it was over and we could forget…" He waves a hand, like he's trying to say all of it.

Stiles stares at him incredulously. "Are you actually kidding me right now? Please tell me you're kidding." It's very clear that Scott is not, in fact, kidding, judging by the look he shoots Stiles. "Dude. All that crap is not just gonna disappear. And I hate to tell you this, I do, okay? But just because you don't like Derek? Doesn't mean you don't need him. You're an idiot teenage werewolf, you need his help!"

Scott's eyes are wide and betrayed, and okay, it cuts Stiles a little that he put that look there, but it's not like anything he said isn't true, and Scott needs to face facts here.

"But…he…Stiles, he's –"

"You're the one who betrayed him," Stiles says, very quietly, and he grips Scott's shoulder before Scott can run. "And I get it, I get why. I think maybe Derek does too, but it doesn't change the fact that you betrayed him, not the other way around."

"Why are you taking his side on this?" Scott moans, trying to turn away. Stiles holds fast and doesn't let him.

"It's not about sides here, Scott!" Stiles waves his free hand around like general flailing is going to get through his friend's thick skull. "This wasn't a joke to Derek, it wasn't a plot. You were a part of his pack, he felt you call for help. That's not a small thing, and then you just…" Stiles trails off for a second before finishing lamely with, "I think it really hurt him."

Scott stares, mouth gaping, still looking like Stiles is the ultimate traitor. "Since when do you care about his feelings?" he asks petulantly.

"Since he saved my life. And my best friend's. And my dad's," Stiles answers, because right now it's the only answer he can give. "He's down half a pack and up a psycho uncle he can't trust, and he's trying to look after everyone else and deal with all the crazy werewolf stuff on the side. And don't look at me like that, I know Isaac told you about the Alpha pack." Stiles finally pulls away so he can cross his arms and frown menacingly.

Scott's mouth twists unhappily. "It's not our problem, is it?"

"Since when has that thought process ever actually worked out for us in recent months?" Stiles asks, trying to gentle his voice a little.

Scott sighs. "I don't want to think about this right now, okay? Isaac's already given me the speech, I just…" He looks like he's about to stomp his foot or something. "Just not now, okay?"

Stiles nods, because he's known Scott for more than ten years of his life and he knows when to back off.

They set to work on the attic after that, as much because they need a distraction as anything. Stiles drags out the boxes of books from the corner, and they diligently start sorting them pile by pile.

One box in, Scott frowns again, shooting Stiles a look from the corner of his eye. "You never actually answered the question."

Stiles doesn't even glance up, just reaches over and smacks his dumbass friend upside his dumbass head.

~

Stiles manages to wait a few days, but the desire to see Derek again is like an itch underneath his skin, one he can't just scratch away no matter how hard he tries. Wanting to be around Derek is nothing new – even in the beginning, when there was still all the wall-slamming and life-threatening and head-bashing, Derek gave off this sort of magnetic aura Stiles had trouble resisting even when he knew he really should – but there's something different about it now. Stronger.

Unfortunately, he has no way to get a hold of Derek to tell him he's coming, which is how he winds up face-to-face with Peter at the front door instead, and no Derek or Isaac close by to rescue him.

This is really why Stiles needs to learn to think before he acts.

He swallows hard, and Peter leans against the doorjamb, crossing his arms and smiling at Stiles in a disarming-but-still-very-creepy sort of way.

"You're looking for Derek, I assume." Peter raises an eyebrow.

"Um." Stiles wonders if he can back away without Peter taking it as a sign to, like, attack. Werewolves can smell fear, right? "He's obviously not here. I'll…go." He takes a single step back, almost stumbles.

"It's instinct, you know." Peter uncrosses one arm, inspecting his fingernails like whatever he's saying doesn't matter in the least. Telling Stiles that whatever it is actually matters a hell of a lot, and Jesus, he knows this is some sort of trap, but his curiosity is like a curse, he can't walk away, he has to –

"What is?" he grits out.

"This newfound openness he has with you." Peter shakes his head, still smiling. "I think he's shared more with you in a week than he did with his sister in six years. It's actually rather adorable."

Stiles opens his mouth, then immediately closes it again. What can he say to that? He not surprised by it, anyway, he knows what Derek's been like the last few months. Grumpy and taciturn and secretive. Stiles knew when this thing started between them, when he first handed Derek the drawing, that he was getting something rare, like a precious gem. He hadn't wanted to question it, still doesn't.

Which doesn't stop Peter from continuing. "You see, Stiles, it's very easy to think of you as pack. Your scent has a hint of Hale in it, just a whiff. It connects you to us. And Derek – particularly, Derek's wolf – thought of you as pack even when you were an infant. That doesn't just go away, you know." His smile widens, creeping over his face while his eyes gleam at Stiles. "The second you walked back into his life, the very moment he began re-acclimating to that alluring scent you carry, it started. And knowing about the connection just reinforced it."

That…doesn't sound so bad, Stiles thinks. "Okay," he says uncertainly. "Is this a problem?"

Peter shrugs. "I suppose that depends on you, Stiles." He straightens, taking a step out of the doorway and closer to Stiles, who's now frozen where he stands. Peter looks him up and down, meets Stiles eyes and holds them. "Pack means more to Derek than it ever has or will to that simpleton you call your friend, or the children my nephew turned. Pack is family, Stiles, do you understand that?"

"Y-yes," Stiles says, nodding. He tries to keep his cool, but he knows he's not doing a very good job.

"Family is important. And Derek doesn't have much left. Two of those he turned abandoned him when he needed them most, and Scott, my own…mistake, betrayed him. But this is different, you mean more. If you desert him as they did –"

"I wouldn't," Stiles cuts in fiercely, suddenly finding strength to lend his voice again. His hands clench. "I won't, why would you even think –"

"Good," Peter says before he can finish, stepping back, all smiles again. "I admit, I would hate to see you come to harm from any…accidents that might befall you, if you didn't have him to watch your back."

Jesus. If that wasn't some sort of threat, Stiles is the Queen of England. Doesn't Peter ever get tired of threatening violence against teenagers? Seriously?

And yet… And yet it's for Derek, to protect him, which… Stiles is really losing it, he has to be, because somehow that almost – almost – makes it okay. He can almost forgive Peter for being super creepy and evil this one time.

Still…

"I should, uh, go," he says, daring to take another step back.

Peter continues to smile benignly, waves a hand and says, "Of course, of course. I'll be sure to let our mighty Alpha know you stopped by."

Stiles all but flees for his Jeep.

"Watch out!" Peter calls, before Stiles can close the door and cut his words off at the pass. "There's tell of some big bad wolves lurking around the forest, and you do look like quite the tasty morsel."

Stiles very carefully doesn't look up to see what expression Peter is wearing.

~

It's the exact opposite of a surprise when Derek shows up in his window later that night, hesitating for only half a second before ducking his head and climbing in. He stands awkwardly for a moment, hands shoved in his jacket pockets (and seriously, he has to be roasting in that thing, it's like a zillion degrees outside) while he waits for Stiles to shut down his computer.

Stiles does, turning to face him with a grin that probably does more to let Derek know he's welcome than anything he could actually say. For good measure, though, he adds a, "Whassup?" as he leans back in his chair.

"I heard you stopped by," Derek says. "I felt like I should apologize for whatever Peter said to you, but you look like you're…" Okay, he doesn't say, but Stiles hears it anyway and finds himself touched.

Geez, he's becoming all kinds of pathetic here.

He manages to shrug. "Wasn't that bad," he says, mostly honest. "He could just use some lessons in basic social cues. How to Not be a Creeper 101 or something."

Derek's mouth twitches like he wants to smile, and Stiles' day brightens considerably. "Anyway," Derek says after another long moment, "that's not the only reason I stopped by."

"I'm all ears," Stiles says, because now Derek looks serious. Well, more serious, since he always has that brooding, pensive thing going on.

"Isaac's been keeping an eye out all week, and all week, the Alpha pack's had a tail on you. Sometimes more than one." Derek watches him, probably waiting for Stiles to freak out.

Which, okay, yeah, isn't outside the realm of possibility. "They're watching the house too?" he asks weakly. His dad…

Derek nods, his jaw clenched and his eyes angry. Anger at himself, probably, which is just stupid, and Stiles opens his mouth to tell him so before something else occurs to him.

"Just me?"

Another slow nod. "They took their tail off Scott four days ago."

The weak link, Stiles thinks, because of course he is. Fuck.

"Stop it," Derek growls, taking a step forward, clearly reading Stiles' thoughts on his face. He starts to reach out before he hesitates, but when Stiles raises wide eyes to meet his stare, he finishes the movement, his hand closing tight on Stiles' shoulder. "You're not this pack's weakness," he says, his voice low.

"But I –"

"If anything," Derek continues, ruthlessly raising his voice to bulldoze right over Stiles', "you're its strength."

Stiles blinks. Stares. Blinks again. Something in his chest feels like it's expanding, too big to hold inside, and his breath stutters in his lungs because there's suddenly no room for air. "What?" he whispers.

Derek's other hand comes down on his other shoulder, and the werewolf – the Alpha werewolf – kneels down in front of him, shaking Stiles gently, forcing him to breathe. "Stop underestimating yourself all the time," he orders. He scowls fiercely up at Stiles. "It's irritating."

Stiles' heart is still beating hummingbird-fast, but that makes him gasp out a laugh, because it's just so Derek. "I wouldn't be me if I wasn't annoying you somehow," he manages. He closes his eyes to escape that piercing gaze just long enough to catch his breath. "But I mean, even still, that's probably what they're thinking, right?"

"I don't know what they're thinking," Derek admits. "They vanished today, which is why I came to warn you. Whatever they're planning, it's happening soon."

Stiles opens his eyes again, finds Derek still watching him steadily. "So what do we do?" he asks.

"For starters, I don't want you alone," Derek says. "I was hoping you'd stay with the pack, but I know you won't leave your father. So until they make a move, you don't go out alone. If you're not with Scott, you're with one of us. Either me or Isaac will be watching the house at all times. No arguments."

Stiles clamps down on all the ones that rise immediately to his throat. "Okay," he agrees through gritted teeth, because he already knows how much the restriction – and the attention – is going to chafe. But it makes sense, at least for a couple days. And admittedly, he'll probably feel safer, even if he hates the necessity. Hates his own damn helplessness.

Derek releases a slow breath, like Stiles' agreement is a relief. Actually, it probably is, given Stiles' usual penchant for arguing. "Thank you," Derek says softly.

"You too," Stiles replies, equally quiet. That thing in his chest is filling again, his heart pounding as he meets Derek's eyes and sees…something in their depths. Something passes between them, wire-taught and knife-edged and vibrating. "Derek…"

"I should go," Derek says, standing abruptly, and the moment snaps. Stiles blinks in the aftermath. "Isaac's already here, and I'm going to do some digging, see if I can track them somehow."

"Oh. Sure." Stiles nods, rubbing a hand over his hair and trying to find coherent thought again. "Yeah, makes sense. Um. I'll see you later?"

Derek nods, taking a few steps back without taking his eyes off Stiles, like he can't force himself to look away. Stiles knows the feeling.

When he finally leaves, it feels a little bit like all the color in the room goes with him. Stiles stands and makes his way over to the window. Stares out at the night for a long time, until he's aware that those two pinprick yellow dots two rooftops away are Isaac's eyes, and that Isaac is sitting there watching him…watching him pine.

He closes the window and falls down face-first on his bed.

I'm so screwed.

~

It's not even just the werewolves keeping tabs on him, Stiles soon discovers. He didn't know Derek was in contact with the Argents, but he sees Allison for the first time while he's at the corner store picking up milk, and she's doing that thing where she's pretending to flip through a magazine while staring around and sizing the place up and locating all the entrances and exits and it's freaky, okay? She's freaky and ninja-like and probably as badass as half the werewolves he knows.

But they do glance at each other as he heads for the registers, and she gives him a tiny smile, and for the first time since everything went down, he actually finds himself missing her.

So maybe he forgives her. At least a little bit.

It's Chris two days after that, and Stiles actually rolls his eyes when they 'accidentally' bump into each other while he's filling up the Jeep. "Seriously?" he says in a low, furious whisper. "The wolf on the roof isn't enough, they're sending in hunter recruits too?" He nods at the gas station roof, where Isaac's eyes are gleaming again. Stiles wonders if he's been taking creeper lessons from Peter.

Chris nods to Isaac and doesn't reply to Stiles at all.

"I mean, for real. You guys have to have better things to be doing with your time." One of Stiles hands – the one not being used to pump gas – waves wildly, but he manages to keep his voice low. "Maybe the Alpha pack just left, has anyone considered that? I'm probably not in any danger at all."

Still, Chris doesn't reply. He just leans against the Jeep and waits for Stiles to be done, and then leaves as silently as he appeared only when Stiles is back in the safety of the car with the door locked.

"Insane," he mutters to himself. "Everyone went insane when my back was turned."

Even Scott's joined in the madness. Once Isaac told him what was going on, he started showing up every night, sleeping on Stiles' floor because one nighttime protector from the rooftops wasn't enough, apparently.

And yeah. It's starting to be just as annoying as Stiles predicted it would be.

After two days, he wants to crawl out of his own skin.

By four, he's started snapping at his dad.

On day five, he does something sort of uncharacteristically reckless and stupid.

~

It's not easy, escaping from under the noses of werewolves. Derek seems to have everyone around trained for CONSTANT VIGILANCE, like some younger, darker, more stubbled version of Mad-Eye Moody, and while he hasn't actually spoken to Stiles in five days, Stiles sees his Alpha-red eyes at least as often as he sees Scott or Isaac's Beta-yellow. It's a good thing werewolves don't need quite as much sleep as humans, because they'd probably all have collapsed days ago if they did.

In the end, although it probably makes him the world's worst best friend ever, he waits until he knows for a fact Scott is the only one around. It won't last for long, because Derek still doesn't trust Scott enough for that, but it's long enough that Stiles can slip out of the back door while Scott is sleeping. Long enough that he can take off at slow jog, sneakers pounding the pavement as he stretches muscles that feel sore from being cooped up so long, even if he knows it's really more his imagination than anything else. Long enough that he can breathe free air for just a few blessed moments before one of them inevitably catches up with him again.

Long enough that someone can sneak up behind him and clamp long, be-clawed fingers around the back of his neck. Long enough that he can suddenly count at least five pairs of red eyes gleaming in the darkness around him.

Long enough that whoever is behind him can chuckle softly (and evilly, like all the worst ever comic book villains), and then bash him over the head with something hard and heavy.

Unconsciousness claims him well before anyone even knows he's missing.

~

Stiles is tired of getting kidnapped, he really is. The first time, Peter, that was bad. Gerard, that bastard probably gave Stiles nightmares for the rest of his life. And now these assholes, who stare at Stiles as he wakes with smirks on their faces and…and hunger in their eyes.

Jesus, Stiles is really tired of getting kidnapped. If he thought the worst of the nightmares were behind him, he clearly hasn't been doing a good enough job imagining being in a bare, damp room surrounded by glowing red eyes on werewolves who look like they belong in a biker bar chain gang.

He moans, sitting up and pressing his hand gingerly to the back of his head. He's got the mother of all headaches, but he doesn't think he's concussed. He's had a concussion before, he knows what to watch out for, and right now there's just a lot of pain, no dizziness or nausea.

That's at least one good thing.

Every Alpha in the room is still staring at him. Okay, Peter could actually take creeper lessons from these guys, seriously. "Seriously?" he mutters. "Did you drag me here just to stare at me like I was your next meal? Do werewolves just all have a thing where they like to stare? All the time?"

One of them stands and slinks over to him. No lie, she moves like a cat, elegantly graceful even with the studded leather jacket and chains that dangle from her belt. She kneels down and tilts her head as her gaze roves over his face. He tries to back away and finds himself already against a wall. Figures.

"I'm Vesper," she says in this low, seductive voice he'd expect to hear over a phone-sex line. Not that Stiles would know anything about those. At all. A grin slides over her face as she continues, "And you, little cub, are my new favorite meal ticket."

Stiles shivers, clenches his teeth together so he won't stutter, and says, "Derek won't give up his territory for me." Because what else could they possibly want?

But the girl laughs, clearly delighted. "You think that's what this is about? A bargain?" She reaches over and pats him, like he's a freaking dog. "You are adorable," she says. "No, cub. Rest assured, we will take this territory, but our first priority…well, that's you, pet. Just you, not as a bargaining chip or bait or a hostage but for exactly what you are."

"And what am I?" he asks, flinching away when she goes to touch his cheek.

"Ours," she growls. She turns back to the pack. "Leave us," she orders. "Call Dixon, find out when he'll arrive. Tell him we've got his present waiting."

For an entire pack of Alphas, they all seem to take orders from her fairly well, leaving silently one at a time until he's alone with Alpha Psycho-Bitch.

She stares at him for a long time, a strange little smirk twisting her lips when she finally says, "You don't even know, do you? Poor little cub, you've got no idea."

There are probably a lot of things that Stiles doesn't know, in general, and he knows she's taunting him now, wanting to use his own characteristic curiosity against him (just like Peter did, he can't help but notice), and he hates the fact that it's working. Unlike with Peter though, he can turn away and ignore her. He can and he does, and judging by her growl, she really doesn't like that.

Well, good. Score one for the human. He closes his eyes and wills himself calm, regulates his breathing and his heartbeat the same way he trained himself to do during a panic attack. Losing control sure isn't going to get him out of this mess.

Derek is coming. Derek will find him. Stiles believes it with every fiber of his being, and he intends to be ready for it.

"Even unchanged, you have such potential," the Alpha murmurs. "Such a spark. Imagine what you'd be capable of if you could reach the wolf inside. And we can give you that. How can you not want that power?"

The words wind their way into Stiles brain like vines, wrapping themselves around him until he can't think of anything else, and he won't ask, he won't, but if curiosity has a smell, he knows he must be drenched in it by now. The big flashing warning signs in his head, the ones that say, No, turn back, DO NOT ENTER, lose all meaning, because he wants to know, he has to know.

And damn it, she knows it. She leans in close, and he squeezes his eyes closed as she breathes against his neck, licking at his soft skin. He's quite literally backed into a corner, nowhere to run, and he can't take on an Alpha with nothing but his bare hands, but oh, God, he wants to.

"Just like your mother," she whispers into his ear.

And then there's just no holding it back it anymore. "What?" he breathes.

She smiles like she's won.

~

John didn't have a lot of time to celebrate being elected sheriff before Renée got sick.

It seemed to happen all at once. They had no time to prepare, to fight it. She came home one day shaken, pale, exhausted. Within a week, she was in the hospital and the doctors were offering him big words and fancy terms and a lot of apologies but not a single damn solution, and then just like that…

Just like that…

Melissa, Renée's nurse and the mother of Stiles' best friend, took Stiles home with her when he'd finally cried himself into an exhausted slumber. For long minutes after they were gone, he sat holding his wife's cold hand. He couldn't cry yet, was barely aware of anything beyond the numbness spreading through him. Shock, he thought, but he wasn't any kind of medical expert. Renée would have known, would've known exactly what he needed right then, but Renée was…

"Oh, John."

He whirled to face the doorway, shock making his heart skip a beat, then another when he saw who his visitor was. "Will?"

William Hale's eyes were red like he was holding back tears, his gaze fixed on the still figure on the bed. "This should never have happened," he murmured. "John, I'm so sorry."

This man had once been John's closest friends, but he hadn't spoken with him in almost a decade. That William should come now had rage clawing in his belly, made him see red. "You've got no right to be here," he said. "You or Emmaline."

William cringed back. "I know. We'd hoped— But it's too late now." He bowed his head, and John abruptly felt guilt eat away at the anger. He was ashamed at himself, but before he could apologize, William had already walked away.

Where he'd been standing, John saw a strange little flower, half crushed from William's fist.

John laid his head against his wife's still chest and finally broke.

~

"Tell me, cub, what do you know about red wolves?" Vesper asks.

"What do you know about my mom?" he whispers, although he's absolutely sure he doesn't want to know. Oh, God, he really doesn't want to know.

"Tit for tat," she says. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."

She's playing with him, and he knows it, but he wracks his brain anyway because he can't not. Red wolves, he remembers reading about them when he started his research on wolves in general, just after Scott got bitten. "They…they're rare," he remembers. "Endangered. Um. I don't remember much, I think…they come from the southeast?"

"Mmm." She taps a dark red painted finger against her lips. "You really should know more about your own heritage, cub."

Stiles isn't an idiot, but there's no way she can be implying what it sounds like she is. He isn't…there's not…

His mind tries to shy away, but once it starts, it's like a puzzle clicking into place in his brain, facts laid out before him in neat little rows that start with his mother's friendship with the Hales and end with that spark of connection he shares with Derek, that thing that feels like pack even though he's not a…he's never been…

Oh my God.

He knows, now, why his mom cut ties with the Hales, because he's read the history, and he knows when the Argents first came to town. He knows now why so many pictures are missing, why she destroyed so many of her drawings. He knows why she never spoke of her family, why he never met his aunts or uncles or grandparents from the other coast.

Wolf. She was a wolf. My mother was

He can't. He can't deal with this, he can't –

The Alpha is laughing. He hears it alongside the ringing in his ears. "Oh, the entertainment value alone makes this a worthwhile trip," she says, pretending to wipe a tear from her eye.

Stiles swallows hard around the thing lodged in his throat. Distantly, he's aware that he's shaking, but he knows he won't be able to stop, doesn't even bother to try. Panic is hovering at the edges of his mind, kept at bay only by sheer force of will and a heavy dose of denial. "What do you want with me? Whatever…whatever she was, I'm not a wolf. I'm human."

"Smelling like that?" She grins, arching a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "Not hardly, cub." She flicks the tip of his nose, and he shudders all the way down to his bones. "See, sweetie, your kind is special. They don't get made, they get born. But even when they get born, they don't actually begin to change till they get bit. Usually by the wolf parent, but any Alpha can activate it just as easy." Her smile widens. "You're no more human than me or Dixon or your mom or that idiot you call a best friend. You never have been."

Stiles just…shuts down. He doesn't moan or whimper or hide his face in his hands or stare at her in blank shock. Internally, he's screaming, denying, cursing with every other breath, begging for Derek or Scott or his father or anyone at all, but on the outside he just…sits. Gazes at her levelly, giving nothing away. Says, "You didn't answer my question."

She tilts her head again, staring at him. "It's that damn spark in you, cub," she says, like it should be obvious. "All your kind have it, it's the trade-off for your slower healing and ability to contract certain diseases. You call it luck. Humans call it magic. We call it power. It's the power of will, you cute little moron. And we want it for our pack."

The mountain ash, Stiles realizes. The championship game. Hell, even Derek's first full change. Those are the things she's talking about, those times when he believed in something, willed something to happen, made himself believe it was possible and right and good.

This part is for you, Stiles, Deaton had said. Only you. And, You need to be that spark. And, It can be extraordinary what the force of your own will can accomplish. And, If this is going to work, Stiles, you have to believe it.

It had felt like so much pressure at the time. Too much. Terrifying.

"You can't have it," Stiles says, as calmly as he can when all he wants to do is shout it.

"Trust me, we can." She shakes her head. "See, cub, once a red wolf gets bit? That wolf is loyal till the day it dies. Your kind are so much less…fickle than mine. Once you belong to an Alpha, you will submit to that Alpha forever."

Stiles knows enough about werewolf hierarchy at this point, with all the drama of Scott's original Alpha being Peter because that's who bit him, and Derek's desire to gain power by having a pack of his own. Oh, God, they're going to bite him. One of them is going to… Their leader, Dixon. That must be why they haven't already done it yet, they're waiting for him. He's going to be the one to…

"There, now you're getting it," Vesper says approvingly. She reaches out to pat him again, laughing when Stiles instinctively ducks away this time. "Your mom, now, she didn’t like our offer so much, and well, there was no way to enforce her loyalty, so what else could we do but take her out of the equation?"

Once again, Stiles' brain skids to an abrupt halt, and he gapes at her. "No, she…she died. In a hospital. Her disease…" She withered away in that bed for days, and Stiles was there for every moment, every agonizing second of it. He knows what he's talking about, this bitch has no idea, can't know –

"Oh baby, you can make wolfsbane poison look like just about anything, you got the right kind. Trust me, she wasn't that sick. Probably could've lived to a ripe old age if she'd been careful."

"No." It comes out desperate, ripped from his throat and cracked down the middle. Agonizing to his own ears, and there are already tears welling in his eyes that he can't control, his chest tight, breath not working properly, no air in his lungs at all, and his vision is blurry and graying. "No!" he says again, and has to cover his ears to block the sound of her laughter, close his eyes to not see the glee on her face.

She leaves him, then, like that. Curled in a miserable ball on the ground, shaking and trying to hold in the sobs, trying not to beg for his mom, for answers, for a hundred different things he doesn't even understand.

~

Stiles has no idea how much time passes before the door opens again, and a large man with beefy arms and sideburns big enough to eat a person steps inside. He tosses a bottle of water at Stiles, smirks, and leaves again. The snick of the door's lock follows.

Stiles crawls over and picks the bottle up, clutching it close but not actually drinking any. He doesn't think it's been tampered with, but the fear is still there. He can't afford to be drugged to the gills or unconscious when Derek finds him.

When. Not if. Derek will find him. Of course he will.

He's having trouble thinking, focusing. He's feeling too much, too broken, and he doesn't know what to be the most upset about. His entire life was a lie, wasn't it? He's not even human; the one thing he's been fighting to stay, and it's not even true. His mom never told him, never even hinted. Hell, her being a wolf is maybe even why another wolf had to be the one to carry her child when she couldn't do it herself.

Because of her disease. The one he thought killed her. The one he knew, down to his soul, was why he didn't have a mother anymore, and it, too, was a lie. All his hatred for it was based on a lie, because it didn't kill her, people killed her. Werewolves killed her, because she wouldn't give them what they wanted. Presumably, because she wouldn't leave her son.

She wouldn't leave him.

Does that make it Stiles' fault? He can't help but wonder, sitting here in the dark basement, worrying at the cap on his bottle of warm, possibly-drugged water.

Is it my fault?

Stupid. God, it's so stupid to even think it, because even if that was her reasoning (and he has no proof of that, no way to ever know for sure), it was her choice to say no, and their choice to…to do what they did.

Whoever's fault it was, they did it, and more than anything, Stiles wants…he wants to rip their throats out. He wants to tear their heads off with his bare hands. He wants revenge. His hatred for them is sudden and blinding and intense, and he screams and throws the bottle across the room. Feels useless and inept and impotent when it bounces harmlessly off the wall and rolls a few feet across the floor. He buries his face in his hands, digs his fingers into his scalp and wishes they were claws, wishes they could tear through his problems, shred them until they're as raw and bloody as he feels.

Useless. So fucking useless.

The weak link. That's all he's ever been, isn't it?

You're this pack's strength, Derek had said, but it's not true. It can't be true, because otherwise Stiles wouldn't be stuck here, he wouldn't be locked in here, giving in to this self-pity and this anger and this flood of feelings he has no control over. He wouldn't be in here fighting for every breath, praying for answers he's never going to know for sure.

Stop underestimating yourself, Derek had said.

Stiles doesn't know if he can. He doesn't know how.

Start by getting yourself out of here, moron, he thinks, fists clenching. Stop relying on Derek to save you and save yourself.

But how can he do that, with the door locked and at least half a dozen Alphas out there? How can he do that, he's not fucking MacGyver, okay?

But he has…

He has…

That damn spark in you.

He has a spark.

~

Stiles drinks the water.

It's a test, see. If the water doesn't do anything to him, because he believes it won't, then he has a chance.

Okay, so as far as tests goes, it's not the greatest one. But he drinks the water, and he's fine afterwards, and if it doesn't accomplish anything else, it at least fills him with a tiny bit more confidence, and that's what he needs right now. He needs to believe – not just in success, but in himself. Stiles' biggest problem is that he's never really believed in himself, and now more than ever, he needs to.

He can do this. He has to do this.

Everything else, he locks away. He shoves all his feelings about his mom and his past and his true nature as deep as he can, deep enough that he won't think about it, that he can focus on getting out of here, of coming up with a plan, of getting to Derek and the others. Those are the things that are important. He can't change who or what he is, and anger won't bring his mom back. But Derek is out there looking for him.

Derek matters, right now, in this moment. So that's what Stiles is thinking about.

I can get out of here, he tells himself, closing his eyes. The door is unlocked. The big guy clearly isn't the brightest bulb in the box, and he didn't turn the bolt far enough. Everyone is sleeping, resting up, getting ready for the Big Bad Alpha leader and whatever war they plan to reign down on Derek's pack. My pack.

He pulls in one breath after another, as deeply and evenly as he can.

The door is unlocked, and they're asleep. I can just slip out, before they ever even realize I'm gone. Just like I did at home.

I can get out of here.

I can do this.

He stands up, makes his way to the door with silent footsteps. Places his hand on the knob, closes his eyes, pulls in one more ragged breath. Envisions. Believes.

Beneath his hand, the doorknob turns.

~

"Stiles!" It's a low cry, a breath of desperate sound Stiles hears the moment he gets out of the building. He spins around, finds himself nose-to-nose with Derek (Of course he came I knew he'd come, Stiles thinks dizzily), who grabs him by the arms and drags him in and clings to him.

Derek is hugging him.

"You're okay?" Derek growls in his ear.

"I'm fine," Stiles says. He wants to close his eyes, bury himself in Derek, preferably forever if he can get away with it, but they don't have time. "I'm fine, Derek, but there's a bunch of Alphas in there and more coming, we have to go now."

"Scott's waiting with the car half a mile from here," Derek says. He pulls away like it's painful for him to have to, drags one hand down Stiles' arm and grabs for his hand. "Are you okay to run?"

"I can make it," Stiles says.

They run.

Derek doesn't let go.

~

Stiles sits in his chair, at his desk, in his own wonderful, comfortable, safe room. He's chewing on a granola bar (his third one in ten minutes) and trying not to watch the way Derek is pacing the length of the room with loud, angry footsteps. From one corner of his bed, Scott and Isaac huddle together, alternating between watching the Alpha with wide eyes, and watching Stiles with worried frowns.

Derek's fangs are out, his eyes glowing red, and it's really no surprise at all when he finally explodes, whirling on Stiles and shouting, "You stupid, pain in the ass idiot!"

Stiles sighs, crumpling the granola wrapper in his fist. "Okay, yes, I made a dumb decision, but I got out, I'm okay, can we move past it?" He gives his most beseeching stare, and gets a snarl for his effort.

Of course that would have been too easy.

"Get out," Derek tells the two Betas who are still trying to make themselves invisible.

Isaac is up like a flash, scrambling out of the window before Stiles gets a chance to read his expression. Scott hesitates, giving Stiles a long look. Stiles knows Scott's mad at him, and he also knows Scott's mad at himself. Despite that, his look is very clearly conveying, Should I stay? and reminding Stiles just why this dude is his best friend. He shakes his head, nodding toward the window. I'll be okay, he tries to say with a crooked grin. Scott nods, and follows after Isaac.

Stiles and Derek are left staring at each other. "Okay, look," Stiles says, standing, but that's as far as he gets because then suddenly Derek is right there and Stiles mouth is occupied with meeting and matching his desperate, frantic kiss.

Stiles flails for a single, shocked moment before his hands find purchase on Derek's shoulders and his eyes flutter closed and he gives himself over entirely, falling into the kiss like it's his life's sole purpose.

Derek's hands are at his waist, the hem of Stiles' t-shirt just rucked up enough that Derek's thumbs are stroking the skin just above his jeans even as he pulls Stiles in closer, like he's trying to fuse them together by sheer force of will. His mouth is soft and demanding by turns, teeth nipping gently at Stiles' bottom lip, tongue licking into his mouth before darting away again.

It's hard to say how long the kiss goes on. All Stiles knows is that when Derek finally pulls away to rest his forehead against Stiles' shoulder, he's trembling, while Stiles feels so dazed he's not even sure he's inside his own body right now. "Oh," he says, and it's way more articulate than he actually thought he was capable of being right now, with his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest and his brain filled with stars and rainbows and showers of glitter and sparkles.

"Sorry," Derek says. His voice sounds hoarse, and he doesn't lift his head from Stiles' shoulder. If anything, he just wraps his arms more firmly around Stiles and stays exactly where he is.

Stiles rubs his back slowly, soothingly. "I'd really prefer it if you didn't apologize for that," he replies, sounding dazed to his own ears. "I mean, all things considered, that was pretty epic, and I don't want to have to feel guilty for enjoying it as much as I did."

Now Derek does look at him, pulling away just enough that he can search Stiles face. Stiles is an open book even when he's actually capable of rational thought, let alone right now. Whatever Derek is looking for, he seems to find, because one of his hands comes up to brush against Stiles' cheek. "I thought you were…"

He can't finish the sentence, but Stiles doesn't need him to. "I'm okay," he says, not breaking eye contact for even a second. "They didn't hurt me, they just talked at me a lot."

"Maybe they didn't hurt you physically, but they did some damage," Derek says. "It's all over you. Your scent reeks of it. They hurt you, Stiles, you just don't have the bruises to prove it."

Stiles cringes, pulling away now so he can wrap his arms around himself. He's been doing a good job of not thinking about it, any of it, and he doesn't want to start now because for ten seconds there, this was turning into a pretty amazing night. "Can we just…" He swallows, meeting Derek's eyes again slowly. "Can we not talk about it until later? Can we like, go to sleep right now and pretend everything is okay, just till morning?"

Derek's watching him with an inscrutable expression. "You want me to stay?"

Stiles nods so hard it's a little surprising his head doesn’t roll right off his shoulders.

Which is a bit of imagery he didn't need right now, thanks, brain.

"Please?" He's not above begging.

Derek sits down slowly on the bed, tugging his shoes off and tossing his jacket at the chair. Then he lies down on his side and waits.

Stiles crawls onto the mattress next to him, kicking his own shoes off as he goes and curling immediately into Derek's warmth. Derek's arms come around him again, and Stiles buries his face in Derek's chest. And even as Derek's shirt grows damp with his tears, Stiles can't help feeling like he's safe and loved and home. Like everything is going to be okay, if he just stays right here.

It's a good feeling.

~

Waking up is not nearly as easy as falling asleep was, but it's just as nice. Stiles likes this feeling, like he's floating through a cloud of cotton candy. It's soft and warm and pleasantly dark and he can ignore the things that are whispering from the back of his consciousness, things he knows he should really be thinking about but that he really, really doesn't want to yet.

Teetering just on the edge of sleep and wakefulness, he can feel Derek's arm curled over his chest, and the way their legs are tangled together, and Derek's breath warm on his neck. He can remember the feeling of feather-light kisses in the dark, pressed to his temples and eyes and lips every time the nightmares tried to sneak in. He can remember that first kiss, desperate and longing and perfect, and the way he fell into it like a dream.

Derek kissed him. Derek wanted to kiss him. Stiles wraps that knowledge around himself like a cozy blanket and nuzzles further into Derek's hold, still mostly asleep but awake enough to revel in it as much as he can.

Eventually though, there's no stopping the thoughts from beginning to filter in. There are wolves at his doorstep, pretty much literally. There's a whole pack of Alphas that want to control him and hurt his pack.

His pack.

It's not the first time he's had the thought, but with everything else he knows now, he realizes it has the potential to have new meaning. He's been on the peripherals of Derek's pack since the beginning, and those ties grew a lot stronger when he and Derek learned about their connection and started getting closer.

But he could truly be part of the pack. He's a wolf, whether he wants to be or not. He's not just the defenseless human he always thought he was. But as long as he remains unbitten, he may as well be.

But if Derek bit him…

If Derek became his Alpha…

"You're thinking very loudly," Derek says. He tightens his old around Stiles and nuzzles against his neck.

Stiles gives him a small, still-sleepy smile. "Can't help it," he says with a tiny shrug. "Sorry."

"Don't apologize." Derek rolls his eyes the way he usually does when Stiles says something dumb. "What are you thinking?"

"Well, for one thing, it was probably stupid to fall asleep when the Alpha pack is after me." Stiles is actually a little furious at himself for that one, but Derek is giving him an unimpressed look.

"I'm here, and even if I can't take all of them on alone, Peter and Chris have been patrolling the area all night."

"Oh," Stiles says, blinking. He wonders how that team-up is working out for them. "Okay then."

"What else are you thinking about?" Derek asks, because he's not an idiot and can probably smell Stiles' anxiety.

Stiles takes a deep breath and releases it slowly, closing his eyes. "My mom was a wolf." He says it fast, shoving the words out with brute force because he isn't sure he'll be able to say them otherwise. Derek goes tense, lifting his head from Stiles' shoulder to stare down at him, but Stiles doesn't open his eyes to see his expression, just keeps talking. "I think that's why my family and yours stopped talking. I think when the Argents came to town, my mom wanted to hide, stay off their radar, so she distanced herself from the local, well-known pack."

"Stiles, you –"

Stiles shakes his head, still stubbornly refusing to open his eyes. "Don't. Just…Derek, I think I need you to give me the bite."

There's a long silence, long enough that he starts fidgeting under the suffocating weight of it and finally can't help but peek one eye open to find out what the hell Derek is thinking right now.

Derek looks like someone hit him with a truck, and then maybe backed over him a few times for good measure. He looks broken, like Stiles asking that is the worst thing that could possibly happen, and it hits Stiles like a punch straight to the gut. He doesn't want me, Stiles thinks desolately. "Never mind," he says, too fast. "You're…I'd probably make a crappy wolf anyway, you're right, it's stupid, I'll just –"

"Oh my God, will you shut up?" Derek growls. He sits up, grabbing Stiles arm and dragging him up with him. "This isn't about if I want you in my pack or not, you're already in my pack. But turning you right now…that would just stick you right in the middle of it, and I can't do that to you. I won't."

The ability to breathe returns all in a rush as relief fills him. It's not that Derek doesn't want him at all (even though he probably shouldn't), it's just that Derek doesn't realize how deep Stiles in already is. "I'm already in the middle of it," he says. "If you don't bite me, their leader will. Derek, they…" He pauses, pulls in one ragged breath. "They want my wolf."

Derek freezes. "Your…" He trails off, staring at Stiles incredulously. It's a look Stiles doesn't often see on Derek's face.

"I'm already a werewolf," he says, trying to pull together everything Vesper said to him. "Just not –"

"Not bitten." Derek blinks. "You're a red wolf. That…makes so much sense."

Stiles smiles weakly. "Right? That's what I said."

"Our parents always told us they were extinct, but that must have been to protect you. Your mom. And she never bit you for the same reason." Derek blinks again, his eyes refocusing on Stiles with new intensity and just a hint of red at the edges. "They could have bitten you any time. The whole time you were gone, they could have…" He looks pale when he trails off this time, so Stiles grabs his hand, hoping to ground both of them.

"They didn't. They were waiting for someone, their leader I think." He squeezes Derek's hand. "I don't belong to them, Derek. I won't."

"Your mother should have…you'd have been able to be with whatever pack you wanted, or you could have stayed Omega. You wouldn't have to –"

"Doesn't matter," Stiles says, trying to keep his voice level. "She did what she did." And they killed her for it, but that's a hurt he has to deal with on his own before he'll be ready to share it. "It's still my choice, Derek. Your pack is my pack, this'll just make it more…tangible."

Derek's eyes close, and he presses his forehead to Stiles'. "You never wanted to be a wolf. You should be allowed to stay human if you want to."

"I've never really been human," Stiles replies gently. Still coming to terms with it himself, but it's okay. He's okay with it, mostly. He can be okay with it, as long as this choice remains his own. He won't belong to any pack but this one, he'd rather take a wolfsbane bullet to the gut. "I trust you to be my Alpha."

"I don't trust myself," Derek says, brutally honest, but his resolve is crumbling beneath the facts. If he doesn't bite Stiles, the Alpha pack could, and that's a prospect neither of them is willing to contemplate. "Are you sure, Stiles?"

Stiles' heart leaps into his throat. There isn't time to stop and consider, there isn’t even anything to consider, and he knows it. There won't be any take-backs to a decision like this, but it's the only option. And he can admit, here and now and facing it head on, that he's always wanted this. His mind goes back to the day at the lighthouse, the conversation before they arrived there. "You said you wouldn't turn me away if I asked," he says, very quietly.

Derek pulls himself away to search Stiles' eyes again. His own gleam with the power of the Alpha inside him. "I won't."

Stiles nods, doesn't look away as he holds out his wrist. "Then this is me asking."

~

Hours later, when the sun is just starting to set outside this little world they've holed themselves up in all day, Stiles stares in the mirror, watching the way his eyes gleam golden. His eyes have always been a little brighter than most, the toffee color gleaming oddly in certain light, but it's never been like this.

They've never looked like wolf's eyes.

The bite is still tingling, at the curve between his neck and shoulder where Derek left it after pushing his wrist away. It's a mating mark as sure as it's an Alpha bite, and if Derek thinks Stiles doesn't know that, he's kidding himself.

But it's not like Stiles tried to stop him, either.

Stiles stares into his own too-bright eyes, and he thinks about his mom. I miss you, he thinks. I wish you were here. I don't know how to do this, I don't know how to be this.

Derek told him he might not have a Beta form like the other wolves in the pack. He'll shift full wolf, like Derek's Alpha form (if a lot smaller). Stiles isn't scared, he's actually excited to try it out, but he still can't turn off the fear that he'll do it wrong, somehow. That he isn't cut out for this legacy his mom left him with.

He closes his eyes and can almost remember her voice the way it used to be, before time made it start to fade. Believe in yourself, baby, he thinks she'd say, because it had always been her favorite piece of advice. Do that, and nothing can stand in your way.

It was the last thing she'd ever told him.

He takes a deep breath, goes back into his bedroom, and gives Derek one of his trademark grins. He watches the way it relaxes him, feels the way it calms him. The pack bond between them feels crazy strong. Stiles doesn't know if that's typical, or if it's just him, and he finds he doesn't really care.

"I want to run," he tells Derek.

Derek comes over to him, brushing a hand over the mark he left. There's something in his eyes that looks a little like awe. "Are you sure it took? Normally the change takes a lot longer. And your control –"

"Hey, I was already a wolf, remember?" Stiles says. He thinks about the Alpha pack, lets his eyes flash golden. "All you did was unlock it." He takes a step closer, pressing himself against Derek, kissing him once gently and then again, harder, just because he can, because he has permission for this now. "I can do this. I want to run with you."

He wants a lot of things, actually. He wants to submit to Derek. Wants to be taken by Derek, wants Derek to mate him and mark him and own him. His wolf's instincts mixing with feelings he'd already had just beginning to simmer, and it makes for an intense combination.

Right now, he'll settle for a run.

"Okay," Derek says, watching Stiles like he knows every single thing Stiles is thinking and feeling right now. "We'll run."

~

The forest is different as a wolf.

Stiles has never really feared the woods, even at night, even with rampaging killers after him, but he's always been a little bit wary of them. There's always been something…sort of magical about them, something that called to him and demanded his respect even when he was a kid.

As a wolf, he can actually feel the rush of power that flows through him as he breathes the forest in, running and leaping over fallen branches and gnarly tree roots, howling up at the sky just for the sheer pleasure of knowing he can. There's only a sliver of moonlight, but it's enough to see by with his keener eyesight. It's enough to sing to him, all the way down to bone and marrow and soul.

There's no regret. There's no room for regret, because he's so damn happy to have this thing he's secretly (and not-so-secretly) craved for so long. The freedom he feels is every bit as intoxicating as he'd known it would be.

Stiles Stilinski, this is your life now, he thinks, even over the instincts of the wolf he currently is, and he looses another joyful howl because hell yeah this is his life now!

There's a growl from behind him, a warning Derek doesn't need to give but chooses to anyway before he summarily tackles Stiles to the ground. There's a paw at his throat, a clear sign to shut the hell up, you moron. Stiles obediently shuts the hell up, and then just lets his tongue hang out and he pants and smiles a big wolfy grin up at his Alpha.

Derek lets him up with a roll of his eyes, and Stiles stands, shaking himself off. He slinks over to Derek with his head and eyes lowered, only daring to look up when Derek brings his face down to nuzzle Stiles'.

They stand like that for a long time, Stiles basking in the way Derek's scent curls around him, covering him, marking him. His tail wags, entirely outside of his control, punctuating how ridiculously happy he is in this moment, and Derek stares down at him with soft eyes.

Stiles didn't know Derek's Alpha-red eyes could look like that.

Finally unable to contain it anymore, he licks Derek's nose, yips playfully, and takes off running again. Derek's bark is deeper and louder and tells Stiles just how obnoxious Derek thinks he is, but the chase is already on.

~

They're nearing the Hale house toward sunrise when Derek looses the howl that's meant to call his pack to him. It's unavoidable, Stiles knows, and they've already put this off for longer than they should have, but he still feels a pang when Derek shifts fluidly back to human. It takes him longer, Derek's hand warm on his neck helping him focus, but he manages. Not half as graceful as his Alpha, but when has Stiles ever been graceful at anything?

They pull on the clothes they'd left on front seat of the Jeep, and then they wait.

It's actually the hunters who arrive first, Chris and Allison pulling up in Chris's dark SUV. Allison graces Stiles with a tiny smile, and Chris nods a greeting to Derek.

"Peter called," Chris said. "Asked me to let you know he's picking up a few stragglers, but he'll be along shortly."

It hits Stiles that this gathering isn't just going to be to discuss the Alpha pack and what to do about it. Because the truth is, they already know there's nothing they can do but stand and fight.

Which means this is Derek rallying his army.

Fuck, Stiles thinks, swallowing hard. He knew this was coming, but he doesn't feel ready for it at all.

Derek nods to Chris. "Thank you for being here," he says.

"This is our town too," Chris replies, his expression mild but his tone fierce. Allison nods her agreement, stepping close to her father. The only hunters left in Beacon Hills, and Stiles is so, so grateful that they're all on the same side now.

Isaac is the next to get there. Though he walks the distance between the treeline and the front steps, it's clear to Stiles he's been running, his curly hair wind-whipped and face flushed, streaks of dirt on his pants and arms. The grin he shoots Stiles, and the way he bumps their shoulders together, tells Stiles everything he needs to know about whether he'll be recognized by his pack now. It gives him a surprisingly warm feeling that only grows warmer at Derek's approving glance.

Peter comes with the Camaro packed nearly full, Scott in the front seat and Lydia and Jackson in the back.

Scott goes immediately to Stiles, his expression anxious and baffled. Stiles can only imagine how he must smell now, compared to what Scott would be used to. "Stiles, what –"

"Later," Stiles cuts in. "I'll tell you everything after, okay?"

Scott's eyes search all over his face before he finally nods hesitantly. "You're okay?"

Stiles grins at him. "I'm awesome, buddy."

Clearly, that's good enough for Scott, but it's just as clear that he suddenly has a lot on his mind, because after that, he keeps shooting looks at Derek and staring at the ground like it's the most fascinating thing in the world.

Stiles can guess what's going through his mind right now. He can hope, anyway, because he was Scott's pack before he was Derek's, and he'd like to not lose that if he doesn't have to.

When he looks around again, he finds Peter smiling at him in a creepy sort of way that makes him take a step closer to Derek, and Lydia and Jackson are sitting on the front steps, leaning into each other and talking in hushed tones that even his sharper wolf's ears can't pick up.

"Is everyone here?" he asks Derek quietly.

It's Isaac who answers. "Not quite." He's grinning, obviously pleased with himself over something, and when he and Scott exchange sly glances, Stiles can guess what it is.

Sure enough, an unfamiliar car rolls up only moments later, and their resident veterinarian steps out of the driver's seat. On the other side, Stiles gapes a little as Ms. Morrell steps out. The two of them are dressed all in black, looking fierce and competent and badass.

Stiles sneaks a look over to Derek and watches his eyebrow creep up. A total surprise to him too, then. Isaac took a real chance inviting them here.

"Advisor, huh?" Derek says when Deaton reaches them.

Deaton smiles benignly. "Your word, not mine," he answers. His companion (sister? Stiles wonders) gazes around at their group passively, not saying a word. When her eyes land on Stiles, the corner of her lips turn up, and she nods to him.

"Now it's everyone," Isaac says. "Except, uh…" He hesitates.

"What?" Derek asks.

Isaac fidgets, crossing his arms. "I went back to the warehouse where they stashed him," he says, nodding toward Stiles. "Not close enough that they would sense me, but just to get an idea. I smelled Boyd and Erica. I don't think they're dead."

That's incredible, amazing, spectacular news, Stiles thinks, except that Isaac doesn't look happy at all, and Derek clearly realizes it as well.

Before he asks, he glances around at the assembled group. "In the interest of full disclosure, I'm guessing you all know why we're here?"

Everyone nods slowly, warily.

"Good," Derek says. He turns back to Isaac. "What else did you see?"

Isaac swallows. Stiles can smell his sudden unease with being the center of attention, especially if he's about to deliver bad news. "They, uh. Two cars rolled up when I was about to leave. Five people in each. All Alphas. One obviously the leader. Stiles said he knew of at least six of them when he was there. That's sixt –"

"I can do the math," Derek snaps. Isaac cringes, and he sighs. "It's not your fault. It's good you saw what you did." Now what the hell do we do? he doesn't ask.

Stiles stares around at all of them. All of them look pale, nervous. Even the unflappable Lydia is clutching Jackson's hand in her lap from where they're still seated.

Stiles swallows hard.

This is it. This is their whole army. Ten of them, mostly teenagers untrained in the art of fighting for survival. Against a pack of Alphas well over a dozen strong.

There's almost no way they can win this. Stiles has faith in a lot of things, and he believes in the people spread out around him, but he can't make himself believe they'll win this. It's too big, too hard. He feels lucky he can convince himself they have any sort of chance at all, and it hurts knowing that. It feels like a failure.

He stares hopelessly at Derek, who takes one look at him and steps closer, drawing Stiles' hand into his, tangling their fingers together. "If we go down," he says, so low that Stiles has to strain to hear him, "we go down together." He squeezes Stiles' hand. "But I'm not letting anything happen to you on my watch."

Stiles closes his eyes, gripping Derek's hand back as tightly as he can without breaking bones.

He believes in Derek. That's enough for hope.

The group begins to plan.

This time, it's Stiles who doesn't let go of Derek's hand.

~

The house feels almost eerily still, sounds too quiet even though Stiles knows his dad is downstairs watching TV and puttering around like he always does on his rare nights off. Despite that, it feels like everything, right down to the air itself, is just waiting for the tension to explode.

Stiles feels a little like he's going to explode soon.

"We're going to have to tell him," he says quietly to Derek, who's curled up next to him on the too-small bed.

"I know," Derek replies.

Stiles has been putting that particular conversation off since the very beginning, but he can't. He can't wade out into a battle like the one that's coming without telling his father something. He can't leave his dad wondering, guessing, thinking about what he did wrong, how he could have been a better father. Stiles remembers his dad after his mom's death, and he can't leave him to face that again if something –

"We're going to get through this," Derek says, reading his thoughts in that way he's gotten too good at too quickly. "Your dad's not going to be alone, Stiles."

God, Stiles hopes not. There's no way out of this except to win it, especially after he told Derek in halting words about what Vesper said about his mom. And Chris, who's been spying on their hideout since yesterday's gathering, said they're clearly readying themselves for a war. Weapons laced with wolfsbane and more firepower than Stiles wants to imagine. They're getting ready to take Beacon Hills for themselves, and at this point, Stiles doubts they care if he gets caught in the crossfire. They missed their chance to enslave him to their pack.

The main point is, this isn't something that's going to go away with a simple treaty and a promise from all sides to be nice to each other.

"I'm scared, Derek," he admits, burrowing further into Derek's embrace. Allowing himself this moment of weakness, of honesty, because tomorrow he'll be back to crawling his way through Hell, and he's not sure how long he'll be able to fight to keep going. He doesn't want to think about it too much, because then it'll be too easy to start letting the panic slither up his spine and grab hold of him.

Derek turns, presses his lips to Stiles in a gentle kiss, and Stiles has to close his eyes and will the tears away, because that's another thing. If they die, he won't get to have this. He hasn't had it for nearly long enough yet as it is, and it's not fair that it might already be taken from him.

He pulls Derek close, fisting his hands in Derek's shirt as he drives the kiss from something soft to something hard and hungry. Desperate. Thinking that if this is the last chance they'll have, he's going to make it count, damn it. Derek moans into his mouth, letting Stiles take charge, and for a second, just a second, Stiles almost forgets how terrified he is, how fast things are changing, how fucked up their lives are right now.

Downstairs, the doorbell rings.

Stiles himself barely notices, but in his arms, Derek tenses, freezing and pulling away slowly, his eyes distant and wary.

"What's up?" Stiles asks, pulling himself into a sitting position.

"Wolf," Derek growls, already standing and tugging his shoes and jacket back on.

No, Stiles thinks. Come on, universe. One night. It wasn't too much to ask.

Except apparently it was.

He follows Derek down the stairs feeling like he's trudging toward certain doom, even though one wolf, even an unknown one, isn't quite the end of the world (yet). He has to pause when the front door comes into sight, because his dad looks…well, not normal. Back ramrod straight, knuckles white where they're gripped around the door. Derek holds out an arm to block him when Stiles tries to peer around, and Stiles gives him a grouchy look.

"They're not attacking," he says under his voice. Derek glares back at him, but takes one slow step to the side so Stiles can see the person standing in front of his dad.

On the surface, he doesn't look all that impressive. He's shorter than Stiles' dad, with a head of thick, auburn hair and wire-framed glasses perched on his nose. He's wearing khaki pants and a button-down navy blue shirt. He's got freckles across his nose and a small mole on the left side of his jaw, up toward his ear. Stiles has never seen him before, but he thinks the man looks strangely familiar.

His eyes, when they meet Stiles', flash gold for the briefest moment.

"Stiles," the man says, blinking at Stiles even as his mouth is turning up in a smile. He looks sort of intimidated, and a little stunned. "Good lord, you look just like her."

Stiles blinks, swallowing, and takes a step closer before Derek grabs his arm, holding him back. "Dad?" he asks, because clearly, his dad knows exactly who this guy is.

His dad grits his teeth and glances back at him. He sighs. "Stiles, this is Alexander. Your mom's brother." The 'good-for-nothing asshole' bit gets left off the introduction, but Stiles can hear it clear as a bell in his dad's voice.

"Holy shit," Stiles says, eyes wide. He darts a fast look at Derek, who hasn't moved at all save to glare harder at the intruder on the doorstep.

The newcomer – Stiles' uncle, Jesus – doesn't seem all that perturbed. "And you must be Derek Hale," he says, looking back and forth between the two of them. His eyes are exactly the same shade as Stiles' are, and they're twinkling madly just like Stiles' do when he's anticipating something exciting. Frankly, Stiles is disturbed.

"What do you want?" Derek asks. Stiles' dad looks at him, raising an eyebrow.

"Derek, son –" he tries to say, but he's cut off by Alexander, who speaks to Stiles.

"I'm sorry we couldn't come sooner," he says. "Your grandfather, you see, forbade it. And his word was law."

He's speaking around words like Alpha and pack, probably for the sake of Stiles' dad, but Stiles gets it. "What's your point?" he asks, crossing his arms.

"He's gone now, and the…our family looks to me now." Alexander actually looks a little uncomfortable about that, like he's not at all used to the idea of being any sort of Alpha, but he shrugs with a quirky, sad little smile. "And I know it's perhaps too little, too late for you to know us as family. But I came here to make an effort, because I loved Renée, and I wanted—well. Anyway. When I realized what else was here…"

"The Alpha pack," Derek says, clearly done dancing around words. Stiles sees his dad's eyebrows furrow, and wow, they're going to have to have that talk soon, aren't they?

Alexander nods even as Stiles shudders, because he'd almost forgotten all about that particular threat for a few seconds there.

Derek's brushes a hand against his arm, then reaches down to tangle their fingers together. "What about them?" he asks.

Alexander grins, a wide grin that flashes a lot of bright, shiny teeth. It's a dangerous grin, promising all sorts of dangerous things Stiles isn't sure he wants to know about. "I thought," he says, shrugging again. "I thought perhaps you'd appreciate some reinforcements." His eyes flash again, a brilliant gold that makes Stiles' dad twitch this time because it can't just be a trick of the sun. "I've brought the whole family, you see."

The whole family. A whole family of wolves, like Derek, like Stiles, willing to fight at their pack's side? He turns to stare at Derek with wide eyes, finds Derek staring at Alexander with a fierce red gaze and a smile just touching the corners of his mouth. "Well then. I guess we can hear you out."

Alexander nods, stepping back. "I'll get the pack together. Stiles," he says, nodding to a still-gobsmacked Stiles. Then he nods to Stiles' dad with a much softer, "John." And then he's gone.

There's perfect silence for a long moment, until finally Stiles' dad closes the door and says, "Son?"

Stiles can't even think about all the questions he must have. Stiles can barely even speak right now, too many thoughts and feelings bubbling through him. He darts over to his dad and clamps his arms around him in a bear-hug. He's suddenly laughing, he thinks in a crazy sort of wonder, but it's muffled by his dad's shirt, and when he finally pulls away, he has to swipe at tears streaming down his face to see the bewildered look his dad is shooting Derek.

And Derek…

Derek is just standing there, still wearing that hidden little smile, and he's looking protective and hopeful and relieved and so many things, and Stiles has to run back to him next, all but tackling him into a hug of his very own. "We're going to win this," he says in disbelief. "Oh my god, Derek, we're gonna be okay!"

Derek holds him close, grinning into Stiles' neck. "Yeah, we are."

"Oh my god," Stiles says again. "Oh my god, I'm going to get to keep you." And he throws himself into kissing Derek, even though he can practically hear his dad's eyebrows shoot up, because he's not going to lose this after all. Their pack is a little bit of a hodgepodge, but they're strong, and his mother's family is here to help them, and they're going to win this.

"Stiles? Maybe we should…talk about that drawing you found again," his dad says from behind them, clearing his throat a little and sounding all kinds of confused and perturbed.

Stiles does the only thing he's actually capable of doing right now, burying his face in Derek's shoulder and laughing until his sides hurt.

Derek doesn't let go.

~

“Mama, who’s that?” her eight-year old son asks, eyes wide and bright and inquisitive.

Renée looks across the playground to the teenager pushing a younger child on the swings. Something in her chest goes tight, and she suddenly misses Emmaline more than she’s allowed herself to in a long time. Emma’s son always did have her eyes, and he looks more like her now than he ever had before. “That’s Derek, love,” she tells Stiles. “Derek Hale.”

Stiles frowns, fidgeting. “He looks grumpy.”

She laughs, but it sounds sad to her own ears. Her hand comes up to card through her son’s flyaway curls. “Yes, he does, doesn’t he?” She bends to kiss Stiles on top of his head. “Maybe he just needs a friend.”

“Hmm.”

“Come on, love,” she says, taking Stiles’ hand and tugging him up off the bench, because it looks like he was ready to run across the playground and offer to be that friend right now, and they just can't afford that.

Someday, though, maybe. She's like to believe that someday, they’ll be safe again. And maybe when that day comes, her son could be that friend to Emma’s son.

Maybe someday, the Stilinski family and the Hale family can have that connection again.

~

~ End ~