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Divided We Stand

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 The first of February is Derek Hale’s least favorite day of the year. It’s not the day itself he has a problem with, but the festival that takes place on it. It’s the Searching Ceremony, and every year he has to meet a bunch of people he has absolutely no interest in spending the rest of his life with, and put up with it while they smile and try to cozy up to him as they imagine a cushy life as the newest member of the Hale Pack.

 He didn’t mind as much when he was younger. Humans are allowed to enter the pool of candidates at fifteen, and so most of the werewolves start looking at the same age. But it’s fun, when you’re younger. There’s no pressure. It’s just a day that you meet a bunch of new people and make some friends and hope you meet someone who has that spark. To teenagers, it’s romantic.

 But Derek isn’t a teenager anymore. He’s twenty-four. The smell of desperation on the humans gets stronger every year. It’s common knowledge that if a ‘wolf hasn’t mated by the time they’re twenty-five, they’re going to accept that it isn’t meant to be and stop attending the festival. Derek himself knows this isn’t true – Peter didn’t meet his mate until he was twenty-eight, and even then it wasn’t at the festival, it was at a coffee shop. But the truth never seems to bother the festival attendees.

 Derek can handle that. His preferred method of handling the ceremony is not to attend. Or to drop in for about fifteen minutes, make a quick run through the mixer, and then get out as quickly as possible. But then there’s his mother, his alpha, who has been putting more and more pressure on him in the last six months to find somebody, anybody.

 He can’t blame her entirely. Half of the Hale pack was wiped out in the fire – it was a miracle that as many survived as they had. Talia’s father had died, along with her younger brother and his mate and their daughter, Peter’s mate and their unborn child, and two of Derek’s brothers. Ever since then, if Talia had been a little obsessed with her remaining children finding mates and reproducing, the others tried to take it easy on her.

 Derek had expected after Laura had found her mate when she was twenty-two, and then been pregnant three months later, that Talia would ease up on him. But if anything, Talia had only increased the pressure. There was a note of ‘if Laura can do it, why can’t you?’ in every conversation where it came up.

 So he’s agreed to go, and to really talk to these people and look at these people, and it’s approximately the last way he wants to spend a day, but he’ll do it, because that’s easier than arguing.

 It’s amazing, though, how the attitude of the humans involved can make him feel like prey in a room full of predators, rather than the exact opposite. They look at him like they’re undressing him with their eyes, and they don’t seem to realize that he can smell the lust on them, that he can hear their murmured comments about how he’s the scion of the Hale pack, the most long-standing, illustrious pack in the area, how being chosen would be a ticket to easy street. They could sit back and put their feet up, they could lord it over all the pathetic un-chosen, they could get the bite and then they could be one of the highest caste.

 He hates them. He hates their smiling faces, he hates the coordinator, Harris, whose nose is so far up in the air that he might as well be trying to sniff the Heavens, he hates their clothes and the sound of their heartbeats and the way their voices drip eagerness with every syllable.

 Not only is the mating ritual bullshit, in Derek’s opinion, but it’s bullshit that he’s been putting up with for hours. As if the reading all the dossiers hadn’t been bad enough, now he has to sit and actually meet these people, these ‘eligible candidates’ that all have him wanting to snarl or roll his eyes or slam their faces into desks. He can’t help but wonder what these people think a werewolf wants in a mate, because the simpering and tittering really gets on his nerves.

 He’s just about ready to find Harris and say he’s done for the year, no luck, his parents will just have to deal with it, when the door opens and a teenager stumbles in. He’s about the same height as Derek, although much less built, wearing a plaid shirt and a ridiculous T-shirt that proclaims him to be a stud muffin. His brown hair is buzzed short, but it’s his eyes that catch Derek’s attention, they’re light brown, amber really. His eyes and his hands, long nimble fingers curling around the door as he practically falls over.

 “Hey, Scott, I brought you . . . you’re not Scott.” He blinks at Derek. Then at all the men and women standing around, glaring at him, since it was obvious Derek was about to make an announcement and now they have to wait. “Whoa, sorry, I – holy crap there are a lot of you, seriously? Is this what I have to look forward to later in life?”

 Without thinking, Derek stabs a finger in Stiles’ direction. “I want him.”

 Wide-eyed, Stiles points at himself. “Me?”

 “Uh, Mr. Hale, he’s not on the list,” Harris stammers.

 “I don’t care. I want him.”

 “Well, uh, all right . . .” Harris says, clearly unsure of how to handle this. Stiles is just standing there, gone momentarily still, mouth hanging slightly open (which is very distracting). When he doesn’t move, the coordinator gestures to him and says sharply, “You heard the man, Mr. Stilinski.”

 Derek can’t help but wince at the tone he takes, and he’s thinking about saying something when Stiles says, “Oh, yeah, uh.” He looks around the room as if seeking help, and is met with cold, astonished stares from every direction. “Yeah. Okay. I, uh, it’s an honor and a privilege,” he adds, stiltedly, obviously pulling the words out of his memory.

 “The privilege is mine,” Derek says automatically, the words falling out of his mouth, entirely truthful. It is a privilege to be lucky enough to find the right one. No one is really sure exactly how they can tell. Scent, motion, some extra sense that only werewolves have. Which isn’t to say that werewolves don’t fall in love like normal people, or that it always hits them in the same way. But sometimes, maybe one time in a hundred, they meet someone and feel that instant click that tells them that this is who they’re meant to be with, this is who they’ve been waiting for. And he had stumbled over him, practically in his lap, when he was about to give up. He doesn’t even want to think about the odds of that.

 Humans can’t feel the bond the same way, which is why the pools were created to begin with. Anyone who entered was basically entering a contract saying that they trusted the werewolf senses, that they would allow themselves to be claimed, no questions asked, if a werewolf chose them. This boy wasn’t in the pool, apparently, but that doesn’t change the way Derek’s entire world is already re-ordering and re-focusing itself to find a place for him.

 He steps closer and holds his hand out to the younger man. The need to touch him, to catch a stronger sense of his scent, to be closer to him, is practically overwhelming. Stiles takes an automatic step backwards, trips over a chair, and heads towards the floor. “Jesus,” Derek says, bolting the distance between them and getting a handful of Stiles’ T-shirt as the easiest thing to grab, keeping him from hitting the floor and towing him upright. He makes a mental note that his mate seems to be a klutz. “You good?” he asks, wanting to be sure that Stiles has balance back before letting him go.

 “Yeah, fine, totally fine,” Stiles says, flushing a brilliant shade of pink. “We should, uh, we should probably go,” he adds, darting a somewhat nervous look around at the crowd, which is slowly turning from stunned to outraged.

 Derek nods, oblivious to the other people in the room, and ushers him into the hallway, keeping an eye out for rogue furniture. Then he remembers what brought the teenager into the room. “Do you still need to find him? Scott?” Whoever Scott is, Derek figures he owes him.

 “Oh, no, I, I’ll just text him.” Stiles pulls out his phone and starts tapping at it rapidly. “I was going to bring him some lunch, he’s waiting for, uh, Cora, your sister, right? I mean, he’s in the pool. Of candidates. So he’s waiting to meet a bunch of people, not just Cora. I came to show support. But, uh, I’ll just catch up with him later. This is probably more important.”

 Now Derek feels awkward. What do you do with the best person to ever happen to you once you’ve found them? Not mess up their plans with someone they care about, that’s for sure. “We can wait. If you want.”

 “Nope.” Stiles tucks his phone away. “It’s cool, it’s done.”

 Derek nods. “Would you . . .” He stops walking suddenly. “I only know your last name.”

 Stiles blinks at him. For a moment it looks like he might make a comment on how Derek had literally just asked to spend the rest of his life with him, without even knowing his name. Then he shakes himself and says, “Uh, Stiles, call me Stiles. And you’re . . . Derek Hale.” It’s not really a question, but he says it nonetheless. “But, uh, you know that I wasn’t in the pool, right? I mean . . . I hadn’t entered.”

 Derek responds with another nod. Stiles. He can see this bundle of limbs and nervous words having a name like that.

 “Also, you noticed that I have a dick, right?” Stiles asks, having regained enough of his composure to press this point, given its importance.

 At this, Derek turns to face him instead of just standing beside him, eyebrows raised. “Yes, I had noticed.”

 “Well, doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose?” Stiles sounds a little skeptical now. “I mean, I thought the whole idea was so you guys didn’t all wind up with inbred malformed babies, that you need to, like, spawn, which sort of makes you sound like salmon, sorry – ”

 Derek makes a little snorting noise which turns into a laugh. “Salmon. Oh, God. You’re amazing.”

 “I, what? Dude, you don’t even know – never mind, so, uh . . . now what? I mean, they don’t talk a lot about what happens if you get chosen. It’s all just about how to get chosen, you know, how to make yourself attractive and suddenly this is super creepy.”

 With a shake of his head, Derek sobers up. He feels a little giddy, almost intoxicated, with Stiles’ scent. “You’re not supposed to make yourselves ‘attractive’. You’re supposed to be yourselves.” He gives his head another shake. “Now I take you to meet my family, maybe part of the pack, and then hopefully get to meet yours. Unless you want to do it the other way?”

 “No, I, whatever’s cool with you, dude,” Stiles says. “I guess other people are more prepared for it, you know, because they wanted to be chosen so they’re probably all over you guys – ” He seems to realize what he just implied and hastily adds, “but meeting your family, okay, I can do that.”

 “I wouldn’t actually know. I’ve never done this before. Chosen someone.” A pause. “Obviously.” He looks at Stiles for another long minute. Actually, he can’t stop looking at him. His amber eyes and a few moles he hadn’t noticed before and the way he somehow isn’t still even when they’re just standing there. He knows it’s rare to find someone with whom a ‘wolf can forge such a strong connection with on their first meeting. He knows that at his age, the odds he’ll meet anyone else as compatible are slim. Even so, he forces the words out. “Are you . . . do you want to refuse? You weren’t on the list. You have the right.”

 “Are you kidding, I’d be a pariah,” Stiles says, neatly ducking the actual question. “You’ll just have to protect me from all your fangirls. I hope you’re prepared.”

 The idea that anyone would actually think about hurting Stiles clearly does not make a happy werewolf. He bites back a growl and says, “Understood.”

 “And, uh, meeting my family might have to wait. My dad’s on security today. You, uh, you do know who my dad is, right?”

 Derek nods. “The sheriff,” he says, mostly to assure Stiles that he really does know.

 “Yeah. And, uh, this is kind of a big day, sometimes there are fights – ” Sometimes there are riots, in point of fact – “so I don’t think he’d really be free.”

 “Why would there be . . .” Derek gives up. Humans are crazy. “I don’t want to interrupt him doing his job. If you think we should wait, then we’ll wait.”

 “Yeah, I probably should think about . . . breaking the news or something, instead of just showing up with you, I think he’ll be a little surprised, I’m only sixteen you know.” Stiles realizes he’s babbling and snaps his mouth shut.

 “That would explain why you were waiting for someone who’s seeing Cora.” Derek likes all of his anxious talking, which surprises him. He would have expected it would drive him nuts. “I thought you were a little older. Maybe seventeen or eighteen.”

 “Uh, yeah, no,” Stiles says. He stops walking. “Dude, are you sure? I mean, that you want to pick me? You can always go back and tell Harris that you changed your mind when you realized I was only sixteen. Or a boy. Or something.”

 Derek stops with him and makes sure he’s looking Stiles square in the eyes. “I have never been so sure of anything in my entire life.”

 Stiles immediately flushes pink again, and his gaze slides to the side. “Well. That’s that, then.”

 His enthusiasm is somewhat underwhelming. Derek wants to offer his hand again because he still hasn’t been able to touch Stiles, but he remembers how Stiles jerked back last time and he doesn’t want to push his luck. So he just starts walking again. Once they’re out in the parking lot, he sees the first genuine emotion out of Stiles that isn’t confusion or nervousness, when Stiles sees the Camaro. “Okay, this, I can get behind,” he says, running a reverent hand over the hood as he walks around towards the passenger side door.

 Derek can’t help but give a pleased smirk. “Cora makes fun of me for loving this car. But she drives a Prius, so what does she know.”

 “I don’t even know why you guys have cars,” Stiles says. “Shouldn’t you just, I don’t know, run everywhere?”

 “We could, if we wanted to get there naked and empty-handed.” Derek opens the driver’s side door, gets in, and pops the lock. He waits for Stiles to get in before he says anything else. “Seriously, though, for day-to-day living, a car is just as practical for us as it is for a human.”

 “Oh,” Stiles says. “Okay.” He can’t think of anything else to say, and the silence feels excruciatingly awkward to him. For Derek, it’s much less so. He’s enjoying the lack of excited rabbiting heartbeats, chatter, and far too much perfume. It’s nice to breathe normal air again. And now he’s able to start cataloguing Stiles. The pattern of his heartbeat and his scent.

 It’s distracting enough that it takes him a minute to remember how to drive. As he’s backing out of the parking space, Stiles drums nervously with his hands against his thighs. “Hey, what do you say – ” he says, and starts fumbling at the radio’s controls without asking permission.

 Derek’s mouth opens automatically to tell his passenger hands off, like he normally would, but then it closes again, the words unsaid. He finds he’d much rather know what sort of music Stiles will pick, and how fast he’ll figure out the controls. He’s also starting to think that Stiles is literally incapable of being still. So he lets him be and pretends to concentrate on driving.

 “Oh, sweet,” Stiles says, as he happens upon a station playing the Rolling Stones. He shoots Derek a sideways glance, clearly trying to gauge his reaction to the music.

 Derek nods in approval. “I was afraid you’d go with country.” There’s a pause. “Did I just insult you?”

 “Nah, I’m not a country fan,” Stiles says. “My dad listens to country sometimes. Despite my best efforts to banish it from the house.”

 “I am so sorry.” Derek shakes his head a little, still amused. “There are some pack members who like it, country in general, so it shows up sometimes when we do big events.”

 “Yeah?” Stiles drums nervously at his knees again. “So like . . . are there a lot of those? Big events? Is this a big event?”

 “Yes and no.” Derek shoots a quick glance at Stiles, hearing the spike in his heart rate. “You aren’t going to be mobbed. I promise.” There’s more he could say, but he wants Stiles to take a deep breath first.

 Much to his relief, the teenager does. Several deep breaths in fact. “Okay. I, uh. Shit. This doesn’t usually happen to me. Speechlessness, I mean.”

 “Yes, this is a big deal,” Derek says. “But it’s also private. People won’t be pressing their company on us. Eventually, once you feel more comfortable and we’ve gotten to know each other, there might be a party to introduce you to the rest of the pack. But if that takes a few months, it’s not a problem.”

 “Oh. Okay.” Stiles fidgets again.

 Silence reigns inside the car for a long minute, aside from the music, before Derek blurts out, “Does it bother you? That I’m a guy?”

 Stiles gives him another sideways look and then just says, “No, I’m down with that.”

 Derek lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”

 “I still say it defeats the purpose, though.”

 “Salmon,” Derek says, amused. “I actually don’t care that much. Laura already has two kids. And her mate used to be human.”

 “Yeah, but I, I don’t want to bring up a tender subject, but I thought you guys . . . were sort of trying to repopulate. You know. Because of the fire.”

 Derek shrugs, determined not to be oversensitive about the fire. Not with Stiles. Stiles has to be comfortable asking questions. “You’re the right person. Despite the plumbing. Maybe we’re meant to adopt. Maybe we’re too young to be thinking about kids.”

 “Maybe,” Stiles says dryly. “Yeah, I mean, I figured I would wait until I was seventeen, at least.”

 “You’re hilarious,” Derek says, somehow hiding the fact that he does actually enjoy Stiles’ sarcasm.

 “So . . .” Stiles rubs his hands together briskly. “What should I say? Is there protocol? The ‘honor and privilege’ bit is all I know.”

 “Just be yourself. And I mean that.” Derek thinks about it for a few moments, really forces himself to consider. There are differences in human and werewolf culture. “Don’t try to shake hands. No one will want to touch you. It isn’t an insult. It’s just that we can tell who our closest pack ties are by scent. And no one will want to get between us. Not for a while.”

 That should be enough to get Stiles through the first meeting, and it’s a good thing, too, because he’s pulling up outside the house. Nobody had wanted to rebuild on top of the ruins of the first house; that had been bulldozed and a memorial tree had been planted there to commemorate the people who had died there. But the property was big enough for another house to be built, about half a mile away. He recognizes all three of the cars pulled up by the house. Everyone is home except for Cora, who’s probably still at the high school.

 Derek parks the car and gets out. He waits near the passenger door, and once Stiles has emerged and closed the door, he again offers his hand. Stiles looks at it for a moment, swallows hard, and then takes it. His own hand is trembling and a little sweaty; his heart is pounding in his chest, although he tries to give the appearance of being calm. Derek’s own heart rate climbs a little as he curls his fingers around Stiles’ slimmer hand.

 There’s no sneaking into a house full of werewolves. They’ve all heard his car approaching, and although they might have let it go, now they can hear the second heartbeat, the second set of footfalls. They know he’s not alone. And there’s only one reason someone else would be with him right now. So he isn’t surprised at all to see that half the family has gathered just inside.

 The house has a large foyer, with a staircase on one side that leads up and a wide arch that goes into the living room, as well as two other doors: one into the kitchen and one into the study. He glances around as he enters to see where everyone is. His parents are standing right at the foot of the stairs; Talia standing tall and proud as she always does, and his father, Aaron, behind her, one arm wrapped around her waist. He takes after his father, broad-shouldered and at his best when scruffy, while the girls take after Talia, elegant and refined. Laura’s there, too, standing in the archway into the living room, rocking back and forth on her heels in excitement, her baby girl strapped to her back as she nearly always is. Then there’s Peter. A little apart, as Peter tends to be. Standing on the second floor, leaning against the balcony railing, where he can observe from above without being involved.

 Derek lets out a breath as he sees them all waiting for him, and gives a nod to his parents. “Mom, Dad,” he says, “this is Stiles.”

 Stiles swallows again, his Adam’s apple moving up and down, as he edges forward so he’s all the way inside. “Uhm,” he says. “Nice to . . . meet you?”

 It starts as a statement and then moves to a question instantly as he sees the look on Talia’s face: a mixture of exasperation and anger that clearly proclaims she is five hundred percent done. “Derek,” she says. “Really? Really?”

 Derek hadn’t exactly expected his mother to be thrilled with his choice, but this is a little much. A lot much. He moves a step ahead of Stiles and a bit in front of him. It’s an instinctive, protective gesture and it puts Derek in the space between Stiles and his parent. “Yes,” he says, his tone flat. “Really.”

 Talia groans and pushes her hair out of her face. “Okay, I know that you’ve been annoyed at the way we’ve pushed you to find someone, but you can’t just expect to get away with choosing a completely non-viable candidate. For God’s sake, Derek – ”

 Derek’s eyebrows come together and his jaw tightens. “I thought I was supposed to find a mate, not someone to make babies with.”

 “I think what your mother is trying to say,” Aaron interjects, trying to be at least somewhat diplomatic about this, “is that it’s counter-productive to try to get out of choosing a mate by picking somebody that you obviously wouldn’t actually enter a contract with . . .”

 “I did pick Stiles. If I hadn’t found anyone this year, I would have just said so. Just like last year, and the year before that.”

 “Derek, how stupid do you think we are?” Talia asks, her chin lifting in annoyance. “All you’ve talked about for the last three weeks is how you didn’t even want to go. Could you be any more obvious about trying to throw it back in our faces?”

 Stiles clears his throat. “I’m gonna go,” he says, his voice strained.

 Derek turns to look at him, and then realizes he has no idea what to say to make this better. Somehow, ‘sorry’ doesn’t seem like enough.

 “Oh, but things are just getting interesting,” Peter remarks from the second floor.

 “Shut up, Peter,” Talia says, her voice strained. She huffs out a breath and tries to speak civilly to Stiles. “Look, I’m really sorry that Derek played such an awful joke on you. It was really cruel of him to get your hopes up like this – ”

 “It isn’t a joke,” he tells Stiles, looking for any sign that he might be believed. “I swear it isn’t.”

 “Yeah, I, uh . . .” Stiles takes a step backwards. “Okay, you know what, this is awkward, and it probably wasn’t gonna work out anyway, so, yeah. I’m just gonna go.” He pulls his hand free from Derek’s and backs out of the house without another word.

 Derek’s hand just hangs there, empty, for a few moments, and he feels crushingly alone. Then, suddenly, he’s angry, and it quickly moves past anger into something that he can’t keep a hold of. His lips peel back to show his teeth, and he bares them at his parents, mostly his mother, snarling. After the animal noise tapers off, he bites out, “Look what you did.” He turns his back on them and heads outside to find Stiles. If nothing else, he can’t expect Stiles to stay there.

 “Derek, think about this – ” Talia snaps as he storms out, and he hears her, but he doesn’t slow down and he certainly doesn’t stop. He also hears Peter say, in a much milder tone, “Shit, he’s serious,” before the door slams behind him. He looks around for Stiles. For a moment, he doesn’t see him anywhere, but then he realizes that he’s gotten back in the Camaro. He’s sitting in the front passenger seat, face flushed pink with embarrassment and shame, hands knotted together in his lap.

 As soon as Derek approaches, without giving him a chance to speak, Stiles says, “Take me home.”

 Derek gets in and closes the door. He curls in on himself, forehead resting on the steering wheel for a long moment. “Okay,” he agrees, uncurls, and starts the car.

 Stiles just stares out the window as Derek starts down the drive, his jaw clenched and trembling slightly, without saying a word.

 When Derek finally breaks the oppressive silence, his voice is quiet. “I’m sorry. Really. She . . .” He doesn’t have the words to smooth this over or apologize what his family has done.

 Stiles still won’t look at him. “Derek,” he says, using his name for the first time, which admittedly makes all of Derek’s nerves jump to attention. “I am so pissed off right now that everything you say just makes me want to kick you in the crotch. Just shut the fuck up and take me home.”

 After a moment, Derek nods. It’s about the same way he feels about his parents, particularly his mother, right now. It only reinforces his surety that Stiles is the right person. None of the people he had met at the mixer today would have dared say that to him, let alone actually followed through. So the drive passes in silence, except for Stiles giving him terse directions once they get back into town. Once they reach the Stilinski house, Stiles wordlessly gets out of the car and slams the door so hard that Derek winces. He’s left with nothing but the echoing quiet and the scent of Stiles’ anger and shame. He’ll take that over nothing at all.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

 The drive home seems a lot longer than it had before. Derek parks in the same spot as before, and it seems exactly the same except that now instead of a nervous mate and a lifetime of possibilities, all he has is the lingering scent of hurt and his own rage. He gets out of the car and carefully closes and locks the door. If he slams it the way Stiles had, the way he wants to, the window will break.

 He goes into the house and heads straight for his room, not looking or listening for any of his family members, or caring. He’s only been in his room for a few minutes before there’s a brief knock on the door, and without waiting for a reply, his father opens it and comes in. Aaron surveys his son, the scent of anger and pain, and gives a sigh. “Okay,” he says. “Let me have it. Both barrels.”

 Derek shows teeth without thinking. “No. Get out.” The words come out as a growl. It’s clear that his father only has a few seconds to remove himself before Derek shoves him back out the door. He has no desire to talk to his father now. What would be the point? As far as he’s concerned, it’s just another dick move, being willing to talk after the damage has been done, after refusing to listen when it counted.

 Aaron sighs. “I take it that ‘I’m sorry’ is the last thing you want to hear?”

 Derek’s lip curls again. “It won’t make him come back. He wasn’t on the list!” On second thought, maybe shouting at his father is a good idea. If nothing else, it might make him less likely to go for someone’s throat. “It was chance, an accident, a miracle that he literally fell into the room I was in and acted like himself because he wasn’t on the list. And you and mom ruined it. Because he was pretty fucking clear on his opinion when I drove him home. So why don’t you and mom go find me some chick to knock up, since that’s apparently what you actually want.”

 “Oh boy.” Aaron rubs both hands over his face. “It isn’t – no. I guess I can’t say that. Your mother – well. Let’s just say that she takes rebuilding the pack very seriously. You know that. And she’s been hard on you, and I’m sorry. She’s sorry, even if she’s too proud to admit it. I’ll talk to her. But as for Stiles . . . did he actually say he was refusing you?”

 “You know, Laura already has two kids,” Derek snaps, but then takes a deep breath before he goes off on a rant. Instead, he answers his father’s question by delivering Stiles’ last statement word for word. “ ‘Derek, I am so pissed off right now that everything you say makes me want to kick you in the crotch. Just shut the fuck up and take me home.’” The words are burned into Derek’s memory and echo in his ears, both because it was the first time Stiles had addressed him by name and because it’s probably the last thing he’s ever going to hear from his mate. “Sounds pretty final, doesn’t it?” he adds, his tone dryly sarcastic. “I was trying to apologize, but he just . . .” He stops, not even sure what he wants to say about this disaster his family has handed him in place of what should have been a happy occasion.

 “Look, I’ll go talk to him, okay?” Aaron says, when Derek turns away. “Apologize on behalf of the family, explain the . . . misunderstanding. Will that help?”

 “I have no idea.” He doesn’t think it will. Some gut instinct tells him that Stiles won’t take any better to Aaron’s apology than he had to Derek’s. He wants to smile at the idea of Stiles laying into his father the same way. He had found someone amazing. But then lost him just as quickly. “But you can try. He’s Sheriff Stilinski’s son.”

 “Well, the sheriff has always been fair to us ‘wolves. We’ll figure this out.” Aaron reaches out and tousles his son’s hair like he’s a child. “Okay? I’ll grovel if I have to. I’ll explain everything, talk to his dad if I need to. We’ll get it straightened out.”

 Derek just nods, even though he isn’t feeling that hopeful. Aaron gives his shoulder a squeeze before leaving the room, leaving Derek sitting there miserable and angry and clueless about how to proceed. He wants to believe his father will be able to set things right, but after seeing the way Stiles was in the car, he can’t. It’s not the anger that he thinks Stiles won’t be able to get over - it was that scent of humiliation, of shame, that he thinks will be much harder to defeat. Stiles really did believe he had been the butt of an extremely cruel joke.

 With nothing else to do, he broods, glowering out the window as if he expects it to fix all his problems. He doesn’t look up again until he hears a heartbeat behind him, then footsteps, and Peter wanders in. Derek wants to tell him to go away, but doesn’t quite dare. It’s impossible to say on any given day what his uncle will be like. Earlier he had certainly seemed to be his lucid, snarky self, but now he’s got that vague look in his eyes that often accompanies one of his spells.

 “I remember when I first met Olivia,” Peter says, sitting down on the edge of the bed, and now Derek knows he can’t make Peter leave. It’s an unspoken family rule that when Peter wants to talk about his deceased mate, you shut the hell up and listen. “It was like the entire world stopped revolving for a few minutes. It’s amazing the way you can recognize that in a person. Just by seeing them for the first time.”

 Suddenly, Peter is Derek’s favorite family member, because that sounds an awful lot like an invitation to talk about Stiles. He might have to listen to Peter talk about Olivia, which isn’t one of his favorite pastimes, but he can handle that. It wasn’t that it was boring or that he had better things to do with his time. It’s just that he misses Olivia, too, so he doesn’t like to think about her loss and how much her death had broken Peter. So he talks about Stiles. “He literally fell into the room. Tripped over his own feet or something. His fingers are ridiculous and he’s too young. He was looking for his friend, who was waiting to meet Cora.” Derek can feel himself starting to smile, or maybe just frown a little less. “And he just started talking and he didn’t care that he was rude. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like that before.” He snaps his mouth shut, suddenly aware that he sounds like a twelve-year-old girl.

 “Ah, young love,” Peter says, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “If it’s meant to be, everything will work out,” he adds, with a philosophical shrug. “And you’ll live happily ever after. Unless someone murders him, anyway.”

 Derek winces. He knows his mother has very set opinions about The Fire, and a very strict policy about not encouraging Peter’s ideas that it had been anything but accidental. Derek always feels caught in a three way tug-of-war between his mother’s beliefs and wishes, his knowledge that Peter was one of the smartest people he knew and not often wrong, even if he is a jerk and now unbalanced on top of it, and ugly dark things in his own head, memories of the fire that burned every time he tried to look at them too closely. So he officially had no opinion on The Fire. He never wanted to talk about it. Or hear about it. And if Peter doesn’t mention it directly, Derek doesn’t have to care about his mother’s rules. “No one is going to murder him.” He shakes his head and adds, “It’s all wishful thinking. Dad thinks he can fix this by apologizing.” He gives a huff of dark amusement.

 “Well, it’s a place to start.” Peter hums contentedly, staring out the window. “I spoke with your mother.”

 “About Stiles?” It’s never a good idea to assume anything with Peter.

 “About her tendency to be a brass-plated, overbearing bitch.”

 “Oh.” Derek considers this. “How’d it go?”

 “About as well as it always does.” Peter gives an elegant shrug. “I reminded her that she might have chosen her mate back in the Paleolithic era, but some of us actually remember what it’s like, and it’s quite possible that making her only remaining son miserable isn’t a brilliant way to go about rebuilding her pack.”

 Derek flinches a little at the words ‘only remaining’ but sucks it up. Then he realizes that Peter had handed him a weapon, both against his mother and something to use against Stiles if things got truly desperate. He could threaten to leave the pack if that was what it took. He was pretty sure that Stiles would know nobody playing a joke would do that. It was drastic. But something he could keep in the back of his mind. “No. And I’m sorry he isn’t who she wants, but I won’t change my mind.”

 Peter waves a hand and says, “Oh, I’m sure she’ll come around after you’ve gotten him pregnant.”

 Derek makes a face at his uncle. He’ll only put up with so much. “Whatever it is you’ve been smoking, I beg you not to share.”

 Peter’s head tilts to the side. “Let’s go see how Cora did,” and just after the words leave his mouth, Derek can hear the sound of her car coming up the road. It’s harder with hers because the Prius is quieter than most of their other cars, but Peter’s always had the best hearing out of any of them. He gets up off the bed and heads out of the room without waiting to see if Derek is going to follow. Derek does. Cora is the only family member who can claim total innocence right now, and he isn’t mad at her.

 She comes in cheerfully enough, flipping her long dark hair over one shoulder. “No luck,” she says blithely to her mother’s questioning look. Talia hadn’t put too much pressure on her. She’s only sixteen. It’s not a bad idea to start looking that young, but most ‘wolves don’t meet their mates until their early twenties. Her gaze lands on Derek and lights up immediately. “Okay, spill! Where is she?”

 Derek blinks at her, startled. He would think that she smelled Stiles’ lingering scent in the entry way, but if she could, she would know his gender. “How did you . . .?”

 “Come on!” Cora presses, giving him a friendly smack on the arm. “The girl who made you laugh, I heard you, I know you brought her home. Share!”

 Derek swallows. “Boy. The boy that made me laugh. I did bring him home. His name is Stiles.”

 “And?” Cora asks dramatically, even though Laura is desperately waving at her in the background to try to get her to leave the subject alone before Derek explodes. Talia has one hand pressed against her forehead, looking like she’s in tremendous pain. Peter is just leaning against the wall, face blank.

 “Why don’t you ask Mom?” His voice is cold and hard because he knows his mother is sorry, but she still hasn’t actually apologized, and he’s still incredibly pissed off. He puts a hand on Cora’s arm for a few moments, though, warm and gentle, because he isn’t angry at her.

 “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Derek!” Talia snarls, her eyes flaring red. “It was an honest misreading of the situation. You can’t blame me for the conclusions I drew when you showed up with a sixteen year old boy!”

 Derek snarls right back, despite the clear warning signs that tell him to keep his place and back down. “Do you honestly think I’m petty enough to do that to someone? Beyond that, when you accused me of bringing him home just to make a point, I told you that you were wrong. Did it sound like I was lying? Did you even bother to listen or check? No. You were too busy being pissed off that I brought home someone with a penis!”

 “Wowwww,” Cora says, under her breath.

 Laura nods agreement. “Hey, so, uh, we’re gonna go . . . let you two hash this out. The kids don’t need to hear this.”

 Talia snarls a little, but then nods agreement. “Peter, you too.”

 “Oh, but it’s so rare I get to see my big sister flustered – ”

 “Now!” Talia snaps, and Peter raises his hands in surrender, leaving with the girls. She takes a deep breath once they’re gone. “Derek, I am sorry that I misjudged the situation, but you can stop acting like I killed your puppy. I may not approve one hundred percent of your choice, but, well, it is your choice. Your father has gone to talk to the boy, and he’ll get everything straightened out.”

 Derek forces himself to take a few deep breaths of his own. At least he had gotten his apology, even if it had come with another reprimand that he’s pretty sure he doesn’t deserve. But he keeps the snarl between his teeth. “You hurt him.”

 “I’ll apologize to him, too. Now will you please come into the kitchen and have dinner with the rest of the family? It was Cora’s first time at the festival and I’m sure she’d like to tell us about it.”

 Derek’s jaw clenches tight, because he doesn’t understand how his mother thinks that her blithe offer to apologize to someone who won’t be coming back should suddenly make all of this okay and make him feel better. He marches past her towards the kitchen, determined to get through the meal by only talking to his younger sister.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

 Despite the fact that what Stiles really wants to do is throw himself down on his bed and have a good, old-fashioned sulk, he goes into the kitchen and starts making dinner. It’s past five o’clock, and his father will be home soon after what was surely a long day. Stiles doesn’t kid himself into thinking he’s the best son in the world – or even a very good one – but he tries to stick to his strengths. Having dinner on the table when his father gets home is something he’s been good about ever since junior high.

 Not that his father always approves of his meal choices, but that’s not Stiles’ problem. He sticks some pork chops and potatoes in the oven to bake, and then starts peeling and chopping carrots. It’s somewhat cathartic. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to picture the carrots as a certain someone’s certain body parts.

 “Does it bother you that I have a penis?” he asks in a gruff tone that doesn’t actually sound anything like Derek. “Oh, no, I’m cool, but everyone else seems to have a motherfucking problem with it. I – arg. Why am I still thinking about this. Piece of shit.” He chops at the carrot more strenuously. “You had to pick me, out of all the teenaged boys in the – God damn it, I’m thinking about it again.”

 His timing is good, as usual. His father is just coming through the front door and toeing off his boots when the pork chops come out of the oven. The potatoes will be about another ten minutes. Stiles listens as his father takes off his gun and puts it away in the lockbox. He wonders what, if anything, his father knows. He was at the damned school, surely somebody had thought to say something to him about how Derek Hale had picked his beanpole, babbling son for a mate, just to annoy his parents about the entire process. “Hey, Dad,” he says, as his father comes into the kitchen. He tests the waters gingerly. “How’d it go today?”

 “More exciting than some years, since someone was actually picked from Beacon Hills High, and then there were fights about it for some reason, but no riots, so not as exciting as other years. All of it got taken care of before I had to step in.” He shakes his head and rubs an eyebrow. “I don’t get it.”

 “Which part, exactly?” Stiles says, getting plates and silverware out of the drawers.

 “I can understand being disappointed about not being chosen, I guess.” Clearly, he doesn’t think it’s the end of the world. “But why get up in arms about who does get chosen? And it happens almost every time. Once you aren’t chosen, what business of yours is it, who someone else marries?”

 Stiles shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot, staring at the oven as if he could will the potatoes to cook faster. “Maybe they feel like it’s an insult. You know, they’ve done all this work, then Derek fucking Hale sweeps in and picks someone who’s the exact opposite of what everyone would expect.”

 The sheriff just shrugs. “There really aren’t any requirements to putting your name on the list. They don’t have to compete with each other like sharks. Maybe this will be a lesson on why it doesn’t matter.” He sighs and takes a good look at his son. He’s used to the fidgeting, that’s the ADD, but it’s different this time, somehow. “Stiles, what’s wrong?”

 Stiles sneaks another glance at his father. He really doesn’t know. Somehow, he made it all the way through the last hour or two of the day without anyone saying anything to him. They probably didn’t know what to say. That’s good. That’s excellent. He can just pretend none of it ever happened and his father will never have to know about what has definitely been the most humiliating experience of his life to date. Which explains why he suddenly blurts out, “He chose me, Dad. Derek Hale chose me.”

 That startles him. Not because he thinks his kid isn’t worth it, because he is, absolutely. But it certainly wasn’t how he was expecting the day to have gone. “You weren’t on the list. How’d it happen?” He pauses and then asks the more important question. “Are you okay with it? Because I don’t see a werewolf in my kitchen.”

 “It was a joke, Dad,” Stiles says, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. “He just wanted to piss off his family by picking the last person he would actually want as a mate.” He reaches into the oven and pulls out the potatoes, an angry, jerky motion. “And he did it right in front of everyone, Jesus, so I couldn’t even say no.”

 “You want me to shoot him?” Stilinski asks, his tone completely serious. He doesn’t normally make jokes about shooting people, being a police officer, but then again this isn’t entirely a joke. Derek could survive being shot a few times.

 Stiles manages a wan smile. “Is that any way to talk about your future son-in-law?”

 “Absolutely.” He waits until Stiles’ hands are empty of hot food and the oven is closed, then hooks an arm around his shoulders. “You’re the one I'm worried about.”

 “Ugh, Dad, I’m gonna break out into hives, what with you talking about feelings and shit.” Stiles plops down into his chair and shoves the carrots closer to his father’s plate. “Whatever. It’s not the first time I’ve been embarrassed at one of these things. That’s what I get for trying to show Scott support. Next year I’ll just avoid the damned thing altogether.”

 “I show you love and you give me carrots?” He says the name of the vegetable like it’s a dirty word.

 “Carrots are good for you,” Stiles says. He rubs a hand over his face and lifts a pork chop onto his plate. “Look, I just . . . I don’t want to talk about it. Okay? Can we do the not-talking thing now?”

 “Yeah, we can. At least for now.”

 So they eat while Sheriff Stilinski talks about some of the other people who were in and out that day, how Erica Reyes looks more like a movie star at every Searching Ceremony and some people were surprised because the Boyd family’s oldest son chose somebody and he’s only seventeen. Stiles stabs at his potato and tries not to think too hard about everything that’s happened. They’re just finishing up when the doorbell rings.

 “I’ll go see who it is, you clean up,” Sheriff Stilinski says, rising from his chair.

 “Anything to get out of doing the dishes, huh?” Stiles calls after him. He doesn’t hear the door open. “What, who is it?”

 “It’s Aaron Hale.” Sheriff Stilinski’s voice is thin and tight. “You want me to – ”

 “Fuck, no.” The rage that Stiles has been keeping pinned down boils over. “I’ll handle this.” He marches over and yanks the door open. “What the hell are you doing here?”

 Aaron looks a little startled by this opener. “I wanted to apologize – ”

 “Yeah, sure, okay,” Stiles says. “We’re all really sorry that your son played me for a fool and almost certainly guaranteed that my life this coming year is going to be miserable while everyone laughs at me.” He sees Aaron open his mouth and says, “No, you know what, you don’t get to talk. All of you assholes have been talking all day. It’s my turn. And just for the record? Some of us measly humans don’t appreciate the way you ‘wolves come down all high and mighty, like, you’re the superior breed so you can just get away with whatever you want. You’re all used to people kissing your asses and I’m fucking sick of it. Nobody dares give it to you straight, so here it is, since my life’s shot at this point anyway: this whole mating ritual thing? It blows. You guys just snap your fingers and say ‘I want him’ and think it’s totally okay to just commandeer a sixteen year old’s life like that, and everyone goes along with it because oh, you can run fast and jump high and shit. I’m five hundred percent done with you assholes. You can tell everyone in your whole damn pack that. And if you ever show up here again, I will have you arrested for trespassing, because you’re not welcome here, do you understand?”

 There’s not much Aaron can say to that, so after a moment, he nods and says, “Yeah.”

 “Okay. We’re done here.” Stiles slams the door in his face. “Damn, that felt good,” he says, sounding a little surprised. “Probably really stupid though, huh?”

 “Well,” his father says, “that’ll depend on how vindictive they’re feeling. But I’m not going to stand there and tell you to roll over and let them use you. You’re better than that.”

 “Yeah.” Stiles leans against the door, rubbing one hand over his face. “You know what the worst part is?” he asks, and his father gives him a questioning look. “For a minute . . . I really did think it was real.” He feels his eyes start to sting, and wipes them impatiently. He’s not going to cry over this asshole who made a fool out of him. “Jesus, I’m an idiot.”

 His father moves closer to him and opened his arms, making a beckoning gesture with both hands. Stiles sighs and steps into his embrace, resting his head against his father’s shoulder. It makes him feel a little better, if only a little. A minute later, he pulls away, “So, in unrelated news, I’m dropping out of school.”

 Sheriff Stilinski huffs a quiet laugh and hugs Stiles tight. “No, you’re not. But you can stay home tomorrow while we think about how to handle it.”

 “Fine.” Stiles wrinkles his nose. “But you should definitely take me out for ice cream. I didn’t make anything for dessert.”

 “That sounds fair,” his father agrees, “especially given the carrots I suffered through.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

It’s times like this that Aaron really regrets the fact that werewolves can’t get drunk. This seems like it would be an excellent time for a stiff drink. It seems he’s not the only one thinking it, either. When he gets into the house, he finds his wife in the kitchen, sitting at the high bar with her head resting against one hand. She glances up when he comes in, sees the look on his face, and just groans.

Aaron pulls himself up onto the stool next to hers. “What happened here while I was busy having my ass handed to me by a sixteen year old boy?”

Talia sips her water and says, “Cora came home and demanded to know where Derek’s mate was, because ‘I know you brought home the girl who made you laugh’.”

Aaron closes his eyes and stops breathing for a moment. It was so, so rare to hear Derek laugh since the fire. Now he really understands what it is that Derek has lost. “You go draw a bath. I’ll see what I can do about finding an extension cord and a blow dryer. We can go out together like we always planned.”

“You know, I was just thinking that Derek came by his sense of melodrama honestly,” Talia says, snapping a little. After a pause: “Besides, that wouldn’t work and you know it.”

“What else happened?” Aaron asks, because he knows his wife, and she really should have simmered down by now. If she was still snapping, that meant something had worked her up again while he was gone. Possibly Peter. As much as Aaron loves him like a brother, he knows exactly how to step on Talia’s last nerve, and unlike every other beta in the pack, never shows so much as a qualm about doing it.

“We had dinner. Derek refused to speak to me or look at me the entire time. Fine, he’s pissed, I get it. But he talked to Cora. He asked her if she had met a guy named Scott. Who is apparently Stiles’ best friend, and Stiles was only at the high school to show him some support.” Talia slams back the rest of her water. “He’s so fucking desperate to know about this guy that he’s interrogating his younger sister about the kid’s best friend.”

“And what sort of person is his best friend? Because if the boy I met this evening is what Stiles is normally like, then he’s terrifying.” Aaron honestly can’t remember the last time he’d given way so quickly before anyone, aside from Talia, who was his alpha as well as his wife.

“Apparently, ‘sort of a dork’, according to our daughter.” Talia sighs and refills her water glass. “What on earth did the boy say to send you slinking home with your tail between your legs like this?”

“Well, the only words I got out at all were ‘I wanted to apologize.’ Then I was cut off. Those were the only words I spoke. He started with how we were all really sorry that Derek played him for a fool and that he was going to be a laughingstock at school. After that, he went off on a well-constructed tear about social order between werewolves and humans. About how people just kiss our asses and we can just snap out fingers and commandeer, that was the word he used, a sixteen year old boy’s life. He said he was going to ‘give it to me straight’ because his life is ruined now anyway. After that, he informed me that if I ever showed up on the property again he’d have me arrested for trespassing because I wasn’t welcome. And he asked if I understood. He waited for me to acknowledge his edicts before he was satisfied.” Aaron reaches out then, takes Talia’s glass and takes a swig of water. “So. He’s got the steel spine of an alpha, and we stepped on his feelings. Not a good combination.”

Talia leans more heavily against the bar for a long minute while she considers all this. Finally, she sums up her feelings on the matter by saying, “Fuck.”

“Yep.”

“What about his father? I’ve dealt with him before. He doesn’t take anyone’s shit, but he’s reasonable enough. Did you talk to him at all?”

Aaron gives a single shake of his head. “The Sheriff checked to see who was at the door and I could hear him ask Stiles if he wanted him to talk to me, and Stiles said, I quote, ‘fuck no’ and then whipped the door open himself. So no. I didn’t talk to him.”

Talia gives a huff. “Look. There must be something we can do. He wasn’t on the rolls this year, but maybe he was last year. There might be some sort of legal loophole that says if you’ve entered once – ”

“No, no,” Aaron says hastily. “That would send him into a frothing rage, I think. That’s the exact sort of thing he was informed me that he was so pissed off about. The way we think we can have whatever we want, because we’re werewolves. We can’t do that.” He puts his elbows on the bar and rests his forehead in his palms. “We can’t force him.”

“I guess even suggesting it does make me a bitch,” Talia admits. “But Derek’s so sure he’s the right one. He – he must feel it too. Stiles. Which Peter has been making abundantly clear all evening.” She lets out a sigh. “Well, since everything we do seems to make things worse, I guess Derek is going to have to muddle through somehow. You’d better go talk to him. If I show my face in his room, he’s going to try to take my head off.”

Aaron doesn’t venture an opinion on whether or not his wife is a bitch. She wants what’s best for their son, and he loves her either way. He’s quiet for a few moments. “I think maybe Derek’s been waiting for him. Even if no one knew it. Sixteen is young. Any younger and Stiles would have been too young, given the age difference.” He sighs. “I’ll talk to Derek. Maybe we can come up with a plan to help sort this out.”

“Yeah.” Talia shakes her head and says, “I think Peter calmed him down a little. And he was the same way, you know . . . everyone had basically assumed he was just destined to be alone by the time he met Olivia. And he never even went to the festival after he turned twenty-one. It was like he knew . . . that’s not where he would find her. Jesus.” Talia wipes tears out of her eyes. It’s been a long day, and she’s suddenly, painfully aware of how much she misses the ones who had died.

Aaron slides off his stool, moves over to Talia, and wraps his arms around her from behind. He nuzzles his nose and cheek into the crook of her neck. The scent of sorrow is painfully familiar, and he’s discovered over the years that there’s a certain version of it that come with mourning lost pack and family and children. He misses Olivia and all the promise she carried with her and Peter's unborn child.  He misses his sons so much sometimes it feels like there’s a physical hole in his heart. They had all been changed by the fire. Peter would never recover and they couldn’t expect him to after the loss of his mate. But Derek also never recovered from being pulled from the flames. The injuries had healed, yes, but he hardly smiled now and a laugh was a treasured rarity. “Until official word comes that he’s rejecting Derek, we can still make this right. I’ll talk to Derek.”

“All right,” Talia says with a sigh. She looks around the kitchen. “I’ll clean up in here.”

Aaron nods and heads up the stairs. Derek is in his room, and he’s moved onto the phase of sulking that involves trying to distract himself. He’s flopped on his bed with a book, although Aaron is pretty sure he could stand and watch for hours without ever seeing him turn a page. He clears his throat to draw his son’s attention, even though he knows that Derek knows he’s there, and is just pretending he doesn’t so he doesn’t have to look at him.

Derek looks over at his father with raised eyebrows. A second later he rolls and sits up, bringing the book with him. He slaps it closed loudly and tosses it to the side. He can tell just by taking in his father’s presence, the way he’s standing, the look on his face, his scent, the speed of his heartbeat, that it had gone about as well as Derek had thought it would. He’s torn between being disappointed in the fact that Stiles is still lost to him and feeling smug because he already knows him well enough to gauge his reaction to someone showing up at his door.  Derek just looks up at his father and waits.

“Yeah,” Aaron says with a sigh. “I got my ass kicked. You can crow about it if you want. You sure picked one with balls of brass.”

Derek nods. “Yeah, and now he wants nothing to do with me. So what the hell am I supposed to do now?” His tone is a challenge. He’s clearly still more than willing to fight if given half a chance or reason.

“Well, I would start with giving him a day or two to cool off,” Aaron says. “But after that, I’m not going to tell you what to do. Your mother and I have decided that, since everything we do seems to make things worse, we’re just going to back off and let you handle it. I don’t know if that helps or not, but it’s all I can offer right now.”

With a disgruntled huff, Derek says, “Great.” He silently judges his father with his eyebrows for a few moments while he thinks this over. “Did he ban all of us from his territory . . .” He gives himself a little shake. “Or property, whatever, or just you?”

Aaron thinks back. “He didn’t specify. He just said ‘you’re not welcome here’. So I assume he just meant me.”

“Fine.” Derek takes his book and opens it again. Aaron thinks about saying something, but then decides against it. He’s pissed his son off enough for one day. It’s time for a strategic retreat.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles gets a text from Scott that night that just reads. ‘Heard what happened. U want 2 talk?’

That’s one of the things that he likes about Scott. That he doesn’t push. So when Stiles just texts back ‘not rly’, Scott accepts that and says ‘ok’. Stiles takes a long, hot shower and tries to relax before crawling into bed. The next day is going to be a long one. The Searching Ceremony is always on February first, regardless of the day of the week. Something about the pagan calendar, Imbolc, a ceremony that indicates new beginnings. Some bullshit like that, which Stiles has never cared about.

If it’s a school day, then school is cancelled. This time, it was a Thursday, so there’s school the next day. Stiles could skip, he even has permission to skip, but he knows that it’s only delaying the inevitable. In fact, skipping would only make things worse, because people will think he’s hiding. So he packs up his things and then realizes abruptly that his Jeep is still at school. He had driven over the day before and hadn’t thought to mention it to Derek or his father.

His father’s already left for work, and if he has to walk, he’ll be late. He grabs his phone and dials Scott. “Hey. Have you left yet?”

“Was just going,” Scott says, his mouth half-full of whatever his breakfast is. “What’s up?”

“Any chance your mom can drive us? My freakin’ Jeep is still at the school.”

“Hang on.” There’s a long pause. “Yeah, I’ll be there in five.”

“Thanks,” Stiles says, and hangs up. It’s too chilly to wait on the front porch, so he stays at the front window until he sees the car pull up.

Scott’s at the wheel, and he says by way of explanation, “She told me I could take the car as long as I could come straight home. She’s working swing today.”

“Cool.” Stiles tosses his backpack inside and then gets in. “Jesus,” he says. “I think I’d rather have my fingernails taken off with pliers than go to school today.”

Scott checks his watch. “We could make the border by midnight. Got your passport?”

Sometimes, Scott is so earnest that Stiles isn’t sure whether or not he’s joking. He lets out a snort of laughter anyway. “I’ll make it,” he says. “If I’m lucky, everyone will be in awe of me and no one will dare say shit.”

Scott gives him a sidelong glance. “You really don’t want to talk about it?”

“Nope,” Stiles says. “So why don’t you give me whatever news you’re trying desperately to hold back?”

“Oh my God!” Scott says. “You’re the best. I met a girl yesterday.” He has a goofy grin. “Not a werewolf, but her name is Allison and she’s gorgeous and she actually talked to me like I was a real human being. She wasn’t in the pool because I guess her dad is one of those anti-werewolf activists, but she came to the ceremony anyway because she thought it was a good way to meet new people. They’ve only been in town for a few weeks and she goes to the other high school. And she kept talking to me even though we were supposed to be meeting werewolves and then she gave me her phone number. She gave it to me. I didn’t even have to ask for it, so I know that she actually wanted me to have it.”

“Cool,” Stiles says, and lets Scott continue to talk about this wonderful, amazing, beautiful, et cetera, girl that he met. That gets them all the way to school. Stiles squares his shoulders and goes inside.

Immediately, everyone stops. They just stare at him. He stares back, a deer caught in headlights. Scott is caught there with him. Stiles swallows and starts walking again, heading towards his locker. The silence dissolves into giggles and smirking stares. Stiles tries to hold back a grimace. He wasn’t expecting applause, but the laughter is unnerving. A hand reaches out of the crowd and shoves him into a locker. He only barely keeps his feet.

“Oh, yeah,” he mutters. “This is gonna be awesome.”

Scott is looking around at the others. “Suuuuuuuck,” he agrees. But then he recovers. “They’re just jealous, man, they’ll – ”

“Well, if it isn’t the man of the hour,” a familiar voice drawls, and Stiles flinches, turning from his locker to face Jackson Whittemore, captain of the lacrosse team, star of the basketball team, two-time swimming team medalist, class president and all around high school god. He’s got an arm around Lydia’s shoulders. She looks as she always does, fashion-plate amazing and picture perfect. Stiles has had a crush on her for approximately forever, and it’s not like he ever thought anything would come of it, but his lack of subtlety has always made him a target of Jackson’s bullying. “How’d it go last night, Stilinski?”

“Let me think about it,” Stiles says, then promptly continues, “None of your business.”

Jackson smirks at him. “That well, huh?”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, in a monotone. “It was out of this world.”

The smirk vanishes. “You think you can just snatch up prime real estate like Derek Hale and no one will say shit about it? You think that’s how this works?”

“I think,” Stiles says, choosing his words carefully and thinking he should get some sort of reward for it, “that Derek Hale snatched me, and if you have a problem with it, you should take it up with him.”

“Get over yourself, Stilinski,” one of Jackson’s jock friends says. “We all know he only did it to piss off his parents.”

Stiles wonders for a moment how they know that. He supposes that Derek’s family might have mentioned it to someone, that it could have made the rumor train. Or maybe one of his neighbors had overheard him shouting at Aaron. He hadn’t exactly been quiet. Or maybe they’re all just making the assumption. It’s an easy enough one to make. “So why are you pissed at me, then?”

“Because you didn’t refuse,” the jock says.

“Okay, I’ll go refuse,” Stiles says.

“So you think you’re too good for Derek Hale?” Lydia asks sweetly.

Stiles is pretty sure that those are the first words she’s ever spoken to him. They’re laced with venom. He suddenly hates her, hates all of these people, and it takes effort to shove the rage back down in his throat, not to start screaming out of frustration. “Okay, so you don’t want me to refuse. This conversation is becoming very confusing.”

“You weren’t in the pool, Stilinski,” Jackson says. “Remember how I told you that you weren’t going to be in the pool this year? And yet, you came sniffing around here anyway. So. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Stiles gives up. He’s fucked, anyway; that much is clear. “That Derek Hale is a person, not a piece of ‘real estate’, and I think you two are pathetic, the way you date each other but pant after the werewolves and either of you would dump the other in a heartbeat if you actually got chosen.”

Jackson grabs him by the front of the shirt and slams him up against his locker. Scott moves forward to intervene, and is immediately shoved to the floor and winds up with some jock’s foot on his chest. “Listen to me, you little shit,” Jackson says, in that quiet, angry voice. “We may not be able to do anything about Derek Hale, but you had better believe that we are going to make your life a living hell until he gets sick of his game and drops you. And when that happens? We’re all going to get a good laugh out of it. So don’t get your hopes up, asshole. You may think this is your ticket out of here, but you can just give up that idea right now, because we all know this is just a joke. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that anyone in a pack would want you.”

Stiles chokes back an angry reply, and is about to say something that would probably result in his face getting introduced to the bottom of a toilet bowl when a sharp voice says, “Is there a problem, gentlemen?”

It’s Harris. Stiles tries not to glare at him. The chemistry teacher has never liked him, and of course it’s just Stiles’ luck that he was the coordinator of Derek’s room this year. Stiles wonders how he got that duty. Anyone can volunteer to coordinate, but there’s heavy politics and favor-trading involved. Jackson lets Stiles go and straightens his shirt. “Just having a chat with our new celebrity,” he says to Harris, as his lackey allows Scott to scramble back to his feet.

The teacher gives Stiles a thin smile. “Ah, yes,” he says. “How does it feel to be famous, Mr. Stilinski? I trust that you won’t let it go to your head.”

“Not much danger of that,” Stiles mutters. He knows damned well that Harris saw the way Jackson was roughing him up and simply isn’t going to do anything about it.

“Get to class,” Harris says, and walks away.

Jackson casts one last dirty look over his shoulder before he departs, his flunkies going with him. Stiles sighs and gets his books out of his locker, slamming it shut just as the first bell rings. “Maybe I should refuse,” he finally says to Scott. “I could do that. Just call Derek and tell him to forget it.”

“Do you want to?” Scott hazards.

Stiles isn’t sure. He does and he doesn’t. He wants to forget the whole thing, wants to write it all off and let everyone have their laugh and then move on. But he can’t forget those few minutes in the car where he thought it was real, where Derek was smiling and relaxed, or the look on Derek’s face when he told the werewolf to bring him home. What if it wasn’t a joke? The idea nags at him, the possibility that if he refused, he would be giving up something huge and wonderful, that could change his life. He can’t forget the feeling of Derek’s hand in his, warm and confident while his own was clammy and shaking.

“Fuck,” he finally says. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll think about it. But, you know . . . until this is over, you should . . .”

“If you even try to spew any self-sacrificing bullshit about how I shouldn’t be seen with you until this is over, you can forget it,” Scott says firmly. “I’m your best friend, man. Through thick and thin, and all that.”

“Ugh, don’t make me puke, McCall,” Stiles says, so intensely grateful that he really might be sick. “C’mon, shit, let’s get to class before anybody else ambushes us.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Two days later, Derek is standing on the front porch of the Stilinski home, taking deep breaths. The last time he had been so nervous was when his father had started dragging him to therapy sessions after the fire eight years previous. True, he wants to be here, but the panicky feeling is much the same. He can only hear one heartbeat in the house, so Sheriff Stilinski isn’t home. He thinks about coming back when he’s there, because Stiles might feel better that way, but then he reaches out and rings the doorbell before he could have any more second thoughts. He wants to see Stiles again. That will have to be enough.

He can hear footsteps inside, and Stiles’ heartbeat is right there on the other side of the door. There’s a pause so long that he starts to think that Stiles isn’t going to open it. But then he does. He’s wearing a loose gray T-shirt and jeans, and he doesn’t look angry anymore. He just looks miserable. He leans against the doorframe and says nothing, waiting to see what Derek’s going to open with.

Derek looks down and away, because he knows that he and his pack are the reason Stiles looks like that. “I was wondering if we could talk.”

Stiles gestures with one hand. “Talk.”

It wasn’t what he was hoping for, but it was better than he had expected. At least he’s being given a chance. He remembers that apologies haven’t gone over very well so far, so he decides to save those. “My parents have promised to keep their noses out of our business from now on. If . . . if you’ll let there be anything between us.”

“I don’t really have much choice, do I,” Stiles says bitterly, “if you’re not going to let it go.”

Derek opens his mouth and closes it again. “No, I’m not. You’re the right one. And I want to convince you of that.” He rubs a hand over his face. “Can we try? And if you still hate me, I’ll do everything I can to leave you alone.”

“Okay, ugh, first things first,” Stiles says. “This? This needs to stop.” He makes a little gesture with one hand to indicate the space between the two of them. “If I agree to go along with your little scheme to keep your parents off your back, the absolute first thing that needs to happen is that you stop trying to convince me that this is something real. Do it again and I’ll clean your clock. Somehow.”

Derek takes a breath to protest that it is real, and even if Stiles wasn’t his mate, he’s not mean enough to play that sort of trick on someone. Then he realizes that if he agrees to Stiles’ terms, they can actually spend time together. Maybe, with time, he can convince him. He sure as hell isn’t going to gain any ground by continuing to argue. So he gives a decisive nod. That seems like a good compromise. Agreeing to Stiles’ terms without saying out loud that it isn’t real.

Stiles huffs out a sigh and rubs one hand over the back of his head. “So . . . how much trouble am I in with your pack?”

“None. You weren’t the one out of line.” Derek holds up his hands when he sees Stiles’ eyes narrow. “I’m not trying to convince you of anything. Just explain why no one was angry.”

“Well. That’s good, I guess.” Stiles shifts from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable with the situation in general and the conversation in particular.

Derek nods slightly. It’s fairly easy to see that Stiles has had enough. He doesn’t want to leave, but he’s gained permission to see Stiles again, so the thought of going is at least bearable. “Would you like me to go?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Stiles shifts again. “Better give you my digits, though.”

Derek’s head tilts to the side in a genuine confused canine expression.

Stiles stares at him for a moment and then lets out a snort of genuine laughter. “My phone number. Geez, you’re like a Martian.”

“Oh. Phone number. Thank you.” There’s a slight smile, because he managed to elicit a laugh. It was at his own expense, but he can live with that. He pulls out his phone. Stiles will be happy to see that it’s a perfectly acceptable, up to date cell phone. Derek hands it over and Stiles takes it, tapping the screen, and Derek is again drawn to look at his hands, those nimble fingers. He makes himself look away until Stiles hands his phone back.

“Well. I’ll see you when I see you. Just . . .” Stiles hesitates for a few moments. “You know what, I don’t even know.” He goes inside and shuts the door without another word.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Derek clutches his phone to himself and tells the front door of the Stilinski house, “I can work with this.” He gets back to his car and gets inside. “I can’t work with this! I have no idea what I’m doing.” He bangs his head against the steering wheel a couple of times and miraculously, an idea is jarred free. He turns the car on and heads to the sheriff’s station.

The secretary is a young woman he’s seen before – maybe at one of the mixers? – who gives him a smile that looks at least mostly genuine. “How can we help you today, Mr. Hale?” she asks, so she knows who he is, although that’s not really that unusual. Most of the people in Beacon Hills pay attention to the werewolf families in the region.

He puts his best polite face on, which mostly means he manages to stop frowning. “I was wondering if the sheriff is available and if I could speak to him?”

“Let me find out.” She picks up the phone. “Sheriff? Derek Hale is here to see you . . . yes? Okay. Uh huh.” She hangs up the phone. “That way, first door on your left.”

Derek nods in thanks and goes down the hall as indicated. He finds the door open and steps inside. Sheriff Stilinski, who was waiting just inside, closes it behind him. Without waiting for Derek to say anything, he folds his arms over his chest and says, “You’ve got some nerve showing your face here after what happened.”

Derek looks down. “I know,” he says, but follows up with, “I’m sorry,” because here’s someone who will listen to his apologies on behalf of the pack, and since this man is part of Stiles’ pack, it’s got to be worth something. “I should have taken Stiles out of the house as soon as my parents started saying such awful things. My mother . . .” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. On behalf of my pack, I apologize for everything they said that hurt him.”

“Why don’t you try apologizing for your little prank in the first place?” Sheriff Stilinski asks, clearly pissed off and not afraid to show it. “Do you have any idea how much that hurt?”

“Choosing Stiles wasn’t a prank,” Derek says. “It was a miracle. I never would have even seen him if he hadn’t tripped into the wrong room while he was looking for his friend.”

“Right, because he wasn’t on the list, because last year, when he was on the list – ” Stilinski’s tirade stops partway through. “Wait. What?”

“He was on the list last year?” Derek is startled by this. He had gotten the impression that Stiles didn’t really believe in entering the pool.

Sheriff Stilinski is giving him a thoughtful look. Then, in a slow, measured tone, he says, “Yes. He was in the pool last year. Almost everyone enters the pool while they’re in high school. Once they’ve graduated, a lot of them drop out because they go to college or start careers or families with non-weres. Sometimes they’ll enter the pool in whatever college town they move to. But pretty much every high school kid is on that list. In fact, I think Stiles is the only kid in his class who didn’t enter this year.”

Derek shakes his head at the thought of all these people, vying for the wolves’ attention and none of them knowing that half the things they do will drive wolves up the wall, and not in a good way. “I didn’t know he wasn’t on the list until after the words were out of my mouth. It had nothing to do with the lists. I was about to leave when he came in.”

There’s a long silence. Then Sheriff Stilinski lets out a slow sigh and picks up a mug. “Coffee?” he asks, refilling his own mug from a pot sitting on a stand in the corner.

Derek nods. “Thanks.”

Sheriff Stilinski finds another mug and fills it up. He hands it over and says, “Stiles presented this to me as though you had picked him as a joke, obviously, and I didn’t hear a word about your parents having said anything to him. So maybe you should start at the beginning and tell me what actually happened, since Stiles hasn’t been eager to talk about it and I haven’t wanted to push the issue.”

So Derek does, taking occasional sips from his coffee and ending with, “So I’m not exactly speaking to my mother, things are only slightly better with my father, and Stiles has agreed to spend time with me if I ‘stop trying to pretend this is something real’. And I agreed because I’ll take what I can get and I don’t want to upset him again.”

“Uh huh.” Sheriff Stilinski mulls this all over. “Then why did you come here?”

“Because I have no idea what I’m doing! I mean, sometimes these things are awkward, they can’t not be when you meet a complete stranger and say you’re going to be spending the rest of your lives together, but usually everyone is happy to be there, and they trust that we know what’s going on or else we wouldn’t have chosen them. But my parents cocked it up – never tell them I said that – and now Stiles is hurt and he doesn’t trust me. And I suck at making friends on a good day. Help me. Please?”

“So you want my advice on how to woo my sixteen year old son, whose heart you have already broken once this week?” Sheriff Stilinski asks. He sounds skeptical, to put it mildly.

“I didn’t! My parents did!” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Derek realizes how stupid and childish that sounded. “But I’ll take the blame. I should have gotten him out of the house, like I said. But I need to try to make this right.”

Sheriff Stilinski considers all this. “You know,” he says, “there are a lot of people who view the idea that the werewolves can smell a soulmate as complete and utter bullshit. They think that it’s just an excuse to lay claim to someone, another way of oppressing the inferior species. A way of saying ‘we can come down here and take whoever we want, and you can’t stop us’.”

“There are people who still think the earth is flat. I’m sure my uncle Peter would be happy to argue with both of those camps if you gave him the chance. And it’s more than a scent.”

“Uh huh. And you do realize that Stiles would have already refused you, if not for the fact that it would make him an outcast? That if you hadn’t asked him in a room full of people, he never would have said yes to begin with? At least, not before getting to know you?”

Derek rubs his hands over his face. “I didn’t mean to back him into a corner. I never meant to hurt him in any way. It was an instinctual response. A knee jerk reaction. I was going to leave and he just . . . stumbled into the room, tripping over God knows what, already taking to someone who wasn’t there because he was in the wrong place. He caught himself like it's normal to fall through doors. And where did he get those ridiculous fingers from? Then he just kept right on talking! Mocking everyone, and, and . . . when we find the right person, the world just stops and it sounds like melodramatic crap but it’s true. He kept saying I had time to change my mind, go pick someone else.  Like who would want him. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want him?” Derek stops talking abruptly. He thinks he may have to find a hole to crawl into after that speech.

Sheriff Stilinski rubs one hand over the back of his head and says, “Aw, hell, son. Okay, you’ve convinced me. To be fair, I’ve never shared the skepticism. I felt the same way when I met my wife for the first time, and I don’t even have the excuse of being a werewolf.”

Derek sags with relief, then his eyes narrow a little. “So if you weren’t a skeptic, why’d you say all that stuff?”

“To see how you would defend yourself.” Sheriff Stilinski sips his coffee. “This is my son we’re talking about. My underage son. My only son. I hope you’re not saying I don’t have the right to be protective of him, just because you’ve chosen him to be your mate.”

“No, no. I’m glad you’re protective.” There’s another pause. “What does his being underage have to do with anything?”

Sheriff Stilinski quirks an eyebrow at him. “It has to do with everything,” he says mildly, “because as a sixteen year old, my son cannot legally consent to anything, and therefore any contact you have with him has to be allowed by me.”

“I suppose,” Derek says, not in a tone that indicates he doesn’t understand, but more that he thinks it’s a little excessive. “What do you think we’re going to do? I understand how old he is. And how old I am. And right now he barely wants to see me.”

“True, we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves,” Sheriff Stilinski says. “It’s absolutely unnecessary of me to point out that I own wolfsbane bullets and know where the vital points on a werewolf are. I shouldn’t need to say that.”

“I . . . what?” Derek asks. He has no idea what he did wrong this time.

“Exactly,” Sheriff Stilinski says. “Did he give you his number? Good. Texting is the best way to get hold of him. Text him about things that aren’t werewolf mating rituals. Or your family. Text him about a movie you just saw, or a book you’re reading, or how the person in front of you at McDonald’s was a jerk to the cashier. Text him about anything unimportant.”

“I can do that,” Derek says with a nod. He’s clearly making mental notes. “He likes texting better because he kind of babbles, doesn’t he.”

“Depends on how nervous he is. More like, his brain-to-mouth filter only works . . . selectively. If he’s texting, he gets a second chance to think ‘do I really want to say that?’”

“Like walking into a room full of people hoping I’ll choose them and saying ‘is this what I have to look forward to later in life?’” Pretty much everything Stiles had said and done when he walked into that room was burned into Derek’s brain. There’s no disapproval in his tone as he repeats it for the sheriff.

“Oh, God.” Sheriff Stilinski rubs a hand over his face. “Yes, like that. Exactly like that.”

“Good. I was sick of hearing simpering bullshit and fake giggling, anyway.”

“Well, you definitely won’t get either of those things from Stiles.” Sheriff Stilinski shakes his head. “Okay. He’s not going to give you much help, so . . . you like science-fiction?”

Derek nods. “Not obsessively, but yes.”

“Good, because I’m not a fan,” Sheriff Stilinski says. “There’s some movie he’s been talking about wanting to see, what was it . . . started with P, had aliens in it.”

“Prometheus?” Derek suggests.

“That’s it. It’s rated R, so he couldn’t see it in the theater. Not that he doesn’t try to sneak in, but teenagers who are the sheriff’s son don’t have a lot of luck with that sort of thing. But it’s okay for him, I read one of those parental reviews.” Stilinski waves this aside like the idea of him surfing movie blogs for parents isn’t completely adorable. Derek tries to ignore the fact that he’s trying to date someone who can’t see R-rated movies in the theater. “So you’re going to rent that. Or buy it, hell, I don’t care. Don’t get it on Blu-Ray, we don’t have Blu-Ray.”

“Right.” Derek nods. He’s clearly taking this extremely seriously. “Should I be taking notes? I can take notes.” He looks around, then pats down his person, noticing he has neither paper nor a writing utensil. “Wait, no, I can’t.”

“You can if you really feel it’s necessary,” Stilinski says, amused. He fishes around on his desk and pulls out a pad of paper and a pen. “I work the night shift pretty much every Friday. He hates it when I work the night shift. He’ll want the company even if he won’t admit it. So just text him sometime in the afternoon asking if you can come hang out. Five bucks says he’ll agree.”

Derek takes the offered pen and paper and jots down dates and times. He doesn’t actually need to, but it’s something to hold onto. “I can do that.” At first he’s worried that Stiles might find it weird that he picks the day that his father has night shift, but then he realizes that it’s actually pretty normal to do things on Friday nights. Cora goes out all the time on Fridays.

“Bring Chinese food,” Stilinski says. “There, that ought to be enough for starters.” He claps him on the shoulder. “Good luck.”

“What does he like? I mean, I know better than to bring a bunch of his favorites, that would be a little creepy, but I don’t want to bring a bunch of things he hates, either.” Derek doesn’t feel anywhere near prepared enough.

“He’s a sixteen year old boy. If it’s made of food, he’ll eat it. Just make sure you include egg rolls.”

That gets a little quirk of the lips that might be a smile when it grows up. “Just be glad he isn’t a wolf, or it’d be twice as bad.”

“Well, he’s not interested. You should probably know that from the get-go.”

“Okay,” Derek says, with an easy shrug. Then he looks uncomfortable for a few moments. “When . . . if we can make this work, I want you to know that I’m going to ask him. If he wants the bite, I mean. Because I need to hear the answer from him. It’s important to us. Either answer is okay, but I need to ask him and hear it from his mouth.”

“Fine by me,” Stilinski says, “as long as it’s on or after his eighteenth birthday.”

Derek opens his mouth, then thinks better of it. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Sheriff Stilinski’s eyes narrow, but he apparently decides against pushing the point. “Go on, get out of here. I have work to do.”

Derek stands. “Thank you. I just . . . thanks.” He decides to leave it at that, and disappears out the door.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Derek studies his phone what feels like a long time before he finally starts to tap the keys. He’s somewhat familiar with texting, although it’s not something he does often, because Cora texts a lot. She’s already taught him how to turn auto-correct off. So now he texts Stiles. ‘The man in front of me has made the barista remake his drink three times. She looks like she’s going to cry. And it smells gross.’

He sits with baited breath as the seconds tick by and turn into minutes. He’s almost ready to have given up when his phone chimes and he nearly drops it. Stiles’ reply reads thusly: ‘if he ordered anything with 6 or more syllables, he deserved to have it made wrong.’

Derek can’t help but smile. At least Stiles had answered, and hadn’t brushed him off. ‘If the words ‘skinny mocha’ are in it, he shouldn’t be allowed to order at all.’

‘There’s no point in drinking coffee any way but black and bitter,’ Stiles replies. ‘All the sugar and milk in the world won’t make it taste good. Just admit u have a problem and move on.’

Derek notes that of course this is the sort of coffee that Stiles likes. It’s the kind of coffee he smelled at the police station. ‘Is this where I’m shunned if I tell you I don’t like coffee?’

‘I don’t care if u like coffee or not,’ Stiles texts back.

It’s not encouraging, mostly because it doesn’t invite any sort of response from Derek, in addition to giving the impression that Stiles gives no fucks about him or his opinions. Of course, that may be depressingly true. He sits there, sipping his hot chocolate in a morass of indecision. Let the conversation lapse, or try to renew it? He doesn’t care about looking desperate, because both he and Stiles know that he is. Or at least Stiles knows he’s acting that way, even if his motivations are up for debate.

He’s still contemplating when his phone chimes again, and he nearly drops it. ‘if u don’t like coffee why were u at starbucks anyway?’

Derek sort of wants to kiss that message. ‘I have a weakness for hot chocolate but any time I try to keep it at home, it disappears. Can’t figure out which sister is guilty. Maybe both.’

‘Scott said your sister Cora seemed nice.’

‘She’ll appreciate that.’ Which she will. Cora’s like that. ‘She asked about you. I thought she was going to mug me when she first got home.’

There’s a long pause, and he holds his breath, hoping he hasn’t ruined their first real conversation. Then Stiles replies, ‘How’d she even know about me?’

Derek stares at the question for a long moment, remembering how startling and good it had felt to be able to laugh. ‘She heard me laughing. When you said that thing about spawning. Like salmon.’ Even now he can feel himself starting to smile a little at the memory.

He’s not sure what he expects after that, but what he definitely isn’t expecting is what he gets: an image of a salmon jumping directly into a bear’s mouth. It’s subtitled like one of those motivational posters, but instead of something inspirational, it says ‘Ambition: The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly.’

At first, Derek just stares, but then he lets out a snort of laughter because he can’t not. Because Stiles. Already he can tell that although Stiles may have a filter, that doesn’t mean he chooses to use it. He quiets after a moment, and contemplates the image beyond the obvious humor. ‘So which one of us is the fish and which one of us is the bear?’

Another long pause before Stiles replies. ‘r u kidding? The bear is ur mother.’

Derek contemplates several replies before he settles for ‘touche’. He can’t figure out how to put the accent over the e. This annoys him.

‘g2g’, Stiles sends a moment later. ‘need 2 finish dinner b4 my dad gets home in 10.’

Derek stares at the message and wonders when they started talking in algebra. After a pause for thought, he sends a message to Cora. ‘What the hell does ‘g2g’ mean? Answer now, mock later.’

‘It’s ‘got to go’,’ Cora replies almost immediately. ‘Mock mock mockity mock. Why do you ask?’

Derek quickly flips back to his conversation with Stiles and offers a simple, ‘ok, bye,’ because there was really nothing else to say, because he wanted to acknowledge that he had gotten the message. Then, to Cora, he says, ‘Because someone said it to me. I figured that would be obvious.’

Surprisingly, Cora’s reply is just, ‘oh, ok.’

Since that’s obviously just a delay of the interrogation that’s sure to follow, Derek mutters, “Oh, Jesus.” But on the whole, he feels pretty good about things. They’d had a conversation. Stiles hadn’t told him to go away and had even been relatively friendly. They could work this out. So he’s in a good mood as he finishes his chocolate and heads home.

Even better, his mother is still at work when she gets there, working late on some case or other. Aaron has decided to bring dinner to her office, but Laura and her husband are home, and Peter is wandering around somewhere. Derek exchanges a polite greeting with his sister – he’s still irritated that she didn’t step in, but at least she wasn’t actively insulting Stiles – and then heads up to his room.

He’s been there less than ten minutes when Cora flounces in. “Sooooooo,” she says, flopping onto his bed.

Derek, who’s sprawled across his bed reading, propped up on his elbows, bounces up and down when Cora lands. He turns his head slowly to look at her, eyebrows hiked up in fake confusion. “Yes?”

“Why the sudden interest in texting slang?” she asks sweetly.

“Because I was the victim of it. I already told you that.” He watches her, curious to see what she’ll do next.

She tilts her head to one side and then says, “You’ve never texted anyone besides me and sometimes Laura. And you smell nice today, happier than you’ve been the last few days, which means you want to tell me all about it.”

Derek collapses down on his book. “I was texting with Stiles, if you must know, which clearly you feel you must.”

Cora squeals happily. “C’mon, let’s see it!”

“Really?” Derek asks, pretending to be exasperated. But he does sort of want to share, at least some of it. Cora has been happy for him from the beginning. So he fishes his phone out of his pocket and shows her the demotivational poster Stiles had sent him.

“Hah, what?” Cora asks, laughing. “Why is he sending you that?”

“Remember when you heard me laughing at the school?” Derek asks, and Cora nods. “It was because he was going off about how picking him was counter-productive to the whole mating thing, and how he wasn’t going to be able to help me spawn. That’s the word he used, spawn. And then he apologized for making us sound like salmon swimming upriver.” He’s studying the image on the phone, but really he’s looking more at Stiles in his memory. “I lost it and started cracking up.”

Cora, who’s more advanced in the ways of phones than Derek, is already scrolling to see Derek’s response. “Awww, you and Stiles are the fish and Mom’s the bear, that’s cute.”

“Cute. Yeah. Okay. And give me my phone back,” he adds, snatching it.

“That’s interesting, though,” Peter says from the doorway, as if he’s been there for the entire conversation. And maybe he had been. Peter is proficient at tricks that Derek hasn’t even thought of yet.

“What is?” he asks, thinking that Cora’s idea of ‘cute’ was interesting, and by interesting he means ‘suspicious’ but it never pays to give Peter direction when he wants an actual answer. His uncle is too easily distracted by other people’s thoughts.

“He could have said you were the bear, or he was,” Peter says. “But instead of making it you versus him, he made it both of you, together, against your mother. He’s putting himself on your side, subconsciously at least.”

“So maybe he doesn’t actually hate me,” Derek says, trying not to sound too hopeful. Then he sobers a little. “Actually, I know he doesn’t hate me. If he did, he would have either ignored me completely or said something truly horrific.”

Peter just rolls his eyes as if Derek completely missed the point. Cora lets out a little giggle. “You’re so smitten!”

“You be quiet,” Derek says, trying to ignore the fact that, factually, he is indeed smitten. To Peter, he asks, “Do you think it’s because he actually likes me, or because he really doesn’t like Mom?”

Peter sighs, and says in that long-suffering tone that means he’s in a lucid mood and sick of dealing with people who are far his intellectual inferiors, “It means that he thinks you and he are on the same side.”

Derek sighs and gives a defeated slump.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“Hey, hey!” Scott catches up with Stiles as he starts to get in the Jeep to head home after school. “Guess what! I asked Allison if she wanted to go out on Saturday and she said yes! We’re going bowling!”

Stiles bites back a grin. “Bowling on your first date? Do you want to be humiliated?”

“I just told her I’d never done it before, she said she’ll teach me,” Scott says. “That means she’ll have to touch me, man. I am totally nailing this.”

Now Stiles does grin. “Good job. Proud of you, bro.”

“I thought you might want to come,” Scott says, and when Stiles opens his mouth to say something about third wheeling, he says, “Ask that friend of yours, Heather. She’s got a huge crush on you, dude. She totally wants you.”

“Yeah, right,” Stiles says, with a snort. He pulls out his phone to dial Heather, but then stops. “I can’t ask anyone on a date. I belong to a werewolf now.”

“Oh, yeah, shit,” Scott says.

Stiles stares at the phone for a long minute, biting his lip. The week and a half since the Searching Ceremony has been awful. Everywhere he goes, he’s followed by whispers and giggles, catcalls and insults. Phantom hands shove him and phantom feet trip him as he’s walking down the hallway. Someone stole all of his homework while he was in gym class and every teacher except one refused to let him turn it in late. He had nearly gotten the shit kicked out of him at lacrosse practice, although fortunately Finstock had intervened. He hasn’t dared go to lacrosse since then.

“Fuck this,” he says. “I’m going to call him and tell him to forget it. This is stupid. If he wants a beard to keep his parents off his back, he can pick someone else.”

He dials Heather first, primarily because he wants to catch her before she makes any other plans for Saturday. They’ve been friends since they were little, and since she goes to a different high school, she blessedly has not witnessed any of his humiliation. “Hey, what’s up?” he greets her. “Listen, Scott and this girl he met, Allison, are going bowling on Saturday and thought we might want to double. You game?”

“Are you asking me on a date?” Heather asks, her voice teasing.

“Uh, yeah?” Stiles says. “I guess?”

“I’d love to,” she says, but then adds awkwardly, “but . . . I don’t think it’s a good idea, Stiles.”

“Look, if this is about the whole thing with Derek, screw it,” Stiles says. “I’m going to refuse. I’ll call him right after I get off the phone with you.”

“Yeah, but, even if you do . . . people will talk. You know? I don’t want to be the girl that you dumped Derek Hale for. Jesus, do you know what people would do to me?”

Stiles does know. He knows in personal, painful detail, because it will be more-or-less identical to what they’ve been doing to him all week. He feels bitter rage build up in his throat, but pushes it back because Heather’s right, and she means more to him than that. “Oh . . . yeah. I guess I didn’t think about it that way.”

“Still friends?” she asks hopefully.

“Yeah, of course,” he says. “What if some other people come along? So it’s just a group of friends, not a double-date. You could invite that friend of yours, uh, Shaniqua?”

“Shameka,” she corrects. “Okay. Sure.”

“Me and Scott will try to make another friend before Saturday,” Stiles says, and Heather laughs and says okay. Stiles hangs up. Scott’s looking at him anxiously, having clearly gotten the gist of what had just happened. “Fuck my life,” Stiles announces.

Scott doesn’t say anything for a minute. Then: “Are you still going to call Derek?”

“No,” Stiles says. “It’s better if I wait for him to dump me, if I don’t have any reason to do it myself, like the possibility of a life.” He tucks his phone away in his pocket. “But I’ll still go. I want to meet this famous, superlative Allison of yours.”

Scott frowns a little.

“ ‘Superlative’ means that she’s amazing,” Stiles tells him, leaving off the connotations that are meant to embarrass Scott.

“Oh, right,” Scott says. “Man, I’ve got to study up for my PSATs. You free Sunday, too?”’

“Yeah, I guess,” Stiles says. He’s about to say something about the excitement of their lives – bowling Saturday, studying Sunday – when someone shouts ‘think fast!’ and he looks up in time to receive a slushie in the face. He yelps despite himself and half turns, one hand up to shield his face from the barrage. A minute later, icy cold is dumped down his back, and he yelps again.

When the attack is over, he and Scott are both soaked with the stuff. “This isn’t Glee, assholes!” Stiles shouts after them. “Fuck, that stings,” he adds. It’s in his eyes.

Scott’s breathing hitches. “Got some – in my windpipe,” he says, and coughs.

“Fuck,” Stiles says again, and helps eases Scott to the pavement. He’s pulling for air, elbows locking in a way that Stiles is painfully familiar with. He grabs Scott’s backpack and goes for the top pocket, which always holds his inhaler. “Here, bite down,” he says, as Scott continues to make whining gasps, and sticks the inhaler in his mouth. Scott wheezes inward as Stiles triggers it. A few minutes later, his breathing has returned to normal.

“Fuck our lives,” Scott agrees.

“C’mon, you can clean up at my place,” Stiles says. “If your mom sees you like that, she’ll go ballistic.”

“Yeah,” Scott agrees, and they head back to the Stilinski house. They get cleaned up and changed. Stiles breaks out the chips and soda and they sit and do their homework together.

It’s been about an hour before Stiles’ phone chirps. He picks it up and groans. The last thing he wants is to text with Derek after the afternoon he had. He’s still not sure what to make of Derek texting him. It seems random, and always about the weirdest things. Some guy at Starbucks is a jerk. He saw a crocus blooming so spring must be close even though it’s only February. His sister Cora likes One Direction and if he hears any more of it he’ll claw his own ears off. This time, it’s ‘do you watch The Walking Dead?’

“Who’s texting you?” Scott asks curiously.

“Derek,” Stiles growls. He’s not in the mood to deal with it, so he just texts back, ‘no’.

“Derek texts you?” Scott asks.

“Yeah, he seems to think that we’re friends or something,” Stiles says.

Scott taps the end of his pencil against his trigonometry homework thoughtfully. “What about?” he asks.

“Currently?” Stiles asks. He’s glaring down at his phone. He had hoped that the terse answer would make Derek shut up, but instead he’s gotten ‘not a zombie fan?’ “About whether or not I watch the Walking Dead. Also about other movies, his family, the weather, whatever. You know.” He texts back, ‘I like zombies ok but TWD is meant for mature audiences so my dad won’t let me watch it’. “Chew on that, asshole,” he says to his phone.

“What’d you say?” Scott asks.

Stiles tells him and then says, “Reminding him of my age will be a real kick in the teeth.”

Scott frowns. “Why?”

“Uh, because I’m implying he’s a pedophile?” Stiles reminds him.

“But I thought the whole point was that he had picked someone who was too young and stuff,” Scott says, and Stiles has to admit that he has a point. If Derek had picked him because of his inappropriateness, rather than in spite of his inappropriateness, the age gap wouldn’t bother him. Yet it clearly does. He knows that because it’s come up once or twice before.

They work in silence until the phone chirps again. Stiles ignores it.

“Look, man,” Scott says, “I don’t want to stick my nose into what isn’t my business, but has it occurred to you that maybe he wasn’t joking? I mean, he tried to tell you he wasn’t, right?”

“Yeah,” Stiles admits. “He swears that his mother just misread the situation.”

“Well . . . maybe she did.”

“It doesn’t matter, Scott,” Stiles says, suddenly feeling tired. “I’m nothing like a werewolf pack would want anyway, even if Derek has some weird attraction to me. Which he doesn’t. Because . . . he just doesn’t, okay? Because I believed for a few minutes that he did, and . . .” He can’t think how to explain that he’s afraid to even think about the possibility Derek is sincere, because of how he’ll feel if it turns out he isn’t. “Just drop it.”

“Okay,” Scott says, lifting his hands in surrender.

Stiles feels guilty enough that he picks up the phone to see what Derek has texted him. To his surprise, it reads, ‘Are you okay? You seem upset.’

A million inappropriate responses come to mind, like ‘how can you tell over text’ or ‘you don’t know me well enough to say that’, but the thing is, Derek apparently does know him well enough to realize that he’s being needlessly cruel because he’s upset about other things. After texting back and forth for a week and a half. That’s actually a little scary, a little annoying, and a little exciting, all at the same time.

After due pause, he texts back, ‘sry. bad day at schl.’

‘Anything I can do?’ Derek texts back.

‘No.’ Stiles thinks about it, then adds, ‘thanks’, because hell, if at least one person is being nice to him, that’s better than nothing, even if it’s the same person who got him into this mess. ‘g2g, hw, ttyl’ he adds, not because he can’t text and do homework at the same, but because he’s just not in the mood to chat. It’ll have to do.

They finish up their homework and Scott heads home. He’s eating dinner with his father when the phone chirps again. ‘Are you busy Friday night?’ Derek asks. ‘Thought we could hang out.’

Stiles sighs at the phone. “Dad, Derek wants to go out Friday night. Is it okay?”’

Sheriff Stilinski eyes his son over a forkful of asparagus. He thinks about asking for details, but then decides against it. “Okay with me,” he says, “if it’s okay with you.”

“I’d rather not,” Stiles mutters, but he knows his father will be working, and he hates spending the nights by himself. Scott always works at the clinic on Friday nights, because Deaton has late hours on Thursday and Friday. So he texts back, ‘sure’.

‘See you at 7?’ Derek asks.

‘ok,’ Stiles texts back, and then turns the alert sound off and puts the phone away.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Stiles is staring into his closet at five PM on Friday, wishing desperately, painfully, that his mother was still alive as he tries to decide what to wear. He doesn’t even know why he cares. So far he’s seen Derek in person twice, and both times he was just dressed in whatever he had thrown on that morning. It’s not like Derek has seemed to notice or care.

But he doesn’t know what Derek’s plans are, and that makes getting dressed difficult. If the man wants to take him out and show him off, they might go somewhere nice. He doesn’t own nice clothes, beyond one suit that he got two years ago when his father won the election for Sheriff and Stiles attended the party. It almost certainly doesn’t fit anymore.

After a long moment, he decides to dress in jeans and a T-shirt and if Derek wants to go out, he’ll just change. He’s just lucky he managed to get all the egg out of his hair after he was ambushed on his way to the Jeep after school. The situation there is not improving. If anything, it’s getting worse, because Derek still hasn’t dumped him for someone more attractive, and as the rumors spread more widely, other people are getting in on the action. Even the teachers aren’t above it. Stiles has already gotten one detention for ‘cheating’ even when he obviously wasn’t (mostly by virtue of the fact that he has the highest grade in the class) and Harris gave him an F on a lab report, claiming that he hadn’t turned it in even though he had.

If it gets much worse, he’s going to have to go to his father for help, which is something he absolutely does not want to do. He doesn’t think ‘hiding behind his daddy’ is going to add anything helpful to the situation, but after someone popped a balloon right behind his head just as he was starting down the stairs, he’s starting to actually worry for his safety.

Of course, that’s not the weirdest thing that happened to him lately. He had been walking to his chemistry class, when he had been roughly shoved into the wall with the words, “out of the way, Stilinski.” His things had gone everywhere and he had knelt to pick them up. Then, suddenly, someone else was helping him. Stiles looked up to see a statuesque blond woman gathering some of his papers.

She was more handsome than pretty, with a nice figure, although really, he’s too miserable to notice much. She was too old to be a student, but he didn’t recognize her as a teacher. “Thanks,” he said, as she handed a stack of books and papers to him.

“No problem.” She smiled at him. “You’re Stiles, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” Stiles doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to his newfound celebrity. “Sorry. Uh. You’re . . .”

“Kate.” She reached out and shook his hand. “I’m glad I found you. Got a sec?”

Stiles gave her a suspicious look. “Are you with the paper?”

“Nope,” she said. “Not with the Sun or US Weekly, either. I’m actually with the WLO. Werewolf Liberation Op. Heard of us?”

Stiles shook his head, frowning. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Most of our work is under the radar. But our goal is to re-establish equality between werewolves and humans. Specifically, we help people like you, who are being victimized by werewolf culture.”

Stiles couldn’t help but squirm a little at this. Now that he was thinking about, he’s pretty sure that he has heard of WLO. And he’s pretty sure that they’ve been labeled either a terrorist group or a hate group. He can’t recall which. “Uh, yeah, that’s really interesting,” he said, “but I don’t really consider myself a victim.”

Kate arched her eyebrows at him. “Aren’t you? Don’t give me that ‘I can always refuse’ bullshit. If you could refuse, you would have refused. Sure, you have the legal right. But the reaction of society would slaughter you and you know it. Suddenly you would be saying that you don’t think werewolves are better than humans. Don’t you know what people would do to you?”

Stiles looked away. Kate has a point. It’s a good one. But he’s not sure it’s the werewolves’ fault. The warning bell rings. “I have to get to class,” he says.

“Sure. But take my card.” Kate takes out a little business card that’s silver with crimson text. All it has is her name and a phone number. “Call me when you need help. And you’re going to need help, Stiles.”

With that, she turned and walked away, leaving Stiles feeling unsettled behind her. He tucks the card away and makes a mental note to Google the WLO later tonight, when he’s not about to have to face an evening date with his new werewolf mate, who probably won’t be thrilled to hear about this. Which is why Stiles has absolutely no plans on telling him.

He had been preoccupied with it for a while, but the subsequent egging and impending date had driven it out of his mind. He wonders if he should have eaten, but then decides against it. He’s not really hungry, anyway. Too edgy. So he sits down with video games until the doorbell rings at precisely seven. Then he heads downstairs and answers it.

Much to his relief, Derek is dressed casually, in a maroon Henley and black jeans. Much to his dismay, the shirt shows off his ridiculous musculature quite well. Stiles has to swallow and remind himself that Derek is out of his league, that it’s just a joke, that he’ll never have Derek so he may as well stop looking. He can’t forget the moment he had stumbled into the room and seen Derek for the first time. The form-fitting jeans, the V-neck shirt, the stubble, the everything. It was like an electric shock had gone through him. Lydia is pretty, sure, but Derek is magnificent. And real, in a way that Lydia Martin never was and never would be.

“Uh, hey,” Stiles says, waving awkwardly.

“Hey,” Derek greets him. His smile is small, really just a hopeful twitch of his lips, and then immediately gone, like he isn’t used to the expression. “I brought Chinese. And a movie.” Even if that hadn’t been the Sheriff’s suggestion, it would have been much more to Derek’s taste, anyway. “Not really exciting, but . . .”

“You don’t want to go out somewhere?” Stiles asks, tone wary. “Show me off?”

Derek blinks at him. “Uh, no?” He seems honestly startled. “I want to spend time with you. If you’d rather go out, we can.” It’s not what Derek wants to do, and he tries to keep that off his face, but he really doesn’t want to have to go out and divide his attention between Stiles and the rest of the world.

“No, I just figured . . . I mean, isn’t the whole point to be like ‘hey everyone, I have a mate now, so you can all stop breathing down my neck’?”

After a moment, Derek just shakes his head. “It’s no one’s business besides mine, my family and my pack’s, and your family as to whether or not I have a mate. That’s a pretty small group of people, really.” He shifts his weight a little. “How is our private life anyone else’s business?”

Stiles thinks this over for a few moments. It doesn’t really jive with what everyone at school seems to think about werewolf culture, or with what he had theorized Derek would want out of their fake relationship. Wasn’t the whole point of picking someone to get everyone else off his back? But he doesn’t say anything about it, partly because he’s not sure what it means and partly because he just isn’t in the mood for an argument. So he just changes the subject entirely. “Chinese?”

In response, Derek hefts the bag. He lets Stiles change the subject. If nothing else, that means they get to stay in. Then he frowns a little as he passes the bag over and the potent scent of the food starts to drift away. He smells something weird. “Do I smell . . . eggs?”

Stiles freezes for a brief moment. He had cleaned up. Showered and washed his hair, thrown his clothes in the laundry. Then his gaze lands on his backpack, sitting by the door. He had scraped the egg off of it, but clearly not well enough. “Uh, yeah,” he says. “I made eggs earlier. You know. As a snack.” Jesus, he sounds like an idiot. “I mean, I had an egg sandwich when I got home from school.”

Derek hears the uptick in Stiles’ heartbeat that comes with the answer, but it hadn’t exactly been steady before. Nerves will do that. Still, for some reason Derek doesn’t think it’s the truth. Stiles babbles like he’s trying to distract a predator. But it’s also just an egg, so Derek lets it go, accepting the explanation.

When he doesn’t press the issue, Stiles relaxes a little and starts uploading the food onto the counter. “Oh, hey, egg rolls, awesome,” he says. “Geez, did you just walk in and say ‘give me one of everything’?”

“Pretty much. More like ‘I have to feed a werewolf and a teenaged boy’.”

Stiles says something in reply, but it’s completely indistinguishable through the egg roll.

“Uh huh,” Derek says, amused. He reaches for the teriyaki beef on skewers, and takes most of them. “Plates?”

“I suppose if you really feel they’re necessary,” Stiles replies, opening a cabinet.

“No, I’m content for us to act like wolves.”

“That’s the advantage of robbing the cradle,” Stiles says, and although his tone is joking, his eyes flick up to carefully gauge Derek’s reaction, remembering what he and Scott had been talking about before.

Derek cringes a little and carefully puts some space between them, obviously for Stiles’ comfort rather than his own, even though he tries to keep his voice casual. “No one ever believes Cora and I when we say that dinner would be more exciting if everyone had to fight for it.”

“Heh, yeah.” Stiles can’t manage much more than that, because he’s trying to catch his breath. He feels like snakes are squirming around in his stomach; he knows that his heart is hammering out of control and that Derek can hear it. This could be real. The logic stands. If Derek had chosen him because of his unsuitability, he wouldn’t flinch like that at the mention of his age.

Hell, even if it isn’t real, even if he is just a beard, he thinks maybe he can get behind that after everything he’s seen in the last few weeks. He would have been going nuts in Derek’s shoes, watching all of those women pant after him. He would have been desperate to escape. Maybe Derek just hadn’t thought it through. He can certainly understand wanting to get Talia Hale off his back. That woman is scary as fuck, and he’s only met her for forty-five seconds.

Not that any of this helps him figure out how to act in their current situation, so he stalls for time by cramming another half of an egg roll in his mouth.

Derek doesn’t seem to have any idea either. Of course, he can hear Stiles’ heart, and he hopes he hasn’t done anything wrong, but there’s no smell of anger or fear. Nervousness, yes, and maybe a little of the strange fresh air scent that he always associates with hope. He thinks about suggesting they put the movie on, and an annoying inner voice that sounds like Cora tells him that that’s a cop-out. He ignores it. “Movie?”

“Sure. What’d you get?” Stiles asks, opening containers to see what’s inside.

“Prometheus.” Derek joins Stiles in cracking open the containers.

“Oh, sweet!” Stiles says, forgetting about his awkwardness for a few moments. “I tried to sneak in twice, but never made it.”

“Well, let’s hope it lives up to the hype,” Derek says, assaulting a beef stick.

Stiles, as it turns out, is an interactive movie watcher. That’s probably the kindest way to put it. He talks to the screen, throws popcorn (of course he makes popcorn), rolls his eyes dramatically, gestures, flails, and does everything short of actually falling out of his chair. After one particularly involved scene (“Oh, sure, just play with the primordial ooze, are you an android or a toddler?”) he stops abruptly and says to Derek, “Uh. Sorry if I’m annoying you.”

Derek, who has been watching Stiles as much as the movie itself, blinks at him for a second. “No, it’s fine.” Truth be told, Derek had been throwing some pretty skeptical looks at the television himself.

“It’s kind of a – oh, you gonna die, dumbass!” Stiles gets distracted by what’s happening on the screen and starts chucking popcorn at it again. “Geez, I’m a better scientist than you and I’m still in high school.”

“Seriously. I’ve seen domesticated turkeys with a better self-preservation instinct.” Derek is judging people now.

“God, how do you do that?” Stiles asks, tone curious.

“Do what?” Derek asks, a little distracted by the train wreck on the screen.

“That, that thing with your face,” Stiles says, flapping a hand at him. “Like, do they teach a class at werewolf school about how to judge people with your eyebrows?”

“What? No.” Derek considers. “I guess it’s a natural talent. Though my uncle Peter does have a way of rolling his eyes that makes you want to re-examine your place in the universe, and why it happens to be a location close enough to annoy him from.”

Stiles bites back a grin at that, and then the movie starts to get intense, and despite the plot holes, he settles down a little. Which is to say that he’s at the edge of his seat, occasionally shouting profanities and offering advice to the characters, but not getting involved in outside conversations. When the credits are rolling, he leans back with a faintly confused expression. “What the fuck did I just watch?”

“I have no idea. None.” Derek studies the television for another moment. “No. Still nothing.”

Stiles laughs. “Ohhhhhkay then.” He stands up and starts to clear up the remains of their dinner. They had put a pretty good dent in the Chinese food. “Hang on, I gotta call and check on my dad,” he says. It’s nearly ten o’clock. “I hate it when he works night – oh, hi, Dad. Yeah. No, I’m okay, I just wanted to . . . yep. No, it’s . . . fine, really. Okay, see you later.” He tucks the phone away.

“Good?” Derek asks, as he helps gather up the leftovers.

“Yeah. It always is. I don’t really need to check on him, I just . . .” Stiles shrugs. “You’ve got better things to do than listen to my whining.”

“I live with a toddler. You weren’t whining.” Derek carries a few things into the kitchen with Stiles on his heels. “And I absolutely know about checking on people,” he adds, although he doesn’t really look at Stiles when he says it.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Stiles says, and the awkward silence hangs in the air between them.

Derek clears his throat. “Just, uh, don’t ever tell him I showed you that movie. Rating aside. I don’t want him to think my taste is that bad.”

“Well, it looked awesome,” Stiles says, and then shrugs. “You, uh, it’s late, so, uh . . . you should probably go.”

Derek nods, agreeing easily enough. The evening had gone really well. He didn’t want to ruin it by overstaying his welcome. “Let me grab the movie so I can return it,” he says. He’s definitely glad he hadn’t bought it.

“Do you want any of the leftovers?” Stiles asks, not that there’s much.

“Nah. I’d be ambushed before I made it to the kitchen.”

Stiles laughs a little, but a pang of longing goes through him. He wonders what it’s like to have a pack, a family, siblings or relatives who would chase you for your Chinese food or maybe even just to hear how your evening had gone. Not that his father doesn’t listen to him. He’s just . . . not around as much as Stiles wishes he could be. “Okay,” he says, as Derek picks up the movie. “Uh . . . thanks. I mean, I had a good time. This wasn’t a disaster. I mean. Craaaaaap. I’ll shut up.”

“Well, the movie was a disaster,” Derek says. “But it was also kind of hilarious.” He cracks a smile and adds, “I had a good time, too. Next time, you pick the movie.”

Stiles fights to keep the blush off his cheeks. “That’s a dangerous game, you know. My dad’s never going to forgive me for The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

Derek’s never heard of that, but he’s pretty sure there’s only one correct answer. “If it’s horrible, I promise to forgive you.”

“Okay then,” Stiles says, and shuffles from foot to foot for a moment. “G’night, then.”

“Good night,” Derek says, and heads for the door.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The Werewolf Liberation Operation was founded almost fifty years prior by a man named Gerard Argent. Stiles checks the business card Kate had given him. Kate Argent. So it’s a family business. “Sort of like the Westboro Baptist Church,” he says, a little amused despite himself. They have indeed been labeled a hate group, and they’ve been linked to the deaths of a few prominent werewolves, but nothing has ever been conclusively proven.

They’re one of the most outspoken groups calling for more restrictions on werewolf rights. The registry is an idea that’s promoted even by milder groups, so people would always know when a werewolf was living next door. But the WLO calls for much harsher restrictions. They want ‘no werewolf’ zones around schools and parks. They want werewolves to be ineligible for jobs as teachers, day care workers, and officers of the law. The latter makes Stiles bristle, because his father has two werewolves on staff, and they’re both good cops.

They call for the immediate repeal of the laws that had been passed regarding werewolf self-defense. Those are a few decades old now, and had in fact been championed by the Hale family. The argument had been that werewolves could not be expected to restrain themselves in the heat of the moment, if their lives or the lives or their children or mates was threatened. Almost twenty years previous, a werewolf had been convicted of murder after he had killed a mugger who had waved a knife at his human mate.

After the conviction, his lawyers had appealed on the basis that a human would have been allowed to plead self-defense, and it was unfair that the werewolf was not, simply because he happened to be bigger and stronger. Others had argued that, as the werewolves were more dangerous, they should be even more in control of their impulses. But such control was impossible when the pack was in danger, werewolves had responded, and allowances had to be made.

It had been in the courts for years, and finally laws had been passed, but public opinion was still very conflicted on the matter. There were plenty of people who thought that werewolves were, simply put, a better species deserving of such respect. But then there were others who argued that werewolves were oppressing humans.

The WLO wants it to be illegal to turn a human under any circumstances. They even call for restrictions on breeding, saying werewolves shouldn’t be allowed to have children, should even be sterilized to prevent it. Among the other things the WLO calls for is an immediate end to the Searching Ceremony, because it allows the ‘wolves to ‘steal and indoctrinate our children’.

“Won’t someone think of the children?” Stiles asks, and laughs despite himself. It all seems so ridiculous. The teenagers in his class are panting to be part of the werewolf packs in the area. Even the adults aren’t above it, even if they know that their chances are mostly spent. Whoever’s protesting the idea of werewolves stealing children, it’s at a level far above the common man.

“Ugh,” he finally says, slaps his laptop shut, and tosses Kate’s card in the trash. He may not be thrilled with what Derek had done, but he’s not about to be associated with a bunch of fear-mongering, hate-spreading assholes. He checks his watch. He’s meeting the others for bowling in half an hour, so he ducks into the shower.

Scott is practically out of his mind with nerves and excitement when Stiles picks him up. Stiles tells him to calm down before he works himself into an asthma attack. He’s bought Allison actual flowers. Stiles remarks that that’s more appropriate to a prom than a bowling date, but then he sees Allison and forgives Scott for everything. She’s gorgeous, and she blushes prettily when Scott gives her the flowers, and he blushes, and they just stand there, blushing at each other incompetently.

Stiles thinks to himself that this is what teenaged romances are supposed to be like, but he manages to push thoughts of Derek and his own humiliation out of his mind when Scott introduces him. He says hi and waves even though she’s four feet away from him, like a dork. Then Heather and her friend Shameka show up and get introduced, and they all have to get their bowling shoes, which is kind of hilarious.

Allison is good at bowling and immediately does better than any of them. Scott is so bad that it’s embarrassing, and Allison doesn’t mind at all, spending at least an hour patiently showing him how to hold his arm and the right way to move, both of them blushing the entire time, but Allison’s eyes sparkling. She’s obviously having a great time.

“So, Scott says you two met at the Searching Ceremony,” Heather says, as they sit down for burgers and milkshakes at the dinner next door. “You two did it wrong. You’re supposed to meet werewolves.”

Allison laughs. “Yeah, everyone was making fun of us. But my dad would have had apoplexy if I had come home with a werewolf, anyway.”

“Not a fan?” Shameka asks.

“Noooo,” Allison says. “He’s one of those ‘oh my God, werewolves are dangerous monsters stealing our children’ sort of people. He let me go to the ceremony since we’re new in town and it seemed like a good way to meet people, but he wouldn’t let me put my name on the list, and since I’m only seventeen, I can’t without parental permission.”

Nobody says anything to Stiles about him having gotten chosen. Scott has apparently warned Allison that it would be a touchy subject, or maybe since she goes to the other high school, she just doesn’t know about it. So the afternoon is a refreshing change of pace.

“Look,” Heather says before they leave, “I’m really sorry about what I said the other day.”

“No, you’re right, you’re totally right,” Stiles says. “Don’t even worry about it.”

“Thanks, Stiles.” She gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You’re a good friend. And . . . once this whole thing with Derek is over and everyone’s forgotten about it . . . ask me again. Okay?”

“You bet,” Stiles says, but he can’t help but feel glum about the whole thing. “Am I an idiot or what?” he asks Scott, once they’re back in the Jeep. “I know Derek picking me was just a stupid joke, just a way of him getting his parents off his back. He’ll pretend to see me for a little while until they agree to take the pressure off. But I’m still fucking insulted that nobody’s arguing with me about this assumption. I’m like ‘Derek just picked me as a joke’ and everyone goes ‘oh, okay, that makes much more sense than the alternative’. The only guy arguing with me is the one who played the damned joke to begin with.”

Scott thinks about this for a long minute before he concludes aloud, “No matter what I say to that, you’re gonna be pissed off at me, so, I’m abstaining from this conversation.”

Stiles considers. “Yeah, that’s fair.”

So instead they talk about Allison, how amazing she is, how she’s beautiful and kind and funny and good at everything, like seriously, what seventeen year old girl is that good at bowling. And Scott says he asked her to a party on Friday and she said yes, and Stiles should go. Stiles says he’ll think about it, but he already knows he won’t go. He’s going to be showing his face outside the house as little as possible until all this blows over.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

 After some deliberation, Stiles decides that he doesn’t want to make Derek watch something terrible. Not for his sake, of course, but just because it seems like a waste of an evening. Instead, he decides to subject Derek to one of his favorite movies of all time: Brazil. He’s hoping that it will make Derek’s head explode.

 He supposes that it makes them boring to be making their second ‘date’ the exact same as their first, but what the hell, he doesn’t know anything about dating. At least they had enjoyed it the first time. There was no reason, he supposes, to think that they won’t enjoy it the second time. He texted Derek to say it’s his turn for food, and then he orders pizza because his dad’s not home and won’t be able to eat it.

 It’s nearing six o’clock, and he and Scott are still working on their lab report that’s due in chemistry on Monday, but Stiles doesn’t care. If Derek doesn’t like the fact that his friend is there, Derek can suck an egg. They could put it off until Sunday, but they’re almost finished with it, and he wants to get it done. He suspects that Scott is delaying because he wants a chance to meet Derek, which annoys Stiles a little. But he can’t blame his friend. Derek has basically ruined Stiles’ life, whether he acknowledges it or not.

 So when the doorbell rings at five past six, Stiles stands up and goes to get it. There’s Derek, looking just as amazing as ever. Stiles thinks he could write sonnets about the guy’s stubble. He hates himself for liking Derek, even a little. He supposes that Derek can’t be blamed for the reaction of the kids in school. Even if he had realized the consequences of his joke, he had no way of knowing that Stiles was already the target of every bully in a fifty mile radius. And he does like Derek. He’s intelligent, and surprisingly interesting and complex, and pretty funny, although often without meaning to be. Plus he is, of course, more attractive than should be legal. Stiles tries not to look at him too much. “Hey,” he says. “I’m just finishing up some homework, come on in.”

 “Thanks.” Derek gives a little shrug to indicate the homework isn’t a problem. He’s toting a reusable shopping bag with him, trying not to make it too obvious. “I can just wait out of the way or something.” He takes a tiny, quick, almost curious breath. There’s someone else’s scent. It’s vaguely familiar, but he can’t place it. He shrugs it off. Stiles knows people, obviously. Maybe he just recognizes the scent from the last time he was there.

 “You want a soda or anything?” Stiles asks, continuing into the kitchen, where Scott is writing up their conclusions. “Pizza’s gonna be about twenty minutes.”

 “What do you have?” Derek asks, following.

 “Pepsi, Mountain Dew, some kind of orange . . . this is Scott. He’s my BFF. Scott, Derek.”

 “I’ll go with orange,” Derek says. He turns to look at BFF ‘Kind of a Dork’ Scott, who must be the scent he had been picking up. Surprised, he blurts out, “You’re Dr. Deaton’s assistant.”

 Scott blinks up at him with an equal amount of surprise and says, “Oh my God! Squirrel guy!”

 “What . . .?” Stiles asks, his brow furrowing in confusion.

 “Oh, Jesus,” Derek says, looks for the nearest exit. He might be able to make it out the window if he shifts. “I, uh, I have to go.”

 Stiles’ hand shoots out and grabs Derek by the wrist. It’s the first time he’s ever touched him voluntarily. “Oh, no, you’re not going anywhere until I know why you’ve got the nickname squirrel guy.”

 Derek pouts. There’s just no other word for it. It might even be a sulk. He wants to enjoy the contact with Stiles to its fullest, but not while they’re talking about this. “It wasn’t always squirrels. There’s been some birds. And at least one opossum.”

 Scott is grinning now, a wide, happy grin. “He brings in animals to the clinic. Like that had been hit by cars, or wounded by owls, or whatever. He just stalks in with that broody expression and glares at Deaton until Deaton fixes them. The first time it was a squirrel, so after that I always just called him squirrel guy, because Deaton never introduced us.”

 Stiles gives Derek a long, unreadable look. “You. Bring wounded rodents. To the vet.”

 “Who else would I bring them to?” Derek asks.

 Stiles’ expression doesn’t change. “You. Bring wounded rodents. For medical care. You. Derek Hale. Champion of the broken-winged bird.”

 “What?” Derek asks, wishing that Stiles would let go of his wrist so he could fold his arms defensively over his chest.

 As if wishing had made it so, Stiles drops his wrist. He looks at Derek for another long moment before he says, “I, uh, I can’t even with this. I have to go.” He turns and jogs up the stairs without another word.

 Derek turns a judging glare on Scott. To his annoyance, the teenager’s shoulders are shaking with barely suppressed laughter. Derek keeps up the glare. “Less laughing and more fixing,” he says, pointing in the direction that Stiles went in.

 Scott’s hands shoot up in surrender. “Ohhhhh no. I am not going up there right now and neither are you. Trust me as someone who’s known him over ten years. Just give him a few minutes to work through this on his own.”

 “He left.”

 “He’ll be back,” Scott says, confidence in his voice. “He just needs a minute to deal with the fact that he has the weirdest boner right now.”

 “. . . what.” Derek just abruptly sits down. “I mean, not ‘what does that mean’, but just . . . how did we get from squirrels to erections?”

 Scott covers his grin with one hand before he sobers up. “He, uh, he’ll kick my ass for saying anything to you, but uh . . . you kind of come off as a growly, surly, jerk sometimes. Not the kind of person that you picture saving squirrels. And now he knows that you have a heart of gold underneath it, and dude, that is insanely attractive, I say as someone who doesn’t dig guys, at all.”

 Derek’s pout deepens. “I’m just not talkative. And I can’t just leave them there making those little noises. Well, I could, and eventually they’d get eaten, but it’s just . . . cruel. To leave them there. Waiting.” Now he does cross his arms sullenly.

 “Hunh,” Scott says, chewing on the end of his pencil. “I just realized something really important.”

 One eyebrow goes up.

 “You’re an idiot,” Scott informs him brightly.

 “I hate you,” Derek mumbles.

 “Seriously, you are sitting here completely missing the point of what I’m trying to tell you. You could win an, an award for this level of obliviousness.”

 “Then just tell me.” Maybe he is growly. But he gets the feeling that he’s being mocked for something he did as a teenager. Well, okay, still does. The animals in the forest were the only real company he had had after the fire. And they had never cared that he had been all sorts of messed up.

 Scott gives an exaggerated sigh. “The kind of guy who is nice enough to rescue forest animals does not play a cruel joke on a teenager by claiming him as a mate even though he doesn’t want him.” There’s a deliberate pause. “Do you see what I’m saying here . . .?”

 “Oh.” He does see now, but he thinks he can be forgiven for missing the connection because he had never played the prank, never operated under the assumption that he had.

 “Let me be honest with you, dude – the possibility that you actually claimed him scares the shit out of him. He’s, like, convinced himself it was a prank out of some sort of weird self-defense mechanism.” Scott shrugs. “So just . . . don’t say anything. Be cool. He’ll get there, if you give him time.” He chews on his lower lip and says, “You did mean it, right?”

 “Of course I meant it,” Derek says, more snappishly than he means it. “Why wouldn’t I have meant it? The age gap is a little big, but it’s not the first time that’s happened.”

 Scott shrugs. “Just lookin’ out for my brother,” he says, and glances up as he hears footsteps on the stairs. Stiles comes back in, looking about as composed as he ever does. “Hey, I’ve gotta go. I’m picking Allison up for the party at seven thirty. I’ll see you later?”

 “Yeah,” Stiles says. “I’ll finish up the data tables on Sunday. Not that it’ll matter,” he adds morosely, thinking of Harris’ usual reaction to his work lately.

 “Later,” Scott says, waving as he leaves the house

 Derek eyes Stiles, trying to figure out if they’re done talking about the squirrels. Then what Stiles actually said clicks, and he decides to bring up a different subject himself. “What do you meant, it won’t matter?”

 “Hunh?” Stiles asks, blinking at him. “Oh, the chemistry project.” His heartbeat thuds fast. “Our data didn’t come out right, so our grade is shot to hell no matter how well we do the lab report, that’s all.”

 “You have to get each part perfect in order to get a decent grade?” Derek asks. He doesn’t remember a lot of his high school years, to be honest, those years after the fire. But he’s never heard Cora make such a complaint. Then again, Cora goes to the school for the supernatural, like he did. Different teachers, different schedules. He supposes that their grading system might be different as well.

 “Harris is really strict. Well, hey, you met Harris, he was the coordinator at the – anyway, yeah, he’ll downgrade us, whatever. I don’t care that much about my chemistry grade. Hell, I could drop out of school altogether now that I have a werewolf, right?” His tone is light, joking, but somehow bitterly painful underneath.

 “Yeah, I met Harris.” It’s pretty obvious from his tone that he didn’t like the man very much. “And . . . I suppose you could. But you don’t really seem the type, and it’s not, uh, encouraged. Unless you have children or are a person who’s really content taking care of the pack all the time. But there aren’t a lot of people like that. One of the reasons packs have a lot of money is because everyone contributes.”

 Stiles looks at him for a few long moments, considering this and how much it doesn’t mesh with what a lot of people seem to think about being in a werewolf pack. But he doesn’t say anything about it. All he says is, “C’mon, let’s put the movie on.”

 Derek nods and then pauses. “Are we having popcorn?”

 “Well, the pizza will be here in a few minutes,” Stiles says. “I could eat them at the same time, but I don’t know how you would feel about that.”

 Derek shrugs. “I’m good either way.” Then he starts to look a little uncertain, edging towards embarrassed. This is someone else’s house, someone else’s den, and it’s strange, almost rude, to ask them to change things when he isn’t part of their pack. Especially when he knows that he’s in the human community right now and that means he’s the weird one. “But, uh, can we not use the microwave stuff? It doesn’t taste right.”

 Stiles blinks at him. “You . . . want to actually pop some corn? Is that what you’ve got in that bag you’re trying not to let me notice?”

 “Yes?” After a second he nods firmly. “Yes.”

 Stiles clears his throat. “I . . . my mom used to do that. She didn’t like the fake stuff either.” Jesus, why had he said that? That was none of Derek’s business. “We can if you want to.”

 “Thanks,” Derek says, both for the popcorn and the little peak into Stiles’ life he had been given. He leans down and picks up the bag, setting it on the counter and taking out the bag of popcorn, an old-school hot air popper, and a Tupperware with a stick of butter in it. “This is why wolf packs have to have a lot of money. Butter made of soybeans and chemicals tastes like soybeans and chemicals. Meat with preservatives in it tastes wrong. Living without stuff like that is expensive.”

 “But you eat pizza and Chinese food?” Stiles asks skeptically.

 “Some things are supposed to taste like chemical crap. That’s part of the fun. Do you ever open an orange soda and expect it to taste like oranges?” He sets the popper out and looks for a plug, but he doesn’t want to just start using the kitchen. Now that he’s closer to the counter and doesn’t have the scent of food under his nose, the room smells very much like Stiles. This room is his domain. Derek can smell the sheriff here, too, but Stiles’ scent lingers and permeates, clinging to the counters, mixing with the food scents and kitchen cleaners, the cabinets, everything. The way the kitchen in the old Hale house had always smelled like Olivia, after Peter had met her and she had been welcomed into the pack.

 “Over there,” Stiles says, pointing to a set of plugs and completely missing the reason for Derek’s hesitation. “Just unplug the top one; it’s the mixer and I hardly ever use it. And I guess you have a point. It’s just something that we mere humans never think about. I bet you’re a super taster. Do you like kohlrabi?”

 Derek does as instructed, frowning. “That sounds like a tribe of desert natives from the Middle East, so I don’t know.”

 “Geez. What do they teach you in werewolf school?”

 “Pretty much the same thing they teach in human schools.” Derek pours some popcorn into the machine and watches it with half his attention. “For the most part. Did you learn about kohlrabi in school?” he adds, the question teasing, but in a friendly manner.

 “Uhm. No. Good point.” The doorbell rings. “Hey, pizza’s here, excuse me,” he says, ducking out of the kitchen.

 When he gets back, the kernels are still whirling away. “Okay, so what is kohlrabi?”

 “It’s a vegetable that contains PTC,” Stiles says, and with a mouth full of pizza, he proceeds to explain what super tasters are and goes on a lengthy dissertation about the origins of cabbage.

 Somewhere during this, Derek’s tiny smile appears, because somehow, this seems like Stiles in his element. His scent changes slightly, once he really gets going, and settles into something more content than usual. It’s not that Stiles himself has settled, because he hasn’t. He’s gesturing with both hands and sometimes with pizza. It’s full body motions at time. “I’m pretty sure I now know more about cabbage than anyone else in my family.”

 Stiles stops abruptly. “Shit. Sorry. I get carried away sometimes.”

 Derek shakes his head. “It’s fine. Knowing more than my uncle Peter about anything is a challenge.” Then he becomes more serious, but he doesn’t look directly at Stiles because he doesn’t want him to feel pressured. He turns back to the popcorn, putting the butter in the microwave to melt it. “Please don’t stop being yourself.”

 Stiles makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. “I don’t get this,” he complains. “Stop being so, so fucking nice to me, okay?”

 “Why?” Derek asks, sounding a bit frustrated himself, and definitely confused.

 “Because this isn’t real, and I’m okay with you using me as long as you remember that,” Stiles snaps, meeting his gaze in an open challenge.

 Derek faces him squarely. “Well, you shouldn’t be okay with it,” he snaps right back. “Because you’re fucking better than that. And I’m not petty and cruel enough to do that to someone. Even if my mother temporarily lost her marbles and forgot what I’m like, I’m also capable of walking out of those Ceremonies alone, because I did it for years. And I was going to do it again until I met you. I handled it badly, and I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make this a lie.” He takes another deep breath like he’s about to keep going, but then manages to stop himself.

 Stiles flinches away like Derek slapped him. “You picked the exact opposite of everything a werewolf would want in a mate, you arm-wrestled me into it by asking in front of a crowd, and you want me to believe you?”

 When Stiles flinches, Derek takes a step back, putting more space between them. “I didn’t know you weren’t on the List until . . . until it was too late. You were the right person, and I know that’s not what you want to hear me say, but it’s true. I know I handled it badly. I should have pulled you aside and asked for your number and contacted you later or done a million things other than what I actually did. But my head was killing me and I wasn’t thinking and that doesn’t make it better for you, but that’s what happened.” His eyebrows furrow. “What do you mean, the opposite of what we would want in a mate?”

 “Uh, were you there when your mother called me a ‘completely non-viable candidate’?” Stiles asks. “Or when your father said you had chosen someone you obviously wouldn’t enter into a contract with?” He’s bristling, but calming down some. “I think that makes it pretty fucking clear what I mean. All they had to do was look at me to decide that I wasn’t right for the pack, that I wasn’t good enough. So you can cut this ‘you’re better than that’ bullshit out, because even if you think so, nobody else does.”

 “Yes. Because it’s obvious from your appearance and your scent that you’re male and at the moment too young to have kids.” He scrubs both hands over his face. “Mom wants to rebuild the pack. But me having kids won’t replace my brothers or Aunt Olivia and the baby, or, or anyone else.” He slumps back against the counter, expression bleak. “I couldn’t save them, and I can’t replace them now. I don’t want some girl like Mom hoped. I want you.”

 Now Stiles looks desperately uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. “Whoa, uhm, slow your roll, dude. I can’t . . .” He shakes his head and looks away. “Let me keep . . . let’s keep up the pretense that it isn’t real. Okay? Because otherwise, I . . . I’ll have to refuse. Because I’m not right, I’m not . . . anyone a pack would want. And I don’t know why you think I am. If it’s just pretend, then . . . then I can handle this.”

 Derek can smell the desperate need for him to give in to this request. It’s almost overly sweet, and he doesn’t like it. The scent also has the overtone of determination that’s so familiar to Stiles. Derek knows he’ll follow through on the threat if Derek doesn’t agree. “If I promise to keep pretending, can I ask why you think you’re not right first?”

 “No,” Stiles says, his tone blunt, uncompromising.

 Derek holds back a growl. If he knows what the issue is, he can work on fixing it, but apparently he’ll have to keep working blind. “Fine. I agree anyway.”

 “Okay then.” Stiles turns away from him, struggling for composure. “The popcorn is done,” he says, directing the words at the window over the kitchen sink.

 “Right,” Derek says, and busies himself with the butter and salt. By the time that’s finished, Stiles has calmed down some, and put on the movie. They watch it mostly in silence. Stiles still can’t hold back a few retorts now and then, but he isn’t quite as interactive with a movie he’s so familiar with. Parting is awkward. Stiles won’t really look at him, but when Derek says, “I’ll call you later,” Stiles nods and says okay.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

 By the time Derek gets home, he’s calmed down some, but he’s hoping he doesn’t see either of his parents. He can’t be sure he won’t try to take their heads off. It’s Cora he wants to talk to. Inside the door, he hangs up his keys on the hook and shucks off his jacket, then sniffs her out, moving through the house at something of a stalk.

 Unfortunately for him, Cora’s in the living room, watching television, which is where both of his parents happen to be. Aaron is watching TV with Cora; Talia is sitting a little apart, going through some papers. Cora glances up as Derek comes in and says, “Hey, you’re home early!”

 “Yep.” His tone is flat. He looks at his parents with narrowed eyes, trying not to say anything, and manages to wrench his gaze away from them and back to Cora. “Can I talk to you? Somewhere else?”

 Cora opens her mouth to ask if it can wait until her show is over, but then glances at Derek glaring at their mother and thinks better of the idea. Aaron clears his throat like he’s thinking about asking if there’s anything he can do to help, but then he thinks better of the idea. Talia just continues to study her papers in silence while Cora tosses the remote to her father and follows Derek out of the room.

 Derek growls at his father. It slips free when the man makes noise, because everything that Stiles had said has been playing in repeat in his brain all evening. He had been able to push it back for a bit, but never very far. But then he moves away from his father so he won’t do it again, heading towards the stairs. Cora follows him up into his room, where he shuts the door. Their rooms are soundproofed well enough that low conversations won’t be heard outside. “What’s up?” she asks him.

 “What the hell does ‘slow your roll’ mean?” he asks, slumping onto his bed.

 She blinks at him. “Uh, context? I mean, I assume Stiles said it to you, but what did you say to get that reaction?”

 “We argued. I told him that I didn’t want anyone else. Do you need the details?”

 Cora shakes her head and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Then he meant ‘you’re coming on way too strong and it’s freaking me out’.”

 “Jesus. Well, it’s not going to be much of a problem,” Derek says. “He got mad at me for . . . for being nice to him or something. I don’t even know.”

 “You wanna start at the beginning?” Cora asks, somewhat dubiously, like she’s thinking that she’d prefer to be on a different continent from her snarling brother.

 Derek nods and forces a few deep breaths. He starts at the beginning, with ‘squirrel guy’, Scott’s conclusions about his character, and then the discussion about popcorn and chemicals and what it had led to. Cora twitches a little when he gets to Stiles’ blatant lack of any sort of sense of self-worth, like it bothers her even though she hasn’t met him yet. She nods a little when he gets to ‘slow your roll’, like it makes more sense now, and frowns at their eventual agreement.

 “I don’t get why he’s so convinced that he’s all wrong for you,” she says. “I mean, yeah, Mom was a bi . . . bit harsh, but, you’d think he would take your word for it over hers.”

 Derek notices the way Cora can’t quite call their mother out on being a bitch, the way the word just gets stuck in her throat. That’s okay. She’s still their alpha, and while he’s still spitting mad at her, he doesn’t want their pack or their family to fall apart. “I don’t know either,” he says. “He made me promise I would ‘pretend’ it was real the first time I spoke to him after the disaster, and I sort of agreed. But maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I screwed up last time when he thought I would want to take him out and show him off and I told him no, because I just wanted to spend time with him, and can you imagine me trying to take someone out? I don’t know how. And then this time he got angry because I told him to be himself and made that crack about being used, and I just lost it. What’s wrong with him?”

 “Sounds like he’s got the self-esteem of a dead sea slug,” Cora says forthrightly. “But I can sort of see why he’s a little weird about the whole thing. I mean, face it, Der, he doesn’t know you. You’ve spent a total of, what, five hours together at this point? I can see how it would be a little weird from a human perspective that you’re saying ‘I’m only ever going to want you’, I mean, slow your roll,” she says, laughing a little.

 “But that wasn’t even why he was all pissy in the beginning! He told me to stop being nice to him. Like that was a lie. And okay, I know I’m sort of surly with people and not all that talkative, but come on, I’m pretty nice.”

 “Yeah,” Cora says, her tone thoughtful. “He must be trying really hard not to fall in love with you.”

 “Why?” Derek throws himself backwards onto her bed so hard that he bounces.

 “Try to look at it from his point of view, okay?” Cora says. “Let’s work under the assumption that he can feel the mating bond, at least a little. Peter says he can, and Peter’s smarter than either of us, and he’s courted a human, which neither of us have done. So here he is, just a normal teenager, and he gets chosen by this magnificently handsome werewolf – shut up, you’re magnificently handsome, don’t even front with me – and he has twenty blissful minutes of ‘oh wow, something amazing and magical has happened in my life’ and finally being loved in a way that most humans can’t even comprehend, right before he’s told it was all a lie and nobody could possibly want him. Would you be eager to jump back into anything after that?”

 “No. Which is why I agreed to his, whatever that was in the beginning. And I stuck to it. But then he said all that crap about himself tonight,” he says, waving a hand to illustrate.

 Cora rubs a hand over her hair. “Well, shit, I don’t know,” she says. “I’m not a therapist. Hell, I’m sixteen. Shouldn’t you ask someone who might know what they’re talking about?”

 “No, you’re not a therapist. I usually wanted to punch my therapist.” Derek holds an arm out, obviously inviting a cuddle. “But I’ll stop asking you to sort this out for me.”

 “It’s not that I don’t want to help,” she says, leaning against him. “I just think there must be someone better to ask than me. I mean, I’m not exactly experienced in these matters, and I’ve never even met Stiles.”

 Derek wraps an arm around her shoulders. “So far you’ve been more help than anyone else. Except his father. He’s the only person that’s helped me at all, really.” He’s quiet for a moment. “And he’s obviously met Stiles. He might help me again.”

 “It sounds like Scott helped you,” Cora says, “or at least tried to. But yeah. His dad. You should talk to him. I mean, if nothing else, he should probably know what’s going on with his kid.”

 “True. Scott did help. I think. Squirrel guy. Seriously?” He sighs, then glares at Cora, who’s giggling at him. “I’ll see if I can find a way to talk to the sheriff tomorrow.”

 “Good.” She gives his chest a friendly slap. “Come watch Kitchen Nightmares with me. You need to lighten up.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Sheriff Stilinski is working through a stack of witness report while he eats a turkey sandwich one handed (low-fat mayo on whole-grain bread, what did he do to deserve this?) and glances up as Mike Whittemore, the DA, comes in. They have an appointment, and Sheriff Stilinski hastily shoves the papers and the sandwich aside. They spend half an hour going over some charges for a group of teenagers who had been caught vandalizing and shoplifting from stores around town.

As Whittemore turns to leave, he says, “So what are you going to do about that whole thing with Derek Hale?”

“How do you mean?” Stilinski asks, frowning faintly.

“Well, you know,” Whittemore says. “Is your kid going to refuse him or what?”

Sheriff Stilinski folds his hands on top of his desk and says, “Stiles is taking some time to get to know Derek before making a decision, and I think that’s the right thing to do in his case. He’s still young, and he wasn’t on the list, so he’s not rushing into anything.”

Whittemore frowns. “And you’re okay with Hale using your son like that?”

Stilinski’s eyebrow twitches, but he deliberately stays calm. “I’m not sure I get your drift, Mike.”

At this, the attorney shifts a little, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. “Well, you know, everyone knows that he picked Stiles to keep from having to choose a real mate, and it just seems a shame, that he would do that to your son . . .”

“Excuse me,” Stilinski says, “but ‘everyone’ does not know that, because I certainly don’t know that. Everyone may be making an assumption, but that’s not the same thing. As far as I can see, Derek made an excellent choice, and if Stiles decides he’s comfortable with it, I’ll back him one hundred percent. And that’s really all I have to say about the matter.”

Whittemore clears his throat. “Well. I, uh. I’ll show myself out,” he says, and heads for the door.

“Jackass,” Stilinski mutters, once he’s gone. But it’s hard to be irritated. He’s not the first person to have said that or something similar. A whole rash of people offered their ‘sympathies’ at the cruel trick that had been played on Stiles just after it had happened. Sheriff Stilinski is pretty sure that one of their neighbors started the rumors, and as soon as he narrows down who it was, he’s going to have some harsh words to say about it. But since then, everyone’s just accepted the theory that Derek is only using Stiles as a cover to keep from having to choose a real mate. Some of them think it’s an agreement of mutual benefit, wherein Stiles gets the prestige and the protection in return for going along with it. But most people assume that Stiles was forced into it, or worse, doesn’t realize what’s happening.

Every single one of these theories angers Sheriff Stilinski in a different way, but he keeps his mouth shut as much as he can, offering only his own opinions on the subject, careful never to speak for Stiles. Until Stiles makes a final decision, there’s nothing more he can say about it. And he’s beginning to think that’s going to take a while.

He’s just finished his sandwich and is giving a disgusted glance at the celery sticks and chunks of cauliflower that had accompanied his lunch when his secretary pages him. “Sheriff Stilinski? Derek Hale is here to see you.”

Sheriff Stilinski frowns a little at this, but replies, “Have him come on back,” and shoves the bag of vegetables into a drawer to try to forget about it.

Derek comes in a moment later, but pauses in the doorway, catching the smell of food fresh in the air. “Did I interrupt your lunch, Sheriff? I could come back later.”

Stilinski shakes his head and waves him in. “I usually work through lunch anyway. And call me Tom. What’s on your mind?”

Derek closes the door behind him. It won’t stop the other ‘wolves in the station from overhearing, if they happen to be there, but it signals that the conversation, should they overhear it, is to be treated as private. He gives a little huff and slumps into a chair. “Stiles. What else? And the argument that we had last night.”

“Well, this is the first I’ve heard of it,” Stilinski says. “But then, he was asleep by the time I got home. So maybe you should give me the highlights.”

After a moment, Derek nods. He skips some of the ‘squirrel guy’ moments, mostly because he doesn’t think Stiles ever wants his father to hear the phrase ‘the weirdest boner’. He’s noticed that humans can be strange about sex, and given Stiles’ age and the sheriff’s previous comments about wolfsbane bullets, it seems best to avoid that particular subject. “I was going along with our original agreement. I swear I was, until he said that about how it’s okay if I’m using him.”

Tom sighs and rubs a hand over his hair. “Oh boy. It’s a can of worms and no mistake. I think I can see where Stiles is coming from, but I may need a little more information. This . . . bond . . . thing. That mates have. I’ve heard about it, but obviously never experienced it. How aware of it is Stiles?”

“I don’t know.” Derek looks away, uncertain. “We always have it with our mates, but it’s not an instantaneous thing. When we find the right person it forms immediately, but it still takes time to grow stronger.” He rubs his hands over his thighs nervously. “Uncle Peter thinks Stiles can feel it. He would know best. His mate, Olivia, was human.” His voice catches a little on her name, but then steadies. “I can feel it, but I’m still pretty crappy at sorting it out.”

“Okay.” Sheriff Stilinski nods thoughtfully. “My guess is that he can feel it, at least some. And that’s not sure what to do with it. He wants to believe this is real, but you also have to remember that he’s a sixteen year old boy who’s never had a serious relationship before.”

Derek nods after a moment. “Because while we only ever plan to have one serious relationship in our lives and it wouldn’t bother us if that happened young, that must be really weird for a human. And Stiles wasn’t on the List, so it wasn’t something he planned to have to think about.”

Tom raises a finger. “Stiles thinks about everything. And he was on the list last year. And we had talked about it. Seriously. In a way that I’m guessing most of the teenagers didn’t. I made sure that he wanted to be on the list, that he was willing, before he signed up last time.”

“But he didn’t sign up this time. Something must have changed,” Derek replies. “If he thought it through, why is it bothering him?”

“What changed, and what’s bothering him, are the same thing,” Tom says. “Namely, that a whole lot of people told him he shouldn’t be on the List because he wasn’t worthy of a werewolf.” He states this matter-of-factly, although the memories still hurt, thinking back to how Stiles had come back from the Searching Ceremony when he was fifteen, pale and shaking with both anger and pain.

“What?” Derek jerks as if someone has stepped on his tail. Then he rubs both hands over his face. “Of course, then my parents go and say the same thing, even though it was for entirely different reasons. But no, if he was a ‘wolf, he’d be an alpha. People like him don’t come along every day. I doubt it was anyone from the packs who told him that. Even if he doesn’t match anyone, it’s not because he’s unworthy. Are people stupid?” he adds, entirely indignant on Stiles’ behalf.

Sheriff Stilinski is watching this tirade in weary amusement. Then he sighs, leaning forward, onto his elbows. “You have to understand, Derek . . . Stiles has never been popular. He’s never had a lot of friends. He’s a twitchy, clumsy boy who doesn’t always have the impulse control not to say things he shouldn’t, who gets obsessed with random topics, who’s bad at sports and worse with girls. His father is the sheriff, and yeah, he takes flak for that. His mother died when he was seven, and yeah, some lesser species of primate use that to make him feel bad, too. He came home crying once when he was nine because some other kid said ‘your mom hated you so much she died to get away from you’. Kids are cruel to each other, and Stiles has spent the better part of his life soaking up that cruelty.”

Derek bares his teeth at the comment about Stiles’ mother. Among werewolves, that sort of insult most likely would have resulted in blood being spilled. But he gets himself under control. “So now he doesn’t believe it when someone’s nice to him and likes his twitchiness, and thinks his random topics are interesting or funny?” There’s a pause, and then he adds, “Okay, the clumsiness is a little terrifying. I’m always afraid that he’s going to concuss himself.”

“Join the club,” Tom says. “I nearly had a panic attack when he decided to join the lacrosse team. But yes. I think he could have eventually believed it from someone his age, someone a little less . . . glamorous.”

“He’s on the lacrosse team?” Derek asks, sounding a little strangled. Then the second part filters in. “Wait, what?” He’s so baffled that he nearly dismisses it as something he misheard. “I mean, I can see the age thing, but . . .”

Tom looks amused again. “You don’t look in mirrors often, do you.”

Derek looks away. “I hate them. Ever since the . . .” He swallows hard and just reiterates, “I hate them.”

Sheriff Stilinski thinks about this for a few moments. It’s been years since the fire, but he remembers that night vividly, and he remembers the charred mess that had been pulled from the flames. Protocol when werewolves were involved in an accident was to provide any and all medical care even if the body looked more like a corpse than a person. Even with his wolf healing, Derek had been in the hospital for months. He can see where his aversion for mirrors would come from, and it’s obviously going to be necessary to tread lightly. “Well,” he says, “then take it from a forty-four year old heterosexual man that your looks rate about an eleven on a scale of one to ten.”

“You can get together with my sisters next time they pick out my haircut or try to dress me in something besides clothes I can work in.” He clearly doesn’t want to talk about, but he does know how to be polite. “But thank you for the compliment.”

After a moment to roll his eyes, Tom waves this aside. “My point is just that he kind of got thrown into this, he’s trying to come to terms with it, but yeah, he does have a few self-esteem issues.” There’s a painful pause. “A lot of self-esteem issues.”

Derek doesn’t like that, of course, but he can’t make it untrue. “Then what should I do? It’s not like I was being abnormally nice to him.”

“Well, for him, it was abnormal,” Tom says. “But I don’t think you did anything wrong. Nor do I think you should change anything. Just maybe try not to push so hard when he says stuff like that. Say something milder like, ‘well, that’s just your opinion’ or ‘we’ll have to agree to disagree on that’. Not ‘you’re totally wrong and I think you’re amazing’.”

“So we can’t actually argue about it,” Derek surmises, seeing the wisdom in this.

Sheriff Stilinski nods. “Yeah. Just give him some time. I’m really glad you chose him, you know.” A rare smile touches his face. “I’m glad that someone else saw in him what I see in him every day.”

At this, Derek looks down a bit shyly. “I’m glad he fell into the room I was in. Of course, then he immediately tried to brain himself on the floor, but what can you do.”

Stiles' father lets out a snort of laughter. “Here’s your next tip: do something with him other than a movie in our living room. Ask him what he wants to do. That way he’ll at least know that you want his opinion, even if he refuses to make a suggestion.”

Derek nods. “I’m crap at this dating thing.”

“Well, that’s something the two of you have in common.” Tom waves a hand at him. “Go on, go make yourself useful somewhere. I have work to do.”

Derek nods again and stands up. “Thanks again.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Derek is a little surprised when Stiles texts him a few days later. He hadn’t initiated any conversation, wanting to give the teenager some space. It’s a completely inconsequential text, too, about a funny picture he saw on the internet. Derek takes it as a sign that Stiles is trying to make amends for having freaked out. He scours the internet for a funny picture to send in reply.

Two hours later, Stiles texts him with, ‘am reading bout werewolves. true you can hear a packmate howling miles away?’

Derek finds this strangely encouraging. ‘Yes. Under the right conditions a human can hear a wolf howl up to 70 sq miles. We can add 10 to 20 to that easy.’

‘but u can tell who it is howling, right? Humans can’t do that.’

‘True. Sometimes humans can learn gender and general age. Humans in a pack can learn the call of specific wolves over time.’ He doesn’t mention that mates always know their mate’s call, even if they’re human. If Stiles finds it on his own, that’s fine, but Derek won’t mention it before then.

There’s a long pause, then Stiles says, ‘I just howled. Could u hear me?’

At first Derek just gives a brief snort of laughter. He wonders if Stiles had actually done it, and decides he most likely had. Then he considers all the information he could give Stiles about how they’ve never found an adequate vocal equivalent for humans in the pack to a howl, but that extreme emotions usually start to go both ways across the bond after a while. About how a pack can hear a human member screaming in pain or laughing in true joy much further than the sound should actually carry, even if it isn’t as far as a howl. In the end he goes with, ‘No, you doofus. You don’t have the needed lung capacity or the right sort of vocal cords.’

There’s a long pause before an abrupt change of subject. ‘do u rly pool all your money?’

Derek doesn’t hesitate, because this is a matter of course for their lives. ‘Yes. Obviously we keep some to provide for our own interests and hobbies, but the pack pools resources.’ He sends that, then has to correct himself. ‘Except allowances for kids. If you’re too young to have income, you’re too young to give any to the pack.’

‘does it bother ppl? I mean, ur mom makes a lot more than u or ur dad, right?’

‘In our pack, no. We do it proportionately. Mom makes more but she gives more. Someday I’m going to help Cora pay for college even though I didn’t go.’ He hits send, then starts thinking and typing again. ‘Almost all packs pool resources. It’s instinct. Some packs decide to go about it differently. And I’ve heard of there being some trouble, but mostly in non-family packs.’

‘what about ppl who don’t work?’

‘They usually have good reasons. And they’re pack. We take care of them.’ He thinks mostly of Peter. Sometimes Peter has money and sometimes he doesn’t; nobody really knows where the money comes from, because he hasn’t held down a steady job in years. None of them would hold it against him. ‘What do you consider not working?’

‘dunno, just thinking about my options’ is Stiles’ deeply mystifying answer.

Derek considers how to tackle that for a long moment, especially given the things that had been said the last time they had been face to face. Then he goes with, ‘What kind of career are you thinking about?’ He still stands on his gut feeling that Stiles isn’t the sort of person who would ever be content sitting on his ass.

‘some sort of cop prbly,’ Stiles replies. ‘dad has two wolves on the force u know.’

Somehow, Derek isn’t surprised to see that Stiles plans to take after his father. But he blinks at the second statement. It’s the first time in this conversation that Stiles had voluntarily offered up information. ‘I did know. But they’re from neighboring packs, so I don’t know them very well.’

There’s a long silence after that. It goes on for so long that Derek is starting to worry that he’s offended Stiles. He’s lucky that work is quiet today, and since all his busy work is done, he’s basically just sitting around unless the phone rings or a customer comes in. It occurs to him that Stiles is probably reading, and the next text confirms this, as it changes the subject again. ‘some packs are bigger than others, right?’

The question seems deceptively simple to Derek, but there’s not much he can do besides answer it. ‘Yes. And they can change size.’

‘there are all sorts of laws about turning people,’ Stiles informs him, as if he may not know. ‘like the circumstances where u can do it without consent, if someone’s dying or w/e’

Given that Stiles is the son of the Sheriff and wants to be a cop, it wouldn’t surprise Derek if Stiles had those laws plus whole swaths of other laws memorized. Derek also knows some of them, of course. Talia, being both an alpha and a lawyer, knows every detail there is to know about those laws. Some of them she had helped write. ‘The laws are usually a good thing,’ he types. ‘The change is important. It comes with pack and instincts. Nothing about it is simple. It isn’t a magic fix. Some people don’t want it.’ He thinks about that, because those were some of the moral issues, but there were also the practical issues. That makes him think about himself. ‘Sometimes the healing isn’t enough, and it only slows things down, prolongs pain, but won’t save anyone.’

After a pause, Stiles replies, ‘u do know we’re texting and u don’t have to write me a novel, right?’

Derek gives a snort and responds with an emoticon that Cora had basically designed for him. ‘ ,:| You sound like my sister.’ After a moment, he adds, ‘If you ask me a question, I’m going to answer it.’

Stiles doesn’t dignify that with a response. ‘so some packs have humans, right?’

‘Yes.’ Derek sends that tiny, short answer, just to tease Stiles after the previous exchange. But then he quickly starts typing again, because he already knows that this is an issue that should be discussed. ‘We’ve had humans in our pack before. Before the fire, I mean.’ He hates having to make this concrete in text, and his thumbs slow down a little, because apparently he can’t talk about this without stuttering even in text messages. But something tells him that Stiles needs to see or hear it. ‘Aunt Olivia, Peter’s wife, was human.’

‘are werewolf children always werewolves? Is it like a big deal if two werewolves have a baby that’s human? Like a squib or something?’

Derek gives a small huff that’s both amusement at the joke and relief that Stiles hadn’t pursued the subject of the fire. ‘Born wolves always have werewolf children. Throw in a turned wolf or a human and you start rolling the dice. Our pack doesn’t care if one of us is born human. We’re still pack. I think most good packs are like that. Some packs are full of assholes, though.’

‘I read that if a human baby is born into a pack, they’ll change them when they’re too young to know better,’ Stiles replies, ‘and it’s legal b/c the parents can give consent for the baby. true?’

Derek’s lip curls up a little, because it does happen. ‘Like I said. Assholes. There’s no law either way. But a lot of people agree that it isn’t right. It’s just hard to prove. I heard Dr. Deaton once say it was like assigning gender to an intersex baby. That you should always wait.’

‘must come up a lot during squirrel rescue season,’ Stiles says.

Derek sends the little emoticon again. Then he says, ‘Little known fact. Dr. Deaton has a degree in human medicine. Also, I will have you know that the squirrels are always grateful.’ He sends this before he can think better of it.

‘yeah but why do u bother? I mean, you’re a wolf under the skin, right? why not just eat them? do u eat squirrels and stuff?’

It takes Derek a moment to examine the ‘wolf under the skin’ comment from all angles and decide how he wants to reply. ‘We’re wolves all the time but humans all the time, too. Also, there’s no point in eating them. They’re more fur than meat. The tails. It gets stuck in the teeth.’ He sends this, then adds, ‘No, I’ve never eaten a squirrel,’ and then after that, ‘We do run deer and large game, though.’

‘still, seems a little silly to let them go to waste,’ Stiles says. ‘sure to be worth it if you’re hungry enough, right?’

‘They aren’t wasted,’ Derek says with a snort. ‘Pure wolves in the wild will eat anything they find come January if they’re starving because winter has been hard. Werewolves will hunt down the car keys and go to the grocery store.’

‘very Bear Grylls,’ Stiles replies, leaving Derek to wonder what on earth that is, and pondering whether or not a Google search is necessary. Before he can proceed, Stiles sends another text. ‘I’d think you would prefer wild animals. No chemicals and stuff.’

Derek blinks at that. Most people don’t actually think of things like of things like that. ‘Sometimes. You’re right. We don’t like chemical-filled meat. But we buy free range meat. Wild animals taste different because they’re eating wild things. No grains, more greens, flowers, et c.’ He thinks about telling Stiles that sometimes it isn’t about preference at all, though. Sometimes it’s about the need to hunt, to run with the pack on four paws and in nothing but their fur, about the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of the kill. It’s not really about violence, or blood lust like people think, but it’s about pack, about all of them working together without words, the sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of a hunt. The pack that can successfully bring down prey together and survive. But he’s not sure Stiles would be able to see past the violence of it yet. Some humans can get weird when faced with the reality that they’re wolves as much as they’re humans. So he just leaves his comment where it is.

Any worry that Stiles might press the issue in regards to hunting is cleared up when he gets Stiles’ next text. This one, however, opens up an entirely new can of indigestible worms. ‘what if 2 pack members don’t get along? like what if Cora picked a mate that u couldn’t stand? how do u deal with it?’ The underlying question makes Derek’s heart leap into his throat, because he’s fairly sure that what Stiles is actually asking is ‘how can I be part of your pack if your family doesn’t like me?’

He takes a deep breath and types, ‘We do our best to be civil to each other and get along best we can. The rest of the pack tries to understand that we won’t play board games together.’

‘what if the alpha doesn’t like somebody?’

Derek wonders how this had become his life. Then he remembers. His mother. Incidentally the alpha in question. On the other hand, at least Stiles is showing curiosity, which means that he’s thinking about how he would handle being in the pack. ‘The same way. The alpha shouldn’t bar anyone from the pack unless they’re harmful to the pack. A conflict of personality isn’t harmful.’ His thumbs twitch, and he wants to add more, about mates and other circumstances, but he reigns himself in.

‘but the alpha’s the one who decides if a person’s harmful or not, right? so really she could ban any1 she wants,’ is Stiles’ reply. It comes in several short bursts, like he’s afraid if he hesitates to hit enter, he might not ask the question at all.

Derek reads this and cringes. ‘Ultimately, yes. But a good alpha isn’t a dictator.’ He sends that, then adds, ‘They can and will back down when they’ve made a bad call.’ He waits to see what Stiles will do with that, hoping Stiles doesn’t keep pushing the issue until he’s forced to admit that he would leave the pack if Talia won’t allow Stiles in. He’s pretty sure that this will freak Stiles out again.

There’s a long pause. Excessively long. So long that Derek starts to sweat. Then he gets, ‘so is knotting a thing?’

He nearly chokes, gaping openly at the screen for a moment before jabbing at his keyboard. ‘What? No!’ Then after a second thought: ‘Well, okay, maybe if you’re into some really dirty, kinky porn. What are you reading? Stop!’

When Stiles texts back, it’s a web address. ‘wolves4yourpleasure.com’

The link stares at Derek, like a dare. Eventually, he shakes his head at his own stupidity, makes sure his phone is muted and that no one is standing behind him, and clicks on it. It’s sort of like staring into the door to Hell. If said door was lined with well-toned, oddly-pierced, and well-oiled bodies. Doing a lot of interesting things. Derek isn’t the sort to watch a lot of porn, and he certainly hadn’t seen any like this. On the other hand, he does now understand where the question about knotting came from. He closes the website. ‘I have now learned four things.’

‘only 4?’ Stiles replies. ‘I’ve been on that site like an hour and learned about a zillion.’

‘1: There are places I find piercings attractive that I wouldn’t have expected,’ Derek sends. ‘2: There are places that should just never be pierced. 3: No matter what else I might think of anything going on, I have to respect the way those people can control their shift. 4 and last: I don’t want to know how you got onto that website.’

‘that’s all you learned?’ Stiles’ text-tone drips disappointment. ‘geez. I’ll have to find you a picture book with small words.’

Derek frowns at the screen of his phone for a minute, although he’s still mostly amused. ‘I’m at work. I’m not surfing a porn site while I’m at work.’

‘so? I’m at school,’ Stiles replies.

‘oh holy Jesus,’ Derek types. ‘I think I saw a porno that started like this once,’ he adds, and hits send before he can overthink.

‘u want me to find it? prbly on here somewhere. sounds v. educational.’

Derek just starts laughing. Then he tries to tell himself that he shouldn’t let Stiles find porn for him. Even as a challenge. And now he’s thinking about Stiles’ unfair fingers tapping away at his phone. “I’m going to burn in Hell,” he mutters to himself. Eventually, he settles on texting, ‘Just as long as it’s educational.’

‘Told you. Learning about werewolves.’

‘Why during school?’ Derek asks curiously. The conversation has lasted far longer than a study hall.

‘why not?’ Stiles replies.

‘Aren’t you in classes?’ Derek knows that Cora will sneak in the occasional text here and there at the beginning or end of classes, but anything like this and her phone would have been taken away.

‘not at the moment,’ Stiles replies, and that sits there like another dare.

Derek decides to take it. ‘What are you doing instead, then?’ then realizes that the obvious answer to that question is going to be ‘researching werewolves’. ‘Where are you if not in class?’

‘I have all-day detention.’

‘For what?’ Derek can’t help but ask curiously.

‘mouthing off to a teacher and using words she didn’t know.’

‘Were they bad words?’ Derek asks. It doesn’t surprise him at all to find that Stiles knows words that his teachers don’t know.

‘depends on how u look at it. I called her a corpulent pustular troglodyte. but I think I used pustular wrong. should have been pustulated.’

‘oh gross,’ Derek replies.

‘wanna hear the kicker?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘I said it to my English teacher.’

‘I don’t even know what to do with that,’ Derek is eventually forced to type. ‘Except be ashamed of your school.’

‘at least the teacher supervising in-house doesn’t care if I use my phone and my laptop,’ Stiles texts back, ‘so I can keep myself occupied.’

Derek has a few things he could say to that, mainly wondering what he’s supposed to do in an all-day detention if he’s not allowed to use his laptop, but a customer comes in and has a bunch of questions about what kind of soil he needs to buy. When Derek gets back to his phone, he has another text that just says, ‘thanks’.

He studies the text for a long moment, trying to decide if Stiles is thanking him for answering the questions or something else. He decides to go with the same approach he takes with Peter and assume nothing. ‘For what?’

‘keeping me from being bored,’ Stiles replies.

‘You’re welcome.’ Derek thinks about adding something else, but then remembers to ‘slow his roll’. All of his self-edits so far seem to have worked out, as the conversation hasn’t faltered, and he’s very invested in keeping Stiles comfortable with him.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles’ room is never exactly neat, but when he’s on a research binge, any hint of cleanliness is thrown to the wayside. He has books, pamphlets, and papers strewn everywhere. Currently, he’s flopped on the floor, leaning against his wall, shuffling through different paperbacks. There’s a knock on his door and he absently says, “Yeah, c’min.”

He doesn’t look up, because he’s highlighting in books he doesn’t own with yellow and pink markers, and then he hears a female voice say, “Wow,” and his head jerks around. Scott is standing there with his usual goofy grin, and Allison is behind him. They’re both dressed casually, although Allison is in a short little skirt that draws attention to her amazing legs.

“Hey,” he says, somewhat idiotically.

Scott raises his eyebrows, but he’s still smiling, as he says, “Ice skating? Four o’clock? Sound familiar?”

“Shit!” Stiles looks around at the stacks of papers everywhere. “I got distracted.”

“That’s okay,” Allison says, sitting down on the edge of his bed. “What are you doing?”

“Research,” Stiles says, his mouth full of marker. Then his face lights up. “Hey! You can help me out if you’ll let me ask you lots of prying questions that you won’t want to answer.”

“That’s a sales pitch I definitely can’t say no to,” Allison says, laughing.

Scott just groans. “Tell me that this isn’t about that pamphlet about menstrual cycles that traumatized you . . .”

“No, it’s about werewolves,” Stiles says, “and your dad does a bunch of anti-werewolf activism, so you might know stuff that I don’t.”

Allison grimaces. “I might, but usually when my dad starts talking about that stuff, I leave the room.”

“Yeah, but, but your family founded one of the primary anti-werewolf groups in the country.” Stiles plows on, oblivious to her discomfort with the topic. “And, see, here’s the problem. I thought to myself hey, if I have questions about all this werewolf stuff, I should just start looking stuff up. But I’m coming up with all this conflicting information. I’ll read a textbook but then find totally different stuff in an educational booklet and then even different stuff on the internet. And a lot of the groups like WLO say that the stuff put out by werewolf families is ‘propaganda’ to entice people into packs, but at the same time some of the prominent werewolf researchers say the stuff the WLO produces is hate literature full of lies, and so I don’t know where to go to get answers.”

“Give us an example,” Scott says, plopping into Stiles’ desk chair.

“Okay,” Stiles says, and starts digging around in his papers, basically doing the breast stroke to swim across his floor. “Okay. Here’s a good example. So like, there are laws about werewolves turning someone if their life is in danger. Some people have, kind of, the werewolf equivalent of DNR orders. You know, not to be turned into a werewolf, ever. But if you look at where these laws come from, the WLO and their ilk make it seem like they were put in place primarily to protect people, and the werewolf culture makes it seem like they were put in place to protect the werewolves. Like, because a guy sued a werewolf for turning him and the werewolf was like ‘well excuuuuuuse me for saving your life, douchebag’.”

Scott frowns faintly. “How much Adderall have you had?”

“What? I don’t know. A lot? Anyway,” Stiles says, not missing a beat, “I have to admit that the WLO makes it sound like alphas are just hanging around hospitals, waiting to pounce on dying people and abscond with them into a life of werewolfism and iniquity, which doesn’t actually make sense. Given that only alphas can turn people and there are like . . .” He shoves stacks of papers around. “It depends on the population, but in rural areas there’s about one werewolf for every thousand people, and one alpha for every twenty-some-odd werewolves. So that’s like . . .” He counts on his fingers. “So, Beacon Hills has about fifty thousand people. Which means there are about fifty werewolves within the city limits. Which leaves two and a half alphas . . . but we can round up to three.”

“Get to the point,” Scott says.

“Well, okay, my point is still that there are three alphas in Beacon Hills, and fifty thousand people, so they can’t exactly be sitting around waiting for people to get into near-fatal accidents so they can snatch them up for their packs. The denser the population, the less likely you are to have werewolves, ‘cause they like their space, and that means that they actually would have further to travel if someone got hurt – “

“Stiles . . .”

“Right, my point is that the WLO is full of shit,” Stiles says, then looks at Allison and says, “Sorry.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Allison says, skeptically. “My parents used to bring me to those protests when I was a kid. They would have me holding signs before I could read enough to know what the signs said. You have no idea how pissed my father is at me right now, just because I’m dating someone whose best friend is mated to a werewolf. There’s three degrees of separation between me and the werewolf and he’s still mad at me.”

Scott winces. “I, uh . . . sorry?”

“Don’t be sorry,” Allison says, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I hate it when he gets like that. There’s no reason for it.”

“The problem,” Stiles says, “is that, okay, that’s one example. But then there’s a ton of conflicting evidence about . . . how werewolves choose their mates, why werewolves choose mates, what being mated into a pack is like, and I . . . this kind of stuff is important and now I don’t know what information I can trust. Where to get the answers that I . . . I feel like I need.”

Scott chews on that for a minute. “Did you ask Derek?”

“I actually did,” Stiles says. “And I got some answers that basically mirror what the werewolf culture texts tell me.”

“I’d think textbooks would be more accurate than . . . this stuff,” Allison says, nudging a pamphlet with her foot.

“Well, yeah, except the textbooks have all been written by werewolves, so you can sort of see them having reason to fib,” Stiles says, “I mean, if the WLO is right about anything. And . . . there are some things that suck. But I’m not sure whose fault they are. Like, everyone’s jealous of me, right? But the way some of this stuff makes it sound, it’s like . . . there never would have been anyone else. For Derek. That if he hadn’t met me, he would’ve been alone. And that . . . freaks me out, to be honest.” He rubs his hands over his hair. “But you’ve got these ‘how to get a werewolf mate’ pamphlets. And they aren’t put out by the WLO. I mean, the WLO and their type want to keep humans as far away from werewolves as possible. So where is this shit coming from? Because it paints an entirely different picture about how to get a mate. I mean, did you guys know there are perfumes made that are specifically designed to appeal to werewolves? Competing brands, even, with lots of big scientific words in their ads. And books about the way you should move, the kind of things you should say during the Searching Ceremony that will attract a werewolf.”

Scott thinks about this. “And it’s not like you did any of this stuff.”

“Right.” Stiles takes a deep breath. “So . . . this thing with me and Derek . . . it can’t be . . .”

“If you say it isn’t real, I will slap you silly, I swear to God,” Scott says. “Keep up that pretense with Derek to keep it from getting more serious than you’re comfortable with if you want, but don’t even try that bullshit with me. Dude. For real. That guy has it bad for you.”

Stiles scowls at him. “You’ve met him all of once – “

“Actually I’ve met him like half a dozen times, and yeah, he’s a brooding, surly guy who glares a lot and wears leather, but he is not the kind of guy who picks out a random teenager to use as a beard. At most, if he really wanted to do that to get his parents off his back, I can see him approaching you and saying, ‘wow, I really need my parents to cut this shit out, would you mind playing along with this’, and then, if you agreed, doing the whole thing. But he wouldn’t ambush you like that. C’mon, Stiles. You know that; you’re just being chickenshit.”

There’s a long silence while Stiles fiddles. “Yeah, maybe,” he finally says, and then changes the subject. “You see my point, though. With the ‘how to win a werewolf’ stuff. If that’s not right, where is it coming from? Because that’s why my life sucks right now. Everyone thinks it’s a joke because I shouldn’t be attractive to werewolves, except that apparently I am. Or something. Ah, it’s all messed up.”

“Probably the people publishing it think it’s romantic,” Allison suggests. “They’re just . . . misguided.”

“Yeah.” Stiles tosses a pamphlet across the room. He’s not sure how to explain why it bothers him so much. Maybe he’s just overthinking it because of the tangle that currently comprises his life. “Screw it, I need to get out of the house. Ice-skating it is.”

Allison rises to her feet. “But seriously . . . back when my dad had me indoctrinated into the anti-werewolf school of thought . . . I had to do a lot of the same things. Find the real information underneath all the propaganda. I didn’t do it like you did, though. You have to get to know them. As people. That’s how you’ll know what they’re like. You’re not going to find your answers in books, Stiles. You’ll find them in the pack.”

She leans over to give him an embrace, and Stiles returns it, startled. She smells nice, like lilacs, and he hugs her back for a minute before she lets go and smiles at him. Not for the first time, he’s glad that Scott found somebody so amazing. Allison links hands with him and kisses him on the cheek so he won’t feel left out. He turns pink.

“You know,” Stiles says, “in some ways, I think you’re a lot smarter than I am.”

Scott laughs. “And he does not say that every day.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

A couple weeks go by, ranging from ‘terrifyingly awkward’ to ‘tantalizingly awkward’. Derek asks Stiles where he wants to go, and they wind up at the batting cages. The man there knows Derek, and reminds him not to break anything. He grumpily agrees. Stiles isn’t as bad as Derek had half-anticipated. When he’s allowed time to focus, he’s nowhere near as clumsy. Sports that require quick movement and action are obviously never going to work out, but sports that require more deliberation seem possible. In addition to that, he gets to help correct Stiles’ stance because seriously, what is his elbow doing, and Stiles doesn’t flinch away at his touch.

He comes over a few evenings during the week, while Stiles’ father is working, and sometimes they just sit around and talk while Stiles does his homework, or they’ll play video games or watch television. ‘Slow your roll’ becomes Derek’s mantra. He reminds himself of it at least ten times on every meeting, reminds himself that first and foremost, he needs to be Stiles’ friend right now. Once Stiles is comfortable with him, then they can worry about everything else, and pushing him isn’t going to help.

It’s midafternoon on a Wednesday when his phone buzzes to indicate that he has a new text, and Derek glances up from the row of seedlings that he’s tending. He takes a minute to clean up his hands before he fishes it out of his pocket to see that it’s from Stiles. As always, there’s the brief rush of excitement and happiness, and then he taps on the message to see what it says. It’s quite brief. ‘u busy?’

That isn’t how these conversations usually start. Sometimes things are cut off because one of them has to attend to something that meant they couldn’t text, like a part of his job that meant he was elbow deep in water, or Stiles having a class, or a meal with his father. But it’s never a question asked. They just always send the first text and, at least in Derek’s case, hope for the best. So he gives his reply a little thought. ‘Nothing that can’t wait.’

The response is almost immediate, which is also unusual from Stiles. ‘can u pick me up from schl. flat tire.”

Derek looks outside at the pouring rain and then back at the repotting. The little seedlings that haven’t been transferred yet will be okay where they are for another day or so and he can get them repotted during his lunch the next day. ‘Sure. You call a tow truck?’

‘no’ is the only response he gets.

Derek eyes that suspiciously but decides he should maybe leave it be for now. ‘I’ll be there soon.’ There’s no reply, so he finishes up what he’s doing, talks to his boss, and heads for the Camaro. The school is in the center of Beacon Hills, nearly twenty minutes away from his work, but he gets there as quickly as he can. Stiles is sitting in his Jeep to stay out of the rain, and the parking lot is nearly deserted. Right away, Derek can see that Stiles’ definition of ‘flat tire’ was somewhat of an understatement. In fact, all four tires are flat, completely flat, and have obviously been the target of vandalism. There are pieces of rubber scattered around the car. Stiles is sitting inside, just resting his head on the steering wheel.

Derek very nearly growls, but manages to curb it before it can leave his throat. Despite temptation and instinct, he knows that’s no way to behave, nor will it actually help the situation. He’s going to need to borrow his father’s truck so they can get Stiles four new tires, presuming that his rims are still all right. He gets out of the Camaro and heads around his car and over to the Jeep, hoping Stiles will notice him without him having to knock on any part of it because that would startle Stiles.

As soon as his car door shuts, Stiles’ head jerks up. He sees that it’s Derek and relaxes, then hops out of the car. The rain has slackened somewhat, although it’s still definitely coming down. He shoves his hands deep into his pockets and says, awkwardly, “Hey.”

“Hey.” He approaches, but is careful not to crowd Stiles and doesn’t take much notice of the way his clothes and hair are starting to plaster themselves to him. “Should I ask what happened? Or just what you want to do now?” He suspects that Stiles is going to skip the ‘what happened’ portion of the proceedings.

“I, uh . . .” Stiles seems less talkative than usual. “If I called a tow, they would call my dad, and . . . thanks for coming. Could we just, uh, I just need to go buy new tires. Yeah. That’s what I need to do.”

“Okay.” Derek is quiet for a second. “I’m going to need to borrow my dad’s truck. Do you want to come with me to pick it up or do you want to wait here?” He tries very hard to appear as if he has no opinion on this matter.

Stiles pushes both hands through his damp hair and says, “Well, I don’t really want to wait around here, so I guess I’ll go with you.”

Derek gives him a nod and unlocks the passenger door of the Camaro for him before circling around to the driver’s side and getting back in. Stiles gets in and slouches into the seat, buckling his seatbelt without hesitation and then running one hand over his damp hair. He seems strangely silent, staring out the window at the rain and not making any effort to make conversation.

The scent of Stiles’ angry misery, which Derek had been able to ignore out of the car because the drizzling rain had dampened it, now hit him full force and his hand tightens on the steering wheel for a moment while he forces himself not to start demanding answers. Obviously, Stiles’ tires had been slashed, and not just enough to let the air out. No, they had been slashed to pieces. It’s also pretty obvious that Stiles doesn’t want to talk about it, nor does he want his father knowing, even though Derek knows that a crime had been committed against him. So he tries to keep from asking.

After a few minutes, the silence obviously gets to Stiles. He starts to fidget, just little finger movements at first, worrying at the hem of his wet sweatshirt, and then drumming on his knees. Finally, he says, “So, uh . . . what were you doing? When I called?”

Derek looks over at him briefly before returning his attention to the road. “Repotting seedlings.” It occurs to him that this explanation, while factual, isn’t actually that informative. “In the greenhouse where I work.”

“You work in a greenhouse?” Stiles sounds a little surprised.

Derek shrugs a little. “It’s a landscaping firm. We raise a lot of our own plants and I have a green thumb.” Said thumb taps against the steering wheel once or twice. “I’m good with plants. People, not so much.”

“Boy, do I know that feel,” Stiles says. “Although I kill plants just by looking at them.” His hands knot in his lap. “My mom was the one who gardened. I tried to do it for a while, but . . . honoring her memory, it wasn’t.”

Derek mulls over how to reply to that, coming up with and discarding several options. “If you want, I could help you take another look at it.”

Stiles glances at him, fidgets, and then just says, “Yeah, maybe.”

Derek nods, accepting that as answer enough. He doesn’t like talking about the family and pack that he lost, but that doesn’t mean he wants to forget them either. He imagines that Stiles feels the same about his mother. The sadness that he scents off of Stiles won’t go away, but maybe having a garden to remember her by will help. 

Stiles is quiet for another minute before saying, “It’s just weird to think of you guys having jobs. I mean, I know that your mom is a lawyer and your dad writes, I think, but we – well, I kinda picture you guys sitting on your werewolf thrones, looking down at the plebes.”

“Well, Peter seems to think that way. Then again,” Derek’s eyebrows arch as he considers this. “He seems to thinks everyone who isn’t him is a plebe. We try to slap him down pretty quick, though.” Derek mimes a quick smack to the back of an invisible head.

“Wow, you actually didn’t have to ask me what ‘plebe’ means. I’m impressed. Really.”

“Now I think I’m insulted.” But really, he sounds sort of amused. “Do people often have to ask you to translate? Is that a common issue?”

“What, when I use big words?” Stiles shrugs. “Scott does, sometimes, or he just figures it out from context. Nobody else really gives a shit.”

“That seems like a good way for them to come out on the losing end of all sorts of things.” Derek muses.

Stiles just gives a shrug, not elaborating on his train of thought as Derek pulls into the parking lot of the Beacon Hills Tribune, where his father works. He pulls in right next to his father’s monstrous pick-up truck, several sizes larger than he could possibly need and the object of much teasing from the rest of his family.

“I could put my entire car in the bed of that thing.” Derek shakes his head. “ Let me go get the keys. You can wait here or come with me. Your choice.”

“I’ll just wait here,” Stiles says.

Derek nods, turns off the car, and takes the keys with him when he leaves. “Dad might want them,” he says by way of quick explanation, and then heads towards the building. He nods to several people who have become familiar to him and vice versa over the years in a quiet greeting on his way to his father’s office, where he just steps inside knowing the man heard him coming and maybe even caught his scent depending on the air currents.

“Hey, Der, what’s up?” Aaron asks, half-looking up from what he’s doing. He can tell that Derek is a little upset, although more confused, so he does stop what he’s doing even if he doesn’t quite give Derek his full attention.

Derek moves in closer to his father’s space, leaning a hip on the man’s desk, which is certainly closer than would generally be considered socially appropriate, but no one here is going to frown at two werewolves pushing the bounds of normal human personal space. Especially anyone who knew Derek after the fire when he was finally released from the hospital and used to spend hours curled up at his father’s feet in either human or wolf form. So Derek leans against his father’s desk, with his keys still clutched in one hand and says, “I need to borrow your truck. Please.”

“Mm. Okay.” Aaron is still typing. “What for?” he adds, fishing his keys out of his pocket.

Derek scowls ever so slightly. “I need to go pick up new tires.”

“Oh, yeah? What happened to yours?” Aaron asks, holding the keys just out of Derek’s reach, not to be a jerk, but just because that happens to be where his arm is.

“Nothing, actually. The Camaro is perfectly fine.” He takes a little bit of pleasure in denying his father the right to mock his car.

Now Aaron frowns, stops his one-handed typing, and looks up. “Then what, are you building a tire swing for needy children? Or did one of your bizarre customers demand a tire statue for their garden?”

“That day may come, but it’s not this day.” Derek frowns, thinking of the state of Stiles’ tires. “Stiles need new tires for the Jeep. He asked me to pick him up and give him a hand. But I obviously can’t transport tires in my car.”

“Ahhhh. So you’re coming to beg for the use of my truck, the same one you’ve told me is obviously just a compensation issue because who could ever need a truck that big?”

Derek’s eyebrows arch. “It is a compensation issue. A normal pickup truck would work just as well, but since you don’t have one I’m asking to borrow what’s available to me. Which is that behemoth you drive.” He makes a dive for the keys. “Stiles is waiting out in the car.”

Aaron is just about to let him have the keys, but when he hears that, he jerks them out of the way. “Oh, really? So he called you for a ride?”

“Just give me the keys before he thinks that we’re talking about him behind his back. Yes, he called me and asked me to pick him up. Yes, he asked me to give him a hand.” He uses an awful lot of self-control not to say ‘and no, it isn’t any of your business.’

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Aaron asks, letting him take the keys. “Better give me yours so you two don’t have to come back here. I’ll just drive the Camaro home . . . later. A lot later. I’m chasing a good story right now, so, you know. I’ll probably be here for a while.”

Derek sets his car keys down on the desk and takes the others from his father. “Thanks.” The statement is simple but heartfelt, and he turns to leave.

“Your mom will be working late on the Packer case!” his father calls after him.

“Thanks for letting me know!” Derek calls back. He’s not sure if a home free of parents and ‘bears’ will be worth anything to Stiles, but it’s nice to have to option available. He makes his way back down to the Camaro and opens the driver’s side door. “Got the keys to the truck. Come on.”

“Okay.” Stiles climbs out of the Camaro. The rain has momentarily slackened off to a drizzle. He climbs into the passenger side of the large pickup and settles down into the seat. “Did he, uh, did he ask why you wanted it?”

Derek locks the car from the drivers door and then climbs into the truck. “Yes. Hoping to make fun of my car, to start with. I told him that you asked for a ride and some help replacing some tires. I figured you didn’t want anything else to be other people’s business.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Stiles fidgets, then says, in a matter-of-fact tone that only wobbles a little, “It’s not a big deal.”

That earns him a sideways look. “I’m not eager to piss you off, but it did seem sort of like a big deal. One tire getting slashed is a jackass being a jackass. Four is a big deal.”

“Jesus, you don’t fucking understand anything,” Stiles retorts. “Are you that fucking new? Why do you think this happened?”

“I don’t know why it happened, Stiles. Aside from the fact that people are assholes. I’m sure there’s more to it, but I don’t know what.” He sighs and it sounds a little annoyed. “But I don’t see how my not understanding why it happened makes it any less serious. So explain it to me, please.” There’s no mocking in the request. He honestly wants an answer.

Stiles sighs in frustration and pushes both hands through his hair. “People are jealous, you colossal idiot.”

“Why?” Derek asks, scowling. “I mean, I’ve put together that they’re jealous that I picked you, asked you to be my mate over them, but I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s such an amazing honor.”

“Uh, have you looked in a mirror lately?” Stiles asks, then realizes what he just said and suddenly finds his fingernails extremely fascinating.

Derek shrugs. “I’m flattered, but I’m also not the only attractive man in the universe. And there are certainly ones out there that would be easier to live with.” He doesn’t otherwise comment on Stiles compliment or subsequent shyness and he tries to pretend he doesn’t stare at Stiles’ hands.

After a long moment, Stiles clears his throat and says, “Just . . . don’t tell my dad, okay? I’m handling this.”

“You asked for help. I just drive the truck.” Derek has absolutely no intentions of tattling on Stiles to his father, but he also doesn’t want to promise not to tell, if only because Stiles is a minor and if Sheriff Stilinski backs Derek into a corner over something and finds out he’s lying, the man can cut off his contact with Stiles.

“Good.” Stiles huffs out a breath. “Yeah, that’s good. Uh. Thanks and all that.”

“Not a problem.” He pulls up to one of the main drags through town and asks, “Where to?”

“Oh, uh. Discount Tire. On Main Street. I called them already; they were gonna set something aside for me.”

Derek nods and makes his way there, vaguely wondering how Stiles has to money to just pay for four new tires. But it seems rude to ask. He knows he would have bought them for Stiles if asked, but he was also pretty sure that he wouldn’t be getting the chance to do something like that any time soon. Stiles just continues to fidget until they get there, and then he hops out of the truck’s cab almost before the vehicle has come to a complete halt and is ducking inside the store before Derek can say anything. Derek follows after a moment but hangs back, out of Stiles’ way and a polite distance from the counter. He’s only there in a supportive, auxiliary capacity.

Stiles spends several long moments chatting with the man behind the counter, as if he knows him, and then hands over a credit card. He’s still fidgety, but somewhat less so, as he signs the receipt. Then he gestures at Derek and says, “The man with the truck.”

“The man has more than that, I hear,” the salesman replies, and although he doesn’t say it in a particularly mean or mocking manner, Stiles hunches inward like a turtle withdrawing from danger.

Derek has already started to approach so he could ask where to pull the truck around to. He can here the conversation perfectly well with his canine hearing, but it’s always considered polite to try to use human norms when surrounded by humans. He has absolutely no trouble hearing that comment, though, and wastes no time at all in giving the man a slightly questioning and totally judging hike of the eyebrows while a good distance away.

Stiles doesn’t say a word for the rest of the transaction. The man tells Derek where to put his truck, and he does. By the time all the tires are loaded, Stiles is already back in the cab, waiting.

“What in the hell was that?” Derek says as he closes his door and throws the truck in reverse.

Stiles gives him a sideways glance and then says stiffly, “Which part of it are you having trouble understanding?”

“Exactly what do people think they’ve heard about what I may or may not have?” He’s pretty much just confused, and maybe a little worried about any rumors that may be circling.

“You have me,” Stiles says, his voice thin and tight.

“No, I don’t.” Derek replies quietly, and drives them back to the school, leaving the silence for Stiles to break as he sees fit.

“Yeah, whatever,” Stiles mumbles, but he doesn’t actually argue, which is good enough for the time being. Then he stares out the window. The rain has started again, and it’s coming down heavily by the time they reach the school. He watches it for a moment, then sighs and gestures, a little flaily, and says, “Ladies and gentlemen: my fuckin’ life.”

Derek isn’t all together thrilled about the rain either, but listens for a moment with his head cocked to the side and sighs a little. “I don’t think it’s going to let up for a while.”

“Of course not,” Stiles says, and hops out of the truck without another word. He opens the back door of the Jeep and starts digging around for the tool kit he keeps there for emergencies.

Derek slides out of the truck as well and circles around next to the Jeep, watching Stiles hunt. He knows he’s strong enough to undo the bolts by hand. It’s not pleasant but he can. “You want me to . . .”

“No,” Stiles says, pulling out the tool kit. “I’ve got this.” There’s a bare pause. “You can unload the tires from the bed of the truck. If you want.”

“Sure.” Derek goes to get the tires, leaving Stiles to his took kit.

It takes several minutes, especially with the rain limiting visibility, but he gets all the bolts loosened, occasionally stopping to pick up a piece of rubber and throw it in the direction of the empty lot. Then he starts digging around for the jack. “Oh, come on,” he mutters. “I know you’re in here somewhere, you little bastard . . .”

“What?” Derek can’t help but ask.

“I can’t find the fucking jack,” Stiles says, pushing his wet hair out of his face. “Maybe my dad nabbed it for some weird reason . . .”

“Here, let me.” Derek bends at the knees, because that’s important even for werewolves, and hooks the fingers of both hands under the back end of the Jeep, lifting it about a foot off the ground.

Stiles blinks. “Holy shit,” he says, staring at Derek’s biceps more blatantly than he intends.

“Okay, one thing I do have is upper body strength.” Derek says, his tone a bit amused. When it appears Stiles might stare for a good hour or so, he clears his throat and says, “Although I really can’t hold it for more than ten minutes or so.”

“Oh, uh, right,” Stiles says. He turns to get one of the tires, trips over absolutely nothing, and flails as he catches himself against the pick-up truck.

Derek breaths a sigh of relief that Stiles keeps himself from hitting the ground, because it might have been difficult to keep the Jeep up in one hand and try to catch Stiles with the other. He also doesn’t exactly understand how he can find the klutziness so damned endearing, at least when Stiles isn’t actually in danger of concussing himself.

It takes Stiles a few moments to gather himself, but Derek doesn’t seem to have any trouble holding the Jeep, so Stiles busies himself changing the tires and settles for being glad that Derek is wearing a dark-colored T-shirt. The way the fabric is clinging to his chest and abdomen is bad enough without it being see through. He gets the two back tires on, then clears his throat and just manages, “Um.”

Derek sets the Jeep down without any further prompting and circles to pick the other end up. He’s just trying not to stare at Stiles’ hands working, because he does not have Stiles, and since Stiles is a fair bit younger than him, that means he isn’t allowed to stare.

Stiles, who is blissfully unaware of Derek’s similar problems, gets the front two tires changed. Then the two of them haul the ruined ones over to the dumpster. Derek isn’t sure they should throw away evidence of vandalism, but since Stiles obviously doesn’t plan telling his father about this, he supposes there’s no reason not to. The rain is still coming down steadily as Stiles tugs at the bottom of his shirt and says, “Uh, well, thanks. You know.”

“You’re welcome. Any time.” Derek does his damnedest to hide his disappointment at the fact that Stiles is clearly planning to part company with him. He had been hoping to have Stiles come over for a while since his parents weren’t going to be at home, but he’s pretty sure that asking will only make Stiles uncomfortable, so he doesn’t. He just heads over to the cab of the truck.

He’s just gotten in when he hears the door of the Jeep open and close as Stiles gets in. Then there’s the coughing and sputtering of an engine trying to turn over, but failing. It stops, and then Stiles tries again. The car still won’t start. Derek looks over to see Stiles just leaning his head against the steering wheel and saying, audible even through the rain, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Derek looks up through the windshield at the sky and thinks that someone may have gotten lucky with the rain. It had washed away the scent of whoever had completely fucked over Stiles’ Jeep and upset him so much. That meant that Derek wouldn’t be able to catch the person’s scent and put them through a wall for the crime. He takes a deep breath to get a hold of his temper and leans across the seat to open the passenger door of the truck in an obvious offer.

There’s a long moment of silence. Then Stiles gets out of the Jeep. He digs around in the back for his backpack, then tosses it into the cab and gets in. “I’ll just . . . figure this shit out tomorrow when the weather’s better,” he mutters, not looking at Derek.

Derek nods. “I’ll just drive you home. So you can dry off before you catch cold.”

“It doesn’t actually work that way, numbnuts; we’re not that fragile,” Stiles responds automatically, then flushes pink, looking at the way Derek’s shirt is clinging to his chest. “But, uh, yeah, dry clothes. You should get some too. Uh. Immediately.”

“I didn’t say it because I think you’re fragile. I said it because it’s what I’ve basically always been taught. I hear humans say it to each other all the time.” He makes no comment on the feeling state of his nuts. “I, uh, can’t change until I go home,” he adds, although he takes encouragement from Stiles’ remark and the sideways glance the teenager is giving him. The way he’s chewing on his lower lip is distracting, to be honest.

“Oh, shit, yeah. I guess even my dad’s clothes probably wouldn’t fit you.” Stiles continues nibbling on his lower lip for a moment. “Let’s just go back to your place, I guess.”

“You sure?” Derek tries not to sound too hopeful.

Stiles seems to deliberately misunderstand his question. “Yeah, I mean, someone there has to have some clothes that will fit me.”

Derek decides to just roll with it. “Yeah. I think Uncle Peter’s should actually fit you pretty well. He’s almost as tall as I am.” He wishes he could text one of his sisters to see who’s at home and warn them against making any comments about why Stiles wants him to change immediately. He doesn’t think Stiles could or would tolerate any teasing, although it’s nice for Derek to be able to pick up from his scent that he isn’t completely uninterested. It just isn’t okay for Derek to do anything with or about that interest until Stiles likes him for more than his upper body strength.

They drive for almost two full minutes in silence before Stiles abruptly says, “The reason people are more likely to get sick when it’s cold outside is because they spend more time indoors, and when you cram a bunch of people into a small, enclosed space, they’re more likely to pick up germs from each other.”

It takes Derek a second or two to wrench his mind back to the previous topic of conversation. “Oh.” He hadn’t actually known that, but there’s logic to it. Not that these were things werewolves often had to worry about. “All right. But I still say that it isn’t what the general population thinks.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, at least somewhat agreeably. “But the general population is pretty stupid.”

“I’m not sure I want you to meet Uncle Peter,” Derek announces in almost delighted horror. “I suspect that you two will get along far too well and either make the rest of us feel really unintelligent or just move right on to taking over the world.”

There’s another pause. “You can have Australia,” Stiles offers.

“I’d accept that,” Derek replies.

“So, uh . . . will your mom be there? At the house?” Stiles’ tone is almost painfully neutral.

“No. She’s working late on a case.” Derek keeps his tone equally as neutral, even though he’s pleased by this turn of events. He doesn’t want to mess with Stiles’ karma. “Dad said he’d be late too, working on a story, but I don’t know about the others.”

“Yeah, well . . .” Stiles seems to struggle with his thoughts for a long moment, then shrugs. “I guess I have to meet them sooner or later.”

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

The drive to the Hale house passes mostly in silence. Derek glances at Stiles once or twice to match his movements to the welter of emotional scents he’s picking up past the scent of physical labor, teenaged boy, rain and mechanical car workings. Stiles seems to have settled into his default vague twitchiness, but Derek is starting to think it covers up an awful lot of things. He decides to let the silence be. Letting Stiles start and stop the conversation seems to work better for them, and it’s not like Derek is particularly chatty by nature any way.

He pulls the truck into the Hale house yard, and for a minute from the scent of sharp anxiety, he thinks Stiles is going to change his mind and demand to be taken home. But he doesn’t. What he does is dart out of the car, as if he’s afraid they’ll have a repeat of their first visit there, and Derek will come over to try to take his hand.

Derek lets him, because he’s in no way interested in making this a repeat performance, so he will not be asking for Stiles' hand. This is not a formal introduction. He would much rather that Stiles just come in, get some dry clothes to change into, be able to run his own through the dryer and meet Cora. Derek thinks that will work out much better so he does nothing but walk a bit ahead of him to the door and waltz on in as if everything were normal.

He knows he’s handled things correctly because Stiles’ heartbeat slows, just a little bit, as he follows Derek across the porch and into the house. He’s starting to shiver a little; they’re both soaked. Derek lets them into the house and Cora immediately pokes her head into the foyer. “Hey, you’re home!” she says. “Wow, you look like a drowned cat.”

He knows that she knows Stiles is with him; she can hear his heartbeat and she can scent him, even if he’s still mostly behind Derek so he can’t be seen. But Cora, bless her soul, is also pretending everything is normal. “Now that’s just insulting,” he says in reply. “Stiles is with me because his Jeep had some sort of epic meltdown.” He moves so that Stiles is a little bit visible but by no means exposed unless he decides to step out on his own.

“And he called you?” she asks, her tone teasing. “What the hell do you know about cars?” Then she moves around him, extending her hand with a bright smile. “Hi, Stiles. I’m Cora.”

“Nice to meet you,” Stiles says, his tone and scent only a little wary.

“Maybe he had a sixth sense that my father owned a big stupid truck,” Derek offers.

“Actually, I knew that already.” Stiles sees them blinking at him, then shrugs. “I help my dad sort the parking tickets. Your dad, uhm, he gets a lot of them.”

There is a moment of silence and then Derek makes a choking noise before he starts laughing. He finds it almost hurts, because he just does it so rarely, but Stiles seems to be able to wring it from him by being nothing other than himself.

Cora’s laughing, too, and Stiles is giving Derek a sidelong look, watching him laugh. Their eyes meet for a brief moment and then Stiles jerks his gaze away, flushing pink, as his scent changes just a little, less anxious, more . . . interested. “Yeah, so, uh, dry clothes,” he says. “Please and thank you.”

“Right.” Derek says, managing to get a hold of himself. “Do you want a . . .” He’s about to offer Stiles the use of the shower but then he thinks than maybe he should spare both of them that. “You know what? I’ll just go grab you towel and some of Uncle Peter’s things.”

Cora rolls her eyes. “Why don’t you go get changed, mountain man, and I will go grab some stuff for Stiles?” Without waiting for a reply, she gestures to Stiles and says, “C’mon, you can dry off upstairs and we can throw your stuff in the dryer.”

Derek decides that Cora is getting an amazing birthday present this year. He’s sure that he would be sunk without her help. He wonders if his inability to handle social situations with Stiles is due to the age gap, which Cora obviously doesn’t have a problem with, or if it’s because he personally is simply that incompetent. Maybe a combination of both, added on top of a mountain of other issues, of course. Derek shakes his head a little and makes for his room so he can dry off, while firmly ignoring all signs of Stiles’ interest. For now, he figures he’ll follow Cora’s lead.

Of course, that doesn’t stop him from straining his hearing to keep an metaphorical eye on Stiles and Cora. “Okay, pants, T-shirt, it’s kinda chilly so here, have a sweater, too. Uh. I doubt you want to wear my uncle’s underwear so you’re just gonna have to go commando, I guess,” she adds, and Derek tries very, very hard not to think about that too much. “Bathroom is through there. Toss your wet stuff out and I’ll throw it in the dryer for you.”

When Stiles’ voice comes again, it’s fainter, so he’s presumably in the bathroom, changing. “Is your uncle going to be okay with me wearing his stuff?”

“Who knows?” Cora says. “I love Uncle Peter, but he’s a little weird. Don’t worry. There’s at least a fifty percent chance that he won’t even notice.”

Derek isn’t so sure that’s true. Peter can be absent-minded at times, hell, Peter can be absent at times, but somehow he thinks that Peter won’t, can’t miss the fact that the person who Derek wants as his mate is wearing someone else’s clothes. More importantly, someone else’s scent. Derek wants to wrap Stiles up in his own clothes and get his scent all over the teenager, but he doesn’t dare. Stiles doesn’t belong to him, and he’s smart enough to know what that would mean. Derek sighs and heads to another bathroom with a stack of clothes.

When he emerges, dried off and rubbing his hair with a towel, he practically runs into Stiles on the landing. The teenager flushes pink, but before he has to say anything, Cora jogs back up the stairs. “Okay, the dryer’s running,” she says.

It looks like she might be about to say something else to prevent an awkward silence when one of the other door opens and Laura comes out, having just gotten baby Sylvia up from her nap. Her son Tyler is in his wolf cub form, toddling after her. She sees Stiles and smiles as if she had no idea he was in the house. “Oh, hello,” she says. “I’m Laura. We didn’t really get introduced last time. Stiles, right?”

Stiles nods and shakes her hand, but his gaze is trained on Tyler. “Is that . . .”

Laura still smiles at him. “My son Tyler. He’s in that phase where he’s just figured out how to shift and likes to insist on being a wolf because he thinks he can get out of picking up his toys that way. And this is Sylvia.”

Derek gives the cub a look and tells him in a very serious tone, “She’s just going to make you do it anyway and your mouth might be too tired to eat dessert because you had to use your teeth for everything.” He reaches down and scoops the child up.

Stiles is staring at the wolf cub in undisguised fascination. It’s obvious that he’s never been so close to one before. “I didn’t realize they could do that so young. Shift all the way, I mean. No one really . . . I mean, it’s not something we’re taught in school.”

“We can when we’re pretty young,” Derek says. He has Tyler cuddled close, but it’s a practical, familiar hold, not meant to shield Tyler from Stiles’ curious eyes. It’s more about pack closeness than anything else. Then he rolls his eyes at himself, realizing that he just stated the obvious. “Partial shift is actually harder. We can do it easily enough, but it’s hard to control how much. This is easier, because it’s all or nothing.” He’s obviously not offended by the question, but he can’t help but wonder what they are taught in school.

Tyler regards Stiles with wolf-bright gold eyes, and Stiles holds his hand out to sniff without thinking that it might be taken as an insult. Tyler sniffs it carefully, then whines to get down, so Derek sets him on the floor. When another awkward silence seems impending, Laura says, “Are you staying for dinner, Stiles? I was going to order from the Greek deli.”

Stiles looks a little uncomfortable with the question, his gaze darting to Derek as if to ask what he thinks. Before Derek can say anything, Cora chirps, “Why don’t we see if the food gets here before your clothes are dry? Laura always orders enough to feed an army anyway,” she adds, shooting her sister a glance as if to say she had better live up to this even though it’s not remotely true.

“You say that like you don’t eat like one,” Laura counters, but she’s obviously gotten the idea. She’ll protect Cora’s cover story and Derek’s incompetence.

Cora grins at her. “Hey, Stiles, Derek said you’re a sci-fi fan. Do you like anime?”

“Yeah . . .” Stiles says, guardedly.

“Cool! I don’t have any geeky friends who truly appreciate it with me. Come see my collection!” Without further ado, she has Stiles by the wrist and is towing him up the stairs.

Derek watches them disappear. “Uh . . .”

Laura grins at him. “Yes, she just stole your would-be boyfriend. But that’s okay, right? I mean . . . you obviously don’t know what to do with him. And he obviously feels really awkward being here. If he genuinely makes friends with Cora, he’ll have a reason to come here even if he feels uncomfortable around you.”

“No. It’s fine.” Derek scowls. “Actually, it’s not fine. I wish I didn’t make him feel uncomfortable or awkward and that I didn’t have to rely on my little sister to handle things for me because I keep screwing up.” He takes a deep breath. “Aside from that, I don’t mind that she’s stolen him for the afternoon. I want them to be friends as much as you wanted me and Jonathan to be friends.”

“Don’t think about it that way,” Laura says. “This is us, all of us, trying to repair the damage that we did. You and Stiles would’ve been fine on your own if we hadn’t fucked everything up so bad. So just . . . come help me clean up the kitchen, and we can have dinner together, okay?”

Derek nods. “Okay.”

Laura heads into the kitchen and sets Tyler down in a gated off area full of his toys, puts Sylvia in her playpen, and places their order, erring on the side of overkill, while Derek unloads the dishwasher of clean dishes. Once that’s done and she’s wiping down the table, she says, “What’s got you so worked up, anyway? You smell all pissed off. I’d think you’d be happy you finally talked Stiles into coming over.”

“He offered without me asking.” And that does make Derek happy, even if he thinks Stiles wasn’t wholly rational at the time, given how the previous hour or so had gone. “I’m pissed because somebody vandalized his Jeep. A lot. Slashed all four tires to ribbons. Hell, it looked like a ‘wolf had had a temper tantrum on them with its claws. Then after we got them all changed, the damned thing wouldn’t start.”

“Jesus,” Laura says. Her eyes are a little wide. “Any idea who? Or why?”

“I have no idea who. I don’t know if Stiles does. I didn’t ask. It was pretty clear that my opinion wasn’t being invited.” He puts silverware in mugs on the now-clean table for people to grab as they need it. “As to why . . . I don’t know for sure, but I think I’m starting to have an idea or two that I don’t understand at all. I don’t really think I want to talk about it right now.”

At this, Laura’s eyes narrow, but then she nods and says, “Well, you’re in luck for today. Dad texted to say he was working late, and you know mom won’t be home until eight or so. Peter was having a bad day. He wandered out of the house without saying anything a few hours ago and we haven’t seen him since.”

“I talked to Dad earlier. We had to borrow his truck. I’m pretty sure he was planning to call Mom.” He makes a face. “Sucks about Uncle Peter. I think he and Stiles would get along.”

Laura looks dubious. “Maybe, but still, let’s not overwhelm the poor kid.”

Derek raises his eyebrows in return. “I’m not all that sure that Stiles will care that Uncle Peter is crazy once he realizes how smart he is.” He sets out a stack of plates. “Of course, the rest of us may have to run away screaming.”

Laura lets out a snort of laughter, then gets distracted because Tyler knocks over a stack of blocks and starts crying. She’s getting a bottle ready for Sylvia when dinner arrives. For a few minutes, everything is chaotic. Derek is trying to sort out the dishes while Cora and Stiles appear, arguing fiercely about something that sounds like ‘Samurai Shampoo’, which leaves Derek blinking at them in confusion. Laura is carefully sorting out bits of gyro meat and olives and feta cheese for Tyler, who’s in a picky eating phase, while Stiles loads up a plate with a healthy teenaged appetite.

They’ve moved on to a discussion about Japan in general, in which Laura can participate because she’s been there, and Derek can’t help but hold back a pang of envy because Stiles seems to get along better with his sisters than he does with him. His scent is calm and relaxed, even content. Sometimes his gaze flickers over to Derek, but he doesn’t make any effort to include him in the conversation. Derek grits his teeth and hopes an opportunity to say something clever will show up.

Before it can, Peter drifts in. He’s not wet, so wherever he was, it wasn’t just wandering around in the forest. He’s dressed casually, in a polo shirt and slacks, and he looks completely normal, but Derek immediately tenses, and so do the others, because they can tell Peter is having a bad day. It’s obvious in his scent and the set of his shoulders, but especially in the way he’s holding his wedding ring in one hand, casually turning it around and around between his fingers. It’s something he has a habit of doing when he’s thinking about the fire.

Derek knows that Peter isn’t upset with him for having found a mate, even though he lost his own in the fire, but that doesn’t mean the man might not have moments of anger about it being rubbed in his face at the dinner table, either. Then again, it also isn’t right to leave Peter alone and cut off from the pack when he’s already feeling lonely and missing his lost love. And Derek really does think that Peter and Stiles will get along. He pulls a chair out and says, “Uncle Peter,” hoping to draw his uncle back into the world around him.

Peter’s gaze moves over to him, and then beyond him and rests on Stiles. It sharpens instantly, lucidity creeping back into his eyes. “You,” he says, tilting his head to one side, “are wearing my clothes.”

Stiles is frozen like a deer in sight of a predator. It’s a fairly sensible reaction, actually. “Uhm,” he says.

Derek holds back a wince. Of course that was the first thing that his uncle picked up on and mentioned. He had known the man would notice, but did he have to lead with it? “Stiles’ own clothes were soaked because of the rain, and yours were the best fit,” he offers, both to draw Peter’s attention to him and try to offer an explanation that Peter might accept. He needs Stiles to stop smelling and acting like startled prey, because if it keeps up, Derek won’t be able to stop himself from getting defensive.

Peter’s gaze never wavers, but his head tilts to one side for a few moments before he says, mildly, “I didn’t realize I still had that sweater.”

“I tried to give him something you don’t wear that often,” Cora says, trying to sound like her normal cheerful self and coming close to succeeding.

“Orange isn’t my color,” Peter says. “Or anyone’s, really. Are we having dinner?”

“Yes, we are.” Derek jostles the chair again in invitation, because sometimes Peter needs a reminder. He looks over to check on Stiles and hopes that Peter stops staring when he sits down, or else he really will have to say something.

But Stiles is breathing again, a littler paler than before but not outwardly afraid, and Peter becomes more interested in gyros and Greek salad than the teenager. He’s still loading up his plate when he says, “Did you know that Greece was basically still at war with its neighbor Turkey until the late twentieth century?”

“Uh, no,” Laura says, clearly wondering why anyone would know that.

But Stiles perks up. “Until the earthquakes, right?”

Peter looks at him for a moment, his gaze still sharp, but now more curious than before. “Yes, that’s right.”

Suddenly, Derek feels smug. Okay, there’s no way he can participate in this conversation either, but to be fair he’s pretty sure that everyone is about to be left in the dust.

For the benefit of Cora’s education, Peter proceeds to explain about how a devastating earthquake had struck Turkey, and Greece had sent relief and rescue aid, and then not long after that, a similar quake had hit Athens. Turkey had responded in kind, and the relationship between the nations had thawed to the point where they could actually talk to each other.

“There was even a guy in Greece who called and offered to donate a kidney to anyone who needed one,” Stiles says.

“Really?” Peter arches an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that.”

“Did anyone need it?” Derek can’t help but ask curiously. “That was a suitable match, I mean.” There’s a pause. “Or, uh, is a kidney one of those organs where it doesn’t have to match or . . . whatever the hell is involved.” Derek decides that maybe he should just shut the hell up until he’s spent some quality time on Wikipedia.

Cora is giggling and Peter is giving him this look that’s a mixture of amusement and mock disappointment, but Stiles is used to conversations with his father and Scott, who don’t live for random trivia. “You only have to match blood type, I think,” he says. “That’s why you can get donations from random people. I don’t know if he wound up donating it to anyone. I didn’t read any follow-up on it.”

Derek curls his lip at Peter a little, but it doesn’t show any actual teeth and is about as real as Peter’s disappointment in him. “Still, it’s an interesting story.”

“Mm.” Peter takes a second helping of salad. “What are you studying in school, Stiles?”

“Uh, well, I’m only in high school now, but I take mostly AP classes,” Stiles says uncertainly. “But I want to go into law. Law enforcement, I mean. Like my dad.”

Peter is nodding. “An admirable sentiment. Do you like mysteries?”

“I love them,” Stiles says, still a little wary but definitely thawing out. Then Peter starts recommending authors, and Stiles has counter-recommendations, and now Derek can jump in and make some suggestions of his own. Then Peter starts talking about Russian authors and before long everybody is lost and Cora has just started chatting with her sister about some boy band she likes while Laura cuts up gyro meat for Tyler.

Derek falls silent and just watches Peter and Stiles talk, feeling content for the moment. Both of them seem engaged and animated. Peter is rarely like that anymore, and Stiles, well, it seems that Stiles is rarely like that around him. There’s a wonderful sense of family, of belonging, and things coming together. Stiles fitting in like he’s a piece to a puzzle that nobody realized was missing. The teenager sees Derek watching them, and for the first time he doesn’t flinch, but instead offers Derek a somewhat shy smile before flushing and looking away.

Derek’s return smile is just as small and shy, and then he looks down at his plate so he doesn’t stare and spoil the moment. He’ll have to thank his entire family for helping him. Even his mother. Even though her only part was to stay away so Stiles doesn’t feel uncomfortable.

After dinner, Peter decides that Stiles should play chess with him, and Stiles eagerly agrees, because his father plays but he personally has never been good at it. He’s been practicing online lately, but hasn’t played against a real opponent. He loses in ten moves and laughs about it easily. Peter doesn’t laugh – Peter never laughs – but he lectures Stiles on all the poor strategy he exhibited in a manner that’s snarky and fond and almost never seen directed at anyone who isn’t family.

Derek watches them while he helps Cora clean up dinner so Laura can go put the kids to bed. He knows how to play chess, but that doesn’t mean he’s any good at it. Once the leftovers are put away, he moves on to the nightly plant watering, mostly so he can keep moving without it seeming forced. He’s afraid that if he settles down, he won’t manage the right balance of pay-attention-to/ignore Stiles without it becoming awkward for everyone. He can stop if he wants, leave when he needs to, and come back when Stiles is back to his normal twitching and instead of nervous twitching.

After the third game, Stiles surrenders. “I think I’m better at go. Have you ever played it?”

“I have,” Peter says, “though it’s been a long time. I have a go board somewhere . . . no.” He stills. “I lost it in the fire.”

Derek flinches, fumbling the little plastic watering can he’s using so it falls out of his hand. He manages to catch it before it hits the floor, but the water goes everywhere. He’s still holding onto it as he looks over to where Peter and Stiles are sitting. He hates this. The way the fire can just creep in and steal away a perfectly enjoyable moment. It’s over and yet it never really seems like it is. Peter’s bad days are already hard for Derek, because he can’t help but think that if he had managed to save Olivia, his uncle wouldn’t be like this. And now he has to face the fact that if he had been able to save his brothers, Talia wouldn’t need him to choose someone besides Stiles so desperately. She would have been happy with Stiles, happy that Derek had found somebody. Then Stiles might have been happy.

It all could have been different. But it wasn’t, because he hadn’t been able to save anyone.

So now all he can do is stand there and hope that Peter doesn’t get more upset than he already is on an already bad day, or that Stiles doesn’t say the wrong thing or ask questions that he has every right to ask. Because if Peter loses control, Stiles will never come back, even if Derek can get between them in time.

Slowly, Stiles says, “I can bring mine over next time.” He doesn’t move, but he’s not acting like prey, either. His words are carefully measured, his posture a little tense, but not stiff. He seems to know, if only subconsciously, that Peter is walking a fine line right now.

Peter stares at him for several seconds that tick by in uncomfortable silence. Then, his words equally calm, he says, “That would be nice.” He pushes back from the table. “Excuse me. I . . . should go.”

Derek tips his head a little as he watches his uncle leave, and he isn’t sure what to say. He’s grateful to Stiles, though, so he figures he should say so. “Thank you.”

“Hunh?” Stiles replies inelegantly, his brow furrowed as he stares in the direction that Peter has vanished in. “Is he okay?”

Derek carefully sets down the watering can and rubs a hand over his face. “It took him off guard. The thing about the go board.” He’s quiet for a few seconds, trying to decide what to share and what to keep to himself. “It could be worse. Is that an okay answer?”

“Yeah.” Stiles looks away, slowly turning a rook around in his fingers. “It’s like that sometimes, huh? One time at the mall . . . I saw this woman wearing the exact same blouse my mom is wearing in one of the last pictures we took of her. I . . .” His voice falters, then he gives a shrug. “I know that I can’t really comprehend the, the scope of what happened to your family, but I guess I can at least understand this much.”

“I’m sorry. About your mom. And I know exactly how much that doesn’t make it better, but I am.” Derek looks away for a moment, then back. “I don’t think it’s about scope. She was your mom, your family.”

“Yeah.” Stiles mulls this over for a few moments, watching Derek as he starts watering the plants again. It seems to occur to him suddenly that they’re alone in the room together. The silence doesn’t feel so awkward anymore, though. “Look, I, uh, I’m sorry, I guess I’ve been a jerk about this whole thing. We should – ”

Before he can finish saying what he thinks they should do, the front door opens and closes. Talia doesn’t bother to announce her presence, because everyone in the house knows it’s her from her scent and heartbeat. She walks into the kitchen before Derek can react, sees Stiles, and stops. Everything about Stiles goes tense. They had all lost track of time while eating dinner and playing chess. It’s nearly eight o’clock.

Finally, after a beat of silence that’s far too long to be comfortable, Talia says, “Hey, Derek. Hello, Stiles.”

Stiles sets the rook down with a click and says, with the tension obvious in his voice, “Hello, Mrs. Hale.”

Derek sighs silently and kisses the rest of their conversation goodbye. He knows he can’t really blame his mother. She didn’t come home early, and if he had been paying attention, he would have heard her car. “Hi, Mom,” he returns her greeting, because the last few minutes have effectively driven home how lucky he is to have her, even if he’s still angry with her. She’s his mother, and he loves her. “Laura ordered Greek. We put yours aside in the oven. Dad’s, too, if you want to wait for him to get home.” Then he waves Stiles out of the room, figuring that this is the best way to handle things.

Stiles isn’t above making a strategic retreat, but as he leaves the kitchen on Derek’s heels, he looks at his watch and says, “Oh, man, I’ve gotta go. I haven’t done any of my homework and my dad’s going to be home in less than an hour.”

Derek makes an ‘oops’ face. “Let me go get your clothes out of the dryer,” he says. He tries to hurry, knowing that Stiles will be uncomfortable just standing in the foyer of the face, but can’t resist taking a moment to stick his face in the newly dried clothes and inhale Stiles’ scent. He hopes that he isn’t blushing when he returns and tosses them to Stiles. If he is, the teenager doesn’t say anything about it. He just ducks into the bathroom to change, leaving Peter’s clothes folded neatly on the counter.

The rain has slackened to a drizzle, and Stiles looks at it and sighs before saying, “I guess you’ll have to drive me home.”

Derek shrugs. “No problem.” He goes to fish the keys to his father’s truck off the hook by the door where he had put them, since that’s where his father keeps them. He grabs his leather jacket and slips it on, then looks at Stiles and at the rain out the window. “Do you want to borrow a jacket or something? Peter won’t care if you keep the sweater for a while.” Now isn’t the time to offer his own jacket, no matter how much he wants to.

“I’ll be okay,” Stiles says, with a shrug. Derek nods, accepting that. He waves at the door, not wanting to herd or lead Stiles out. He doesn’t want to make Stiles leave before he’s ready. The teenager is fidgety as he heads to the truck and gets settled. “Thanks, uh . . . thanks for today. Not just picking me up, but . . . you know, thanks for dinner and stuff.”

Derek starts the truck, putting his seat belt on, and pulls out down the long drive to the house. “You’re welcome.” He stops himself before going on to say he’s glad he could help, remembering Cora’s advice about ‘slowing his roll’. Then he continues in a slightly different direction. “Anyway, I think you paid us back.”

Stiles gives him a sidelong glance, and fidgets for a minute before his curiosity gets the better of him. “How so?”

The truth is that to Derek, the simple fact that Stiles had come over at all was a huge reward, but that isn’t something they’re going to talk about. “Uncle Peter. You talked to him. About things that he’s interested in, and in a way that we aren’t really good at.” And that’s something the whole pack will be grateful for. Even Talia.

“You guys can’t keep up, huh?” Stiles asks, smirking despite himself.

“Not only do we get left in the dust, some of us get trampled for good measure.”

“I didn’t mind talking to him. Even if he scared the piss out of me when he first came in. Literally. Hope he doesn’t mind what I did to his pants, but really, it’s his own fault . . .”

This startles a short laugh out of Derek. “Jesus, is there anything you won’t say?” Then he sobers a little, shaking his head. “If it helps, he isn’t always that . . .” There’s a pause while he searches for the right word. “Feral.”

“I figured.” Stiles gives a little shrug. “Don’t worry about it. At least your entire family doesn’t hate me.”

“No, they don’t,” Derek agrees. He thinks about going into details, but decides to let it go. Small victories.

Stiles is quiet the rest of the way home, and by the time they get to the house, the rain has stopped. “Thanks for the ride,” he says, hopping out of the truck’s cab.

“Are you okay getting to school tomorrow?” Derek asks before the door can close. He doesn’t outright offer a ride. Stiles isn’t helpless.

“I’m good,” Stiles says, hesitates, and adds, “But thanks. Again. I mean, for asking. I mean . . . I’ll see you soon, okay?”

Derek nods and takes that as another victory, that Stiles had accepted his semi-offer of help, that he had said ‘see you soon’, which is somehow infinitely more companionable than ‘see you later’. “I’ll see you soon.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

It’s late that night, and Derek actually feels pretty good about how the day went, to be honest, when there’s a knock on his door. He glances up to see Cora slide in without waiting to ask permission. “Soooo . . .” she says, and Derek sighs, ready for commentary on his romantic ineptitude or boyfriend’s adorable moles or something entirely inappropriate. But for once, Cora is perfectly serious as she says, “Who do you think slashed Stiles’ tires?”

Derek is taken completely off guard by this, and just looks at her for a long moment. It’s not that he’s surprised that she heard him talking to Laura. In a house full of werewolves, you only get privacy behind the closed doors of the soundproofed bedrooms, and sometimes not even then. Still, he hadn’t expected her to ask about it. “Do raw eggs and cooked eggs smell different to you?”

“Uh, what?” Cora asks, and laughs a little. “Yeah. Why?”

“Hey, if you get to ambush me with questions, I get to do the same.” Derek shrugs. “But to answer yours: someone that goes to his school. I don’t know other than that. Why?”

“Why ask why?” Cora asks, and shakes her head. “Because I’m worried, duh. It sounds like it was a pretty nasty thing to do.”

“It was. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the first thing that’s been done to him. Just maybe the worst.”

“Have you talked to him about it?” Cora asks.

“He doesn’t want to talk about it, Cora. He didn’t even want his father knowing what happened to his car today.”

Cora thinks this over, sitting down in Derek’s desk chair backwards so she could rest her arms on the back of it. “I don’t get it,” she says. “I mean, I can see why people might be jealous, but there’s a gap between jealousy and vandalism and I’m not really sure what’s in that gap that we’re missing.”

Derek pulls one leg up and curls his linked fingers around his shin. “I don’t know. But . . .” He sighs and stops himself from describing the sickly sweet smell of desperation and hunger that was in the room that Stiles had tripped into like a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t want to turn his sister off the Searching Ceremony. Not when she’s so young and still has a real chance of finding someone. “But Stiles talked before about how he couldn’t even refuse me in the beginning because that would have caused him trouble. He said he would be a pariah. I thought he was joking at the time, but . . . maybe he wasn’t. And then he said no one believes that I meant it when I picked him.”

“Well, that might be mom’s fault,” Cora says, with a snort. “But I can see what you’re thinking.” Her eyes light up. “I know! I’ll go check out his school.”

“Uh, what?” One of Derek’s eyebrows climbed. “I understand that I don’t have Uncle Peter’s amazing hearing, but it sounded like you just said you were going to go check out Stiles’ school, so clearly I’m having auditory hallucinations.”

“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Cora says, rolling her eyes. “If he won’t talk to you about it, how else are we supposed to find out what’s going on?”

“Waiting until he’s ready?” Derek suggests, although he knows this is falling on deaf ears.

Some of Cora’s exuberance melts away. “He had bruises,” she finally says. “I saw them while he was changing. I don’t think he realizes I saw. I’d wait until he was ready . . . but what if that’s too late?”

Derek’s muscles tighten and Cora can hear the bones of his fingers creaking against each other. “What?”

“He wasn’t bad hurt,” Cora says anxiously. “It just looked like maybe he’d been pushed into a wall or fallen or something. Maybe it’s nothing. You said he was a klutz. But . . . if it’s something, I think we should know about it, and I don’t think he’s going to tell us.”

“He shouldn’t be hurt at all,” Derek says through clenched teeth, but then he forces himself to take a deep breath. “It’s just that I know he wouldn’t appreciate us sticking our noses in.”

Cora gives him an uncertain smile and says, “Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission?”

Derek’s eyebrows both go up. “Uh, have you met Stiles? He’s not exactly about handing out forgiveness when he’s been wronged. You may have noticed.”

Cora makes a face at him. “Fine. Big brother knows best.”

“Uh huh. I can tell when I’m being mocked, you know.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles digs around in the fridge and quickly comes to the conclusion that he won’t have time to make anything to eat before his father gets home. He slaps together a few turkey sandwiches, with avocado and Swiss cheese the way his father likes them. That’ll have to do. Without his car, he can’t exactly go grocery shopping. He wishes he had had the presence of mind to ask for some of the leftover Greek food. He’s ninety-eight percent sure that they would have given him anything he could carry.

It had been an enlightening evening, that was for sure. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him to ask Derek to bring him over to the Hale house. It was a combination of a lot of things. Part of it was that he felt like he should pay Derek back for doing him the favor, and he knew – even if he didn’t want to admit it – that it would make Derek happy. Part of it was because he had been thinking back to Allison’s words about how he would only find his answers by getting to know the pack. And part of it had been simple loneliness. After the crappy afternoon he had had, going back to his empty house and sitting around by himself, brooding, had sounded drastically unappealing.

But he was still surprised by how much he had enjoyed himself at the Hale house. Cora was friendly and funny, and Laura had a warm way about her that reminded him a little of his mother. And Peter, well, what could he say about Peter? He was simultaneously terrifying and fascinating. They had made him welcome. Talia still seemed to hate his guts, but hey, he couldn’t please everybody in life.

That, in combination with his vivid memory of Derek’s extremely enticing biceps, has him feeling pretty good. He’s just sitting down with his homework when the front door opens and his father comes inside. There’s a few minutes of mostly-silence while he divests himself of his gear. “Hey, Stiles,” he says, coming into the kitchen.

“Hey, Dad,” Stiles says, chewing on the end of his pen. “There’s some sandwiches for you.”

“You eat already?” Tom asks.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. He glances up and then says, “Uh, actually, I ate at Derek’s. I went over there after school.”

His father glances over, eyebrows up, but he doesn’t look particularly surprised. “Have a good time?”

“Yeah, I guess. His sisters are nice. Parents weren’t home.” Stiles continues chewing on his pen.

“I didn’t see your Jeep outside,” Tom says. “That have something to do with it?”

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “It wouldn’t start. I called him to come pick me. Didn’t want to bother you at work.” He jots down the answer to one of the questions on his history homework. He’s learned to make copies of everything before he brings it to school, in case it gets destroyed or the teacher ‘loses’ it. “I’ll go look at it tomorrow when it isn’t pouring rain and call a tow if I have to.”

“Okay,” Tom says. There’s about five minutes of silence while he eats one of his sandwiches. “Anything else you want to tell me?”

“Yeah. We need to pass a law saying it should be illegal for Derek Hale to walk around in the rain in V-neck T-shirts.”

Sheriff Stilinski nearly chokes on his sandwich. He carefully chews and swallows and says, “I’ll get right on that.” He shakes his head a little and then says, “I’m glad you two are getting along better.”

Stiles mutters something and then devotes his attention to his homework.

He gets up super early the next morning, five o’clock, grabs a granola bar and coffee in a travel mug, and leaves the house. It takes about half an hour to walk to school. The ground is still damp, even soggy in places, but the rain has stopped. It’s chilly, but not unbearable. He finds the silent dawn hours somewhat soothing.

He lifts the hood of the Jeep and starts his inspection. To his relief, the solution was as simple as he hoped it would be. Nobody’s taken a chainsaw to his car’s innards. They just removed his spark plugs. He sighs and starts walking into town. He’s only about a mile away from the school when a car pulls up alongside him. It’s a red, sporty little thing, and the woman behind the wheel is familiar. Kate Argent.

“Need a ride?” she asks.

Stiles considers carefully. He’s not sure he likes this woman, and he definitely doesn’t trust her, but he doesn’t think she wishes him any particular harm. So he says, “Sure,” and gets into the car. She’s driving with the windows down despite the chill. He can still smell her perfume, though. She wears the same kind as Allison. “I was heading to the NAPA store.”

“Will they be open this early?” Kate asks.

“Nope, not for another hour or so,” Stiles says, “but I figured I’d have to walk there, so, you know.”

“Let me take you out for breakfast,” Kate says.

Stiles shifts in his seat, but says, “Okay.”

They drive into downtown. A few stores down from the auto parts store is a little diner. Kate parks out front and they go inside. Stiles smells bacon and syrup and his stomach lets out a definite growl. Kate smiles at him, and they get a table. A waitress brings them coffee and Stiles resists the urge to point to the menu and just say ‘one of everything’. He has some savings, sure, but the tires made a huge dent in them.

“So,” Kate says, “are you rethinking my offer?”

Stiles rubs a hand over his hair. Kate is right about one thing: he needs help. The pranks are escalating, and he has no idea what to do about it. Anything he does to fight back will only make things worse. The only thing he’s come up with has been to take anything they can dish out without flinching. It’s generally a good strategy for bullies, but he can’t afford a new car. And his father is starting to notice the bruises. He hasn’t said anything about it, not yet. But Stiles knows that he’s noticed. He has a particularly bad set at the moment, after having been pelted with lacrosse balls as he was walking into the locker room. That he could handle, maybe, but the teachers are making things worse. His grades are in the toilet, and for once it isn’t his fault. When he had tried to address an F he’d gotten on a paper in his English class with the teacher, she had laughed at him and asked why he cared if he failed, since he had a werewolf now.

The problem is, he doesn’t see any way that Kate Argent could help with that. It’s not the werewolves he’s being victimized by; it’s the humans. And after his evening at the Hale house, he has a funny, squirmy feeling that the werewolves would not be pleased with the way he’s being treated. He had seen the look on Derek’s face a few times, the scarlet rage that had flickered over it when he had seen the tires. Derek is truly pissed that someone vandalized Stiles’ Jeep, and the only reason he hasn’t said anything yet is probably because he’s still thinking about what he wants to say.

“Yeah,” he finally says. “I don’t know what to do.”

Kate reaches out and grips his hand. “You’ve been really tough, Stiles. I know it must be hard on you. And I know that it’s not as easy as just refusing Derek Hale.”

“Yeah,” Stiles agrees.

The waitress stops by again. He gets their ‘early bird special’, which comes with two eggs, two pancakes, and two strips of bacon. Kate orders crepes.

“I don’t know what to do,” he finally says. “I feel like I can’t back out. I don’t get why he doesn’t just dump me and get it over with.”

“That’s because you still don’t understand why he chose you,” Kate says. “You’re smart enough to know that there has to be a reason.”

“Yeah, but all the information I get conflicts,” Stiles says. “Like, half the stuff out there is about mystical soul bonds and the other half is about all the different things you should do if you want to attract a werewolf mate.”

“Oh, honey,” Kate says, with a sympathetic smile. “You still haven’t figured it out yet, have you? It’s got nothing to do with any of that. He picked you because you’re the sheriff’s son.”

Stiles’ jaw sags a little. “You – but he – “

“Makes sense, doesn’t it?” Kate dumps more creamer into her coffee. “Nothing mystical to it. But with Talia Hale one of the most prominent lawyers in the city, hell, the state, forming an alliance with the county sheriff would give them license to do just about anything they want around there. You see? That makes a hell of a lot more sense than Derek Hale being attracted to you.”

“Yeah, I . . .” Stiles feels like all the air has been knocked out of him. It does make sense. It’s the first thing he’s heard that does. The way Kate stressed the last word sinks into his gut like a knife, because it does make sense, because the Hale family wanting him for political connections is infinitely more plausible than the magnificent Derek Hale being attracted to the twitchy, spastic teenager.

Kate lets him sit there and think about it for a few minutes, her spoon clinking against her mug. “I can’t imagine what went through his head when he saw you,” she says. “Not sure if it was an impulse decision or if they planned it. You weren’t on the list, so they probably didn’t even think you were going to be there.”

Stiles rubs a hand over his hair. “Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Cora to try to hook up with me?”

“Sure,” Kate says, “but Cora’s young, and from what I’ve seen at her, she’s kind of . . . well, I don’t want to use the word ‘simple’, but she’s less devious than a lot of the ‘wolves I’ve met. She’s blunt and straightforward. She wouldn’t be able to manipulate you the right way.”

“Derek’s been nice to me,” Stiles says, but as soon as the words come out of his mouth, he’s aware of how pathetic they sounded.

“Of course he has been,” Kate says. “He knows that you don’t have a lot of friends. That you’re not really well-liked. He’s making himself the one person you can depend on.”

Stiles stares down at the table, his fingers knotting together. “It’s not . . . it’s not like that.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Kate says. “I bet it’s hard not to fall for him. But he’s just using you. Maybe not in the way you thought, but still . . . all you are to them is a means to an end. And that’s what I’m talking about when I say ‘victim of werewolf culture’. You didn’t even realized you were being used. And they don’t think twice to do it, you know? Because they think they’re so much better than humans. You’re like . . . an ant to them. They don’t care if they hurt you.”

There’s a long silence while the waitress brings their food. Stiles looks down at it, having completely lost his appetite. He’s thinking of the look on Derek’s face in the car when they were alone together, the way Derek had been so angry over his tires, the way Derek had seemed honestly grateful that Stiles had agreed to come over.

“Maybe Derek thinks you’re cute,” Kate says with a shrug, “but you know that they’re the ones who ruined your tires, right?”

Stiles flinches. “What?”

“You think that some kid at your school did that?” Kate asks, cutting into her crepes with vigor. “C’mon, those tires were clawed to pieces. That was a ‘wolf. If it wasn’t Talia’s idea, it was Peter’s. He’s a vicious, scheming son-of-a-bitch, don’t ever forget that. They’re driving you away from your classmates, isolating you from your peers.”

“You know, my peers don’t need their help in isolating me,” Stiles says.

“Doesn’t hurt, though,” Kate says, with a shrug.

Stiles pours syrup on his pancakes and smears it around. “But if that’s the plan, why did Talia react that way when Derek showed up with me?”

Kate shrugs. “Probably she didn’t have any idea what he was up to. Let me guess – it happened kind of suddenly?” She sees him squirming. “And he pounced right on you, right? Didn’t give you a chance to argue or ask questions?”

“Yeah, it . . . it did happen that way,” Stiles admits. He can feel a burning sensation in his eyes, and rubs at them impatiently, berating himself for being an idiot. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Derek never really cared about him. This is what he’s been braced for since day one. He’s determined not to show the way it’s getting to him.

“But see, I think they made a mistake.” Kate smiles at him. “I think you’re a lot smarter and a lot tougher than they’re giving you credit for. You’re sixteen, right?”

“Yeah. I’ll be seventeen in a few weeks, though.”

“So, that gives us a year before you have to give an official answer. We won’t need half that. Give me six months, Stiles. I’m not asking for the rest of your life the way Derek Hale is. Just six months. And then we can get you out of this – and make you a hero when we prove the way the Hale family was trying to manipulate the entire city.”

Stiles cuts his eggs into tiny pieces with the edge of his fork. “How?”

“Do you have any idea what sort of opportunity this is, Stiles? To get someone inside a werewolf pack?” Kate asks, her eyes glittering with excitement. “They’re always so careful about who they invite in, but this . . . this is our first chance to have someone inside that they don’t expect. To get information about what they plan to do. To prove what kind of animals they really are.”

A million conflicting emotions wind through Stiles’ chest and stomach at that. Fear, over the idea of crossing a bunch of werewolves. Pride, because Kate seems to have seen the good in him, the good he knows is there and is so different from the good that Derek is pretending to see. Anger, at the possibility that Derek is using him to get to his father. Sorrow, that Derek doesn’t really care about him. He can’t even begin to sort it all out.

“You and me, we can do this,” Kate says, her eyes glowing, and she touches Stiles’ knee underneath the table. It’s a long, lingering touch. Stiles looks up at her, flushing pink, at her low-cut shirt and the necklace that hangs at a perfect height to draw attention to her chest. Her perfect makeup, not too overdone, and the way she smiles at him.

She’s flirting with me, he realizes, a little too slowly. It seems ridiculous, that this perfectly polished woman who’s even older than Derek would be attracted to him like this. But she certainly seems to be.

“We can do this, Stiles,” she says, and touches his knee again.

“Okay,” Stiles says, staring at her a little more than he should. “Yeah, let, let’s do this.”

They talk a little while they eat, about what Stiles knows about the family so far. He tells her about meeting Cora and Peter and the others. Kate grimaces a little when she mentions the two children, saying something about breeding. Stiles doesn’t tell her much because he still doesn’t know much, although he does mention Peter scaring him. He wonders how much of the previous evening was orchestrated for his benefit. Of course they’ll be nice to him, if they want things from him.

Kate pays for their breakfast and they leave the restaurant at seven sharp, just as the NAPA store opens, which gives him fifteen minutes to buy his spark plugs and get back to school if he doesn’t want to be late. He would never make it as a walk, but Kate’s already offered to drive him back. As they leave the diner, Stiles sees a stray cat wander out of the alley next door and approach. One of the other diners, sitting at an outside table, tosses it a bit of ham, which it scarfs up, and then it trots over to them cautiously.

Stiles is about to say something about how he wishes he had saved a bit of bacon when Kate says, “Ugh, get away, filthy little – ” and aims a kick at the animal’s midsection. It skitters away and darts back into the alley.

It’s like having a glass of cold water thrown in his face. He stares at Kate for a long moment, then quickly ducks his head and looks away.

She’d gotten to him during breakfast, and now he feels bitterly disappointed in himself. He’d let himself get turned around by her pretty face and sweet perfume. He’d forgotten that WLO was a hate group, that even the government called them that, and that they’d done some pretty horrible things. He was upset about his tires and he’d let her manipulate him. But she’s doing exactly what she’s accused the Hales of doing: trying to befriend him, to earn his trust, so she can use him for her own goals.

He might never be sure of Derek’s motivations or why the werewolf had chosen him at the Searching Ceremony. But one thing he can be sure of is the basics of Derek’s character, and he’s pretty sure that Derek hasn’t been saving squirrels and possums for years in preparation for courting the sheriff’s son.

Simply put: Kate is cruel. Derek is not.

“Still need that ride?” Kate asks, turning a bright smile on Stiles.

“Yeah, thanks, let me run in and buy the spark plugs real quick,” Stiles says, and jogs into the auto parts store. He needs a few minutes to relax, to center himself, to focus. Because now an important question has to be asked. What does Kate want from him, exactly? What is she planning that she wants his help with? Better question, how can he get out of helping her without her exacting some sort of terrible revenge on him?

For the moment, he decides against saying anything. He buys his spark plugs, and Kate gives him a ride to school. She leans over and kisses his cheek when she drops him off.

He stares after her sporty red car for a long moment before resolving to forget the entire damned incident. It’s just another way of bullying him. He’s coping with the bullies, and he doesn’t want to think about this any more than absolutely necessary. At least he had gotten breakfast out of the deal, and a ride back to school. Might as well look on the bright side.

So he doesn’t mention it to Scott when they’re in the locker room during gym class – Scott had an asthma attack and Stiles is just ditching because gym class is frankly dangerous for him to attend these days – although he does give Scott a dramatic reenactment of the incident with the tires. Complete with a vivid description of Derek’s unfair body taunting him from the rain. Scott clearly thinks that he’s some sort of idiot for not just taking off his pants and throwing himself at Derek. To be fair, Stiles is pretty sure that Scott’s right.

“All I have to say is that if my Jeep doesn’t start at the end of the day, there is going to be a motherfucking incident,” he says, and Scott agrees. Then he thinks of the cat, the poor, starving thing in the alley. “Hey. You busy after school?”

“Working at Deaton’s,” Scott says.

“Gotcha,” Stiles says. Deaton’s. Of course. What better place to bring a stray cat? And he knows exactly who is going to help him.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Derek rolls out of bed to find that he has a text from Stiles. ‘Jeep’s ok,’ it reads. ‘just needed new spark plugs. thx again for yesterday.’

He texts back, ‘glad I could help’ and then goes about his morning routine. He does privately wonder if there was something wrong with the spark plugs or if they were simply missing. The use of the plural suggests the latter. He supposes something could go wrong with all the spark plugs at once, but it seems unlikely. Then again, he doesn’t really know anything about cars.

He doesn’t hear anything from Stiles until much later in the day, and then it’s a déjà vu moment because Stiles asks, ‘r u busy after work 2day?’

Derek stares at the message. If something else has happened to Stiles’ Jeep, there’s going to be hell to pay. He tries not to jump to conclusions, but it’s difficult. ‘No. What’s up?’

‘saw a stray cat downtown, looked pretty pitiful. thought squirrel guy might want to don cape, mask, and outside undies for a rescue’

It takes Derek a minute to figure out how to make his phone do his bidding, at which point he sends Stiles a picture of Edna Mode from The Incredibles with a text that reads, ‘no capes!’ After that, he types and sends, ‘Can I trade in the outside undies for a carrier and a can of tuna? Where should I meet you?’

‘outside the good egg diner,’ Stiles replies. ‘that’s where I saw it begging this morning.’

‘I’ll be there. Any time?’ Derek is already thinking about how to lure a possibly feral cat in. He looks up the diner on his phone and sees that they specialize in breakfast food. Tuna probably isn’t what he wants to bring, then. Scared animals will want familiar food.

‘nah, I’m just chillin there’

‘Making any progress?’ Derek wonders what Stiles is doing at a breakfast place so late, and if he had been there all afternoon.

‘she’s peeked out a couple times. seems friendly but shy.’

‘So not feral. That’s good.’ He glances at the clock. ‘Are you going to keep her?’

‘hadn’t really thought that far ahead,’ Stiles replies.

‘Okay. I’ll be there in about 45 minutes.’ That will give him enough time to finish up at work, call ahead to another diner that served breakfast all day for a take out order, and stop by a pet store for a cat carrier. Stiles’ reply is a simple ‘k’, so he gets busy. It occurs to him when he’s ordering the food that it’s a little past five, Stiles probably hasn’t eaten, and they may be sitting around the diner for a while. So he orders enough to feed both of them, figuring that they can give the cat some scraps.

Stiles is sitting at one of the outdoor tables when he gets there. The diner doesn’t serve dinner, so it’s obviously been closed for hours, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped him from setting up camp. He’s got homework spread out in front of him and a mostly empty cup from the coffee shop around the corner. He looks up when Derek pulls into a parking spot, and his expression is a little wary, but his scent is unequivocally happy to see Derek arrive. Derek makes his way over to Stiles with the carrier in one hand and the stack of Styrofoam take-out containers in the other.

“Dinner for us,” Derek says, giving Stiles that half-smile as he sets them down. “I figured she’d recognize this more than tuna. Maybe trust it more.” He breaks off a piece of omelet and puts it in the carrier, then does the same with a piece of bacon. Then he tucks the carrier against the wall and sits down, pushing the containers towards Stiles. “I just guessed, so pick what you want.”

“Oh my God,” Stiles says, diving in. “You’re the best,” he adds, mouth full, in that moment, completely un-self-conscious.

“Says the guy who sat here all afternoon to coax out a stray cat,” Derek says. It’s definitely a compliment.

“Got easier once the diner closed,” Stiles says, mouth still full. “Anyway, it’s not like it’s a big deal. Sit at home and study, sit here and study. Oh, hey, there she is.” He gestures to where a cat has poked its head from around the corner. Her fur was probably once white with some gray patches, although it’s matted and stained, and her ribs are clearly visible. One ear is notched and one eye is somewhat cloudy. Stiles tosses a piece of bacon rind over in her general direction and she cautiously approaches. “People this morning were kicking at her,” he says, his lip curling.

Derek approves of the expression. It matches his feeling on the matter exactly. “What’s wrong with people,” he asks rhetorically, shaking his head. He tips his face up to the breeze and takes several short, almost delicate breaths in rapid succession through his nose.

Stiles watches him in some fascination. “What do you smell?” he asks, tone curious.

“About her?” Derek says. “She’s alone. There are no other cats here. No kittens waiting to be fed, and none on the way, either. She’s sick, but not in a fatal way. I guess what you’d expect when you’re living on someone’s trash. She’s not really that afraid. Just . . . cautious.”

“Man, if you can smell all that about a cat twenty feet away, I hate to think what you can smell about me,” Stiles blurts out.

Derek glances at him and after a moment, shrugs a little. He senses a trap here, somewhere. “It’s considered rude to try to use our sense of smell to uncover everything about a person. Especially a human. Some things we can’t avoid, but some we can.”

Stiles tosses another bit of bacon about halfway between the cat and the carrier, and devotes himself to eating his eggs to buy himself some time. Much to Derek’s relief, he doesn’t demand to know what Derek can smell from him without even trying. They sit in companionable silence for a little while, as the cat considers their presence and their offerings, creeping closer to the carrier on each pass. The air is getting a little chilly, and Stiles shrugs into a hooded sweatshirt.

It takes almost an hour before the cat finally ventures into the carrier. Derek is on top of it with supernatural speed, slamming the door closed behind it. Inside, it yowls and hisses and generally expresses its displeasure with the situation. They don’t let that bother them. They load it into the Jeep and Stiles drives to Deaton’s office with Derek behind him in the Camaro.

Scott is there, working, and he greets them with a broad smile. “Squirrel guy!” he says, and Derek just gives him a flat, annoyed look.

“Cat guy,” Stiles corrects, gesturing to the carrier. “Today it’s cat guy.”

Dr. Deaton checks the animal over and says he’s going to need to keep her in the clinic for a few days because she’s going to need to be dewormed and be given some drops for her eye, and he’s going to want to keep an eye on her weight. “You can come pick her up on Tuesday,” he says. “If you were planning to keep her, that is.”

“Until I find a good home for her, at least,” Stiles says, scratching under the cat’s chin. She’s forgiven him for his transgressions and is purring against his chest. She’s still feeling iffy about Derek, mostly because Derek helped Scott give her a bath. Everyone present knows damned well that Stiles is going to keep the cat, but they’re all nice enough not to mention it. “I guess I should get home,” Stiles says, as they leave the clinic.

Derek nods, feeling a little awkward, but no more so than usual. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “Hey, uh.” He clears his throat. “I’m – sorry. I’m all fucked up about this whole thing and I, I haven’t been fair to you and that sucks and I’m sorry.”

Derek’s quiet for a moment, wrestling back the impulse to hug Stiles silly. “Given how things started, I don’t think you’ve been that unfair.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head. “But I’ve assigned all these nefarious intentions to you picking me, and . . . I guess the idea of it just kinda freaks me out. Sorry if that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. I mean, I know you grew up with the idea.”

Derek puts his hands in his pockets to help curb the urge to touch Stiles. “But you didn’t. That part, I understand. And it’s not just that I grew up with the idea; it’s that it’s part of our nature. We approach relationships differently from humans. But . . . ask me? I’ll never deny you an answer if you really want to know.”

Stiles thinks this over for a moment. “What’s the first thing you noticed about me?”

“Your hands,” Derek says, without hesitation. “The way your fingers curled around the door. That caught my attention.”

“What, these skinny guys?” Stiles asks, holding both hands up and wiggling his fingers.

Derek stares for a moment, then squeezes his eyes closed. “Jesus, put those away.”

Stiles laughs at him, without any shred of remorse. “Yeah, control yourself, Derek.”

“If you keep waving your hands around like that, it’s going to be difficult.”

Stiles shoves his hands back into his pockets, blushing but clearly pleased. “So . . . you can pick anyone, right? Like . . . it’s not who smells the best or who has the biggest biceps or who’s learned the most about werewolves. It’s just . . . whoever you meet that feels right. Is that how it works?”

Derek starts to say that scent does play a part in it. That the person who feels right always has a scent that draws the werewolf in. Before the words can leave his mouth, his werewolf-to-human translator kicks in. Just like humans are taught things about werewolves, ‘wolves are taught things about humans. One of them is that they experience scent very differently. In many ways, scent replaces verbal communication for werewolves, because they use it to gauge and convey emotion. You don’t have to tell your family you had a crappy day at work because they can smell it on you, and know whether you want the comfort of company or of solitude. But when humans talk about smell, they mean the spices you used cooking dinner or the smell of someone’s aftershave.

So in the end, he nods in agreement. “There’s no checklist or requirements.” He thinks about saying more, but stops. Stiles seems to have things he needs to say, questions he needs to ask. It occurs to him that it’s been years since he’s talked this much, since he’s had so much to say that he’s had to hold back.

“Someone today said that you had picked me because . . .” Stiles’ voice trails off, and then he shakes his head. “Never mind. It’s not important.”

“Because why?” The words come out as a demand, angry, although not angry at Stiles. Angry in a protective, even a possessive, sort of way. Derek closes his eyes, takes a breath, and gets hold of his temper. “It sounds important. Especially to you. What did they say?” He decides to ask who said it after he fixes whatever stupid thing someone has said to Stiles now.

Stiles flinches a little, swallows, looks away. He’s silent for a minute, but then squares his shoulders, and meets Derek’s gaze. “Because I’m the sheriff’s son. And . . . you could . . . you know, use that. To your advantage.”

Derek looks honestly confused, too confused to even really protest. “But I didn’t even know your name when I said it. First or last. I didn’t get your last name until Mr. ‘I want to jump the guy I’m coordinating for but I’m sort of a closet case’ said it. What was his name?” He pulls a hand out of his pocket and waves that away. “Anyway, I had no idea you were the sheriff’s son. Besides that, you already told me that there are other werewolves on the force. They aren’t in my pack, but we’re allied in the area and my mother is the head alpha for the region.” He frowns a little. “Who told you that? Are people worried about that sort of thing? I don’t want people thinking that about you.”

“No, like I said, it was nothing. Never mind.” Stiles buries his hands deeper in his pockets. “I think she was just trying to, you know, make me feel bad. About. You know. Everything.”

Derek eyes him. He’s learning Stiles’ avoidance signals, but he’s also got that stubborn-as-cement smell to him now, so it isn’t worth pushing. No one really wants to talk about having their feelings hurt. “Well, if you see her again, tell her that she’s full of crap and she should keep her opinions to herself.” He still wants to move forward and pull Stiles into an embrace so badly that he’s practically twitching with it, but manages to hold back.

“Heh. I’ll tell her that exactly.” Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head. “Anyway, I, yeah. I’m sorry that I’ve been an asshole. Can we start over? Maybe just . . . not rush into things? Give me some time to get used to the idea?”

“Sure,” Derek says, because he’s pretty sure that ‘yes, absolutely, anything you want’ would not be a slow roll. “Apology accepted.” He figures that maybe he can make his now, and Stiles will listen if he keeps them simple. “I’m sorry I went about this so badly, and for putting you on the spot in the first place. I’m sorry for my parents, too, but I’ll understand if you tell me where to shove that.”

“Yeah . . . okay. Though you shouldn’t apologize for your parents. I mean.” Stiles gives a shrug. “It’s not like you had any control over them. I just wish your mother didn’t freakin’ hate me.”

“Mom doesn’t hate you,” Derek replies automatically. Stiles gives him a skeptical look. He searches for the words to explain what he knows is true without it sounding insulting to Stiles. “I think . . . I think she’s just angry because it’s not playing out the way she hoped. And it’s easier for her to be angry with you than with me. I’m not sure. Peter likes you,” he adds, which is clearly important to him.

Instantly, he knows he’s said the wrong thing. Stiles does that turtle thing again, where he hunches up his shoulders like he’s trying to remove himself from danger. “Yeah, great,” he says wearily. “Peter likes me. Awesome. It’s not that . . .” He sighs. “I’ve gotta go. My dad will be home from work soon.”

Derek’s hand comes up, not to grab, but in a ‘don’t go’ pose, the same posture he had used that first day when Stiles had dropped his hand and bolted from the house. “Please. Please don’t leave. Not yet. Just talk to me.” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, it occurs to him how very slow his roll was not in that moment, but there’s no way to take it back now. He’ll just have to man up to both mistakes. The ones he understands and the ones he’s still trying to figure out.

“And say what?” Stiles asks. “That everything’s okay because your uncle likes me? Peter’s okay, he’s interesting, he kicks my ass at chess, but he’s not . . .” He nearly chokes on the words. “My mother died when I was eight years old, okay, there are days I barely remember her, the, the sound of her voice or her laugh, I have pictures and all but it isn’t the same. My dad works all the time, it’s not his fault, but he does, and I don’t have any brothers or sisters because my mother got fucking cancer before she could have another baby. They wanted more, you know, it just didn’t happen. So I’m alone, like, all the time.

“And then there’s you. You and your stupid henleys and your stupid smile and your stupid sports car, and your, your stupidly gorgeous everything, telling me I’ll be part of your pack. Part of a family. That I’ll have a mother again. You know, when I was in the car with you, that’s what I was thinking, that I’d have a mother again, and that was way more important to me than the fact that I might get, you know, you. I’m sorry if that’s insulting but it’s true. Then your, your mother gives me this look like I’m so far beneath her, I’m not even fit to polish her shoes, this look that’s just pure, five hundred percent disappointment, and I’m supposed to live with that and be okay with that because your uncle likes me. Whoop dee fuckin’ doo, Derek.”

Derek stands there, still, letting Stiles get the tirade out of his system. He doesn’t care that he’s being yelled at, because at least Stiles is telling him things. Neither of them seem to be good at that. It hurts to hear how badly Stiles wanted to be part of their pack, and that his mother had ruined that, too. “I’m not insulted,” he finally says, tackling the least of the problems first. “Pack is everything to us. You wanting to be part of that more than you wanted to be my boyfriend isn’t insulting at all. But . . . do you have any idea how happy I really am that you get along with Cora and Peter? Nobody makes Peter happy anymore. But you did.”

He rubs a hand over his face. “Nothing can excuse what my mother did, but she’s messed up.” He looks away, showing Stiles his throat. “Your mom died and I can’t imagine that.” He doesn’t know what he would have done after the fire, lying there with half his pack dead, in incomprehensible amounts of pain, hearing their voices in his head, if his mother hadn’t been there with him. “But my mother lost two children, and a brother, and Aunt Olivia and her and Peter’s baby.” Derek chokes as he’s saying it, but forces the words out. “It doesn’t make what she said okay. But she was hoping for more kids. She feels like the pack is empty. She won’t keep you out of the pack, won’t take away your chance for a family. Can you just . . . give her time? Even if she maybe doesn’t deserve it?”

“Give her time for what?” Stiles asks. “I’m never going to be what she wants for you, for the pack. Even if I’m what you want, that doesn’t seem to matter to her, and that’s never going to change.”

“Give her time to pull her head out of her ass. To remember that what she wants for me is someone who will make me happy.” Derek turns to look at Stiles again, eyebrows climbing. “You think this is the first argument I’ve had with my parents about how my life is going to go? You are what she wants for the pack, if she’d stop and think. She wants a bigger pack. Usually, she can do basic math.”

At this, a tiny little smirk touches Stiles’ face. He looks away, but his posture relaxes a little. “I’ll think about it,” he finally says. “Just don’t put me in the same room with her.”

Derek nods. His mother has already granted them both that, but he doesn’t really think now is the time to point that out. Stiles gives another little sigh and says, “I didn’t mean to, like . . . lose my shit all over you like that. That’s sort of why I didn’t want to talk about it. Sorry.”

“I’d prefer that over never dealing it,” Derek says.

“Ugh. You sound like my father,” Stiles says, but he’s smiling a little. “Speaking of which, I really should get going.”

Derek nods. “I’ll talk to you soon. You should come back and visit her.” He waves back towards the vet’s office to indicate the cat. “She likes you.”

“Hey, yeah, everyone likes me,” Stiles replies automatically.

“Obviously,” Derek says, but he’s smiling, and after a moment, Stiles smiles back.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

In retrospect, Derek thinks he should have known that something weird was up with his younger sister. She’s quiet all through dinner – Laura’s made spaghetti, one of the few meals she can produce passably – and she doesn’t smell quite the same as she usually does. Her scent is normal, but after a day at school, he’s used to it being layered over with the scents of her classmates and teachers. But today she smells different, and he’s not sure what that means.

Talia’s working late, as she so often does, and Aaron decides to bring her dinner down at the office, as he so often does. Laura goes upstairs to put the kids to bed, and Peter, well, Peter hasn’t been seen in hours. Actually, Derek can’t remember the last time he saw Peter, not that this is particularly unusual. His uncle will disappear for hours or even days at a time.

“Hey, so . . .” Cora says, as Derek is cleaning up the dishes from dinner. “Let’s say that, hypothetically, I did something you had specifically told me I shouldn’t do. How mad would you be?”

“That depends entirely on what sort of trouble you caused.” Derek scrapes pasta that has been squashed by toddler hands into the sink and sees an opportunity. “And how many of my chores you want to do.”

“I have caused no trouble, everything went off without a hitch,” Cora says, sticking her tongue out at him. “Do your own chores.”

“What did you do?” Derek points at her with his fork.

Cora squirms. “See, okay, I maybe kind of sort of went to Stiles’ school today, a little.”

“A little? As in, you looked at the school from the parking lot?” He waves the fork in her direction. “And then left?”

“More liiiiiiike . . . I pretended to be a transfer student and talked to a bunch of people and, uhm, had lunch there.”

“Cora.” Derek’s voice is more of a growl. “Did Stiles see you? If he’s pissed, I am so throwing you under the bus.”

Cora’s hands shoot up in surrender. “Hey, I was careful! You know I’d be able to smell him from fifty yards, right? I made sure he never got a chance to see me, and I want incognito. I had, like, a hat and contact lenses and everything!”

“A hat?” Derek asks skeptically, then shakes his head. “Well, it’s done. Might as well hear what you learned rather than let it go to waste.”

As relieved as Cora obviously is that Derek isn’t pissed off at her, she shifts uncomfortably. “Okay, but . . . promise you won’t freak out, okay? Because I need to tell you this stuff while Mom and Dad aren’t home, but I can’t . . . you know . . . keep you from doing anything drastic if you decide to.”

“That bad?” Derek goes back to the dishes. “I won’t promise not to freak out, but I do promise not to leave the house. Fair?”

Cora nods. “They, uhm . . . they called him a whorewolf.”

The plate Derek is holding slips out of his hands and hits the sink with a clank. It’s the worst slur that can be applied to a human. It’s used for the people who follow werewolves around and try to insinuate themselves into a pack, whether the werewolves wanted them there or not. “But he wasn’t even on the list.” His teeth are clenched and the growl is only partially contained.

Cora folds her arms over her stomach, the pose insecure, making her look younger than she is. “He was last year. He, uh, he was making friends with Erica Reyes at the festival, and uh . . . some people basically told him that he would never be good enough, and that . . . basically he was contaminating the whole process just by showing up. One of them, kind of the ringleader, was all pissed because, uh, I’m gonna quote here, ‘I told that little bitch not to dare show his face this year, but he had to come sniffing around anyway’.”

Derek’s claws make a horrible noise against the metal of the sink as he puts together why Stiles has refused to talk about this in the past. It jars him back into reality and makes some of the red fade out of his vision. He jerks his hand upwards and stops the shift with some effort. “Well, I guess in a way the asshole was right to fear for his own chances while Stiles was there to be chosen. But I can’t imagine anyone wanting to bring someone like that home.”

“Derek, it . . . it’s not just that one guy,” Cora says. “It’s like some sort of sickness. They’re all so bitter and jealous. They really hate him for stealing their chances. I watched him walk into the cafeteria – he didn’t see me! – and someone just slapped his tray of food out of his hands. And he just stood there. So fucking resigned. It was . . . weird to see him like that.”

Derek just stares at her, confused, because Stiles is many things, but passive isn’t one of them. “What chance? I never would have even met them.”

Cora flaps a hand at him and says, “Not their chance with you, just . . . I don’t know. They’re all still waiting for you to dump him and pick a real mate. To quote, again.”

“Oh, one of those simpering little fucks with their fake laughs and their fake scents and their surety that joining their pack would mean they could sit on their asses getting fat for the rest of their lives?”

“But, Der, this doesn’t make any sense,” Cora says, her voice distressed. “They’ve got it all wrong. They don’t seem to have a clue what the Searching Ceremony is about. How could all these people have gotten on the list if they don’t understand what being on the list means? This isn’t like clicking past the list of terms and conditions. This is important!”

“And Stiles got it right, even if he wasn’t on the list, and now he’s being persecuted for it.” Derek turns away from the sink and leans a hip against the counter, trying to engage his brain past the anger. “Those kids that you talked to . . . would you say they thought they had a real shot at being chosen by one of us?”

“Oh, yeah,” Cora says. “I mean, not you, you’re not in their age group – not that it always matters, clearly, ahem – but by one of the younger ‘wolves, or when they got a few years older. I mean, they talk about it like it’s some status symbol that they’ve spent years working towards.”

“Did they have a chance in hell?”

Cora barks out a short laugh. “Well, not with me. But you know what Peter says. You can’t ban assholes from the searching because sometimes werewolves are assholes too.”

“Are you sure?” Derek arches his eyebrows at her. “But seriously, when did this turn into a status thing?”

“Well . . .” Cora squirms a little. “A lot of people think werewolves are better than humans. Because of the way we heal, and the things we can do. So there is an honest, status, caste sort of thing going on there that you can’t totally ignore. But somehow that’s gotten all mixed up in the mating rituals, which isn’t how they work.”

“Because before humans sign up for the mating rituals, they’re supposed to learn about all the stuff that isn’t awesome about us or about living with us.” Derek shakes his head. “They’re totally clicking past it.”

Cora shifts. “Derek . . . we should tell Mom about this.”

“No.” Derek’s voice is firm and final.

“But Der . . .” Cora says. “Something’s wrong. And it’s bigger than us.”

“You’re totally right. Except that it will have Mom asking Stiles all sorts of questions and demanding information from him that he isn’t even ready to give me. He can’t even be in the same room as Mom right now. No.”

Cora chews on this for a few moments. “Well, I guess it’s been going on long enough that it won’t hurt to wait a while before we tell her,” she finally says. “But what are we going to do about Stiles in the meantime? He can’t go back there. Derek, he can’t.”

“Are you going to be the one to tell him that?” Derek asks, although he really doesn’t like the idea of Stiles walking into what sounds like a pit of vipers every day.

“Ugh, no,” Cora responds automatically, and then winces. “Okay, but maybe we can say something to the principal, I mean, about the bullying. They’re just looking the other way while it happens, and that’s not okay. Or, or maybe we can tell his dad. You said his dad was helping you out.”

Derek shakes his head, a little frantically. “Can you imagine what Mom or Dad would do, how far they’d fly off the handle, if this was happening to you or me? Sheriff Stilinski would do the same thing. And then we’re back to having broken Stiles’ trust.” He shakes his head again and looks down. “No. We’ll just keep our mouths shut until he’s ready to say something or ask for help, so he has someone he can ask it from.”

Cora sighs. “Okay. Then I guess it’s just . . . we need to make sure he knows we’re there for him. Even if he doesn’t want us to be.”

“That I’ll agree to.” Derek is quiet for a long minute. “And I hate to say it, but I’m curious as to why that guy thought he had the right to tell Stiles whether or not he could be on the list, and what Stiles did to make people want him out of the way.”

“Okay, Der, you’re way overthinking the first one,” Cora says dryly. “He thought he had the right because he’s a teenaged douchebag. He’s been popular since he was three and he’s the captain of the lacrosse team and girls fawn over him, and so he just told Stiles ‘you can’t be on the list next year’ and he had the right because if Stiles didn’t listen, he’d make his life miserable. Miserabler.”

“Well, I don’t like it,” Derek says. He feels it’s necessary to put that out there.

“Noted,” Cora says. “Now go get yourself a date. It’s Stiles’ birthday next week. In case you didn’t know.”

“You’re forgiven for snooping.” There’s a long pause. “Jesus, give a socially incompetent man a hand.”

What she gives him is an overly dramatic eye-roll. “Try asking him what he wants to do for his birthday. ‘Cause, you know. It’s his birthday.”

“Yes, and how would I have found out about his birthday?” Derek says. “How did you find out about his birthday?”

Cora sighs. “One of the kids at school mentioned that they were . . . planning something . . . for his birthday. So I looked it up. He had paperwork from last year. You know, when was on the list.”

Derek makes a mental note to find Stiles’ file from the previous year. “Planning something good, or planning something that will result in me having to find a way to covertly murder people? Speaking of which, do you happen to know where Uncle Peter is?”

“Look, as much as I’m sure Uncle Peter would be thrilled to give you tips on how to covertly murder people, I’m thinking that you should maybe keep a lid on things,” Cora says. “But I don’t think they plan to throw him a party.”

Derek sighs and rubs both hands over his face. “One disaster at a time,” he says under his breath, and Cora nods and agrees, and although she laughs, neither of them really think it’s funny.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

It’s late Thursday night, and Derek is comfortably slouched in an armchair with a book thicker than his arm, when his phone jingles. It’s Stiles, mangling the English language as usual. ‘what r u doing Sat?’

‘Considering joining a book group or maybe taking yoga lessons so I don’t have to watch Tyler and Sylvia every Sat. night for Laura and Jonathan’s date night. I’m leaning towards the book group. Why?’

‘that means you’re not busy, right?’

‘Yes. That means I’m not busy.’

‘some friends and me are doing a thing for my bday. 2 PM. D&B. u want in?’

Derek almost drops his phone. He’s pretty sure that it’s embarrassing how pleased he is to actually be invited to something instead of just having an event that Stiles merely agreed to. He almost agrees blindly before it occurs to him he has no idea what ‘D&B’ means. Cora is at a movie, so he can’t ask her. The lawyer’s son in him won’t let him agree until he understands what he’s agreeing to. So he asks, ‘What does D&B mean?’ Honestly, he always asks Cora for translations because of that first time he had spoken to Stiles after everything had gone south and Stiles had found it so funny that he hadn’t understood what ‘digits’ meant. The mild embarrassment hadn’t been the end of the world, but he wasn’t eager for multiple repeat performances either. He’s pretty sure that he would look and feel stupider each time.

To his relief, the reply is immediate and illuminating. ‘Sry. Dave and Buster’s. It’s an arcade, restaurant type of thing. We go there every year, it’s like a thing.’

Derek can’t even remember the last time he had been in an arcade. He can’t keep back the grin as he texts back, ‘Sounds like fun.’

‘ask Cora, she can come 2,’ Stiles says a few minutes later.

‘Will do. She’s out now, though. I’ll let you know.’ That tips his scale into stupidly happy, because it means Stiles likes other members of his family, even after he’d had some time away from them. It also meant, most likely, that he hadn’t noticed Cora snooping around his school.

‘k,’ is Stiles’ reply, and then ‘c u then.’

Since he doesn’t seem in the mood to chat, Derek goes back to his book. When Cora gets home about an hour later, he extends the offer, and she bounces on her heels and says that of course she’ll go. “What are you going to get him for his birthday?” she asks.

Derek freezes. “I have no idea.”

“Okay. I’ll ask him what he wants, then,” Cora says, winking at him.

“You’re amazing,” he says, and gives her a hug.

Not only does Cora tell him exactly what to buy Stiles for his birthday, she and Laura also team up to tell him what to wear. They argue like cats and dogs over this, because Laura is in favor of the V-neck and Cora’s protests that that’s obvious and Laura returns that Stiles had clearly liked the V-neck Derek had been wearing in the rain, and they bicker about this while Derek wishes he could melt into the walls. Cora finally wins the argument by telling Laura about the ‘slow your roll’ comment, and they put him in a dark green Henley and faded blue jeans. Cora, for whom dressing up is not in vocabulary, is wearing jeans and a tank top even though it’s a little chilly out. She also recommends that they be about five or ten minutes late, so they’re not the first ones there, and Derek agrees.

When they get there, he realizes that it’s not the best venue for werewolves. It’s crowded and extremely noisy. But he sucks it up. He sees Stiles sitting on a bench with Scott just inside, and a brunette girl he doesn’t know. At a table not far away, Sheriff Stilinski is sitting with a dark-haired woman with an obvious resemblance to Scott. Stiles glances up as they approach. “Oh, uh, hey,” he says to Derek, feeling and looking awkward.

“Hey.” Derek starts to move closer to him, giving into the initial impulse to form a pack to deal with the noise and the crowd. But he manages to stop himself before he crosses human boundaries, because he’s not sure that Stiles would be okay with that. That tiny smile that’s reserved for seeing Stiles makes a momentary appearance. “Happy birthday.”

“My birthday’s actually not until Monday,” Stiles says, “but uh . . . yeah. Hi, Cora,” he adds, and she grins and waves at him. “Oh, uh, Derek, you’ve met Scott, but Scott, Cora, Cora, Scott, and this is Scott’s girlfriend, Allison.”

Greetings are exchanged. Allison seems nice, and she has an arm around Scott’s waist.

“Oh, uh . . .” Stiles says, “I guess I should introduce you to my dad, huh? You were all about wanting to meet my family and I guess we never really got into that.”

Derek nods, smart enough to play along like he had never met the sheriff before, and try to hide how pleased he is to be invited to officially meet Stiles’ family. Better late than never. So he follows Stiles over to the table. Tom is also smart enough to pretend he hasn’t met Derek. He shakes his hand and gives him the side eye, and they exchange pleasantries. Derek is also introduced to Melissa McCall, who delivers the side eye with a little more subtlety than the sheriff. “Our job is to guard the presents while the party’s going on,” Melissa says.

“Who else is coming?” Cora asks.

“Uh, just my friend Heather,” Stiles says, glancing at his watch. “She said she would be a little late, so she should be here soon.”

Cora looks a little surprised, presumably to realize that Stiles only has three friends, but she’s smart enough not to say anything. Derek isn’t surprised that Stiles has a small social group. Not after his talks with the sheriff. To be frank, someone who was a blooming social butterfly likely wouldn’t have instinctually drawn Derek to him the way that Stiles had. At the mention of guarding the presents, Derek passes over the one he brought Stiles to be added to the pile.

Stiles narrows his eyes at Derek and says, “Come to think of it, you two will have unfair advantages at like every game in this place.”

Derek gives a half shrug. “We aren’t allowed to play a lot of the games that let you win prizes. Sometimes we can play against each other. Or sometimes the noise actually makes us worse at a game.”

“Well . . . even so,” Stiles says, “I reserve the right to take up to half your tickets if I need them.”

Derek arches an eyebrow at him. “We’ll call it a birthday privilege.”

“Damn right we will,” Stiles says, with smug satisfaction.

Derek employs the eyebrows of judgment. “How’s the cat?”

“Ugh, shedding on everything and thinking she owns the place,” Stiles says, with a dramatic roll of his eyes. Allison giggles. “My dad’s such a sucker for her, so I guess now I have to keep her.”

“Uh huh,” Derek says. “Decide on a name yet?”

“Yeah, I, uh . . .” Stiles rubs one hand over his hair and gives him an unsure smile. “I named her Cleopatra. Because, you know, Cleopatra was the queen of the Nile, and I’m the king of denial, so . . . it seemed somehow appropriate?”

“That’s . . . adorable,” Cora says.

“No, it isn’t, shut up,” Stiles retorts. “She – hey, there’s my girl!” Stiles waves as Heather approaches. She’s dressed in a cute top and a short skirt, and gives Stiles a hug that lingers for a few moments. “Glad you could make it,” Stiles says, and then waves to the others. “Uh, that’s Derek and his sister Cora, and this is Heather, we’ve been friends since we were in diapers.”

Derek hadn’t really thought of himself as the jealous sort prior to this exact moment in time. To be fair, he’s never really had the opportunity. But there’s a twinge now, when that hug lingers, and when he hears the affectionate possessive terms. He jams it down because Stiles seems genuinely happy to have her there, and Derek doesn’t want to ruin that. At the same time, he finds it impossible to work up any sort of smile, so he settles for a pleasantly neutral expression. Honestly, it’s not like he smiles all the time anyway.

Cora gives him a reassuring ‘I’ve got this, bro’ look, and then Stiles says, “Okay, last one to the laser tag pays for the first round!” and darts into the crowd.

After a while, Derek’s able to forget about the jealousy. This is Stiles with his friends, in his element, kicking everyone’s ass at Donkey Kong and Skee-Ball, eating massive amounts of junk food, and actually having a good time. There’s a persistent smile on his face, like he can forget about all his problems for a while. They play laser tag and air hockey. Allison beats the snot out of everyone at any game that requires aim. Scott has an asthma attack after a vigorous round of laser tag. It’s what looks like a typical afternoon for Stiles and his friends, and Derek is glad he was invited.

In the end, he just hands his tickets over to Stiles without the teenager even having to ask, because watching Stiles pick out ridiculous prizes is far more fun than having them himself. Of course, this backfires immediately when Stiles uses some of his tickets to get a pink stuffed rabbit and give it to Derek. He’s snickering madly as he says, “‘Cause I know you love fluffy animals so much, you should have it, I want you to have it . . .”

“Rabbits, I will eat,” Derek informs him, but he takes the stuffed toy, and he’s clearly amused.

“Sorry, you savage, they don’t serve rabbit on their pizza here,” Stiles says. He looks over to where Allison is blushingly accepting some charm necklace from Scott, and gags. “Geez, you two. Get a room.”

“Shut up!” Heather says, laughing. “You did the exact same thing to me at your birthday last year. I still have that necklace.”

Stiles turns pink and rubs a hand over his hair. “That doesn’t count, you won half the tickets . . .”

Derek does his level best not to twitch at that and isn’t sure how well he does. It isn’t the act or the token itself that bothers him, because it’s in the past, but the implication that he may have interrupted something between them. There’s interest there and it goes both ways. He can tell. He can smell it. It’s not overt or strong enough to even compare to Scott and Allison, but it’s there, and Derek would be lying if he said anything besides that he wanted Stiles all for himself. He has no right to say or do anything because he can’t stop humans from flirting. It’s how they show appreciation for each other’s attractiveness, since they can’t rely on scent and hearing to tell them. A werewolf can’t expect a human to be anything but a human any more than a human can expect a werewolf to be anything besides a werewolf. But Stiles doesn’t even smell like Derek, not that Heather would be able to tell, which would have soothed a few of Derek’s nerves.

While Stiles has gone to help his father collect massive amounts of pizza from the arcade’s restaurant, Cora pulls Heather aside. In a voice that’s low enough that the humans won’t be able to hear, although she clearly knows that Derek will be able to, she says, “So . . . did you and Stiles have a thing?”

“Nooooo,” Heather says, laughing. “I guess I had kind of a crush on him, but hey, all’s fair in love and war. Derek got there first.”

Derek lets out a sigh of relief. He’s even more positive than ever than he would be dead in a ditch without his little sister. “Thank you,” he says, just loud enough for her wolf hearing to pick up, and his shoulders start to unknot.

“‘Cause we try not to steal people’s boyfriends and stuff,” Cora adds. “I mean, I thought maybe that was why Stiles wasn’t on the list?”

“Nah, Stiles had no clue I was into him. His obliviousness is adorable. And don’t let him fool you. He’s been staring at Derek’s ass every time he thinks no one is looking.”

Derek’s torn between continuing to listen, because it’s nice to know that Stiles finds him attractive, and running away. He’s pretty sure that Cora is going to try to embarrass him soon, so he decides that going to help Stiles and his father with the pizza is a safer bet. To his surprise, Stiles looks immensely relieved to see him. “Hey, uh, I’m glad you . . . me and Heather, it’s not a thing. You know?”

Derek nods a little, but moves closer, feeling more welcome after having heard him say it. “She would have smelled different if you had been. But thanks for telling me,” he adds, trying to keep the statement low key.

Sheriff Stilinski glances over with one raised eyebrow, then gives a quiet smile and shakes his head, devoting his attention to the pizza. Stiles shoves his hands down into his pockets and says, “Okay. I just, uh, yeah. I mean.”

Derek shifts his weight, trying to decide if he even wants an answer to his next question. He doesn’t, but he feels like he owes it to Stiles to ask. It’s Stiles’ life they’re talking about. “Was there going to be something? Did I take that away from you?”

“Maybe someday,” Stiles says with a shrug. “Maybe we would’ve gotten married and had five kids. Maybe we would’ve had a torrid one-night stand and ruined our friendship. Life’s full of maybes, you know? I don’t . . .” His cheeks turn vaguely pink as he stares down at the tray of sodas he’s gathering. “There are a lot of reasons I’m screwed up about this, but Heather isn’t one of them.”

Derek wants to protest the idea of Stiles being screwed up at all, but he’s learning to keep a lid on it. Instead he nods and holds out his hands for the tray of soda, obviously offering to help. The rabbit is tucked under one arm. “Okay.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The relief that he had gotten all the way through his birthday party without any major disasters floated Stiles through the weekend and to school the next day. After all the things he had imagined could and would go wrong, he’s practically giddy with it. So he’s completely unprepared when a voice comes on the intercom during their last period of the day. It’s not the principal’s voice, or the secretary. It’s loud and jovial, so it’s not Jackson, who doesn’t know how to convey any emotion other than contempt, but it’s almost certainly one of his lackeys.

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen!” the voice announces. “We have a very special birthday to celebrate today!”

“Oh my God,” Stiles says, under his breath, feeling the blood rush to his face. He’s going crimson all the way to the tips of his ears.

“Our very own local celebrity, Stiles Stilinski, turns seventeen today,” the voice continues, and suddenly every eye in the classroom is on him, including the teacher. Even Scott is staring at him, although he looks more stricken than anything else. “And so we have a very special song to play in his honor.”

Well, Stiles thinks. That can’t be too bad. They’ll play ‘I’m Too Sexy’ or something else ridiculous, everyone will laugh at him, and he can move on with his life. Worse things have certainly happened to him in the past few months.

But what comes on over the intercom isn’t a song at all. It’s a recording that he instantly recognizes, of his own voice, now about two weeks past.

“Seriously, though, who gave Derek permission to be that freakin’ attractive?” he says over the intercom, just like he had said it to Scott in the locker room the day after his tires had been slashed, and his face goes from red to white as he remembers all the things that had come afterwards. “Like, have you even seen his ass? And he wears these jeans that are practically obscene, seriously, his thighs, I can’t even.”

There’s a spate of giggles through the class. Stiles just sits there, struck speechless and motionless by what’s going on. If a hole had opened to the underworld in front of his desk, he would have jumped into it without a second thought.

“And so he just lifts up my car like it’s no big deal, and his freakin’ biceps are like ‘oh hi there, I exist to melt panties’, and I couldn’t stop looking at them, Jesus fucking Christ. And it’s raining, okay, and he’s wearing this V-neck shirt, and it’s all clinging to him, and it’s like, unf. Completely unfair. At least it wasn’t white. I think I seriously would have had trouble keeping my dick in my pants if it had been white.”

“You should go for it,” Scott says, his voice completely earnest on the recording.

“Hah, yeah,” Stiles says. “Derek Hale totally wants a piece of me.”

The recording stops, and then the cheerful voice comes back on over the intercom. “So there you have it, folks: Stiles Stilinski thinks that Derek Hale totally wants a piece of him. Happy birthday to Beacon Hills High’s own whorewolf extraordinaire!”

The intercom clicks off after that, but it’s by no means silent. Everyone is laughing. Scott is the sole exception; he looks like he’d be happy to commit hara kiri right along with Stiles. Even the teacher is laughing, leaning against the desk to keep from falling over.

Stiles quietly gathers his things. He knows that anything he says will only make things worse. He could scream, protest, argue, but it wouldn’t do any good. His eyes burn with unshed tears that are as much rage as distress, but he refuses to let them fall. These assholes are not going to see him cry. All this time, the only way he’s been able to fight back has been to refuse to fold. They can do whatever they want to him, but he won’t run away, he won’t cry, he won’t back down. It’s the only weapon he has to fight back with.

He stands up, shoulders his backpack, and mouths, ‘I’m okay’ to Scott even though it’s obvious that it couldn’t be further from the truth. He doesn’t want Scott coming after him. His own life won’t be made any easier by this little stunt. Then he turns and walks – walks, not runs – out of the classroom. He can hear laughter coming from almost every other room, hoots and hollers as he passes by the open doors.

Once he gets outside, he’s relieved to see that his car is intact, but less relieved to see that it’s been decorated. Festooned in streamers and flowers, whipped cream and the trail of cans that signified ‘just married’ in the old days. He walks toward it a few steps, and then veers off and starts into the woods instead. He doesn’t even want to go near it.

He heads into the preserve, not really thinking about where he’s going, but just following the old animal paths instead. His chest is tight and aching, and he can’t even think, he’s so upset. He doesn’t know how he’ll ever be able to show his face in school again. The hatred is so strong that it’s hard to breathe.

His feet take him to the Hale house without even thinking about it, and he stares at it, almost amused by his subconscious’ actions. Then again, what are his other options? He could go home and wallow in misery, or he could go to the station and let his father see him this upset, which would surely result in some awkward questions.

There’s a car parked next to the house – a well worn family sedan – so he walks up to the door and rings the bell.

From inside, he hears Laura call, “Just a minute!” but when the door swings open a few moments later, it’s Peter who stands there.

The werewolf doesn’t look particularly surprised to see him, but then his eyes narrow and everything about him goes sharp and predatory. “Someone has upset you,” he says. His voice is soft, calm, deadly in a way that defies explanation.

Stiles may not be sure of Derek’s feelings or intentions, but in that moment he’s sure of one thing: if Peter knew who had upset him, that person would be dead. He’s not exactly certain what that means in the grand scheme of things, but his research suggests only one possibility. Whether Talia likes it or not, the pack has accepted him.

He licks his lips nervously and says, thinly, “I’m okay.”

Peter studies him a moment longer, then stands back and says, “Come inside.”

Stiles follows him in. Laura is just heading out of the kitchen to answer the door. She, at least, registers some surprise, and then she catches his scent and her eyes flare gold for a brief moment. Unlike Peter, she suppresses the instinctual reaction to the smell of his distress. “Stiles, it’s so good to see you!” she says. “Cora’s still at school and everyone else is at work, but you’re always welcome here.”

“Thanks,” Stiles says. The tight knot in his throat is easing a little. He can breathe and swallow again.

Peter steers him into the living room, where Tyler and Sylvia are playing. Stiles allows himself to be steered, and plunked down in their play area. Laura gets him a cold glass of lemonade, and that helps, too. Before long, he’s building train tracks with the toddler and he feels almost normal again.

“Read me a story,” Tyler says, climbing into his lap. “You too, Unca Peter.”

Peter silently steps over the little toddler gate and sits down with them. His presence so close to Stiles is somewhat unnerving, but he’s learned quickly that werewolves’ definition of ‘personal space’ is completely different from that of humans’. Strangers have to be farther away, and pack should be closer. So when Peter’s chest presses against his shoulder so he can reach over and run a hand over Tyler’s hair, Stiles doesn’t let it bother him. It’s a little strange, awkward, but not bad awkward.

By the time Cora gets home from school, he’s calmed down enough that she doesn’t immediately react to his scent. She’s groaning about her homework, and how much she hates math, so the two of them sit down together and start plugging away at it. He helps her with her math, and she offers a helpful tip or two on speed-reading.

It’s nice, sitting there with her doing something mundane while the baby naps and Laura sits at the table with Tyler doing puzzles with him. Peter wanders in and out. Stiles hadn’t realized, really, how used to being alone he was. Sure, he and Scott would do homework together sometimes, but lately he and Allison had been doing a lot of ‘study sessions’. Stiles can’t really hold it against him, but his dad works a lot and so more often than not, he sits around an empty house.

At five o’clock, Laura says, “I’d better get dinner started. If you’re done with your homework, Stiles, could you help me out?”

“Sure,” Stiles says, standing up. “What are you making?”

“Spaghetti,” Laura replies.

“Again?” Cora whines.

Laura ignores her, taking two boxes of spaghetti out of the pantry. Stiles opens the fridge and looks in the vegetable drawer. “Do you need to go to the store?” he asks.

“What?” Laura asks, blinking at him.

“Well, you – you don’t have any onions or tomatoes,” Stiles says.

Laura puts two jars of Prego on the counter. “Spaghetti sauce,” she says.

“Oh,” he replies. He tries to let it go. He really does. But the part of his brain that’s incapable seizes on the subject of dinner. “But shouldn’t you at least have some hamburger, I mean, I was doing research and I read that werewolves require a higher protein and fat content in their diet than regular humans.”

“It’s meat sauce,” Laura says blankly.

“Oh,” Stiles says again. “Okay,” he adds, because there isn’t much else he can say to that.

“Why don’t you make the salad?” Laura asks, and hands him a head of lettuce and a cutting board.

Stiles says okay, and he does find some cucumbers and some carrots in the bottom of the vegetable drawer. He can’t help himself, though; he adds a little shredded cheese and some sunflower seeds that he finds in the pantry, because nobody is going to be malnourished while he’s around. After half a decade of religiously watching his father’s diet, it’s almost reflex.

Laura makes the spaghetti and then heats up the sauce – in the microwave, and Stiles can’t hold back a wince – and by the time everything is basically ready, her husband Jonathan is home, and Derek arrives a few minutes later. Aaron and Talia are nowhere to be seen; Stiles suspects that Laura texted them to tell them not to come home for dinner.

“Stiles,” Derek says, clearly surprised. He’s a little dirty, a bit scruffier than normal after the day’s labor. Stiles’ gaze darts to his biceps, and then the memory of what had happened at school that day comes out and brutally murders his libido.

“Uh, hi,” he says. “I just, uh, came over after school. ‘Cause it seemed like a good idea.”

“You’re always welcome here,” Derek says, clearly a little puzzled. Stiles is glad that the smell of the food and the way all the other wolves have been clinging so close to him masks any other scents, emotional scents, he might be producing. Of course, from the reading he’s been doing, the fact that the other wolves’ scents are all over him is probably driving Derek nuts. He remembers what Derek said to him that first day, about how nobody else would want to get between them.

He realizes abruptly that he’s been thinking about this like it’s real. Like Derek is actually his mate, with a real reason to be upset that other people are scent marking him. He rubs a hand over his face and goes back to setting the table.

“Go clean up, scruffy,” Cora says to her brother. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Yeah,” Derek says, and heads out of the room.

Dinner that night is somewhat more loud and exciting than it had been the last time he was there. Stiles himself is quiet this time, choosing to observe rather than participate. Cora’s chattering about some dance that her school is hosting the next weekend. Jonathan is complaining about a rude client. Laura is telling exaggerated stories about the trouble Tyler’s gotten into, while spooning food into the baby’s mouth. Peter is quiet, too, and Derek mostly just watches Stiles surreptitiously, with a faintly confused expression on his face.

After dinner, Stiles helps Cora and Derek clean up in the kitchen. “I should get home,” he says, wanting to escape this time before any parental figures show up. “But, uh, I don’t have my car.”

For a moment it looks like Derek might ask why not. Then he clearly thinks better of the idea, and just says, “I’ll drive you, then.”

“Thanks.” Stiles says goodbye to Cora, who hugs him, and sees Derek’s eyebrow twitch as yet another scent that’s not his own is layered on top of Stiles. They head out to the car. Stiles takes a deep breath of the crisp evening air and stops with his hand on the door to the Camaro. “Uh,” he says, and his voice catches in his throat. He has a feeling that he’s about to make a complete ass of himself, but the words escape his mouth before he can stop them. “You can scent mark me. If you want.”

Derek fumbles his keys and nearly drops them, his gaze snapping up to Stiles to gauge his sincerity.

“I know it’s probably driving you nuts, the way I smell like Peter and the kids right now,” Stiles continues, his voice a little rough. “So, you know. If you want to. I don’t mind.” I want you to, his mental voice continues, and it’s true; he doesn’t know if Derek can smell that, that after everything that happened today, he’s practically desperate for it. He doesn’t dare say that part out loud.

Derek opens his mouth to say something, but can’t seem to come up with the right words, so he just stops. He pockets his keys and circles the car, slower than he’d like to, because he doesn’t want to seem like he’s pouncing. Once he’s directly in front of Stiles, he does come up with the right words. “Thank you.” With a last look at Stiles’ face, and a careful survey of everything he can pick up from Stiles to be sure he means it, Derek reaches out and first pulls Stiles into a simple but tight, warm hug. He makes sure to move slow enough to give Stiles a chance to change his mind.

Stiles goes stiff in his embrace for a few moments, his heart pounding, but then relaxes into it, pressing his cheek into Derek’s shoulder. Derek waits for his heart to stop rabbiting against him, and for his scent to return to normal. After that, he takes a moment to just enjoy the feeling of Stiles’ body, relaxed against his. Then, still moving slowly, he curls down, not very far at all because Stiles is nearly the same height, and nuzzles his nose into the crook of Stiles’ neck.

The noise Derek makes is low, pleased, and entirely canine. This is the first time he’s really been allowed to get Stiles’ scent unfiltered. The scent of a teenaged boy, medication, caffeine, the soap and shampoo he uses, the strange scents that make up the soul of Stiles, like the smell of ink and paper and sarcasm and sharp intelligence. Things that shouldn’t have a scent, exactly, but every ‘wolf will agree that they do. Underneath it all, Stiles smells lonely, and Derek hates that. He pulls in Stiles’ scent in tiny little breaths and rubs his cheek against Stiles, against his neck and his jaw and the side of his head. One of his hands comes up and rubs over Stiles’ hair and the back of his neck.

Stiles is very still for a moment, but then one hand clutches at the back of Derek’s shirt, and he makes a noise in the back of his throat. It’s not an unhappy noise, exactly, and it certainly isn’t a noise of protest. It’s a broken little desperate noise of loneliness and longing.

Derek suddenly wants to turn Stiles right around and bring him back inside. He manages to get a hold of himself before he does, and instead just hugs him a little bit tighter because he doesn’t think he would get away with kidnapping Stiles for the night.

After a long moment, Stiles clears his throat and starts to pull away. Derek lets him. “I, uh . . .” He tries to think of something to say. What comes out is, “That was kind of intense.”

Derek nods a little. “Sometimes . . . humans don’t like it.” He’s not really worried about Stiles being that way. He’s pretty sure that Stiles will actually take well to pack closeness. But it’s true. Sometimes humans are bothered by it. It’s one of the many reasons that werewolves established the list and the educational material that goes with it.

Stiles gives a little shiver. There’s so much he could say that he can’t even begin to say it. “Okay, well, uh . . . I guess you should take me home now.”

With a nod, Derek opens the door for him. Taking care of him is an instinct that’s hard to override at the moment. Stiles gets into the car without protest, and his hands knot together as Derek rounds the car and gets into the driver’s side, but then they relax. He’s tired, but suddenly feels mellow. He’s not sure what he’s going to do about school the next day – besides ‘suffer through’ – but he thinks he can handle it now.

Derek drives home without saying anything, letting Stiles have command of the radio and the silence. He surprises Derek by turning it to a classical station and then just letting the music play, staring out the window. When he gets home, he’s surprised to see his Jeep in the driveway, cleaned up, not a flower to be seen. His surprise is obvious, and Derek turns a sharp look on him. “I left it at school,” he says. “Scott must have driven it home for me. He knows my locker combination, so he could have gotten my keys.”

Derek turns the car off and pulls his keys out of the ignition, fiddling with them. “Why did you do that?”

There’s a bare pause before Stiles says, “I was upset. Driving seemed like a bad idea.” It’s the truth, if not the whole truth, and he hopes that it satisfies Derek and that he doesn’t demand details. He knows that the werewolf has figured out at least some of what’s happening at school. He’s not an idiot. Calling him after his car had been vandalized had pretty much guaranteed that. It doesn’t mean that he wants to talk about it.

It’s obvious that Derek wants to ask why he’s upset, but he lets it go, mostly because Stiles seems content right now and he doesn’t want to ruin it. Instead, he nods a little and then hands Stiles a single key he’s removed from his own set. “Here.”

Stiles accepts the key, blinks at it, and says, “What . . .?”

“It’s to the house.” He shrugs like it isn’t a big deal. To be fair, it isn’t. Making someone part of the pack and part of the family is a big deal, but that’s already been happening. That person being able to get into the den is just normal.

“Oh.” Stiles swallows. He thinks he should probably argue, but he just doesn’t have it in him. “Okay. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Stiles tucks the key away, clears his throat, and mumbles, “Well, uh, I’ll see you later, I guess,” and gets out of the car before he can do anything stupid.

He calls Scott to thank him for taking care of the car. Scott says it was no problem, Allison helped out, they got into a whipped cream fight that ended with kissing, he has now officially kissed a girl, and by the way is Stiles okay? Stiles says that he is. He’s not sure how or why, but he is.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

After that, it somehow becomes normal for Stiles to head to the Hale house after school. On some days, he stays for dinner; on others he goes home to cook for his father. But lately, Sheriff Stilinski has been working later hours. Stiles is grouchy about it, but Derek suspects he’s doing it primarily so Stiles has the free time to come over.

He plays chess or shogi with Peter. He watches Thomas the Tank Engine or builds lego towers with Tyler. He does his homework curled up in the bay window at the front of the house while Cora does hers sprawled out on the living room floor. He chats with Laura while she cuts pictures out of magazines for some project she’s doing. He fits there, in a way that he couldn’t possibly have imagined.

It should feel awkward when Derek comes home from work, but after the first week, it doesn’t. They say hi and sometimes he’ll ask how Derek’s day was, but more often, things are lost in the chaos of the dinner hour.

Dinner is primarily his responsibility now, because after about a week and a half, he saw Laura looking speculatively at a chicken before putting it in a pan to put in the oven and he suddenly couldn’t help it anymore. “Okay, stop,” he says, walking over. “What are you doing to that poor bird; it gave its life for you to have food. At least put some freakin’ olive oil on it before you turn it into charcoal, for Christ’s sake.”

Laura looks somewhat chagrined. “I’m . . . not really cut out for this ‘pack mom’ stuff,” she says. “It’s like, when the kids were born I decided to take a couple years off of work, and suddenly I’m responsible for all this stuff, and I just . . .”

“For the love of God, let me help you,” Stiles says. “Please tell me you have spices and an actual roasting pan, because if you put that bird in the oven in a baking dish, I won’t be able to hold myself back.”

They have the pan, but not the spices. Laura insists on taking him to the store so they can buy what he thinks is necessary. He gets some herbs and some lemons, some red potatoes and vegetables. He roasts it all together and it comes out pretty well, he thinks. Not too bad for something he did off the fly. As it turns out, there were two chickens, given the number of people they had to feed. It’s a good thing, too. The meal flies off the metaphorical shelves and ends with Cora and Jonathan literally squaring off over one of the chicken carcasses. The birds are picked clean.

“That was really good,” Derek says.

“Yeah?” Stiles grins at him, unabashedly happy for the first time in weeks. “Then tomorrow I’ll show you guys what spaghetti is actually supposed to be like.”

He does. He makes a triple batch and somehow his father winds up coming over, and they all sit and stuff amazing amounts of food into their mouths. His father gets along well with Laura and her husband, and he greets Derek cautiously but doesn’t seem to have a problem with him. Derek sits next to Stiles and tries to remind himself that he can’t get too close.

With him there for dinner almost every night, eventually he knows he’s going to have to sit at a table with Talia, and two nights after the spaghetti is it. He’s made a pork roast. There’s rice and green beans to go with it. He’s starting to wonder how much longer he can afford to do the grocery shopping for the Hale family. He has some savings, mostly from selling papers on the internet, but feeding werewolves is expensive. He’s sure that they would buy the groceries if he asked – and to be fair, the roast itself came from their freezer – but he feels awkward asking. Talia’s just finished up with a court case and is too tired to go back to her office, and Stiles can’t really blame her. It’s her house, her pack. He can’t make her stay in exile just because he’s uncomfortable with her.

Aaron is home, too, and things are awkward but not unbearable. He wants to leave, really, but he doesn’t want to let Talia chase him away. Besides, Laura has some sort of gift from God to ruin a meal if left alone with it for five minutes, and he worked hard on the damned pork roast. So he puts everything on the table and sits down and everyone starts eating.

After three bites, Talia puts her fork down and really addresses Stiles for the first time. “This is very good, Stiles.”

“Thanks,” Stiles says, determined to meet her gaze and not back down.

“Where did you learn to cook?” she asks.

He can’t imagine why she cares, but answers anyway. “The food network and the internet, mostly. My dad would eat fast food every day if given the opportunity, and that’s not good for him, so, uh, I sort of had to learn after my mom died.”

“Thank God,” Cora says cheerfully. Laura just laughs. She doesn’t take offense at their teasing.

“It’s a rare skill in a teenaged boy,” Talia says.

Stiles knows that it’s meant as a compliment, but it stings anyway. He had run into a classmate at the grocery store a few days before. “Oh my God, they’ve got you in the kitchen,” the boy had said, chortling, and school the next day had been full of girls giggling and asking if he had to cook barefoot and how soon would Derek get him pregnant so he could really fulfill the woman’s role.

It doesn’t help that Talia has never addressed her initial comments to him in any sort of way, and he knows that the only reason she’s been making herself scarce has been for Derek’s sake, not his. He shoves the rice around on his plate and says, “Yeah, I bet you look for that in all the potential mates you run through your screening process.”

“Actually, denmaking is a very valued skill in packs,” Aaron says, when it becomes clear that nobody else knows how to respond.

“Will there be a quiz later?” Stiles asks.

“If there is, I’d say you already passed it,” Jonathan says, his mouth full of pork.

Stiles scowls and stabs murderously at his dinner.

“Why are you upset about this?” Talia asks, her eyes narrowed.

She has that same ‘someone has upset you’ look that Peter had gotten earlier. From Peter, Stiles had accepted it, even welcomed it. From Talia, it makes him want to slap someone. So he glares her down and says, “That’s none of your business.”

The table sits in a collective stunned silence as everyone tries to compute the fact that Stiles had just said that to the alpha.

Talia recovers first, and her eyes are starting to show that faint red shine as she says, “If you’re going to be part of this pack – “

Stiles shoves back from the table and says, “Enjoy dinner, guys. I’ll see you later.”

Derek turns a snarl on his mother that Stiles can feel if not see, and he’s gotten halfway across the room before Talia says, “Wait.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I handled that badly. Please sit down, Stiles.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Stiles returns to his chair. He’s lost his appetite, and all the wolves seem uneasy. He just wants to scream. The last thing he wants to do is sit politely with this woman who hates him, who only puts up with him for the sake of her son’s feelings, who will never welcome him into her pack even if Derek was being honest about claiming him as a mate.

Aaron hastily changes the subject, bringing up something that had happened at work that day. Stiles stares at his plate and wonders how soon he can leave.

But when Peter walks in, everyone basically forgets his little tiff with Talia. Stiles is starting to learn how to tell when Peter’s having a bad day. It’s not anything he can read off Peter himself, not yet, but from the others around him. Cora’s quick intake of breath, the sudden tension in Derek’s spine, the look of sorrow on Laura’s face. That’s how he knows to be cautious with Peter.

“Make no mistake,” Laura had told him one afternoon, when no one else was in the house except the children, “Peter is my uncle and I love him, but he was the most dangerous member of this pack even before the fire broke him. So just . . . I know that you like him and the two of you get along, but never forget that, okay?”

She was so earnest about it that Stiles never has.

But now Talia’s here, and she takes a look at Peter and says quietly, “Peter, sit down and have some dinner.” It’s the most gentle that Stiles has ever seen her.

Peter sits down at the place that had been set for him, that’s always set for him, even when nobody has seen him for days. But he stares at Talia, his eyes shining blue and his teeth slightly bared. “There’s too much garlic,” he says.

Stiles feels like maybe he should apologize, but Talia says firmly, “Stiles made dinner. You should eat it.”

“Olivia wouldn’t have made it with so much garlic,” Peter persists, and Stiles feels like he’s been punched in the gut. From the collective wince around the table, he thinks everyone else feels the same way. And now he understands, at least a little, why the other ‘wolves were confused by the way he had belittled his new position in the pack. He makes a mental note to look up ‘denmaking’ when he gets home.

Talia rests a hand on Peter’s forearm. “Peter,” she says, the words heavy, a command, and not just from the repetition. “Stiles made dinner. You should eat.”

“I don’t know how all of you can sit here and eat after half of our family was murdered – “

“Peter!” Talia’s voice is a snarl, now. “You need to calm down.”

Peter snarls back, but then flinches away at the red flare in her eyes. “I – Talia, I – “ His voice breaks. “It isn’t right. None of this is right.”

“I know.” Talia draws him into an embrace, pressing his face into her shoulder. “I know, brother. I know.”

Stiles sits there feeling awkward and vaguely embarrassed, witnessing something incredibly intimate that he feels like he has no right to see. A few moments later, Peter gathers himself, mumbles something, and flees the room. Talia rubs one hand over her face before anyone can see the tears, and pours herself another glass of water.

Stiles knows he should mind his own business, but he can’t help the question; he needs to understand. “I, uh, I thought the fire was an accident.”

“It was,” Talia says briskly.

Seeing the look on his face, Aaron says, “Peter . . . had a hard time handling that. He needed somebody to blame for what happened. We let him believe it because we thought it would help him cope. Unfortunately, over the years he’s gotten somewhat fixated on it. We just try not to encourage him. Okay?”

“Okay,” Stiles says, because hell, what else can he say to that? He had been angry after his mother’s death, but it had been an illness, and there had been no one to blame. He doesn’t know if it would have helped if there had been, but he thinks he can understand the impulse.

Nobody has much of an appetite after that, so Laura and Derek clear the table, and Stiles decides to head home. But the thought nags at him. He can’t really say why. It’s just that after spending weeks with Peter, he’s starting to respect the man’s intelligence, if nothing else. So when he gets home, he decides to put his mind at ease. He tosses his jacket over the back of a chair and says to his father, “The Hale house fire was an accident, right?”

He expects a simple, ‘yes, why do you ask’, which will answer the question and allow him to forget about it. But instead his father looks up, over the rim of his reading glasses, and says, “I was never really sure, to be honest. What brought that on?”

Stiles frowns a little. “Peter said something about it,” he says.

Sheriff Stilinski taps at the table with the end of his pencil. “The fire investigator ruled that it was an electrical fire,” he finally says, “and he would know more about it than I would have. But I always thought that it spread a little too fast to be accidental. I offered to look into it when I became sheriff, but Talia Hale accepted the investigator’s explanation, so I let it go.”

“Werewolves would have been able to smell it if there had been any accelerants used, right?” Stiles asks.

His father nods. “Yes, that’s one of the reasons it was ruled accidental.”

“Hnh.” Stiles chews on this for a minute before deciding he has nowhere near enough information to form an opinion. “Okay.”

“Stiles,” Tom says, “you’ve got that look.”

“What look?” Stiles feigns innocence.

“The I’m-going-to-poke-my-nose-where-it-doesn’t-belong look,” Tom says. “Son, I’m glad you and Derek are getting along better – I really, honestly am. But if Talia Hale wants to let it rest, you’d be better off not arguing with her.”

Stiles’ jaw sets. “Like I give a rat’s ass what she thinks,” he says.

Sheriff Stilinski lets out a breath. “Stiles. Look. We’ve put off talking about a lot of this, but maybe it’s time that we do, if you and Derek are getting more serious – “

“We are not getting more serious – “

“Son, you’re over there every day after school – “

“Yeah, ‘cause his sisters like me – “

“And in what way is that not getting serious with a werewolf?” Tom challenges, and Stiles’ gaze slides to the side. “Stiles. Really. I want what’s best for you. And if you want to go for this, then go for it. But don’t make an enemy of an alpha. Any alpha. Okay?”

“Look, all I’m trying to do is survive until Derek gets sick of his little joke and finds a real mate,” Stiles says, trying not to think about the way Derek had scent-marked him a few weeks prior. Not just a little, but thoroughly, desperately. “School sucks right now, so I’ve made friends with his sisters. It’s not a big deal. So just let it go, okay?”

His father sighs. “Okay. But . . . be careful, if you’re going to look into this, and don’t tell me you’re not going to because I know you.”

Stiles makes a face but says, “I’ll be careful.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Derek has done a lot of thinking about places he wants to take Stiles, outings that he would be interested in, that could be something done as friends rather than an actual date. After some debate and lengthy discussion with Cora, who thinks he’s a gigantic nerd, he decides to invite Stiles to come along with him to his favorite used bookstore. It’s a two-story affair with a small café that serves sandwiches and pastries, and books are stacked haphazardly on every flat surface.

It’s impossible to gauge Stiles’ enthusiasm over text, since his response is, ‘sure, ok’, but there’s no expression, no scent to go along with it. But when he meets Stiles there, he sees everything in the teenager just light up with excitement and, well, lust. Book lust. It’s a specific scent that he’s never encountered before, and he likes it. A lot.

Greeting him is a little awkward, because it often is these days, as he has to vigorously restrain himself from, well, greeting Stiles. His scent had worn off the teenager quickly, and he always wants to replace it. But he’s getting over it now, especially now that he’s seeing Stiles frequently, and so the teenager is picking up some of his scent if only from proximity.

Stiles grabs a basket and moves from section to section with childlike enthusiasm. He picks up books on the most eclectic things. Famous naval battles, the human genome project, moons of Neptune, drug cartels in Mexico, anything and everything just gets dumped into his basket, along with a sizable selection of fiction. Derek follows him, occasionally sitting down in one of the store’s plush chairs when Stiles gets particularly engrossed in something.

Once Stiles has made his purchases, Derek suggests they grab a bite to eat. Stiles looks in his wallet with the expression of someone who is half-expecting moths to fly out. “I, uh, I’m kinda broke,” he says, and pats the stack of books. “That was the last of my money. Totally worth it, though.”

Derek shrugs. “I can catch the check this time,” he says, tacking ‘this time’ onto the end to make sure he doesn’t injure Stiles’ pride. Stiles makes a face but agrees, and Derek gets coffee for Stiles and a soda for himself, and a sandwich for both of them. The topic doesn’t come up again, because Stiles is already reading three of his new books at once, chattering unselfconsciously about what he’s reading. But Derek can’t help but wonder. Less than a month has gone by since Stiles nonchalantly shelled out several hundred dollars for a set of new tires. He knows the teenager doesn’t have a job, but it seems exceedingly awkward to try to ask questions about his financial situation.

He thinks back over the time that he’s known Stiles, and he’s never seemed short on money. They’ve gone to the arcade at least once, they’d eaten out a couple times. He’s heard Stiles talk about movies or video games that he’s bought, and he’d seen Stiles spend big time money to get his new cat some things. The cat tree alone had cost over a hundred bucks. And yet, suddenly, he’s broke. Broke but happy. Derek was glad that he brought him here.

Stiles pulls out another book from his stack, and Derek sees that it’s a cookbook. One of those ‘365 easy meals’ type of books that the Food Network puts out. “D’you like goulash?” Stiles asks, skimming through the pages.

“I have no idea. What is it?” Derek eyes the book. “Laura looks at books like that like they have bigger teeth than she does.”

“I buy them used when I can. Then they have notes from other people. Like in Harry Potter. You know. Always buy your textbooks and your cookbooks used. Goulash is a beef stew. Onions and tomato and macaroni. It’s originally from Hungary, and . . . you probably don’t care.”

“Stiles, are we talking about anything else right now?” Derek asks, eyebrows up.

“Yes, we’re talking about your sister being afraid of cookbooks. Seriously, how did you all survive this long? I’m amazed that you don’t have rickets or scurvy.”

“I bring citrus fruit home from work. Some of the trees are old enough to produce it. And we have an orange and a grapefruit tree on the property. That’s how we avoid scurvy. I’m not sure about rickets.” He smirks a little and says, “You weren’t expecting me to have an answer, were you. Anyway, you could make goulash next time you cook.”

“You don’t even know what rickets is, asshole; don’t even front with me,” Stiles says. “And yes, I could. Maybe I even will. Tyler loves stuff with macaroni.”

Derek gives an amused huff. “I have no fucking clue what rickets is.” He pulls out his receipt and a pen. “Tell me what you need and I can make sure we have it.”

“What, no way, it’s easier to just do the shopping myself,” Stiles says. “That way I don’t have to worry about explaining the difference between crushed tomatoes and stewed tomatoes and have you calling me saying that I asked for twelve ounce cans but they only have sixteen ounce cans, like it’s a tragedy. I’ve played this game with my father.”

“Okay,” Derek says, lifting his hands in surrender. But he can’t help but wonder. If Stiles is doing the shopping and won’t write lists for people, is that where all his money is going? Feeding a pack of wolves?

He doesn’t ask, though, since he has a feeling Stiles will get annoyed at him. They eat their sandwiches and talk about random things and then he has to help Stiles carry his books because, well, there are a lot of them. He takes Stiles home and heads back towards the house. It’s a weekend, so everyone is there. Laura is flopped on the sofa, watching television while Tyler plays with his trains. It’s Sylvia’s naptime.

Derek comes in and greets everyone verbally, but not physically, which is a little unusual for him. He makes a beeline for the kitchen. There’s a bit of rustling and then he calls out, “Hey, Laura?”

“Hey, what?” Laura calls back.

“Do you know what cardamom is?”

“Sounds like a Hallmark greeting,” she replies. Derek makes his way into the living room and holds out a jar of the spice to his sister, giving her another shot at recognition. She just gives him a blank look.

“Okay. And this one?” he asks, holding out another jar.

She glances up at him. “Coriander. So?”

“Didn’t buy it?”

“What? No. Did you notice I’m watching the television?”

“Yep. I noticed. Hold these.” He holds the jars out to her, one in each hand, so that she’ll grab them the same way, which she does. Only once her hands are occupied does he reach out and smack her upside the head. He knows what her reflexes and training are like. Taking her off guard won’t do any good if her hands are free.

“Owww, Derek!” Laura says, as Derek takes the jars back. “What was that for?”

“For not buying the spices, or the eggplants, or the pie crusts, or the macaroni, or any of the things we’ve been eating for the last two weeks at least!” Derek fumes right back at her.

“Wha – what?” Laura asks. “How is this my fault? I told Stiles that he could use whatever he wanted from our food and let me know if he needed things we didn’t have!”

“And when things started to appear that we didn’t have and we didn’t buy it, you didn’t say anything to him? Or offer to take him shopping and pay him back?” Derek asks, his eyebrows in full judgment mode.

“I had already told him to let me know if he needed things,” Laura shoots back. “What do you want me to do, treat him like he’s a child? He’s trying to make himself a place in this pack, how was I supposed to tell him not to buy things?”

Derek judges her less at that, but he’s not willing to let it go. “He’s sixteen, Laura. Cora doesn’t have that sort of money. I know he’s trying to make a place for himself, but he also thinks he has something to prove.” He rubs a hand over his face. “I don’t want him thinking that he has to earn a place in the pack. I wish you would have said something to me, at least, if not to him.”

“I guess it just never occurred to me that it was a big deal,” Laura says, but her tone is apologetic.

Derek flops on the sofa, setting the spices on the coffee table before cuddling up to her. “I’m starting to learn that all sorts of things are a big deal with Stiles.”

“Well . . . how do you want me to handle it?” Laura asks, somewhat uncertain.

“I’ll handle it,” Derek says. He doesn’t think he needs to make Laura feel bad by telling her that Stiles is broke. “I’m going to take him shopping tomorrow or the next day. Show him the good shops for free range meat, things like that. I’ll just give them my card and tell them to keep it on file for any time Stiles comes in. Not give him a choice or talk about it. Sometimes things go a little better if I just steamroll forward.” He pauses. “Not always. Sometimes I’m pretty sure that’d be a good way to get myself killed.”

Laura gives a snort of laughter. “Yeah, I can imagine. But okay. If you think you can do it without him noticing, though, you’d better think again.”

“Ohhh no. I’m not even going to bother to try to hide it.” Derek snorts, as if hiding things from Stiles is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. “Stiles may have ADD, but he’s at least as smart and observant as Uncle Peter.”

“Well, good luck then,” Laura says. “Fortune favors the bold.”

It goes about as well as Derek anticipates. Stiles suspiciously accepts his offer to go shopping because he ‘needs to get a few things anyway’. He suspiciously gives Derek the side-eye when they go down the baking aisle, which incidentally has cooking implements in it, and Derek starts examining them and trying to drop hints that Stiles might need some of them. He suspiciously allows Derek to examine produce with him and suspiciously follows Derek to the register. When Derek says to the cashier, “I talked to Rick earlier about putting my card on file,” the cashier nods and says okay, and suddenly their groceries are bagged and they’re on the way out of the store and Stiles has yet to object.

“Dude,” he says, as they load the groceries into the Camaro, “do you have any idea how subtle you are not?”

“Would subtle have done me any good?” Derek asks, forthrightly.

“Depends on how you look at it. I might have gotten to laugh at you, which would’ve been okay from my standpoint.”

“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” Derek says. “How exactly would one go about being subtle about this?”

“I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that suggestively fondling a meat thermometer isn’t it.”

“I was not!”

“Uh huh. You just keep telling yourself that, buddy. Anyway, thanks for the groceries. ‘Cause I was broke. Like actually, completely, wasn’t sure where your next meal was going to come from, broke. But now I can make the cookies that Cora’s been whining about.”

Derek perks up. “Cookies? What kind?”

“You’ll see,” Stiles says.

With a pout, Derek says, “Anyway, they’ll keep my card on file and charge it whenever you need groceries or whatever.”

“Fine,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes. “Whatever floats your boat.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles sits on his bed, staring at the blank white space in front of him, for several long minutes. He’s taken one of his posters and turned it over so he can write on the back. He’s seen his father use white boards at work when trying to solve a crime, or bulletin boards, and this will have to serve as a handy alternative.

Finally, he stands up and starts to write on the poster with a Sharpie.

Problem one, which takes the center of the poster, is the Hale House fire. But there’s another, equally large if less dramatic, problem, and that’s the misinformation that’s being spread about the werewolf world. He writes ‘Misinformation – WLO?’ underneath the first problem.

After some deliberation, he then writes, ‘car vandalism’ as the third mystery. He doesn’t think it was a coincidence that his tires were slashed in just such a way that it did call the possibility of a werewolf attack into question. But he doubts very much that Talia was behind it – and he knows that Peter didn’t do it, if only because Peter is smart enough that he would have made it not look like a werewolf attack.

He hadn’t thought of it at the time – Kate had left him too off balance to consider it – but he also doesn’t think it’s chance that she just happened to pick him up that morning. She had known what had happened to his car; she had been waiting to intercept him. She had known that the tires were shredded, not just slashed. That didn’t necessarily mean she was behind what had happened to his tires – correlation is not causation, he reminds himself – but it’s suspicious as hell. If nothing else, she took advantage of the moment.

Once these three things are written on the paper, he sits back down and looks at them for a long minute. He’s at that point where he’s had just the right amount of Adderall and caffeine, and is in something of a focused trance. He just stares, drawing lines and connections in his mind.

The WLO had been suspected of werewolf assassinations before, and Talia Hale was a prominent figure in the werewolf world. It would make sense that they might target her. But given her status, it also made sense that they would make it look like an accident.

Several things were suspicious about the Hale house fire. Stiles had gotten the file on it out of the police station while nobody was looking. Primarily, the speed at which it had spread. Electrical fires can do that, he’s learned from copious research, but it usually happens in older houses with extremely faulty wiring, which results in a chain reaction. The Hale house hadn’t been exactly new, but it certainly hadn’t been decrepit, either. But the use of accelerants was almost definitely ruled out because the werewolves would have smelled them.

Stiles gets up and writes ‘natural accelerants?’ in a little bubble, then connects it to the fire. Then he adds, ‘scent interference?’ in a separate bubble. Those seem to be the two most likely possibilities.

The second thing he finds suspicious is that almost everyone in the family had been home when the fire had happened. Peter Hale was the only exception. He had been out of town on business and returned just in time to see the smoldering wreckage. That might have been less of a coincidence if the fire had happened at night, but it had instead been midday on a Saturday.

‘Someone knew their schedule,’ Stiles writes on the poster, and then underneath, ‘or was watching the house’.

The sequence of events was sketchy, but the lead detective at the time had put together a time line. The fire had sparked at 1:35 PM. Derek had gotten out first, hauling his younger sister with him. Aaron staggered out a minute later, carrying a limp, coughing Laura in his arms. Derek had, over his father’s protests, run back into the house to look for his brothers. Talia had stayed inside too, looking for the others, but the smoke had kept her from finding anybody and had eventually forced her out.

‘Thick smoke – coincidence?’ Stiles writes in another bubble.

The fire trucks had arrived at 1:41 PM, and by then, the house was engulfed in flames.

Peter Hale had arrived at 1:44 PM, and had been pinned to the ground, howling in desperation, by his sobbing older sister Talia, to keep him from rushing into the death trap the house had become.

At 1:48 PM, the house had collapsed in on itself with the rest of the Hale family inside.

Stiles writes, ‘structural integrity?’ in a circle.

It took almost an hour to put the flames out completely. Up until that point, nobody could make it inside. The first firefighters entered the house at 2:38 PM, moving cautiously in the wreckage.

Most of the bodies wound up in the basement, carried down by gravity as the house had collapsed. Derek was the lone exception. His body had wound up caught on a beam, suspended above the flames. He had practically been cooked inside his own skin, but he had survived. Nobody else who had been inside the house when it collapsed had.

Stiles lists the names of the deceased in one corner of the poster. He feels like it’s necessary. A heavy reminder of what had been lost. ‘Daniel Hale – 62.’ That was Talia’s father, and, at the time of the fire, the alpha of the pack. ‘Steven Hale, 38, Abbie Hale, 37, Paula Hale, 12.” Talia’s brother, his mate, and their child. ‘Olivia Hale, 27, and unborn child.’ Peter’s mate. ‘Tyler Hale, 15, David Hale, 8.’ Derek’s two brothers. Looking at it, Stiles realizes that Laura had named her son after her brother who had died. He wipes a hand over his eyes. Writing it all down like that makes it feel much more real.

Next to that, the survivor’s list looks pitiful. Talia, Aaron, Laura, Derek, Cora, and Peter. That was it. Stiles feels a pang of sympathy for Talia, remembering what Derek had said about how empty the pack felt.

Despite these suspicious factors – the thick smoke, the collapse of the house – the fire had been ruled an accident. Stiles flips through and finds the official report. The fire investigator signed it at the bottom.

“Okay,” Stiles says, and writes his name on the poster. “Let’s start with you.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

As it turns out, the cookies are ginger molasses cookies. Stiles gets quiet, focused, while he’s cooking, and Derek doesn’t bother him. He sits at the kitchen table and plays games on his phone. Cora is doing her homework. Laura is texting with some friends and cutting pictures out of magazines for a scrapbook she’s currently working on. It’s a nice, quiet moment, just the three of them. Aaron and Talia are home, but they’re making themselves scarce.

Once the goulash is cooking, Stiles starts with the cookies. Derek finds himself taking surreptitious glances over as he works the dough with his hands, rolling it into balls.

“Oh, hey, can I try it?” Cora asks eagerly, bouncing over.

“Sure,” Stiles says, and he places a little blob of it into her hand. “It’s good stuff,” he adds, licking off his fingers.

Derek stares. First there was the smell of the cookies themselves, the spices in them, and Derek’s pre-existing sweet tooth is enough to make him want to sit up with his ears at attention, tail wagging. Then there are Stiles’ hands and his fingers. Okay. Derek can handle that. He’s just sneaking looks. A lot of looks. But what was with the licking? His phone slips out of his hand and hits the table with a thump. “I uh . . . I gotta go.”

“What?” Stiles asks, around the finger in his mouth.

Derek doesn’t blink. He might have forgotten how. “Oh, God.” He licks his lips, trying to remember how to use words. “Away. I have to.” He shoves his chair back and stands, very nearly tripping because he’s paying attention to nothing but Stiles. “Being not here. Yeah.” He trips his way around the table towards the kitchen door because he can’t stop staring.

Behind him, he hears Cora laughing hysterically and Stiles saying, “What’s with him?” There’s a quiet murmur that he can’t make out, and then Stiles, “Whoa, really?” and then Derek slams the door behind him because he definitely doesn’t want to know where that conversation is going to go next. He’s intensely glad for the soundproofed bedrooms because it’s possible that he’s never been so hard in his entire life. It’s not like jerking off is normally a leisurely experience for him anyway, but this session is a lot quicker than most. He lies there for a few minutes afterwards, boneless and half-terrified of going back downstairs. Then he realizes that he just left Stiles alone with his sisters, and that’s even more terrifying, so he cleans himself up, zips himself up, and heads back down to the kitchen.

Cora is complaining about her math homework when he gets there, and Stiles is putting the first tray of cookies in the oven, and when the teenager looks up from that and sees Derek he flushes dark pink and quickly looks away. Derek clears his throat. “Uh. Sorry,” he says, not sure of what else to say. He isn’t sorry for finding Stiles attractive – well, aside from the age difference – but he is sorry that he embarrassed Stiles.

“Are you apologizing for finding your mate attractive?” Peter asks from behind them, in a nonchalant voice, and everyone jumps.

“Jesus fucking Christ, you’re like some, some demented jack-in-the-box,” Stiles accuses Peter, who just smiles at him toothily.

Derek’s used to be startled by Peter, so he recovers quickly. “No. I’m apologizing for embarrassing him.” To Stiles, he adds, “I’ve suggested putting a bell on him, but he gets prickly at the idea.”

Stiles lets out a snort of laughter, still blushing, and Peter gives him a curious look. “Why are you embarrassed? I can’t imagine the idea is unpleasant to you.”

“Okay, wow,” Stiles says. “Paging Dr. Freud, come in, Dr. Freud, can you come tell this guy to slow his roll.”

Derek throws his hands up. There’s nothing to be done about Peter. “Stiles, I just want you to know that I was going to apologize for embarrassing you and move on. Just so we’re clear.”

Peter gives an elegant shrug.

Laura takes pity on Stiles and says, “Privacy is . . . kind of a different thing for werewolves. I mean, in that it doesn’t exist. And so talking about things that humans consider taboo is pretty common. We try to remember when humans are around, but, well, you have to make allowances for the occasional werewolf with no manners.” She shoots a look at Peter.

Calmly, Peter says, “I’m just trying to help.”

Derek decides not to comment, because Peter might have a point in clarifying Derek’s reason for apologizing. “So now that we all know where we stand, can we move on?” he asks, hoping that they can do so before Stiles decides he’s done tolerating this.

“I just figured I would let Stiles know that if he needs to take a similar break – “ Peter begins.

“Oh my God,” Stiles says, and just shoves a glob of cookie dough into Peter’s open mouth.

Derek starts laughing. Getting a second look at Peter’s face just makes him laugh harder. Cora and Laura have both cracked up, too, as Peter works on chewing the cookie dough and Stiles blushes fiercely and turns back to his baking. So he doesn’t see when Talia rushes up to the doorway, drawn by the laughter, staring at her son. Her eyes are shining with what looks suspiciously like tears. Aaron is only seconds behind her, pressing a warm line against his wife’s back, his hand sealed over his mouth so he doesn’t make any noise and ruin what’s happening.

When Peter finally finishes chewing, he says, “Not quite the comeback I expected, but very well. I cede the match to you.” He looks over at his sister, sees the way she’s close to tears, and then looks away.

Stiles follows his gaze, and then flinches. “I, uh . . .” he says. “Sorry if we disturbed you.”

“No,” Talia chokes out. “It’s just . . . been a long time since I heard Derek laugh like that.”

“Years,” Aaron says quietly. He moves a little when Peter looks away from Talia, making sure that he isn’t blocking the door. He hopes that Peter won’t need to leave, but he doesn’t want to block him in, either.

“Oh,” Stiles says, as Derek walks over to them and lets Talia draw him into an embrace, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Aaron presses in from the other side, rubbing his cheek against Derek’s hair. “Oh, I, uh,” Stiles continues, suddenly feeling painfully awkward, like he’s witnessing something far more intimate than he’s entitled. “I’ll just, uh, let you guys – “

Before he can finish his sentence, Peter reaches out and casually shoves his shoulder. There’s enough force behind it to send Stiles stumbling forward, into Derek and his parents. Derek would have pulled Stiles in, but before he can, Aaron gets an arm up and around Stiles’ shoulder, pulling him into the hug. If Stiles puts in effort, he’d be able to get away, but it’s pretty clear that Aaron is intent on him being part of the embrace.

Stiles doesn’t fight, although he goes stiff and tense for a minute, particularly when he feels Talia’s hand against his back. It gets a little better when Cora pig-piles on top of him, and Laura comes in from the other side to snuggle between her mother and Stiles. Only Peter stands apart, and when Talia holds a hand out to him, he turns and walks away.

In the end, Derek manages to work his way around so he’s at least partially wrapped around Stiles, but it’s the timer for the cookies that breaks things up. “Oh, uh, I gotta,” Stiles says, and pulls free. He heads back over to the counter with more haste than is really necessary.

Talia wipes her eyes and kisses Derek on the forehead. “Stiles,” she says, and he looks over at her warily. “Thank you.”

Stiles ducks his head, not meeting her gaze. “Yeah,” he mumbles and busies himself with the cookie dough. Derek smiles at his mother, like he’s finally forgiving her, and then he moves away from his parents, toward Stiles, and starts helping him with the cookies. Talia gives a quiet little sigh and turns and leaves the kitchen, with Aaron following behind. A few minutes later, Stiles realizes that he and Derek are alone in the kitchen; his sisters have left, too. “You should laugh more often,” he finally says. “I like the way it sounds.”

This time it’s Derek’s turn to blush. “I laugh when you’re around. It’s a talent you have. Or something.”

“Well, it’s nice to know I’m good for something,” Stiles says lightly, sliding a second sheet of cookies into the oven.

“You’re good for a lot of things,” Derek agrees quietly, and for once Stiles doesn’t argue with him.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

It takes several days of neglecting his school work and intensive Googling, but eventually Stiles decides that the arson investigator was full of shit. On paper, he certainly did his due diligence. He’s got facts that can indeed be backed up by research, and nothing he says on the report is technically untrue. He searched for all the common accelerants, did a thorough examination of the house’s wiring, or what was left of it.

The only strange thing about the report was how quickly he had turned it in. From what Stiles can tell, it can takes weeks, even months, to issue a final report on an arson. But this guy turned the report in four days after the fire. One could chalk that up to internal pressure because of the number of victims and Talia’s relatively prominent place in werewolf society. But it seems fishy to Stiles.

While he’s researching that, he spends some quality time charting out all the conflicting information he can find about werewolf society. The back of one poster in his room rapidly becomes three, and then six, posters full of his notes. He includes his own observations whenever they conflict with the research, and makes sure to list all his sources.

It took a day or two to decide how to handle Kate. Initially, he had texted the number she left him to say he had changed his mind and wanted nothing to do with her schemes. But in order to avoid any ideas she had about retribution, he had played it off like he was frightened. ‘I can’t just go behind a werewolf’s back,’ he had said at the time. ‘He’ll *know*, Kate, I don’t dare. I’m sorry but I can’t help you.’

At the time, Kate had offered to help him, to make sure he was protected. Stiles had simply ignored her texts.

But what’s been happening recently has given him an idea. It’s a terrible, underhanded idea that he’s pretty sure nobody would approve of, but it’s an idea. So he texts Kate again. It just says, ‘can we meet? I need help. Has to be private but can’t go to your place.’

Kate texts back almost immediately and offers to meet him at the school library. Nobody will think it’s weird if he stays after school. He agrees, and meets her there the next day. He tells her about how Derek had scent-marked him, how Derek wants him, in all sorts of ways he’s not comfortable with, because, ‘I’m just . . . not into guys like that.’ If he lays it on a little thick, Kate doesn’t seem to notice. She’s all over him with sympathetic touches and suggestive glances.

If he’s going to find out what she’s up, he’s going to have to work with her and stay in her confidence. So he tells her about how he’s been welcomed into the pack, how he’s been staying there after school most days and cooking dinner. He manages to sneak a little bitterness into his voice. He’s still not sure how to take their comments about how being a denmaker is an important part of the pack. There’s been conflicting information on that, too.

Kate, of course, jumps all over it. She gets righteously indignant at the idea of them treating him ‘like a servant’ and goes on at length about how he’s better than that, how he doesn’t deserve to be treated that way. But she also praises him for working his way into the pack, getting them to trust him. Stiles soaks up this praise and promises a return on her investment. He even manages some puppy dog eyes at her. He says, “It’s not fair that I have to be stuck with Derek when I’d rather be with someone like . . .” and the trails off. Kate smiles at him and tells him not to worry about it.

So there’s that, and now he’s meeting with her after school two days a week so he can tell her what he’s ‘learning’ about the pack. He keeps careful note about both the truths and the lies that he tells her. If something happens, he wants to know if it was her. But he tries to make the Hale family look like an unattractive target as much as possible.

While all this is going on, the bullying at school is just as bad as ever, and he tries to ignore it. He keeps a copy of everything he turns in, and documents all his injuries with his digital camera. He’s not even sure why he’s doing this. Some inside impulse that says he needs to keep everything straight. Just in case. Everything he does is just in case.

There’s less than a month left of school at this point, and he can survive it, but he’s worried about his grades. He doesn’t want to end up in summer school, or worse. Regardless of everyone’s conceptions and misconceptions about werewolf culture, he has plans for a career, and what’s going on at school could sink him for good. But he can’t figure out how to fix the problem without just making it worse.

So it’s fair to say that there’s a lot on his mind. But at least he and Derek are settling into comfortable patterns now. He’s noticed that the werewolf is a lot quieter now that he doesn’t always feel like he has to apologize for everything. They can sit together in Stiles’ living room or the den while Derek reads some thick, dusty book and Stiles does his homework, and not talk, and it’s okay instead of awkward now. Sometimes the air between them gets tense and heavy, like they both want to say something but neither of them are sure how to go about it. It’s awkward, but hell, Stiles tells himself, they only met three months ago. They don’t need to go rushing into anything. And if he can’t imagine life without Derek, well, that’s his own problem.

He’s in the kitchen, wearily cutting up some vegetables, when Peter comes in to get a glass of water. The werewolf goes still as soon as he gets near Stiles, and Stiles glances up to see Peter staring at him. It’s unnerving, especially after a long day. His arm and shoulder aches from where someone had shoved up into a water fountain earlier that day, and Kate had cooed over the injuries, lingering touches on his shoulder that made him want to go to a teacher and say ‘bad touch’. Peter’s eyes are cold blue even though he hasn’t shifted.

“You smell wrong,” he says, in that too-soft voice.

“I’m . . . sorry?” Stiles says, not sure how to handle this.

Peter takes a few steps closer, eyes gleaming. “I don’t like it,” he says. He leans in to press his nose against Stiles’ shoulder, taking quick, short little breaths. “You smell like an enemy.”

“Well . . . I’m not,” Stiles says. He resists the urge to squirm from the way Peter has him trapped against the counter. “Peter, I – ” he starts, taking a step forward. Quick as a snake, Peter’s hand comes out and slams into his chest, knocking him backwards. Stiles lets out a surprised little cry of pain.

“You smell like an enemy,” Peter snarls, and his teeth are lengthening, and Stiles is too surprised to move and too confused to call for help.

“Peter!” Talia’s voice rings out from the door to the kitchen like a drill sergeant. “Let him go. Now.”

Peter turns on her. “He smells wrong.”

“He is not your enemy, Peter. Now let him go.”

Peter snarls, but Talia’s eyes have gone crimson, and after a moment he cows, releasing Stiles and then slinking away. Talia’s gaze snaps to Stiles as he stands there, bewildered, and Derek jogs up behind her. “Are you all right?” she demands.

“Yeah, I – I’m fine,” he stammers.

“You smell like pain,” Talia says.

“It’s nothing. Just – some bruises, maybe. He didn’t hurt me.”

The red seeps out of Talia’s eyes. She gives a weary little nod and leaves the kitchen without another word. Derek comes up to Stiles and wraps him in an embrace, unthinking, uncaring of whether or not Stiles will find it awkward, rubbing his hand over Stiles’ hair and his back, marking him thoroughly as if to warn other werewolves away.

Stiles allows it for a long moment, sinks into it, in fact, before finally saying, “I’m okay, Derek. Confused, but okay.”

Derek lets him go. “What happened?”

“I have no idea. He came in and just said I smelled wrong. That I smelled like an enemy. I think he was – about to freak out, but then Talia came in and told him to let me go, so he did.”

Derek rubs both hands over his face. “Sometimes . . . Peter gets confused. When things remind him of the fire. We’re not always sure why. A scent, or a sound, and he can just . . . lose touch with reality. God, I’m glad you’re okay. Not just for your sake, but . . . it would have killed him if he had hurt you.”

Stiles nods and tries to steady his hands and his voice. “It’s okay,” he says, knowing he needs to answer the question that Derek won’t, can’t, ask. “I’m not going to stop talking to him or anything. I know he didn’t mean to hurt me.”

Derek lets out a breath. “Thank you,” he says.

Stiles nods again and says, “Uh, I need to finish this up,” so Derek says okay and leaves him to it. But Stiles stares after Peter, chewing on his lower lip and wondering, not for the first time, why Peter is so convinced that the fire wasn’t an accident.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Derek looks up from the row of shrubs he’s pruning when he hears his boss calling his name. “Hey, Derek, got a customer asking for you,” he says. “To help pick out some plants. I guess someone recommended you.”

“Sure.” Derek puts down the pruners and grabs his smock, which he doesn’t usually bother to wear when he’s in the greenhouse. He follows his boss out to the front of the store and is surprised to see Stiles standing there. He doesn’t look upset, and is dressed casually; his scent is calm and there’s that sneaking edge of happiness he gets now, whenever he sees Derek. “Hey,” Derek says. “You don’t need to employ subterfuge to come see me at work, you know.”

“It wasn’t a lie,” Stiles says. “I want some plants.” He shoves his hands into his pockets and shrugs. “Laura said you sometimes work Saturday mornings but you’re always done by midafternoon, so I thought I’d stop by and get some stuff to, you know, put in our backyard. I figured you could help me out.”

“Sure,” Derek says. He’s a little surprised, but he remembers what Stiles had said about how his mother had gardened, how he had tried but the plants had always died. “What were you looking for?”

“Just some flowers, I guess,” Stiles says.

They wind up with a lot more than that. Stiles doesn’t know the names of the flowers his mother planted, but he can describe most of them, and recognizes them on sight. He also decides to get some herbs, because his mother had a small herb garden, and they buy some topsoil and a kit to see if the soil is acidic – Derek’s most likely guess as to why Stiles had so much trouble – some plant food, gardening gloves, and a few tools.

By the time they get everything, and Derek’s boss is beaming at such a large purchase, it’s about two o’clock. Derek gets one of his coworkers to help Stiles load everything into his Jeep while he finishes up with the shrubs and clocks out. “I thought you were broke,” he says, meeting Stiles outside the store.

“Dad paid for this,” Stiles says. “I mean, not that I told him I was going to buy several hundred dollars worth of gardening equipment, but he does pay for some of the stuff I need and/or want. I’m only seventeen, you know,” he adds, elbowing Derek in the ribs.

Derek gives him an unimpressed look, then gets in the Camaro to follow him back to the house. Stiles produces lemonade and a pitcher of ice, and they get to work. The backyard is nice, with a wooden deck and a large grassy area, with several trees for shade. The edges of the yard have been built up into several beds for gardening, with wood or stone edging.

“Dad did all that for her,” Stiles says, his tone unemotional even though his scent is mixed sorrow and loneliness. “After they got married. It was his first anniversary gift to her. He built it all up so she could do her gardening.”

“That’s nice,” Derek says quietly.

“Yeah. Flowers over here and around the trees – I guess some flowers like shade or whatever – and then the herb garden was over there,” Stiles says, and gestures. “She was talking about starting a vegetable garden and had even bought some seeds for cucumbers and tomatoes, but then.” His voice hitches. “Then she got sick, so, I guess she didn’t.”

Unable to help it, Derek wraps an arm around Stiles’ waist and presses his nose into the hair just above Stiles’ ear. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “I really miss her, you know?” He kicks a rock. “Hey, let’s get to work.”

Derek knows when enough is enough, so he starts unpacking the goods. It’s a perfect day to spend outside, sunny but breezy, and the backyard has enough shade for when they want to take a break. Stiles has a radio that he’s tuned to the same classic rock station he had found in Derek’s car that first, and he sings along under his breath in a passable enough voice.

They don’t talk a lot, but that’s okay. They’ve gotten to the point where they can be comfortable in silence with each other, which Derek treasures. They exchange some comments here and there, and Derek stops to explain what they’re doing occasionally, and Stiles sometimes goes off on one of his tangents. But for the most part, they just work, combing rocks out of the soil, uprooting weeds, arranging the flowers.

Tom gets home a few hours later and comes out to the backyard when he doesn’t see Stiles in the house anywhere. He stands on the back deck and just stares for a few moments, at the flowers, at his son in his dirty jeans and T-shirt, at Derek leaning over one of the beds and carefully making sure the plants aren’t too close together.

“This . . . this looks amazing,” he says, and Stiles’ head snaps up.

“Oh, I, uh,” he says. “I thought it would be nice. You know. To have flowers back here again. And Derek, you know, he works at the nursery so he knows all about plants and . . . I hope that’s okay.”

“It’s fine.” Tom’s voice is a little choked up. “You two hungry? I’m going to go order some dinner.”

“Yeah, sure,” Stiles says, and frowns as his father makes a hasty retreat. “Shit. I guess I should have warned him. I hope he’s not mad.”

“He’s not angry,” Derek says, knowing that Tom just needs a few minutes to sort out his tangle of emotions upon seeing Stiles working in his mother’s flower garden. When Stiles just gives him a skeptical look, he says, “What? He isn’t angry. I can tell.” He taps the side of his noise to indicate how, and leaves a smear of dirt on it.

Stiles cracks a grin. “You’ve got a little, uh,” he says, and reaches up with one hand to wipe the dirt away. It’s a gesture that’s so casual that it’s somehow infinitely intimate. His hand lingers on Derek’s cheek for a moment before he flushes pink and ducks his head, looking away. Derek’s fingers curl into the dirt as he struggles for self-control, to restrain the urge to just tackle Stiles and rub his scent all over him, to claim him in every sort of way.

“We, we should finish this up,” Stiles says, grabbing a trowel and devoting himself to something that probably doesn’t need to be done. “Since my dad is ordering dinner. You can stay. It’ll be nice.”

“Yeah,” Derek says, and lets out a breath. “Okay.”

“But thanks. Really. I mean.” Stiles glances over his shoulder, flushing pink. “The garden. It looks nice.”

“You’re welcome.” Derek leans over and presses a kiss into Stiles’ forehead, just below his hairline, and Stiles doesn’t flinch away.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles eyes the gigantic hunks of meat speculatively, thinking over what to do with them. He’s pretty sure that after years of Laura’s cooking, pretty much anything would be acceptable. Still, everyone seems so impressed by his cooking – for reasons far beyond his understanding – that the idea of just sticking it in the oven doesn’t appeal to him. He checks his watch. It’s only about one o’clock in the afternoon. He’s not sure if Laura and Peter don’t know what time his school gets out, or if they’re just not mentioning the fact that he’s obviously been ditching a lot lately.

“Do you have any cooking wine?” he asks, rooting into the pantry. He’s pretty sure that the Hale family has wine, but, well, they have wine. The kind that goes for several hundred dollars a bottle. He’s not about to empty half of a bottle into a crock pot.

“I don’t think so,” Laura calls back.

Stiles frowns a little and says, “Well, that lets out beef burgundy, anyway. The cashiers all have strict instructions about not letting me buy liquor.”

Laura lets out a little snort and says, “I’d offer to go with to the store you, but Sylvia won’t be up from her nap for another half hour at least . . .”

“I’ll go with you,” Peter says, folding the magazine he’s reading. “I don’t mind.”

“Oh, all right,” Stiles says, a little surprised, but not unhappy. Peter’s been having a string of good days recently, and nobody wants to mess with his karma. He’s been lucid, friendly, and bitingly sarcastic. Apparently this strange combination is reminiscent of Peter-before-the-fire, and everyone has been enjoying it.

Peter doesn’t drive, however, so they take Stiles’ Jeep and head to the grocery store. He makes a mental list while he drives. They’re nearly out of onions, and he’ll need carrots and noodles, too. They park at the left side of the store, where the liquor selection is, and he gives it a quick skim before grabbing what he thinks is a passable Merlot.

“That is not a good vintage,” Peter informs him.

“It’s going in the crock pot for four hours. It doesn’t have to be.”

Peter purses his lips and continues to peruse the wine.

Stiles gives a snort. “Look, if you wanna buy something nice to drink with the meal, be my guest. It’s your dime. But for cooking wine,” he adds, hefting the bottle, “this is fine.”

“If you say so,” Peter says.

Stiles waits another minute, but when Peter doesn’t seem to be coming to a quick decision, he says, “I’ll just go grab the other stuff we need while you do this, then.” He’s amused despite himself, as he heads towards the rest of the grocery store. He has to admit that it’s a lot easier to do the shopping with the Hales footing the bill. It’s only fair, despite his own minor qualms about it. They’re eating a lot more of it than he is. His phone chirps and he glances down to see that Laura has texted him, asking him to grab some yogurt and applesauce for the baby. He adds both to his cart and heads for the produce section.

It takes less than a minute to grab a bag of carrots and a bag of onions, but then he stops to look at the fruit. Since werewolves tend to avoid chemicals, fruit is a common dessert. There are some decently priced strawberries, and he starts comparing the packs to find ones that look good.

Behind him, he hears someone snickering. He glances over his shoulder to see a young man only a few years older than him. He’s vaguely familiar. Former lacrosse team member, maybe, or the brother of one of the people he knows from high school. Stiles turns back to the strawberries, but then he gets hit in the back of the head with something soft and a little squishy. He looks over and says, “Problem?”

“You tell me,” the man says, laughing. He’s dressed in an employee’s uniform, complete with smock, and holding a bag of what looks like moldy cherries.

Stiles sighs and turns back to the produce. Another cherry hits him in the back of the neck. “Okay, dude, seriously,” he says.

“Lighten up,” the guy says, with a huge, shit-eating grin. “I thought you might want these. I mean, seeing as you’re on kitchen duty now. I mean, holy shit, kid. They’re making you run their errands and cook their food? Do you shine their shoes? Oh, wait, I bet you do it with your tongue, right? Or does Derek Hale have better uses for your tongue?” he adds, leering, and Stiles just sighs and turns back to the strawberries, fighting to keep his composure. “Come on, dude, inquiring minds want to know. How does it feel to be a servant to the most powerful family in town? Do you do their laundry, too? Clean their floors?”

“What if he does?” a new voice intervenes, and Stiles freezes, because he knows that voice, and more importantly, he recognizes that too-soft quality of it, the deadliness that lies underneath that complete calm. He looks up to see Peter standing there, holding a bottle of wine in one hand. “Is that a problem for you, young man?”

“Uh . . .” The boy just stands there, blinking, clearly more confused than anything else. He doesn’t seem to recognize Peter by sight, but some animal part of him recognizes the predator, and he’s smart enough not to continue in the same vein. “Hey, I just think, maybe Stilinski here deserves better than that.”

“Do you, now?” Peter sets down the bottle and walks forward, a slow stalk that’s completely unnerving. Stiles wonders if he should do something, try to intervene or maybe even call Derek to tell him what’s happening. But he can see from the look on Peter’s face – an aloof, almost curious look, like he’s examining a bug underneath a microscope – that Peter is in complete control. The werewolf continues, “That position, for your information, is called the ‘denmaker’. It’s actually a highly revered position in packs.”

“Yeah, right,” the kid snorts.

Peter’s expression doesn’t change, and now he’s only a few steps away. “Think about it,” he says. “The denmaker prepares the meals. That implies a great deal of trust, does it not? Do you know who the previous denmaker of the Hale pack was? It was a woman named Olivia. She was my wife.” His voice becomes incredibly, infinitely gentle. “You’re not insulting my wife, are you?”

The boy swallows, his Adam’s apple visibly bobbing up and down. “No, sir.”

“That’s good,” Peter murmurs. He lifts one hand, and Stiles sees his claws are out, delicately tracing the cords on the young man’s neck. “I’d hate to hear someone belittle my wife that way. She was amazing at what she did, you know.”

“Y-Yeah,” he says, when it becomes clear that Peter is waiting for an answer.

“Do you know what my position in the pack is?” Peter asks, as a bead of blood starts to trickle down his neck. “It’s called the Left Hand. Do you know what that position entails?” he asks, and receives no answer other than a hitching breath. It’s clear that if the young man moves more than a centimeter, Peter’s claws will sink into his throat. “You always hear about someone’s ‘right hand man’ or someone being the king’s ‘right hand’, et cetera. Right, of course, having the same root as ‘righteous’. The right hand carries on the honorable work of the alpha.

“The left hand, however . . . does all the dirty work. The wet work, as they say. He’s a ‘fixer’ . . . he cleans up the messes . . . that nobody else can touch. Keeps the secrets. I know where all the bodies are buried . . . often because I’m the one who buried them. I’m a very discreet gravedigger, you know. Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re dead before they’re in the ground.

“So,” Peter concludes, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

“I’m sorry,” the boy whispers.

Peter shakes his head. “Not to me. Pay attention.”

The words are a gentle reprimand, but the young man is shaking as he turns to look at Stiles, just barely moving his head. “I, uh, I’m sorry I made fun of you.”

“No problem,” Stiles says, hoping that a nonchalant response will keep Peter from ripping his throat out.

Peter smiles and releases him. “There,” he says, with a look of satisfaction. He turns to Stiles. “Oh, strawberries,” he says. “Cora is particularly fond of them. Get an extra box. She can eat an entire one on her own.”

“Sure,” Stiles says, going back to examining the berries. There are no more fruit attacks, and a few minutes later, they’re at the cash register. Peter pulls out his ID and then his credit card, and pays for the food.

Once they’re back in the car, he glances at Stiles and says, “Did I frighten you?”

Stiles can’t help it. He breaks out into a grin. “No, dude, that was awesome. I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to get it on film, holy hell, I think that guy pissed himself.”

“Only a few drops,” Peter says, and Stiles chortles. “It was all true, though, you know.”

“I know,” Stiles says. “Trust me, I, uh, I’m done questioning the whole ‘the denmaker is important’ thing. Really done. Gonna go make all of you some dinner.”

Peter nods, as if this is how it should be, and returns his gaze to the window, watching the scenery roll by.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Stiles stares at the clock in the library, wondering when his detention will be over so he can get the hell out of school. It annoys him when he gets detentions these days because he’d much rather be over at the Hale house, and, well, cooking for a family is a lot of work. If he deserved the detentions, that would be one thing, but he doesn’t. Well, sometimes he does. But this one is for being late to class, which happened because someone stole his clothes out of the locker room while he was at gym, and he had to wait while Scott ran to his house to bring him extras. Scott had gotten a detention, too, but Harris had let him go half an hour ago.

Fortunately for Stiles, Harris is preoccupied with grading, so he can at least use his phone. He’s been dithering over a question he wants to ask Derek for several days, since the group hug in the kitchen. He knows it’s something they should discuss face-to-face, but he doesn’t think he would ever get up the nerve. He’s uncomfortable with what it implies about their relationship, but feels like it’s something he needs to know. So finally, he buckles down and sends it by text. ‘Do you want kids?’

The reply is a minute in coming. ‘I don’t know.’ Another moment passes. ‘I refused to think about it for a long time.’

Stiles examines that from several angles, sneaking a glance at Harris and then licking his lips nervously. ‘It’s just that you talk about why your mom wants to rebuild the pack so badly, but don’t you want that, too?’

‘no one’s ever asked me that before,’ is Derek’s reply.

‘oh,’ Stiles sends back, not sure what else he can say. Then he says, ‘well, do you?’

‘No. I guess I don’t.’ There’s a pause. ‘I don’t mind the pack growing again, but . . . I can’t do it. It would always feel like I was trying to replace the people who died.’

Stiles lets out a breath. It’s a little shaky, but full of relief. It’s not like he’s ever thought a lot about whether or not he wants kids. He can take them or leave them. Frankly, between his mother’s BRCA mutation and his father’s history of heart disease, he thinks maybe it’s better if he doesn’t pass his genes onto unsuspecting offspring. But he couldn’t stand the idea that the idea of not being able to provide Derek something he desperately wanted. Talia, yes. Derek, no.

His hands are trembling a little as he texts back, ‘So it’s ok then? You and me?’

‘Absolutely.’ This time the reply is prompt. ‘As long as you’re okay without any.’

‘yeah, I am,’ Stiles texts back. ‘I mean, I’m not against the idea, but I’m not for it either. I’m neutral. Like Switzerland.’ For some reason, his fingers go on to text, ‘I just hated the idea of disappointing you. Of not being right for you.’

There’s a long pause while he wonders what’s happening to him, if it’s Evil Hand Syndrome or what. He can hear the commotion of lacrosse practice finishing up in the hallway, as the jocks leave the locker room and head for the parking lot. Finally, Derek replies, ‘I can’t not say this, ok? You are right for me. For the pack. You’re a puzzle piece we didn’t know was missing. And nothing about you is a disappointment to me.’

Harris glances up as he hears the noise from the corridor. He gives Stiles a smirk and then says, “You may as well go.”

Stiles gets up from his seat with a silent sigh. Of course Harris is going to let him go at the moment that half the lacrosse team is in the hallway, worked up from practice and smelling of testosterone. This is just his life now. He tries to dawdle while packing up his things, but Harris shoos him out the door. He doesn’t even let him text a reply to Derek, and threatens to keep him until midnight if he doesn’t get moving.

“Hey, whorewolf!” someone shouts as he enters the hallway, and Stiles thinks that this is going to go about as well as usual. He realizes his mistake a few moments later when his phone is snatched out of his hand.

“Hey!” he says, grabbing for it. “Give that back!”

Several of the boys laugh. “Texting your werewolf?” Jacksons asks. He smirks. “You know why he only texts you, right? It’s because he doesn’t want to be seen in public with you. He probably can’t stand to even touch you.”

Stiles knows for a solid fact that that isn’t true, which means it makes absolutely no sense when his eyes sting and a knot forms in the pit of his stomach. “Give it back,” he snaps, showing teeth. Maybe he’s been spending a little too much time in the Hale house lately.

“Come and get it,” Jackson says, passing the phone to a friend.

Stiles knows that he should walk away. He knows. There are three weeks of school left before he’ll be free of these assholes for the summer. He should let it go. He can get a new phone, somehow. There are five of them and one of him. He’s going to get his ass kicked. He should let it go and walk away but he can’t, and not only because the idea of Jackson having access to his text history with Derek makes his skin crawl. There are a lot of underhanded uses his phone could be put to, and he’s not interested in experiencing any of them firsthand.

But that’s not what bothers him most. What bothers him is the thought of Derek having sent that honest, heartfelt, amazing text, and sitting there, waiting for an answer that isn’t coming. Waiting for Stiles to reply and wondering what he did wrong.

“Give it – “ Stiles says, and launches himself at the bully holding the phone. Jesus, what if one of them decides to reply? What if one of them thinks to look at the phone, sees the text Derek just sent, and sends something awful in return? That thought carries him through his launch, and he tackles the other boy with enough strength to knock him back a few paces. But the phone has already been passed away.

Okay, it’s keep-away, he thinks. He can play this game. He played this game as a kid. His mother would play it with him. Keep away the chocolate cookie, keep away the dinosaur book. She would hold it out of his reach until he finally grabbed it and then she would laugh and shower him with kisses. He moves around for a minute, making half-hearted grabs, watching the way they move and how they pass it amongst them. Who tosses it and who does it behind their back, who holds it above his head and who moves down low.

Then, in one quick move, he jabs Jackson in the gut, stomps his foot down on another bully’s instep, and grabs the phone when it clatters to the floor between them.

He’s just gotten his hand on it when Jackson’s foot lands on it hard. There’s the sharp noise of something breaking, and sharper pain in his fingers. “Son of a bitch,” he says, and reacts instinctively from where he’s in a crouch, slamming his elbow up into Jackson’s groin. Jackson lets out a wheezing grunt that’s very satisfying, really. If nothing else goes right today – and it looks like nothing will – at least he’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that he caused Jackson Whittemore immense pain. The thought comforts him as two of the others drag him up, pinning his arms, holding him while Jackson punches him across the face. He can taste blood in his mouth.

“You little shit,” Jackson grinds out, and hits him again. Pain flashes through his cheek and his jaw. Another blow makes his head start spinning. He can taste blood in his mouth.

“Hey, Jackson, maybe we should – “ It’s Danny’s voice, Jackson’s one non-douchebag friend, who obviously thinks that beating the shit out of Stiles in a school corridor is a bad move for a variety of reasons.

“Shut up, Danny,” Jackson says. “I’m going to keep hitting him until he apologizes.”

Stiles struggles as another fist lands in his solar plexus, then another, then another. He gags, trying to catch his breath, and forces himself upright enough to spit a mouthful of blood and saliva into Jackson’s face. Jackson reels backwards, one hand up to shield his eyes. “There’s your fucking apology,” Stiles says, voice rough. “Take it or leave it, asshole, because it’s all you’re getting out of me.”

He sees Jackson’s face darken with rage, and thinks that maybe he really is going to die, but then Harris says mildly, “All right, boys, that’s enough.” Stiles hates him even more than he hates Jackson, because he’s obviously been standing there the entire time, watching the show. “Stiles, come with me,” he adds, as the two thugs drop him to the ground and the group of them stalk off. Danny casts one look over his shoulder, but then allows Jackson to pull him along.

Stiles presses his face against the floor of the school, spits out more blood, and wonders vaguely how he’s going to explain this to his father.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Derek waits for a reply, then he waits nervously, then he waits in some weird sort of suspended panic state. Eventually, he can’t take it anymore, and texts a simple, ‘Stiles?’ but this gains no reply. A phone call goes to voice mail. He thinks about asking a coworker to borrow their phone and call him, but stops himself because that’s creepy and stalkerish. He just needs to man up and go apologize. “Though how I’m supposed to slow my roll when you ask about babies is beyond me,” he snarls. He stalks off to find his boss and explain that he knows he’s the worst employee ever, but he really, really has to go.

Much to his relief, his boss lets him go without argument. He checks his watch and sees that it’s just after four o’clock. Stiles will be out of school by now. He’s been going to the den on most days after but Derek has a feeling that he won’t today, that he won’t want to face Derek after that text. To make sure, he calls Laura and asks if Stiles is there. She says he isn’t and that she hasn’t seen him today. He hangs up on her queries about what’s wrong and heads for the Stilinski house.

The Sheriff’s cruiser is in the driveway, but the Jeep is not. Derek hesitates, then goes up to the door and rings the bell. Sheriff Stilinski answers it, looking a little surprised. “Hey. Are you meeting Stiles here?”

“I wasn’t supposed to, but . . .” Derek shakes his head and jumps directly to, “Where is he?”

Tom arches an eyebrow and says, “Believe it or not, I don’t keep tabs on him twenty-four/seven. If he’s not here, and he’s not at your place, I would assume he’s probably at school or at Scott’s. Why do you ask?”

“We were talking, texting, and then he just stopped replying.” Derek is clearly flustered and off kilter. “I think maybe I pissed him off, but usually he tells me when he’s pissed.”

“Oh, boy.” Tom sighs. “Come on in and tell me what in God’s name you said. Like a beer?”

Derek steps inside as invited and accepts the offer of a beer, but shakes his head at the request to share. He has no idea how much, if anything, Stiles has told his father about the possibility of grandchildren. “It was personal. I can’t share it without his permission.”

“That bad, huh?” Sheriff Stilinski shakes his head a little. It looks like he’s about to say something else when Derek’s head jerks around as he hears the Jeep pull into the driveway. By the time he hears the door of the car open and shut, he’s already on the front porch. Stiles is out of the car, looking at the Camaro with a tight, nervous expression. It’s obvious that he wasn’t expecting Derek to be there. He looks up as Derek comes down the house’s front steps with Tom behind him. He looks terrible. One side of his face is badly swollen; his left eye won’t open all the way. His lip is split, and blood liberally decorates the front of his T-shirt, which has been twisted and warped.

There’s a brief moment where Derek tries desperately to suppress the animal instincts that come roaring to the surface at the sight of Stiles in this condition. He knows that it’s not acceptable behavior; at least, that it might make Stiles uncomfortable. A low growl escapes his throat despite himself, but before he can lose control, Tom pushes past him. He gets a hand on the back of Stiles’ neck and demands, “What happened?”

“Nothing, just, some kids – ”

“Who? I want names, God damn it, I’m going to go down to that school and pistol whip those little bastards – ”

“Dad, I’m okay, I – ”

“No, this is not okay.” Despite Derek’s efforts, it comes out as a snarl. He moves closer, already able to smell the blood and pain on Stiles, as well as the upset and anger. All of those things very much concern him, but he’s also trying to detect the scents of the people that had dared lay hands on him.

Stiles stares at him for a long moment, then shakes his head and says, “Dude, what are you even doing here – get off me, Dad, I’m fine, just get me some ice or something.”

“We were talking, and then I said . . . and you didn’t reply, and I thought I had fucked things up and I came over to find you and fix it.”

Tom says at the same time, “Don’t try that ‘I’m fine’ crap with me.” He lets go of Stiles, but doesn’t stop hovering. “I’ve taken victims of domestic abuse to the hospital for less.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I’m not a victim of domestic abuse, then,” Stiles says, giving up on the rest of them and heading into the house so he can get some ice for himself, since they’re obviously too busy freaking out. But he does look a little guilty as he says, “Yeah, uh, sorry that I didn’t reply. My phone, uh, well.” He swallows and takes out the remains of the device, dumping it onto the kitchen table and then immediately making a beeline for the freezer so he doesn’t have to see their reaction.

Derek glances at the phone and grimaces, but pulls a chair out. “Sit down. I’ll make you an ice pack.” He starts rustling around for a towel, then heads for the freezer. “What happened?” he asks, and then, proving how well he’s getting to know Stiles, he tacks on, “In detail.”

Stiles sighs and goes where Derek puts him. He winces a little as he sinks into the chair, folding an arm over his stomach where some of the worst bruises are, hidden underneath his shirt. “A kid grabbed my phone, I tried to get it back, we got in a fight, my phone got broken, now I’m suspended. Ta da.”

Tom rubs his hands over his face. “Who is ‘a kid’?”

“Just some kid at school,” Stiles says.

The ice cubes in Derek’s hand practically powder, he clenches his fist so tightly. He shakes his hand out over the sink and goes to get new ice. “Some kid. And how many of his friends?”

Stiles gives him a wary look. “I don’t think I want to answer that question.”

“If you won’t answer it from him, you’d better answer it from me,” Tom says flatly. “Some kid and how many of his friends?”

Stiles’ gaze drops. “Four.”

Derek brings the icepack over. “Give me their names so I can beat the shit out of them.” Despite his angry words, his touch is gentle when he puts the makeshift icepack in Stiles’ hands.

Stiles presses it against his face. “What are you going to do, beat up every kid in my school?” he snaps.

“Yes!” Derek says. “Yes, I’m going to line up every kid at your school and give them a punch to the face. Except Scott. Scott’s okay.”

Stiles’ fists clench at his sides. “Is this some kind of, of fucking joke to you?” he snarls. “Are you seriously that fucking naïve to have not realize that this has been going on for months, and that this is by far not the worst of what’s happened to me? To have not realized that you coming in here and being all growly and wolfy like ‘I’ll beat up the people who hurt you’ means you should really start by nailing yourself in the ‘nads because everything about this is your fault?”

Derek flinches, but then rallies. “What do you want me to do, apologize for choosing you? I won’t, okay? Because I’m not fucking sorry. I’m sorry for a lot of things, like, I’m sorry that your school is fucked up and your peers are assholes and that my mother screwed this six ways from Sunday but I’m not sorry I chose you!”

“You should be sorry!” Stiles shouts back. Tom rubs both hands over his face and then turns to leave the kitchen, giving them room to hash things out on their own. “Because if you really cared about me, you’d be at least a little sorry that you fucked over my life!”

“I’m sorry that your life is fucked over,” Derek retorts, “but I’m really having trouble seeing how that’s my fault. If you hate the fact that I chose you that much, why didn’t you refuse me?”

“Oh, you say that like it would help! You really are that dense! If I refused you, all I would get is beaten up for different reasons, like, of the ‘you think you’re too good for Derek Hale’ variety. I thought I could put up with it, you know, that after a few months you’d dump me and everyone would laugh and then it would be like ‘oh well, joke’s over’ and everyone would move on.”

“Well, joke’s over,” Derek snarls, “because I’m not dumping you.”

Stiles sits down abruptly, one hand clenching down on the ice pack. “Why not?” It’s meant to come out as a shout, but the words are strangled, close to tears.

“Because, because a lot of reasons. Because you’re ballsy as hell, because you make me laugh, because you’re smart, and you’re twitchy, and you have a smart mouth and you aren’t afraid of us, and I could write a pornographic sonnet about your hands, because you make my pack better, because you don’t think I need to have children. Because you love books and you make really good ginger molasses cookies and you throw popcorn at the television while you’re watching bad movies. Because . . . I could keep going, do I need to keep going?” When he had started, he was yelling, but in the middle his voice had changed, become softer, so he was pleading more than anything else. He just wants Stiles to believe all these good things about himself, for once. Even quieter, he says, “I had my suspicions about what was going on at your school, but you didn’t want me involved and I was trying to respect that. But I just don’t have it in me to keep watching you get hurt.”

Stiles wipes the back of his hand over his eyes. “You . . . you’re fucking serious about all of that, aren’t you.”

“For the love of God, yes, I’m fucking serious,” Derek says. He pulls another chair out and sits down facing Stiles. He’s sick of towering over his mate like this. It feels unnatural.

“None of it makes sense,” Stiles says. “You have the worst taste in mates, I swear to God.”

“And who am I supposed to pick instead?” Derek asks, his eyebrows hiking up. It’s clearly a rhetorical question.

“I don’t know, anybody,” Stiles grumbles. Derek just judges him with his eyebrows for a minute while they both think about how lame a comeback that was. “They said . . . the reason we text each other so much is because you can’t stand to actually be around me,” Stiles finally says, studying his hands. “That you can’t stand to touch me.”

“You know that’s not true, right?” Derek asks.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Stiles says, but he won’t look at him, and Derek can hear the thud of his heart, hear the lie underneath the words. He reaches out and puts his fingers underneath Stiles’ chin, tilting it up so the teenager has to look at him. Stiles blinks over at him, nervous and upset but just a little excited, his pulse speeding up even more at Derek’s touch. Derek just stays there for a minute, close, running his fingers over Stiles’ cheekbones, his jaw, his lips.

There is a specific scent, he learns in that moment, that comes when someone desperately wants to be kissed. He can’t say how he recognizes it, but he does. He leans forward, giving Stiles ample time to pull away, and then presses his lips against the teenager’s mouth. It’s gentle, tender, completely chaste. But Stiles draws in a shaky breath as Derek pulls away.

“Listen to me,” Derek says, still holding onto him. He’s done with these stupid games. Time has proven that he’s not a particularly adept player, anyway. “I want you. In every way. As a mate, as a partner, as a friend. I don’t care why you think I don’t or why you think I shouldn’t. I don’t care why anyone else thinks I don’t or shouldn’t. I want you, and I will happily spend every day, every minute of the rest of our lives proving that to you, if that’s what I need to do.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Stiles says, his voice trembling. “Okay, I give, I give, nobody could say no to that, you magnificent asshole, now get over here and kiss me like you mean it – “

Derek can’t resist that; he surges forward, sealing his mouth to Stiles’ and kissing him slow and deep, one hand cupping the side of Stiles’ face. Stiles makes a little noise in the back of his throat, one hand getting a handful of Derek’s shirt and tugging him closer. But then he makes a noise that’s less excitement and more pain, and Derek tastes blood. He pulls back and Stiles presses a hand against his mouth. “Ow, fuck, ow,” he says. “Maybe kissing a lot when I have a split lip isn’t the best idea.”

“Shit, sorry.” Derek pulls back, looking a little embarrassed. He reaches out again but stops himself before making contact. “If we move this to somewhere more comfortable, I can at least help with how much it hurts.”

“Dude,” Stiles says, laughing. “That’s the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard.”

“God, I hope people never get laid with material like that,” Derek says with a snort. “I was being entirely factual.”

“Sure, uh huh,” Stiles says. “You know what I was thinking? I was thinking that I’m actually not injured right here.” He touches the right side of his jaw where it meets his ear, running one finger down his neck. “So, you know, theoretically, you could kiss me there without any painful repercussions.”

Derek can take direction. Happily. First he buries his nose there, scenting Stiles, enjoying the novel scent of overwhelmed joy and clean lust under the pain, blood, and fading anger of their argument. Then he follows with lips and tongue. After a moment he says, right next to Stiles’ ear, “Are we going to try to find out how many places aren’t hurt?”

Stiles gives a breathy little moan which Derek takes as an affirmative. However, before he can start making suggestions, he hears Sheriff Stilinski clearing his throat.

“Oh my God!” Stiles says, flailing backwards so quickly that he starts to fall out of his chair.

Derek catches him and sets him back upright. He keeps himself from growling at the other man only by firmly reminding himself that the Sheriff has been very helpful overall, and can legally cut him off from Stiles for at least one more year.

“As happy as I am that you two have worked things out – and believe me, I am happy about that – before you two start celebrating in ways that will have me cleaning my shotgun, we have some things to discuss.” Tom pulls out a chair, sits down across from Stiles, and says, “I want the names, Stiles.”

Stiles looks away, nervously licking his lips. “I don’t want Derek to go hurt someone and then get in trouble.”

“I wouldn’t. Get in trouble, I mean,” Derek says calmly. He’s fully prepared to go injure someone.

“Yes, you would,” Stiles says. “Because I’m not officially your mate. I can’t be until I’m eighteen. What the hell do you think I’ve been reading these past three months? You can’t go hurt anyone to protect me and get away with it. Dad, back me up on this.”

Tom rubs a hand over his face. “In the terms of the law, Stiles is correct,” he says.

“It’s not quite that cut and dry,” Derek says. “If it were, the Searching Ceremony wouldn’t allow people to be on the list until they were eighteen. You can join a pack as a minor, with parental approval. Are you . . . accepting me as your mate?” Almost hesitantly, remembering how it went last time he did this, Derek holds his hand out to Stiles, palm up.

Stiles folds his fingers into Derek’s and smiles almost goofily at him. “Yes. But I’m still not telling you who beat me up.”

Derek’s fingers close around Stiles’, curling their hands together, and tension that he’s been carrying for months starts to drain out of him. “You’re a complete ass, you know that?” But that tiny smile that seems reserved for Stiles blooms into the real thing. “But fine. If you won’t let the pack handle it, you handle it.”

“I suspect,” Stiles says, “that my father plans to handle it.” He tilts his head to where his father is sitting with his arms folded over his chest, that so-very-done-with-your-bullshit expression on his face. “To a point that includes . . .” He sighs. “Taking me to the hospital to document my injuries, having me make a formal statement, and charging some people with assault and property damage.”

“Sounds good to me,” Tom says, getting to his feet.

“Hey, I haven’t agreed yet,” Stiles gripes.

“Is that going to stop it?” Derek asks.

“We’ll see,” Stiles says, with a shrug.

Tom rests his hands on Stiles’ shoulders. “Okay,” he says. “I’m going to call Melissa and let her know we’re on our way to the ER, so hopefully we won’t have to wait too long once we get there.” Stiles slumps a little at these words, but doesn’t protest. “Derek, why don’t you run up to Stiles’ room and grab a change of clothes for him? That way he can go straight to your place afterwards . . . which is something that I assume you two plan on doing.”

“Uh, yes sir, it is.” Derek stands, reluctant to let go of Stiles but willing, because he does want him looked over. “Is it okay?” he asks, directing the question to Stiles. “For me to be in your room? Finding you clothes?” He’s never been invited into a lot of the house, and bedrooms are off limits without permission. Always. Derek and Cora have granted that to each other, and Peter seems to like having the scent of pack in his room if it isn’t too overwhelming, but still, he needs to ask.

Stiles doesn’t seem to share his opinion. “Seriously? You just had your tongue in my mouth,” he says, and his father winces. “Yes, you can go to my room and get me some clothes.”

“My tongue in your mouth and my hand in your underwear drawer are two entirely separate things,” Derek retorts, and with that parting shot, he leaves on his assigned task.

“I don’t wear underwear!” Stiles shouts after him, and hears Derek trip up the stairs.

Tom just shakes his head as he gets a plastic bag out from underneath the sink to hold Stiles’ dirty clothes after he changes, then calls Melissa. He shepherds Stiles out to the cruiser as soon as Derek returns, and he opts to follow them in the Camaro. “You can wait out here,” Stiles says to Derek, as they’re heading into the ER. “I don’t need you seeing all my bruises and losing your shit. Again. More.”

Derek nods, his gaze shifting between Stiles and the hospital entrance. His shoulders are tense. “I don’t . . . like it inside anyway.” He looks away for a moment. “If you need me, I’ll come in, but . . . I’d rather stay out here.”

“Nope, I’m good.” Stiles lets his father steer him into the hospital. He has to admit that one good thing has come out of this: painkillers. Of course, first they have to get x-rays and take pictures and poke and prod and generally make him uncomfortable. But then they give him a prescription for some wonderful, amazing narcotics and Melissa gives him the first dose.

While they’re doing that, Tom takes notes on what had happened. Stiles doesn’t leave anything out, but he refuses to reveal the identities of the people involved until Melissa has gone to make sure that Derek is still waiting outside and can’t overhear. “Okay, you’re clear,” she says.

Stiles nods and meets his father’s gaze. “Jackson Whittemore.”

Tom blinks at his son. “As in, the DA’s son,” he says, and Stiles nods. Tom’s face scrunches up in anger. “I knew someone should have . . . never mind,” he finishes, not wanting to finish the sentence where someone might overhear. He’d clearly like to call some parenting skills into question, preferably with his size ten boot. He pulls a chair up to the edge of the gurney his son is sitting on so they can face each other. “That does complicate things.”

“Yeah. And I . . . I may have been the one to throw the first punch. Not because I was attacking them or anything, but because . . . they took my phone, and I . . . was just trying to get it back. But he’ll say I hit him first and everything after that was self-defense and everyone will back him up. Even if you can get charges to stick. Whittemore will be all pissed off about it, and . . . you have an elected position, Dad. I don’t want you to lose your job over this. There’s only three weeks of school left. I’ll be okay.”

“Now wait just a minute,” Tom says. “If you think my job is more important to me than my son then I have been doing something very wrong. I can get another job. There’s only one you.” He reaches out and takes a hold of Stiles’ wrists, one in each hand, and gives him a little shake to be sure he has his son’s attention. “If I need to nail this kid and his friends to a wall over this, then that’s what I’ll do.”

“Ugh, Dad,” Stiles protests. “Don’t get all sappy on me. It’s been a hard enough day. Your job should be important to you. It’s important to me. But I just . . . is it okay not to want to put either of us through what it would actually take to get Jackson and his lackeys in trouble? Because you know his dad will fight us all the way.”

“He will.” Tom pinches the bridge of his nose. “And I understand your reluctance. But I also don’t feel comfortable doing nothing. To hear you tell it, they arranged this. And by ‘they’, I mean that even the adults seem to be in on it. The last three weeks of school seem terrifyingly long.”

“Can’t argue with that.” Stiles opens his mouth to tell his father about some of the other things that have been happening, but then shakes his head a little. “But unless you plan to arrest every kid at my school, it’s really likely that arresting Jackson will make things worse for me, not better.”

“So we’re back to Derek’s plan of punching people in the face.” Tom sighs. “Let’s let it go for tonight. I’m having a hard time being rational right now.” He doesn’t think he’s the only one. Melissa’s reaction when they walked in made him think she was going to reach for a baseball bat and start smacking people with it.

“Yeah. Okay.” Stiles nods. The pain has subsided somewhat, and he finds himself smiling. “But, you know. I’m okay. Because, you know. Derek.” His smile becomes a somewhat goofy grin. “He, like, likes me.”

Tom reaches out and ruffles Stiles’ short hair, ending the motion with his hand on the back of Stiles’ neck. “Kid, he does more than like you. He’s so in love with you that he’s stupid with it. I’m glad you found someone like that.”

“Ugh, Dad,” Stiles says again, turning pink. “Whatever. Can I stay the night at his place? I don’t, you know, think we’ll get up to anything too nefarious – honestly I don’t think my ribs would let me – but I just, kind of, you know.” His cheeks flush an even darker shade of pink. “Want to be near him right now.”

“I think he’d chew my hand off if I tried to keep you from him,” Tom says. He’s not even sure he’s joking. “Just . . . promise me that you’ll consider what you’re doing before you do it. I know that this isn’t some teenaged fling for either of you, but that doesn’t mean that things can’t move too fast,” he adds, shifting from foot to foot uncomfortably.

Stiles nods solemnly and says, “I promise that I won’t feel pressured into anything before I feel ready for it. Which will actually be pretty easy because I’m ready for all the things right now, so, you know, there’s that.”

Tom stands up, wraps an arm around Stiles’ shoulders, leaving the other hand on his neck and pulling his son against his chest for a hug. “Stiles, you’re the most important thing in the world to me, but please, for the love of God, shut up.”

“Okay!” Stiles shoots to his feet, but then winces as the bruises on his abdomen pull. “Good talk. Let me get changed and we can go see if Derek is climbing the walls.”

As it turns out, he isn’t. In fact, he’s lying on the hood of the Camaro, curled up on his side in a position that would be natural on a wolf but looks odd on a human. His head is pillowed on one arm and the other is tucked up close to his body. His eyes are half closed and fixed on the emergency room door with patient, unwavering, sleepy attention.

He hears them before he sees them but only twitches, running over his skin like a ripple of fur. But then they clear the door, and Derek uncurls and launches from the hood of the car in a heartbeat. He hits the ground moving and barely stops himself from wrapping around Stiles protectively and possessively. He hates the smell of the hospital clinging to both his mate and the sheriff.

“Hi,” Stiles says, grinning foolishly through his bruises. “You’re gonna kiss me now, right?”

Derek nods to Tom in greeting and then carefully wraps his arms around Stiles, rubbing his cheek against Stiles’ unmarred one. “I think I can do that.” He works his way up to Stiles’ lips and kisses him, although he’s more careful this time around. Stiles responds enthusiastically, discovering that closed-mouth kissing is actually pretty fun, slow, small kisses that make him ache for more in an entirely pleasant way. He lets his eyes close, lets Derek run a hand through his hair and over the back of his neck. This goes on for so long that Sheriff Stilinski finally clears his throat again and says, “Boys. You’re blocking the entry to the ER.”

Derek makes a noise to show that he had heard and understood. It’s something of a hum against the underside of Stiles’ jaw. He thinks about pulling away but then decides against it. So instead, he encourages Stiles to wrap an arm around his neck, then slides a hand down to Stiles’ thigh, curling underneath it and lifting up, slow enough for Stiles to get the idea. Then he picks Stiles up and moves to the side, out of the way.

Stiles pulls away enough to gasp for breath, eyes already glassy, as Derek traps him against the wall. “Oh my God,” he says.

“Derek,” Tom says, in that firm tone of authority that demands attention. “If I’m leaving my son with you for the night, you’d better let me get a final word in.”

It takes Derek a moment, but he turns to face the sheriff, his cheek resting against Stiles’ shoulder and rubbing a little.

“I will be seeing you tomorrow,” Tom says, pointing his index finger at them. “And if I hear that you have touched him in any way that he did not specifically ask for, I will break your fingers over and over again until they stop healing. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.” After a moment, Derek adds, “We’ll look forward to seeing you.” He’s been over before and gotten along with everyone, but it’s different now. Stiles is his mate now, for real. He’s pack now. That changes things. Tom is more than a friend now; he’s family.

Tom claps his son on the shoulder, shakes his head once, and then heads for his cruiser.

Derek watches the sheriff leave as he turns his nose and lips back to Stiles’ skin and shirt. Soon he’ll be able to let go and take Stiles to the den, but not yet. Right now, the thought of letting him go hurts, and Stiles still smells like hospital and Derek hates that. The smell still haunts some of his nightmares, memories of the long days after the fire. But more than that, he feels like he’s trying to make up for days and weeks of lost time.

“Mmmm,” Stiles says, a little dazed, as Derek nuzzles the crook of his neck and shoulder. “We gonna stay here all day?” he adds, one hand idly rubbing up and down Derek’s spine. “‘Cause I’d . . . be totally okay with that. Yep. This is me. Being totally okay right where we are.”

Derek huffs a laugh against Stiles’ lips. “No. But I just . . . I just need to breathe and have you to myself. For a little while. When we go home, I’m going to have to share you.” He pulls back enough to look at Stiles. “But you’d get a sofa. So that’d be nice.”

“I don’t wanna share,” Stiles says, his tone that of mock petulance, one hand winding through Derek’s hair. “God, you smell good. That probably sounds funny coming from a human, but I just wanna roll in it.”

Derek licks at his ear. “We’ll only have to share for a few hours.” Then he adds, “Remember when you asked if we picked someone who smelled good?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, doesn’t want to risk making Stiles unhappy right now. “You smell amazing.”

“Rawr,” Stiles says, and then snickers a little. “Sorry. They gave me drugs.”

“I know,” Derek says. “I can smell them.” He could even tell what kind Stiles is on, but he doesn’t really think that’s relevant right now.

“Of course you can,” Stiles says, biting at Derek’s neck. “You should give me a hickey. A big one. That way no one will think you don’t like to touch me.”

“We wouldn’t want them to think like that at all.” Derek pulls back, pressing his forehead against Stiles’ for a few moments, looking him in the eyes. “And where would you like this mark?”

“How about . . . right here?” Stiles asks, tapping one finger to where his shoulder meets his neck, on the side that isn’t bruised. “Don’t want it getting mixed up with the other injuries.”

“I think I can manage that.” He noses and licks at the spot. “If you want, that is.” He’s clearly teasing. He can tell that Stiles wants.

“Nnnngh,” Stiles replies eloquently. One hand clenches down on the back of Derek’s shirt as the werewolf teases and worries at the skin of his neck. He makes a whimpery noise in the back of his throat as Derek nips at him, biting down a little harder each time until a red-purple bruise starts appearing.

“Better?” Derek murmurs, low in his throat, right into Stiles’ ear.

“Nnngh hn,” Stiles replies, which sounds like an affirmative through the trembling of his voice.

Derek gives him another slow kiss on the mouth and then pulls him away from the wall. “Come on. The sooner I’m willing to share you with the pack, the sooner I can stop sharing you for the night.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

The honeymoon doesn’t last long. Five minutes after they get into the car, they’re already arguing. Derek asks about what his father is going to do, and Stiles tells him that they’ve decided to sit on it for the night. Derek makes a growly, grumpy noise. “You know that all you have to do in order to be a member of the pack with full rights is let your dad sign the contract with you, right?”

“What’s your point?” Stiles asks.

“You were saying I couldn’t defend you because you’re a minor and therefore not a full member of the pack.”

Stiles sighs. “It’s not black and white like that. Yes, okay, you could go beat the shit out of the kid who beat me up. You have the legal right. But then that kid’s dad will say that you overstepped. That because you were taking revenge and not actively preventing harm to me, you didn’t have the right. That you didn’t need to go so far against a child. If my dad refuses to arrest you, he could lose his job. Real life isn’t that simple, Derek.”

Derek’s hands make the steering wheel creak. “Then make it simple. I won’t ask for names, but Jesus, Stiles, this has to stop. What if next time they break your bones, or cut the brake line to your Jeep?” He’s obviously angry, but it’s anger born of worry, not from being told he can’t do what he wants.

“Dude, do you think I have the answers? Do you think I have some solution? For three months I’ve been putting up with this bullshit because the only way I could fight back was to refuse to let them get to me. Let’s say that my dad arrests Ja – the guy who beat me up. Or that you smack him around. What will that accomplish? The other kids will only resent me more. It’ll only make it worse!”

“Because they don’t understand what having a pack at your back means. What pissing off Peter means. And how stupid that is.”

“Look, okay, I would piss my pants if I ever saw Peter out to get somebody, that’s true, but I don’t want him arrested either. Can we just – can we just not? Maybe once they realize that you and me are actually a thing and it’s not some joke that’s being played on them, they’ll get the hell over it.”

Derek thinks about telling Stiles that the problem with seeing Peter coming is that you don’t. But that’s not really the issue right now. Instead, he says, “Do you honestly believe that?” There’s no sarcasm to the question.

“I believe that it’s a possibility,” Stiles says with a shrug.

“Well, I don’t want to bet your life or safety on a possibility. If holding on isn’t working and letting your pack defend you will only make things worse, maybe you need to do it yourself.”

“Do what myself?” Stiles asks, frowning.

“Defend yourself,” Derek says seriously. “Next time they come after you, kick their asses into the ground.”

Stiles actually hoots with laughter. “Hah! Yeah! Right! Dude, have you met me?”

“Yes, I’ve met you. You’re untrained and klutzy, but not incompetent. And you have to be able to take some punishment, or you’d be dead by now, with the way you fall into things,” he adds, which he still clearly finds endearing.

“Oh my God, really?” Stiles whines. “You’re going to try to teach me how to beat people up?”

“Well, I was going to have Laura do it, but yes,” Derek says, nodding as he drives.

Stiles lets out a snort. “Okay. Sure. I mean, I’ll try, but I’m pretty sure everyone is going to go home disappointed.”

Derek sighs. “Just try. She’s a good teacher, and she won’t mind.” He gives Stiles a sidelong glance and says, “You want to make it a wager? What do I get if I’m right?”

“My dick,” Stiles answers promptly.

“I will take that,” Derek says with a grin. “I accept.”

“W-What?!” Stiles sputters. “That’s not fair! Because what, what if I want to give you my dick sooner than that? I’m not going to wait until the day pigs fly and I master physical combat to get laid! No way, no how!”

“I’m asking you to learn self-defense. By Laura’s standards. Not be the next Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. Just think of giving me your dick as motivation.”

Stiles frowns. “Well, I have to admit it would be motivating. But I feel like I’ve fallen into some sort of trap here. And I also feel like if I actually gave you my dick, you’d have a hard time saying no.” He bites his lip and then snickers. “A hard time. See what I did there?”

Derek rolls his eyes. He’s in love with an idiot. “It would be hard. For both of us.” Because if Stiles can make terrible innuendos, so can he.

“Just don’t forget that I know your Kryptonite,” Stiles says, then heaves a sigh. “But fine. Okay. To be fair, I’m not anxious to get my ass kicked again. I just . . . they took my phone. And I was thinking about you sitting there, waiting for me to reply, brooding . . .”

Derek doesn’t argue about the brooding. “How am I going to forget I want to write porny sonnets about your hands? Maybe I should stick to haiku.” He shakes his head a little. “But thank you. For being worried about me. I was afraid I had done something wrong.” Now isn’t the time to start playing emotionally macho. He thinks maybe he and Stiles should have a talk about honesty at some point. “And I’m sorry your phone got ruined, but I’m glad that no one got to read our private conversations. Any of them. Can any of it be saved? The memory chip or something?”

“Memory chip?” Stiles practically howls with laughter. “It’s called a SIM card. You’re such a Martian, I love you.”

Derek glances away from the road and at Stiles briefly, the little smile gone and replaced with one that’s beaming. That little slip means more to him than any elaborate romantic declaration would. That’s the sort of thing he sees Jon and Laura do, and it always seems more real to him because of the spontaneity. Then he pulls himself together a little. “What’s SIM stand for? Anyway, you can have my phone if your SIM card can be salvaged, you pedantic twit.”

“Subscriber identity module. Why are you trying to give me a phone?” Stiles asks, tilting his head sideways so he can look at Derek.

Derek makes a little face because of course Stiles knows that. “Not a phone. My phone. If you take mine, then that’s . . . it’s another way I can mark you, have you carry my scent. And it’s visual. Humans understand it. It’s also a way for me to take care of you.” He refuses to look at Stiles, because these are the things that usually make humans shy away from ‘wolves. This possessive, protective streak. It’s one of the reasons the list was created: so people knew what they were getting into. That these matches were for life and that the pack would want to close around them for a while. The fact that Stiles was physically hurt amplified all of these to the tenth degree. “I know you may not like it, and I’ll try not to do it too much, but it’s hard to stop, especially in the beginning. And you’re hurt. That makes it harder.”

He blows out a breath. “Also, if someone takes and breaks this phone, people can’t try to blow it off as a childish hallway scuffle. As soon as you say the phone belongs to me, if it gets damaged, that’s beyond something that people can easily write off.” Then he bites his lip. “I want to put yours in our Box,” he adds, a word that clearly comes with a capital letter. “Our safety deposit box.”

“You want to put my ruined phone in a safety deposit box?” Stiles asks, frowning. “The rest of it makes sense, okay, I’ve done the research, I can dig it, but . . . what?”

“It’s because of the fire,” Derek says. “It helps us keep memories safe. Helps us feel . . . secure. Like we won’t lose everything again. We keep things that are important to us there. Not money or anything valuable like that. But there are CDs full of photos, the first outfit Tyler outgrew, a deck of cards that’s too worn out to use anymore. Just . . . life. Do you know how much scent you carry on your hands? And it sinks in to things you handle a lot, like your phone. And it has all the things we talked about that lead up to this point in our lives.”

“Oh, yeah,” Stiles says, nodding along. “That makes sense.”

Derek gives him another smile, glad that he understands. He had hoped that Stiles would. He knows that the Stilinski family has kept some of his mother’s things, for the same reason. They reach the house a few minutes later, and he parks closer to the door than his usual spot. This feels like coming home so much more than any other time in the past few months. He knows that Stiles has integrated himself into their pack, has become their denmaker, has taken over their kitchen and made it his own, but he had still been resisting the bond through all of that. Derek thinks maybe he had been resisting a little too, just to keep himself from pushing it onto Stiles. But this. This feels profoundly right.

It takes him a minute to stop basking in it and remember how to talk. “We’re going to be mobbed. You’re going to be mobbed. We can’t stop it. Just let it happen and enjoy the cuddles, okay? I’ll try to handle anyone who’s angry about the fact that you’re hurt.”

Stiles makes a face at him. “Yeah, okay,” he says, and fumbles at the door handle. The drugs have left him feeling a little vague and floaty, although he thinks he’s coherent overall. There are a lot of other cars in the driveway, and by this point it’s after five, so he’s guessing everyone is home. They might even be wondering where he is. He hadn’t thought to text Laura to tell her he wouldn’t be around for a while. He gets out of the car, only a little wobbly, and finds that Derek is, of course, extending a hand to him. This time he takes it without hesitation, lacing his fingers through the werewolf’s.

Once inside, it becomes clear for the first time that scent really does take precedence for werewolves. Cora pounds down the stairs to greet them and Laura sticks her head out of the living room, and both of them react in the same way. Before processing the bruises, they notice the way Derek’s scent is hanging all over Stiles. “Oh my God!” Cora says, approaching a squeal. She’s halfway through her next sentence when she notices the way Stiles looks. “I’m so happy that you two oh my God Stiles what happened to you?”

“Uh,” Stiles says, a little taken aback despite Derek’s warning. The rest of the family has clearly heard Cora, because they’re approaching from every direction. “Just got in a fight, is all. I’m good.”

“He’s already been seen by someone,” Derek offers to the growing crowd as he leads Stiles over to the sofa. They can do this all while Stiles has a comfortable place to sit.

Before they can get all the way to the living room, however, Cora throws her arms around Stiles in a hug. “You’re going to have to tell us all about it, but oh my God, I’m so happy that you two finally worked everything out!” She rubs her cheek against his shoulder.

“Uh, yeah, me too,” Stiles says, smiling despite himself.

Without letting go of Stiles’ hand or dislodging her from him, Derek hugs his sister hard, his cheek pressed against the top of her head. He knows that he would have never been able to work things out with Stiles without her help. “Does this mean we get to keep him?” Laura asks, somewhere behind him but approaching fast.

“Yes, we get to keep him,” Derek says, rolling his eyes a little. Laura responds by getting an arm around Stiles and brushing her cheek against his temple, not trying to cover Derek’s scent, but just add her own on top of it. Jonathan comes over and does the same, lifting Tyler up so the toddler can plant a sloppy kiss on Stiles’ cheek. Stiles just laughs.

Peter approaches then, in his usual quiet way, and runs a hand over Stiles’ hair, saying nothing, gaze a little distant. Aaron gets an arm around Stiles’ shoulders and gives him a hug that’s somewhat awkward but could be worse. Then Talia approaches. “Welcome to the pack, Stiles,” she says, in that stilted, formal way she has whenever Stiles is around.

Stiles meets her gaze. “Thank you, Mrs. Hale,” he says, just as formal and polite. Talia leans over and presses her cheek against his.

“I’m glad Derek found you,” she says into his ear before pulling away, and if he looks a little skeptical, well, at least she said it.

Derek stands in the middle of all of this and smiles. Things aren’t perfect, but her welcome had been sincere, and Stiles is his mate now, part of his pack now, and they have something of a plan to deal with the people bothering him. Life is pretty good.

Before anyone can say anything and break up the group hug, Stiles’ stomach lets out a growl. “Oh, I should – ” he starts.

“Where do you want to order from?” Laura asks.

“Rosati’s Pizza,” he replies, without skipping a beat. “My jaw is killing me even through the drugs.”

Derek stiffens at that offhanded confession. “Come on. Sofa. Now.” They aren’t going to just stand around hugging while Stiles is actually in pain.

“So, this is what I have to look forward to in life, then?” Stiles says, as Derek tugs him across the living room. “Being bossed around by a guy who can judge me across the room with his eyebrows?”

“I can judge you across the country with my eyebrows. Cora made emoticons for me.” Derek tows him to the sofa. He’d like to sit him in the corner, but he knows he still has to share, so he sits in the corner himself and gently pulls Stiles down next to him. “Now let me see your face.”

Stiles crawls into his lap, a little clumsily, with the air of someone who has no idea what they’re doing. “Mwah,” he says, pushing a kiss against the corner of Derek’s mouth. “We can kiss in front of your family, right?”

Derek laughs and smiles into the kiss. “Yes, we’re allowed to kiss in front of my family. The pack. Our pack.” He remembers Stiles saying he wanted to be part of this larger family. While Derek may not be able to give him the mother he so craves, he could give him everything else. “But if you hold still for a minute, I can make it stop hurting.”

“You know, I stopped believing in kiss-it-and-make-it-better in . . . ooooooh.” Stiles’ eyes go a little glassy as Derek’s fingers trace over his swollen jaw and cheek, black lines appearing in his veins as he pulls the pain away. “That feels . . . weird.”

“Weird like ‘you’re doing it wrong, stop’ or weird like ‘oh, that doesn’t hurt anymore’?” Derek has done this before. Tyler’s scraped knees, and once when he and Cora had been playing in the woods and they’d slipped down a ravine, he had pulled the pain away for her while they had waited for her leg to heal. Even some of the animals he brings to Dr. Deaton had received the treatment. His parents had sat with him and done it for him to the point of exhaustion for days after the fire. He even thinks he remembers ‘wolves from other packs helping. But now that he thinks about it, he’s never done it for a human.

“Weird like . . . it doesn’t hurt anymore and . . . that’s weird,” Stiles says. While he’s talking, the other wolves are arranging themselves in the living room. Aaron has gone to order the pizza. Cora flops down on a bean bag chair where she can press herself against Stiles’ legs. Laura heads for the seat on the sofa beside him, but Peter snarls at her and she backs off, hands held up in surrender. As if this behavior is completely normal, Peter then takes the seat next to Stiles. Fortunately, the sofa is large enough for Jonathan to sit down next to him, with Laura in his lap, her legs spread out over Peter’s lap and ending tucked up against Stiles. The children are crawling around on the floor. Talia has left without a trace.

Derek relaxes some. “It’s not something we advertise,” he says. ”Not a secret exactly but . . .” He shrugs. “And you have to remember that it isn’t healed. We can’t do that. It just doesn’t hurt.” He’s in no way surprised that Peter put up a fight to get the spot closest to Stiles. He also wouldn’t be surprised if Peter were trying to pick up the scent or scents of the people who had hurt him, so he could go quietly gut them. It’s a satisfying thought, even though he knows it’s one that won’t be fulfilled. There’s a reason Sheriff Stilinski took Stiles’ clothes. The man works with werewolves and he isn’t stupid.

Stiles stares up at him with eyes that have pupils several sizes larger than normal. “You’re really pretty,” he says. “Your jaw is like . . . from one of those Greek statues. And your stubble. I love your stubble.” He reaches up and rubs his hand along Derek’s chin. “You should only shave every third day. I’ve been paying attention. That’s how you get optimal stubble length.”

Derek actually jolts a little when Stiles tells him that he’s pretty. Then he turns his face into Stiles’ hand, because he can’t help it, and laughs against Stiles’ palm. “Ah, codeine and endorphins.”

“Yeah, I’m like . . . super high right now,” Stiles agrees. “That . . . pain thing . . . it should come with a warning. You should come with a warning.”

Derek snorts. “I do come with a warning. You signed it last year. Just not this year.”

“Yeah, ‘cause . . . I didn’t want to pollute a pack with my presence.” Stiles smiles sunnily up at Derek, unaware of how every wolf in the room stiffens at that remark. “That’s okay. I’m totally over it now.”

“Uh huh,” Derek says. He’s careful with his voice. He doesn’t want to jar Stiles out of his happiness or set off any of the pack. He’d be worried about his own temper, and it had been pretty violent earlier, but right now nothing is going to move him more than maybe ten feet from the happy, cuddly, pliant human who has done him the honor of agreeing to be his mate. “And who told you that you would pollute a pack? A wolf or a human? Because if it was a wolf, I think they need their nose and their eyes checked,” he concludes, nuzzling into the palm that’s still pressed into his cheek. Stiles seems to have forgotten it’s there.

“No, the ‘wolves were nice. Well. I mean, they weren’t mean to me. Erica’s like . . . not a nice person. We kind of hit it off? In our not-nice-ness together. And I met . . . someone else. Don’t remember. They didn’t like, like me, but they didn’t have a problem with me. But then like other people were like ‘oh my God why are you even talking to Erica you’re just wasting her time’ and shit like that.”

“Erica Reyes?” Derek asks, trying to think of werewolves that would have been in Stiles’ age group.

“Mm,” Stiles says. “She’s pretty. Not as pretty as you, though.”

“Uh huh,” Derek says. “She’s got a pretty smart mouth on her. I can see how you’d get along. I’ll introduce you again.” Derek wants Stiles to have friends outside his crappy school. He likes Scott, but then again, maybe Scott could use some friends outside their crappy school, too.

“Okay,” Stiles says. His hand flops down into his lap and he presses his cheek against Derek’s shoulder. “Then everyone said I shouldn’t be on the list again. Said I’d only embarrass myself and Beacon Hills High. To be fair, I did spill my drink on Vernon Boyd. He gave me this are-you-for-real look. He was judging me. But not with his eyebrows. I didn’t notice his eyebrows.”

Laura laughs. “That’s because he’s got a million siblings and someone is always spilling something on him.”

“And obviously I’m more talented at judging people,” Derek says, glaring at Stiles but cuddling him closer.

“Obviously,” Stiles says, with emphasis. “You know what they say, right? Judgy-wudgy was a bear; judgy-wudgy had no friends.”

There’s a chorus of giggles from the pack. Derek arches one of the aforementioned eyebrows and decides that’s not worth a reply. “I’m ninety-five percent sure that your school is an embarrassment to your species and you are not the problem here.”

“You would say that,” Stiles says. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re taking advantage of my drugged up state to weasel information out of me.” He gives Derek’s chest a half-hearted slap. “You’re a terrible person. With amazing pecs,” he adds, rubbing a hand over them.

Derek laughs. “And you’re taking advantage of your drugged up state to try to molest me.”

“I’m not trying to molest you,” Stiles says. “I’m actually kind succeeding at molesting you.”

“Now who’s the terrible person?” Derek asks, putting a hand over Stiles’.

“See, that’s what I’m saying,” Stiles says. “I’m a terrible person. Or so’m told, anyway.”

Peter leans forward, folding his hands in his lap, and says in a deceptively quiet voice, “Who hurt you today, Stiles?”

Derek shakes his head at Peter, but he doesn’t dare actually open his mouth. Anyone else in the pack he would try to argue down, even his mother, but Peter? Peter is dangerous, and Derek is pretty sure that Stiles is his favorite. So Derek only shakes his head, basically asking nicely. Peter will either comply or ignore him. And if Peter ignores a pleasant request, he would also ignore Derek snapping at his throat while in full wolf form, so what would be the point?

“Pffff, how dumb do you think I am?” Stiles retorts to Peter. “I’m not that stoned. My dad’s taking care of it.”

“I see,” Peter murmurs quietly. His gaze flicks to Derek and he tilts his head to one side. “Is it the same person who vandalized your car?”

“Wha – how do you even know about that?” Stiles asks, jaw sagging a little.

Peter gives him a look. “Infant, please. Of course I know about that.”

Derek stays silent. He won’t pry. He promised he wouldn’t. He’s set down his conditions and he’ll stick by them. But maybe that will put Peter at ease. It might not make him any less angry, but it may make him less worried. “Stiles has agreed to let Laura teach him self-defense.”

Laura arches an eyebrow at her brother, as if to ask when she became a teacher, but doesn’t argue. Derek shoots a look back at her as if to ask if she thought he would be a better teacher. Peter’s gaze doesn’t waver; his expression never changes. “Did this happen at school?” he asks.

“Yeah, I had detention,” Stiles says. “Why?”

“Where were your teachers?”

“I dunno, it was late,” Stiles says with a shrug. “They’d probably gone home already.”

“I see,” Peter says again.

Stiles shifts a little uncomfortably against Derek’s chest. “I’m totally okay, it wasn’t a big deal.”

Peter says nothing.

Derek makes an unhappy noise. “I’ll concede that you’re okay, but God, please stop trying to pretend it wasn’t important.” He presses his nose into Stiles’ short hair. “They hurt you, and that’s not okay, and it is important because you’re important. Okay?”

Stiles considers. “If I agree to that, will Peter agree not to murder anybody?”

Peter gives him a toothy grin. “I agree that I won’t murder anyone.”

“See, he agrees,” Derek says.

“Probably because he intends to do something even worse,” Stiles grumbles. “Okay, fine, it was a big deal, they took my phone and said nasty things and my teacher gave me a detention for being late to class even though I was only late because someone stole my clothes while I was at gym and I had to wait for Scott to bring me new ones and now I’m suspended and it was really kind of a shitty day and it sucked and you’re all right to be concerned. And I’m stoned. Jesus. I should stop talking.”

“And you’re sure I can’t line them all up and punch them?” Derek asks, even though he already knows the answer.

Stiles grabs his hands and kisses him on the knuckles. “Nope. These hands are all mine.”

“Oh, come on, guys,” Cora complains. “Kissing in public is one thing. That’s verbal foreplay.”

“Only if we’re talking about his hands,” Derek informs his sister.

“Derek likes my hands,” Stiles says in an unmistakably smug tone.

“Pizza’s here,” Aaron says from the door to the living room.

“Oh thank God,” Cora says, rocketing to her feet.

Derek aims a kick at his retreating sister’s ankle, fully intending that it’ll miss. “I’ll go get us some food,” he says, carefully handing Stiles off to Peter. Stiles makes a questioning little noise, but Peter’s already got an arm around his shoulder and is pressing his nose into Stiles’ buzzcut. As Derek suspected, he seems to be trying to get a more detailed scent off Stiles, to identify his attackers. Stiles doesn’t seem to notice, and nobody else mentions it.

“Are you cuddling me?” he asks Peter.

“Is that a problem?” Peter replies.

“No, but you’re kinda weird,” Stiles says, relaxing against Peter’s shoulder. “I’m just thinking of all my classmates who want so badly to be in a werewolf pack but would freak out at the concept of being aggressively snuggled by a middle-aged man.”

“Then they don’t really want to be in a werewolf pack, do they?” Laura asks from where she’s sprawled across Jonathan’s lap.

“Nope,” Stiles says, and then looks up as Derek comes in with pizza. “Awesome,” he says, accepting a plate. He settles himself between Peter and Derek and dives in, saying nothing else about his classmates.

Derek watches Stiles with amusement and lets him be one with his food. Laura finally rolls free of the pile and Jonathan follows so they can eat and feed the kids. After Stiles has slowed down his rate of pizza consumption a little, Derek asks, “What do people actually, I mean really, expect out of joining a pack? Or getting chosen to be someone’s mate?”

“I dunno, like, werewolves are seen as some kind of weird royalty,” Stiles says with his mouth full. “Like if you marry in, you can order everyone around and you don’t have to work and shit.”

“Which makes no sense,” Derek says. “I mean, yes we have perks, the healing, the reflexes, other things.” He waves a hand. It’s been bothering him for a while, ever since Cora’s ‘undercover day’ and Stiles’ questions about werewolves had gotten him thinking about it. “Okay, and money, but do people think it just falls out of the sky? No one seems to expect the things like the fact that the entire pack likes and needs physical affection.”

“Mm,” is all Stiles says in reply, reaching for another slice of pepperoni, stealing it off Derek’s plate.

“Hey!” Derek can take a hint. It’s not time for serious talk. He steals his food back. Stiles starts attempting to eat it out of his hands. Derek tries to hold him off and eat it first. He doesn’t try very hard. Naturally, this leads to more kissing. Messy, sloppy, inexperienced kissing, with just a hint of pizza and a fair amount of Stiles pushing his hands through Derek’s hair.

“Maybe we should put on a movie before those two actually make it to second base,” Peter remarks mildly, picking up Stiles’ soda before one of his flailing feet can knock it over.

Derek’s reply to this suggestion is a growl, but it’s more playful than anything else. After a little more fumbling and kissing, he says, “Come on. I can tell when we aren’t wanted.” It’s more that he wants Stiles all to himself, elsewhere, but there’s no need to admit out loud what everyone present already knows.

“You bet!” Stiles is already on his feet, only a little wobbly. His pupils are back to normal now, and he doesn’t seem quite as stoned. The food probably helped, Derek assumes.

Derek takes his hand and leads him through the house, making sure to move slowly enough that Stiles can keep up without losing his balance or his footing. “I’ll give you the grand tour later,” he says. He stops at the foot of the stairs and gives Stiles a questioning look, clearly wondering if he’s up to the climb.

“You’re such a worrywart,” Stiles scoffs at him, starting up. “So is that tour, like, a metaphor? A euphemism? Because if so, I want the grand tour sooner rather than later.”

Derek snorts. “No. It was literal. A tour of the parts of the house you haven’t seen yet. If it was a euphemism, it would involve your dick, which you aren’t allowed to give me until you know how to defend it and the rest of you from any enemies. But we could maybe have a quick tour.” He picks Stiles up the same way he had at the hospital, getting Stiles’ arms around his neck and a hand under his thighs. “That is a euphemism.”

“Nnnnrg,” Stiles says, quite eloquently in his own opinion, and bites on Derek’s collarbone. Derek nearly drops him, wobbles on the stairs for a few moments, and then makes his way towards his bedroom.

When Derek opens the door to his room, he’s looking directly across to the large French doors that lead out on to the balcony built over the back porch. The rest of the wall around the doors is essentially glass: high quality, double paned, sound dampening glass that lets in a lot of light. These are the only windows in the room, since the other walls press up to the hallway, Cora’s room to his right, and one of the bathrooms to his left. The windows have curtains hung that can be drawn to cover them but are currently open wide. The floor is plain wood with some old stains and truly random small throw rugs tossed around haphazardly. The walls are painted a pale green with only a few framed images hanging. 

It is in no way a small room. The right hand wall is half obscured by an open frame wooden shelf, which is itself covered in an assortment of plants ranging from nearly dead to blooming healthily but lopsided where they've clearly had a brush with ill fate. The shelf is water and dirt stained, clearly more utilitarian than any sort of decoration. Some of the plants are encased in domes made of tight wire mesh. Nearby is a cheap folding table loaded down with gallons of water, spray bottles, and other various plant paraphernalia. Next to the wooden shelf is a normal, unremarkable dresser, with the normal sort of things strewn across the top, loose change, charger for his phone, a spare watch, et cetera. The king-sized wooden four post bed is butting up against the wall across from the plants with a night stand next to it, holding the typical lamp and alarm clock, and next to that are the sliding doors to a closet. The last wall is a giant book shelf. It’s obviously been built to fit the room and is basically full. Some of the more convenient shelves are double stacked or have books haphazardly stacked on them. 

Stiles takes all this in, somewhat wide-eyed, before turning to him and saying seriously, “I don’t know if I should make fun of you for being a giant nerd, or throw myself at you.”

“You lusted after the books when we were at the store,” Derek says. After a pause, he adds, “It was kinda hot. So no mocking me.”

“But your little plant hospital, you’re so adorable,” Stiles all but coos.

Derek shrugs a little. “People shouldn’t throw a living thing away because it’s sick or doesn’t look nice. It should be given a chance.”

“Wow, that’s so deep,” Stiles says. Then, “I’m sorry, that came out kind of like I was being a dick and I don’t mean to be a dick, I mean, it is kind of deep when you think about it and I think it’s really sweet – ”

Derek leans in and kisses him, figuring that that’s the best way to stop this from spiraling out of control.

“Mm, yes, okay,” Stiles says, when Derek pulls away. “Good rejoinder, I like that – ” and then he pushes his mouth against Derek’s again, a little clumsy but making up for his lack of experience with plenty of enthusiasm. They kiss for several minutes before Stiles pulls away, out of breath, and says, “Okay, we probably shouldn’t – I mean, I don’t want to get carried away. Not with all the people downstairs.”

Derek decides that now is not the time to tell him that, in werewolf families, pretty much everyone always knows who’s having sex and when they’re having it. Instead, he just runs a hand through Stiles’ hair and over the back of his neck. Stiles stares up at him with wide eyes that are still a little glassy, like he can’t quite believe this is happening to him. “Let’s watch a movie, then,” he says.

Ten minutes later, they’re settled on the bed, with Stiles’ cheek pressed into Derek’s chest. Five minutes after that, Stiles is asleep, breathing slow and even, and Derek reaches over and quietly turns out the light.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Peter comes into the kitchen to find Talia standing with her hands resting on the table. Her claws are out, and have dug into the wood. Her eyes are bright crimson as she stares off into the distance. He stands next to her, his back to the table, shoulder pressed into hers. “Well, sister mine,” he says in a low voice, with his usual smile, “what are we going to do about this?”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Sheriff Stilinski is sitting in his recliner, watching baseball and drinking beer and trying to ignore the fact that his underage son is probably, as he sits there, screwing a twenty-four year old werewolf, when the doorbell rings. He glances up, then hauls himself out of the chair to go answer it. Anybody who would need the sheriff in his official capacity would have called, so he’s somewhat curious about who it might be.

Out of all the people he’s expecting, Talia Hale isn’t it. He arches his eyebrows as he swings the door open. “Can I help you?” he asks. They’ve met before, occasionally in their official capacities, and once or twice since Stiles started going to the Hale house regularly, but never for very long.

“I’m sorry, I would have called, but . . .” Talia clears her throat. “I’ve arranged a meeting at the school tomorrow. I think you’ll probably want to attend.”

A faint frown crosses his face, and he stands back from the door. “Come in,” he says. “Like a drink?”

“Coffee if you’ve got any,” she says. “Thank you.”

“Always coffee here,” he says, going into the kitchen. “Stiles can drink two pots a day if I let him. You should invest.”

A slight smile touches her lips. “Maybe I’ll get a new coffee maker as a welcome gift.”

“Presuming you welcome him at all.”

Tom’s voice is completely neutral, but Talia gives a little shudder. “I’m sorry. I owe you an explanation. You have to understand – I never meant to hurt him or insult him. My reaction was based solely on his age and his gender. I didn’t even know him, and I wasn’t trying to judge him in any way. It’s just . . .” She sighs. “Can I be frank with you?”

“Please,” Tom says.

“Derek’s never going to understand this because he’s not a parent. But I want what’s best for him. I really do. I was worried about him. He seems so alone so much of the time. I wanted him to find a partner that would make him happy. I found Aaron through the Searching Ceremony. It’s . . . a special occasion to me, a holy day. And the way he treated it, like it was a nuisance, bothered me. When he came home with Stiles, it was like he was throwing a belief that I hold to be very precious right back in my face. I lost my temper. I reacted badly and I’m not proud of it, but all I ever wanted was what’s best for my son.”

Sheriff Stilinski considers this for a few moments. “Why are you telling me this?” he finally asks.

Talia tucks her hair behind her ear. “I felt I owed it to you to – ”

“No,” Tom says, cutting her off with an abrupt gesture. “You don’t owe me anything. Why are you telling me this, and not my son?”

Much to his surprise, Talia flushes pink and looks away. “I didn’t apologize to him at the beginning because I knew he wouldn’t believe I was sincere. Words can’t make up for what I did to your son, Sheriff. They can’t show how much he means to the pack. Actions can. And that’s why I intend to take action about the way he’s being treated at school.” She looks up and meets his gaze. “He’s in my pack now, and I’m going to protect him.”

Tom regards her pensively, then nods. “Okay. So what’s your plan? Because unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than arresting the kids involved.”

“I’m well-aware,” she says. “I’ll get to the actual perpetrators in a moment. My chief concern is the adults. By the time Stiles got to our house, he was . . . a little addled by the painkillers, I think. He said some things I suspect he wouldn’t have, if he’d been fully coherent. It gives me reason to think that the teachers at the school are looking the other way while this bullying goes on, if not in active collusion.”

“I agree,” he says. “Stiles thinks the teacher let him out of detention today at a specific time so he’d wind up running into the little bastards.”

“It’s also relevant that he was in detention for being late to class, as a result of more bullying,” Talia says. “Apparently someone stole his clothes while he was in gym class and he had to wait for a friend to bring him more.”

Tom rubs a hand over his face. “Jesus. Why the hell didn’t he say anything? I don’t just mean today, I mean in general.”

Talia sighs. “Your son is desperate to prove himself,” she says, “and not just to me, but also to the world. He thinks he should be able to handle this himself. He’s also very protective of you. He knows that you have an elected position and you can’t afford to slap down everyone who picks on him.”

“That bullshit again.”

“That bullshit is relevant,” Talia says. “It’s important to him. In addition to that, he’s afraid of reprisals. If you arrest the students responsible for today, their friends will just come after him on Monday. Nothing will change that if the teachers aren’t willing to do their jobs and look out for him. That’s why I’ve arranged the meeting. I spoke to the principal about an hour ago and dropped big, scary words like ‘lawsuit’. He’s going to make sure all of Stiles’ teachers are in attendance. Nine AM tomorrow morning. I suggest we arrive early but come into the meeting a few minutes late. It will be . . . enlightening . . . to hear what they talk about before we get there.”

Tom nods. “That sounds good to me. Now, what about the kids who beat the shit out of him today? You said you’d get back to them.”

“Yes.” Talia folds her hands around the mug of coffee. After a few moments, she looks up and meets the sheriff’s gaze. “Peter has asked me for two minutes with each of them.”

“Oh boy,” Tom says.

“You have no idea,” Talia says, with a thin little smile. “Peter is . . . capable of malice in a way that I’m not. It makes him ably suited to be my left hand. He’s also very fond of Stiles and, as you probably know, not exactly stable. He’s promised he’ll do no permanent physical damage, and that he’ll be discreet.” She lets out a breath. “I’m going to give him the go-ahead. There are some things . . . I can’t deny Peter. If I ever could. I think this is one of them. If I try to stop him, it will only cause a rift in the pack.”

“Uh huh.” Tom stands up and goes over to the front hall closet. He takes out the bag with Stiles’ clothes and tosses them to her. “That ought to help you figure out who was responsible.”

Talia raises her eyebrows in surprise. “I figured you had taken these to stop us from having them. Not to keep the scent intact.”

Tom gives a little shrug and says, simply, “He’s my only son.”

“I understand,” Talia says, getting to her feet. “See you tomorrow?”

He nods in response. “I’ll meet you at the school at quarter to nine.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

After some internal debate, Tom dresses casually, in a short-sleeved button down shirt and khakis. He wants to be at this meeting as Stiles’ father, not as the sheriff. He meets Talia Hale in the parking lot of the high school. She’s wearing a trim business suit that accentuates the angles of her body. Tom thinks about sharks but greets her pleasantly enough.

They talk about strategy for a few minutes. Tom asks Talia how Stiles is doing, and she says she hasn’t seen him so far, but she thinks he’s still asleep. He certainly hasn’t showed his face outside of Derek’s room. “But knowing my son, they’ll cuddle for hours,” she says, an amused smile quirking at her lips. “Derek is actually quite the romantic, when he’s in the moment.”

“That ought to be interesting, since I don’t think Stiles could be romantic if you paid him,” Tom replies.

The two of them head into the school. Tom has only been there a few times, but Talia seems to know where to go. There’s a conference room set up just off the library. She stops them down the hall, around a corner, and closes her eyes, listening. Tom can hear the voices, but can’t make out what they’re saying. Talia relays the basics to him in a murmur.

“ – don’t see why we had to come in on a Saturday morning for this – ”

“When Talia Hale starts threatening lawsuits, you do what you have to do to get her off your back,” the principal says.

“We haven’t done anything wrong.” It’s Harris’ voice. He sounds ‘like a smug little prick’, Talia tells Tom.

“She just wants to ask questions about the fight,” another teacher says. “We’ll tell her the truth. Stiles got kicked around by some upper classmen, and Harris broke it up. We followed all the rules.”

Someone else makes an unhappy noise. “That’ll only fly if Stilinski didn’t tell his pack mama about how Harris stood there and enjoyed the show for a few minutes first – ”

“I beg your pardon,” Harris says. “I was in my classroom, grading papers. I came out when I heard the commotion.”

There’s a snort of derision. “Sure you were,” another teacher says. “But anyway, if Stilinski hasn’t complained to his dad or his new alpha about the bullying before, I don’t see why he’d start now. We’re fine.”

“What if she asks for the identities of the students who he was fighting with?” a timid voice asks.

“We’ll tell her the truth. They’re minors, and it’s not okay for us to release that information.”

“It might be easier to say we don’t know,” someone suggests. “You know, tell her that they ran off when Harris interrupted.”

“But then we can’t say that we suspended them – ”

“Well, we didn’t suspend them, so – ”

Talia’s jaw sets. “I’ve heard enough,” she murmurs, and marches forward with Sheriff Stilinski behind her. As soon as the click-clack of her heels fills the hall, the talking from the conference room abruptly stops. She pushes open the door and nods to the principal. “Thank you for coming, ladies, gentlemen,” she says.

Principal Stafford is on his feet. “Sheriff Stilinski, what a surprise, we didn’t expect you – ”

“This meeting is about my son, right?” Tom asks, his tone and posture a clear challenge.

“Er, of course,” Stafford says. “Please, have a seat.”

Talia opens with both barrels. “To start with, I’d like to know what the justification is for Stiles’ suspension, when the other students participating in the fight were not suspended.”

Everyone stares at her, jaws slightly ajar. Tom starts to wish he had brought popcorn.

“Er, we, the other students didn’t actually stick around after the fight was broken up,” Stafford says, somewhat weakly. “We weren’t able to identify them.”

“I see.” Talia stares at him so long that he starts to sweat. “Because that conflicts with what Stiles told me about the situation.” Another long, drawn-out silence. “He told me that Mr. Harris was actually present for all the fight. Surely, Mr. Harris can identify the students who were involved?”

“That, that’s an outrageous accusation,” Harris stammers.

“Cut the crap, Harris,” Tom says, feeling entirely unamused. “She’s a werewolf, remember? She can hear that you’re lying.”

Harris falls silent.

“The other students will have disciplinary action taken, of course,” the principal says.

“Of course,” Talia says caustically. “Because we wouldn’t want it to seem like Stiles was being unfairly singled out, would we? Let’s talk about this detention he had. I have questions about it.”

Harris clears his throat. “He and another student were late to class. Both were given detention.”

“They were late to class because someone had stolen Stiles’ clothes from the locker room and he sent Scott to get more for him,” Talia says, pinning Harris down with his gaze. “Surely Stiles mentioned that to you.”

“I have a zero tolerance policy for tardiness,” Harris says. “And with a student known to be a disciplinary problem, like Stilinski – ”

“Back up,” Tom says, with another abrupt hand gesture. “Since when is my son a ‘disciplinary problem’?”

“Since the beginning of the semester, he’s had over two dozen detentions – ”

“Two dozen?” Tom says, appalled. “That’s almost two every week. What were they for?”

“Well, cutting class, being disrespectful to teachers, cheating – ”

Cheating?” It’s becoming clear that Sheriff Stilinski is about to lose his cool. “I’ll grant that he might have said a thing or two he shouldn’t have, but my son would never – ”

Talia clears her throat and interrupts him. “I want to see the documentation.”

Harris blinks at her. Principal Stafford blinks at her. “The, uh, the documentation?” Stafford says weakly.

“Yes. I would like to see the documentation of what these detentions were for. Surely you have some internal correspondence that you keep noted in a student’s file. I want to see it.”

“Er, uh, that is,” Stafford says. “Well, it isn’t just the detentions,” he says, “it’s also his grades. He’s missed a lot of class; he’s failing almost every subject.”

“Since when?” Tom demands. “My son had a 3.9 GPA going into this semester. He’s been on honor roll ever since his ADD was diagnosed and we got him on medication. Don’t you tell me that all of a sudden he’s flunking everything.”

“Maybe he’s been distracted,” one of the teachers suggests. “He’s had a lot of changes in his life recently. He’s blown off important assignments. There was a paper for my class, it was supposed to be on some modern issue such as abortion or gay marriage, and I made it clear it would be worth twenty percent of their grade. Stiles simply didn’t turn it in. I suppose he thinks that school isn’t important, now that he’s part of the Hale pack . . .”

Talia opens her mouth to ask a question about this strange assumption, but then sees the way that Sheriff Stilinski is vibrating with rage. “His paper,” he says, “was on police brutality and centered around recent conflicts involving elderly people being Tasered or college protesters being pepper sprayed. I know that because I proofread it for him the morning it was due. Funny thing, I noticed he had printed out two copies, and when I asked him why, he said, ‘just in case’. I wonder what eventuality he was preparing for. Could it be the possibility that you tossed it in your trash can instead of grading it appropriately?”

The teacher seems completely taken aback by this, struck speechless. Talia glances at the principal and says, “I would like documentation of his grades as well. Are there any classes he isn’t failing?”

Nobody says a word, but Talia focuses on a mousy looking woman who’s been cringing at the back of the room. She gestures to her and says, “Miss . . .”

“Erm, Schiffer,” the woman says.

“You’re one of Stiles’ teachers?”

“His math teacher, yes. Advanced algebra and trigonometry.”

“How is Stiles doing in your class?”

Schiffer is cringing under Stafford’s glare, but she clears her throat and says, “I, uh, I would have to get my grade book to be sure, but I believe he currently has, uhm, an A minus.” Her voice goes up on the last syllable like it’s a question.

“Has he been turning in his assignments?” Talia asks.

“Well, yes,” Schiffer says. “Sometimes they’re late; he’s said it’s because other students have been stealing his homework, but I’ve always told him that as long as he gets it turned into me by the end of the day, not to worry about it. I think he scans everything and keeps copies of it on his laptop, because he’s never had a problem printing them out to turn them in.”

“So you don’t have a problem believing that other students are taking his homework,” Talia says.

“Not . . . exactly?” It’s another question-statement. “I mean . . . I’ve witnessed some of the other students giving him a hard time. Presumably out of jealousy. I, erm, I was bullied a fair bit in high school myself, so I tried to cut him some slack . . .”

“Thank you, Miss Schiffer.” Talia turns to Tom and says, “I think we’re going to need to take a look at your son’s laptop. If he’s been scanning everything, he’ll have proof of the dates that he completed it.” Then she focuses on Finstock. He’s been sitting in the back, looking like he wishes he was anywhere else, while the other teachers occasionally shoot glares at him. “Mr. Finstock, I’ve never known you to spend this long without a verbal outburst. You’re either on the verge of dropping dead or you’ve been instructed to keep your mouth shut, and I think I can guess which. You have Stiles in gym this year, right? How’s he doing?”

Finstock rubs a hand over the back of his head and shrugs. “Yeah, he’s flunking. He’s barely come to class in a month. Smart move, if you ask me.”

Principal Stafford glowers at him. Talia ignores the principal. “Why?”

“Have you seen those locker rooms?” Finstock asks. “It’s like Fight Club in there. They all want to ruin something beautiful. And apparently this year that’s Stilinski.”

The sheriff frowns. “You’re talking about him being in physical danger.”

“Sure,” Finstock says. “In class, too. Volleyball to the face, oops, sorry, Stilinski. Elbow to the stomach, oops, sorry, Stilinski.” He gives a shrug. “I’d say I watch them, but there’s forty of the little bastards in one class and I’ve got a curriculum to stick to. I can’t guarantee his safety, and I don’t exactly want to be responsible for the sheriff’s son getting killed on my watch. So when he started skipping class, I just thought, ‘boy’s got survival instinct’ and let it go at that.”

“Technically, you’re supposed to report truancy,” Talia says, “but then again, technically, you’re supposed to report a great many things that have not been reported.” To the principal, she says, “I’d like to see his student file. Academic, disciplinary, the whole thing.”

Stafford shifts uneasily in his seat. “Has Stiles officially joined your pack? Is the paperwork signed?”

Talia’s eyes flare crimson, but her voice stays in control. “No,” she says, “and you’re all very lucky that we’re having this meeting before he does.”

“Well, if he isn’t legally in your pack, then you don’t have the rights to access those records . . .”

“She may not, but I do,” Tom interrupts. “And you’d better go get them right now. On second thought, I’ll come with you. I don’t want you altering anything or removing anything before we’ve had a chance to look at it.” He stands up, clearly expecting that this is going to be done without delay.

Seeing that he’s got no choice, Stafford slinks away with the sheriff on his heels. He returns a few minutes later, holding a manila folder. Tom sets it down on the table and says to Talia, “Why don’t you start with the disciplinary stuff? I’m going to run home and get my son’s laptop, so we can see what assignments he has on it.”

Everyone flinches. Talia says, “Yes, that seems like an excellent idea.”

Since she seems to be having a good time, Tom stops and gets coffee for the two of them. He has the feeling they’re going to be there for a while. When he gets back, her jaw is set in an angry expression. She glances up, nods as he comes in, and thanks him for the coffee.

“Twenty-six detentions since Imbolc, to be precise,” she says. “And all but six of them have no reason given on the detention slip. It’s just blank. So I think we can pencil in ‘because I felt like it’ on those particular detentions. Two in-house suspensions as well. The vast majority of these have been given by our friends Mr. Harris, Mr. Jimenez, and Ms. Blackwell.” She points at the chemistry, history, and English teacher by turns.

“What about the six that have reasons?”

“Three are for tardiness and/or cutting class, two are for mouthing off, and one is for falling asleep during class,” she replies. “All fairly valid. None for cheating, by the way. The in-house suspensions were given by Ms. Blackwell for using foul language about her, and Mr. Harris for putting a tack on his chair, something so juvenile and unoriginal that I fairly doubt it happened at all, let alone that Stiles was responsible. And, of course, the most recent suspension for fighting. Now that you’re back, we’ll address what we’re going to do about these.”

Stafford shifts uncomfortably. “Well, that is,” he begins.

“Obviously, we can’t go back in time and have Stiles un-serve the detentions,” Talia says, “but those with no reason given will be removed from his permanent record. Immediately.”

Stafford grimaces, but nods.

“The others I suppose we can leave, at least until I’ve heard Stiles’ side of the story,” she says. “I’m more concerned about this blatant, systemic disregard for Stiles’ safety. Again, we can’t go back in time. But believe me that if I see one single bruise on him, I will be suing this school into the ground. There are laws that all educators are expected to follow, and making sure their students don’t kill each other is near the top of the list.”

“Y-Yes, of course,” Stafford says.

“Now, this concerns me,” Talia continues. “This particular detention for cutting class. Issued by Mr. Jimenez because Stiles left class in the middle of the period. I recognize this date. Stiles came over to our house by himself afterwards. I remember it very clearly because it’s the first time he came over without Derek having brought him over. He was upset. Something happened that day, and I would like to know what.”

Jimenez clears his throat. “If I recall correctly, some of the other students were . . . giving him a hard time about his relationship with your son.”

“In what way?” Talia asks, giving him a hard glare.

“The, er, the physical attraction . . . the disparity between the two . . . in terms of . . .” Jimenez trails off, unable to finish his sentence beneath the eyes of the two parents.

Surprisingly, it’s the math teacher, Miss Schiffer, who speaks up. “One of the students recorded a private conversation where Stiles was talking to a friend about how he felt about Derek, and then broadcast it over the PA system.”

Jesus,” Tom says, feeling like he’s been punched in the gut. “I’m surprised he didn’t throw himself off a bridge. Do you realize that this date is his birthday?” he adds, and everyone gives a collective wince except Harris.

“It was rather, erm, explicit?” Schiffer says, blushing a little. “In the way that teenaged boys can be. Nothing, nothing out of the ordinary, you understand, but he’s obviously very attracted to Derek, and, erm, he made that fairly clear on the tape.”

“And who was responsible for this broadcast?” Talia asks quietly.

“I, well, I’m afraid we don’t have any way of knowing for sure,” Stafford says.

“You’re telling me,” Talia says, “that a student was able to walk into the main office and use the PA system to broadcast this without anybody attempting to stop him? And that you have no clue who it might have been?”

“Er . . . yes,” Stafford says.

Talia pins him down with an alpha stare for a long minute, before she says, “Very well. I’ll deal with that later. But I’d like this detention taken off his records as well. Mr. Jimenez,” she adds, “when this broadcast began playing, I assume you took appropriate steps to ensure that the students did not continue to harass Stiles about it during class?”

“Of course,” Jimenez says.

“That’s a lie,” Talia replies without pause. “This detention from two days later – ”

“Wait just a God damned second here,” Tom says. “Are you telling me that Stiles was in your classroom when someone started to play a recording of a private conversation he had over the intercom, and you just stood there and did nothing about it?” His voice raises to a shout. “Don’t the classrooms have a God damned switch for those speakers? Or you could have put on some music or, I don’t know, done anything other than stand there with your thumb up your ass!”

Stafford clears his throat. “I’m sure Mr. Jimenez did all that he could – ”

“That’s bullshit and you know it’s bullshit,” Tom says, “and don’t even start with me about how you’ll provide ‘coaching’ or whatever fancy words you use to say ‘we don’t actually feel like he did anything wrong so we’re going to pretend to discipline him’, I want his ass fired, do you – ”

“Tom,” Talia says calmly, “please sit down. We’ll get to Mr. Jimenez in a minute. I’d like to discuss this detention two days later which Stiles got for calling Mr. Jimenez a . . .” She squints at the paper. “Pompous, pathetic cock-jockey . . .”

Sheriff Stilinski chokes on his coffee.

“I think we can probably forgive him and take that detention off his record as well,” Talia finishes, tearing up the sheet of paper.

“Er,” Stafford says.

Talia stares at him.

“Yes, all right,” he says, folding under the pressure of her gaze.

“Now, I’m sure we could argue back and forth all day about why nobody stopped the student who was making the broadcast,” Talia says, “but there’s no purpose in discussing that, since the obvious answer is ‘because you were enjoying watching Stiles be humiliated’. I’m not interested in hearing your excuses. Suffice to say, nothing like that will be allowed to happen again. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Stafford says, shrinking further into his seat.

“As for the suspension, I’d be willing to let it go, if not for the fact that it’s obvious you don’t intend to discipline the students who injured him and I frankly don’t feel like listening to you bitch about all the reasons why not. Stiles is not suspended.”

Stafford looks like he wishes he was anywhere else on the planet. “I, we can’t just,” he stammers, and when Talia turns that crimson stare on him again, he says, “I suppose suspending him was probably an overreaction . . .”

“Why don’t we consider the detentions he’s already served for no reason as an adequate punishment for any actual wrongs he may have committed,” Talia suggests.

“That, er, that seems reasonable,” Stafford agrees.

“As for Mr. Harris who may or may not have witnessed the fight . . .” Talia turns to Harris and folds her hands into a steeple in front of her face. “You say you did not.”

“That’s correct,” Harris says, his face flushed pink.

“And you’re prepared to swear to that in a court of law?”

“Absolutely,” Harris sneers.

“So when Jackson claims that Stiles threw the first punch and turns to the nearest adult to verify his story, you would have absolutely no way to back him up on this, yes?”

Harris sees how neatly he’s been trapped. “Well, I, er . . .”

“Excellent,” Talia says. “Now, back to the subject of his grades.” She takes the detention slips and returns them to Stiles’ file. At some point while Tom was gone, she’s obtained detailed grading records from each of the teachers. She frowns thoughtfully at the list of black marks on his gym attendance sheet, but puts that at the end of the stack.

Stiles has kept all his files well organized. There’s a folder on his desktop labeled ‘homework’ and it has a subfolder for each class. Talia skims through the files, which appear to be high-res photos he took with his phone. She makes little checkmarks on the sheets of grades with a red pen to note what assignments she’s found.

This happens in silence. Tom keeps half an eye on what she’s doing, but doesn’t intervene. The rest of the teachers squirm uncomfortably, waiting. Finally, Talia looks up from the laptop and says, “Stiles has been completing all of his assignments. The proof is right here. I can think of absolutely no reason he would do them and then not turn them in. Can you?”

Nobody says a word.

“I thought not,” Talia says. “Therefore, all of these assignments will be accepted as if they were submitted on time, and his grades will be recalculated. Furthermore . . .” She runs the pen along a list of grades that aren’t zeros. “These assignments that have been graded but given failing marks are going to be graded again. But not by you. I’m going to submit them to teachers at the school my daughter attends and the other mundane high school in town. Those two grades will be averaged, and you will accept them into Stiles’ record. In addition to that, every assignment Stiles turns in and test he takes before the end of the year will be graded by at least one outside teacher before I will accept the grade as final.” She looks up. “Is that clear?”

Stafford nods, but squeezes out, “What about his attendance record?”

“I see no reason to penalize him for skipping class when he was clearly being tormented both physically and emotionally,” Talia says, “as long as his classwork is up to standard. The only exception I see to that is gym.” She taps the pen against the table. “Coach Finstock, will you accept an independent study?”

“How do you mean?” he asks.

“My daughter Laura has agreed to teach Stiles self-defense. It will be just as physically demanding as a gym class or a sport. You can observe one of the sessions to make sure you agree. Stiles will receive an incomplete rather than a failing grade for gym this semester, and he’ll make it up over the summer.”

Finstock shrugs. “Sounds okay to me.”

“Excellent.” Talia closes the file with a snap. “I think we’re done here.”

Tom points at Jimenez and says, “I’m not done. Not with him.”

“Ah, yes.” Talia studies the man for a few moments. “Mr. Jimenez, I’m going to be honest with you. From my experience with the law, firing you could be problematic. Steps must be taken before employment can be terminated. It’s unwieldy, particularly in a case like this, where I doubt you’ve broken any specific rule. Although frankly I could probably have you all fired, with the exception of Miss Schiffer and Coach Finstock, for ‘losing’ Stiles’ homework. Or downgrading his tests, as I expect I’ll find you have been. However, I’m aware that there’s a fine line I have to walk, in regards to how much authority I possess. Therefore, Mr. Jimenez, I am not going to ask Principal Stafford to fire you.” She holds up a hand as Tom opens his mouth to protest. “I would, however, like your resignation on his desk by Monday morning. Because otherwise, your life will easily become just as unpleasant as you have helped Stiles’ life become. Is that understood?”

Jimenez swallows. “I don’t, don’t have to take orders from you,” he says.

“It’s your decision to make,” Talia says, and gets to her feet. “And on the subject of decisions, you may want to seek employment and residency outside Beacon Hills. I feel like living here might not suit you after this. Of course, it’s only a suggestion. Ladies, gentlemen. Have a pleasant weekend.” To Sheriff Stilinski, she adds, “Shall we?”

“Yep, I think that’ll do,” he replies. He looks at Talia and says, “How do you feel about breakfast?”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Stiles wakes up early, a little confused and disoriented. He’s sore and feels a little hungover, which he figures is probably a result of the painkillers, as memory trickles back in. Derek’s windows face west, so there’s hardly any light even through the gaps around the dark green curtains. Stiles yawns a little and stretches. He’s always sprawled in his sleep, and now is no exception. He’s lying on his back, arms and legs akimbo. There’s a heavy weight across his stomach which turns out to be Derek’s arm, and the werewolf’s nose and mouth are pressed into the crook of his neck.

Although he would love to lay there forever, or possibly roll over and start kissing Derek again, he needs to use the bathroom. He slowly, quietly disentangles himself from Derek’s limbs and goes looking for it. The house is dim and quiet. He does his business and then creeps back into the bedroom. There’s a faint frown on Derek’s face, like he can sense Stiles’ absence in his sleep. Stiles slides back into his grip, tucks his forehead against Derek’s chin, and closes his eyes.

But he doesn’t fall back to sleep. He doesn’t know exactly what time he had passed out the night before, but it had been early. He’s slept enough. His mind wanders, sifting through what he’s learned about werewolf packs and families and comparing it to the common frame of mind. It’s a tangle that’s going to take some time to unravel, although he thinks he has the salient points firmly set in his mind.

Just when he’s starting to get bored enough to forego morning cuddles, at least until after he’s had his Adderall and can try to lie still for a while, Derek stirs, his stubble rubbing against Stiles’ forehead. He makes a little canine noise, grumbly but not unhappy, and settles for another five minutes or so before opening his eyes and looking at Stiles. “Morning,” he says, a bare mumble. He shifts so he can rub his cheek against Stiles’, but then pauses a moment. “Day four is past ideal.”

“Your stubble doesn’t have to be perfect for morning cuddles,” Stiles says, rubbing his cheek against Derek’s in response.

“Oh, good.” Derek curls up around Stiles. “Do you have any idea how happy I am?”

Stiles considers. “Happy like . . . people on ancient ships hearing the words ‘land ho’? Happy like a four year old on Christmas morning? Happy like – ”

“Happy like you’re the best thing to ever happen to me. Now stop overanalyzing before your morning caffeine.” Derek leans over and kisses Stiles then, slow and soft. Stiles twines a hand through Derek’s hair, returning the kiss with enthusiasm. It turns from gentle and calm to something needy and desperate as soon as Stiles’ body presses up against Derek, the fabric of his T-shirt sliding against the bare skin of Derek’s chest. It doesn’t take Derek long to get on board with this. One of his hands comes around to rest against Stiles’ hip, where his T-shirt has ridden up enough to reveal skin.

“Oh, Jesus,” Stiles says, pushing himself against Derek’s body, one arm curling around him so his fingers dig into Derek’s back. “You, you are so unfair.”

“Says the person who was petting my pecs last night,” Derek says as he kisses at Stiles’ jaw.

“I was on drugs, it’s not my fault, and Jesus, you should like, always be touching me, okay?” Stiles tilts his head back to give Derek a little more room to work.

“If you mean like this,” Derek says, nuzzling at a spot underneath Stiles’ ear, “I’m afraid we’ll want to do things like eat someday.”

“Nooooo,” Stiles says, one hand tangling in Derek’s hair, the other splayed out against the small of his back. “Nope nope nope. Staying here. Like this. Forever. You know, with room for some improvements, like, dude, why are you still wearing clothes, why do you ever wear clothes – ”

“Because most of the time without clothes or fur, I’d be cold,” Derek informs him, nearly laughing.

“Oh my God, I have all the solutions for that, I will keep you warm, that was the best set-up line ever,” Stiles says happily, wrapping both arms around Derek, rubbing his hands up and down Derek’s back and going in for another kiss.

“Uh huh,” Derek says, but kissing back eagerly. “What’s your plan for food?”

“To worry about it later,” Stiles says, his hips flexing unconsciously against Derek’s, which results in him letting out an involuntary little groan. “Oh, what the hell, that, I,” he stammers, and then does it again, with more intent.

For a second Derek enjoys the friction, more than enjoys it, but then he snaps back to himself. “Nope.” He rolls them over and promptly rolls away.

“What, oh my God, what,” Stiles says, trying to crawl back on top of him.

“Nope.” Derek sits up. “You can’t give me your dick until you learn self-defense.”

Stiles gapes at him for a few moments. “You’re seriously going to enforce that, you’re the worst,” he groans.

Derek leans forward a little. “It’s because I love you.” He sits back. “And it’s not like you’re the only one miserable.”

Stiles looks at him for a long moment, “I,” he declares dramatically, “am going to go shower. Naked. All by myself.” He gets off the bed and gives a thorough stretch. “I’m probably going to do other things in the shower, if you know what I mean. All by myself.

“Fine,” Derek says, raising his eyebrows. “And I’ll be in here. Alone. Thinking about you and your dick. In the shower. And how after you’ve learned self defense, I can be in the shower with you.” He eels out of the sitting position onto his hands and knees, stretching out with his arms straight in front of him, fingers flexing.

Jesus fucking – ” The door to the bathroom slams shut behind Stiles.

It’s a somewhat more mellow Stiles that emerges from the bathroom about twenty minutes later, cleaned up and dressed in the same clothes he had been wearing the day before. Derek had used one of the other bathrooms to grab a quick shower as well, and is fortunately finished dressing by the time Stiles emerges, given the speculative glance Stiles gives him. “Man, I’m starved,” Stiles says instead.

“No one bought anything this morning so I think we’re left scrounging.” Which for Derek means cold food like cereal or leftovers that can go in the microwave.

“God, you guys are so lame, it’s seriously not that difficult to make something like French toast or pancakes if you have even basic ingredients,” Stiles replies.

“Maybe we have what we’d need? I will valiantly learn to stir,” Derek tells him, wrapping him in a loose hug.

Stiles just shakes his head, smiling fondly, and they venture downstairs. It’s mid-morning, around ten o’clock. The children are watching cartoons while Jonathan sits on the sofa in a bathrobe watching them. Laura’s folding their laundry. Cora is on the couch next to Jonathan, dressed in a loose tank top and boxer shorts, watching the cartoons but also playing on her phone. Aaron is sitting at the table in the kitchen, doing the crossword in the paper. Talia and Peter are nowhere to be seen. Everyone looks up and says good morning when they come in.

There’s coffee, and Stiles helps himself before looking in the refrigerator. There’s bread and eggs and milk, so that’s enough for French toast. There aren’t enough eggs to make scrambled eggs for everyone, so he'll need to put them on the grocery list he now keeps constantly updated in his phone. He reaches for it, only to remember that his phone is currently in several pieces in evidence bags at the police station, and sighs. Then he looks for an alternate source of protein. There are two packages of sausage in the freezer. He puts them in the microwave to thaw them out.

Derek watches Stiles move around the kitchen, knowing that before his mate is done cooking, he’s going to wind up waiting in the living room with the others. He can’t stand the smell of cooking meat, especially when it’s high in fat content. But it’s a small price to pay for an actual morning meal. “Where’s Mom?” he asks Aaron, wondering if she’s made herself scarce for Stiles’ benefit or if she had errands to run. She’s normally home on the weekends. No matter how busy she is, she always makes time for her family.

“She said she had a couple things to take care of,” Aaron says nonchalantly, glancing at Stiles as he starts cracking eggs into a bowl.

Derek considers his father, trying to decide if that look at Stiles had been deliberate or not. His father’s basic scent is serene. His wife has everything in hand. But Derek knows from experience that that could mean anything from ‘she’s gone out to buy more toilet paper’ to ‘she’s planning to have six people murdered’. It’s completely useless when it comes to answering question.

“Should I, uh, should I include her in breakfast plans?” Stiles asks uncertainly, thumbing through slices of bread.

“I think she’ll be home fairly soon, yes,” Aaron says. “And if not, well, a few extra pieces of French toast won’t be left lonely for long.”

“You mean they won’t survive for long,” Derek amends, setting about making himself a mug of tea.

“Check the tea population while you’re in that cabinet, I’m going shopping tomorrow,” Stiles says, then pauses. “God, I sound like such a housewife.”

“Because you know how to keep a kitchen organized? God, we’re all going to die of some horrible illness when you go away to college. You’ll have to teach someone to cook over skype. Maybe Cora.” There’s a pause. “No, I guess she’ll be gone at the same time.”

“Well, Laura’s certainly hopeless,” Stiles says with a snort.

“I heard that!” Laura calls in from the living room.

“I know!” Stiles calls back. Then he blinks at Derek. “Wait, go away to college? I’m not – do people do that in packs? Leave town for school?”

Derek blinks at him. “Yeah. I mean, not everyone does. I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t. Beacon Hills isn’t the entire world.”

“I went to Rutgers in New Jersey,” Aaron says, barely looking up from his puzzle.

“I just thought, with the pack closeness and everything, people wouldn’t want to go away,” Stiles says. “I mean, wouldn’t it drive you nuts?”

“Oh, it does,” Aaron says. “We spend a fortune on travel, coming home every holiday we can manage, or other people coming to visit. Sometimes we’ll form temporary, loose packs with other wolves in the areas just to have someone close. And if you already have a mate, your mate will often go with you. But at the same time, you know you’re gaining new life experience, an education, and meeting new people. The separation is only temporary.”

“Easy for you to say,” Laura says, wandering in with an armful of towels. To Stiles, she adds, “Mom went to Columbia, so they were able to live together while they were in college. Jonathan did a semester abroad in Spain and I thought I was going to go maaaaaaaad.”

“Short trip,” Cora remarks from the living room.

“You’re such a snot!” Laura calls back.

“She used to talk to him with her phone plugged in because she’d talk the battery to death,” Derek says.

Aaron glances up and says, “And God forbid she use a land line.”

“Since when are we talking about me?” Laura asks. She rolls her eyes dramatically and says, “Stiles, had you thought at all about college?”

“Uh, no, well,” Stiles says. “Capella is one of the schools that the FBI recommends, that’s in Minneapolis. And South University, that’s in Georgia, and I don’t really want to go to school in Georgia, so. Uh, but I’m not one hundred percent sold on criminology anyway, and my dad just went to the University of California in Fresno, so it’s not like . . . I really don’t know yet, I guess.”

“You still have time to think it through, though, right?” Derek asks. “You’re only a sophomore.”

“Yeah,” Stiles agrees, but he’s thinking about the way he’s failing all his classes. He knows his discomfort with the topic shows, because all the wolves get that subtle tension to them that they get when they smell something they don’t like. He tries to ignore them because it’s none of their business how he’s doing in school, and takes the sausage out of the microwave.

“And that’s my cue,” Derek says. He doesn’t try to hide it, because his entire family knows he has major issues relating to the fire. So he just kisses Stiles on the forehead and heads into the living room, where the rest of the pack is gathered.

Stiles glances after him but doesn’t say anything, putting the sausage in the pan and starting the French toast. Laura’s collecting dirty dish towels. Aaron is still absorbed in the puzzle, occasionally tossing clues out for Stiles to help with. Stiles feels a lot less awkward around Aaron by now, although he still wants to run away whenever Talia shows up.

That’s a problem, because she arrives about five minutes later, while he’s waiting for the sausage to finish. That’s not terribly surprising. It is her house, after all. But she has Sheriff Stilinski in tow, and Stiles nearly drops the spatula on the floor when he sees him. “Dad,” he says, startled. Then he lifts both hands and says, “My virtue is intact, I swear! Derek thinks I’m some sort of nun or something, for real.”

From the living room, Derek calls, “I’m very aware that you’re not a nun. Nuns are women and I’m absolutely sure you aren’t one of those.” His voice is somewhat muffled, because he’s curled up on the sofa with his head in Cora’s lap. Her warm sister-scent is covering up the smell of the cooking meat enough to allow him to stay in the house with a bit of determination. He’s trying more than ever now to get over or find a way around some of his hangups, because Stiles is the denmaker and he doesn’t want to always be bolting away from his mate.

Sheriff Stilinski just shakes his head. “If you say so,” he says. “I’m glad to hear that Derek is respecting you.”

“He’s not,” Stiles moans. “We would’ve been to third base already if he were respecting my wishes and oh hi, Mrs. Hale, we uh, never mind.” He remembers Talia’s presence somewhat abruptly and turns back to the stove, face flushing pink.

Talia doesn’t respond beyond saying, “Why don’t we eat on the back porch? It’s a lovely day.”

Derek makes a mental note to go over the werewolf concepts of privacy and propriety with Stiles, since they’re so very different from the human version. No one really wants to know the details of your sex life and no one cares if you mention having one, since the whole family knows anyway. So he says, “It’s not like I’m denying you forever.” He sits up, hugging a well-used throw pillow to his chest, and looks at his mother through the kitchen doorway. “Where were you?” he asks, careful to keep his tone respectful and curious, rather than suspicious. “Were you and Sheriff Stilinski out together?”

“I went to speak to the sheriff about some concerns I had,” Talia says, “given what happened yesterday. He hitched a ride back with me.”

Stiles doesn’t look at them, but his entire body vibrates with the effort he’s putting in to appearing nonchalant. He turns off the stove and starts putting the sausage onto a platter.

Derek suddenly stands. “I’m going to go set things up outside.” He doesn’t believe it’s anywhere near that simple. He can smell deception in the words, and the warning smell like fresh earth kicked over something hidden on the forest floor. Things that aren’t to be disturbed until permission is given. But he didn’t think it would be bad. His mother had welcomed Stiles into the pack. So he takes the opportunity to leave the house for the fresh air of the porch and hopes that Stiles will come out soon so they could talk for a few minutes.

Either luck is with him or the rest of the pack senses that they need to give them some space right now. Cora ducks out briefly to dump a stack of plates and silverware on the table, but then just as quickly ducks back out. Then Stiles shows up holding two pitchers, one with lemonade and one with iced tea. He glances at Derek but then his gaze flickers away, saturated with tension. “They, uh, your dad is finishing up with the French toast while we set the table.”

Derek puts down the plates he was distributing and rounds the table to Stiles, but doesn’t touch him. Instead, he holds out his hand in what’s becoming a familiar gesture. “Whatever’s going on, I didn’t know about it.” He just stands and waits for permission to touch Stiles, to say more, to offer comfort. If there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s not to push Stiles too hard when trust is an issue. He doesn’t think that Stiles accepting his place as Derek’s mate will change that. It won’t change who Stiles is.

“Yeah?” Stiles says, glancing up at him. He’s clearly anxious, but a spark of amusement is in his eyes. “Is this when you admit that you had Cora spying on me at school?”

Derek’s hand drops and he looks up at the sky. “Jesus fucking Christ. I’m going to tie that girl to a tree.” Only slightly louder, he says, “Do you hear that, Cora?” He looks at Stiles somewhat warily. “I actually didn’t have her spying on you. I told her not to, and I didn’t know she’d gone ahead with it until afterwards.” Then he looks down so Stiles can only see his eyes a little through his lashes. Quieter, he continues, “Now do you see why I was so angry?”

“I . . . yeah.” Stiles folds his arms over his stomach, hugging himself a little. “I should have told you. Or Dad. Or anybody. I just . . . felt like I was pathetic enough without having to ask someone else to keep bullies from picking on me.”

Derek moves forward to pull Stiles into an embrace. “You weren’t pathetic,” he says into Stiles’ hair. “I know that the situation wasn’t what you thought it was, and that made things very different from your end, but out of all the words I would use to describe you, pathetic isn’t one of them.” He takes a moment just to breathe Stiles’ scent in. “And that wasn’t picking on you. Picking on is a bit of name-calling. If I were in your shoes, I would’ve been trying to make them bleed or literally calling for my mother.”

Stiles rests his weight against Derek but won’t quite look at him. “Yeah, well, looks like your mother is involved now whether I like it or not. Which is just going to do wonders for her opinion of me, I’m sure.”

“Your father didn’t seem angry with her. Didn’t smell angry with her. And I’m sure he would have been if she had been anything but respectful of you. Your father has never been intimidated by us and I doubt he’d start now.” He hugs Stiles a little tighter. “And as a species, we respect survivors.”

“Yeah. I know. I just . . .” Stiles pulls away, his face pensive but not unhappy. “Do you understand a bit better now, why I had trouble with believing you? I mean . . . every fucking day I had to put up with all that bullshit. Everyone just assumed it was a joke, or an excuse, a convenient shield. It never occurred to them that it was anything but. Because that made so much more sense to them than the possibility that you . . . would actually want me.”

Derek nods. “Though I don’t know why they thought you were such an unlikely choice. I think your school has a bad case of ‘if it’s different, it’s worthless’. And they bring that into the ceremonies. It’s like the Searching Ceremony has gone all wrong somehow. Let me tell you how much Cora didn’t like anyone she met on her little mission. I think most of the people around you are really just fucking stupid,” he adds.

Stiles lets out a little snort. “Yeah, well, I’ve been telling them how stupid they are since I was seven. That explains a lot about why they don’t like me.”

“I seriously don’t even know how you stand them without your head exploding,” Derek says. “I could barely put up with it for one day each year.”

Before Stiles can reply, the door from the inside open and Laura comes out, carrying a huge tray of French toast. Jonathan is behind her with the sausage and a bottle of syrup in the other hand. The others are trailing out after them, with their metaphorical tails practically wagging at the smell of the food. There’s some predictable chaos as everyone gets seated and the food is passed around.

“Hey, where’s Peter?” Stiles asks, looking at the empty chair to Talia’s left.

“He had some things he needed to do today,” Talia replies. “We probably won’t see him until tomorrow.”

Derek looks over at his mother and then at Sheriff Stilinski. “Uh huh,” he says. He tries hard to keep the feral grin off his face, because he really isn’t sure how much Stiles would appreciate that. So he doesn’t say anything else, and just starts passing the food around. Before long, everyone’s mouths are full and they’re talking about their plans for the barbecue the following weekend, which they have every Memorial Day. Talia’s inviting some coworkers and clients, and Jonathan’s family is going to be in town, as well as Aaron’s brother and his family, so it’s sure to be a large gathering.

Cora’s got plans with friends, and Laura’s talking about taking the kids out for a while, so after breakfast, the group starts to break up. Aaron says he’ll take care of the dishes, and heads inside, leaving only Talia, Derek, Stiles, and Sheriff Stilinski sitting at the table.

“Well, uh, I should,” Stiles says, getting to his feet.

“Sit down, Stiles,” Talia says. “We have some things we need to discuss.”

Stiles gets that belligerent scowl on his face, and his father sees his objection coming a mile away and sighs. It seems like Talia and Stiles are destined to butt heads even if they finally get past their initial disagreements. “There’s some paperwork and stuff you need to sign,” he says, and Stiles reluctantly sinks back into his chair.

“Some questions I have to ask,” Derek says, holding out his hand again. “Traditional ones.” His gaze cuts over to the sheriff, knowing that the man won’t be thrilled with him offering the change to Stiles, especially since he’s still a minor, but he feels he has to ask. He won’t feel right unless he does. It’s part of what he’s always been taught is the right thing to do.

“Shoot,” Stiles says, folding his fingers into Derek’s. He’s surprisingly relaxed now, since they don’t seem to be jumping into a topic he’s uncomfortable with, like what had happened the day before.

Derek curls his fingers around Stiles’ and turns to face him. “Remember that any answer is fine. You can ask questions, too,” he adds, remembering some of their previous conversations. “Do you want to be changed into a werewolf?”

Stiles’ gaze darts around the table, and when nobody seems ready to leap down his throat, he says, “Not really? I mean, I guess there are some circumstances where it might be appropriate, but it’s not something I just wanna do.”

“Okay.” Derek gives his hand a squeeze. “Those circumstances are sort of follow-up questions. But this is important. You can always change your mind. I won’t ask again, and Mom won’t ask you, or push or even drop hints, but you can change your mind and ask us at any time. It’s on your terms, and never is a perfectly valid option.” He’s learned enough to know that you have to close all the loopholes, or Stiles will worry about them.

Stiles just nods. “Okay. Yeah. That’s cool. What circumstances?”

It’s Talia who replies, placing a manila folder on the table. “It’s all laid out here,” she says. “But the basic idea is, if your life was in danger and the bite could save you, would you want it?”

“Oh, well, shit yeah,” Stiles says. “I’d rather be a werewolf than dead.”

Derek knows his mother will go through the rest of the basics as they sign the forms, which all four of them will need to sign. But he offers up a bit more information. “The medical choices come with a card to put in your wallet or even to wear, if you want. That way emergency rooms know. If you’re ever traveling, and God forbid, Mom can’t get to you, they’ll find a local alpha to help you.”

Stiles’ face scrunches up. “Wouldn’t that make me part of their pack? If I got bitten by a different alpha?”

“Only in the temporary. Until we got to you. You’d still be tied to our pack no matter what, through your bond with me, and the pack you want to be in matters. The alpha that changes you matters, too, but it’s not the only thing that does. And in a situation like that, the other alpha should give you up willingly.” The ‘if he or she doesn’t want the ass-kicking of a lifetime’ is left unspoken.

“Okay.” Stiles chews on his lower lip. “Okay, so, I’m good with werewolf bites if I’m dying.”

“Initial here,” Talia says, handing him a pen and indicating a spot on the paper.

Stiles gives the paragraph a quick read. “Kinda vague, don’t you think?” he asks, and Talia frowns at him. “I mean, all it says is ‘if death is inevitable’, but there’s nothing about time frame, I mean, what if I had terminal cancer? Or what if I wasn’t going to die but I was a vegetable? Or like if I had brain damage that rendered me incapable of making my own decisions? What if I was like that guy in Memento?”

Talia gives him a look. Then she shakes her head a little. “Have you ever considered being a lawyer?”

“Bleh, no,” Stiles says, his automatic response more vehement than he intended. His father covers a laugh with one hand.

“He’s going to be a cop, not a lawyer,” Derek interjects, also a bit amused. “Don’t worry, Mom. It won’t go to waste.”

Talia purses her lips, but then says, “For now, Stiles, just initial saying that if you were in danger of imminent demise, you want the bite. If you want to draw up a second contract later to deal with the possibilities of vegetables, brain damage, amnesia, catatonia, dissociative fugue, missing limbs, partridges, or pear trees, we can do that when it’s not one of my few days off.”

Stiles smirks at her and ostentatiously scrawls his initials on the page. Talia wordlessly offers the pen to Sheriff Stilinski so he can initial as well, which he does. Derek wonders if they should include something about bear attacks, but manages to keep his mouth shut.

Talia flips the page. “We can probably skip the section on income and pack resources, since you’re still a student . . .”

Stiles clears his throat. “Uh, I do, uh, have income though,” he says. “I mean.” He steals a glance at his father’s neutral expression. “From doing odd jobs around the neighborhood and stuff.”

“Stiles, I don’t think we need to worry about the ten dollars you earn from mowing your neighbor’s lawn,” Talia says.

The sheriff maintains an impressively flat face as he looks from Talia’s mildly dismissive expression to the look on Stiles which he just knows is going to turn into insulted outrage with the wrong words any second now. “I think he’s more concerned with the two-hundred-some-odd dollars he earns with each research and term paper he sells online. Frequently.” He raises his eyebrows at his son, just daring Stiles to say something about how he had thought his father was oblivious to his little side business.

Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head. “Yeah, well. There is that.”

Talia gives Stiles a look. “Isn’t that illegal?”

“Selling, no.” Stiles gives her an innocent smile. “Buying, maybe, but not selling. It might be frowned upon in certain academic circles, but . . .”

“You will not be selling term papers to any member of this family,” she informs him.

“Yeah, no, I wouldn’t do that,” he agrees. “I want them to actually learn stuff and get into college and shit.”

“And when he’s in college, he will either stop altogether or be very discreet and never sell a paper to anyone in the same college or any institution affiliated with it, because he’s smarter than that.” Sheriff Stilinski gives his son a stern look. “Right?”

“Right,” Stiles says, giving his father a thumbs-up.

Talia still doesn’t look thrilled with it, but she says, “Fine. The basic rule of thumb is that fifty percent of your earnings get put back in the pack, and you keep the other half yourself. In return, of course, the pack fund is what pays for utilities, food, et cetera. But it’s also used in case of emergencies and often to pay for travel if one of the pack members if away for some reason. In your case, however . . .” She crosses a number out and replaces it. “You would pay thirty-three percent into the fund. That’s because you’re the denmaker, who traditionally contributes less monetarily to compensate for the amount of time they spend taking care of the pack.”

Tom looks at Derek, who seems to be taking this as a matter of course, and uses that as a partial basis for his own agreement. He knows that Stiles won’t be living in his house forever, and now that he and Derek have worked out the majority of their issues, he might not even be able to keep Stiles for the rest of high school. That makes his heart ache a little, or actually a lot, but this isn’t the time and place for those thoughts. He nods to Talia and looks at Stiles, seeing the objections bubbling. “What?”

“That isn’t fair,” Stiles says. “It’s like saying the denmaker doesn’t need to give as much to the pack – ”

Talia pins him down with a stare. “Are you saying your time is not valuable?”

“Well, no, but – ”

“Then this is how you’re compensated for it. I’m not singling you out. If you need me to go get the contract Olivia signed when she joined the pack, I will. It’s tradition. It’s part of how we show our respect for the denmaker.”

Stiles squirms, but then huffs out, “Fine.”

Derek makes a small noise to draw attention and says, “Can we put a delay on that part of the contract? He shouldn’t have to contribute until he’s paid back everything he put into the pack. Before he knew how things should work, and before – ” Derek hastily modifies so Laura won’t get her ear chewed off. “Before I was aware of that.”

Talia frowns at both of them. “How so?”

“I was kind of buying the groceries for a little while,” Stiles says.

“You were buying all the groceries?” Talia asks.

“Well, not all of them, I mean, I used what you had around the house, and I got a lot of the meat out of your freezer, but . . .” Stiles sees the way Talia is looking at him and sighs. “Yeah, I probably spent a couple thousand bucks over the course of a month.”

“It was just a misunderstanding,” Derek assures his mother, not wanting to get into how he was sure that Stiles had felt he needed to prove himself to the pack. “I’ve got it sorted out and my family credit card is on file at the stores now, so they know just to charge it when Stiles does the shopping.”

Talia, who clearly understands what Derek isn’t telling her, says to Stiles, “And you are shopping at the stores where Derek’s card is on file, yes?”

Stiles purses his lips in irritation, but nods and says, “Yeah.”

“All right.” Talia writes on the contract for a few moments and then hands Stiles the pen. “Initial there,” she says, and he does. Derek gives his mother a quick, grateful look, not for amending the contract, but for not pushing the issue.

There are a few other minor points on the contract where Stiles initials and his father does as well, and then they get to the end of it. Talia says, “Remember, Stiles, that this isn’t a decision you should make lightly. Joining a wolf pack is – ”

Stiles scrawls his signature while she’s talking and then puts the pen down with a thump. “Anything else?”

“He knows,” Tom states firmly. He’s not trying to be rude, but just to explain that Stiles isn’t being rude. He’s just very aware and very sure. “We talked about it. In as much detail as two humans can, before he signed up for the list the first time.” He pulls the contract towards himself and picks up the pen.

Talia still doesn’t look thrilled, and Stiles is looking at her defiantly. Derek can smell the hint of anger and shame that’s drifting off him, but his mother either can’t or doesn’t recognize the scent, doesn’t recognize the fact that to Stiles, her comment seemed insulting. That it came off as a way for her to try to talk him out of being in the pack because she didn’t want him there.

Derek gives Stiles’ hand a reassuring squeeze, because there’s nothing he can say that doesn’t insult someone. Sheriff Stilinski manages to keep his sigh and his opinions about the contract to himself, and reaches for the pen, signing on his own line. He and Talia need to have a serious discussion about how to handle his son.

Before the moment of tension can last too long, Derek sees an easy way to change the subject. He peers down at the last page of the contract and says, “Your name is . . . what?”

Stiles immediately flushes pink. “Stiles. My name is Stiles.”

Tom scratches at an eyebrow. “No, Stiles is what you chose to go by.” He sighs a little. “He’s named after his maternal grandfather. Admittedly, it’s a little, uh, ethnic.”

“No, Dad, a little ethnic would be if you guys had named me Aleksander or Olaf. That,” Stiles says, tapping the contract with the pen, “is not an ethnic name. It’s an ethnic tongue-twister. It’s my own name and I can’t even pronounce it.”

“That is a lie,” his father says, pointing an accusing finger at him even though it’s obvious he’s amused. “You can pronounce it perfectly.”

Stiles just makes a face at him.

“And?” Derek prompts.

“And, Stiles,” Stiles replies.

“Son,” Tom says to Derek, “don’t even bother. The only other person who knows what his name even sounds like is Scott, and I’m pretty sure that undying oaths have been sworn about the sharing of this information.”

Talia signs the contract on the line for the alpha, then passes it to Derek, who signs in his place. “Welcome to the pack again, now that it’s official,” she says.

Stiles picks at his cuticles. “Thank you again, officially,” he replies.

Tom eyes the two of them and refrains from shaking his head. “So since we’re all conveniently here, I think it’s about time we had a talk about a few other things, Stiles.”

Stiles freezes. “Uh, what? You can get the recipe for my French toast later, Dad, because Derek and I have to do, uhm, a thing – ”

“I don’t need your recipe for French toast because you never let me cook, because you know I’ll make bacon. And I don’t want to hear about whatever thing you feel you and Derek need to do.” His look of pain is only half-faked. “Please keep your butt in your seat, okay?”

“Fine,” Stiles says, sulking.

“This morning, Talia and I had a nice chat with your teachers and your principal.” Tom points a finger at his son as he appears ready to leap out of his chair. “Stay sitting.” Then he takes a deep breath. “When I say ‘nice’, I mean I still have a job because I didn’t commit any violence upon them, but we still have some things we need to talk about.”

Stiles squirms. “You and I do, maybe, but I don’t see why anyone else needs to be here . . .”

“In this case, Talia isn’t here as your alpha or any kind of family. She’s here as my lawyer. Our lawyer. She’s the one who’s going to be suing the school if they fail to follow through on any of the things that have been worked out to try to fix what’s been done to you. Academically, at least. Socially is a bit harder, but we did talk about that, too.”

In the moment of quiet that follows, Derek looks over and asks Stiles, “Do you want me to leave?”

Stiles is cringing a little. “I don’t know. How bad are you going to freak out when my dad starts talking about what’s been going on at school?”

Derek glances over at his mother for a moment, then at Peter’s empty place at the table. “Not that badly.”

“Well . . . you can stay, then.” He looks at his father. “Am I in trouble?” he adds, a little hesitantly.

“For a few things,” Tom says, answering him honestly. “Cutting class and keeping these things from me are not how you should be handling your problems. They’re not smart or effective ways to handle your problems.” He holds up his hand to stop any protests that might start spilling out of Stiles’ mouth. “But I understand that things have been hard and there are circumstances, so, I’m not going to punish you. I just want to talk with you about how you maybe should have handled it, and why you handled it the way you did.”

“I knew I should tell you,” Stiles says, fidgeting, his fingers lacing and unlacing. “I mean, I wanted to. But I didn’t want you to make a big fuss and get accused of playing favorites, and I didn’t want . . .” His gaze darts uncertainly to Derek. “I just didn’t want people in trouble. And at first I guess I thought I could handle it, but it kept getting worse and I just . . .”

“It spiraled out of control on you?” Tom asks.

“Yeah. And I thought, even if I told you, it wasn’t like there was anything you could do . . .”

Sheriff Stilinski closes his eyes for a few moments and reminds himself that his son, for all of his brains, is only seventeen. He’s in a position where he feels that any sort of power has been taken from him, and far too concerned with his father’s ability to get re-elected. “Just, God help us, if there’s ever a next time, come to me anyway and we’ll see if there’s something I can do. We can try to work it out together, okay?”

“Okay,” Stiles says, which means there’s at least a fifty percent chance that he will. “So, uh, what happened? Are we moving to Canada or what?”

“No. You are going to school on Monday. So you had better do your homework, which your teachers will no longer be ‘losing’ and which from now on will be graded appropriately.” Tom stops there to see what sort of reaction that gets.

Stiles goes still for a brief moment, gaze flickering around the table. “I’m not suspended?”

“You’re not suspended.”

“So . . . I can’t spend the next five days in Derek’s pants?”

Derek casts his gaze upwards as if praying.

“Son,” Tom says, “if you think talking about that is going to make me uncomfortable enough that we won’t have to have this discussion, you’d better think twice or even three times about that.”

Stiles makes a face at him, but Talia clears her throat and says, “You’re not suspended, and most of the detentions have been cleared off your permanent file. Your grades are going to be reassessed by outside teachers. The one concern is gym class, and they’ve agreed that your self-defense studies with Laura can make up for it.”

“Yeah, I’m clearly not getting out of those,” Stiles says, shooting Derek a glance that borders on being annoyed.

Derek makes a sulky face right back. “It’s not like I’m enjoying it either.”

Talia sighs. “You will, of course, be expected to attend all your classes from now on. No more cutting. If that’s a problem for any reason, you had better let somebody know.”

Stiles opens his mouth like he’s going to protest, but then cuts a look at his father and nods. “Yeah, okay.”

“Except for gym,” Tom clarifies. “That was turned into a study hall. Coach Finstock seemed to think it was rather intelligent of you to make yourself scarce.”

“Heh, yeah,” Stiles says, rubbing at one of the bruises. Then he frowns and looks at Derek. “You’re not upset. And I told you not to freak out, but you’re like, not upset at all, and that seems a little weird to me because yesterday you were all like ‘I’m going to beat the living daylights out of everyone at your school’, like seriously, I didn’t think you’d calm down until you actually tasted blood.”

Derek’s quiet for a minute, then looks down at the table, running the tip of a very short claw over the surface. “I think Mom was being merciful to the school by having this meeting before you signed the contract. But, uh.” He shrugs. “She’s not really big on mercy as a general rule for people that mess with us, so I’m betting things went about as badly for them as I wanted. And Peter adores you. In his own weird, Peter-ish sort of way. And he’s not here. What in the hell am I going to do that’s going to top that?”

At this, Stiles looks somewhat nervous. “What, uh, what is Peter doing? I mean, he talked once about being a gravedigger. He’s not actually going to kill anyone, is he?”

“Peter promised me that he would do no permanent physical damage to anyone,” Talia assures him.

“Oh.” Stiles relaxes. “That’s okay, then.”

“So I’m calm because I don’t always have to take care of you myself. I just have to know that our pack got it done. And your dad.”

“He’s my pack,” Stiles says. “But, uh, you know. Thanks.” He direct this mostly at Talia.

“You don’t need to thank me, Stiles,” Talia says. “You’re a part of my pack now, and that means I’ll protect you.”

Stiles looks at her and nods, and then his gaze drops. “Uh, okay. I mean. Sorry to, uh, be a burden.”

Talia opens her mouth to say something, and Derek is sure that it’s to reassure Stiles that he isn’t a burden or that he’s entitled to help or any number of reasonable things, but he just shakes his head at her a little. Right now she and Stiles aren’t arguing, and he’d like to maintain that. Derek will work on this misconception that Stiles has. He just needs a little time to figure it out.

Sheriff Stilinski, for his part, reaches out and gives his son a gentle whap upside the head. “For someone so smart, you sure can be an idiot,” he says. “Now, I’ve got some work to do. You behave yourself, you hear?”

Stiles gives him a half-hearted salute. “Sir, yes sir.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Saturday turns out to be a busy day. After breakfast, Laura drags Stiles out into the backyard and starts teaching him self-defense. “We’re going to do it the quick and dirty way,” she says, “which means no-holds barred. Hair-pulling, biting, the whole nine yards.”

“I can get behind that,” Stiles says.

Even so, he’s not very good at it. He never seems to know where all his limbs are at any given point. Laura’s endlessly patient with him, teaching him how to block and where he should be looking, and bruising him as little as possible. He’s discouraged at the end despite her pep talk.

Derek wants to get his mind off it, so he drags him out of the house and they go see a movie. They manage to get through this without being thrown out of the theater for public indecency, but it’s close. Stiles thinks he should be rewarded just for agreeing to train with Laura at all, and it’s difficult to argue with him.

After that, they go visit Scott, because he had a bad asthma attack and wound up in the emergency room and Stiles always visits him when he’s in the emergency room. Scott’s so glad to see that they’ve worked things out that he nearly works himself into another asthma attack, and Melissa throws them out.

It’s only after dinner that Derek manages to get Stiles by himself again, up in his bedroom with the door closed so nobody can overhear. He’s not sure exactly how to approach the topic of what Stiles had said that morning, about being a burden. Of the fact that he thinks it’s a problem that he needed help. No matter how he comes at it, it’s going to be awkward and set Stiles on edge, but Derek can’t help but feel that the longer he waits, the longer it sits in Stiles’ head, the worse it will be. Derek had learned that lesson himself when he was younger. Waiting always makes things worse. So he takes a deep breath and just puts it out there. “I wanted to talk to you about something you said this morning. After breakfast, while we were talking about school.”

“What about it?” Stiles asks, the very picture of nonchalance, even though his heartbeats speeds up considerably. He’s flopped in the armchair by Derek’s bed, knees over one of the arms so his feet dangle over the side.

Derek drops down onto the bed facing him with a bounce, and pretends he can’t hear the increase in heart rate. Stiles is human and new to the pack; it wouldn’t be fair to use anything but what another human could see.

He looks over at Stiles, sprawled across the chair that his mother and father and sometimes even Uncle Peter would spend hours sitting in, when he came home from the hospital and was still trapped in bed. Trapped in a broken down body. They never sprawled. Cora did.  Sometimes she would crawl up onto his bed and take up the space he wasn’t using and listen while his parents read to him. Laura always slouched. They would play board games and later she helped him walk and relearn how to use muscles that he’d forgotten were even there. She would clean things up when he dropped them because he was just too clumsy or weak to manage what he had intended. Then there were those times when he would trip and fall and the pain would make him sick and he would just refuse to move from the floor.

So he looks at Stiles in that chair with all of these memories and realizes that they aren’t actually all bad. It was his pack, and they loved him. He suddenly knows how he can at least going to try to talk sense into Stiles. “About how you’re a burden and you’re sorry.”

Now Stiles really goes tense, though it shows more in his jaw than anything else because of the way he’s sprawled out. “Wow, I’m suddenly realizing that this is a conversation I have no interest in taking part in.”

Derek nods. “I know. It’s not one I’m super eager to have, either, so please don’t punch me, but . . . I think it’s important.”

“Well, say what you have to say, then,” Stiles says, studying the wall just over Derek’s shoulder.

Derek will take it. “You aren’t a burden to the pack. Yes, you did need help, and maybe you still do or will in the future, and you’ll get it without question. But you’re by far not the first or only person in the pack to need help, and you won’t be the last. The only way you would be a burden would be if you took without giving back, and if you didn’t care about the effort others were putting in, if you refused to help when others needed it. That’s a burden, but that’s not you.” With that, Derek stops, and hopes that it’s enough to actually get through.

“Okey dokey,” Stiles says. “We done here?”

Derek’s eyebrows hike up involuntarily. “Uh, gee, no,” he says, matching his tone to Stiles’. “Exactly what part of that are you disagreeing with internally but don’t want to argue with?”

Stiles’ gaze slides to the side, but he huffs out a sigh. “It’s not that you’re wrong or even that I disagree with you,” he says. “Maybe I could’ve handled it better, I mean, I sort of let the whole thing get out of control when . . . if I had told you or my dad earlier it would have been easier to take care of. But it’s not that. It’s . . .” His voice trails off, and there’s that bitter smell of humiliation and shame again, that Derek is beginning to recognize whenever Stiles comes into contact with Talia.

He doesn’t want to call him on that, so he says, “It’s that you needed more than your dad’s help?”

“It’s that your mom hates me enough already, okay?” Stiles says abruptly. “And now she had to go rescue me. From my school teachers. Jesus. As if she didn’t think I was pathetic enough.”

“My mother doesn’t hate you,” Derek says, then concedes, “You may rub her the wrong way a bit, but she does the same to you. And I promise that she doesn’t think you’re pathetic. She’s dealt with people your age that were way less able to handle themselves than you and needed a lot more help.”

Stiles rubs both hands over his hair and says, “Derek, how would your mother even know that I rub her the wrong way? She does her best to avoid me and when we’re in the same room she’ll barely talk to me. She’s hated me from day one because she thinks I’m not good enough for you and nothing’s ever going to change that, so, can, can we just not with this bullshit, please?”

Derek sort of shrinks in a little. “Part of that is my fault. For a long time, I was so angry that any time she even looked at you, I was ready to go for her throat.” In the aftermath, he’s a bit ashamed of himself for that. Not for defending his mate, but for not thinking about what that would have done to the rest of the pack. “And part of it’s because she knows she makes you uncomfortable, so she’s trying to stay out of your way.”

“Oh, well, that makes it all better,” Stiles says, the sarcasm in his voice heavier than usual. “She’s not avoiding me because she dislikes me. She’s doing it because she thinks I’m too pathetic to put up with her being around.”

Derek grinds his teeth, wishing he could dig his claws into something to relieve his frustration. “What, exactly, makes a person pathetic?” he demands.

“Oh my God, do you want a fucking list?” Stiles lurches out of his chair and starts pacing around the room, arms folded tight to his chest. “Let’s see. Getting egged in the parking lot. Having to walk to buy spark plugs at six in the morning. Needing Peter to tell off some stupid grocery store clerk because I couldn’t do it myself. Failing all my classes because I couldn’t find a way to make the teachers accept my work. Or, how about, being too scared and self-esteem-deprived to accept the best thing that’s ever happened to me without making him jump through hoops for three months first? Jesus, if I were you I’d fucking hate me for that.”

“You needed help. It’s not a fucking crime, and it doesn’t make you pathetic. All it means is that you needed help.” Derek waves his hands and adds, "And in this case it also means that we’re surrounded by racist assholes. But that isn’t on you.” He rolls off the bed, needing to move as much as Stiles does. He wants to shift and run but he wants to do it with Stiles, even with Stiles’ two human legs. To just leave the house for the forest and move until they’ve run so much they’ve left the anger and hurt and nervous energy behind. But he can’t and won’t until they’ve worked through this, so Derek paces by the windows, leaving Stiles his space. “Jesus, Stiles. This went so badly from the start that you had every right to do what you did. And let’s be honest. I am awkward as fuck. I have no idea what I’m doing. So even if you had just accepted, it’s not like everything would have fallen magically into place. Yes, you’re the right person, but that doesn’t mean we knew each other. So just cut yourself some slack.”

“Why don’t you cut me some slack?” Stiles retorts. “And accept the fact that you’re not going to fix my self-esteem overnight, that I might just feel awkward and uncomfortable around your mother, that I let you guys help even though it made me feel like a loser?”

“I’m not asking you to get along with my mother. I haven’t. All I’ve done is refused to agree when you say she hates you. That’s all.”

“Look, you said I wasn’t a burden. I said okay. But you kept pushing. You couldn’t just let me have my own insecurities and keep them to myself.”

“Because you said it in a way that meant . . .” Derek takes a breath and forces himself to stop. Arguing about this isn’t helping and it isn’t gaining him anything. He can’t win like this, because Stiles isn’t ready. The hoops that Stiles had made him jump through had often taught him valuable things about Stiles, before he tripped over new obstacles. Direct opposition isn’t the way to go, so he takes a step back, physically backing off. That’s the wolf in him giving way. “Fine. I don’t like that you’re that hard on yourself, but I’m not you, so I’ll try to keep from pushing my opinions on you. Okay?”

“Fine.” Stiles turns an angry glare on him, then throws his hands up in a gesture more of a flail than anything else and says, “See, I’m being an asshole to you right now!” He sounds more exasperated than anything else.

Derek can’t help it; he lets out a chuckle. “Then cut it out, asshole,” he says, and then Stiles is laughing, too.

“Just let me apologize for having been a gigantic dick to you, okay?” Stiles says.

Derek leans over and kisses him on the crown of the head. “Apology accepted. Now let’s just . . . get out of here for a while.”

“And go where?” Stiles says, somewhat skeptically.

“I don’t know. Out, around. Driving.”

Stiles gives him a suspicious look. “Is this some plan to get me alone somewhere that you can steal my virtue?”

Derek returns the look steadily. “Absolutely.”

“Yes!” Stiles does a double fist pump. “No take backs!”

Derek purses his lips, considering the hole he just dug for himself. “Fine. But I may take as long as I want to find that perfect place for us to be alone so that I may steal your virtue.”

Stiles gives him a narrow-eyed stare. “I will pee on all the things you love.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Derek points to the door. “Out. Go.”

“You’re stuck with me now, buddy,” Stiles says, grabbing Derek by the hand and towing him out of the room. “Be careful what you wish for.”

Derek allows Stiles to tow him down the hall. “I don’t want to give you back! I just don’t want you peeing on my sisters!”

“What?!” Two outraged, feminine voices come from different corners of the house.

“Don’t mind him, he’s delirious with love!” Stiles shouts back.

“And you think that’s what I would come up with?” Derek asks, with fake indignation. “I’m awkward, not incompetent.”

Stiles just rolls his eyes, tugging him along. “Come on. We have important things to do. If that search for the perfect place to steal my virtue is going to take a long time, we’d better get started right away.”

“Obviously.” Derek speeds up enough so that now he’s the one tugging along Stiles, although he’s careful, knowing how Stiles is prone to taking headers over nothing. They go out to the Camaro and Stiles slouches comfortably in the passenger seat. It’s fully dark, although the moon is shining brightly, and Derek starts down the narrow country road that leads to the house. Derek rolls down his own window to let in the fresh air. Normally, he’s more than happy to have Stiles’ scent slowly working its way into the leather interior of his car, but he’s still restless, and the moving air will help.

Derek just drives for a while, through back roads and the edges of town, occasionally slowing now and again when he can smell a deer too close to the road for his liking. Stiles, he notices, sort of settles into a state of calm, which is good. Exactly what he was hoping for both of them. But Derek still wants to run.  Not to escape the way he had earlier, but at the same time he had become keyed up and wasn’t switching down. Maybe it’s the waxing moon, less than a week from full.  Normally he would just run, but he doesn’t want to leave Stiles. Not so soon. Not yet. Sometimes he would play with other pack members to burn off energy and it occurs to him that this, at least, was still an option. So he turns the car with a destination finally in mind. Soon he’s parking at one of the athletic fields for the high school. Not Stiles’ high school, but Cora’s and the one that both Derek and Laura had graduated from. “Come on.”

Stiles is giving him a somewhat surprised look. “Kinky,” he says, with an approving nod.

Derek looks at him and says, “I’ll have to remember that you have a thing for outdoor sex. But I’m still looking for the right place and this isn’t it. Come on.”

With a huff, Stiles follows. “What are we doing here?”

“You’ll see,” Derek says, and grins. He leads Stiles out onto the field where there are no shadows and he’s sure that humans can see even at night. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” He pauses then, thinking of all the cruel jokes that have been played on Stiles in or around a school recently. “I promise. Nothing bad.” He leans in to kiss Stiles on the cheek before loping off towards the school.

A couple of minutes later, he comes back carrying a lacrosse stick and a ball, which he hands to Stiles. Only one stick; nothing for himself. “We are going to play fetch. Because I need to run. Something awful,” he adds, toeing off his shoes.

“You . . . want me . . . to play fetch,” Stiles says skeptically. “With you.”

“Yes.” Derek nods. “Absolutely.” The sneakers are kicked off, socks follow, and then he drops his watch into a sneaker.

Stiles frowns. “You’re doing this because I can’t run with you.”

Derek stops right before stripping off his shirt, though he seems untroubled by the statement. “Partly. If it was daylight, you could. We could run in the woods by the house. But it’s too dark for you, so we’ll play where you can see.” He just gives a shrug, because to him it isn’t an issue. Humans don’t have the same night vision, so when there are humans in the pack, accommodations are made.

But Stiles is still frowning. “Even if it was daylight, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with you.”

“So? The only time speed is an issue is when we’re running prey.”

“But you said that you wanted to run. Not jog or stroll casually through the forest.”

“I do. So I found a game we could play. If we were in the woods I might run ahead and circle back sometimes.” Derek shakes his head a little and says, “Don’t talk about it like I’m pandering to you. It’s a good compromise.”

“Well, relationships are all about compromise,” Stiles agrees.

“Right.” Derek strips off his shirt and tosses it onto his shoes. “So get ready to throw the ball.”

“Are you kidding me?” Stiles says. “You’re getting naked and you want me to, to, fuck that, I am going to climb you like a tree.” He starts towards Derek with purpose, clearly intending to match actions to words.

“Uh, no. Playing fetch.” Derek shucks off his jeans and boxers with economical swiftness. By the time Stiles gets his hands on him, he’s grasping at fur.

Stiles slumps backwards dramatically. “You’re the actual worst, I swear to God.”

Derek plants one large, heavy black paw on Stiles’ shoulder and gives him a kiss, all the way up the side of his face. Then he bounces backwards to wait to see what Stiles will do, although his wagging tail gives away his excitement. He could stop it if he put the effort in, but it’s rarely worth it.

“Fine, you overgrown fuzzbucket,” Stiles says, getting to his feet and throwing the lacrosse ball as hard as he can. He has a fairly decent arm, and it goes quite a ways. Derek nearly trips over his own hind legs in his scramble to turn, but he manages to stay on his feet and takes off. It hits the ground but he catches it on the second bounce. He sees no reason to put anything but normal wolf speed behind his run. Then he pelts back to Stiles with the ball held in his teeth and sits in front of him stupid grin on his face.

“Wow,” Stiles says. “It’s amazing how silly this feels. I think it’s actually curing my overwhelming libido.”

Derek cocks his head and shrugs a little, as if to say that silly is fine.

“Yeah, sure,” Stiles says, and throws the ball again.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles makes it abundantly clear to the pack that breakfast is going to be a weekend thing. If anyone tries to approach him about making food before ten AM, he will bite heads off. When the alarm clock on his phone goes off at six AM on Monday morning, Derek groans and rolls over, pulling the blankets over his head. There’s getting up early, and then there’s getting up high school early.

But he’s up by the time Stiles has managed to get out of bed, dress himself, and stagger downstairs. Stiles’ Jeep is still at the Stilinski house, so Derek had offered to drive him to school, and Stiles had somewhat gleefully taken him up on the offer. Derek can tell from his tone that this won’t just be a quick drop off, and he has a hard time arguing. So Derek grabs his keys and his leather jacket, but instead of swinging the jacket on like he would normally, he holds it out to Stiles.

“Oh my God,” Stiles says, clasping his hands in front of himself. “Did I get transported to a fifties movie?”

“No. Because I’m pretty sure there’s nothing you could do to make me re-enact Greased Lightening or wear leather pants that are so tight I’d have to be sewn into them.” He slowly pulls the jacket away. “Are you saying you don’t want it?”

“You’re ruining so many of my fantasies right now, I’ll have you know,” Stiles says. “Of course I want it, gimme.”

Derek hands it over. “What fantasies? Me in musicals or me in leather pants?”

“Can’t both be true?” Stiles asks. He pulls the jacket on. It’s actually only a little too big on him, broad in the shoulders by a couple inches. He spins around and says, “How’s it look?”

“Well, I’d lick you.” Derek gives him the small smile, which seems bigger than it used to be. “And the one about the musicals can’t be true. It will never be true. Now we’d better hurry if you want time to make out in front of the school.”

Stiles does a fist-pump like he can’t believe this is happening to him, then scrambles to the car. “Oh, man, today is gonna be so much fun,” he says. “I’m going to hand in all my assignments with the biggest shit-eating grin, I swear to God.”

Derek waits until the door are closed and then scents the air. Stiles is happy, and it’s a scent he’d really like to get used to. The close quarters of the car make it more potent. “Have Scott take pictures.”

“I so will,” Stiles says. “And I’m gonna wear the jacket all day even though it’s like eighty degrees out and Jackson’s gonna barf with jealousy. I hope he gets it on his shoes.”

“Now which one is Jackson?” Derek asks as he drives down the access road that leads to the main road.

“Oh, he’s my nemesis,” Stiles says. “Since first grade. See, for a really long time I had a crush on his girlfriend, so he took it upon himself to humiliate me at every turn. We’ve had some good times together, what with him dunking my head in toilets and taking my lunch money and basically being untouchable because his dad is the district attorney.”

“Uh huh. He sounds like a real peach. He had better not puke on you or touch you.”

“I’m pretty sure he won’t even go near me,” Stiles says cheerfully. “Given how smug Peter looked at breakfast yesterday, I’m pretty sure Jackson is going to pretend I don’t even exist.”

“Ah.” Derek’s grin is sudden and very definitely borders on feral. “Excellent.”

“I sort of want to know what Uncle P did,” Stiles says thoughtfully, “but I also sort of think it might send me screaming into the night.”

Derek blinks at the nickname that Stiles has apparently decided to give to his uncle. It’s between Stiles and Peter. “He most likely didn’t actually do much. It’s usually the promise of what he will do if the desired results aren’t seen. And Peter . . . has a way about him when he’s riled up. You said you saw him talk to a guy at the grocery store?”

“Ohhhhh yeah,” Stiles says, with a nod. “It was fucking awesome, and also scary as fuck.”

“Yeah. Peter.” Derek’s tone has a certain ‘what can you do’ quality to it. “He was better at turning it on and off before . . . just, before. But it was always there. That sort of thing is always with some of us.”

Stiles nods and changes the subject, because it’s really too early in the morning to talk about the fire or Peter’s insanity or even the people who have been tormenting him. The ride only takes about ten minutes, and when Derek’s Camaro pulls up in front of the school, everyone turns and stares. People just stop in their tracks. Scott is sitting on top of the low stone wall, holding his phone in one hand, obviously prepared to catch the reactions of their classmates.

Derek looks out the window. “Wow, that’s just . . . I don’t even know.” He shakes his head a little. “Come on. I think you need a thorough kiss goodbye before school. I need something to get me through my day. And there’s clearly not enough room in the car.”

“Clearly,” Stiles says, amused, but he swings the door open and gets out. It takes a little effort, since the Camaro is so low-slung and Stiles has ridiculous gazelle legs, but he manages. At the sight of the bruises and the leather jacket, even more people stop to gawk, some of them more surreptitiously than others.

Derek flows out of the car with nothing short of animal grace, though a lot of that is simple practice, and swings the door shut. He doesn’t want the scent of random startled, horny, and almost angrily jealous teenagers to taint Stiles’ scent in his car. He circles around to Stiles’ side of the car, where he’s waiting, then picks him up by the waist and sits him down on the hood of the car by the windshield, with Stiles’ long legs hanging down to either side of his hips.

“Okay, yes,” Stiles says in that endearing ‘I can’t quite not comment on this’ way he has, as his scent turns from content and amused to excited and aroused in about one tenth of a second. He winds an arm around Derek’s waist, tilting his chin up for the kiss that’s sure to come.

Derek smiles at him right before their lips touch and it’s a deep, if not a hard, kiss. He’s still watching out for those bruises, after all. After a long moment, Derek lets the kiss go in exchange for burying his nose in the crook of Stiles’ neck. It’s a move that’s blatantly werewolf, and given the way they’re holding each other, just as intimate to a mated pair as kissing.

Stiles lets out a little noise, his eyes fluttering shut and one hand cupping the back of Derek’s neck. He tries to squirm his way closer to Derek, but the werewolf just presses him back against the windshield, pinning him there. “When you can beat up some of these guys in a dark parking lot,” Derek says, right into his ear. “Then you can do that.”

“Ugh, you’re the worst,” Stiles says, somewhat breathlessly, biting at Derek’s jaw since that’s what’s closest to his mouth.

“Stop bitching and kiss me, okay?”

“I was trying, before you had to – ” Stiles says, but then gets distracted by how close Derek’s mouth is to his and just lunges forward, one hand fisting in the back of Derek’s shirt and one leg coming up to hook around Derek’s waist. It’s awkward as hell and mainly just for show, and indeed, a gasp comes from the crowd of watching teenagers.

Derek laughs into the kiss, returning it with enthusiasm. “How long before faculty complains?”

“I suppose I should be trying to stay out of trouble, after everything that’s happened,” Stiles says, rather reluctantly dropping his foot back to the ground.

Derek lets go of his hip with one hand and brings it up to run his thumb under Stiles’ eyes and along his cheek. It’s a motion partly to put some distance between their faces so he couldn’t kiss Stiles again, and partly because he just wants to touch Stiles, wants to feel the warmth of a living body under his hand and leave a tiny bit of his scent behind as a message that he had been there. Not necessarily as a mark of ownership, but more as a reassurance. Your pack is there, if you need them. Stiles had noticed by now that they all do that: just constantly cuddle up to each other and touch each other while even passing through rooms if it was convenient.

“H-Holy hell,” Stiles breathes out, just staring at Derek’s face in a manner that would have seemed far too intimate forty-eight hours earlier. “And you want me to, to go to school now?”

The werewolf huffs out a little laugh, but it’s at the situation, not at Stiles. He rests his forehead against the younger man’s. “I think both our parents would appreciate it, after the trouble they went through. But I’ll see if I can get the afternoon off from work. I’ll pick you up and we can have the rest of the day. Okay?”

“Okay.” Stiles swallows and nods. “And then we can go make out in your car somewhere, right? Because that was the other thing I was thinking about the day you chose me. That this would be an awesome car to have make-outs in.”

Derek’s eyebrows hike up and he takes a step back, examining Stiles, then leaning back to look the car over. “You sure ‘bout that? Your legs are sort of amazingly long. I don’t know that we’d have room.”

“Oh, no, I’d have to be in your lap or something,” Stiles says.

“Well, in that case, I think it could be arranged.”

“It could be arranged right now,” Stiles says, and then first bell rings. “Fuck.”

Derek picks him up and sets him on his feet. “Go.” He makes a shooing motion with his hands. “I’ll pick you up at the end of the day.”

“Okay, and then I’ll get revenge for the fact that you just shooed me, what the actual fuck,” Stiles grumbles, but he heads towards the school. The gawking teenagers part like the Red Sea, half of them staring at Stiles, the other half still staring at Derek. Stiles turns just as he reaches the school, thrusts both fists in the air, and shouts, “Thank you! We’ll be here all week!”

Derek shakes his head but decides to play it up for Stiles. He takes a bow. Then he turns and gets back in the car, to the buzzing sound of whispers and gossip behind him. It’s not all complimentary, and it takes effort to drive away. Stiles will be okay. And if not, well, now he has the legal right to protect him. In any case, it would take a great deal to ruin his mood.

He stops for a quick breakfast before heading to work. It’s early, but if he’s going to leave early, that will help. His coworkers seem frankly freaked out by the fact that he’s actually smiling, and his boss gives him a suspicious look, clearly wondering if he’s on drugs, before agreeing that he can leave a little early as long as all his routine work is done. Derek agrees and devotes himself to it.

It’s been about two hours when he smells the familiar scent of pack behind him, and turns to see Peter examining a rosebush in a somewhat absent sort of way. “Anson Jones,” Derek supplies from where he’s kneeling in amongst a bunch of tomato plants. He doesn’t bother to ask Peter why he’s there, knowing that his uncle will get to it in his own time. Given recent events, he suspects it has something to do with Stiles, but there’s no use in pushing.

For the first time in a long time, Peter looks honestly perplexed. “Beg pardon?”

“The rose. It’s an Anson Jones.” Derek blinks at his uncle. He’s not used to causing that look.

“Ah. Of course.” Peter leans down to smell the flower, then says, “I have something for you,” and holds up a jump drive.

“What is it?” Derek asks warily, but he carelessly wipes a hand off on the hem of his shirt before reaching out to take it. “Is it something I actually want?”

Peter shrugs. “It’s a recording of a private conversation Stiles had with his friend Scott, about how much he’d like to climb you like a tree.”

Derek’s eyes narrow. “If it’s private, why is there a recording of it? Scott wouldn’t do that. I’ve met him. And why do you have it?”

Peter gives him a particularly toothy grin. “I got it from Jackson. You’ve heard about Jackson, I assume? He assures me that this is the only copy. He was quite . . . adamant about it.”

“Yeah?” Derek says, his smile suddenly matching Peter’s. “Stiles mentioned Jackson this morning. Said he was going to puke with jealousy. He also said that Jackson was his nemesis. He actually used the word ‘nemesis’.” He shakes his head, clearly thinking about how ridiculous Stiles is. “Apparently there’s a longstanding relationship based on the kid humiliating Stiles, and that he thinks he’s untouchable because he’s the DA’s son. I’m assuming you demonstrated how he was mistaken in thinking he was untouchable?”

“Mm,” Peter agrees, without giving detail, which Derek thinks is probably a good thing, really. “You may be interested to know that, although you have not heard the recording, everyone at Stiles’ school has. They played it over the intercom.”

Derek’s hand starts to tighten around the jump drive, but he stops before crushing it and the anger comes out as a brief show of claws instead. He normally keeps very tight control over physical displays of temper like that; it makes interacting with humans difficult. But this is his mate they’re talking about, and he’s had the privilege of saying that for less than seventy-two hours. He’s still a little on edge. “When did they hear this?”

“That first day Stiles came to the house by himself. He was upset.” Peter tilts his head to one side and adds, in case Derek can’t remember exactly, “The first day he let you scent mark him.”

Derek does remember. He remembers everything about that night. How nervous Stiles was, and how much he seemed to want. Like maybe he’d had another round of abuse at school from everyone telling him that Derek wouldn’t want him, couldn’t want him. “I can’t listen to it. It’s private. Even if half the damned world has heard it. I haven’t, and that will be important to him. But . . . I don’t want to let it go, either.”

“Then counter it,” Peter says, with a shrug. “Go on the intercom and tell the entire school about all the things you like so very much about your Stiles.”

Derek considers this, particularly how much Stiles had seemed to enjoy their public spectacle that morning, and the gestures of protection, now that he knows they’re genuine. “I could do that.” He pauses, then adds, “Have you heard it?”

“Yes,” Peter says, raising an eyebrow as if wondering if Derek will object.

Peter cares too much for Stiles for it to have been an invasion of privacy just for the sake of curiosity. “Then tell me exactly what I need to say for best effect.”

Peter does. By the end of it, Derek’s cheeks are flushed pink. It’s somewhat alarming to know that his uncle has actually paid that much attention to Stiles’ physique, or more specifically, to which parts of it Derek himself finds most appealing. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters. “Do you know when they played it?” he asks, and Peter shrugs.

“Oh well. I won’t do it today anyway. Better let him have a day before we throw anything new into the mix.” Derek’s quiet for a minute. “Thank you, for taking care of those kids.”

“My pleasure,” Peter says, and the glint in his eyes shows that he means it one hundred percent.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Tom takes a day to think about the best way to approach Talia with his concerns. It’s obvious that they can’t do it at the Hale house, where there would be far too many listening ears, and he doesn’t really want to do it over the telephone. So he calls her secretary first thing on Monday morning and asks if there would be a time he could stop by, hoping that Talia’s not terribly busy.

As it turns out, she has a hearing at nine but expects to be back in the office by ten thirty. Then she has a meeting at eleven. The secretary says she’ll probably be fairly busy, but should have a few minutes. Tom inquires about lunch, instead, and is told that Talia usually works through lunch but might be better inclined towards company. That works better for Tom, so he says he’ll stop by around twelve thirty, at which point her meeting should be over.

The secretary shows him into her office, which is surprisingly small for such a high-powered lawyer, and surprisingly cluttered for someone so organized. She’s halfway through a tuna salad sandwich. Tom can’t help but bite his lip because he immediately recognizes the handwriting on the brown paper bag as Stiles’. Talia stands up when he comes in, shakes his hand, and says, “Sorry about . . . everything,” with a vague gesture at the clutter, the sandwich, and the work she’s clearly in the middle of doing.

Tom shrugs. “If I promise not to say anything about the state of your office, do you promise never to tell Stiles if you see me eating donuts at the station?” His tone is merely amused. It may not have been what he expected, but the clutter in her office is nobody’s business but her own. Plus, it’s best to start straight in with negotiations. That’s always the best way to deal with things when dealing with alphas.

“Square deal,” she says, and waves at one of the chairs. “What can I do for you?”

The sheriff sits down across from her. “It’s actually more in what I’m trying to do, which is prevent all of us from going prematurely gray.” He leans back, folding his hands over his stomach. “I was actually hoping to talk to you about Stiles.”

Talia sighs. “I suppose saying ‘what now’ would make me a terrible person.”

That gets a laugh out of Tom. “No, that just means you’re firmly in touch with reality.”

“Excellent.” Talia takes a large bite of her sandwich. “Coffee?”

“Please.” He finds himself jealous of the lack of vegetable sticks in Talia’s lunch.

Talia asks if he wants anything in it, but of course Tom takes his coffee black because that’s how it is at the station. A moment later, the secretary comes in with a large mug full of coffee that is at least eight times better than what he ever gets at the station. It’s strange having coffee that’s not burned. “All right, the suspense is killing me,” Talia says.

“I figured I might offer some advice on how to make interactions with Stiles run a little more smoothly,” Tom says, diplomatically not adding, ‘because from what I’ve seen so far they’re like fingernails on a chalkboard.’

Talia lets out a sigh. “It’s not easy, having two alphas in the same house. You should have seen the warfare when Laura was a teenager. I think we spent most her fifteenth year alternately screaming at each other or giving each other the cold shoulder. Of course, I can’t exactly handle things with your son the same way.”

“Yeah, as much as I have sympathy for how that went for you two, that won’t work with Stiles.” He takes another sip of his coffee. “As you’ve seen, Stiles plays the long game, and despite how expressive he seems, he actually keeps his cards pretty close to the vest. Especially around people he’s not completely comfortable with. So temper won’t really get vented and cleared up.”

Talia takes another bite of her sandwich and gestures for him to continue.

“You just . . . you can’t be confrontational with Stiles. You can’t tell, order, demand, or inform him of how it’s going to be, because what you’ll end up with is him telling you how it’s going to be, and also where you can stick it.”

“And you just let him do what he wants?” Talia’s trying to hide it, but she’s clearly appalled by the very concept.

“No. Do I look stupid or insane?” Tom almost laughs. “It’s just better to inform him of what you want and why you want it. That makes it clear that you aren’t exactly making a suggestion, and it cuts down on his anxiety. Of course, it occasionally gives him the chance to concoct a good lie, but you can’t win ‘em all.” He waits to see if Talia is on board.

“I suppose.” She looks a little skeptical, but at least open-minded about the idea.

“Like Saturday after breakfast. Great example. That could’ve gone better.”

“Oh, for the love of – all I told him to do was sit down! From the look he gave me, you’d think I told him to club a baby seal.”

Tom shakes his head and takes another drink of his coffee. “Look at it from his standpoint. He doesn’t know you very well. He doesn’t know how to read you. Historically, the two of you don’t get along, but now you’re his alpha so blowing you off isn’t an option. You said ‘sit down, we have some things to discuss’, and what he understands is that you’ve backed him into a corner and now he’s about to get an earful of any number of unpleasant topics.”

Talia practically throws her hands up in despair. “And my husband wonders why I’ve just been avoiding him altogether.”

“I never said he was easy to deal with,” Tom says. “But . . . he isn’t that difficult, either. I do appreciate the fact that you’re trying. The two easiest things to do are to give him an out so he doesn’t feel trapped, and disarm him by explaining. Don’t be ambiguous. ‘Things to discuss’ would be scary as hell to a grown man, let alone a teenager who’s spent the last three months being bullied. He sat down after I told him there were papers to go over. That wasn’t because I’m his father. It’s because he felt more comfortable knowing what he was dealing with.”

“All right.” Talia sighs. “I’ll try to keep it in mind. I don’t promise I’ll be any good at it. But I suppose I can promise that when I forget and he gets snotty, I won’t get angry with him. Or at least I’ll try to contain my anger.”

The sheriff nods. “Thanks.” He’s quiet for a moment. “Here’s something to think about. Something to help you understand the, the core of him. Do you know what his first word was after Mama and Dada?”

“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Talia replies.

“It was ‘why’.” He’s smiling, clearly looking back on the memory with fondness. “I told Claudia I wasn’t coming home from work.”

“Oh, come on, he couldn’t have been – I mean, he didn’t really – ” Talia slumps in defeat. “I guess I’m just lucky it wasn’t ‘no’. That was Laura’s.”

Tom laughs. “I’m sorry,” he says, regaining his composure, although it takes a moment. “I mean, it wasn’t even about being a brat. He’s just honestly that inquisitive. You ever see a kid read an entire encyclopedia just for fun? Now that Wikipedia’s been invented, I’m surprised he ever leaves his computer.” He finishes the coffee. “What was Derek’s?”

“Up.” Talia smiles at the memory. “He was always tugging my skirt or the cuff of Aaron’s pants and going ‘up, up’.”

“Yeah, he hasn’t really lost that, has he,” Tom says, thinking of how desperately earnest Derek had been while asking for his help in courting Stiles.

“Not even a little,” Talia says. “As it may be relevant to the conversation, I should probably admit that my first word was ‘mine’.”

That gets another snort of laughter from the sheriff. “Always an alpha, huh? I think mine was related to food somehow. Stiles would be unsurprised but possibly horrified.”

Talia shakes her head in amusement. “Aaron used to say that the way Laura and I fought when she was a teenager could basically be summed up that way. ‘Mine!’ ‘No!’ ‘Mine!’ ‘No!’”

Tom laughs even harder at this. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he says, clearly trying not to laugh at her.

Talia huffs. “It’s funny now. Less so then. Thank God she mellowed out when she got a little older.”

“No, I can’t imagine it was funny at all back then. Two alpha personalities butting heads but the pull of the pack not letting them have much space.” He turns his coffee mug around in his hands, glad to have a prop to keep busy with. That’s something Stiles got from his father; the need to not have idle hands. “Derek must have hated it. Someone whose first word was ‘up’ doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who handles family strife well.”

“Not at all,” Talia agrees, and takes another bite of her sandwich. “Aaron used to take him and Cora running whenever Laura and I got into it too badly. And . . . David, too,” she adds briskly.

Tom has to resist the urge to reach out and try to offer some sort of comfort. He knows the sort of hole the loss of just one family member had left in him and his son. He can’t imagine what it must have been like to lose half the family, half the pack, when there were actual psychic bonds of a sort, not to mention the biological wiring that made the wolf part of these people. That closeness is the only thing that really makes Tom wary of Stiles having joined a pack. He worries about what any sort of loss would do to his son. On the other hand, that closeness will also make him happy, and he won’t stand in the way of that.

After a moment, he mentally shakes back to the present. Now isn’t the time for heavy, depressing introspection. Talia will be able to scent his mood and that isn’t the tone he wants for this conversation. “I almost shudder to think, what was Peter’s first word?”

Talia’s face takes on a wryly amused expression. “I don’t think I recall exactly. But it was something along the lines of, ‘I’m sorry, Father, but I respectfully disagree. I definitely had that toy before Talia did.’”

Tom lets out a bark of laughter. “Are you kidding me?”

Now Talia is laughing, too. “No, I’m pretty sure Peter skipped baby talk and went straight to full academic sentences. Of course, this is my memory of things, and I would’ve been about six years old. And I’m pretty sure my response was, ‘Mine! Oh . . . wait . . . Peter can have it.’”

Tom can’t help but grin at the idea of always-the-alpha-Talia being cowed by her toddler brother. “He was terrifying even back then, I take it?”

“My father used to say that of all the things he wondered about our future, the way the pack hierarchy would fall was never something he needed to question.” She shakes her head a little. “Even as little kids, he knew I would be the alpha and Peter would by my left hand. It didn’t . . . work out that way in this generation. Laura was always the clear frontrunner for the next alpha, but . . . well, Tyler would have been her left hand, and he died in the fire, and neither Cora nor Derek are really well-suited for the position, albeit for very different reasons.”

“So what do you do in a case like this? Or if there’s no one suited in the first place? Because I can see what you mean about Derek. He seems to be a fairly gentle soul. I mean, Scott calls him ‘squirrel guy’ because of his propensity to rescue small rodents, for goodness’ sake.” Derek’s obviously willing to commit violence for his pack, but the sheriff is pretty sure that being the left hand takes an actual killer instinct. He almost hates to admit it, but he thinks he might see more of that in his own son than he sees in Derek.

Talia gives a little shrug. “Usually, the current left hand picks somebody that he thinks can at least learn the tools of the trade and takes them under his wing. I think Peter’s been waiting for Cora to get a little older to see if he’d prefer her over Derek. Cora has the fighting spirit, just not the . . . subtlety.”

“She wore a hat to go spy on Stiles at school,” Tom says, chuckling. “Stiles couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings by telling her that he’d spotted her almost immediately.”

“Oh Lord,” Talia says, taking a long drink from her iced tea. “I heard Derek and Cora arguing about that all weekend. Particularly about how Cora had sworn up and down that Stiles hadn’t noticed her. All the while Stiles was just laughing in the corner about how incognito she was not.”

That gets another chuckle from Tom. “To be fair to Cora, Stiles is very observant, and nobody else figured out who she was. And . . .” He sobers a little. “I didn’t know it at the time, or at least not the extent of it, but he was being bullied. He was watching everyone like they were lions and he was the antelope. So that didn’t help Cora any.”

“Still. The point remains. Subtlety. Not her strong suit.”

“Ask Stiles to give her some pointers. He can get things done quietly when he wants to. He’s made a few people miserable in his time for upsetting Scott.” He rolls his eyes and adds, “My son, the budding criminal,” in a tone that doesn’t really sound upset.

Talia taps at her desk. “It’s . . . unusual, for a pack member to hold multiple positions, but not unheard of. But they’re usually complementary positions, like the denmaker and the peacekeeper. Denmaker and left hand are practically polar opposites, but I suppose if anyone was up to that challenge, it would be Stiles.” She shakes her head a little and adds, “Your son is a study in contradictions.”

“Yes and no.” Tom is quiet for a few moments. “The skills, the actions, might seem contradictory. But the driving force behind it is the same. He takes care of the people he loves. If that means cooking, he learns to do that. If it means not telling anyone he’s being bullied because he’s worried about his father’s career, he does that. If it means he has to learn about asthma and carry an extra inhaler so he can always be sure Scott’s okay, he does that. And if it meant learning to be the left hand so the pack would be safe . . . it all comes from the same place.”

“I suppose that does make sense,” Talia says, then adds pensively, “maybe if I try to treat him more like a left hand than a denmaker, I’ll do better with him.”

That makes the sheriff curious. “You treat each position a certain way?”

“Well, not exactly,” Talia says. “It’s more like . . . from a pack member’s position, even in other packs, you can assume certain things about their personality, which helps you know how to deal with them. You were talking about Stiles being naturally inquisitive, well, that’s something a left hand would be more likely to have than a denmaker. But Stiles being human and not born into a pack . . . he won’t exactly fall into a position the way a lot of wolves do. He’s a little bit of everything. Which probably explains why I’m never sure how he’ll act on any given day.”

He’s never sure how he’ll act on any given day. You know what he asked for, for his thirteenth birthday? A file cabinet.” Tom gestures to one of the cabinets sitting behind Talia. “Because he was sick of not being able to keep his research straight and separated. One day it’s dinosaurs. The next, Norse mythology. A week later, erectile dysfunction. I think a lot of things about Stiles are like that sometimes. His brain is always working, so no one is exactly sure where he’ll be or what sort of conclusions he will have come to by the time he mentally surfaces for air.”

“He’ll keep life interesting, that’s for sure,” Talia agrees.

“If there’s ever a dull moment, I recommend getting him immediate medical attention.”

Talia laughs. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Derek works so vigorously that he’s actually done a full hour before he needs to leave to pick up Stiles. His boss lets him go anyway. “Your cheerfulness is freaking out your coworkers,” he says.

“Just for that, I’m bringing Stiles in later this week to meet everyone,” Derek says, half a threat, half a promise. His boss just waves him off. He decides to run home to take a quick shower before picking Stiles up, since he’s pretty sweaty and gross after all the work he did. Laura’s home with the kids, but nobody else is there, and she lets Derek go with a minimum of teasing. One more quick stop and he’s procured a new phone for himself so he can give Stiles his current one, and Derek’s got the Camaro pulled up to the school by the time the last bell rings.

This time he has the driver’s side closest to the school, but he gets out, closes the door, and waits. He leans against the fender of the car, just in front of the side mirror, and folds his arms over his chest. A few moments later, teenagers are boiling out of the school. Several of them stare at him. Some of the stares are more surreptitious than others. He keeps his eyes on the door and doesn’t meet anyone’s gaze. Then Stiles comes out, and his face splits into a wide grin. He waves, vigorously, dramatically even, as he comes down the front steps and literally throws himself into Derek’s arms.

Derek catches him, of course, and hugs him tight. He does spare enough attention to notice Scott following Stiles at a more sedate pace, and give him a wave of greeting. “Was it everything you hoped it would be?” he asks Stiles.

“Dude, I don’t even know,” Stiles says happily. “I spent all day thinking about making out with you in your car. People could have been beating me up and I wouldn’t have even noticed.”

“It was everything he hoped it would be,” Scott offers from nearby, then shakes his head. “You two have fun. I’m going home. Allison is . . . he’s not even listening.”

“Nope,” Stiles agrees, nuzzling into Derek’s shoulder and wrapping his legs around Derek’s waist so he’s entirely off the ground.

“Scott,” Derek calls after the retreating teenager, and Scott glances over his shoulder. “Thanks. For, uh, you know.”

Scott grins. “Any time, squirrel guy.”

Derek mock growls at him. Then he curls one hand underneath Stiles’ thigh and another around his back, vaguely reflecting that this is becoming a favorite position of theirs, and nuzzles back. After this has gone on for a few moments, he says, “We can’t go anywhere if you’re clinging like a limpet.” Despite his words, he’s not making any effort to dislodge Stiles.

“True,” Stiles says, mouthing at Derek’s ear in a way that does truly amazing things to him.

He’s about to say something else when a girl walking by giggles and says, “Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you, Stilinski?”

Derek gives a pointed little sniff and judges her with his eyebrows. “If you’re going to enjoy the show that much, you should be paying us, sweetie.”

“Ignore her, she’s just mad because her boyfriend’s dick is a lot smaller than yours,” Stiles says, and the girl huffs and stomps off.

“Do you regularly survey the local penises for comparison?” Derek asks.

“No, and I haven’t even seen yours yet, but that’s the hot rumor today.” Stiles gets tired of hanging off the ground and drops his legs back down. “I suspect that Peter’s involved somehow? But how he knows what her boyfriend’s dick is like, I don’t want to know.”

“Most likely for the best. Peter did seem pretty gleeful about things.” Derek lets Stiles slide down into a standing position but doesn’t let him pull back at all.

“Oh, and I have a new history teacher?” Stiles frowns slightly. “I’m pretty sure your mother might have literally run my old one out of town.”

“What did your old one do? I mean, worse than the others?” Derek asks curiously, although he doesn’t hold out much hope for an answer.

Stiles flushes pink and rubs a hand over the back of his head. “Let’s just say, uh, there was a stunt that was designed to viciously humiliate me on my birthday, and rather than putting a stop to it or at the very least trying to curb all the assholes who were in class with me at the time, he just joined in the laughter.”

Derek kisses his forehead. “Well, leaving town or facing my mother . . . I know which I’d pick.”

“No shit, right? Hey, I noticed we’re not in your car making out yet. What’s up with that?”

“We were having a conversation,” Derek replies, amused. “I would hope that they’ll still happen from time to time.” But he does let Stiles go and move to get in the car.

Stiles hops in the passenger seat and says, “Okay, so, I know where all the good parking spots are. Dad used to bring me along on his night rounds for a while. You know, after my mom died and I was too young to leave alone in the house, and sometimes I would have panic attacks or temper tantrums if he tried to leave me at Scott’s. Plus he hated Scott’s dick of a father. So he would just spike my juice with NyQuil – kidding, totally kidding – and load me in the back of his cruiser.”

“So you want to bring me to all the spots your dad will know to look for us?” Derek sounds dubious at best.

Stiles rolls his eyes. “Geez, do you know nothing about parking, no, nobody will be looking now. It’s the middle of the day.”

“No, I don’t know anything about parking.” Derek rolls his eyes at Stiles and then looks at the time. “Exactly how much time do we have?”

“Before a cop goes out there? About six hours. But I really doubt we can make out that long. I mean. Without getting past second base. If you know what I’m saying.” Stiles’ fingers tap purposefully at his thighs.

“I see what you’re doing there,” Derek says, his tone firm and resolute. “We’ll just have to find something else to do when we get sick of hovering just past second base. Now. Directions.”

“I’m pretty sure I know what I’m going to be doing,” Stiles says, making a face at him. “But fine. Be that way. Take Lincoln all the way past sixteenth. So hey, guess what?”

“What?” Derek asks, glancing over at him as he pulls onto the road.

“Jackson’s arrested!” Stiles gives him a sidelong glance and then adds, “Oh, Jackson’s the one who beat me up. With the help of his friends.”

Derek tries not to smile. It’s impossible. “Last time we talked about this, you didn’t seem to think that was going to happen.”

“Well, the thing is,” Stiles says, propping his foot up on the dash and earning himself a scowl, “it was my word against theirs, right? And with Harris to back them up, no one would believe me if Jackson said I started it, blah, blah, blah, and Jackson’s dad is the DA, so, that sort of complicates matters. But the strangest thing happened today – Jackson’s best friend Danny went down to the police station, asked to talk to my dad, and told him everything that happened, completely backing up my version.”

“Interesting,” Derek says. “I wonder what brought that on.”

“Apparently,” Stiles says brightly, “and this is a direct quote, ‘Peter says I need to make better friends’.”

“Oh, Lord,” Derek says, and laughs despite himself. “So Uncle Peter ‘persuaded’ Danny to make a statement?”

“So it would seem,” Stiles says. “And since Harris had to swear up and down that he didn’t witness the fight because otherwise your mother would have gotten him fired, reprimanded, and probably gotten his teaching license revoked, he can’t back up Jackson’s version. So. We win! Jackson’s being charged with assault and property damage. And when his dad tried to kick up a fuss about it, my dad shut him down cold, because, see, I had been . . . documenting everything. Taking photos. Every time I was injured bad enough to bruise.” Stiles darts a glance over at Derek, who’s growling softly but not actively protesting. “And keeping a record of what had happened. So my dad threatened to charge Jackson for all the different times he’d beaten me up, and his dad caved because that’s a little too much bad publicity even for him, that his son didn’t just get in a schoolyard fight but was actively committing a reign of terror on a poor defenseless geek like me. So they agreed that charging Jackson for the events on Friday seemed reasonable enough, and I think good ol’ DA Whittemore is thinking about maybe moving to wherever my history teacher moved to. Not that it matters.”

“Why doesn’t it matter?” Derek asks, because Stiles obviously wants to tell him.

“Well, Jackson wasn’t in school today,” Stiles says. “My dad called and told me – this is all classified information by the way – that when he went to arrest Jackson, he was actually underneath his bed, and basically threw himself at my father saying to please put him in jail where Peter wouldn’t be able to get to him.”

Derek bursts into laughter. “That . . . sounds like Uncle Peter,” he says. “Which way?”

“Left on Old Country Road. So yeah. Jackson probably wouldn’t get much more than community service and a heavy fine, to pay for damages and such, but I’m thinking that he’s not going to cause me a problem ever again. Or anyone else. Particularly not werewolves, because Peter told Jackson he was never to participate in a Searching Ceremony ever again. Something about, I don’t know, polluting a pack with his presence and contaminating the whole process.” Stiles’ smirk is so wide that it’s practically breaking his face. “And I’m pretty sure Jackson is under the impression that if he dares show his face at one, Peter will find him and cause him everlasting damage, even if it’s seventy years from now and Peter’s dead in the ground.”

“That’s what I love about my uncle,” Derek says. “He does have a way with people.”

“Turn right here and drive along the river,” Stiles says. “It’s about ten minutes. So yeah. Good day.” He relaxes against the seat. “Good, good day.”

Derek leans over and gives him a kiss on the cheek. “Well,” he says, “let’s see what we can do to make it even better.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

It occurs to Stiles on the way to school the next morning that he’s supposed to be meeting Kate in the library after school, and that he has no idea what to do about it. A large part of him says just to not show up. The show is obviously over.

But is it?

Kate doesn’t attend their school. She might have spies there that feed her information, but she’s not going to get the whole picture. Stiles isn’t sure whether or not he can keep her in the dark, but he thinks it might be worth a try. He still doesn’t know what Kate wants from him. But he has a nagging suspicion that if he puts her off, she’ll just try with someone else. If he stays in her confidence, he can find out what she’s up to.

So he tells Derek he has to stay after school, which is fine because Derek really does have a job that he wants to keep. He did plenty of grocery shopping over the weekend, and as long as he’s back to the Hale house by four PM or so, it’s no trouble to make dinner.

It occurs to him that lying about this might not be the best idea he’s ever had. But he doesn’t know how to bring it up to Derek. He has no proof that Kate’s up to anything, just his own suspicions. He’s afraid that if he goes to someone else, he’ll just get shut down. After some internal debate, he decides that if he still doesn’t have any proof that she’s up to something by the end of the school year, he’ll cut off contact with her. It would be next to impossible during the summer anyway. And as soon as he does have proof that she’s up to something, he’ll take it straight to Derek.

Kate shows up after he’s been waiting a few minutes, and he’s spent them in quiet contemplation for the act he’s going to have to pull off here. Kate’s eyes widen when she sees him with shock that he’s fairly sure is feigned. “Oh, honey, what happened to your face?”

Stiles tells her about how the kids at school got rough with him. He acts frustrated, upset, pacing around the library. “Derek wouldn’t let me out of his sight after that,” he complains, his voice trembling. “I had to spend the entire weekend at their place, and it was . . . it was really weird and uncomfortable. Then they made me sign this, this contract.” He looks at her helplessly. “I’m doomed now, aren’t I? But I didn’t know what else to do! Talia was there and she just kept staring at me, I couldn’t say no! She would have torn me apart!”

“Sweetie, it’s okay,” Kate says, caressing his cheek. He has to resist the urge to pull away. “I’m sure we can get you out of the contract. You’re only a minor.”

“But my dad signed it too,” Stiles says. “He thinks that they’ll protect me from the other kids.”

“Yeah, but when you turn eighteen, there will be a new contract,” Kate says. “That one won’t be valid anymore.”

“Oh.” Stiles deflates with fake relief. “Oh, that . . . that’s good, but . . . but now Derek thinks he can do whatever he wants with me, he’s all over me, and I’m sort of putting him off but I don’t know how long that’ll last.”

Kate reaches out and takes his hands, giving them a squeeze. “Stiles,” she says, tone serious, “there’s going to come a point soon where you have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go for this. I won’t lie. He’s going to want things from you. Things that I probably wouldn’t be comfortable giving him if I were in your shoes. Those . . . animals . . .” Her lip curls. “Do all sorts of depraved things.”

Stiles lets his voice hitch and tries very, very hard not to think of the forty-five minute make-out session in Derek’s Camaro the day before, which had easily been the best forty-five minutes of his life to date, even if it had ended with him jerking off in the bathroom of a Circle K. “I don’t . . . I don’t know, Kate. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“But we’re getting so close,” Kate says, her eyes gleaming. “They brought you into their pack, Stiles. They let you make their food. They trust you.”

“So what?” Stiles asks, frustrated. “What am I going to do, poison them all?”

“Of course not,” Kate says, but she says it way too fast, and the gleam in her eyes gives her away. Stiles takes an involuntary step back. “Oh, come on, Stiles, do you really think I would do that?”

“No,” Stiles says, trying to work some conviction into his voice.

“All I need from you is to know what sort of stuff they’re doing. Who they talk to, what sort of cases Talia’s working on and the stories that Aaron’s following. They talk about that at the dinner table, right?”

They don’t. Not because of trust issues, Stiles doesn’t think, but for the same reason his father rarely talks about cases over dinner. He’s been at work all day, and he’s tired of it. But he’s carefully led Kate to believe that they do, because he wants to know what sort of information she’s after. So he nods. “Yeah, and they’re having a big barbecue over the holiday weekend. Some of her clients and stuff are going to be there.”

“Great,” Kate says. “Just find out anything you can about them, okay?”

“I just don’t see how this is going to help me,” Stiles says, putting frustration all over his face. “And now you’re suggesting I let Derek . . .” He gives a fake shudder. “I don’t want to have to fuck him so he’ll trust me. I want . . .” He looks up at her, does his best to give her calf eyes.

“Oh, sweetie.” Kate touches his shoulder, gives it a little rub. “I know. But can you do it? For me?”

Stiles swallows and nods. “He . . . he likes to do stuff in public. I’ll have to . . . I don’t want you to think . . .”

“It’s okay,” she says, reaching up and running fingers over his cheekbone. “I know. I’ll know you don’t mean it. It’s our little secret, okay? Just you and me.”

He looks up at her with adoring eyes. “Okay,” he says, breathing shallowly, then, “Yes. Okay. I’ll do it. For you.”

She smiles at him and then takes off. Stiles goes straight home and has to shower three times before he can manage to bring himself to go over to the Hale house.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The next weekend is Memorial Day, and Derek’s family is hosting a ‘barbecue without the barbecue’, Derek tells Stiles. “We just do picnic food instead,” he says, leaving Stiles somewhat baffled. It’s Cora who lets slip that none of the family can really tolerate the scent of grilling meat anymore, and Derek particularly hates it.

“We can still order it in restaurants and stuff,” she says, “but the smell of it actually cooking is just, ugh.” She gives a little shudder. “Plus none of us like being near an open flame, but things grilled on an electric grill aren’t the same, so . . . yep. Sandwiches and potato salad it is.”

That all seems fair but kind of sad to Stiles, but Cora tells him not to worry about it, they’re used to it. Derek says he should bring his father, and maybe invite a few friends. “It’s a party, some of Mom’s clients will be there, and Dad’s friends from work, et cetera,” he says. Stiles says okay and asks Scott if he and Allison want to come. Scott definitely does. Allison’s father throws a predictable fit at the idea of her attending a werewolf barbecue. Allison tells him to take a long walk off a short pier, so he grounds her and tells her she’s not to leave her room. Allison climbs out her window and Scott picks her up.

Stiles spends the entire morning grilling. He grills ribs and steaks, wraps them in foil, and places them in the oven, which is on its lowest setting of ‘warm’. “It’s not a barbecue without barbecue,” he says firmly to Scott, when he shows up with Allison and asks what he’s doing. Scott’s mother is there, too, because Tom invited her. Not as a date, he hastily clarified when Stiles asked. Just as a friend. Which is fine with Stiles. He knows his father is lonely now that he’s out of the house so much.

When they get there, the party is in full swing. It’s somewhat cloudy, but otherwise a nice day. It smells like it might rain later. There are at least fifty people gathered in the large clearing that surrounds the Hale house, and Stiles is glad that he made as much food as he did. His father had asked him twice if he was sure that so much was necessary, and Stiles had said he was erring on the side of caution. Apparently, caution was well-prepared.

Derek hears him approach, or maybe just senses it, and pounces on him as soon as he exits the Jeep. Their relationship is still so new and shiny to Stiles that he just makes little happy noises in the back of his throat, completely blissed out, as Derek pins him up against the door of the Jeep and rubs his scent all over him. “Hello to you too,” Stiles says, and Derek kisses him. “Good timing, you can help me carry the stuff I brought.”

“What did you bring?” Derek asks, with a faint frown.

“Food, duh,” Stiles says. He reaches in the back of the food and brings out a cardboard box filled with foil-wrapped packages. “Should still be warm, if not hot.”

Derek peeks underneath one of the levels of foil, and his head snaps up. “Barbecue?”

“Can’t be a barbecue without barbecue, duh,” Stiles says, hauling out a second box. “But Cora said that you guys don’t really like the smell of the meat grilling, so I just did it all at my house and brought it over. I hope there’s enough. I figured there’d be a few outside-the-pack people here, but I wasn’t counting on this many.”

Derek just stares at him for a minute, then shakes his head a little and says, “You’re amazing.”

“Better believe it,” Stiles says, with none of the self-deprecating commentary that would have come with this proclamation a few months earlier. Anything else they might say about the subject is cut off, however, because all the ‘wolves can smell the food and they’re coming over to see what’s going on. Cora’s eyes light up and Laura actually gets a little weepy when they see the grilled meat. They quickly set up a few tables so Stiles can get everything laid out. Aaron goes and gets extra plates and napkins and silverware. There are a few hurried introductions, but mostly everyone’s anxious to sink their teeth in.

“Man, when was the last time you guys even had ribs?” Scott asks, somewhat skeptically, as Cora tears into one of them like the wolf she is.

“I don’t even remember,” she says happily, barbecue sauce dripping down her chin.

People are drifting apart with their plates now, and so Stiles winds up sitting in Derek’s lap, both of them gnawing on ribs without any hint of selfconsciousness. Scott and Allison are sitting next to him, and Cora is perched in the first branch of a tree. Tom and Melissa have gone to chat with Laura and Jonathan.

“Still having a hard time at school?” Cora asks with her mouth full.

“I’m being shunned now,” Stiles says. He doesn’t sound bothered by this at all. “Everyone’s pretending I don’t exist. I think they assume it’ll upset me.” He gives a shrug. “Frankly, I’m a lot happier with it.”

“Your school is whack,” Cora says.

Scott shrugs. “I think they just blow the whole Searching Ceremony thing out of proportion. I mean, when I was there – you know, I met a few werewolves, I chatted with them, but I wound up spending most of the time talking with Allison. Everyone thought I was crazy.”

“Why?” Cora asks, frowning.

“Well, because it’s a day to, you know, try to attract a werewolf mate.”

“No, it isn’t,” Cora says. “It’s a day to meet any mate. I mean, the whole point of having it on Imbolc is what the day symbolizes. New beginnings. Two people who meet on Imbolc are supposed to have a blessed relationship. Doesn’t matter if they’re werewolves or humans or chupacabras.” Since everyone besides Derek is just blinking at her, she says, “Here, watch this. Hey, Mom!” She waves over at her mother, who’s chatting with some of the adult guests.

Stiles squirms a little, and Derek can sense his anxiety flaring up. He rubs an absent hand on Stiles’ back as Talia glances over and holds up a hand to indicate that she’ll be over in a few minutes. “The Searching Ceremony . . . is a big deal to my mother,” he says. “I mean, she thinks of it as a holy day. She met my father at it.”

“Probably explains a lot about how she reacted to me,” Stiles says, and Derek gives a little nod.

Talia walks over a few moments later and focuses on Stiles. “Thank you for cooking today, Stiles,” she says. “It was very thoughtful of you.”

“No problem,” Stiles says, though it comes out as, “Oh vobbem” because he shoved a huge chunk of meat in his mouth just before she arrived so he wouldn’t have to talk to her.

Cora shakes her head at him and says, “Mom, this is Stiles’ best friend Scott, and his girlfriend, Allison. They met at the Searching Ceremony this year.”

Talia’s gaze turns from polite indifference to keen interest, and she smiles at the two teenagers. “You two are very lucky,” she says. “I’m sure you’ll make each other very happy.”

“But, you know, no pressure,” Stiles mumbles around his steak. Fortunately, Talia can’t quite make out what he’s saying. She chats with them for a few minutes before going to say hello to other people. “Man, is there anyone your mother doesn’t like more than me?”

“Your former history teacher,” Derek says, partly because it’s true, and partly to remind Stiles that Talia had stuck up for him when it counted.

Stiles lets out a snort. “Fair.” He boosts himself up off Derek’s lap. “Gonna go for seconds. You want anything?”

“Yeah, grab me a lemonade,” Derek says, and Stiles jogs in the direction of the food and drinks. He’s pleased to note that there’s still some steak and ribs left, so obviously he had brought enough, maybe even too much. There’s something to be said for over-planning. He stops to say hi to Laura and gripe at her about how sore he was after their last training session, before heading back over to the others.

He comes back to hear the tail-end of Scott’s sentence, which is, “ – he’ll totally love it, trust me.”

“I’ll totally love what?” Stiles asks, dropping back into Derek’s lap.

“It’s a surprise,” Derek says, rubbing a hand up and down Stiles’ spine, slow and easy. Then he says, “I mean, if you don’t like surprises, if you want me to – ”

“No, it’s cool,” Stiles says. “If Scott says I’ll like it, I will,” he adds, leaning over to give Scott a fist bump. Scott grins at him, which is assurance enough that he will, in fact, totally love whatever Derek has in mind.

“Want to toss a Frisbee around?” Allison asks, when they’re done eating.

“Do you love watching me fail?” Scott responds.

“Yes,” she says, smiling at him. “It’s adorable.”

“Frisbee it is, then,” he says, and Stiles gives a snort of laughter.

Stiles and Derek are put on opposite sides of the circle, since otherwise they’ll be too busy making heart-eyes at each other to play, and Scott proves to be a lot better at throwing than at catching, but overall they have a pretty good time. A stiff breeze kicks up about halfway through, which keeps things interesting. Stiles is terrible at aiming and blames the wind. Allison, of course, is amazing at it. “How can one be that good at freakin’ Frisbee,” Stiles complains, and she just laughs.

He’s just leapt for a toss that went only somewhat near him and turns to see where the flying disc has gone. He nearly jumps out of his skin to find Peter standing right behind him, holding the Frisbee out. “Jesus, I really am going to put a bell on you,” he says. “Did you get any of the steak, Uncle P?”

Peter shakes his head. His gaze is a little distant, and he’s using his right hand to turn his wedding ring around on his finger. “I wasn’t hungry,” he says.

“Oh,” Stiles says, not sure what to make of this comment. Derek, seeing the tension in his shoulders, starts walking over. The others, probably assuming that the game has been put on hold, are heading over as well. Stiles takes the Frisbee from him, but then says, “You want to join the game? You should be on my team to counteract how much I suck.”

Peter shakes his head a little. “No.” He’s frowning. “Something’s wrong.”

“Wrong . . . how?” Stiles says, and Peter only shakes his head again. “Oh, uh, you haven’t met Scott. He’s my bestie. And this is his girlfriend, Allison.”

“Nice to – ” Allison gets out, before Peter snarls.

“She can’t be here,” he says, his eyes flaring bright blue.

“Peter, what – ?” Stiles starts, and Derek is already stepping forward defensively, moving between Peter and the others, every muscle in his back and shoulders tight with tension.

“She can’t be here, she’s an enemy,” Peter says, and his face is shifting now, teeth lengthening, but then Talia is there. She moves faster than the eye can see; it looks like smoke to Stiles, the way she blurs in his vision. Then Peter’s on the ground with one arm behind his back, the blue fading out of his eyes. Derek’s got an arm around Stiles’ shoulders and is ushering the group of them away. About five minutes later, while Stiles is still trying to offer explanations to a very confused Allison, Cora trots around the house.

“Yeah, uh, it’s okay,” she says. “Dad is taking Peter to, uh, somewhere else. I don’t know where. He’s just getting him out of here.” To Allison, she adds, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, I mean, it’s not like he did anything to me,” Allison says.

“Well, most people would freak out after seeing something like that,” Cora says.

“I’m not most people,” Allison says. Scott gives her a look of undying devotion. So does Stiles, for that matter. “Come on, let’s go back to the party. We haven’t had dessert yet.”

They head back around the house, and grab some brownies and iced tea, but Stiles breaks off from the group and looks for Talia. This will mark the first time he’s ever initiated a conversation with her, or for that matter, spoken to her voluntarily. He swallows hard and says, “Uhm. Mrs. Hale. Is Peter okay?”

Talia looks at him wearily and says, “Peter is never okay, Stiles. Some days are just better than others. Aaron will get him calmed down.”

“I just . . . I care about him. You know that, right?”

“I know.” Talia pushes a hand through her hair. “Some days, I think back – I wish I had just let him – ” Her voice breaks a little, and Stiles realizes to his surprise that Talia is actually confiding in him. Letting her guard down. “But I didn’t. I couldn’t. He’s my brother. And now he has to live with my decision to keep him alive. And so do I.”

Stiles has no idea what to say to that, and his mouth just works wordlessly for a few moments before Talia gets herself together.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have dumped that on you. Excuse me,” she adds, and pushes her way back into the crowd. Stiles thinks about going after her, but decides maybe he’s pushed enough for one day. He heads back over to the others, where Derek is looking at him, frowning in concern. He shakes his head a little.

The party breaks up around four PM when the clouds carry in a storm. Stiles decides to head home, because he has yet to do any of his weekend homework. He crams back in the Jeep with Allison and Scott. His own somewhat melancholy mood seems to affect them, and the drive is quiet. When he gets to Allison’s house, Scott asks, “Will you be okay getting in?”

“I’ll be fine,” she says, with a cheeky grin, and leans over the seat to give Scott a kiss on the cheek. The scent of her perfume wafts past Stiles. Lilacs.

“Jesus Christ,” he says quietly, as Allison closes the door behind her.

“What?” Scott asks.

Stiles rounds on him, more fiercely than he intends. “Does Allison always wear that perfume?”

“What?” Scott repeats, frowning at him.

“That perfume. The lilacs. Does she always wear it? Come on, don’t tell me that you haven’t smelled her or noticed her perfume.”

“No, uh, not that one,” Scott says. “That’s her favorite, she wears it for special occasions. It’s really expensive, which I know because I looked it up, I thought I might get her some for our three-month anniversary – don’t gag, I see you over there – so she borrows it from her aunt sometimes.”

“Of course she does,” Stiles says.

“Is that important?” Scott asks, and when Stiles nods, still a little too stunned to speak, he asks, “Uh, why? What does it mean?”

“It means that Peter’s right,” Stiles says. “The Hale house fire wasn’t an accident. And I think I know who did it.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Stiles knows that there are people who would probably crack under the pressure of being shunned at school, but he’s not one of them. Actually, he’s enjoying the hell out of it. People won’t even look at him. If he tries to strike up a conversation with someone – which he does occasionally, to see the looks on their faces – they stare at him before quickly walking away.

His teachers are doing it, too, with the exception of his math teacher, Miss Schiffer. Well, and Finstock, but gym has officially been turned into a study hall, which he spends in the library. He raises his hand in class, but they won’t call on him. When he hands in his assignments, or gets them back, it’s a wordless exchange.

The only person who seems upset about the shunning is Danny, who has found himself an unhappy recipient of the same treatment. Jackson still isn’t back in school; Stiles has heard rumors that he’s going to take incompletes in most of his course work and then probably transfer to the other mundane high school for summer school. As far as Stiles can tell, that’s completely unnecessary. Both Derek and his father have been dropping heavy hints that they want him to transfer to Cora’s school for his junior year. He’s hedging on the issue. As a member of the pack, he can attend the supernatural high school even though he’s not a supernatural creature, but Scott can’t. And he’s not about to leave Scott behind. So he’s put off discussing it.

It’s times like this that he wishes he was in better standing with Talia. He’s fairly sure that she could arrange for Scott to transfer as well, but he doesn’t know how to ask her. To be honest, if Stiles had his way, he would love to bring Scott into the pack. Scott is his brother, for one thing, and secondly, Stiles is really sick of longer winter nights in the ER while his friend tries to get in enough air to stay alive. He’s pretty sure that the bite would at least improve his asthma, if not outright cure it. But he doesn’t know how to ask Talia about that, either.

In any case, Stiles has struck up a cautious friendship with Danny, partly to show that there are no hard feelings, and partly because Danny really is taking the shunning poorly. As someone who has been unpopular his whole life, Stiles is fine with it. But Danny has always been social, and he’s that step above popular, that guy that everyone honestly likes.

“They’ll get over it,” Stiles assures him. “Over the summer, they’ll forget all about it. Once lacrosse season starts, you’ll make some spectacular save and then you’ll be adored again.”

“I hope so,” Danny says, with a sigh. “I mean, not that I don’t . . . kind of deserve it.”

“There are all kinds of courage,” Stiles says. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Danny frowns. “That sounds familiar.”

“Albus Dumbledore,” Stiles says, biting into an apple, and Danny laughs.

He’s now passing every class with an A, with the exception of history, in which he has a B. He supposes this is because of the paper he wrote which compared his teacher to Helen of Troy, and was basically all about how nobody would start a war on his behalf. Even outside teachers hadn’t looked on that comparison favorably (although he’s pretty sure they found it hilarious). He can handle a B in history. It’ll drop his GPA, but he doesn’t really want to be valedictorian anyway. His grades are still good enough to get into any school that he wants.

In any case, there are only two weeks left. He’ll survive. He’ll be fine.

Which is why his heartbeat skyrockets when the intercom crackles in the middle of history class and the secretary says there’s an announcement. His entire body goes tense, poised to run like an antelope scenting a lion.

“It has come to my attention that an announcement was made not too long ago on behalf of Stiles Stilinski, although without his permission, detailing his feelings about me, Derek Hale, and my physical attributes.” It’s Derek’s voice on the intercom, loud and clear and beautifully confident. Stiles feels his jaw sag open. He looks over at Scott as if to say ‘what the hell, did you tell him?’ and sees Scott grinning broadly. Ah. This, then, is the surprise Derek was asking about at the barbecue. “I would like to put some of my feelings and opinions in response to this on the public record. I, Derek Hale, absolutely want a piece of Stiles Stilinski. In fact, I want all the pieces. In their current, highly attractive, configuration.”

“Oh my God,” Stiles mumbles, flushing red, but nonetheless enjoying the hell out of the stunned, jealous stares that everyone is giving him.

“I’m particularly fond of his long, long legs,” Derek continues. “And his mouth. Both when he’s speaking and when he’s using it for other things, such as kissing me. Also, have I mentioned his hands and his fingers? Because I feel that I should. His fingers in particular are unfair. I have fantasies about his hands. Detailed ones.”

“Holy shit, dude,” Scott blurts out, and Stiles starts laughing near hysterically.

“I would furthermore like to add that although I am quite happily planning to spend the rest of my life with Stiles, I would sooner stab myself in the face with a fork than spend five minutes in a room with any of the rest of you. Except you, Scott, you’re okay.” There’s a pause, and then, “Should any of you doubt that this is actually Derek Hale speaking, I’ll be in the main office waiting for a while.”

The intercom clicks off. Everyone is staring. Stiles jolts to his feet and says, “Uh, Mr. Swanson, uh, I gotta go. I’ll be, uh, I’ll be right back.” And then he darts out of the room without waiting to get permission. He jogs down to the main office, where Derek is, true to his word, sitting there reading a book. Stiles pulls the door open and says to him, “Oh my God, are you insane? You, you are, I’m dating a crazy person!”

Derek looks up. Despite his words, Stiles smells of happiness and hormones, so Derek smirks as he puts a bookmark in to hold his place and stands up to meet his mate. When he does, the smirk morphs into that little smile that he keeps for Stiles. “All of it was true,” he says, and shrugs before reaching out to him. “Besides, I couldn’t leave everything for Uncle Peter to set right.” He sobers a little and adds, “I haven’t listened to the tape, though. It’s private and yours.”

“So, uh, how did you know what to say, oh God, Peter listened to it,” Stiles says, “Well, that’s it, I’m never going to be able to show my face in your house again . . .”

“Because of Peter? You know he’d just come find you.”

“Ugh, that is so true. I love him but he’s totally a creeper.” Stiles shifts from foot to foot. Several teenagers pass by the office, craning their necks to look inside. Stiles rolls his eyes a little but doesn’t comment on it. “So, uh, you’re gonna pick me up after school in, like, an hour, right? Because, uh, you really should.”

“Then I will.” Derek shoves a hand down into his pocket, pulls out the jump drive, and holds it out to Stiles. “The only copy.”

Stiles holds his hand out, but then folds Derek’s fingers over it. Cheeks flushed pink, he says, “You should, uh, you should listen to it. You know. I heard what you had to say, after all.”

“Before I pick you up?”

“Absolutely,” Stiles says.

“I can do that.” With that, Derek leans in and kisses Stiles in a way that should not be done in a school office.

Stiles pulls away only a few moments later, slightly out of breath. “If you want me to go back to class, you’d better cut that shit out,” he says.

Derek steps back. “Yeah. I’ll pick you up.”

“Okey dokey.” Stiles turns and leaves the office as another group of students gawk by. “Yo, hop off my mate’s D, assholes!” Stiles shouts at them.

“You’re the worst!” Derek calls after him.

Stiles heads back to class with a mile-wide smirk on his face. The teacher who’s been chosen to substitute for Jimenez until the end of the year just gives a little head-shake when he walks back in, like he’s thinking about issuing some sort of punishment but decided it would be pointless. Everyone’s staring at him. Scott is snickering, both hands covering his mouth, clearly enjoying the moment.

Since there’s obviously no way to make everyone stop staring, Stiles just addresses the class in the exact same words he had used on the tape. “Derek Hale totally wants a piece of me,” he says, smirking.

“Totally,” Scott says, and chortles.

Mr. Swanson sighs. “Please take your seat, Mr. Stilinski,” he says, so Stiles does. He tries his best to concentrate on the lesson that’s going on. It’s extremely difficult. He’s thinking of Derek driving home to listen to the recording. He knows that Derek still has trouble believing that he’s attractive, since the fire. Hopefully the repeated compliments to his biceps, torso, and ass will get through.

He wonders where Derek will listen to it. His room? On his bed? In the bathroom where he’ll have two layers of walls for privacy? Will he only listen to it once, or will he listen to it repeatedly? When he’s done listening to it, what then? Will he . . .

Stiles realizes that history class is maybe not the best place to be thinking about these things. He needs a cold shower.

To distract himself, he takes out his phone and texts Scott. ‘don’t suppose u thought 2 record that’

Across the classroom, he sees Scott's wide grin. ‘got you covered, bro,’ he texts back.

‘sweet,’ Stiles replies. So now he can listen to Derek’s little speech on repeat. He can listen to it at home, or maybe in the shower if he gets a waterproof iPod for Christmas like he wants, or any time he wants, he can . . .

He is not going to survive until last period.

When the bell rings, he doesn’t even dare get out of his seat. His pants are not loose enough to hide the fantastic boner he has. He’s thoroughly enjoying it, really, and all the fantasies that are causing it, but he really doesn’t want anyone to see it.

Scott walks by his desk, laughing, and drops a sweatshirt into Stiles’ lap.

“You are the best, man,” Stiles calls after him. “The absolute best.” He gets up with the sweatshirt draped over one arm to drape strategically over his crotch. “I love you!” he shouts after the quickly retreating teenager.

He has one more class after history. It’s one of his rotating periods, and today it’s chemistry. He greets Mr. Harris with a wide grin, wondering what he thought of the announcement. Harris looks like he wants to murder somebody. Stiles wouldn’t be particularly surprised to hear the man say, ‘we’re doing a lab today’ and then try to slip hydrochloric acid into Stiles’ beaker.

Instead, he barks out that they’re having a pop quiz. There are groans of disbelief and anguish. Stiles sees Scott grimace, and gives him a wince of apology. Harris goes around the classroom, slapping down sheets of paper facedown until every has them. “Begin!”

Stiles flips the piece of paper over and stares at it. It’s so advanced that it might as well be in Greek. He chews on the end of his pencil. He knows that some of this is stuff they’ve gone over in class, but not much of it, and he dimly recognizes some of it from reading he’s done on Wikipedia. He sneaks a glance over at Scott and sees that he’s already scribbling. So is almost everyone else.

So that’s how it is, he thinks, and raises his hand. Harris ignores him, pretending not to notice, so he clears his throat. Still no response, so he shrugs and says, “Mr. Harris, I think you gave me the wrong paper.”

“Quiet,” Harris snaps at him. “If you don’t know the answers, just leave them blank.”

“None of this was covered in class,” Stiles says.

“Oh, really?” Harris says. “Is anybody else having a problem? No? Well, then, Mr. Stilinski, I suppose you just haven’t been paying enough attention.”

Stiles glances over at Scott’s quiz. “His quiz has different questions.”

“Are you looking at another student’s work during the quiz?” Harris asks. “That’s cheating, Mr. Stilinski.”

Stiles lets out a sigh. Well, he supposes if nothing else, this has been an excellent boner-killer. So he stands up, carries his ‘quiz’ up to the front, and hands it in. Every eye in the classroom is on him as he goes back to his desk and takes out his phone.

“Unless you want a detention, Mr. Stilinski – ” Harris snaps, but Stiles is already dialing.

“Hey, uhm, Mrs. Hale? Yeah, I’m sorry to bother you at work, but – ”

Harris’ face is slowly turning red. He takes one of the quiz papers that the other students had gotten, marches over to Stiles’ desk, and slaps it down. “Get to work,” he snarls.

“Oh, never mind,” Stiles says into his phone. “I cleared it up. Uh huh. Thanks.” Everyone is still watching him. “Lasagna. Okay, see you at six.” He hangs up, sits down, and picks up his pencil. “Oh, this looks much better,” he says. “Honest mistake, right? Anyone could have done it.”

Harris just glowers at him, and Stiles grins and starts filling out the answers. He had been somewhat disappointed that Harris had survived Talia’s scathing treatment of the school without more than a few bruises, but somehow, this is even better. Forcing Harris to toe the line and acknowledge that Stiles has power over him is enough to completely restore his good mood. When he finishes his quiz – still easily five minutes before half his classmates despite his late start – his mind drifts back into the much more pleasant thoughts of what he’s going to get to do after school.

When the bell rings, Derek is in his usual place by the front entrance, but when Stiles comes out, he doesn’t throw himself at the older man in his usual way. It isn’t because he’s upset, Derek doesn’t think. He doesn’t smell or look upset. He looks . . . kind of desperate. His hands are twitching a little, and the smell of pheromones nearly knocks Derek off his feet.

“I have spent the last two hours trying to decide whether you’re going to hold me to that ‘I can’t give you my dick yet’ manifesto,” Stiles says as he approaches.

“There are plenty of things we can do without your dick,” Derek informs him.

“But can we do them without my dick enjoying them? I don’t think so, Derek. I really do not.”

“I said you couldn’t give me your dick. Not that you had to pretend it didn’t exist. Because that would be weird.” He opens the door to the car. “Speaking of. Peter caught me on the way up to my room and gave me this, this talk on werewolves and refractory period. Jesus Christ.”

Stiles’ face splits into a wide grin. “You liked the recording that much, huh?”

“I did like the recording that much, actually.” Derek eyes Stiles as he slides into the car. “But, uh, that was on my way up to my room to listen to it.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Uncle Peter for you,” Stiles says cheerfully. “Inappropriate at the best of times. Did you seriously wear a white V-neck to torture me or what? That’s only my Kryptonite if it’s raining, and it’s sunny out, although if you wanted to duck into a shower to fulfill my fantasies, I so would not argue with you.”

“Let’s save that one for a different day,” Derek says.

“Okay, but, after today I get to do things to you with my hands, right?” Stiles says, giving Derek a smile so innocent that he nearly runs over a pedestrian.

“Don’t do that while I’m driving!”

“It was just a suggestion,” Stiles says. “So where are we going?”

“Somewhere private. Any preferences?” Derek asks.

“How much trouble will I get in if I say ‘my place’?” Stiles asks brightly.

“Is your father home? Or likely to be home before eight PM?”

“He’s at work, duh, but uh, you’re aware it’s only three o’clock in the afternoon, right? I mean, you don’t think we can actually keep going for five hours, do you? Oh, shit, you totally do.” Stiles is starting to get excited. “Five hours? That must have been one hell of a talk on refractory periods that you got.”

Derek starts laughing. “I’m not Sting. I was more thinking that we may want more than one round. And that we may need food in between.”

“Way to burst my bubble, dude,” Stiles says, “and also, your pop culture references are about two decades out of date and that’s adorable.”

“It isn’t out of date if it hasn’t been replaced,” Derek defends. Stiles just gives him a fond, amused look. “Whatever. Did you know people ask me all the time why I don’t just buy an e-reader for my books? I’m okay being out of date.”

“Philistines,” Stiles agrees. “Anyway, my dad probably will be home around five, so we could at least sneak in one round before he gets home. And then we can run away. Screaming.”

“Or maybe sneak away. Stealthily.”

“Absolutely.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles really has no idea how to go about asking Derek about the fire, given that it can’t be a topic anyone in the family is fond of. In addition to that, Talia has basically forbidden anyone in the family from talking about it, so they won’t be able to do it while she’s home. Or while anyone is home, if Stiles has his way.

It doesn’t seem like there’s any rush, but Kate’s presence in Beacon Hills has him extremely nervous. If she had tried to kill the Hale family once and failed, there was nothing saying that she wouldn’t try it again. And that, Stiles thinks, might finally explain why she’s been interested in him. As an inside man.

But he’s also pretty sure that if anyone in the Hale family finds out about Kate, they’ll go rip her throat out, and that would be trouble. So far, they can’t prove anything. So Stiles says nothing, and waits for an opportune moment. He finally gets it a few days after the barbecue, when Derek has picked him up from school and they’re cruising along the back roads in the Camaro, so total privacy is assured, and Derek mentions that Peter is having a worse day than usual.

“So why is . . .” Stiles steels his nerves. “Is it okay to ask about the fire? I mean, why is Peter so convinced that it wasn’t an accident?”

Derek checks the rearview mirror to make sure that they’re basically alone on the road because he knows his control of everything is shaky with this topic, then slows the car although he doesn’t stop driving. Keeping his mind half on the road might make things easier. Stiles is pack. He has a right to know, a right to ask. “I’m . . . uh, not exactly sure. Instinct maybe.” His hands tighten a little on the wheel, but he doesn’t stop speaking. “He doesn’t talk about his reasons, and if there were . . .” Derek licks his lips once, nervously, “you know details, or uh, specifics? I don’t know them. Because I didn’t know anything. Right after, I mean. I was in the hospital for a while.” There’s a moment of quiet. “But he isn’t stupid, you know?” He won’t look at Stiles, because disagreeing with one’s alpha isn’t a good thing and he shouldn't ask other pack members to do it either. So he just says it and leaves it out there.

“Yeah, but, your mom seems like she’s really smart, too,” Stiles says. “I mean, she’s a high powered lawyer and stuff, she works really hard, and . . . she must have her reasons for thinking Peter’s wrong.”

Derek stops and thinks about that, because he never actually has before. It is a strange thing, upon reflection, that Peter and Talia believe such different things about the fire. “I think it’s a couple of things. With us, we’re always wolf and we’re always human. Both at the same time. One doesn’t just go away when we shift forms. You know that. But I think sometimes we tend to lead with one set of instincts more than the other. Mom leans human and Peter leans wolf. So she may be trying to apply logic?” He adjusts his grip on the wheel. “It’s also what they lost, I think.” He bites down on his lip, hard, trying to push the memories back. “Mom . . . she lost a lot. A father and a brother, and T-Tyler and David.” His voice cracks and he takes his foot off the gas for a moment, seeing something rather than the road. “And . . . and.” He can’t get any more names out. “So many people.” He sucks in air. “But you can get past that. It hurts. But people can keep living after losses like that. She’s our alpha now, so she needs to be okay. To keep living in the here and now and not live in what happened. But Uncle Peter lost Aunt Olivia.” Derek’s eyes dart over to Stiles, like he’s almost afraid to finish what he has to say, but he does. “His mate. There’s no recovering from that for us. He won’t ever move on or move past it.”

“Do we need to stop talking about this?” Stiles asks hesitantly. “You seem upset. I don’t meant to upset you. I was just curious.”

Derek huffs out a laugh. It’s a little sick, but only a little, and not in the least bit angry. “Of course you’re curious. It’s an Oliphaunt sized elephant in almost every room Peter’s in.” He shakes his head a little. “We don’t need to stop, but you have to let me go slow and understand that I’m going to be upset. You have a right to know, and everyone else is going to either refuse to talk about it, not know anything, or be Peter.”

Stiles fidgets a little, lacing and unlacing his fingers, wishing he had thought to bring something to do with his hands. Finally, he just says, “Do you think it was an accident?”

Derek’s gaze jerks over to Stiles, and the car wobbles on the road a bit. The question has somehow truly startled him. “Of course. Of course it . . . I don’t . . .” He can’t force the words out. He’s never been asked for his opinion before. He’s been left to feel or not feel whatever he wanted in silence. He wants it to have been an accident. For it to be over. But he also knows that he can’t help but watch the people that Peter thinks are enemies. Even though Peter sometimes makes mistakes. “Peter isn’t stupid,” is what he finally says.

“No, well, I agree with that,” Stiles says. But he doesn’t push the subject. Derek is too upset, and if he truly doesn’t know any details, there’s no point in pushing him. He’ll have to go elsewhere to get his answers. “Let’s not talk about it, okay?”

Derek breathes out in a huff of relief. “Yeah, I . . . okay. Let’s . . . go somewhere that I can cling pathetically for a little while and we can do something fun.”

“Well, I vote we go back to my place and mindlessly watch TV while we cuddle on the sofa, then.”

“That sounds good to me,” Derek says, so that’s what they do. But the thought nags at Stiles. He doesn’t know when Kate might make a move, what she might be up to. He’s going to have to go straight to the source.

Getting Peter alone is actually easier than he anticipated. He just waits a couple days and then ‘decides’ to make something else with alcohol in it. (Teriyaki, to be precise. His favorite recipe calls for sherry.) All the other adults are at work, and Laura has the kids, so Stiles just says, “Hey, Uncle P, can you take me to the grocery? I need to get some wine for tonight’s dinner.”

“Mm,” Peter says, and he looks a little distant, twisting his wedding ring around on his finger. “All right.”

In the car, it occurs to him that prodding at this subject while Peter’s already having a bad day is a really stupid idea. Doing it where nobody can save him if Peter loses his shit is a profoundly stupid idea. But he can’t help but think that if anybody else overhears them, they’ll shut the entire conversation down. So he waits until they’ve gotten the shopping done, hoping that the mundane activity will ground Peter somewhat.

They get back to the car and load the groceries into it, but Stiles doesn’t put the car in gear. He just sits there for a moment. Peter has barely spoken a word this entire time, and Stiles knows that’s a bad sign, but he steels his nerves and just blurts out, “Peter, why are you so convinced the fire wasn’t an accident?”

Peter’s gaze slowly turns back to him, and Stiles holds his breath, afraid that he’s provoked Peter past the point of tolerance. But Peter answers in a slow, measured tone. “I don’t really know, Stiles. It’s just something that . . . I know, in here.” He touches his chest. “I wake up with it every morning. The knowledge that my family was murdered. I know it in the same way I know how to howl, the same way I feel the moon’s pull. That they were taken from me.”

Stiles swallows. “Okay, I . . . need to ask you something. But I need you to not freak out, okay? ‘Cause it’s just you and me here, and if you flip your shit, I, I won’t be able to protect myself.”

“All right,” Peter says slowly. “I can’t promise anything, though.”

“I know.” Stiles lets out a breath. Then he takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and holds it out to Peter. “Smell that.”

A faint frown touches Peter’s face, but he leans over and sniffs at the handkerchief. The reaction is immediate. His eyes flare bright blue and he stares up at Stiles, lips twisting in a snarl. “What is that?” he asks, shoulders heaving as he struggles to remain in control.

“It’s perfume.” Moving slowly, Stiles folds the handkerchief and pulls it away, tucking it into his backpack and closing it to hide the scent. “I think you smelled it the day of the fire.” He keeps his words slow and deliberate. “Do you remember the day you sort of attacked me in the kitchen?”

Peter frowns. “No. When was that?”

“A couple weeks ago now. You said I smelled like an enemy.”

“I don’t remember,” Peter says, shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”

Stiles waves this aside. “Right before that, I had been at school, but I had the scent of a woman named Kate on me. She’s one of the biggest anti-werewolf activists in the area. She’s been . . . trying to get me to work with her. As an undercover agent. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but then at the barbecue last week, you reacted almost the same way when you met Allison. Allison’s her niece, she doesn’t do the anti-werewolf thing, and she’s really nice. But she wears the same perfume. I asked Scott about it. So that was twice that you reacted really badly to the same scent.”

He takes a deep breath and continues. “You were the only member of the family who wasn’t inside the house when the fire started. I think you must have smelled this on your way to the house, and not even really noticed. Nobody else smelled it because of all the smoke, but you smelled the trail that Kate left behind when she came and went.”

Peter is just staring at him.

“It’s not just that,” Stiles says. “It just – none of it seems right. I’ve been doing some research. How fast the fire spread. How quickly the house collapsed. And not just that, but how quickly the investigator signed off on it as accidental. Investigations like that can take up to months, but he signed his report a few days later.”

Peter is silent for a long moment. “Do you know why my sister is convinced that it was an accident?” he asks.

Stiles shakes his head. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Ah, but it does,” Peter says. “If it was intentional, she was the target. Her family died because of her. And because she failed to protect them. It’s . . . not something she can deal with. I can’t fault her for that. But if you decide to ‘humor me’, as Aaron would put it when he thinks I can’t hear, or ‘encourage my delusions’ as Talia puts it when she knows I can hear, Talia will not be pleased with you. It could make things very difficult for you.”

Stiles considers this for a minute, then says, “Fuck it.”

Peter’s expressionless face widens into a toothy smile. “I do like you, Stiles,” he says. “Now tell me what you’ve learned.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Stiles doesn’t see Peter for days after their conversation about the fire. He’s worried that maybe he actually broke Peter somehow, but the werewolf had seemed perfectly rational and lucid the last time they spoke, so he tries not to appear too anxious about it. From what the others have said, he’s gathered it’s not uncommon for Peter to wander off for several days at a time. And he can’t exactly tell the others why he’s worried.

His chief concern, really, was that Peter would immediately go wipe Kate off the face of the planet. He wouldn’t blame him if he did, but he doesn’t want Peter in jail for murder. When he had tentatively asked about that, Peter had just replied calmly, “No. She might have accomplices. We need to find them first.”

School has been out for nearly a week, and he’s settled into the routine of going with his dad to the station every day, when he abruptly gets a text from an unknown number. ‘Sanderson Brothers Contracting,’ it says. He almost dismisses it as an ad, but stops at the last second, frowning at it, and texts back, ‘who is this?’

Hours go by before he gets a response. When he does, it reads, ‘It’s Peter.’

Stiles decides against commenting on how to go about normal social interaction. ‘ok, I’ll bite, who are the sanderson bros?’

‘They’re a company that did some work in the house about six months before the fire,’ Peter replies, ‘and I think they might have been involved. Dig in.’

Stiles tilts his head to one side, examining that message, from all angles, and then simply texts back, ‘ok’. And he does. His father is always busy, and brings him to the station more so he won’t be alone all the time than to keep an actual eye on him. Sometimes he’s put to work sorting parking tickets or warrants, but sometimes he’s left to his own devices. So he looks up the Sanderson Brothers Contracting. A good firm with a solid reputation. They had been putting some new tiles down in some of the bathrooms. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that they had any nefarious purposes there.

But Peter must have brought it up for a reason, so Stiles keeps digging, and eventually he finds something strange, a name that’s familiar. Randall Bartlow. An employee who started work there a bare three months before the fire – and quit a month afterwards. He rubs his hands over his face, trying to remember where he’s seen the name before. Then it strikes him. One of the pamphlets. A quote or something.

His heart races. This is solid evidence. Circumstantial, yes, but it’s a link between the fire and the WLO, whereas before they had nothing. Not that he has any idea how the contractors might have been involved. But that’s something for another day.

“Okay, pal,” he says, “where are you now?”

It takes almost an hour of abusing police resources to find Randall, who’s apparently moved to Alaska for some reason. Stiles supposes there are probably a lot of werewolves up in Alaska. Lots of empty land. He taps his fingers against his phone. Hadn’t one of the previous werewolf murders that WLO had suspected been in Alaska?

He pulls it up to find that he’s remembering correctly. Specifically, there was a werewolf that had been running for public office that had been killed, about six months previous. The WLO had been heavily protesting in the city, saying that werewolves shouldn’t be eligible for office at all. When the werewolf had turned up dead – in a real bloodbath that nobody had thought was an accident – numerous members of the WLO had been questioned. But nothing had ever stuck.

And this name, this Randall Bartlow, had been one of them.

Stiles gets on the phone. He clears his throat and drops it down several notches, dialing the police department in the small Alaska town, and asks for the detective that had been working the case. It was still open, had never been solved. “Yeah, hi, this is Sheriff Tom Stilinski, down in California,” he says. “Listen, I wanted to talk to you about the Jenna Berry murder.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the detective says. “Hell of a thing.”

“I’ve got a case down here where some werewolves were killed in a fire, might not have been an accident,” Stiles says, “and I think it might be related. Was wondering if I could take a look at your files.”

“Sure, they’re all yours,” he replies. “Long as you keep me posted. Always wanted to nail these guys if I could. What’s the connection?”

“One of the people you questioned in that murder was a contractor who worked on the house shortly before it went up in flames,” Stiles says. “Not a lot to go on, but . . . hell, I’ll take it.”

The detective agrees, and says he’ll fax everything down. Stiles bounces out of his seat and goes to wait by the fax machine. “Just helping my dad out with some stuff,” he tells Angie, the secretary, who gives him the side-eye but doesn’t actively protest.

Now he has names. Lots of names. He finds other connections, calls other detectives, gets other case files. He goes home at the end of the day with a stack of paper and an extremely suspicious father. He goes into his room, locks his door, and hangs up his posters. He spends three hours mapping out all the different players in the WLO and how they might have been connected to the different murders.

Just as he’s thinking he’ll go to bed, his phone chimes again. The only word there is eight syllables long and looks like some sort of chemical compound.

Stiles studies it, chews on his lip, and then texts back, ‘I’m on it.’

He doesn’t sleep at all that night. By morning, the number of posters has doubled, and he’s found a curious connection that he hadn’t at all suspected. One chemical had led him to another, which had led him to a company, which had led him to a different company, and suddenly one of the chemicals rang a bell, and he found it was one of the main ingredients in one of the werewolf-attracting perfumes. Except it’s not something that should attract werewolves.

It’s 8-acetyloxy-20-ethyl-3,13,15-trihydroxy-1,6-16-trimethoxy-4-(methoxymethyl)aconitanyl-14-benzoate, something that’s so many layers of science that it takes Stiles an hour to realize that it’s wolfsbane.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, staring at his computer in shock. No wonder Derek had been so out of sorts after hours at the Searching Ceremony. He had been inhaling miniscule amounts of wolfsbane the entire time. “Why in the hell would perfume designed to attract werewolves have wolfsbane in it?”

He can’t even imagine, so, despite the fact that it’s three o’clock in the morning, he texts that question to Peter.

Peter simply replies, ‘Names?’

Stiles texts him the name of the perfume and the company that makes it.

Two hours later, just as he’s nodding off to sleep, Peter texts back with the name of the shell corporation that funds that particular company.

It’s owned by the WLO.

‘So they’re sabotaging the Searching Ceremonies,’ Stiles texts Peter.

‘That would be my guess, yes. Make it more difficult for werewolves to find their mates. Sow tension and dissent among the humans by making them think it’s a competition. It’s actually rather genius, not the least of all because nobody would ever think to look in their direction.’

Stiles contemplates all this for a long minute before saying, ‘I think it’s time for me to study my history.’

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The late night drives quickly become routine for Stiles and Derek. Stiles is still kind of squicked out at the idea of anyone in Derek’s family knowing what they’re up to, so he’s not really a fan of making out in the house. Derek lets it go and hopes that Stiles will get used to it over time. Laura assures him that Jonathan went through a similar phase. Derek doesn’t want to ask Peter about Olivia’s reaction, but he does remember vaguely that for several months after they were married, Olivia was always blushing in the morning and wouldn’t look anyone in the eye.

So as summer drifts by, they settle into a pattern. Derek’s up early to go to work. Stiles sleeps a little later but drags himself out of bed because he’s helping his father around the station for the summer. “It keeps him out of trouble,” Tom said, when asked about this. Apparently Stiles has done it every summer since his mother died.

By the time he gets home around five, Stiles is busy in the kitchen. He tries to get his errands done before Derek gets home for the day, so they don’t miss any quality time together. Working at the station has him less antsy about how little he’s seeing his father. Of course, being out of school has mellowed him out a lot as well.

After dinner they’ll watch movies or play video games or just relax in Derek’s room, reading. Stiles is often playing on his laptop. Sometimes he’ll be texting back and forth with his friends.

Then around eight or nine, when everyone else is settling down, they ‘go for a drive’, which everyone in the house knows is a euphemism for ‘get out of earshot and scent range so we can go make out’. Nobody gives Stiles a hard time about it. It’s just the way he is, for now, at least.

“So what did you do at the station today?” Derek asks, pushing his seat all the way back, although it already almost was. Stiles climbs onto his lap without further prompting, wedging himself into the small space between Derek’s body and the steering wheel with admirable determination. Derek almost immediately forgets what they were talking about, as one of Stiles’ knees winds up between his leg and Stiles’ thigh presses up against his groin. “Jesus.”

“I investigated crime, what else?” Stiles asks, settling himself more comfortably, rocking his weight against Derek.

“You sorted parking tickets?”

“Nooooo,” Stiles says, as Derek buries his face in the crook of his neck, licking and nipping at the skin there. It’s his favorite spot, not the least because Stiles’ scent is concentrated there, but also because Stiles really, really loves it. “No, I . . . I’m bringing people to justice. I’m . . . Batman.”

Derek lets out a snort of laughter. “Somehow I doubt that,” he says, making a very thorough mark on the side of Stiles’ neck, over one that’s previously faded.

Stiles lets out a little whine and squirms even closer, rubbing himself up against Derek. The heat and the friction make Derek momentarily close his eyes, biting down harder and knotting one hand in the back of Stiles’ shirt. Which, why is he still wearing a shirt, anyway? Derek slides his hands underneath it and pushes it over his head.

“Tell me about it,” he says, mouthing at Stiles’ collarbone. “Tell me about bringing people to justice. It sounds hot.”

“Oh, God,” Stiles says, more of an exhalation than anything else. “Oh, okay. Uh.” He tries to focus as Derek’s hands slide up and down his back. “We, uh, there was this drunk driver and – Jesus fuck, Derek – I got to look at lots of photos of cars until, until I found the make and model and we matched it to the partial plate. It – hnnnng okay yes right there – it’s grunt work but it still needs to be done, right?”

“Absolutely,” Derek says, obliging Stiles’ request by nibbling at his ear again. His hands get underneath Stiles’ ass and pull him closer, and he starts to think that maybe they should slow this down, it’s going a little further than usual and he’s not sure they’ll be able to stop if they go much further. His thigh slides between Stiles’ legs and Stiles makes this amazing whimpering noise and he forgets all about it.

“Oh, oh, fuck,” Stiles says, one hand twisting down in Derek’s hair as he grinds harder against Derek’s thigh. “Fuck, Derek.”

“Tell me something else you did today,” Derek says, trying to distract him.

“I, uh, I,” Stiles says, and then gives up and kisses him, and Derek kisses back, deep and messy and amazing. When they break apart, Stiles is gasping for breath. Derek kisses along his jaw as he fumbles for words. “I sorted outstanding warrants and, and matched them against . . .” His breath hitches in his throat. “Nnnghk, I know we had an, an agreement about when I would give you my dick but I, I don’t think I can, can last much longer so, I should get a reward because I’ve been working with Laura, right? I mean, I don’t have to have everything perfect before I, I can do this?”

Derek half-wants to argue, he really does, but then Stiles bites down on his shoulder and he just says, “Yes,” in this rough, broken voice because he wants this so badly, wants to see Stiles come, wants to hear what he’ll sound like and catch his scent at that one perfect moment.

“You, you don’t even have to, I got this,” Stiles says, just grinding against Derek’s thigh, head tossed back and eyes half-lidded. “I, fuck, Derek,” he adds, as Derek’s hands move, one against the small of his back to support him, the fingers of the other digging into his ass, pulling him forward again. Derek leans forward and mouths at the mark he left on Stiles’ neck, sucks at it hard, and Stiles says, “Oh, fuck,” sharp and fragile, and his entire body shudders in Derek’s arms, fingers curling into his hair, and then goes still. A moment later, he flops bonelessly against Derek’s chest.

“Nnf,” he says, eyes closing. Derek rubs a hand up and down his back. “Shoulda brought spare pants.”

Derek snorts with laughter despite himself and then eases Stiles out of his lap and back into the passenger’s seat. His eyes stay closed during this and he sprawls across it attractively, one foot up on the dashboard. Derek watches him for a few moments. He’s so hard that he’s aching, but now that Stiles isn’t in his lap, he’s remembering that they’re supposed to be taking things slow.

Stiles’ breathing slows and evens out. Derek is vaguely aware that he’s staring at him, and it might be considered kind of creepy. “You awake?” he murmurs, basically under his breath. When Stiles doesn’t twitch, he fumbles with the button and zipper of his pants. He gets a hand around himself and strokes slow and easy, trying to keep himself from making any noise. Stiles is still relaxed against the seat, but he probably won’t sleep for long. He’ll have to make this quick, which probably won’t be a problem. He rubs his thumb over the head of his dick, feeling the moisture there, getting his palm slick with it. A little grunt escapes him despite his best efforts. His head thumps back against the seat as he takes the rhythm up a few steps.

“God that’s hot,” Stiles murmurs, and Derek nearly jumps out of his skin. “Oh, sorry, did you think I was sleeping?”

“You asshole,” Derek says, glad he didn’t wolf out, which would have been very problematic, given the current placement of his hand.

“Yeah, okay, but you, you’re good, just keep on keepin’ on,” Stiles says, leaning over to nuzzle against Derek’s neck, rubbing his cheek against Derek’s shoulder and collarbone in a very wolflike manner, that way Derek will do to him.

“Oh, Christ,” Derek says, the air leaving him in a wavering breath, and his hand starts moving on himself again almost of its own volition. “Nnnngh,” he adds, as Stiles reaches out with one hand and slides it up underneath his shirt, tracing the muscle definition of his chest and abdomen.

“God, when we get back to your house,” Stiles says, leaning over so he’s talking right in Derek’s ear, “I’m going to drag Laura out of bed and make her teach me all the self-defense, because I’ve got to get my hands on that, just watching you is, is, unf, I can’t even.” He licks the shell of Derek’s ear and continues, “I’m gonna be so awesome at self-defense and then I’m just gonna surprise you next time you think I’m asleep and I’m going to get my mouth all over that – ”

“Jesus,” Derek grits out, and Stiles bites his ear, and he comes all over his hand. He sags back against the seat, panting for breath.

“Wow, that was awesome,” Stiles says, staring at him somewhat dreamily. “We should do this again sometime, like, in fifteen minutes or so.”

“Refractory period,” Derek murmurs.

“You’re a werewolf and I’m a teenager, I think we can manage,” Stiles says.

Derek snorts and opens the glove compartment, pulling out some napkins that he keeps there in case of food spills. “Nope. We’d get carried away, and you’ve now made certain promises about learning self-defense.”

Stiles makes a face at him. “Okay, fine. But just you wait.” He settles back comfortably into his seat. “Just you wait.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Eventually, Stiles has to start sleeping at his own house again, mainly because he gets tired of begging Laura or Aaron for rides to the sheriff’s station in the morning. If he stays at home, he can hitch a ride with his dad. It’s more convenient for everyone, his father’s happy to have him in the house again, and although he still enjoys spending time with Derek – a lot – the initial impulse to spend every minute curled up by his side is finally waning. Laura has assured him that’s actually natural, and has to do with the bond between a werewolf and his mate.

It also gives Stiles more time to do his covert operations. He spends about ten minutes on the phone with Kate almost every night. Now that school is out, it’s harder to find time to see her. This is absolutely fine with him. But he makes sure to talk about it like he’s pining for her. “When do I get to see you again?” he asks, almost every time.

“Soon, sweetie,” Kate assures him. “We’ll work something out.”

When he’s not dealing with Kate, he’s reorganizing his data. He’s transferred it to actual poster boards now, and keeps them stored in his closet. He’s also reduced the amount he has there, mostly by writing a lot smaller and getting things in better order.

He doesn’t know exactly what Peter has been up to. He’ll just text Stiles a name or a place and when Stiles looks into it, he always finds another connection. He’s solidly connected the WLO to four different murders now, in addition to the Hale house fire, and has tentative connections to two more. One of them is another family, that of a lobbyist on the East Coast, who died in a plane crash.

None of that has helped him figure out how the WLO might have been involved in the Hale house fire, even if he’s now ninety-eight percent certain that they were. It’s not enough to have these tenuous connections, this circumstantial evidence. He needs proof.

It’s been about two weeks since he first talked to Peter about it when the werewolf shows up on his doorstep. It’s about nine o’clock on a week night, and he’s home alone. His father had been there for a few hours before he had gotten called about some child who had run away from home and now couldn’t be found. Stiles somehow isn’t surprised when he opens the door and sees Peter. “Hey, come on in.”

Peter shakes his head. “Derek will smell me and wonder why I was here. Walk with me.”

Stiles gives a shrug, shoves his feet into his shoes, and says, “Sure, okay.” It’s actually the first time he’s seen Peter in over a week. “Where’ve you been?”

“Alaska,” Peter says.

Stiles nearly trips over the front steps on the porch. “Oh, Jesus, Peter. You didn’t.”

Peter shrugs a little. “Our friend Randall Bartlow didn’t seem to want to talk to me for some reason . . . but I convinced him.”

“Just . . . Jesus,” Stiles says. “Jesus, Peter, what if we need him to testify, did you even think – ”

Peter stops walking and turns to Stiles. “Testify where?” he asks. “What do you think is going to happen here, Stiles? Do you think we’re going to find proof of what Kate Argent did and bring her to trial for it? Is that what you think is going to happen? No. I’m going to find her. I’m going to remove her fingernails one by one. I’m going to burn every inch of her skin off. I’m going to leave her choking and gasping for air, the way she left my family. I’m going to kill her slowly. Nobody’s going to need to testify after that.”

“God damn it, Peter,” Stiles says, “that’s not why I’m helping you. Yes, you’re going to kill her. I’m fucking aware of that, okay? I may not be one hundred percent comfortable with it, but I sure as shit know I can’t stop you. But you’re not going to kill her until we can prove what she did. Because otherwise, you’re going to wind up in the God damned electric chair. I’m not gathering evidence for her trial. I’m gathering evidence for yours.”

Peter snarls at him. “I’m not going to wait forever.”

“You’re going to wait until I have enough evidence to prove that what you do, you’re doing for the welfare of your pack,” Stiles retorts, not backing down an inch. “I’m not going to let you throw yourself under the bus here. You’re a werewolf. You can’t just go kill a human and have there not be fucking consequences, and I know that you’re smart enough to understand that.”

There’s a long silence. Peter takes a breath and then backs off. “Fine,” he says. “I won’t kill any more potential witnesses.”

“Jesus,” Stiles says. “Just tell me you learned something. And that no one will find the body.”

“Oh, they probably will,” Peter says, “but animal attacks aren’t completely uncommon in the wilds of Alaska.” He gives a shrug. “Randall told me that when he was working on the house, he put large quantities of insulation in the walls. It was laced with an accelerant that the WLO had designed to be odorless.”

“Must’ve had some free time between perfume batches,” Stiles mutters. “Okay. Anything else?”

“That’s all he knew. He couldn’t even say who gave it to him. Every night, boxes of it were left on his doorstep, and he brought it with him in the morning with his materials.”

“So he got it from the accelerant fairy. Super.” Stiles pushes both hands through his hair. “I assume he had no idea how the fire was actually set.”

“None. And by then he was living on the other side of the country.” Peter shrugs a little and starts walking again. “How are things on your end?”

“Well, I did make some progress with the fire inspector,” Stiles says, and then can’t help but add, “without having to torture and murder him. He doesn’t have any connection to the WLO, but as it turns out, he went to the same college as Gerard Argent.”

“A favor for a friend, then?” Peter says.

“Or a bribe. I’m looking into it. That’s all I’ve got for now, though. I’ll keep working on Kate. Jesus, I hate her, she’s so . . . pervy.”

Peter tilts his head to one side. “Has she touched you?”

“Don’t get that look,” Stiles says. “It’s not like I’m enjoying it. I’m doing it to protect my pack.” He sees that Peter looks unimpressed. “Ugh, yes, she kissed me, and it was gross, and I had to use like half a tube of toothpaste before I could be sure Derek wouldn’t be able to tell. I think I’ll be seeing her this weekend. But . . . maybe it’s time we told my dad about this.”

“Why?” Peter asks, not frowning, but out of seeming curiosity.

“Because he can help us get stuff like bank records,” Stiles says. “And because . . . it’s getting to the point that I think he should know.”

“Mm. I suppose you may have a point,” Peter says.

“Look, if there’s one thing that you can really rely on with my dad, it’s that he’s a good cop,” Stiles says. “We don’t have enough evidence for a court of law yet, but we have enough for him. And until we can conclusively link Kate to the fire . . .”

“I know,” Peter says, “but if she was there that day, she’s the one who started it.” He looks at Stiles and says, “Don’t expect me to wait forever.”

“I won’t,” Stiles says, and Peter walks away, melting into the darkness.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Stiles really has no idea how to go about telling his father about all the things he’s found, and especially how deep he’s gotten into this mystery. After a few days to contemplate, he makes him a file. It’s in a manila folder like a police file would be. It has the different murders listed, with all the connections between them highlighted. At the end, he puts in a single sheet about the contracting company and their employees at the time of the Hale house fire.

He leaves it on his father’s desk while he’s out of his office with a post-it note on it that says, “Please read,” then tells Angie he has a stomachache and goes home.

It’s two hours later, and he’s in the middle of a rousing round of Plants vs. Zombies when he hears the door open downstairs. There’s some shuffling downstairs; then he hears his father’s boots on the stairs. He tries to assume an innocent expression as his father comes through the door, holding the folder. “Don’t even try with that look. I stopped believing it when you were four.”

“Yeah, hah, I guess that’s probably true,” Stiles says, rubbing a hand over the back of his head. He pauses the computer game and swings around in his chair so he’s straddling it backwards.

Tom leans his shoulder against the wall. “You wanna tell me how you came by all this information?”

“Oh, a variety . . . of places . . .” Stiles says. “You know. Alaska. Kansas.”

“Uh huh.” The folder taps against his thigh. “And people in these places just offered this information up?”

“I said pretty please,” Stiles says hopefully.

“What else did you say?” His father gives him a stern look.

“You know, I just had a thought,” Stiles says. “I figure that you already know exactly what I did, but if I don’t have to actually admit to it, you won’t have any knowledge that a crime took place, and since you’re the sheriff and all, that’s probably for the best, right?”

“How about you tell me what you did so when or if people call back, I don’t look like an idiot, and I can cover up for my son, who’s been a bad boy.” Tom says it like he’s chiding a three-year-old. Then he holds the folder up. “This is some nice work, though.”

Stiles immediately turns pink and beams like it’s Christmas. “I, uh, I had some help with it. Peter. He found some leads. I, uh, I’m not exactly sure how he found all of them, and in some cases it seemed smarter not to ask.”

“Most likely for the best. You want to come downstairs so we can spread all this out?”

“Uhm.” Stiles raises a finger, then gets his stack of poster boards out of his closet. “How about, uh,” he says, starting to tack them up in their usual places, “how about I go get us something to drink while you, uh, look all this stuff over?”

Tom’s eyes go a little wide. “Or you could do that.” He moves fully into the room and is already examining the boards as a whole.

Stiles lets out a sigh of relief, since his father doesn’t seem about to yell at him, and jogs down the stairs. He takes his time making up his dad’s coffee the way he knows he likes it, with way too much sugar, because it’s going to take him a while to get through all the information. Then he gets a soda for himself and heads back up to his room.

Tom takes the coffee and says, “So why bring this to me now?”

“Uh, ‘cause you’re the sheriff?” Stiles says, and his father gives him an unimpressed look. “And because we’ve hit some dead ends. We know Kate started the fire, but we can’t figure out how she did it, so we can’t prove it. All our evidence is circumstantial.”

“The fire inspector is in on it somehow, right? That investigation was too fast. I’m no expert, but . . .”

“Yeah, right. Over here.” Stiles hefts out a poster and props it up against his bed. “It’s not finished yet. See, he went to college with Gerard Argent. So he might have done it as a favor. Or he might have been bribed. I’m stuck on this one, and . . .” He fidgets uncomfortably. “I can’t get Peter’s help on it. If I tell him the guy was involved and give him the name . . .”

“Yes?” Tom frowns. “Wait, what did he . . . you know what, don’t tell me.”

Stiles presses his lips together into a thin line. “I can’t . . . I won’t lie to you, Dad. He’s going to kill her. Kate. It’s a miracle he hasn’t killed her already.” Hell, he thinks privately, it’s a miracle that Peter hasn’t killed him for repeatedly telling him that he couldn’t. “I keep telling him to wait, that if we can find proof, he can claim pack protection and he won’t get in trouble, but . . . his patience is wearing kind of thin, and, you know, Peter . . .”

Tom sighs and sits down on Stiles’ bed. “Get him to wait.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Because the truth is, I’d really hate to have to help put him in jail for something I think he has a right to do. Because if anyone did that to you, I wouldn’t be long on patience, either.”

“Yeah.” Stiles isn’t sure what to say about his father saying he’d commit murder if anything happened to him. He shoves those thoughts away. He’d be willing to kill, too. He is willing to kill. He had known full well when he told Peter about Kate, that he was going to kill her. That doesn’t make him a murderer, but it certainly makes him an accomplice to one.

And the truth is, he knows that Peter wouldn’t end up in jail. He has a strong suspicion that Peter doesn’t plan to live long after he takes care of Kate, and he doesn’t know what to do about that, either. In Peter’s shoes, he can’t say that he would do any differently.

Finally, he clears his throat and says, “Uh, I’m working on him. But the point is, I can’t give him the information about the fire inspector. Or else he’ll go try to, uh, get information out of him, and I doubt it would end well.”

“Right. Well, a bribe is more likely than a favor, because who actually likes someone else enough to help cover up a murder? Not many people.” He sips his coffee. “Greedy enough, though . . . money is a damned good motivator.”

“I know, right? But I can’t exactly demand financial records.” Stiles clears his throat. “Well, I could, but I figured I had pretended to be you enough already, and I think you need a warrant for shit like that. But I’m afraid if we get a warrant, it’ll tip the guy off that we’re onto him, and . . . ugh. I don’t know how to handle it.”

“You let me look into it. I know how to do things discreetly.”

“Okay.” Stiles lets out a sigh of relief. “And I know you don’t know a lot about arson, but . . . how did she start the fire? She can’t have gotten too close to the house. They would have smelled or heard her. But the guy who put in the accelerant couldn’t have left a trail of it outside. Six months went by, it would have washed away. And he didn’t put anything else in the house, like an explosive device or a wiring problem, so . . . how could she have set the fire from a distance? And if it was from a distance, why did she have to be near the house at all, so Peter could smell her trail as he got home?”

“Well, it’s possible she was there to watch her handiwork. Especially if there were supposed to be no survivors.” He looks at the information on the fire that’s clustered on one poster. “Is there an actual point of ignition in all this crap? And more importantly, can we trust it?”

“Yes to the first, no to the second,” Stiles says. “The point of ignition is given as the faulty circuit, but since we know it wasn’t an electrical fire . . .”

Tom is quiet for a few moments. “Why don’t we get a second opinion? Get a new arson investigator to take a look at the photos and what little evidence has been saved. Worst thing that’ll happen is nothing will come of it.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Stiles says. “I don’t think there’s a lot left, though, and I don’t know what of the reports we can trust, since this lying asshole had his hands all over them. Some of them might be fudged.”

“Well, you’ve pulled a lot from very little. Are you telling me you don’t want a chance to see what someone honest will find? Even if it isn’t much?”

“No, it’s a good idea,” Stiles says. “I guess I’m just worried it’ll get back to them somehow.”

“Everyone knows how sensitive the Hales are about the fire. It’ll be kept quiet; I’ll make sure of it.”

“I’m not worried about the Hales finding out, geez,” Stiles says. “I’m worried about the Argents finding out. You know. The bad guys.”

Tom gives his son a look. “It’s called re-opening a case and we don’t want anyone to know. I don’t like people that have problems with werewolves in my department. You know that.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, but can we just – maybe send it out somewhere? Like, Arson Investigators R Us or something?”

Tom lets out a snort despite himself. “Tell you what, how about I remove the identifying info, send it to a buddy out of state, and ask him to have his arson guy take a look at it? Would that make you feel better?”

Stiles breathes out a sigh of relief. “Yeah. Definitely. Sorry, I guess I’m a little paranoid about all of this. I just, these people are really fucking scary.”

The sheriff nods, considering his son seriously. “Is there anything else you want to share with me?”

“Uh, no,” Stiles says. “I think this,” he adds, gesturing to the posters, “just about covers it.”

“Uh huh.” Tom folds his arms over his chest. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, sir, you would be one Thomas Stilinski, Sheriff of Beacon Hills, purveyor of all that is just and fair in the universe – ”

“More than that,” Tom says, waving his hand impatiently. “Though I will remember you said that. I’m your father. So I’m fairly certain that I know you. That being said. Is there anything else you want to share with me?”

Stiles frowns, clearly deep in thought. Then he says, “Nope, I’m good, really – ”

“Okay,” Tom says, cutting him off. “Now is when you sit yourself down and tell me what you haven’t told me yet. Because I know you. And you’re leaving things out. Things that scare you. So get talking, son, and stay on topic, because you aren’t leaving this room until I know what’s going on.”

“What is this, like, a reverse filibuster?” Stiles asks, but he sits down on the edge of the bed anyway. “Uh. Some of the information . . . you’re not gonna like how I got it, and it’s got nothing to do with Peter being crazy or me pretending to be a law enforcement officer.”

“No,” his father says, in an even, measured tone. “I didn’t think it was either of those things.”

Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head. “See, I sorta met Kate Argent. And she may possibly have asked me to spy on the Hales for her, and I might sort of have agreed to do it because I wanted to know what she was up to, and hypothetically I might be meeting her two or three times every week so I can stay plugged in to the WLO.”

There’s a long moment of silence. Then Tom sits down next to him, rubbing a hand over his face. “You don’t do things halfway, do you, kid.”

“Nope.” Stiles pulls a knee up to his chest. “I keep hoping she’ll let it slip – what she wants from me. I’m so scared that she’s going to hurt them and I won’t figure it out in time.”

Tom reaches out and half-wraps his arm around Stiles’ shoulders in a half-hug. He knows all sorts of things he could normally say in a situation like this, but those words are for adults who signed up for dangerous undercover work. Who know the risks, who have training. They’re not for his seventeen year old son. And he knows better than to ask Stiles to stop. That would only create a barrier between them, which is the last thing he wants right now. “Stiles, you’re one of the smartest people I know. I’m sure you’re smarter than Kate Argent. You’ll stay ahead of her.”

“I hope you’re right,” Stiles says, with a sigh. He glances over at his father and adds, somewhat warily, “Are you mad?”

“Less angry than the time you and Scott snuck off to drink in the woods. And then tried to convince me that you had the flu the next morning so I wouldn’t think you had a hangover,” Tom says, giving his son a look.

Stiles gives a little wince. “Not one of my finer moments, I’ll admit. But that’s not . . . ‘no, I’m not mad’, is it?”

“Stiles, you’re my son and I don’t like it when you put yourself in danger any more than you like it when I’m in danger. I like it even less when I’m not in the loop. First there was school, now this.” Tom shakes his head a little. “I am proud of you for bringing this to me. But you didn’t intend to tell me this part about Kate. There have been far too many secrets lately, and I really think they need to stop.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, “you think this is bad, I can’t even imagine what Derek will say about it, holy shit.”

Tom shakes his head a little. He can’t say he’s surprised that his son hasn’t told Derek about this, despite his deep misgivings about the idea. “Good luck to you on that score. You’ll need it.”

“Yeah.” Stiles makes a face at him. “Oh, speaking of scores, can I skip office duty on Wednesday? Allison has an archery tournament, and Scott and I were going to go cheer her on.”

“Sure,” his father says. “She any good at it?”

“Yeah, she says she’s done it since she was a little girl, her . . .” Stiles’ voice trails off, and Tom gives him a questioning look. “Her dad taught her . . . and Kate.” He bites his lip. “You remember that Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner?”

“The one completely saved by Alan Rickman as the evil sheriff?” Tom asks, and laughs. “Yeah. Been a while. Why?”

“Do you think . . . that fire arrow thing could actually be done?”

Tom frowns. “I don’t see any reason why not,” he says cautiously. “I’m pretty sure the Vikings used that sort of thing. Do you think . . .”

“If she knew exactly where the accelerant had been placed, then yeah,” Stiles says. “I think very much. I mean, it’s kind of a wild theory, and I guess there wouldn’t be any way to prove it, but it could be right.” He pushes his hands through his hair. “I’ll run it past Peter. See what he thinks, next time I talk to him.”

“Okay. But be careful. I mean that.”

Stiles nods. “I will be.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles has found over the weeks that Peter can’t always quite wait to give him whatever information he’s found. This can be a problem at the Hale house, but fortunately, Peter is proficient at texting. In fact, he’s better at it than Derek is. Sometimes after dinner, while Stiles is watching anime with Cora or playing computer games with Derek, he and Peter will text back and forth about whatever they’ve found out since the last time they talked.

Derek even asks Peter once, “Who are you texting?” with curiosity that suggests it’s not a normal occurrence, and Peter just replies absently, ‘a friend’, and doesn’t say anything else about it. Stiles’ phone is almost always busy, so it doesn’t occur to anyone as odd that he’s often texting at the same time as Peter is. He leaves it on vibrate so it’s a little less conspicuous.

Later, he thinks that he really should have known that someone would eventually figure it out. As it happens, it’s Cora. It’s late evening on a Saturday. Laura and Jonathan are on a date night. Aaron is out with friends while Talia is in her study, doing whatever Talia does. Stiles, Cora, and Derek are watching a movie while Peter restlessly roams the house. Gradually, he settles down in the same room as the others, although he’s clearly not paying any attention to the television.

Suddenly, Cora hears Peter’s phone and laughs. “Are you two texting each other? You’re sitting in the same room!”

Stiles wonders if he should try to fake it, but he knows his heartbeat has ramped up at being discovered. “Yeah, we didn’t want to bother you guys since you were watching the movie, and I’m never content unless I’m multi-tasking anyway,” he adds, which is true.

“Do I even want to know what you two are talking about?” Derek asks, both curious and amused. He seems to be expecting something terribly esoteric and possibly academic.

“Nope,” Stiles says.

“Let’s see!” Cora says, snatching his phone.

“H-Hey – ” Stiles protests, grabbing for it.

It’s too late. Cora’s eyes go wide and she looks between the two of them uncertainly. “Seriously?” she says.

Derek’s senses automatically key up at Cora’s shock. He doesn’t like the way Stiles’ heart rate picks up another notch, or the scent that he’s having trouble picking apart because it carries so many things. He glances at Peter but can really only sense caution. At least there’s no anger or fear. Derek reaches out and takes the phone from Cora, but hands it back to Stiles without looking at what’s on the screen. “What is it?”

Stiles’ mouth moves uncertainly, and then Peter says quietly, “Stiles is helping me look into the circumstances surrounding the fire.”

Derek goes still. Then he nods once, somehow not surprised. He bites his lip, then turns to look at Stiles with a forced calm. “Do you think it was an accident?” He’s not trying to hold back anger; he just doesn’t want to turn into a stuttering mess.

After a moment, Stiles lets out a breath, meets his gaze, and says, “No. I don’t.”

Derek’s hands come up to cover his face for a long moment or two while he concentrates on taking deep breaths, but then he drops them. He’s a little pale, but holding it together. He looks back and forth between Stiles and Peter once or twice and then his gaze rests on Peter, eyes a little wide. “Don’t just . . . hide over there. I can’t handle that, okay?” Peter had known all along. Had been watching and looking out for them. And if it wasn’t an accident, then Derek suddenly doesn’t feel safe.

Peter wordlessly stands up and moves over to join them on the sofa. Before he’s taken more than a few steps, however, Talia appears in the doorway. Her face is pale and her lips are pressed into a thin line. “The fire,” she says, her voice strained, “was an accident.”

Stiles meets her gaze unflinching. “No,” he says. “It wasn’t.”

Talia takes a breath, clearly fighting for control, but her eyes are starting to glow red. “Stiles,” she says, “I appreciate that you’ve probably been trying to help Peter make sense of all this, but he doesn’t need your help encouraging his delusions. He – ”

“They’re not delusions,” Stiles says loudly, “and he’d probably appreciate it if you’d stop telling him that he’s fucking crazy.”

Derek immediately huddles down under the anger of his alpha in the face of the worst topic ever. But his hand also creeps out and curls around Stiles’.

Talia only seems to be getting more furious. “Stiles, there was a police investigation, an arson investigator, there was no evidence that the fire was anything other than an electrical accident. I’m sorry that Peter had trouble dealing with that, but – ”

“So if I found evidence,” Stiles interrupts loudly, “would you even be interested in hearing it?”

“Whatever quote-unquote evidence you found,” Talia retorts, her voice raising another notch, “I highly doubt it’s more significant than what actual trained officers of the law discovered.”

Derek manages to look up, then, remembering what Stiles had said about the investigation happening too fast. He looks up at his mother, or at least as much as he can because the beta in him just can’t meet the alpha’s eyes, at least not when she isn’t trying to drive his mate away. Then around to Peter, whose gaze he can meet. His uncle’s face is completely blank, expressionless.

Stiles, in contrast, looks like he’s about to start foaming at the mouth with fury. “Oh, okay, I’ll take that as a no,” he says. “Because surely no seventeen-year-old could have found anything useful. It’s not like I’m the son of the sheriff, or like I know who did it.”

Derek’s hands clench and he drops Stiles’ like he’s been burned when he feels the bones grind underneath his grip. “Who?” It’s only a whisper. It’s all he can manage, but he has to know. Even if his mother doesn’t want to, if she doesn’t want him to, he has to know. He keeps his gaze on Peter and tries not to think about her, even though he can smell her anger and pain just as much as he can smell Stiles’. Peter is strangely muted, which bothers him.

“Don’t you dare,” Talia grits out. “Don’t you dare – ”

“Kate Argent,” Stiles says, his gaze never leaving Talia’s. Her eyes flare crimson. “Her name is Kate Argent. She’s a member of the WLO. And she’s done it before.”

Derek’s breathing picks up, goes shallow, and he makes a small animal whine before suddenly bolting up off the sofa and out of the room. Seconds later, they can hear him in the bathroom, losing his latest meal.

Cora, pale underneath her summer tan, murmurs, “I’ll go, uh, check on him.”

“Go,” Talia says shortly, “and don’t come back in here. Stiles and I need to talk.”

“Oh, we do, do we?” Stiles asks, sarcasm heavily layering his voice. “Is that what you call the verbal ass-kicking you think you’re about to hand to me? Because I’ve got news for you – ”

Stop,” Talia says, with so much force in her voice that Stiles actually does for a few moments. “I am the alpha of this pack and I will not be spoken to like that.

“You may be the alpha,” Stiles retorts, “but you’re a crappy alpha. Because I’m standing here telling you that your pack is in danger and you’re refusing to listen to me because you don’t like the fact that your son chose me for a mate. You know that I’m right, you’ve probably known this whole time that Peter wasn’t crazy, but because you can’t deal with it, you’ve spent the last six years telling him that he is. I could put all the evidence in the world in front of you but you still wouldn’t listen because you’re too damned busy hiding under your bed and refusing to deal!”

Talia slaps him across the face, hard enough that Stiles takes several steps backwards and would have fallen if he hadn’t fetched up against the sofa. Before her hand can come all the way back up to its starting position, Peter has her by the wrist. He’s gone all the way to the first shift, his eyes glowing cold blue. “If you touch him again,” he snarls, “I will tear out your throat.”

In the other room, Derek’s head comes up from where it’s been resting on Cora’s shoulder. He swallows down a wave of nausea and hauls himself to his feet. “Stay here. Call Dad. Get him here. Don’t call Laura,” he adds. The last thing they need is another alpha-backbone in the house. He stumbles past her and back out into the chaos, picking up speed as he does.

But it’s surprisingly non-chaotic when he gets there. Peter is still holding Talia’s wrist, and she’s staring at him with a mixture of surprise and hurt. “Sister, I have never blamed you for not wanting to believe me. I have never been angry with you over it. I understood why you did it – better than you did yourself, most likely. But I will not stand here while you try to keep me from solving the murder of my wife and child. Back down, Talia . . . or lose your pack.”

Derek doesn’t look at either of them. He can’t. He just stops directly in front of Stiles, his hand coming up to the cheek that’s already turning red, but stopping just before he would touch it. “Stiles?” he asks quietly. He doesn’t know what to say. He can’t apologize for leaving, because he would have lost his lunch on the living room floor.

“I’m okay,” Stiles says, just as quietly.

Talia and Peter are still having their staring contest. Then Talia drops her wrist. Her voice shaking with rage, she says, “Stiles, if you, if you had any reason to think that the pack was in danger, you should have come directly to me.”

Stiles swallows and says, “What reason have you ever given me to trust you?”

Derek looks down and away from Stiles, showing his throat, but says, “Stiles, it wasn’t all her.” His voice is quiet. “I told you, some of it was my fault.” He’s trying to decide if he should say more. He doesn’t know what to do, because it’s obvious that Stiles bringing this to Talia wouldn’t have gone well.

“You know what?” Stiles says. “You’re right. I’m sure she doesn’t hate me as much as it seems like at times. I know that she avoided me to prevent awkwardness for everyone. I know that she’s just uncomfortable with me because I’m different from how she imagined your mate would be. And if any of that had ever, ever come out of her mouth instead of yours, maybe we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But even though I’ve been part of this pack for months, even though I’ve officially been your mate for weeks, I still have yet to hear a God damned apology for what she said when we met. So I don’t want to hear you making excuses for her, Derek. I really don’t.”

At this, Derek just nods a little. He would really like to go back into the bathroom, finish throwing up, and then curl up in the cabinet under the sink until all the yelling was over. Just him and his fur and maybe a spare roll of toilet paper he could chew to death. He could just check out for a while. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to be happening.

Talia takes a deep breath. “If you know who did it, why haven’t you said anything?”

“Because I can’t prove it,” Stiles says. “And I didn’t want anyone in the family taking matters into their own hands and going to jail because I moved too fast.”

“If you can’t prove it, then how do you even know it was her?” Talia asks, her voice taut.

Stiles’ eyes narrow. “You know what? I don’t think I’ll tell you.” He takes a step back from her astonished outrage and says, “Derek, I’m going home. You can come with me if you want. Or don’t. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just – I won’t hold it against you either way. You do . . . what you have to do right now. To keep yourself together.”

Derek looks up at Stiles for a long moment as if trying to gauge the truth in that, and then he nods and reaches out to Stiles, laying his palm against the teenager’s cheek long enough to pull the pain out of it. Then he leans forward and kisses Stiles on the forehead, turns away, and is already shifting to his fur, shimmying out of his clothes as he does it. He’s bolting out of the room bare moments later.

Silence reigns in the living room for a few moments, before Stiles turns to Peter and says, “I’ll follow up on what we talked about and call you tomorrow.”

Peter nods with due gravity, and says, “Good night, then, Stiles.”

Stiles turns and walks out of the house without another word. He passes Aaron on his way in. The werewolf comes in, confused and flustered, clearly with no idea of what’s going on. “What . . .” he says, seeing Peter and Talia standing in the living room.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Peter murmurs, and heads towards the back door.

Aaron surveys the nearly empty room, looks at the way his wife is trembling, her fists clenched by her sides. “Why does it smell like World War three in here? And where’s Derek?” he adds, because he can’t think of a reason that Derek wouldn’t be present for Stiles’ departure.

Talia looks up at him, and tears spill from her eyes and down her cheeks. “I . . . Derek is in the bathroom, I think. I, I have to go, please just give me a few minutes alone.” With that, she turns on her heel and heads up the stairs.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

For a long minute, Aaron looks around the suddenly empty living room with an expression of bewilderment. Then he sees Derek’s clothes on the floor. “Well, let’s hope he’s in the bathroom, or else he melted like the Wicked Witch of the West,” he says to himself, heaving a sigh. What he finds in the bathroom is not his son, but his youngest daughter. Cora is sitting huddled up on the closed toilet lid, hiccupping in the aftermath of what looks like serious tears. He can still smell them in the air. He can also smell that someone has been sick recently. “Cora, honey?” He takes a step forward and accidentally kicks a bowl of toilet cleaner. Looking down, he sees a few other items that normally go underneath the sink. It looks like Derek is in the bathroom after all. “Are you okay?”

“Nothing is okay!” Cora declares in the impassioned tone of a teenager. “Mom and Stiles got in a fight, and Mom hit him, she slapped him, and Peter threatened to tear her throat out, and, and everything is terrible!”

“Oh, geez,” Aaron says. Normally, he might chalk some of that up to teenaged melodrama, but not with the conflicting scents of rage and pain still floating through the living room, the tearstains on Cora’s face, and the fact that his only remaining son is back to seeking safety in small, dark places. He reaches up and pulls a washcloth out of the cabinet suspended over the back of the toilet, shaking it out and running it under cool water. He wrings it out, then crouches in front of Cora and starts to gently clean up her face. “Why don’t you tell me what happened. Slowly.”

Cora swallows. “Stiles . . . says that the fire wasn’t an accident. That he knows who did it.”

“Oh geez,” Aaron repeats, because all the things he wants to say would teach Cora new vocabulary. He sits back against the wall, even though there isn’t a whole lot of room, and holds his arms out for Cora.

She crawls into them, leaning her head against his shoulder. “Mom got so mad. But Stiles just kept talking. She kept telling him to stop, to be quiet, but he just wouldn’t. I’ve never seen anyone stand up to Mom like that, let alone someone in the pack.”

Aaron pulls her close. “Derek picked out someone special, and Stiles is an amazing person and has so many good things that he adds and gives to our pack, but he’s just not meant to be a beta like the rest of us. I don’t think it has anything to do with him being a wolf or a human. It’s just who he is.”

“After Mom hit Stiles, Peter told her to back down or . . . or lose her pack.” Cora’s voice trembles and cracks. “Because he wouldn’t let her get in the way of him . . . solving the murders. Mom said that they should have come straight to her, and Stiles said that she’d never given him any reason to trust her. Then Mom said if he had all this evidence, he, he should tell her. And he refused. And then he left. He told Derek . . . to do whatever he needed to until he felt better, so now Derek’s hiding and Stiles is gone and I don’t know if he’s ever coming back!”

“He’ll come back. There may have to be some negotiations between him and your mother, but he’ll come back.” Given the way he had handled Derek, Stiles clearly knew that Derek needed his pack, and Aaron’s pretty sure that Stiles is growing attached to Cora and Peter. It’s Talia that’s the problem. “We’ll sort it out.” Not that he knows how. It’s not going to be with him going over to Stiles’ house. As far as he knows, he’s still banished, and now isn’t the time to challenge that.

Cora sniffs and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “Okay. But . . . the fire.” Cora looks up at her father. “Why would someone . . . have done that?”

“If it’s true that it was arson . . .” Aaron has to swallow hard, and decides that the way to go is just to talk in very broad, general terms. This isn’t his family. Not his children that had been murdered or traumatized and scarred for life even if the physical damage had healed. “The same reason black people and gay people and any other minority are hurt. Because people fear what isn’t like them. And . . . it’s made worse with us because when people claim we’re dangerous, well, sometimes it’s hard to argue some of the logic when we are born with effective weapons.” He kisses her hair. “It doesn’t give them the right to hurt us, or make them any less wrong.”

After a moment, Cora nods and swallows, then looks up at him. “Dad . . .” Her voice wobbles. “I’m scared.”

“I don’t blame you. But we’ll figure it out. We will.” He rubs her back. “Do you want to stay here or try to stay at a friend’s house tonight?”

“I’d rather stay here . . . but can we call Laura and have her come home?”

“Yeah. That sounds like a good idea.” He hugs her for another moment, then loosens his embrace. “Now let me see how your brother is doing.”

After Cora pulls herself together enough to get to her feet and leave the bathroom, Aaron looks at the closed cabinet for a few moments. He can hear Derek’s heartbeat, but not much else. He takes the handle and opens it just an inch. “Derek? How are you doing in there?”

It’s a tight fit underneath that sink, and Derek’s wolf eyes reflect gold out of the darkness, his body wedged in at awkward angles. His head is down, resting on the half-empty package of toilet paper rolls that’s pinned underneath one foreleg and his chest. His black fur is showered in flecks of white from what had once been a roll of paper but is now just a cardboard tube that he’s worrying between his teeth. Aaron eases the door open a little further to see his ears are back, eyes large and face crinkled into obvious anxiety.

“Rough day, huh?” Aaron says, keeping his tone mellow. It’s been a long time since he’s seen Derek like this. After the fire, he would gnaw on his own toes and fingers, chew them bloody while he was in wolf form, and they had gradually gotten him to focus on chewing other things. It was a valid canine instinct, according to his therapist, and he was never going to stop completely. Aaron holds his hand out a few inches away from Derek’s nose, hovering there, waiting to see if he’ll be accepted.

Derek whines a little, softly and in the back of his throat, then he edges forward and rests the end of his muzzle in his father’s hand.

“It’s going to be okay, Derek,” Aaron says. “We’ll get everything worked out, I promise.” He reaches out and rubs Derek behind the ears.

Derek starts to relax underneath the gentle affection, his eyes sliding half-closed. He can believe his father, who doesn’t smell like rage or betrayal or fear. When Stiles and his mother were fighting, he felt such a strong pull towards both of them that he didn’t know what to do. He had wanted to sink belly to the floor until one of them felt like dealing with him, or just running away until it was over. He starts to tense up again, toes curling and leg muscles bunching like he’s thinking of taking off. He shifts the cardboard roll and starts chewing on it in earnest, but doesn’t pull away.

“You need to get out of here?” Aaron asks, seeing the way he’s tense. “Why don’t you go see how Stiles is doing?” He knows that he’s going to have to go talk to his wife soon, and he doesn’t think that that discussion is going to go particularly well. It might be better to get Derek out of the house before it happens.

Derek’s gaze travels up to his father’s face, clearly asking if that’s okay. He wants to see Stiles, but he doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning his pack, either.

“We’ll talk about all this tomorrow,” Aaron says. “When everyone’s settled down a little. Okay? Now come here, you have toilet paper in your teeth.”

Derek nods a little and gives in, eeling forward until he’s partially in his father’s lap. The toilet paper package tumbles out of the cabinet and onto the floor. He watches it go with mild interest. He relinquishes the cardboard to his father and lets the man pick clumps of paper from between his teeth. This is not unfamiliar, although it’s been a long time. He’s had thread and bits of fabric from sheets or towels, actual rawhide and bits of leather. But paper is the worst.

“Gotta get you some of those elk antlers again, kid,” Aaron says, but his tone is just mildly amused. He finishes what he’s doing and gives Derek a quick scratch behind the ears. “Go on, now, get outta here,” he adds, and at this Derek nods again, finishes crawling out of the cabinet, and pushes his whole face into his father’s chest in a wolf-to-human hug.

He holds that position for a long moment, just breathing, before stepping around his father and out of the room into the rest of the house. The living room still smells like smoldering rage and it makes him slink low to the floor while crossing the wide open space. He does give his abandoned clothes a second glance but decides that escape is higher on his list of priorities. He feels more comfortable in the silence his fur provides him, so he uses a paw to open the lever door handle, his teeth on the outside to close it behind him, and then he darts out into the evening.

Behind him, Aaron gives his head a little shake before hauling himself to his feet. He heads towards the stairs, then hesitates. There’s an important question that he simply has to have answered before he can discuss what just happened with his wife. So instead of going upstairs, he peers out the back door.

As he had hoped, Peter hasn’t gone far. He’s standing on the back porch, breathing in the warm summer night air. He glances up as Aaron comes out of the house and stands beside him, but says nothing. Aaron looks down at his own hands. Some of Derek’s fur is caught between his fingers. “Are you okay?” he asks Peter. “I mean, on your own relative scale, that is.”

“Mm.” Peter ponders. “That’s rather insulting, but yes, I do believe I’m fine.”

“If I hadn’t thrown in the qualifier you would have . . .” Aaron puts his hands up in surrender. “Never mind. I’m glad you’re fine.” He decides just to accept that he’s going to spend the entire evening getting kicked in the teeth. He had just wanted to go bowling with some guys from work. Apparently that had been a mistake.

Peter doesn’t respond for a long moment, but then he says, “I’m sorry, did you want something?”

“I have a list, actually,” Aaron says dryly. “But I was hoping that I could get the name of the person we’re dealing with. Cora said that you and Stiles have a name.”

“Yes, we do,” Peter says, folding his arms over his chest. “But I’m baffled as to why you want it. I thought I was delusional and you were all just humoring me.”

“What do you want me to say? That I’m sorry? I am. I’m sorry. I wanted there to be someone to blame, too. Two of my children had been killed and another was on a razor’s edge. And the rest of the pack . . .” He doesn’t know how to finish the sentence. “I prayed for there to be someone to blame. But every time I asked a question or tried to turn something over to the police and the fire inspector, they just laid more evidence out in front of me, saying there was no one. What do you want from me? I couldn’t live like that. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to sacrifice everyone who’s left because I can’t admit that maybe I was wrong.”

Peter gives him a look that shows some mild surprise at how upset Aaron is. Then he shakes his head a little. “But you don’t need to, Aaron. I’m taking care of everything.” He turns his gaze back out to the forest. “I haven’t had your help for the past six years, and I neither want nor need it now.”

“Maybe I want to know who murdered my children.” The words come out past clenched teeth. He takes a deep breath. His place in the pack isn’t to be the angry one. It’s to be the person that tries to soothe everyone’s tempers and mend hurt feelings. To keep the peace. “Can I go upstairs and tell Cora that she doesn’t need to be afraid?”

“Nothing will happen to your children while I’m here,” Peter says. Then he turns and looks at Aaron again. “But if you want the details, ask Stiles. He solved this, not me. He knows – or at least thinks – that he will never have Talia’s love, but he will be damned if he does not have her respect. And after all he’s done for me, I’m not going to say anything he doesn’t want me to.”

“No one is talking to Stiles tonight. I coaxed Derek out of the bathroom cabinet and sent him over there. He didn’t even shift back to two legs. I don’t want anyone bothering them tonight.” He rubs his hands together slowly. “I need to go talk to Talia.”

“Yes, you do,” Peter says. He stretches and says, “I think I’ll go for a walk.”

It’s only then that Aaron realizes that for all these years, when Peter has disappeared into the forest for hours at a time, he was searching for threats, protecting their territory. He has to take a deep breath before he can speak again. He puts a hand on his forearm, not holding him, but just letting it rest there. “I’m sorry. Again. And thank you. I’ll tell Cora what you said.”

Peter nods, shakes Aaron’s arm off, and strolls into the forest, vanishing into the darkness. Aaron lets him go. Then he takes a minute to just breathe on his own, before going inside to face his wife. He goes upstairs and gives the bedroom door a gentle knock before going inside. Talia is pacing back and forth, arms folded over her stomach like she’s trying to hold herself together. She looks up when Aaron comes in, but then away, unable to meet his gaze. “You here to tell me what a terrible alpha I am, too?”

Aaron doesn’t reply at first. He just wraps his arms around her so her head is resting against his shoulder. “No. I’m here to ask you if you’re all right.”

Talia lets out a bitter laugh. “Oh, sure. I probably just succeeded in splintering my own pack into pieces, and our son most likely hates me, but I’m fine. A-okay.”

He rubs her arm with one hand, still holding her close. There are things to be worked on, yes, but that will have to wait until she’s worked through the welter of guilt, anger, and loss that she’s feeling. “He doesn’t hate you. If he hated you, he would have been able to make an easy decision to follow Stiles out of the house, but that’s not what he did.”

“Maybe he should,” Talia says, pressing her cheek into her husband’s shoulder. “Maybe it would be easier for him if he did.”

“He should hate his own mother because she made a mistake?” Aaron rocks her back and forth a little and then kisses the top of her head. “Now who’s being the melodramatic one?”

Voice muffled by his shoulder, she says, “You’re a terrible person. Nothing about this is funny.”

“Except for the fact that I had to pick toilet paper out of my twenty-four year old son’s teeth, you mean?” Aaron asks. “That isn’t amusing, at all?”

“Oh, God.” Talia lets out a strangled laugh that quickly turns into a flood of tears. Aaron just keeps holding her and gently rocking her. He hadn’t meant to make her cry, but on the other hand, it might be good for her to get it out of her system. At least he wasn’t going to be fighting an uphill battle the entire way.

It takes several minutes for Talia to wrestle herself back into some semblance of self-control. She pulls away from Aaron, wiping her eyes. “I need to get some water,” she says, and heads into the bathroom. She comes out a moment later, sipping a cup. “Jesus. I didn’t mean . . . I don’t know what to do. I can’t . . . Aaron, I can’t deal with this. I don’t even know where to start.”

“You can deal with this,” Aaron tells her. “Do you know why? Because you are my wife, and my alpha, and you are amazing and you love your pack. You just need a little help right now. That’s what you have me for. Okay?” He gives her a minute to absorb that, but not long enough to argue, before continuing. “We have to start back at the beginning, I think. With Stiles. Because Peter is refusing to share anything. I already talked to him.”

“God, my brother can be such an asshole,” Talia says, the words entirely without heat. Then she shakes her head. “I can’t. I mean, he won’t accept anything from me. Maybe you should – ”

“No.” Aaron cuts her off, his voice gentle but immovable. “Stiles has learned to live with my company, but he’ll never accept much of anything from me, much less an apology, until he hears it from you. He fully understands now that mates function as a unit and you’re the alpha. Your opinion carries more weight. Both for the two of us and for the pack.” He falls quiet and waits, knowing this will be hard for Talia to swallow, but he’s always been better at reading the subtle emotional undercurrents than her. She’s always trusted him before.

Talia shakes her head and says wearily, “I’ve never given him any reason to listen to a word I say. If I try to apologize, he’ll punch me in the face.”

“Then let him,” Aaron says. “You can’t just let someone else handle this for you. Don’t you see that’s what you’ve been doing with him the whole time? Letting the rest of us handle him? That got him to the point of agreeing to be in the pack, and now he is in the pack, and he’s waiting for you to acknowledge him. But you keep avoiding him. That’s what you’ve been doing for months and it’s not going to cut it now.”

“Jesus.” Talia looks away, but heaves a sigh. “You’re right, I guess, I just . . .” Her jaw tightens. “You don’t know half of what he said to me tonight.”

“No, I don’t. I’m betting some of it was out of line and that he acted like a little shit. He seems like the type who could pull that off with ease. And he might have even meant to hurt you, and no, that isn’t okay.” He rubs his hands against his thighs because he doesn’t want to tug at his hair. Even ‘wolves can go bald. “But he’s also only seventeen. All teenagers are prone to being little shits sometimes. We’re adults. We have to cut them some slack.”

Talia sighs. “All right. Fine. I suppose I should give him a call.”

“Okay.” He steps over to her and runs the backs of his fingers gently over her cheek. “Let’s let it rest until tomorrow, though. I sent Derek over there and I don’t think he can take any more turmoil tonight.”

Talia nods reluctantly. “I don’t think I’ll sleep,” she says. “Our pack . . .” It takes effort, but she chokes out the words. “Our pack is in danger.”

“From the inside or the outside?” Aaron asks, wanting to be sure of what she means.

“Well, both, but . . . someone . . .” Her voice breaks. “Someone killed our children.” She starts to cry again. “My brother, my niece, my father. Olivia and the baby . . .”

Aaron just hugs her, hard. He buries his face in her hair and doesn’t say anything. Talia holds onto him, and they stay like that for a long time.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

By the time Stiles gets back to his house, he’s worked himself through the frothing rage and moved onto a mix of miserable guilt and stung pride. He’s pretty sure he’s never going to be able to look at Talia or be in her presence again, and he doesn’t even care. He’s going to solve this whether she likes it or not.

He had half hoped that he could sulk by himself, but his father’s cruiser is in the driveway. He sighs and pushes the front door open. “Hey, I’m home,” he says, kicking off his shoes and wandering into the living room, where his father is watching a baseball game.

“Thought you’d be staying the night at Derek’s,” Tom says, glancing up.

“Yeah, I’m . . . not,” Stiles says, getting a can of Coke from the fridge.

Tom grabs the remote and mutes the game. “Why not?” he asks. He isn’t stupid. It’s obvious that there must be some sort of weird apocalypse looming.

Stiles slams the refrigerator shut so hard that bottles inside clink and rattle. “Because they found out what Peter and I were doing, and Talia, in her infinite wisdom, told me to quit it, so I told her to go to Hell.”

At this, Tom turns the television off entirely, because it’s clear that this needs to be addressed and Stiles won’t be settling anywhere. “Give me the details,” he says, so Stiles does, vigorously, loudly, and often with profanity. Tom tries to listen without commentary, but then Stiles gets to the part where Talia slapped him. “Wait. Back up to the part where she hit you.” His eyes have taken on that pinched look he gets when he’s really pissed.

Automatically, Stiles’ hand goes to the red mark that’s lingering on his cheek. “Well, uh, she just slapped me, it’s not like she couldn’t have actually taken my head off with one swing if she had wanted to.”

Tom doesn’t seem to care about Stiles’ opinion on the subject. He moves into his son’s personal space and carefully tilts his face until the reddened cheek is facing the light, and runs firm but gentle fingers along the bone.

“Ow, Dad, is that really necessary – ”

“Yes. I’m trying to decide if I need to go pistol whip someone. That’s contingent on how angry I am, which in turn is contingent on how hurt you are.”

“Look, as much as I would love to see you go pistol whip Talia Hale, real talk, I’m not hurt. She just slapped me, that’s all.” Stiles takes a step backwards, trying to evade his father’s hands.

“Did your feet leave the floor?” Tom lets go, but doesn’t let Stiles get far.

“Uh,” Stiles says, thinking back, “not both at the same time.”

Tom holds a finger up in front of Stiles’ nose. “Follow my finger, don’t move your head,” he says. Stiles huffs and obeys. This sort of thing goes on for a few minutes until he’s convinced that his son is fine aside from what’s sure to be a whopper of a bruise.

“You did hear me say she only slapped me, right?” Stiles asks.

“And I know that she’s an alpha werewolf who was upset when she did it. Even humans can lose track of their strength when they’re angry sometimes.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Stiles makes a face and presses the can of soda against his cheek. It doesn’t hurt, thanks to Derek, but he knows that it’s swelling. “I’m just so fucking mad. She acts like I don’t have any right to try to protect the pack. Like I’m not even in it. What the fuck is wrong with her? I have as much right to protect them, to protect Derek, as she does.”

Tom sighs and rubs a hand over the back of his head. “I’m going to guess that her problem is more having to swallow the facts about the fire than you being in the pack.”

“You know what, fuck that shit,” Stiles says. “What happened to her was horrible and if she doesn’t want to get involved, fine, but she can stop telling her brother that he’s crazy and she can stop telling me that I’m worthless.”

“Son, Peter is crazy,” Tom says. “I think it’s important to make a distinction here. Peter is crazy. His mate is dead. If a werewolf is really bonded to their mate – and about ninety-five percent of them are – than losing them drives them off the edge.” It often drives the human half off, too, which terrifies Tom. Someday, should anything happen to Derek, he’ll get to watch his only child throw himself off a cliff or quickly lose his emotional grip on everything. “You know they prefer to die together. So he’s crazy. He’s just not delusional. I’ve always thought that she gave in to the fire inspectors too easily. And she sure as hell shouldn’t have hit you. You know you aren’t worthless.” He opens his arms, offering a hug, wishing that Stiles felt it as much as he knew it.

Stiles sighs and steps into his father’s embrace, knowing that it will make his father feel better, if nothing else. All the time around the pack has gotten him more accustomed to physical contact, so his once-awkward hugs with his father are becoming more comfortable and routine. He rests his forehead against his father’s shoulder for a minute. “She just doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say. About anything. It’s so fucking frustrating.”

After a moment, Tom lets his son go. “Can I say a couple things you won’t like? Keeping in mind that I think you’re entirely right about the fire and that she really would do well to shut up and listen?”

Stiles frowns and backs up a little, giving his father a suspicious look. “When have you ever hesitated to say stuff you think I won’t like?”

“Good point,” Tom says, and shrugs a little. “But I want you to be able to get along with these people. You used to be alone so much of the time, and I know you’re a lot happier now, so I don’t want things to get ruined between you and the pack. That means I want to be sure you actually listen to what I tell you. If you’re still too worked up to talk rationally about this, I’ll wait.”

“Oh my God, Dad, get to the point before I freak out.”

Tom sighs and gives in. “I think there are two things that caused this argument with you and Talia. First of all, she has no idea how to handle another alpha personality in her pack. It has to be hard for her, on an instinctual level. That doesn’t mean she’s not doing a piss poor job of it, and if she raises a hand to you again, I’m going to shoot her.” He lets out another sigh. “Secondly. On the subject of the fire. Yes, I think she should listen to you. Yes, I believe whole-heartedly that you and Peter are correct. And yes, I think she should have let me re-open the case when I offered. But when she didn’t, I realized that denial was her way of handling the trauma. You deconstructed her coping mechanism, so she’s lashing out. It’d be like forcing Derek not to leave the kitchen when you’re cooking, or, uh, forcing us to talk about your mother, you know?” He sees Stiles open his mouth to object, and says, “I’m not saying you shouldn’t have brought it up or forced her to face it, because as much as I can sympathize, this coping mechanism is a luxury she can’t really afford. She has a pack to protect. I would talk about your mother until I was blue in the face, if you ever got sick and some doctor thought knowing about her would help.”

Stiles gives his father a suspicious look and doesn’t question his metaphors. “You braced me for bad news, but it sounds like you’re agreeing with me. Is there a ‘but’ coming? I hear a ‘but’ coming.”

“I think you should do something you may not be very good at. Cut the woman some slack.”

Stiles’ jaw sags open a little. “Really? Really? She’s spent the last five months making me feel like something she scraped off the bottom of her shoe, and I’m supposed to just be okay with that?”

“No, you aren’t supposed to be ‘okay’ with it. You’re just supposed to try not to take your anger out on her. At this rate, if she decides to pull her head out of her ass, you’ll neither notice nor care.”

“Look, I thought I was cutting her some slack. She didn’t want to know, she didn’t want to be involved, so Peter and I were just . . . going to do this ourselves. We would solve it together, Peter would, you know, take care of it . . . and Talia wouldn’t even have to know. I was trying. But I don’t know what you think I should have done when she backed me in the corner and told me to stop.”

“It’s not what you did, Stiles, it’s how you did it,” Tom says. “I’m not saying I don’t understand that you were upset, but throwing it in her face like that was never going to work and you knew that.”

“Throwing it into her face was the only way to get her to accept it at all,” Stiles replies.

Tom takes a drink of his beer and says, “How’d that work out for you?”

Stiles’ face screws up in frustration, and it looks like he might go off on another tirade, when the doorbell rings. He glares in its general direction. His father sighs and says, “Here, I’ll get it. You . . . get some actual ice for that cheek.” He heads for the door. Looking through the peephole reveals absolutely nothing, and he frowns before he swings the door open to reveal an actual wolf sitting on their doorstep.

Derek’s sitting there, drooping with emotional exhaustion. His fur is rumpled and has collected bits of flora from his trip through the forest. He looks up when the sheriff opens the door, then droops a little more at the scent of anger and frustration that rolls out of the house.

Tom sighs and stands back to let him in. “There’s a, uh, a wolf here to see you,” he calls over to Stiles.

Stiles walks over and looks at Derek in some surprise. Then, without a word, he drops to his knees and wraps his arms around Derek, resting his cheek against his fur. Derek wastes no time cramming his face into Stiles’ shoulder, one front foot coming up to paw at Stiles until it finds purchase on the other shoulder and rests there. For a few moments, he just stays like that, taking in Stiles’ scent, the predominate worry over seeing Derek so upset. Then he gives a brief canine kiss on Stiles’ cheek.

“Ewwwww,” Stiles protests, in a completely joking tone, and he rubs Derek behind the ears. “How can your tongue be so awesome when you have two legs and so slobby and gross when you have four?”

“Oh, lord, Stiles, I don’t need to hear about this,” his father says. “I’m going to go get another beer,” he adds, figuring that Derek doesn’t need an audience right now.

Derek just responds by giving another lick, sliding down so he’s just in Stiles’ lap rather than trying to crawl into his arms. Stiles shifts a little so he’s sitting down instead of kneeling, for easier lap access. He leans against the wall and runs his hands over Derek’s fur in long, sweeping gestures, picking out bits of grass and leaves as he does so. “You’re gonna need a bath before you can sleep in my bed tonight, buster,” he says, and Derek wiggles, getting more comfortable. After a few minutes have gone by, Stiles says, “Sooooo . . . are we gonna sit here all night?”

Derek heaves a sigh, climbs to his feet, and paces over to the kitchen sink, where he sits down and gives it and Stiles an expectant look.

Stiles blinks at him. “Uhm. What? If that’s where you want your bath, I don’t think you’ll fit.”

Derek rolls his eyes, licks his muzzle, and then lets his tongue loll out of his mouth in the unmistakable, universal expression of ‘thirsty canine’.

“What’s that?” Stiles asks. “Timmy’s fallen down the well?”

Derek gives a mock growl that suggests strongly that Timmy might be spending a lot of time in that well if he doesn’t shape up. Stiles just laughs and gets to his feet, heading over and getting a mixing bowl big enough for Derek to stick his face into and filling it up with water. “Do you know, Timmy never actually fell down a well?” he says, setting the bowl down. “None of the companion humans did.”

As it turns out, Derek hadn’t known that, and cocks his head to one side while waiting for his drink. He’ll ask Stiles about it later, to see him laugh. As soon as the bowl is set down, he sticks his face in it. There’s a pause to making some horrible hacking noises while he coughs up some toilet paper.

“This is . . . kinda weird,” Stiles says pensively. “I mean, I know you’re you in there, but it’s like . . . I feel like there should be some sort of werewolf sign language or something, because it’s weird to have you here but not really be able to talk with you, and you’re drinking water from a bowl on the floor.”

Derek lifts his face from the bowl and licks the dripping water from his lips politely so he doesn’t make a mess. He can see Stiles’ point, though sign language would defeat half his purpose. He sometimes retreats to his fur to escape the complications of verbal language and communication. Derek feels no shame in drinking from bowls in this form or laying on the cool tile floor. Bowls are easier to use and the cool tile feels good through his fur. These things aren’t demeaning, if that’s what Stiles is afraid of. But he doesn’t think rolling over and asking for a belly rub would make Stiles feel any better either. He’ll just have to talk to Stiles about it later. Show him the things at the house made for wolf paws just like human hands. For now, he shrugs, cocks his ears forward to and looks Stiles in the eye to show that Stiles has his full attention and he understand exactly what they’re talking about, then takes one more drink from the bowl with purpose.

“If you say so,” Stiles says, amused despite himself. “Well, Dad’s watching the game, so TV is out, but we could go up to my room and watch some stuff on my computer, if you wanted.”

At this, Derek stands and gives his tail a tick-tock of pleasure. Something to do, not talking about what happened, and best of all being snuggled up against Stiles. It sounds great.

“Okey dokey.” Stiles calls out to his dad, “We’re gonna go watch TV in my room,” and then he heads upstairs without another word with Derek on his heels. He kicks his shoes off, drags his desk over to the end of his bed so he can put his laptop on it and then can watch from there. He’s not exactly looking at Derek as he pulls up his menu and goes looking for something to watch. “Look, uh,” he says. “I’m not sorry. Exactly. But I’m sorry I upset you. Okay?”

Derek thinks about giving up his silence for the evening, but that nervous urge to sink his teeth into something tells him it’s a bad idea. Talking can wait until tomorrow. Instead, he accepts the apology by rubbing his cheek to Stiles’ as soon as the teenager joins him on the bed. “Yeah, yeah,” Stiles says, ruffling all his fur. “You’re nothing but a big marshmallow. I know your secret.”

It wasn’t a secret, really, but Derek can’t point that out. So he shivers a little at the pleasant sensation of Stiles’ hands on him, flicks an ear at his mate, and then snuggles up to his side.

Five minutes of the movie have gone on when Stiles suddenly says, “Dude. Are you chewing on my shirt?”

Derek lets it fall from his teeth and rolls guilty eyes up at Stiles. Then he flattens his head to his paws and focuses on the movie.

“I’m not saying you had to stop, I was just, uh, making sure I understood the situation,” Stiles replies. There’s another ear flick and then Derek pointedly resettles himself with his muzzle nowhere near Stiles’ shirt. By the end of the movie, Stiles is half asleep. He rouses himself long enough to brush his teeth and comb out Derek’s fur, since it’s obvious that Derek doesn’t plan on changing back to being a human any time soon.

“Now remember, no shedding,” he says sternly to Derek as they get into bed, and the wolf gives him a politely incredulous look before snuggling up to his chest. Stiles is asleep a few minutes later.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

When Stiles wakes up the next morning, his room is dimly lit from the sun coming in around the edge of the curtains. Derek is still asleep, so Stiles crawls out of bed. He does his business in the bathroom and then throws on jeans and a T-shirt before going downstairs to make breakfast. It’s Sunday, the day he normally makes a big breakfast for the pack, and a pang of guilt goes through him as he pulls eggs and bread out of the refrigerator. He doubts Derek will tolerate the smell of cooking meat right now, so he settles for cheesy scrambled eggs and toast.

About five minutes later, Derek comes down on bare human feet, hardly making any sound. He’s dressed in his own clothes, a T-shirt and pair of sweat pants that he had left there for the nights he winds up staying over. They smell like laundry soap, so obviously they had been washed, folded, and put away in Stiles’ room by either him or his father. Derek only looks a little more rumpled than usual since he hardly ever uses a mirror to put himself together even on a normal day.

Stiles is whistling tunelessly as he reaches into a cabinet so he can make some tea, since he knows Derek doesn’t like coffee. He turns around to go to the sink for water, catches Derek out of the corner of his eye, and yelps, dropping the canister. Derek lunges and catches it before tea can go scattering all over the floor. “Safe!” he says, and hands it back. “Sorry. Shoes help me make noise.”

“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock,” Stiles says, taking the canister. He gives Derek a sneaking, sidelong glance as he grabs the kettle, not sure whether or not their normal morning make-out routine is recommended in these circumstances, and trying not to notice how low the sweatpants hang on his hips. Derek’s giving him a sideways look in equal proportion. “Hey, so . . .” Stiles says, trying to martial his thoughts. “You hungry?”

“I, uh, I don’t know.” Derek is quiet for a second. “Are you going to tell me what you and Peter found out?”

Stiles shoves the scrambled eggs around in the pan, not looking at him. “If you want me to,” he says, his voice painfully neutral.

Derek knows that tone. That’s the tone that says Stiles is afraid of being rejected. He doesn’t need scent to tell him what he can hear and see. He moves towards Stiles, into his personal space. “Yes. I’d like to know what you two found out. I wish, God, I wish it wasn’t there for you to find, but I’m glad we aren’t blind to it anymore.” After a moment, he adds, “No, I’m not hungry. Fire and food are a bad mix. Sorry.”

“S’okay.” Stiles turns the stove off and wraps an arm around Derek’s waist, hooking his chin over Derek’s shoulder. “I never meant to upset you. I thought . . . I hoped that Peter and I could take care of it . . . quietly. You know.”

“Yeah, I sort of got that.” Derek wraps an arm around Stiles’ waist. “We need to have a talk about things it’s okay to keep from each other, like birthday surprises and accidentally turning the laundry pink, and things that aren’t, like hunting for family-murdering-psychopaths.” He takes a breath and leans more heavily against Stiles. “Whether it upsets me or not.”

“Okay,” Stiles says, with a sigh. “Will it bother you if I eat?” he adds, shoveling eggs onto a plate and grabbing jam out of the fridge. Derek shakes his head, so Stiles starts slathering butter and jam on his toast. “Water’s ready,” he says, with his mouth full.

“Thanks.” Derek grabs a mug and a teaspoon and sets about making himself tea. It’s good to have something to focus on, and he wants the caffeine and the soothing warmth. After another moment, he says, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to stop my mom from hurting you. She shouldn’t have done that. Done a lot of things.”

“I really . . . don’t want to talk about your mother,” Stiles says, with a sigh. “But don’t worry about it. Peter had my back.”

Derek nods, and gives in to Stiles’ request because he doesn’t know how to talk about it. Hearing Peter threaten his mother made him just as sick as hearing his mother hurt his mate. He doesn’t know what to do with either of those things.

“Apparently I should try to cut your mother some slack or something like that,” Stiles says, shoveling more eggs into his mouth. “Anyway, yeah, I sort of . . . . tried to talk to you about it, but you just got so upset whenever the fire came up. I knew it . . . had to have been horrible for you, so I just . . . I don’t know. I probably fucked everything up.”

“That time in the car,” Derek says, nodding. “When you asked my opinion. And I told you that Peter was really smart.” He sips his tea and takes a deep breath. “It was really awful. I have blanks and . . . things I wish were blank. But if someone did that to us. I have to know. Even if I spend the next four hours having flashbacks and dry heaving in your bathroom.”

“Dude, not comforting,” Stiles says, shaking his head. But then he reaches out and takes Derek’s hand. “Here. Follow me.”

Derek curls his fingers around Stiles’ and gets up. Stiles leaves his breakfast abandoned and goes up the stairs to his bedroom. “Just . . . sit here,” he says, ushering Derek to sit on the end of his bed, holding the mug of tea between both hands. Then he lets out a breath and starts taking the posters out of his closet. He’s compacted them now, gotten rid of extraneous details that have turned out not to matter, made things smaller so they would fit better. But the scope is still impressive. He starts tacking them up on the wall. “There it is,” he says, with a gesture, when all of them are up.

For a long minute, Derek just studies the information laid out before him, his skin turning pale. “The renovations . . . they knew. They knew there were kids in the house.” His voice comes out strangled. “D . . . David was only eight.” One hand comes up to cover his mouth, and he swallows convulsively.

“I know,” Stiles says quietly, waiting for the worst of it to pass.

It takes quite a while, and even when he starts talking again, he still doesn’t look very good. “You . . . you’re going to have to explain. I can’t think well enough to . . . he was only eight.”

“We don’t have to do this now,” Stiles says.

“No, we – ” Derek’s voice is cut off as Stiles’ phone rings.

Stiles gets it off his desk and glances at the screen. “It’s your mother,” he says, and hands the phone to Derek. “I guess you don’t have yours.”

Derek answers it without having to fumble, since it had been his up until only a month ago. “Hi, Mom,” he says, a little wary.

Talia’s voice is tired, almost hoarse. “Derek. Are you all right?”

“Uh . . . mostly,” Derek says. He’s not in the habit of lying to his mother. “I’m with Stiles, so . . . that’s okay.”

There’s a notable pause. “May I speak with him for a few moments?”

Derek takes a deep breath. “Are you going to yell?”

“No. I . . . I just need to apologize.”

“Okay.” Derek puts his hand over the phone and says, “She wants to talk to you,” before holding it out to Stiles.

The teenager takes it somewhat reluctantly, but tries to sound normal. “Good morning,” he says into the phone.

“Good morning, Stiles,” Talia says. “I . . . there are some things I need to tell you, and I would prefer to do it to your face, if possible. But . . . I’m sorry. Really. I owe you an apology for so many things. I never meant to hurt you or make you feel unwelcome, or try to exclude you from the pack. I’m . . . the fire changed all of us in different ways. If you’re willing, I . . . I would like to know what you’ve found out.”

The words come out a little grudging, but Stiles doesn’t think that’s because she doesn’t mean them. She’s clearly a woman who’s not used to having to apologize, and to be fair, he wouldn’t be happy about it in her shoes, either. He reminds himself of what his father said, and lets out a breath. “Okay,” he says. “We can be over in about an hour.” His mother-hen side gets the better of him. “Have you guys had breakfast? I know it’s still early.”

“I think Aaron was talking about going out to get some coffee and donuts,” Talia says, “so don’t worry about it.”

“Okay. We’ll be there soon.” Stiles hangs up and slides the phone into his pocket. He shakes his head a little and says, “Man, this didn’t go the way I intended at all. I mean, I knew you’d be upset, but I thought . . . you know, you’d see all the work I’d done and what an awesome badass detective I am and start tearing my clothes off, and we could, like, have sex in the middle of the posters and everything.”

Derek gives the posters another quick glance without absorbing the details. “I am absolutely impressed. And if it wasn’t about the fire, it would be so hot. Remember that for the next time you do something like this, because I’m sure there will be a next time, and I plan to tear your clothes off then.”

Stiles smirks despite his best efforts. “Okay, well . . . how about a kiss, at least?”

“I think that can be arranged.” Derek loops an arm around Stiles’ waist and pulls him in for a gentle, chaste kiss. Stiles returns it, slow and easy, one hand curling at the back of Derek’s neck, fingers twining into the short hairs there.

This goes back and forth for a few minutes before Stiles pulls away and says, “We are going to take care of this, Derek. And no one is going to hurt you while I’m around. Okay?”

Derek nods a little. “Okay. Just . . . no more secrets, okay? Even if they upset me. I’d rather be upset.”

Stiles isn’t so sure about that, but there’s no way to explain everything he’s learned without going into the way he’s been talking to Kate Argent, so there’s nothing he can do but agree. He packs up his laptop, which has copies of everything that’s on the posters, and they head over to the Hale house.

It’s somewhat more chaotic than usual. There are the aforementioned donuts and coffee in the kitchen, and a palpable aura of relief at Stiles and Derek’s arrival. Cora hugs Stiles for about five minutes, and Aaron immediately starts forcing Gatorade down Derek’s throat, because, “you don’t want to see a werewolf with low blood sugar.” Tyler’s had two donuts and is acting out on a sugar high. Laura is chasing after him, clearly flustered. Peter is sitting in the bay window, turning his wedding ring around in his fingers, and he doesn’t seem to notice Derek and Stiles having showed up.

Talia comes down the stairs looking tired, with dark smudges underneath her eyes. She’s dressed casually for the first time since Stiles has met her, in a tank top and gym shorts. Her hair is pinned up in a messy bun. “Derek,” she says, relief obvious in her voice, and she pulls him into an embrace.

Derek hugs her back, still holding onto his drink in one hand behind her back. “Mom.”

She kisses him on the forehead before letting him go. Then she looks at Stiles and lets out a breath. “I . . . would you walk with me, Stiles? I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes.”

Stiles gives her a steady look, and then nods. “Sure.”

Talia heads outside without bothering to stop for shoes. They walk in silence for almost ten minutes. Stiles lets her gather her thoughts. Finally, she says, “I met Aaron when I was your age. He was another werewolf at the Searching Ceremony, and . . . we found each other. I’ve always looked upon it as a special day, a sacred day. Derek has never seen it that way. I don’t know if that has something to do with the fire, or if it’s just the way he is. The way he complained about having to go has always bothered me. When he came home with you, I . . . it was the culmination of years’ worth of tension and stress. I took that out on you, which was incredibly unfair of me. Even if Derek had been playing a cruel joke on you – which for God’s sake I should have known my own son would never do – I would have only made it worse.

“But please believe me when I say it was nothing about you that made me react that way beyond your age and your gender. I didn’t know you at all. I reacted based solely on those two things, not because there are any other reasons I thought you wouldn’t make a worthy addition to my pack. You are a remarkable, amazing person, and you make Derek happier than I’ve ever seen him, and that’s worth the world to me.

“The fire changed all of us . . . Derek has barely smiled or laughed since then, until he met you. To be honest, Stiles, I wouldn’t care if you were Cletus the slack-jawed yokel, hearing the way you make Derek laugh. Because that is what’s important to me. I can’t bring back the people that were lost . . . but I think maybe you can bring back the Derek from before the fire. Even if he’s never really the same, he can be happy again.

“And I did avoid you, and it wasn’t a good way of dealing with it. I just thought . . . you were getting comfortable, finding your place, and I thought it would be easier for you if I just wasn’t around very much. I didn’t mean it as an insult. I was trying to take care of my son in the only way I could. By giving the two of you space. So.” She lets out a breath. “I don’t know if you can forgive me, but . . . if the pack is in danger . . . I need to know. Because I need to protect them. You were right; the way I was refusing to face up to this was putting them in danger. And I can’t let them be hurt again because of me.”

“The fire wasn’t because of you,” Stiles says quietly. “It was a hate crime, plain and simple. Sometimes they target prominent werewolves, but sometimes they’ve killed entire families, too. There was nothing you could have done to prevent it.”

Talia lets out a shuddering sigh. “I think it’s going to take me a long time to believe that.”

“That’s okay,” Stiles says. “Maybe that’s good. And, uh . . . I’m sorry, too. I was kind of a shithead yesterday. You know. I mean, even if I was right, I could’ve been a little more sensitive to your feelings.”

“Maybe a little,” Talia says, and she even manages to get a teasing tone in her voice. Stiles gives a huff of laughter but wipes his hand over his eyes. Talia stops walking and wraps her arms around Stiles’ shoulders. “I hope that . . . we can be all right with each other now.”

“Me too.” Stiles jams his hands into his pockets as she lets him go. “But I have a couple . . . conditions,” he adds. Talia automatically bristles, but then nods for him to continue. “First off. I know you want to rebuild the pack. I know it’s important to you. But Derek doesn’t want kids. He and I have talked about it. I think . . . maybe he’ll change his mind someday? I don’t know. I’m kind of neutral on the subject, and I’m only seventeen and we’re both guys, but I’d be up for adoption or surrogacy someday, I guess . . . but Derek can’t wrap his head around that right now and I need you to understand that. The more you pressure him about it, the more he’s just going to . . . close himself off to the possibility. I’m telling you this for your sake as much as his.”

After a brief pause, Talia nods. “Okay. I understand.”

“Secondly.” Stiles hunches his shoulders inwards. “We’ve talked about the fire . . . a couple times. And about rebuilding the pack, the way he feels like . . . he blames himself for not being able to rescue the others.” He sees Talia’s eyes flare crimson. “I know. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s Derek. He thinks that if he’d been able to save Olivia, Peter would be okay. Or that if he’d been able to save his brothers, you’d be okay with me. Please, when we get back to the house . . . will you please just tell him that nothing about this is his fault? That nobody blames him? I think he really needs to hear it.”

“Of course.” Talia wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “I didn’t . . . realize. How hard he was being on himself.”

“I think he had it pretty well buried for a long time,” Stiles says, “but a lot of what’s going on lately has brought it back to the surface. That’s all.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Talia says.

“Okay. Then let’s head back.”

The house is a little quieter when they get back. The donuts have been demolished, except for a few that were specially set aside for Stiles and Derek. Jonathan has taken Tyler and Sylvia to the park, where they can burn off some energy, so Laura can stay to hear what Stiles has to say. She and Cora are packed into an armchair together, crowded but clearly enjoying the close quarters. Derek is hovering near Peter, leaning against the wall, while his uncle still stares out the window. Stiles steps over to him and laces his fingers through Derek’s, giving his hand a squeeze.

Talia clears her throat and says, “Before Stiles gives us an overview . . . Derek, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Derek blinks at her, then reminds himself that he’s not in any sort of trouble, not with the way his mother greeted him. So he nods and takes a step towards her. It’s only then that he realizes he has to let go of Stiles.

“Go on, I’ve gotta talk to Uncle P anyway,” Stiles says, pulling his hand free. Derek lets his hand fall free and follows his mother into the kitchen.

Once they’re in relative private, she wraps her arms around him and pulls him in for another embrace. “None of this was your fault,” she says, her voice quiet and fierce. “Nobody died because of you, Derek. I’m so sorry that . . . it never occurred to me how much you blamed yourself for not being able to save the others. That wasn’t your fault.”

Derek starts to hug back but then just freezes instead. He doesn’t argue or agree or accept forgiveness. He just goes still.

“Oh, God, Derek, if I’d known . . .” Talia’s voice breaks. “I’m so sorry.” She hugs him tighter. “I know that you tried your best to save everyone. It’s not your fault, okay?”

Derek’s arms tighten around her, suddenly, convulsively. “I could hear them.” It’s just barely a whisper. “Aunt . . . Aunt Olivia . . . and, and then . . . Davey . . . I couldn’t move.”

“I know, Derek,” Talia chokes out. “I could hear them, too,” she says, and Derek starts crying silently into her shoulder. They stand there holding each other for a long time, until he finally starts to calm down. She rubs his back and gets him a glass of water. “Come on,” she says quietly. “Let’s go hear what Stiles and Peter have put together.”

“Okay.” Derek takes the water, sips it a few times, and lets his mother guide him back into the living room. His eyes are still damp, and he wipes at them with the heel of his hand, not because he doesn’t want anyone to see but because the damp feeling is annoying. Everyone in the house knows he was crying. Even if they hadn’t heard it, they’d be able to smell it on him.

Aaron pats the sofa next to him, and Derek sinks down onto it. Talia sits down on his other side, so he’s sandwiched between his parents, and looks at Stiles expectantly. Stiles is fidgeting, pacing back and forth in front of the bay window, while Peter still stares off into space.

“Okay,” Stiles says, and exhales. “I’m not sure . . . where to start.”

“At the beginning,” Aaron says. “Always start stories at the beginning.”

“Okay.” Stiles thinks about this. “Yeah, okay. Fifty years ago, this guy named Gerard Argent started an organization called the Werewolf Liberation Op. Because he hates werewolves and also is a psychopath, if I’ve got it straight. It’s sort of a family organization run by him and his daughter, Kate, and his brother, Alexander. They’ve spent the last several decades killing off werewolves, particularly prominent ones, and generally trying to stir up tension between werewolves and humans and make werewolves look bad.”

He takes and lets out another breath. “So. There are really two issues here. The first is the way that the WLO has been fucking with werewolf society in general, which is actually what I was working on the start of all this, so I guess that’s where I have to start with you guys, because that’s how I figured out they were responsible for the fire. They’ve also been sabotaging the Searching Ceremonies.” He takes one of the ‘how to win a werewolf’ pamphlets out of his backpack and hands it to Talia.

She flips through it, frowning. “This . . . makes no sense,” she says.

Aaron is leaning over her shoulder. “I’ve heard about these,” he says, rolling his eyes a little. “Kind of like a snake oil business.”

Derek takes it and looks it over, one lip curling up. “This is why I hated the Ceremonies. It’s just hours of bullshit.” He leans around his father and hands it to Cora. “Is that what you were talking about?”

“Yeah, this kind of crap,” Cora says, nodding.

“But it doesn’t make sense,” Talia says, clearly the most confused. “That’s got nothing to do with how the searching works.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Stiles says, “and up until about twenty years ago, they weren’t looked at as a competition at all. Then this sort of stuff started being released on the market, and it gradually took over the traditional views. It just slowly . . . poisoned the way it was supposed to be.”

“This is why everyone threw such a fucking fit when I chose you,” Derek says. “And why everyone gives Scott and Allison such a hard time about finding a human match.” His eyes widen. “Oh my God. I’m surprised her parents don’t have her tied up in their basement.”

Aaron frowns a little. “What . . .?”

Stiles holds up a finger. “Allison is Kate’s niece,” he says. “Her father, Chris, is an anti-werewolf activist but he is not involved in the WLO, as far as I can tell. He’s actually a lobbyist for – well, it has to do with guns, I didn’t get into it very much after I figured out it wasn’t involved with what was going on. But yes, the fact that Allison is related to Kate is important, but I’ll get to that in a minute.”

Talia is clearly enraged, her hands shaking as she looks through the pamphlet. “They – how dare they, this – this is supposed to be sacred, and they’ve turned it into some, some circus!”

“And why?” Laura asks quietly. “How does it benefit them?”

“By creating tension,” Stiles says. “Specifically, resentment. Like exactly what happened with me and Derek. He picked someone who didn’t fit the mold. People got outraged. I got hurt. My alpha came down and exercised her wolfy privilege. It stirred up an entire wasp’s nest of hurt feelings and sore losers.”

“Jesus.” Aaron rubs his hands over his face.

“Now, for a long time I had no idea that the WLO had anything to do with this,” Stiles continues. “I mean, I didn’t figure this stuff was malicious, just . . . misguided. And it didn’t seem like something out of the WLO’s playbook, since they typically want to keep humans away from werewolves. But then there’s this.” He rummages around in his bag and comes up with two of the competing perfume ads. “Specially designed to capture a werewolf’s attention,” he says, handing them to Talia, “and despite the fact that these companies are in direct competition with each other, if you follow the money trail, they’re actually both owned and financed by the WLO.”

Derek’s nose wrinkles. “Almost everyone wears perfume now. And you’re in closed rooms with all these people . . .”

“But half the point is catching someone’s scent . . .” Talia says. “A bunch of people all wearing perfume will only confuse a werewolf.”

“Yeah, and it probably doesn’t help that the perfumes are all infused with wolfsbane,” Stiles says.

Talia’s eyes flare crimson. “What?!” she snarls.

Derek leans into his mother, hoping his presence will calm her down some. “It’s not enough to really cause any sort of severe symptoms. And in a strange way, it did help me find the right person . . .”

“No, it didn’t,” Stiles says, pointing at him. “The fact that you were about to leave when I stumbled into the room because you had a headache is completely irrelevant. I’m the one who showed up. I could’ve done it after you’d been there ten minutes, or ten minutes after you left. All the perfume did was cause you to not be thinking clearly enough to completely fuck up the way you approached me.”

After a moment, Derek wilts and waits for Stiles to continue.

“So in addition to continuing to sow dissension between humans and werewolves,” Stiles says, “this also makes it less likely for werewolves to actually find mates, which of course makes them less likely to reproduce, et cetera.” He gives a little shrug and says, “Overall, it’s pretty genius. And this is the stuff that I can actually prove.”

Talia leans forward, her fists clenching. “But it’s not what you came to tell us today.”

“No,” Stiles agrees. He swallows once and says, “Not long after Derek chose me, I was approached by Kate Argent. She told me that Derek had only picked me because I was the sheriff’s son, and she tried to . . . persuade me . . . into basically turning into an undercover agent for her.” He falls silent, waiting to see what the reaction from the pack will be.

“ ‘Persuade’ you?” Derek asks, not at all liking the way that word stood alone in the sentence. Then the part about being the sheriff’s son clicks. “That was back when we rescued Cleo.” It obviously hasn’t occurred to him that Stiles might have done what she wanted. Even if Stiles hadn’t agreed to be his mate, he wasn’t the sort of person who would help a hate group.

“Yeah. Keep in mind, I was . . . kind of at a low point right around then.” Stiles swallows again, not looking at any of them. “I was having a really hard time at school, and I . . . sort of half-believed her, and she . . . kind of flattered me, and whatever, I’m not exactly proud of it, and then she kicked a stray cat and I realized she was a horrible person so that was basically the end of that.”

Derek nods, accepting the semi-apology for what it was and letting it go. They’ve already talked through those things. It’s going to take time for Stiles to accept what’s happened.

“Then . . . I changed my mind.” Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head. “See, I started to wonder what she was up to. Why she wanted someone inside the Hale pack. She didn’t seem dumb enough to believe the line she was trying to sell me – so what was she actually doing? So I, uh, I started meeting with her on a semi-regular basis and telling her stuff about you guys that, uh, wasn’t exactly true. I just kind of made up some bullshit to tell her, seeing what she was and wasn’t interested in.”

“Oh my God, Stiles,” Talia says. Peter shifts in his seat and says nothing. Derek makes a noise like he might have swallowed a fish, alive and whole. His hands reach out like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to clutch Stiles or strangle him, or maybe both.

“Now keep in mind that at that point I had no idea she was a murderous psychopath,” Stiles says hastily. “But, uh, anyway.” He starts talking very fast, as if to derail them from the concept of him spending time with Kate. “One time after I met with her, Peter got kind of upset and freaked out and said I smelled like an enemy. I didn’t think a lot of it at the time, but then he reacted the same way to Allison, and Allison and Kate wear the same perfume sometimes, and – yeah. It’s the scent that he reacted to. He smelled it the day of the fire. See, the rest of you all started inside, but Peter didn’t. We think he must have smelled it in the woods on his way there – the trail that Kate left behind after starting the fire.

“So then I started looking into that and I asked my dad if he thought the fire had been an accident. He said he had never been sure, so I kind of stole a bunch of reports from the police station and made a bunch of calls pretending to be a law enforcement officer, ahem, and that’s when I started finding all the other people the WLO had murdered. None of which is particularly relevant at this exact moment, but we did find an agent of the WLO who had worked on the crew that did the renovations about six months previous to the fire. He admitted to . . . well, it’s a long story, complicated science talk, they invented an odorless accelerant and he spread it all around your house, inside your walls.”

Derek hunches down between his parents, looking pale and sick. “Please tell me that different people built this house,” he chokes out.

“Wouldn’t actually matter,” Stiles says. “It was only the one guy, and he doesn’t work there anymore.”

“But yes,” Aaron assures his son.

“The problem,” Stiles says, “is that I can’t prove Kate Argent’s involvement. I’ve got heaps of circumstantial evidence but no hard proof. The only actual evidence I have that she did this is Peter’s reaction to her perfume.”

“Which is enough for us, but not for your father, or . . .” Derek stops. “Does he know?”

“Most of it, yeah. He’s been responsible for some of the financial stuff. Like the fire inspector, for example. Who went to college with Gerard Argent. To whom we can’t find any evidence of a bribe, but he certainly did start making some large purchases not long after the fire.”

“So there was no investigation at all, really,” Aaron says.

“Well, he did the basics. It’s more about what he didn’t find than what he did find. See, the accelerant they used isn’t something that would be checked for, since it was designer, so the guy could legitimately say he hadn’t found anything . . . but his report does specifically cite the evidence of an electrical fire, which of course wouldn’t have actually been there.”

Stiles lets out a breath, shifting from foot to foot while the others are just sitting in silent horror. “I . . . I think that’s it. I have, uh, a theory about how Kate set the fire, but it’s sort of stupid . . .”

“Tell us,” Talia says, then adds, “please.”

“Well . . . Allison does archery,” he says. “Just as a hobby. But she says Kate did too, when she was younger. I’m thinking, well, who here has seen Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves?”

“Jesus,” Cora mutters. “We were victims of a bad movie plot.”

“Maybe,” Stiles says. “Maybe. I can’t prove it. It’s just a guess. And if that’s what she did, we’ll likely never be able to prove it, which is why, I, uh, I’m sort of still working with her, hoping that I’ll get something from her – ”

“You what?” Derek blurts out.

Stiles clears his throat. “Uh, I just meet her a couple times a week, tell her all the reasons why you guys are really a terrible target for werewolf vengeance and shit and try to lead her into telling me something useful. It, uh, it hasn’t happened yet.”

Derek looks positively spooked. “What if she finds out that you aren’t on her side? That you’re playing a double agent?”

“Technically, I think I’m being a triple agent – ” Stiles sees several unamused stares and then adds, “but I always tell Peter when and where I’m meeting her, so he can watch my back. Anyway, she thinks I’m a besotted idiot, she’s not going to figure anything out.”

“Wait,” Derek says flatly. “Besotted. Why is the word besotted being used in conjunction with your interactions with a murdering psycho?” The words are nearly a growl.

“Well, uh,” Stiles says, rubbing a hand over the back of his head, “I can’t give her any reason to suspect my loyalty, right? And she kinda flirts with me, like, oh fuck, there’s no nice way to put it. She’s totally a pedophile and she thinks she’s seduced me with her feminine wiles and that’s why I’m helping her.”

“Actually, she’d be a ephebophile,” Peter murmurs, his first words since the conference started. “Pedophilia is an attraction to pre-pubescent youth.”

Derek nearly throws his hands up in the air to express his exasperation that now is when Peter chooses to chime in. “And how far does she make you go to convince her?”

Stiles’ cheeks turn pink. “Geez, Derek, it’s not like she molests me, you don’t need to make such a big deal out of it.”

Derek growls. “How. Far.”

“Nothing, we just, she’s kissed me once or twice, that’s all. I can handle it.”

Derek growls again.

“Right, so, anyway,” Stiles says hastily, “that’s where things currently stand, and I’ll totally keep you all posted, but as long as I’m still talking to Kate, I’m pretty sure that nobody’s in immediate danger.”

Talia is frowning. “You have no way of knowing that. You are in danger.”

Stiles sighs. “Look, I can take care of myself – ”

“And we could take care of her,” Talia says, giving Peter a significant look.

Peter perks up somewhat. “Mm. Yes, I could do that.”

Stiles grits his teeth. “After everything I’ve done to stay under her radar, you are not going to blow my cover.”

“You won’t need your cover if she’s dead, Stiles,” Peter murmurs.

“You be quiet, we’ve had this discussion already,” Stiles says. “If you kill her, you’re going to go to jail, and don’t give me that ‘nobody will find the body’ crap because you know that Kate has left documents that say if she turns up dead or missing, the Hale family is responsible. You know that because I know it, because she told me that, and so nobody will be killing her until we have solid evidence that she was responsible for the fire, and then you can claim pack protection and not be prosecuted.”

Derek leans his head back into the sofa and reminds himself that this is Stiles they’re dealing with. He has to remember that he can’t just come at him with an opinion and expect him to agree. When he’s determined, the best he can hope for is a compromise. “Can you at least try to look at it from our point of view for a few minutes? You’ve made it pretty crystal clear that she murdered half our pack, our family, so every protective instinct available wants her away from you and in the ground. Then you tell me that in order to keep getting information and maintain your cover . . .” His hands are curling over his knees, nails turning to claws despite his best efforts. “You have to play the part of a lovesick idiot and let her paw at you.” He grits his teeth to keep the growl behind them. “It’s not that I think you can’t handle that, or that I own you and no one should ever touch you, although obviously I’d prefer if they didn’t. It’s that you don’t like it.”

“Obviously I don’t like it,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes. “But do you seriously think I’m not willing to endure a little unpleasantness for the sake of the pack?”

“Aren’t I allowed to be upset about it?” Derek’s eyebrows climb. “And what’s plan B if no evidence shows up? I think a time limit would be reasonable.” He’s not sure what would happen after that, because he doesn’t want Peter in jail either.

“Peter’s already made it abundantly clear that he isn’t going to wait forever,” Stiles says sourly. Peter just gives a nonchalant little shrug.

“So what’s plan B?” Derek asks.

“I’m going to set her on fire and watch her burn,” Peter says.

Stiles flails a little and says, “For crying out loud, Peter, no. Plan B is that we expose WLO for all the murders that we can prove, and you’ll have to be satisfied with Kate Argent in jail.”

Talia’s lip curls a little, but she says, “If it comes to that. Fine.”

Derek looks around a little. “Is that everything? Yes? Good. I need to get out of here.” He throws himself to his feet, off the sofa, and towards the door.

Stiles hesitates. “Do you think I – ”

“Yes, for the love of God, go,” Aaron says, and Stiles wastes no time following Derek out the door.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Finding Derek is easy enough. Stiles just follows the line of shed and abandoned clothing. A shoe, then another shoe. Both socks. A shirt tossed over a tree branch. It let him know what direction Derek was moving in. Then he just jogs, heading deep into the forest, until he catches up. And even then he doesn’t slow or stop, but continues to keep pace with the wolf, who’s moving at a fast clip but not so much that Stiles can’t keep up.

Another few minutes go by before Derek gradually slows and then stops, waiting for Stiles to catch up. Once he does, however, Derek starts moving again. This time it’s only a brisk walk. It’s clear that he needs to move, but he also still wants the company.

Stiles is glad he slowed down when he did, because his lungs were starting to burn. Self-defense with Laura has helped his overall athletic ability, but stamina still isn’t his strong suit. He shoves his hands in his pockets and lets Derek set the pace. Derek curves their path in deference to Stiles’ lungs, which he can hear working harder than would be comfortable for the teenager. Humans aren’t built for the ground-covering paces that wolves are. He knows there’s a small clearing not too far away, so he starts keeping an eye out for a good stick.

Eventually, he sees one and darts off to the side to grab it before rejoining Stiles without warning. He leads Stiles on until they get to the clearing, where he drops the stick expectantly at Stiles’ feet. “Oof,” Stiles agrees, leaning against a tree and trying to catch his breath. He picks up the stick and gives it a solid toss.

Derek watches it sail away and land before taking off after it, just to give Stiles more time to catch his breath. Then he only trots back instead of running. “This is still silly,” Stiles tells him, giving it another throw. Derek gives Stiles a little sneeze, conveying his opinion rather eloquently, before taking off after the stick. He asks Stiles to throw it over and over again, sometimes letting it land, other times doing ridiculous maneuvers and catching it in the air. He stays moving, which is the important part. Eventually, he just watches it go, and instead of chasing it, he lays down at his mate’s feet. Stiles promptly sits down next to him, leaning over to run his hands over Derek’s fur and scratch behind his ears. Derek leans into it, heaving a sigh like he’s letting the tension out.

After a few minutes have passed, Stiles says, “Did you know, you’re ridiculously gorgeous even as a wolf? I ask you, how is that fair?”

Derek rolls a little to look at him, which results in a front leg waving in the air.

“Oh, does ze widdle wolf want a bewwy wub?” Stiles coos, rubbing his hands firmly over Derek’s exposed stomach.

Derek paws at him ineffectually in a pathetic attempt at self-defense, and there’s even a little mock grabbing at him with his mouth, although he’s always very careful with the teeth. Less so than with his flaily paws, that seem to be everywhere at once. They wrestle back and forth for a few minutes before Stiles says, “C’mon, shift back, I can’t make out with you like this.” Derek just rolls to his feet and gives Stiles a wolfy kiss right up the side of his face. “Ewww! Gross!” Stiles protests, laughing.

After a few more moments have passed, Derek nudges Stiles to his feet and sets off into the forest. Stiles gets up and trots after him, glad that they’re moving at an easier pace but resolved to never admit it. This time, Derek stays at a relaxed walk, not quite a stroll but nothing like before. He’s taking him on the route that’s most direct towards his clothes. Stiles lets him walk in silence, and gathers up each article of clothing as they pass it, until they’re finally right outside the Hale house, where Derek left his shoes.

Derek stops and shifts, facing away from Stiles while he pulls on his boxers and then the jeans out of the pile Stiles is holding. “Thanks.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, shifting from foot to foot. “No problem. You okay? I mean . . . given the circumstances?”

Derek takes a minute to actually think about it. “Better than when I left.” He sighs. “I’m holding it together. Is that an okay answer?”

“That’s a great answer,” Stiles says. “Really.”

There’s not an ounce of sarcasm in his voice. Derek reaches out and pulls Stiles to him. Stiles nestles into his embrace and says, “Let’s go do something where we won’t have to think about all this, okay? Peter and I . . . we’re handling it. Nobody else needs to be involved or worry about things.”

“I don’t think I can stop worrying. Though I can let you two handle it. God knows your ability to investigate is better than mine.” He rocks them back and forth for a few minutes. “But yeah, let’s go do something else. Please.”

“With your family, or just the two of us?” Stiles asks.

“Everyone?” Derek asks, sounding a bit hopeful.

“Sure,” Stiles says, nuzzling at Derek’s temple. “It’s nice out today. We should go have a picnic, fly a kite. Or we could go to the lake or something.”

“We could,” Derek says, relaxing against Stiles. “Do all three. At once, even.”

“Very ambitious,” Stiles says. “I like the lake idea. You wouldn’t have to put your shirt back on.”

“Uh huh,” Derek says, amused. He moves them toward the house. “How are things between . . . you and my mom?”

Stiles sighs a little. “I don’t know. I mean, they’re okay. I hope they’re okay. I don’t know that it’ll all be roses and sunshine from here on out, but at least she said she was sorry, and I can try to believe that she means it. Maybe if we stop avoiding each other, we’ll eventually get used to each other.”

Derek nods. He knows better than to push for more than that. So he just reaches out and twines his fingers through Stiles’. “So, do we have the stuff for a picnic or does someone need to stop at the store?”

“Tell you what, I’ll text my dad to pick up some stuff and he can bring it over. He needs a day off. Whether he wants one or not.”

Derek snorts. “Why don’t you invite Scott and Allison?”

“Are you sure it would be okay?” Stiles asks. “To invite Allison?”

“Do you trust her?” Derek asks him seriously.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “One hundred percent. She has a lot to do with why I started . . . letting you in. Because she told me that I wouldn’t find my answers in books. That I would find them by being with the pack.”

“Well, then, I’m grateful to her on top of liking her.” Derek hugs Stiles for a moment. “She’s important to you.”

Stiles hugs him back. “C’mon, let’s go have some fun.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The picnic goes about as well as could be expected, given the givens. Stiles asks the Hales not to talk about the fire, since Allison is as of yet not aware of her family’s involvement, and none of them want to talk about it anyway. Peter is gone by the time Stiles and Derek get back to the Hale house, having wandered off. Talia tried to follow him, so they could talk, but he shifted and snarled at her, so she let him go. That’s a talk that she’s not looking forward to having.

But before she has to have that one, there’s another she looks forward to even less. The kids are all running around, splashing in the lake and playing with a beach ball. Aaron is cleaning up the trash from the picnic. Laura’s helping Tyler build a sandcastle while Jonathan applies another coat of sunscreen to the baby.

Talia sees the look on Sheriff Stilinski’s face and sighs a little, walking over to him as he gestures to her. They walk back towards the parking lot, so they’ll be out of earshot from curious wolves.

“I’d like to go over the case files with you in some detail, at your convenience,” she says.

Tom nods. “Stop by my office on Monday. I’ll make time for you, barring emergencies.”

Talia clasps her hands in front of herself, to hide the fact that they’re shaking. “How long have you known about this?”

“Only a week or so. And Stiles has kept me busy. I got a second opinion from another fire inspector. There’s not any physical evidence left, but he looked through the reports and found some inconsistencies. Enough that he thinks we can prove it was arson, if we need to.”

“All right,” Talia says softly. She studies her hands for a few minutes. “I want to talk to the school about the searching ceremony, but . . . Stiles is afraid I’ll blow his cover. So I suppose that will have to wait.”

“Yeah. His position seems pretty solid, but let’s not push it.”

“Of course,” Talia says. “I wouldn’t do anything to put him in danger.”

They stand in silence for a long minute. Tom folds his arms over his chest. “You gonna make me say it?” he finally asks.

Talia shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says. “For everything, but . . .” She straightens her shoulders and manages to look Tom in the eye. “I was out of line. Hitting him was wrong, and I’ll accept whatever consequences you feel are appropriate.”

Tom nods a little, thoughtfully. Then he sighs. “Look,” he says. “I know that Stiles provoked you. And I know that he knew he was provoking you, and that he was doing it deliberately, because sometimes that kid has more balls than brains. I know that werewolves have different ideas about physicality, and that a slap across the face means something different to you than it does to me. I know that he doesn’t hold it against you, even if he should, and that right now he just wants to put all that behind him and try to build a working relationship going forward. That’s what I know.”

“And?” Talia says.

“Stiles is close enough to being an adult that I’ll let him make that decision,” Tom says. “Once.”

Talia’s jaw clenches, but then she nods.

“But if you ever lift a hand to him in violence again,” Tom continues evenly, “I will have you arrested and charged with assault, whether he likes it or not. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” she says. “I understand.”

“Good.”

Tom shakes his head a little, then says, “Come on. I think that’s more than enough serious talk for one day. Let’s go at least try to have a decent time.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

With all of that going on, it’s a wonder that mundane life still occurs. But it does. Stiles sorts parking tickets and does his summer reading; he makes muffins and pesters his father until he goes for his annual physical. Despite the massive, life-altering events of the weekend, nothing much changes. Sometimes he sees Talia talking to Aaron about a new security system, and they’ve started doing a quick patrol of their property every night. He talks on the phone with Kate and keeps researching the WLO, putting the case against them together, but it’s no different than it has been for the past month.

But real life reminds him abruptly how much it can suck less than a week later, when he’s in the mall looking for something to buy Scott, who’s in the hospital with pneumonia. “Who gets pneumonia in July?” Stiles had asked him, annoyed at losing his best friend during prime goof off time.

“Severe asthmatics,” Scott had replied, and Melissa had hit Stiles upside the head with a gentle smack.

Stiles has to admit that they have a point, and when it looks like Scott might be in the hospital for more than a few days so he can have his oxygen and hourly nebulizer treatments and chest PT, Stiles decides to go buy him something to keep him occupied. He’s thinking about getting him a Kindle or a Nook. Scott’s always been a big reader, but it’s a pain in the ass to cart books to and from the hospital. It’s a little expensive, sure, but it can be an early Christmas present or something like that. He’s got the money. Finals season is always a good time to be in the paper-writing racket.

But he isn’t sure, and something else might catch his eye, and anyway he’s enjoying getting away from his research and (to be perfectly honest) his extremely clingy pack. Everyone, even Cora, is keeping a not-so-surreptitious eye on him.

Which is why he’s really sure that they’re all going to be annoyed that now, here, on this perfectly mundane errand, is where he gets into trouble.

At first it seems like something he can ignore. Three guys sniggering as he walks by. They’re older than him by a few years, but familiar. Upper classmen or maybe recent graduates. Undoubtedly friends of Jackson’s, who probably still think that Derek picking him was a joke. He hears a derogatory comment or two, but ignores them. It doesn’t seem like it’ll be a big deal, until he realizes that they’re following him.

He stops to peruse a kiosk. They stop in one of the store doorways. He gives a quick glance over his shoulder. One of them folds his arms across his chest and smirks, nodding his chin in a ‘yeah, that’s right’ sort of gesture. So they’re not trying to avoid his line of sight. They don’t care if he knows they’re there. They just want to follow him until he’s alone and kick the shit out of him, most likely.

Stiles considers his options. He could just make a break for it. He’s pretty fast. But he doesn’t like his odds if they catch up with him. His self-defense lessons are coming along pretty well, but he can’t handle three on one unless he weights the circumstances in his favor, which mainly means finding a corner so they can only attack him one at a time.

He could head to a mall security substation – but the idea makes him squirmy. Adults have looked the other way before while he got his ass kicked. They might look the other way again. Even calling Derek or his father to come pick him up doesn’t come without its problems. Derek’s at work, twenty minutes away, and who knows where his father is. He can’t exactly stand on the curb and wait for him without risking the guys jumping him. If they see him on his phone and realize that he’s calling for help, they might just jump him and damn the consequences. He’ll have to take care of himself.

He’s not exactly helpless, but if he fights the way Laura’s taught him, he could get in a lot of trouble. ‘No holds barred’, as Laura puts it, is a good way to permanently damage somebody. He wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, but if he gets arrested for assault, it won’t make anybody happy.

Stiles thinks about all of this while he stands there at the cute little kiosk. Then he starts walking again. He heads into Macy’s. He’s been there before a few times, shopping for Melissa’s birthday with Scott. There’s a bathroom not too far from their jewelry counter. It will be fairly close quarters, which will make it harder for them to gang up on him – and there’s a security camera, to prevent shoplifting.

He hasn’t bought anything yet, so his hands are empty. That’s good. He has a few things in his pockets. Laura’s given him pepper spray. Plus he has his keys. And the stupid dog whistle Peter had given him, which obviously isn’t going to do him any good.

The three thugs quickly approach him and ring him in. Stiles takes a deep breath and reminds himself that, worst comes to worst, all that’s going to happen is that he’s going to get his ass kicked. He’s survived it before, and can survive it again. “Problem, gentlemen?” he asks.

“Yeah, we got a problem,” the ringleader says. “We’ve got a problem with you.”

“Gee, I’m really sorry to hear that,” Stiles says, gripping his keys a little harder in his pocket. He swallows hard and forces himself to let them go so he can lift his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I don’t want any trouble, okay?”

One of the guys takes a step forward, and Stiles shrinks backwards, putting both hands in his pockets to grip his weapons. “You’ve got trouble,” the thug says.

“Oh my God, seriously, life is not a cheesy action flick, can you maybe not, Danny Zuko – ” Stiles starts, and then two of them rush forward to tackle him. He finds he’s surprisingly calm. All the drilling with Laura has helped more than he would have anticipated. He pulls out the pepper spray and gets it right in the eyes of the asshole closest. He staggers backwards, wailing, and Stiles wastes no time whipping the keys at the other attacker, as hard as he can.

His aim isn’t as good as it could be – he aims for the eyes but gets the guy in the mouth instead – but it’s more than good enough. Both hands go to his mouth, and Stiles sees blood dripping down his chin. The last of the three guys looks at him in stunned silence for a moment before he too rushes forward. Stiles dodges the wild haymaker and steps forward, into his personal space. Just like Laura taught him, he puts one hand on the guy’s shoulder to steady himself, and then slams his knee up into his groin. He howls and goes to the ground, curling up into fetal position.

Pepper spray guy has recovered by then, and he charges forward, getting Stiles in a football tackle that sends them both to the ground, knocking over a rack of clothes as they go and drawing the attention of almost everyone nearby. Stiles manages to squirm free, and the guy he hit with the keys grabs him by the collar of his T-shirt and drags him to his feet. Stiles accepts the help up, then leans forward and gets his elbow into the guy’s solar plexus. He grunts, lets go, and staggers backwards. Pepper spray guy is up again too, and he aims another punch at Stiles’ face. Stiles knocks it aside with one arm – he’s amazed at how smoothly and easily it happens, like Laura’s made him do it so many times that he could do it in his sleep – and responds in kind, slamming the heel of his hand upwards into the guy’s nose. Blood goes everywhere, and he staggers back, practically choking on it.

Then mall security is there, and someone has Stiles pressed up against a wall with his arm behind his back, and he almost fights back but realizes that it’s security at the last second. So he surrenders, and they drag him to one of the little security substation. The police have been called, he’s informed. So have paramedics. Pepper spray guy and shot-to-the-crotch guy are both being taken to the hospital. His other assailant is in the security office with him. Blood is dripping down his chin from where Stiles nailed him with the keys. He hopes that somebody thought to grab them.

“Can I call my father?” he asks the security guy, who glares and says he can take it up with the police. Stiles lets it go. He’s pretty sure that his father will be the one who shows up anyway – he knew that Stiles was going to be at the mall, so when he hears about this on the radio, he’ll probably assume Stiles is involved. “Okay, fine, but I’m calling my alpha.”

It’s clear that the security guard doesn’t know what to do with that – the police are trained in when it’s appropriate for a werewolf to be allowed to summon their alpha, but mall cops are not. Before he can decide whether or not he wants to argue, Stiles is already doing it. He has her personal cell now, and she picks up on the first ring. “Hi, uh, Mrs. Hale, it’s Stiles,” he says. “Can you come down to the mall? I’m in some trouble and I – ”

“I’ll be right there,” she says, and hangs up.

“Cool,” Stiles says. He hangs up, folds his arms over his chest, and says, “Until she gets here, I’m pleading the fifth amendment.”

Unfortunately for him, the security guy has seen that Mall Cop movie too many times, and fancies himself as something of an arm of the law. He makes threatening gorilla noises about how it’ll go easier for Stiles if he cooperates. His assailant is whining that he thinks some of his teeth are loose, and Mall Cop tells Stiles that he could be charged with assault and battery since he used weapons, and Stiles just keeps his thoughts to himself.

His father either calls off the other cops or drives like a bat out of hell, because he gets there before anyone else. He sees the blood on Stiles’ shirt and nearly loses it, but realizes quickly that it isn’t Stiles’, and that the only injury he has is a mild abrasion to the side of his head. Apparently one of the clothing racks was in his way when he got tackled to the floor. Talia arrives a bare minute later, just as Sheriff Stilinski says, “So, what happened here?”

“This little punk cut up my fuckin’ face,” thug number two says.

Stiles rolls his eyes a little bit, and he sees his father’s face harden, but apparently Tom is on the same wavelength as Stiles, because he decides to let the kid dig his grave. “Just take it from the beginning,” he says, “but there’s no cause for that kind of language.”

“Yeah, uh, sorry, sir,” the thug says. “But seriously, we were just minding our own business – ”

“Where?” Tom asks.

“In Macy’s.” The thug sees Tom’s skeptical look and says, “You know, my pal Chuck, he needed a birthday present for his mom. So we saw this kid, and yeah, okay, Chuck said something kinda rude, you know, it was just a comment, but the kid goes fuckin’ nuts! He threw his keys in my face, my mouth is all cut up and shit.”

“Two other young men were seriously injured and taken to the hospital,” the security guard cuts in.

“Three guys total?” Tom’s eyebrows go up. “Damn.”

Stiles rubs a hand over the back of his head and tries not to grin.

“So let me get this straight,” Tom says. “You’re saying that this kid, who’s at least two inches shorter and probably about fifty pounds lighter than you, randomly attacked you and two of your friends, and, it would appear, handed your asses to you?”

“He didn’t fight fair!” the thug snarls, glowering at Stiles. “He had fuckin’ pepper spray! And he kneed Todd in the balls! Guys ain’t supposed to do that to other guys!”

The mall cop has been on his phone during most of this, and he hangs it up with a grave expression. “Apparently the injuries on the other two boys were pretty serious,” he says, puffed up from the importance of having apparently apprehended a dangerous criminal in his mall. “One of them has a broken nose and the chemical burns to his eyes, and the other has, uh, a torn scrotum.”

Talia has to bite her lip to keep from laughing. Her hand rests lightly on Stiles’ shoulder, and at this, she gives it a squeeze.

“All right, you little miscreant,” Sheriff Stilinski says to Stiles. “Let’s hear your side of the story.”

Talia clears her throat. “Before you begin, Stiles, as your alpha and a lawyer, I’d advise you that unless this was clear self-defense, you not say anything until we’ve had a chance to discuss it in private.”

“Nah, we’re good,” Stiles assures her. The mall cop gives a scoffing noise, which Stiles ignores. “I was down at FYE,” Stiles says, “when I noticed them watching me. One of them called me a whorewolf. I ignored them because I’m getting used to that. When I left the store, they followed me.”

“What, no, we didn’t,” the thug blusters. “We weren’t in that stupid store.”

Stiles just continues. “I stopped at a kiosk because I wasn’t sure what they were up to, but when I looked at them, one of them looked right back, and then they didn’t stop following me, so I was pretty sure that they meant to hurt me. I was afraid to call the cops because I thought if they saw me on my phone, they might jump me. So I headed into Macy’s, because I know there’s a security camera there.”

The thug’s face goes blank. Then white.

“I went to stand by the bathroom – they keep it there to prevent shoplifting. They came over and surrounded me. I told them I didn’t want trouble. They jumped me. I defended myself. Beginning, middle, end.”

“That’s some story, kid,” the security officer sneers at him.

Talia arches her eyebrow. “Can we view the security footage from Macy’s in here?” she asks.

The security officer glowers a little, but then flinches under Talia’s unyielding gaze. “Uh, yeah. I think so.” He turns to his computer and his screens for a few minutes before he manages to find the right camera and rewind it to the correct point. Everyone watches as Stiles gets backed into the corner, as he raises his hands in clear surrender, as two of the thugs rush him at once. Tom lets out a low whistle at how quickly and efficiently Stiles takes down the first two. His expression tightens again when he gets tackled and is momentarily knocked out of view of the cameras, but for the most part, the fight is all captured on tape.

“Damn,” he says, then turns to Talia and says, “Whatever we’re paying Laura for those lessons, double it.”

Talia lets out a snort. “She gets paid in baked goods, I think.”

“Stiles,” his father says, studying him, “why in God’s name are you grinning like that?”

Stiles can’t help it. He just can’t. With a mile-wide grin, he proclaims proudly, “I’m gonna get the D.”

Tom blinks at him. Talia just bursts into laughter. Then Tom rubs one hand over his forehead. “I don’t want to know,” he proclaims. “I really, really don’t.”

Talia waves at the door. “Go. For the love of God. Go.”

“What – you can’t – ” mall cop blusters. “He’s a suspect in a serious crime – ”

“Uh, actually, no,” Sheriff Stilinski says, and points to the video. “It’s very clear that this was self-defense.”

“But the, the lengths to which he went, the injuries the other young men received – ”

“By law, it doesn’t matter,” Talia says. “He feared for his personal safety and handled things accordingly. Stiles, go,” she adds over her shoulder. “We’ll take care of this.” Her mouth draws back in another smile. “Besides, you being here is just – distracting, for goodness’ sake.”

“Come by the station later, I’ll need you to give an official statement so we can press charges against these three – ” Tom calls after his retreating back.

“Wait, what?” the thug says, and then Stiles is out of earshot as he jogs across the mall.

As soon as he’s out in the parking lot and it’s quieter, he grabs his phone and calls Derek, hoping that he’s not busy. A quick glance at his watch reveals that it’s five fifteen. “Hey, are you still at work?” he asks, when Derek picks up.

“I was just finishing up. Why, what’s up?”

“I need you to meet me at my place, like, pronto.”

Derek mistakes the excitement in Stiles’ voice for tension. “What’s happened?” he snaps. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine, I’m totally fine, these three guys jumped me in the mall and I kicked the crap out of them and I need you at my place. Pronto. You can call your mom to vouch for me if you want.”

“Nope, I’m good, I’ll see you in – ” There’s a clatter as he knocks something over in his rush. “Ten minutes. Less if I hit all the green lights.”

“No need to hit them; what’d they ever do to you?” Stiles teases, then says, “Okay, gotta go, hanging up so I can drive.” He tucks his phone in his pocket without waiting to hear Derek’s goodbye, and gets behind the wheel of the Jeep. He drives as quickly as he can, but doesn’t dare speed too much lest he be asking for trouble. Derek apparently didn’t feel the same compunction, because he beats Stiles to the house. He grabs Stiles as soon as he gets out of the Jeep, pinning the teenager’s body against it with his full weight and capturing his mouth in a kiss. Stiles moans into it and just lets Derek rub their bodies together, oblivious to the fact that they’re outside in plain view of anyone on the street.

“Oh my God, get us inside,” he gasps out, as Derek pulls his lips away from Stiles’ in favor of mouthing at the crook of his neck. Derek makes a noise of assent and just gets a hand underneath each of Stiles’ thighs, hoisting him up and carrying him up the front walk. They stop at the front door and Derek presses Stiles up against it, and they fumble around trying to find Stiles’ keys for a full minute.

“I want,” Derek gasps out between messy kisses, “to hear, all about, this fight.” He leans in to lick at Stiles’ ear.

“Nnnnngh,” Stiles agrees. “I want your dick, promises were made – ”

“Then tell me about it.” Derek gets the door open and they practically tumble through it. Then he stops, somewhat abruptly. “Your dad – ?”

“Off charging some guys for assault,” Stiles says. “He won’t be home for at least an hour.”

Derek kicks the front door shut. “Awesome.” He grabs Stiles around the waist, getting one arm underneath his ass so he can lift him off his feet. They’re still kissing as Derek carries him up the stairs, balanced precariously, and into Stiles’ room, where he leans them against the door. Stiles’ feet are still off the ground, hips tucked neatly against Derek’s, one ankle hooked around the older man’s calf. “Tell me about the fight,” Derek says, licking his way down Stiles’ neck.

“Jesus Christ,” Stiles says faintly, and tries to clear his head. “Okay, okay, so, I was in the mall, and I . . . these guys were following me. Saying nasty things. I . . . oh fuck,” he says, as Derek slides one hand underneath the hem of his T-shirt, fingers tracing over the line of his lowest rib, trailing down the center of his abdomen.

“Keep talking,” Derek says, nipping at that super sensitive spot he’s found behind Stiles’ ear.

“Keep touching,” Stiles gasps out. “They, they followed me, so, I went into . . . into Macy’s. For a security camera. So I, so I wouldn’t get in trouble. Jesus fuck, Derek,” he whines, as Derek’s hips press more firmly into his, and he can feel Derek’s cock pressing against his thigh. “Take my shirt off.”

“Okay,” Derek agrees, sliding both hands underneath the offending garment and stripping it over Stiles’ head. He’s greeted with so much skin that he almost doesn’t know what to do with it, so he bends over and presses his mouth against Stiles’ nipple, sucking hard.

“Unnnnh,” Stiles says, leaning his head back so fast that it hits the door with a thunk. “I told them I didn’t want trouble but they, they came at me anyway, so I nailed one of them with the pepper spray and threw my keys at the other, hit him in the face, oh my God, right there, do that again,” he stammers as Derek bites down on his collarbone, both hands on Stiles’ sides, tracing the musculature there with his thumbs. “Bed, please, I, I don’t think I can,” he gasps. His knees feel weak and watery.

Derek growls and lifts him up, practically throwing him onto the bed. Stiles lands with an ‘oof’, but then grabs Derek by the front of his shirt as he climbs on top of him, one knee on either side of Stiles’ thighs, and pulls him in for a kiss. It lasts several minutes and ends with both of them gasping for air. Stiles’ tugs at the hem of Derek’s shirt and manages to pull it off.

“Jesus, sometimes I can’t – sometimes I still can’t believe that – that you want me,” he says, staring at Derek’s chest and abdomen like it’s something from another planet.

Derek gives another growl and then leans down to lick almost delicately down the center of Stiles’ abdomen, his tongue stirring the hairs that peek out just above his pants. Stiles strangles out a whimper and hooks a leg over Derek’s back. “Come on, come on,” he urges.

“Finish the story,” Derek tells him, mouthing at the bulge in Stiles’ pants.

“Oh my God,” Stiles says, tilting his head back and squeezing his eyes shut. “Where was I?”

“Keys,” Derek murmurs, rubbing his face against Stiles’ thigh.

“Hnnnnng, okay,” Stiles says. “Third one. Tried to hit me. I dodged and kneed him in the crotch. Just like Laura showed me.” His sentences are getting shorter and more desperate as Derek works on his belt, fingers curling around Derek’s shoulders, tangling in his hair, his entire body moving restlessly on the bed as he tries desperately to get more friction. “First guy tackled me. Got free and, uh, I did a thing, oh Jesus, I don’t remember. I hit him in the face. In the nose. Broke his nose.” Stiles jerks his hips up into Derek’s hand. “Gonna come in my pants if you keep that up.”

“Then you’d better hurry,” Derek tells him.

“Oh my God, you suck, you suck – ”

“When you finish the story I will.”

Stiles has to swallow hard before he can keep talking. “I think I hit the other guy, I don’t remember, really, it all happened pretty fast. Anyway, then security showed up, and I called your mom, and, and ffffff,” he says, as Derek’s undoing the button and zipper of his pants. “I won’t, won’t last long,” he says.

“Me neither,” Derek says, without an ounce of shame, pulling Stiles’ pants and underwear down far enough that he can get his hands around Stiles’ dick and free it from the surrounding fabric. Stiles makes another strangled noise, body arching up into his touch, toes curling into the sheets.

“The, the other guy tried to say I started it,” he continues, pushing into Derek’s grip. “But, I had it all on camera, so. Your mom told me I could leave because I think my pheromones were harshing her buzz or something. Ohhhhhhmygod. Ohgod. Derek.” Stiles tugs on Derek’s hair as the other man presses soft kisses against the length of his cock. “Can, can you just, please, I need – ”

“Uh huh,” Derek says. He’s out of breath himself. He doesn’t want it to be over too quick, but he doesn’t think either of them is going to last much longer in any case. He grabs one of Stiles’ hands, lacing his fingers through Stiles’ and pressing it against the bed. He uses his other hand on Stiles’ hip to steady him before taking Stiles’ cock into his mouth as far as he can. Stiles shudders underneath him, and can’t even find the air to shout as Derek pulls back in one long, slow suck. He squeezes Derek’s hand so hard it hurts and jerks upwards as Derek moves forward again, smooth and graceful. Derek has to put his entire forearm over Stiles’ abdomen to hold him down as he comes, to keep him from arching all the way off the bed. He groans just from watching it, seeing the look on Stiles’ face, the way the cords in his neck stand out, the gasping noises he makes. Then he pulls away, feeling the tension in his own body recede. He leans up to kiss Stiles over and over again while he tries to catch his breath.

After a few minutes, Stiles manages to pull himself together enough to say, “D’you . . . need me to . . .?”

“Uh,” Derek says, flushing a little pink. “No.”

Stiles blinks at him, slow and lazy. Then his eyes go wide. “Did you actually come in your pants?” he asks, and Derek gives him a somewhat chagrined nod. “You seriously came just from sucking me off? Dude, that, that is awesome, that’s like the best thing I’ve ever heard, you’re gonna let me clean you up with my mouth, right? Because I need to do that, like, right now – ”

“Jesus, you’re too much,” Derek groans, but Stiles is already rolling them over.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

By the time another two weeks have rolled by, Stiles is starting to believe he’s never going to get anywhere with Kate. It’s not that she’s not telling him things – she’s dropped little pieces of information here and there that he’s been able to use to link the WLO to two other crimes. One of them was something they had never even suspected was murder.

But when it comes to the Hale house fire, he’s got nothing. And Peter isn’t the only problem with waiting. Now that the entire family knows, they’re all tense and prone to being overprotective. Sooner or later, his cover is going to be blown somehow. Even if that weren’t an issue, Kate herself is becoming a problem. Stiles doesn’t think he can keep up his besotted routine much longer without, well, acting on it. Kate has already touched him a few times in ways that should have been reported to the police, and in addition to making Stiles extremely uncomfortable, she’s going to keep trying to get more and more intimate with him. There’s only so far he’s willing to take that ruse. So far he’s been able to refuse by insisting that Derek will be able to tell – which is probably true – but he doesn’t think Kate will buy that excuse forever, not from a seventeen-year-old boy who’s supposed to be hopelessly infatuated with her.

It’s something that never quite leaves the back of his mind, but it’s not like he doesn’t have a million other things to do. Denmaking is time consuming, plus he has his summer reading, goofing off with Scott, and, of course, epic amounts of sex to have with Derek.

Once a week or so, he stays home during the day and grills a bunch of steak or ribs to bring over for the evening meal. This is always a huge hit, and everyone finds a way to be home no matter what else is going on. He’s just finished up and is wrapping the last batch in foil when the doorbell rings. He glances at his watch. It’s about five thirty. The Hales will be home by now, except maybe for Talia, whose work schedule is erratic. She was in court today, though, so he thinks she probably went straight home at five instead of working late. His father has already said he’s going to be late because of a string of car thefts, but he’ll come straight to the Hales when he’s done so he can eat there.

Stiles heads to the door thinking of all the things he wants to talk Derek into doing to him once they’re alone together. The pleasant bubble is burst when he opens the door and sees Kate standing there. “Hi, I, what?” he says, startled. “I didn’t know you were . . . you can’t be here, what if Derek finds out?”

Kate gives him that brilliant smile. She’s carrying what looks like a burlap sack with her. “I won’t stay long,” she says. “I just need you to do something for me.”

Alarm bells go off in Stiles’ brain. He looks at the sack and says, “Uh, okay. What?”

“It’s really simple,” she says, her teeth looking whiter than ever as she smiles at him. She reaches into the sack and lets a handful of fine black powder run through her fingers. “Do you know what this is?” she asks, and he shakes his head. “It’s called mountain ash. It can form a barrier that werewolves can’t cross.”

“Oh,” Stiles says. “Okay.”

“And all I need you to do, sweetie, is make a circle of it around the Hale house.”

“Uhm.” Stiles hesitates. “Why?”

“Because I said pretty please?” Kate says, and then laughs. He hates her laugh. He can always hear the cruel edge underneath. “Because it’s time, baby. They’re all at the house today. Waiting for you to bring your plate of goodies. All we need to do is trap them inside, and then we can take care of them. And that’s where you come in. They won’t think twice if they hear or smell you coming.”

“‘Take care of’ how?” Stiles asks, trying to sound like he’s just interested instead of terrified.

“Oh, honey,” she says, “the less you know, the better.”

“But I,” he says, and tries to shut up, because all he has to do is not do what Kate’s asking, and if he starts asking questions, he’ll only tip her off that he’s not on her side. He swallows back most of the protests and manages, “what about the kids?”

“They’ll be fine, don’t worry about them,” Kate says. “Just make a circle around the house. Then it’ll be over. And we can be together.”

“O-Okay.” Stiles meets her gaze. “You promise?”

“I promise, Stiles,” she says, and leans over to kiss him lightly on the mouth. “Call me when it’s finished.”

“Okay,” Stiles says again. He wants to ask her what she plans to do, wants to hear it from her own mouth so he can testify to it in court, but he doesn’t dare. They’ll just have to look for the physical evidence. Whatever she’s done to the house, he needs to get everyone out of it. So he just takes the bag of mountain ash from her and takes a few steps towards the Jeep.

“Oh, I almost forgot the most important part!” Kate says, and Stiles half-turns. She’s doing something on her phone. Then she holds it out to him so he can look at what’s on the screen.

It’s a picture of his father.

He doesn’t get it at first. Just a picture of his father, sitting at his desk, working. Then he realizes the angle is wrong. That to see his father through the window like that, you’d have to be across from the station, and high up, like on a roof. Kate thumbs to the next picture, which is the exact same shot, only to get the point across this time, he can see the crosshairs.

“Don’t screw it up, okay, honey?” Kate says, smiling brightly.

Stiles tries to swallow, but his throat has gone dry. “Kate, you . . . why would you . . .”

“Oh, it’s not that I don’t trust you,” Kate says. “It’s just that we literally cannot do this without you, so I figured, just in case you had second thoughts . . . a little incentive might not be a bad idea. So my associate there is just going to keep his rifle on the sheriff until I get word that it’s done. Or until the sheriff tries to leave his desk. That could be bad, I mean, if my guy thought someone had warned him and he was trying to leave.”

“But, Kate, no!” Stiles protests automatically. “He could leave his desk for any reason, he could get a call or want coffee or need to use the bathroom, for Christ’s sake – ”

“Then you’d better hurry up,” Kate says, leaning forward to say the words right into his ear.

Stiles keeps talking, trying to convince her. He gives her wounded puppy eyes. “Kate, you don’t have to do this.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Kate says. “It’s just a little insurance. And we won’t need you after this, so it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. Oh, and I should probably point out that if I don’t text them every five minutes, they’re going to go ahead and take the shot.” She smiles at him. “Better safe than sorry, after all.”

Stiles stares at her. “What’s going to happen at the house?”

“That’s not something you need to worry about, Stiles,” Kate says. She taps a message into her phone. “Five minutes starts now.”

“Pity you won’t live that long,” a new voice says, and Peter just walks out of Stiles’ house like he’s been there all along. Stiles is too surprised to reply, and Kate jerks to one side, going for a weapon, but it’s too late. Peter has her by the wrist, and his other hand locks around her throat. His teeth sink into her shoulder and blood gushes everywhere.

Stiles can see the cold blue gleam in his eyes, and he chokes out, “Peter, wait! Wait, you can’t – my father – ”

Peter snarls at him, but his features are still human. “I’ve waited almost seven years,” he says, holding Kate easily despite how much she struggles.

“Kill me and the sheriff will die,” Kate gasps. “I’m the only one who can call them off.”

Peter’s hand tenses, but then, gradually, relaxes. He looks at Stiles and just shakes his head. Stiles realizes in that moment that Peter is right. Kate is a liar, through and through. Even if she agrees to call her men off to save her own life, she won’t. She’ll text them gibberish, or some pre-arranged code word that tells them to take the shot. Stiles lets out a deep breath and nods at Peter.

Moments later, he hears the crunch of bone as Peter’s hand closes around her throat.

He drops her to the ground, where her body shudders, feet kicking as if for purchase. “I would’ve preferred to have more time with you,” Peter murmurs, “but given the givens, I’ll have to make do with you choking desperately for air, the way my wife did.”

Stiles ignores him, because for one thing, creepy, and secondly, he has important business to take care of. He grabs Kate’s phone and pulls up the texts she had been exchanging with the sniper. As he had expected, it’s a series of random words, completely useless. There’s no pattern; if he tries to guess, it’s altogether too likely that he’ll get his father shot. He looks at the photo instead. Then he grabs his own phone and dials Derek.

It rings once, and then a mechanical voice says, “The call cannot be completed as dialed. If this is in error – ”

“Fuck,” Stiles bites out. He grabs Peter by the shoulder where the werewolf is kneeling, watching Kate’s body twitch and spasm with a placid expression on his face. “Peter, come on, I get that this is a big day for you, but we need to – ” His voice stutters to a halt as Peter looks up at him, blood staining his mouth and chin, eyes still shining that vivid blue. “My dad,” Stiles manages. “Peter. I need you.”

“All right,” Peter says, standing up.

“This photo – from the angle, it’s from the apartment building across the street. The roof. I need you – to go get this guy. Get my father, protect him. Can you do that?”

Peter’s eyes flash dangerously. “My family – ”

“I’ll go to the house. I can’t reach them, they must be jamming the cell phone signal. If she’s got people covering the house, they’ll be expecting to see me. If you show up – looking like that, no less – they might spring into action and we still don’t know what exactly Kate had planned.”

Peter stares at him. Seconds tick by, precious, valuable seconds.

“Uncle Peter,” Stiles says forcefully. “Trust me. Trust me with your family. I’m trusting you with mine.”

After a moment, Peter nods. He shifts, crouches, and then bounds away. Stiles wastes no time darting back into the house, grabbing his keys, and heading for the Jeep. He dials his father as he peels out of the driveway. He calls his desk phone – that will make it look like a work call. This, of course, causes his father to immediately say, “Why are you calling my work phone?”

“Okay, Dad, I need you to do something for me,” Stiles says, glancing at his watch. Three and a half minutes. “Do you have a file on your desk?”

“What? Of course I do, I have like eight files – ”

“Pick one up. Look at it. Whatever you do, don’t look anywhere else.”

“Stiles, are you okay?”

“Are you looking at the God damned file?”

There’s a clatter. “Yes.”

“Then I’m okay. Don’t look away. Don’t look out the window. There’s someone on the roof across from you with a sniper rifle.”

There’s a pause while Stiles prays. Then his father says, “Jesus. Who?”

“One of the WLO guys. Peter’s on his way to, to take care of it. He’s going to show up at your office looking like a serial killer. I need you to not arrest him, and I need you to not leave your desk before he shows up. He’ll protect you.”

“Where are you going?” his father asks.

“I have to get to the Hale house,” Stiles says. “Promise me you won’t leave your desk or look out your window. Promise me.”

“Jesus,” Tom says. “Okay. I promise. But if something’s wrong at the Hale house, shouldn’t I send – ”

“For fuck’s sake, no,” Stiles says. “If anyone besides me shows up, that’ll just trigger whatever Kate has set up. Trust me, dad. They’re expecting to see me. If anyone else shows up, it’ll be a disaster. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”

He hangs up without waiting to hear if his father says anything else. He needs to focus on driving. He breaks several traffic laws on his way, and his phone rings just as he’s pulling onto the road that leads onto the Hale family property. He looks at the time and sees that it’s been six minutes from Kate’s last text to her men. The number on the phone is Peter’s. He picks up with his heart in his throat. “Is he okay?”

“I’ve got him, he’s fine,” Peter says, as soothing as Peter ever is. “We’re heading to the house now.”

“No, Peter, don’t – ” Stiles says, but he’s already hung up. Stiles swears and forces himself to ease off the accelerator as he goes down the narrow access road. If he comes roaring up like a bat out of hell, it’ll clue people in – if anyone’s watching – that something is wrong. He’s still not sure if Kate would have anyone watching the house. Maybe she planned to do it herself – follow Stiles in her own car. It’s impossible to say.

He pulls up next to the house and grabs the sack of mountain ash. “Hey, it’s me,” he calls out, knowing that they can smell him, hear his heartbeat and the way it’s racing out of control. How could Kate have thought this would work? Maybe she had figured that if he wasn’t really bonded to Derek, they’d have no way of knowing something was wrong. “Give me a few minutes, I’m getting this stuff organized!”

“Okay!” he hears Cora call out from somewhere above him. She’s in her own room.

With shaking hands, he takes out handfuls of the mountain ash and starts slowly walking around the house. “I know you can hear me,” he says in a low voice, glancing at the house’s open windows. “Derek. I need everyone outside. Please. It’s Kate. Get everyone out, get the kids, get out now. Leave through the back, for God’s sake try to look normal.”

He keeps walking in slow, measured steps, letting handfuls of the mountain ash drop out but doing it badly so there are gaps every few feet. If anyone is watching, hopefully they won’t be able to tell. Just as he’s coming around the corner, Laura stumbles out the back with Sylvia under one arm and Tyler by the hand. “Stiles, what,” she says, and Stiles has to hold back tears, that if nothing else, the kids got out. They stare at each other in blank silence for a moment. Stiles flicks his gaze towards the woods. Laura follows it. Her eyes harden and start to shine gold.

“I, uh . . .” Stiles says, trying to play the part of someone who’s just been caught doing something terrible by a pack of werewolves. Then Cora slams her way out the back door, out of breath, and knocks into her sister. They nearly go sprawling. Jonathan is behind her, and grabs her by one arm to prevent her from taking a tumble. His gaze sharpens as well, and he turns his gaze towards the forest. Jonathan has the best sense of smell.

“How many?” Laura asks, under her breath.

“Two. No.” He scents the air again. “Three. But only one on this side of the house.”

“Where’s everyone else?” Stiles asks.

“They’re coming,” Jonathan says. “Talia wants to make sure everyone else is out. Aaron’s getting Derek. He was listening to music in his room, I don’t think he heard you.”

“Okay. I – ” Stiles gives up the ruse and just drops the bag of mountain ash. Every muscle in his body is twitching with relief. Aaron and Derek come out a moment later, and Derek just grabs Stiles around the waist and pulls him into a hug. Stiles doesn’t even try to stop him, pressing his cheek into Derek’s shoulder and hugging back as tight as he can. He was in time. Whatever Kate had planned, the snipers weren’t it, or there would be more of them, surrounding the house. That means that the house itself is the danger.

Talia steps out a few moments later. “I can’t find Peter – ”

“He’s not here,” Stiles says. “I was with him earlier; he went to get my dad. Kate wanted me to trap you all in the house. I’m not sure why, but I think we’d better – ”

That’s when the gunshots start. There are two in quick succession, and then a third. Stiles sees Jonathan stumble backwards. He sees Laura snarl, shift, and run towards the forest. Aaron does the same, and they’re not spreading out to look for the gunman; they know exactly where to go. “I’m okay,” Jonathan groans, using his body to shield the two children, and then there’s another sharp crack and Stiles finds himself thrown back against the house.

“Stiles!” Derek shouts, but Stiles doesn’t need to be told what’s happened. He knows he’s been shot, knows it from the way he’s stumbled back, from the sudden, crushing pain in his chest, from the way he suddenly can’t get in enough air to breathe.

“Get him inside!” Talia snaps, and then she’s in wolf form and headed for the trees.

“No,” Stiles chokes out, as Derek scoops him up. He knows why Talia said it, knows that the others can survive being shot even if he can’t. “No, we can’t,” he says, and then Derek is gently laying him down on the kitchen floor.

“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Derek says, although it’s clear from his tone that he’s close to hysterics. He grabs a dish towel and presses it against Stiles’ chest. It almost immediately soaks through with blood.

“Get – get out of here,” Stiles wheezes. He grasps at the towel, trying to convey his intent to hold onto it himself.

“I won’t leave you,” Derek says, shaking his head frantically.

“Derek, get out,” Stiles groans, and then there’s an odd hissing and – the sprinklers go off. It’s so incongruous that for a few moments, he wonders if he started hallucinating. Derek, too, looks confused. His head jerks around as the water starts to fall on them. Stiles stares at the hand that’s resting on the floor next to his head. It turns red and starts to blister almost immediately. “Derek,” he whispers. “Your hand.”

“Wolfsbane,” Derek groans. “In the water. She spiked the sprinkler system with it.”

Stiles opens his mouth to say something else, but he can’t. He doesn’t have the air. The shot hit him in the upper chest. His lung is almost certainly punctured. He can see the blood starting to pool around him now, despite Derek’s hand and the towel on his chest, which means that it went straight through and he has an exit wound in his back. In a way, he knows that’s good; it means the bullet didn’t bounce around. But it also means he’s losing blood twice as fast.

Nothing else matters to him because he can see Derek’s skin start to burn and peel away in layers, and he watches in horror as a drop of it runs down Derek’s cheek, leaving a trail of blood behind. He had told Kate about the sprinkler system. About how extensive and advanced it was, drawing on its own tank of water, even, in case something went wrong with the town water supply. He had meant to discourage her from setting more fires. Instead she had used it against them. “Derek, get out of here,” he manages to choke out.

“I’m not leaving you,” Derek grinds out between clenched teeth.

“Derek, the wolfsbane – it won’t hurt me – you need to – ” But Stiles knows that he’s wasting his breath, and he’s got precious little of that left. Derek won’t leave him now for the same reason he wouldn’t leave during the fire. Derek will choose pain for himself over risking Stiles’ life any day of the week. “Derek, please,” Stiles says. “I’ll be okay, I can – can hold the towel – ”

It’s not true and he knows it. His limbs are going numb; his vision is starting to go black around the edges. He’s losing too much blood too fast, and he’ll pass out within moments. Derek is lifting him up to get a towel underneath him, to try to stem the bleeding from his back, pressing down hard enough that Stiles lets out a scream of pure agony.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Derek whispers. The blisters on his skin are turning into sores, and he turns to one side to vomit up a noxious black substance.

Stiles coughs and tastes blood in his mouth. There’s so much he needs to say, but he can’t find the air to say any of it.

Then the back door bangs open again and someone has Derek around the waist. Stiles catches a brief flash of blue eyes. Peter. Derek fights him tooth and nail, but Peter snarls and drags Derek away from Stiles. Seconds later, Sheriff Stilinski is leaning over his son. “Hey, hey, how are you doing?” he asks gently, grabbing the towel. “Ambulance is on the way, Talia called us – ”

“I’m okay,” Stiles says. “Better now,” he adds, as Peter finally manages to haul Derek outdoors. He hears several people shouting and crying in alarm over his appearance. The wolfsbane is starting to sting a little, but it’s nothing he can’t handle.

“You’re going to be okay, you,” Tom says, wiping the tears off his cheeks. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

The world is starting to go dim now. “Dad?” Stiles whispers. “I’m scared.”

Tom swallows hard, his hand curling around Stiles’ as he holds the towel down to keep pressure on the wound. “You’re going to be fine,” he says again, and then Stiles’ eyes flutter shut and he goes still, the only movement left the little trickle of blood coming out of the corner of his mouth.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

A second ambulance is called, then a third, because Derek and Peter need to be taken to the hospital as well. Sheriff Stilinski only gets a quick glance at him as he’s getting into the ambulance with Stiles, but Derek has been stripped of his clothes and almost, it looks, stripped of his skin. Every inch of him is a raw, bleeding mess. He’s screaming as Laura sprays him and Peter with a hose.

Somehow, and later the details aren’t clear, Tom winds up pacing back and forth in a hallway at Beacon Hills Memorial. Melissa rushes over at one point to tell him that Stiles is going into surgery, that the surgeon on call today is a great doctor, the best she knows, that they’re going to do everything they can, and that straight through and through gunshot wounds really have a great prognosis despite how bad it looks. She knows better than he does, so Tom tries to start breathing again.

He’s been there nearly an hour when Talia comes into the hallway. She’s still wearing her work clothes, but her suit jacket is askew and there are runs in both legs of her nylons. She’s carrying her shoes in one hand and rushes up to him. “How is he?”

“In surgery now,” Tom says, swallowing back anything else he might say. “Melissa said it might be an hour or two, depending on how it goes.”

Talia nods, drops her shoes, and surprises Tom by bursting into tears. He draws her into an embrace and she buries her face in his shoulder. “This is my fault,” she sobs. “Stiles never would have done this, never would have put himself in danger like this, if he hadn’t been trying to prove himself to me. If I had just welcomed him into the pack the way I should have.”

“I kinda doubt that,” Tom says, but he rubs her back nonetheless. “Stiles . . . when he sinks his teeth into something, he doesn’t let go. He’s always been like that. It’s got nothing to do with you.”

Talia shudders and takes a breath. Inch by inch, she draws herself back together, gets back in control. “I’m sorry,” she says.

He finds a box of tissue and hands it to her. “Don’t worry about it. How’s Derek?”

Talia swallows visibly. “He, uh . . . they have him in the burn unit now. Wolfsbane directly to the skin like that . . . it’s bad. And the healing factor almost makes it worse. Because he’s trying to regrow the skin while the wolfsbane is still there, and the new skin melts away just as quickly. He . . . he’s out now, though. He lost consciousness just after you left. Peter’s here too. He’s not as badly burned; the worst of it is on his hands and his face. Derek got the worst of it in his back, since he was bent over Stiles like that.”

Tom pushes a hand through his hair. “How do they deal with it?”

“The worst way imaginable,” she says. “They just scrape the skin off over and over again until the body has pushed enough of the wolfsbane out that it can finally start to heal. It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever felt . . . and the one time it happened to me, it was only on the palm of my hand.” She lets out another shuddering breath. “I can’t even imagine how it feels to have it on the entire body. The doctor already told me that they’ll probably put Derek in a medically-induced coma until the worst of it is over. Aaron’s with him now. Laura and Jonathan took Cora and the kids to a hotel.”

“I’d say you could stay at my place, but apparently it’s a crime scene,” Tom says.

“Oh, Jesus,” Talia says, her voice a little faint. “What now?”

“Kate’s body was found on my front lawn. Her windpipe was crushed.”

“Peter,” Talia says.

Tom nods.

There’s a moment of silence. “I’m sorry,” she finally says, and Tom shakes his head at her. “I want you to know . . . if I could’ve given Stiles the bite, I would have. It was . . . in the contract, even. But . . . covered in wolfsbane like that . . . the bite would have killed him for sure. And maybe me too, if I wasn’t careful.”

“I know,” Tom says. He reaches out and grips her hand tightly. “He’ll be all right,” he says, forcing conviction into his voice. “Stiles, you know, he’s a fighter. He doesn’t back down. Not ever.”

Talia nods and wipes a hand over her eyes. She sinks into a chair and holds her head in her hands. She gets periodic texts from Laura and from Aaron, letting her know how the others are doing. The kids are confused and frightened, but Laura’s distracted them with ice cream. Cora was begging to come to the hospital, so Laura is driving her over while Jonathan stays with the kids. Peter’s been moved to a room in the ICU where they can keep working on his hands. He’s regained consciousness but hasn’t said anything besides murmured answers to the doctor’s questions.

It’s been just over an hour and a half when the door down at the end of the hall opens. A doctor comes out in surgeon’s scrubs, closely followed by Melissa McCall. They stop and have what looks like a serious conference.

“What are they saying?” Tom chokes out. He can’t wait.

Talia’s voice is thin and reedy. “The nurse is saying ‘let me talk to him, I know him’.”

“Oh, Jesus.” Tom has to sit down. He doesn’t feel like his legs can hold him up any longer.

Melissa jogs over a few moments later. She sees the look on Tom’s face, the way he’s practically gone white underneath his tan, and says, “Okay, Stiles is out of surgery. He’s stable but still in serious condition.” She gives that a few moments to sink in, while Tom wonders if he’s breathing or not. He actually can’t tell. Melissa sits across from him and grips both of his hands in hers, hard. “They’re getting him moved to the ICU. But there were some complications.”

“What kind of complications?” Talia asks sharply.

Melissa glances at her but keeps most of her attention on Tom. “You remember how we thought the bullet went straight through? Well, most of it did. But it must have fragmented when it hit one of his ribs. There was a small piece of it lodged in his chest. It shifted while they were finishing up, and he started bleeding internally.” She has to stop to take a breath herself, but continues to talk in a firm, matter-of-fact tone. “It took them a few minutes to find out where the bleeding was coming from. The blood loss was already pretty bad. He flatlined on us twice. They got him resuscitated fairly quickly both times. The primary concern is hypoxia – lack of oxygen to the brain.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Tom says again. He can’t find the words to say what he’s thinking. That he can handle Stiles being hurt, handle it if he lost a limb or went blind or anything, but the idea of brain damage is terrifying. His brilliant, determined son, who relies on his brain more than anything else. “Jesus.”

“Tom, we don’t know enough to say what his prognosis is at this point,” Melissa says, giving his hands another squeeze. “He’s going to be settled in the ICU soon, and then I’ll take you up to see him. They’ve got him on a respirator, but it’s only to assist. He’s breathing on his own. They just want to make sure he keeps doing so.”

Talia manages to stand. “He and Derek will need a room together,” she says. “Otherwise, Derek will . . . it just won’t be good.”

“I’ll talk to the doctor,” Melissa says, with a nod. To Tom, she adds, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, okay?”

“I’ll be right here,” Tom says, his voice shaking a little despite his best efforts. He looks up at Talia as Melissa starts down the hallway. “Why don’t you go see to Derek and Peter? I’ll text you once they’ve gotten Stiles settled.”

Talia nods. “All right.” She hesitates as she walks away, then turns back. “He’s the reason we’re alive, you know. Your son is a hero.”

Tom manages a smile. “I know.”

It’s another half hour, almost interminably long, before Melissa comes back to take Tom up to Stiles’ room in the ICU. He spends almost all of it on the phone, coordinating his deputies. He posts a guard outside Peter’s room. It’s just a formality, really, but Peter’s the suspect in a murder, and it’ll be a while before all the technicalities are hashed out. Besides, Tom feels better having someone there anyway.

Five members of the WLO are dead, including Kate. Three were in the woods outside the Hale house, and all of them were killed; it would be impossible to say which werewolf killed them. The other was on the roof across from the police station. His body probably wouldn’t have been found for days if Tom hadn’t told his officers where to look for it. Peter killed him, too; literally ripped him limb from limb. Tom can’t say he’s not grateful.

The possibility that the WLO might seek revenge for their fallen members has Tom thinking it’s probably a good idea to keep a guard on Peter’s door. And one on the door to the room Stiles and Derek will be sharing. It’s going to be a PR nightmare; there’s no way around that. And his son is going to be at the center of it, presuming that he’s up to it. Tom rubs both hands over his face and prays that he’ll be up to it.

It’s hard just to walk into the hospital room. It reminds him so much of his wife. Seeing Stiles in the bed, hooked up to the respirator, with the tubes and monitors everywhere, pale and tiny against the white sheets, nearly makes him throw up. He has to take several deep breaths and lean on Melissa before he can walk all the way in and sink into the chair next to Stiles’ bed. “How is he?” he asks.

“His EEGs look good so far,” Melissa says. “Of course, right now he’s sedated so it’s hard to be sure of anything.”

Tom nods. “I’ll just, uh . . .”

“Have you had dinner?” Melissa asks.

The thought of food makes his stomach churn. “No. I don’t really think . . .”

“I’ll just get you something to drink, okay?” Melissa asks, and he nods gratefully.

She comes back in a few minutes later with a soda for him. “Sugar and caffeine, just what the doctor ordered,” she says, and he can’t help but smile a little.

It’s almost two hours later before they clear him out to bring Derek in. The werewolf is heavily sedated and in an odd sort of bed which is curved so he’s only touching it at a few points. He’s completely naked except for loose hospital-issued boxer shorts, and his skin is still red and raw. There are no bandages, and Tom can see it healing and then sloughing off even as he watches. “Jesus,” he says. Talia comes in behind them, watching in silence as they get Derek settled.

“Gonna be a long night,” Tom finally says, and Talia just nods in weary agreement.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Stiles isn’t sure why this guy hovering in his vision keeps asking his name. Actually he’s not sure of much of anything. Things are blurry, he can see lights, smell antiseptic, but nothing really makes sense. It’s like the jumbled pieces of a puzzle that have just been dumped out on the floor, and he’s left sorting through them.

But the guy is really insistent about his name, so he slurs it out as best he can. Polish is meant to be slurred anyway. Then the asshole asks him to count backwards from ten, and Stiles whines but does his best because the guy just won’t shut up. “Ten, nine . . .” Why is he so short of breath? Has he been running? “Eight, se’n, fi . . . no . . . se’n, six, fie, fo . . .”

The next time he wakes up, things are coming together a little better. He figures out that he’s in a hospital, although his memories of why are patchy. He can hear the steady beep of the monitors, the squeak of the nurse’s shoes. Memories he’ll never forget. Hospitals are unmistakable in both sound and scent.

He feels cloudy, foggy. Breathing feels . . . weird, not painful, but just something of a struggle, like there are weights on his chest. His mouth is dry and has a funny taste in it. There’s no pain, not exactly. It feels almost like an out-of-body experience. He tries to move but can only twitch his fingers.

Someone is talking. A smooth, clear, feminine voice. “I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, although I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret . . .”

It takes Stiles a minute to realize that it’s Talia. That she’s reading to him. His eyes flutter open and he tries to say something, but all that comes out is a croak. Then Talia’s leaning over him, folding his hand into hers. “Stiles, can you hear me?”

It takes effort to pull for air, and that almost makes him panic a little, but he tries to calm down. He doesn’t want to lose consciousness again. Talia’s thumb is rubbing circles into the back of his hand. It’s strangely soothing. “Dad,” he finally croaks out.

“Of course, Stiles, I’ll call him – ” Talia fumbles for her phone. Stiles struggles to stay with her, but there’s pain now, crashing over him in gigantic crimson waves. He can hear her talking, but it’s coming from far away. “Stiles?” she says a moment later, leaning over him.

“I want my dad,” Stiles says.

“He’s on his way,” Talia says, “and I’m right here, okay?”

Stiles tries to choke back tears. “Derek . . .?”

“Right across from you, honey. He’s still sleeping while he heals.”

Stiles manages to turn his head so he can see Derek, still suspended over his mattress, forehead just barely touching the pillow. Some of the tension leaves his body. “Thirsty,” he says, but before Talia can reply, the nurse and the doctor come in, and that jackass is asking for his name again. He tells him, and counts backwards, and tells him who the president is, and by the end of it his throat is hoarse and he’s crying just from the pain. The nurse holds a little plastic cup of water to his lips and he takes small sips.

“Stiles, look at me,” Talia says, and both her hands are on his chest, under his little hospital gown, which is, well, awkward. Then he sees the veins in her arms darken and the pain starts to recede. He lets out a little choked sob. “When you’re in pain, you need to tell us, okay?” she asks. “Don’t just try to put up with it. There are drugs and werewolves here for a reason.”

“Want to stay awake,” he whispers, but the world is floating away, carried off with the pain. Things go blurry and flicker in and out of motion. He manages to muster up some coherence when he hears his father’s voice. “Dad . . .?”

“Hey, Stiles,” Tom says, taking his hand from Talia. “How are you feeling?”

Stiles tries to assess. “Fuzzy,” he finally murmurs. “Everyone okay?”

“Yeah, Stiles,” Tom says, squeezing his hand. “Derek’s in pretty rough shape and Peter has some burns from the wolfsbane, but everyone else is fine. You saved everyone, Stiles. They’re okay.”

Stiles feels his eyes fall shut. He wants to keep them open, but it’s becoming difficult. He’s just so tired, and every breath takes five times as much energy as it should. “Am I dying?” he finally manages to mumble.

Tom sounds like he’s choking. “No, Stiles, you – you’re going to be fine.”

“Oh.” Stiles feels the darkness coming for him, and sinks back into it. “Love you,” he says, just in case. “All of you.”

Tom squeezes his hand. “We love you too.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

At first, Derek thinks he’s dreaming. It’s only in dreams that he has this strange, floating, half-connected sensation. He’s not sure what it means. But he’s not dreaming, because dreams never have smells quite as intense as real life: the smell of antiseptic, of drugs, of pain and grief and fear. The hospital smell. He hates it.

He thinks that he would probably be panicking if he could muster up the energy, but it just isn’t there. He’s experiencing everything through a thick layer of fog. It drifts and recedes for a while. Gradually, he becomes aware that people in the room are talking. One of the voices is Stiles’, which immediately grabs his attention, because the teenager sounds weak and thready, and Derek doesn’t like that at all. The other voice is a woman, smooth and unfamiliar.

“ – is called serial sevens. Do you understand?”

“Just . . . count upwards . . . in multiples of seven?” Stiles responds.

“Yes, exactly,” the woman says.

There’s a long pause. “Seven, fourteen . . . twenny-one . . . thirty-five . . .” Another long pause, the sound of a breath being taken and let out with effort. “No, skipped one. Shit. Twenny-eight. Thirty-five.”

“That’s enough, Stiles, that’s very good,” the woman says warmly. “You’re doing great. Can you tell me the three words I gave you earlier?”

“Ffffff,” Stiles says. There’s a long silence. “Clock. Apple.” A long silence. “Ffffuck. Can’t r’member the third one. Sorry.”

“That’s okay, Stiles, that’s fine,” she says.

Derek checks out for a little while. He really wants to listen, to hear his mate’s voice, even as weak and tired as it is, but he doesn’t know what exactly is going on and it’s giving him anxiety which he just can’t handle right now.

A little while later, he hears the woman greet Sheriff Stilinski, and he tries to gather himself together. “ – scored twenty out of thirty.”

“Shit,” Tom says, his voice rough and weary.

“Don’t get discouraged,” the woman says. “That’s actually a pretty good score. You have to take into consideration that he’s still on a lot of medication, and that will affect his cognitive abilities. Also, some of these things we just wouldn’t expect of him right now. For instance, he lost a point for not knowing the date. But he’s been in and out of consciousness for three days now. There’s no reason he would have a definite idea of how much time has passed.”

Tom gives a snort that’s almost amused. “He was on summer break. He probably didn’t even know the date before he got shot.”

“That, too,” the woman says, with a laugh. “He has some trouble with recall and information processing, but that likely has a lot to do with all the medication. He definitely doesn’t have any severe impairment. He’s basically oriented. He knows where he is and why he’s in the hospital, he can understand commands and questions and respond appropriately. My main concern at this point is definitely his memory, but at this point it’s difficult to say what’s a memory problem and what just wasn’t processed properly to begin with. There’s some mild speech impairment, too, but again, the medications . . . It’ll take some time to get it all sorted out.”

Tom nods. “Thanks for your help, doctor,” he says, and Derek can hear her footsteps retreating.

“So ‘m not braindead?” Stiles says, still a little slurred.

“You are definitely not braindead,” his father says. “You are just as much of an exasperating little genius as ever.”

“Nnrrg,” Stiles responds. “Fuckin’ tired. Counted in sevens and drew a pentagon and now I’m fuckin’ tired. The hell is that about.”

“Your body is devoting all its energy to healing right now,” Tom says. “Just rest if you need rest.”

There’s a long pause. Then Stiles says, “Der’k.”

“Yeah, he’s – ” Tom turns slightly and sees that Derek’s eyes are open. “Oh, hey! Look who’s awake!” He reaches out and grabs the call button. “Can you hear me, Derek?”

“Yeah,” Derek rasps. He reaches out a little, extending his hand towards Stiles. Stiles flops one arm in his general direction, but doesn’t have the energy to actually cross the gap between their beds.

“How are you feeling, are you in any pain?” Tom asks, pressing buttons on his phone. “Hey, Talia, it’s Tom. Yeah, Derek’s awake. He – okay.” He hangs up and gives his head a little shake.

“Feel okay,” Derek says, which is true. “Floaty.”

“S’the drugs,” Stiles slurs at him. “They’ve got really good drugs here. Man. I’m on like all the drugs. It’s awesome.”

The conversation is helping him focus, so he can look around and try to place himself. He’s lying on top of a bed, but suspended in an odd sort of harness that keeps him from actually touching it in most places. Only his knees and the section of his arms from elbow to wrist are on the bed. His forehead curls over and rests against the pillow. “This thing is fucking weird.”

“It’s to help your skin heal,” Tom says, and then the doctor comes in. He asks Derek his name and some other questions, mainly focused on how he’s feeling and if he can feel his fingers and toes, et cetera.

“How come they don’t make you count in sevens,” Stiles says, sulking.

“Because Derek didn’t suffer dramatic amounts of blood loss and hypoxia,” his father tells him.

“Or maybe because they already know he’s brain damaged,” Stiles says, and gives Derek a goofy smile. “After all, he fell in love with me.”

“Only a brain-damaged person wouldn’t love you,” Derek retorts.

“Oh, gag,” Stiles says, turning pink with pleasure and embarrassment.

Talia rushes in before Derek can reply. She’s obviously trying to hold back tears as she smoothes her son’s hair – or what’s left of it, since a great deal of it fell victim to what the wolfsbane did to his skin – back out of his face. “I love you, I love you so much,” she whispers, pressing a kiss into his forehead. “Are you in any pain, do you need me to – ”

“I’m okay, Mom,” Derek says, but he finds himself reaching instinctively for Stiles. He still can’t reach across the gap, and it’s frustrating him.

“Here, let me – ” Talia moves around and just picks up the bed, Derek and all, and moves it a foot closer to Stiles’. Some of the monitors and tubes have a problem with this action, and Tom has to fend off several nurses who come in to see what the hell is going on. Finally, the two beds are close enough together that Derek can reach out and grasp Stiles’ hand, their arms suspended in the empty space between them.

“Jesus,” he says, when he actually gets a look at his arm, at the red, blistered skin there. It’s easily as bad as the burns. It occurs to him that his entire body looks like that right now. “I must look . . .” Despite himself, his gaze flickers to Stiles.

Stiles blinks at him and says, “Yeah, you’re pretty hideous right now,” in a cheerful tone. “Don’t worry, though. You’ll be back to your gorgeous self in no time.”

Derek lets out a breath and it turns into a laugh. “Thanks,” he says. “For not giving me some sort of platitude about inner beauty.”

“You’ve got that, too,” Stiles says, “but for real, you’re all splotchy and red and icky right now and I don’t have to have tact; I’m on drugs.”

Everyone laughs at that. Stiles hums contently and squeezes Derek’s hand.

“You’re an idiot, you know,” he tells the werewolf.

“Love you, too,” Derek replies.

“We’re gonna have a talk about this.”

“Uh huh.”

“Right after this nap.”

“Okay.”

Stiles’ hand loosens and starts to slide from his grip, but Derek just tightens his, holding on.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

The next day, Derek and Stiles are moved out of the ICU and into the regular unit. There’s always people in and out. The entire Hale family takes it in shifts, to make sure that they’re never alone. Tom is there as often as he can be, which isn’t as often as he would like to be. Derek has gathered that things in the outside world have gotten a little complicated, but no one has given him any specifics. Scott and his mom, Allison, and Heather are all frequent visitors.

The one person that Derek hasn’t seen is Peter, and he’s so loopy and out of it that he doesn’t even realize that until he does see Peter. More accurately, he hears his mother talking to Peter. He swims back to consciousness to hear her say “ – don’t care if you like it or not, Peter. You’re going to sit in that chair and listen while I read to your nephew and his mate.”

“I’m perfectly capable of getting home,” is what Peter says in return.

“Did I ask for your opinion? No. Because it can’t be trusted. Sit.”

Peter gives a heavy sigh, and then Derek hears him sit down. He can hear the steady pulse of his uncle’s heartbeat, and it’s reassuring. His mother picks up the book she’s been in the middle of, and starts reading. Derek dozes off, listening to the sound of her voice. He’s been doing a lot of sleeping lately. Four times a day, he’s moved and then thoroughly scrubbed. He’s still losing skin, but it’s not as painful as it was in the beginning. Stiles is sleeping a lot, too, but on the whole he’s doing better. His memory seems patchy, Derek has noticed. He’ll lose track of where they are in a conversation easily. But it’s not as bad as it could be, and Derek is content to wait and see how things develop.

After a little while, he hears his father’s voice, and Sheriff Stilinski’s. “No, it’s a good thing you didn’t try to leave,” Aaron is saying.

Talia sighs. “Protesters again?”

“Not as bad as yesterday,” Tom says. “I’ve got half the cops in the county out there to make sure we don’t have any more riots. Anyway, I don’t think Peter would have handled it well.”

“Unca P?” Stiles slurs out, and at this, Derek opens his eyes. Stiles has been having a hard day. He had his first physical therapy session a few hours previous. He hadn’t even gotten out of bed for it; it had consisted mainly of him sitting up in bed while a woman gently moved his arms around to stretch out the muscles of his chest and back. He had done everything she asked with a completely straight face, and she had praised him for being so helpful and compliant. As soon as she was gone, Stiles had literally begun sobbing from the pain. Laura, who was there at the time, had nearly knocked over her chair trying to keep Derek from lurching out of bed. She had taken some of Stiles’ pain, but they could never be sure how long that would last, so now he was heavily drugged on top of it.

Peter stirs across the room. “Yes, I’m here.” His voice is somewhat sour. “Talia doesn’t trust me on my own.”

“Talia isn’t alone in that,” Aaron says, although his tone is gentle.

Stiles flails in Peter’s general direction, making grabby motions with both hands. “C’mere so I’n give hugs,” he says. Derek sees Peter arch an eyebrow, but then rise from his chair and cross the room to Stiles’ bed. Stiles hugs him hard, oblivious to whatever damage he might do to himself. “You saved m’father,” he slurs into Peter’s shoulder. “An’ Derek. ‘Cause he was too . . . stupid to leave me. You’re awesome.”

Peter lets out a little snort, but one hand comes up to smooth out Stiles’ hair, which is a little disheveled after the trials of the day. “As you say,” he says.

“Don’ leave, okay?” Stiles asks. “I know that . . . you stayed ‘live f’r revenge. But don’ leave. Promise?”

He sounds very young, and at this, Peter just lets out a sigh. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says.

“Good,” Stiles murmurs, resting his weight against him. Then he blinks a little. “Wha’ riots?”

Tom sighs and sits down next to Stiles’ bed, while Peter gently disentangles himself and goes back to his own chair. “Don’t worry about it, Stiles. You need to concentrate on healing right now.”

It’s a sign of how exhausted Stiles is that he doesn’t argue. He sinks back onto the bed, face paler than usual, gaunt from the physical stress. He mumbles a few more things but then falls back to sleep. Tom sits with Stiles’ hand in between his, rubbing the back of it with his thumb.

“How bad is it out there?” Talia asks quietly.

“No worse than yesterday,” Aaron says. “All those WLO bastards with their signs and their slogans. I talked Cora out of coming to the hospital. It would only upset her. I’m thinking about sending her to stay with my folks for a week or so, along with Laura and the kids.”

“She won’t go,” Talia says. “Not while Stiles and Derek are both in the hospital.”

“I think things will get a little easier soon,” Tom says. “I’ve been in touch with the folks up on high. Indictments are coming down tomorrow. Hell, half the people who are currently out there holding signs are probably going to wind up arrested.”

“Have we got enough?” Aaron asks.

“Thanks to Stiles,” Tom says, squeezing his sleeping son’s hand. “We can’t indict everyone individually, but once the conspiracy falls into place, they’re all culpable. Gerard and Alexander Argent have already been taken into custody. It’ll all be released to the press tomorrow. So that ought to throw the riots into a tailspin.”

“But it comes off as an exercise in werewolf authority,” Talia says. “It’ll only fan the flames. Tom, we need Stiles to make a statement.”

“He’s not ready,” Tom says, rubbing one hand over his forehead. “Jesus, Talia, look at him. He can barely string a sentence together right now.”

“I know that,” Talia says wearily. “I do. But official indictments aren’t going to defuse this situation. Stiles is the one who can. He’s the innocent kid who got caught up in things beyond his control, who uncovered this dastardly plot and risked his life to save his pack. We need him, Tom.”

“You do know that Stiles was prepared for this, don’t you?” Peter asks, from his corner, and everyone blinks at him. Peter sighs his ‘why must I deal with the plebes’ sigh. “Is his laptop here?”

“Yeah, I brought it yesterday because he was playing some games on it while he was up to it,” Tom says. At Peter’s motion, he picks it up off the dresser and hands it over. Peter opens it up and taps at the keyboard for a few moments.

“Here we are,” Peter says, and taps the touch pad.

Moments later, a video begins to play. Stiles is adjusting his webcam, and then he sits down across from it. “Hi, uh, hi everybody,” he says. “My name is Stiles. If you’re watching this, I’m uh . . . probably dead. Or something.” He rubs a hand over his head. “See, there’s some scary stuff going on, and I want to make sure I get a chance to tell my side of the story, just in case . . .”

It goes on from there. Stiles doesn’t give a lot of details. He gestures to his posters and uses names or specific incidents a few times, but he mostly keeps it personal. He talks about his first meeting with Derek and the subsequent broken heart. He talks about the bullying, about how jealous everyone was, and how they made him believe that he didn’t deserve Derek. Then he talks about Derek and the Hales, about how the fire had destroyed them. He talks about Peter’s insanity and Talia’s refusal to believe that someone had murdered her children. He talks about how much he loves Derek, how the pack has changed his life and given him a family, and how terrified he is that something will happen to them, how he would do anything to protect them.

Talia wipes the corner of her eyes, and Tom can’t even watch the video, keeping his gaze on Stiles’ sleeping face instead. Aaron stands with Derek, not having realized he was awake, smoothing down his hair. Peter’s face is blank, distant.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the end,” Stiles finally says, “but in case something does, I just want everyone to know what was going on.” He blows a kiss at the camera. “Love you, Derek. Love you, Dad.”

He freezes in the frame, and then the laptop screen goes dark.

“Damn,” Tom says. He lets out a breath. “Okay. We’ll release it with the indictments, along with the official news that Stiles is in the hospital and can’t give an actual interview right now.”

“He’ll be quite the star when the press finally gets to him,” Aaron predicts.

“Only until they figure out the way he runs his mouth,” Talia says, and laughs despite herself.

“Then they’ll like him even better,” Aaron says. “Okay. I’m going to go call a couple of my contacts. We’ll need to make sure we’re on top of this.” He gives Derek’s hand one last squeeze and then heads for the door.

“Well,” Peter says, standing up, “protesters or no protesters, I’m not going to sit around the hospital the rest of my life.”

“I’ll take you back to the hotel,” Talia says.

“Oh, any news on the house?” Tom asks.

Talia sighs. “Deaton’s been in and out. He thinks that a lot of what’s inside is salvageable. The clothes can be laundered, anything made of plastic can be scrubbed. Poor Derek is going to lose his book collection, although maybe he’ll enjoy starting over. The electronics are all fried, of course. As for the house itself?” She gives a shrug. “We probably could get it clean eventually. But it would be a lot like buying a house and then finding out it has black mold. You can never really get rid of it, no matter how hard you try. So I suppose we’ll be moving on to house number three. It’ll take some time. Laura and Jonathan will be staying with his parents until that’s set up. Aaron and I can stay with his parents, along with Cora. Derek, I’m assuming, will stay with you and Stiles once they get out of the hospital.”

“Of course,” Tom says. “Cora can stay with us if she likes.”

“She might prefer that,” Talia says. “And it would certainly be easier once school starts. Especially if Derek convinces Stiles to start going to our school. Cora could drive them in the mornings.”

“Well, he’s sure as hell not going back to that hellhole that they call a public school,” Tom says. “I don’t care what he thinks about it. I let him finish out the year there, but . . . I’ve talked to him about it, but I think he’s worried about leaving Scott alone.”

“I can make arrangements for Scott to transfer, too,” Talia says. She laughs a little and adds, “Plus he can keep his math teacher. Do you remember her, from the conference, the one teacher who was actually grading his work appropriately? I made sure she got hired over at our high school. I’m sure she’ll be much happier there.”

“Who wouldn’t be,” Tom says, and Derek gives a little hum of agreement and approval despite himself.

“You awake over there?” Talia asks him.

“Li’l bit,” Derek mumbles.

Talia’s hand rests lightly on his still-healing shoulder. “Get some rest, Derek. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

As it turns out, the next day is a long one, but not for Derek and Stiles. For them, it’s really no different. They’re isolated by the hospital’s protocols, with no real idea of what’s happening outside. Stiles is feeling better for the first part of the day; he’s sitting up in bed and reading and playing games on his laptop. Then he has another physical therapy session and winds up in another drugged stupor for most of the afternoon.

Derek has his own physical therapy, which actually involves getting out of bed and walking around, making his skin stretch and move. It’s still pink and quite tender, but the worst of it seems to be over. They tell him that he’ll probably be discharged within the next couple of days. He hopes they don’t think he’s going any further than the chair next to Stiles’ bed.

But outside, he hears, things are quite exciting. Over a hundred people in the WLO have been arrested and charged. Because the crimes are in multiple states, and they qualify as hate crimes, most of the charges are on the federal level. At the local level, Sheriff Stilinski has consulted with the attorney general – going over Mike Whittemore’s head – and they’ve issued an official statement stating that none of the Hales are going to be charged with anything. This led to some noise, particularly against Peter. But they’re lucky, Tom says, that Kate was actively threatening the Hale family – and the Stilinskis, for that matter – when Peter killed her. Any question of whether or not he could claim pack protection went out the window with that.

Just as things were starting to heat up, Stiles’ video was released. Excerpts of it were picked up by several major news channels, and the entire thing was available on multiple sites on the web. It went viral almost immediately; Stiles was an internet sensation in less than an hour.

At the end of the day, Stiles is eating mashed potatoes and repeating his neurological exam – he scores twenty-four out of thirty this time, an improvement that has everyone sighing in relief – completely oblivious to his newfound celebrity. Then he manages to get his laptop to hook up to the hospital’s wi-fi to check his e-mail. “Holy shit,” he says, staring at his inbox. “What the fuck, guys?”

“We released your ‘if you’re seeing this, I’m probably dead’ video,” his father tells him.

“Ohhhh,” Stiles says. He blinks. “I, uh, I have a fan club. And a Facebook page. And several people on Twitter claiming to be me. Only one of them has managed to spell my actual name right.”

“It’s been an interesting day,” Tom says.

The protesters are gone, which is good because counter-protesters had showed up, in the hundreds, and there likely would have been riots if anyone from the WLO had showed up. Support and encouragement had been pouring in from all over the country. People had offered to pay Stiles’ hospital bills and to build the Hale family a new house. There seemed to be no end to it.

Flowers start arriving the next morning. Stiles is particularly amused to find a generous bouquet from Lydia Martin, and another from the Whittemore family. “I’d like to say I’m surprised by the response,” he says, “but actually I was banking on this response, so I guess I can’t.” When he sees Derek looking at him, he says, “It’s a Daniel versus . . .” His face goes blank. He rubs both hands over his face. “Fuck, I can’t . . .”

Derek gives him a minute, then quietly supplies, “David versus Goliath.”

“Right,” Stiles says hastily. “David versus Goliath type of thing. You know, the boy facing down the powers of evil for the sake of love, blah, blah, blah.” He slaps his laptop shut without opening a single one of the e-mails. “Makes me sound way more impressive than I really am . . .”

“None of that,” Derek growls at him. “You saved my family. You saved me. Just shut up and let people adore you.”

Stiles laughs at that. It’s a little strained, so Derek presses the call button for the nurse, who comes in and asks Stiles to rate his pain on a scale of one to ten. Stiles says four, which really means six, so they dope him up.

By the next day, Derek is up and walking around proficiently, which makes Stiles gripe and sulk because he’s still not allowed out of bed at all. They decide to sit down and answer some of his e-mail together, but Derek’s fingers are still too sensitive to type, and Stiles isn’t coordinated enough yet. They recruit Cora, who types for them.

A lot of it is spam and can be ignored. Some of it is official interview requests from the Today show and news outlets. Cora answers all of those with a quick form letter stating that Stiles won’t be up to giving interviews for a while, and all such requests should be directed to Talia’s office. A lot of it is from local classmates or businesses, offering support. Those are shelved for later. Some of it’s hate mail, which Cora deletes without reading to Stiles. Some of them are personal, offering similar stories and words of encouragement. Those are the ones that Stiles insists on replying to.

A surprising amount of is people forwarding information about the deaths of local werewolves, wanting to re-open investigations into them to see if the WLO was involved. Stiles has Cora respond to those to tell the people to bring that to their local authorities, but he also sends a copy of it to his father and to Talia, so they can make sure everything is followed up appropriately.

By the end of the two-hour session, he’s completely exhausted and barely able to manage a coherent thought, let alone a coherent sentence. He falls asleep while they’re still reclining his bed back into a more comfortable position.

Derek is discharged the next day, and takes up residence in the chair next to Stiles’ bed. He spends the day holding Stiles’ hand while everything else happens around them. It’s such a relief to be able to touch him easily that nothing else really matters. From his chair, he can smooth down his hair, drop easy kisses on his forehead, feel Stiles’ pulse in his wrist and his throat.

Stiles looks up at him dreamily at one point and says, “I can’t wait ‘til we can have sex again.”

Tom chokes on his coffee. Talia groans and covers her face with her hands. And Peter . . . Peter laughs. It’s not much, just a chuckle, barely audible, but it’s the first time he’s laughed since the fire, and Talia hugs him so hard that he starts to complain about her alpha strength. Then she comes over and kisses Stiles on the forehead. He’s already fallen back to sleep.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

When Stiles is discharged from the hospital, they need actual subterfuge to get him out unscathed. Somehow, the date of his discharge is released, and there’s press everywhere. Melissa puts Scott in a wheelchair and takes him out the front entrance, which fools the press long enough for them to sneak Stiles out the side.

“So, the others were talking about having a surprise party for your homecoming,” Tom says, as he helps Stiles get belted in. “I told them maybe it wasn’t a good idea to startle the kid who got shot. So instead we’re having an unsurprising party for your homecoming.”

“Sounds good to me,” Stiles says. “As long as I don’t have to cook. Or maybe even if I do. Geez, what’s everyone been eating while I was in the hospital?” He gives his father a narrow-eyed glare. “It had better not involve curly fries.”

“I swear to you, I’ve only eaten curly fries once a week,” his father says. “Well. Maybe twice.”

Stiles glowers at him. “Nothing but celery and cauliflower for you, then.”

Tom just shakes his head fondly and pulls out of the parking lot. He’s unsurprised to see the number of cars in their neighborhood. He’s got the streets that lead to his house blocked off, and some of his deputies are making sure none of the press get too close. This is Stiles’ first time seeing the phenomenon he’s created as anything but words on a computer screen, and he stares in a combination of fascination and terror.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, as Tom edges the sheriff’s cruiser between the two police cars that are blocking the road to their house. “Jesus Christ.”

Tom reaches over and tousles his son’s hair. “We did try to tell you. Why do you think we snuck out the side door of the hospital?”

“No, I know, I just . . . seeing it is different. How are we going to handle it?”

“Once you’re feeling up to it, we’ll do an official interview or two. Once they’ve gotten a chance to ask all their questions, they’ll stop hounding you.”

“Stop . . . what?” Stiles looks faintly perplexed.

“Hounding.” Tom glances at his son. “Pestering. Bothering.”

“Oh, hounding, I thought . . .” Stiles rubs his hands over his face. “Sometimes it’s like words just . . . don’t connect right.”

“I know,” Tom says.

Stiles chews on his lower lip pensively. “Is it going to get better?”

“No real way to tell, kiddo,” Tom says. “All we can do is have you keep working with the speech therapists and the neurologist, see what comes back and what doesn’t. Given how . . .” His voice chokes up momentarily. “Given how bad it was, it’s amazing you came out as well as you did.”

“Now there’s a thought to help me sleep at night,” Stiles says, as Tom pulls the cruiser into the driveway. The party guests have left a space for him, although the road is lined with cars.

“You want the wheelchair?” Tom asks his son.

“No, just the walker, I think,” Stiles says. Tom nods, having expected this answer, and goes into the trunk of the car. He takes out the walker that they’ve folded up there. Just as he’s getting it situated in front of the car’s passenger door, Derek comes out of the house, having heard them. He opens the door and grabs Stiles by the wrist, pulling him out. “Oh my God, Der, really,” Stiles says, laughing, as Derek pins him up against the cruiser and rubs his scent all over him. “Yeah, we haven’t seen each other for like two full hours.”

“You smell like hospital,” Derek growls at him, and rubs his cheek firmly against Stiles’ temple.

“You can help me shower later,” Stiles says, and Tom groans. “C’mon, now, let me up. I want to walk . . . I need to walk past where Kate died on my own two feet. No werewolves, no wheelchairs, just a little bit of help from my trusty walker.”

“Okay.” Derek backs off and lets Tom set the walker in front of Stiles. He has to lean on it heavily and keep his pace slow as he shuffles along. He could do it faster, but he’s learned that there are severe consequences to pushing himself too hard. They usually involve pain, drugs, and unconsciousness, and he wants to enjoy his party.

He walks right past the spot where Kate died without looking at it. Derek pulls the front door open, and he makes his way up the front steps. He’s mobbed the moment he sets foot inside. Someone whisks the walker away so he can lean on Derek instead. Everyone has to hug him – carefully – and there are a lot of people there. Not just the Hale pack, but Jonathan’s and Aaron’s family have both come, as well as Scott and his mother, Heather and her parents and her younger sister, and an awkward-looking Danny. Allison is there, wearing one of the pins that’s a maroon ribbon, that people started making in support of the Hale pack. Several of Cora’s friends from school are there, including Erica Reyes and Vernon Boyd and some of each of their pack. Along with them, every off duty cop from Beacon Hills is in the house, and Stiles is willing to bet that most of the on-duty officers are going to find a way to swing by before the party is over.

Stiles can’t have caffeine yet (or alcohol, not that it matters to him), so the drinks are lemonade and caffeine-free sodas like Sprite. It’s a pot luck, and there’s a little of everything. Stiles spends most of the party on the sofa, in Derek’s lap, while people swirl around him. Scott, Allison, Heather, and Cora cluster around him like a shield.

Talia apologizes because she can’t stay very long – her law firm is being inundated by requests for interviews for both her and Stiles, along with a lot of correspondence about the WLO indictments. She’s a civil lawyer, not criminal, so technically she’s not involved in that, but they’re organizing a class action lawsuit for all the people who might have been victimized. She’s also working with another firm to get the perfume companies shut down, and two public relations companies who are sorting through all the garbage the WLO has been publishing – both pro and anti-werewolf – so they can discredit it. It’s a lot of work. She looks exhausted. Stiles promises to help as soon as he can. She nods and kisses him on the cheek and tells him to take things at his own pace, but that she’s looking forward to his help.

Aaron is similarly busy. As a journalist, he’s been helping write a series of articles that are getting published in a number of magazines and on the internet. The Hale story, he calls them, and laughs. He’s not as tired as Talia, but he’s obviously had a rough week. Stiles offers to help him, too. Aaron tells him that he’d rather rest up so he can get back to cooking dinner sooner, in a teasing tone that makes Stiles laugh.

Peter sits in the corner and watches everything with a distant little half-smile on his face. Stiles just outright asks him at one point, “Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t know, Stiles,” Peter says. “I think . . . that I’d like to be, someday.”

“I’ll take it,” Stiles says, and rests his cheek against Derek’s shoulder.

He lasts three entire hours, through hugs and pizza and two vigorous games of Apples to Apples. But eventually he starts to nod off. They tone the party down a little, and he stays curled up in Derek’s embrace, enjoying the noise of his friends and family around him.

“I’m going to take him up to bed,” Derek says quietly, and everyone agrees that it’s getting kind of late, they probably all have things that they need to be doing. Derek carries Stiles up to his room and pulls the blankets down with one hand before laying Stiles on the bed. He sits down next to him and starts to unlace his shoes.

“Hmn . . . Der’k?” Stiles asks, eyes fluttering a little.

“Yeah,” Derek says, one hand rubbing absently at Stiles’ forearm.

Stiles lets out a content sigh. “I’m glad you chose me. Dunno if I’ve ever actually said that. But I am. Even after everything.”

Derek squeezes his hand. “Me too.”

“Because . . . you’re awesome and wonderful and I couldn’t live without you. Plus you give amazing blowjobs.”

Derek nearly chokes on a laugh. He suddenly feels like things might actually be okay. Because even if his memory is a little sketchy and his vocabulary is a little mixed up, he’s still Stiles if he’s making comments like that, and that’s all that matters to Derek. “We should put that in our vows,” he says.

“We so should,” Stiles agrees. He turns his head to one side and sighs again as Derek starts getting him out of his pants, then unbuttons the plaid shirt he’s wearing.

“Arm up,” Derek says, and lifts Stiles’ arm so he can slide the shirt off. He’s wearing a T-shirt underneath it. Derek decides that it’s fine for him to sleep in a T-shirt and his boxers. He tosses Stiles’ clothes into the hamper and then strips off his own, crawling underneath the blankets next to Stiles. He doesn’t know what time it is and frankly couldn’t care less. He can’t think of a single reason that he wouldn’t want to curl up with his mate.

“Love you,” Stiles murmurs.

“Love you too,” Derek replies.

“Tomorrow ‘m gonna make cookies. And answer e-mails. An’ take a shower. If I promise to take it easy, will you jerk me off in the bath?”

Derek nuzzles his ear. “I think we can probably manage that much,” he says, but Stiles is already asleep. Derek slips a hand underneath his shirt, slides it up to momentarily rest on the bandages that cover the still healing wound, then over Stiles’ heart. He can feel his heartbeat underneath the skin, steady and reassuring. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than good enough.

 

~fin~