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*

 

It’s his own goddamn fault, taking the route that cuts behind the 7-11 via a tight, deserted alley. He knows better that that now. But he’s thinking about snacks, movie night, and his Dad’s doctor’s appointment on Tuesday…normal stuff. It’s too late when he feels the twinge between his shoulderblades that lets him know he’s being followed.

Before he has a chance to throw up a mountain ash barrier--or react at all--a supernaturally strong arm grabs him by the shoulder, spins him around, and traps him. He struggles, of course, but his back and upper arms are neatly pinned to rock-hard muscles, a hairy forearm pressing down across his chest. It’s almost an embrace, and he can feel his attacker’s eager breath panting on the side of his neck.

The wolf makes a mocking tut-tut noise. “What have we here? A little human without his pack? Now, I think you know what I want.”

“Some fancy pink nail polish and your daddy’s approval?”

Stiles feels the quicksilver pain of a cold blade sliding right between his ribs. Fuck. A bit untraditional, but no claws means no risk of turning him. Everyone’s more careful after what happened with Kate.

“Funny boy. You’re smart enough to know this isn’t fatal,” the werewolf says softly into his ear as Stiles breathes shallowly, trying to avoid the sharp pain of any movement. “And you’re smart enough to know it will be if I push just a little bit in to the left.”

Stiles’s body is trembling now, with the pain or maybe shock. Despite his efforts to keep still, he can feel the knife cutting deeper, so that’s great. It hurts like hell, washing out his other thoughts like the white-hot spot of light in a backlit photo. Blood’s soaking through his overshirt.

“Where is the Wolf Alpha?” the man behind him snarls.

“Fu-fuck you,” Stiles manages to spit.

The knife twists up a bit, and his bravado dissolves into a whimper. He reaches for the small of his back, hoping that the way he’s arching away from the werewolf reads as pained squirming.

“Stop playing games. We know he’s gone north, and that you know where. I’m asking you one last time. Where is he?”

Stiles’ fingers brush cold metal. “Okay, okay,” he says. “Just…please.”

The werewolf slides the knife out, loosens his grip just enough. Stiles twists around, jamming his own blade up hard behind the man’s ear. The blow lands with a crunch.

“Emissary,” Stiles sighs with a certain frustration, making a ‘come on’ gesture at his own chest. Why do they always think he’s the easy target? The werewolf’s corpse doesn’t answer. Wolfsbane laced blades tend to have that effect.

Stiles groans as the adrenaline washes a little farther away with each pulse of his heart; he’s still bleeding badly. He does what he can to staunch it as he slumps down to sit against the cinderblock wall beside the dumpster. His knife falls out of his fingers and he leaves it on the ground in front of him while he digs in his pocket for his phone.

“Hey, Scott,” he says. “Behind the 7-11 at Main. Stabbed. Some fucking beta looking for Derek. Again.”

“Jesus, are you alright?” his friend asks. Stiles can hear the faint jangle of keys through the phone, and Kira’s worried voice asking something he can’t make out.

“Stabbed,” he reiterates forcefully, before relenting. “Pretty shallow. ‘S fine. Just need a ride to the hospital for stitches and like, morphine.” He lets his head fall back against the rough bricks, closing his eyes so he can’t see the world fuzz out.

“Be right there,” Scott says. He’s a bro, Scott. A bro and an Alpha. It’s a pretty good combo.

Stiles sits in the alley and waits, flipping his phone in one hand and pressing against his ribs with the other. He looks at the beta who was hunting Derek. Wonders which pack sent him. The Hanovers’ from New York, maybe? They’ve been asking too many questions at inter-pack meetings. That or Chester’s Arizona pack--they keep to themselves, but there’ve been rumors. No matter how you slice it, this is trouble. He sighs, dials again.

“Stiles?”

Even hearing his voice reminds him what a bad idea this is. “Hey, Derek. Just ran into a beta who was really interested in your location. In a distinctly non-friendly way. So heads up.”

“Are you alright?” Derek asks. Even through the bad connection he sounds a little wrecked, like he’s got the gist that no, Stiles is not.

“Peachy,” Stiles lies. They breathe at each other for a moment, until he can’t take all the things they’re not saying, anymore. “How’s Winnipeg? Liking the snow?”

“Calgary, now,” Derek corrects.

“Man, don’t tell me that,” Stiles whines. “It’s safer if I just don’t know.”

“Not safer for you, if you need me.”

Stiles snorts at that, then winces. If he needs Derek. Sure, let’s put that in the hypothetical. “I gotta go. Just wanted to warn you.” He doesn’t hang up.

“I love you,” Derek says, fast and hot like he thinks Stiles might cut him off in the middle of it. He’s not wrong.

“That’s nice,” Stiles says, in a tone that implies the opposite. He ends the call.

 

*

 

“Can you show me?” Deaton asks. Derek flashes his eyes obligingly, his tightly crossed arms the only sign of discomfort. “Interesting,” the vet muses.

“But what does it mean?” Stiles insists. “They’re like fucking traffic lights these days, Blue, red, blue, yellow, red…what’s next, purple?”

“Red means Alpha,” Deaton says patiently, and okay, that part isn’t confusing but still. On the whole Stiles feels that he’s justified in not taking anything for granted anymore, what with the whole ‘actual wolf’ reveal on top of berzerkers and werejaguars and whatever.

“But how is he an Alpha again?” Scott asks. “He didn’t kill anyone.”

“Neither did you,” Deaton points out wryly. “You became a True Alpha through a desire to protect your pack, which is one path to raising your status that doesn’t involve violence. For a born wolf to master the connection to his animal side, to fully transform--that is another way.” He smiles, softly. “Talia would have been proud.”

“Woah, our pack has two True Alphas?” Scott asks, grinning like he can’t quite believe his luck. “Awesome!” He’s told Stiles about ‘that one time in the elevator where Derek just tossed Ennis away from me like a rag doll’ ad nauseum, and Stiles thinks Scott has a bit of a bro-boner for Alpha Derek.

“Not precisely,” Deaton says.

 

*

 

The ride to the hospital is quiet. It’s obvious that Scott’s beating himself up over ‘letting’ Stiles get hurt, from the pinched set of his mouth. But he won’t admit that he’s doing it, and Stiles is too tired to drag it out of him so they can argue out loud. Probably for the best; he knows he’s keyed up enough from the call with Derek that he’d be an asshole instead of a firm, comforting advisor. Still, it hurts that Scott doesn’t trust him even now to make his own mistakes and live with the consequences.

“Did you tell Derek about the beta?” Scott asks.

And great. The one way this car ride could get worse. Stiles slouches farther down into his seat, holding the makeshift bandage to his side. “Yup.”

“How’d he take you getting stabbed over not giving him up?”

“Forgot to mention that part.”

Scott makes a face, the kind that means, ‘you’re being an idiot.’ Stiles waits for the reprimand (“You two should just talk, like you used to,” Scott’s told him more than once), but it doesn’t come. Scott looks tired, tendons standing out on his hands as he grips the wheel to take a left toward the hospital. “It isn’t a joke. Be more careful, okay? I need you to be here. You’re my best friend.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Scott presses his lips together, his eyes still on the road. “You’re my Emissary, too, Stiles. If our friendship isn’t a good enough reason to take care of yourself, at least remember that you have a duty to the pack.”

“I know that,” Stiles snaps. “Pretty fucking hard to forget when I can’t leave the territory by five shitty miles before I feel like vomiting.”

Scott pulls into the loading zone of the hospital and sets the handbrake before turning to Stiles, eyebrows knit with dismay and puppy-eyes running at full force. “Deaton told you about the connection to the land, you knew what accepting the bond meant.”

Stiles shrugs, slouching into the car door; it’s true, he walked into this particular hell with his eyes wide open.

“You didn’t used to mind,” Scott says softly. When Stiles still doesn’t answer, he gets out of the car and comes around to open the passenger side door. He’s gentle as he helps Stiles down from the Jeep onto the pavement, somehow supporting most of his weight without getting in the way or squeezing his elbow too hard. Even when they’re at each other’s throats, Scott would never consider anything but being there for Stiles in whatever way he can.

“I still don’t mind,” Stiles offers as they hobble through the sliding doors, close as he can come to an apology.

“Then why are you so reckless?”

“I’m not, just stupid,” Stiles says, giving his best friend a jokey half smile.

Scott doesn’t smile back. “Yeah. That’s how you do reckless.”

 

*

 

“So Derek has to leave,” Scott says. He still doesn’t sound one hundred percent convinced, but he’s getting there. Derek’s been there for thirty minutes, the goddamn martyr.

“It’s not exile,” Deaton sighs. “True Alphas have stronger everything, including instincts. You remember how well you two worked together the last time Derek was an Alpha? That wasn’t just miscommunication, it was nature. And this time around, it would be worse. An Alpha exists to lead and protect his or her pack. They are, by definition, singular.”

“Shouldn’t I be the one to get kicked out of Beacon Hills, though?” Scott asks. “I mean, the Hale family has been here...”

“No,” Derek interrupts. “Kate knows, and the Calaveras. Word will get out, and this is the first place people will look. Besides, you’ve already built a pack here in Beacon Hills. I don’t… It’s easier for me to leave and build a pack where I end up.”

“Yeah, because randomly giving the bite to some lonely teens worked so well for you last time,” Stiles snaps, scratching irritably at his forearm. He feels guilty at the hurt in Derek’s eyes when he catches them, but guilty is better than the frustrated, powerless feeling that’s been creeping up on him for the last half hour. Guilty is familiar. “Can’t he like, give it back?” Stiles demands.

Deaton blinks at him in surprise. “No, actually, I don’t believe he can. Though it’s not really heard of to…want to.”

“I don’t,” Derek says, and then, softer: “I’m ready for this.”

 

*

 

Stiles’ wound is almost healed now, just a bit of pull at the scar tissue if he twists the wrong way. The beta was definitely one of Chester’s, they’ve discovered. Half of that pack seems to have come out to Beacon Hills now, all intent on getting “revenge”--more truthfully called a land grab, if you ask Stiles. They’re a young pack, greedy for more powerful territory. The beta he killed has been the perfect excuse for them to stir up shit without invoking any wrath from the other California packs.

The latest trouble is a deer Scott found in the preserve, leg broken in a bear trap. “It could just be normal hunters,” Stiles suggests, looking at the animal’s flaring nostrils, the pulse of veins in it’s neck. Better than looking at where the leg breaks off into gore. It’s finally exhausted itself and stopped struggling, but it did more damage than the trap itself, trying to break free.

“No,” Scott sighs. “Look. There’s a spiral symbol scratched into the tree over by you.”

Great. “So is it some kind of sacrifice? Intimidation?” Stiles can’t quite look away from the wide limpid eyes, rolling in their sockets like salvation might appear any moment now.

Scott shrugs, then takes a too-quick step forward and startles the dear; suddenly it’s kicking against the trap again, heaving it’s tawny haunches out of dumb animal instinct. The three free legs are scrambling for purchase, scoring deep ruts in the loamy soil, kicking up forest debris and blood.

“I called Derek,” Scott says, edging closer to the animal. “Only to keep him updated, but he said he’s gonna come out here to try and help defend the territory.”

“Lovely,” Stiles says, trying to will his heartbeat to stay steady. It’s so much harder to keep cool when he’s physically there. Stiles hasn’t managed it yet.

Scott must pick up on his discomfort because he bobs his head sympathetically. “I know. But he feels responsible, since he’s the one they were after in the first place. You remember how he gets. I think he wishes we’d stop getting involved and just let his pack handle that kind of thing.”

“His pack isn’t strong enough to protect him. Why can’t he just say ‘thanks dudes,’ and let us help him? I mean, between you, Kira, Malia and Liam, we’re doing fine. And he’s still our friend, we’re just trying to… But no, Chester’s psycho pack is trying to hunt him down and murder him so clearly he’s gonna come find them first. Brilliant plan. I mean, I joke about him being a martyr, it’s not actually a life suggestion.”

Scott’s finally edged close enough to the deer, which has quieted again. Probably from bloodloss. Stiles looks away when the Alpha flicks his claws free and puts the animal out of it’s misery.

Derek should have a strong pack now, strong enough to not worry about being attacked. He doesn’t of course, because he always picks the weakest, loneliest Omegas to bring into his pack, and only bites humans who are the dictionary definition of pathetic. Derek wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t care about power any more. He doesn’t even want safety, or at least not primarily; what he wants is to create a new family. He’s better at it this time around, Stiles has to admit. Not that Boyd and Erica had been his fault, but he’d so clearly been over his head with them and Isaac, all three of them damaged and new at once on top of all the other shit that had been going down.

Stiles wishes he could say that to Derek, how their deaths weren’t his fault. None of it was. But maybe he’s already missed the moment in time when those words would have mattered. Now, when Derek talks about his old pack he looks wistful rather than wrecked. He’ll even talk about his family sometimes, smiling at the good memories. Derek was right; he’s ready to be an Alpha. He’s happy with his new pack. The few times Stiles has seen him he’s been calmer, more open. This Derek is almost as good at being an Alpha as Stiles is at being an Emissary.

And Stiles is good. He can throw up a mountain ash barrier large enough for five and strong enough to hold off a full pack, he can identify strains of wolfsbane by smell, he can track supernatural beings with just a map and a piece of quartz, he’s learned the bestiary by heart. Even Deaton is impressed with how much power Stiles can draw from the Pack’s territory, with the level of control he’s achieved despite his ADHD and his age.

And then there’s the other responsibilities of being an Emissary. Scott slowly wipes the deer’s blood from his hands onto his jeans, and Stiles socks him lightly in the shoulder.

“You remember you promised to take me to the new Guardians of the Galaxy tonight with you and Kira, right?” Scott nods with a mechanical half-smile. Stiles does an impression of Rocket Raccoon firing an uzi and coaxes out a real one. Stiles throws his arm around Scott’s shoulders as they hike back to the car, jostling him playfully. Scott’s shoulders go pliant, and he bumps a hip into Stiles’ like they’re still kids, like Scott can still say that they’re gonna save everyone, and believe it.

Derek will need someone to do this for him, too. Probably even more than Scott does. He might be more grounded now, but he probably still gets too deep into his own head sometimes and forgets to let anyone else help. Stiles hopes whatever stupid Canadian Emissary Derek eventually ends up with understands that this part is important, too.

Except that, of course, he doesn’t.

 

*

 

“But why Canada? That’s really far,” Stiles says.

Derek sighs, stuffs the last tightly rolled shirt into his duffel. “You heard Deaton. Until I have a strong pack of my own to defend myself I need to lay low. Keep moving.”

“Yeah, yeah, ‘all power can be earned or stolen.’ Not a legitimate form of government if you ask me.” Stiles definitely hasn’t forgotten what Deaton said. How could he? Now that Derek’s a Wolf Alpha, it’s not even just other packs; it’s speciesist hunters who think he’s an extra-special abomination, it’s witches skinning Derek alive when he’s trapped in wolf form to use his pelt for certain powerful spells. Even Derek had looked sick when Deaton told them that. “But Canada? They use the fucking metric system.”

“My father’s pack was from Canada until he moved here to be with my mother. I have people I can reach out to, people who will help.”

“And Scott’s what? Chopped liver?”

“No,” Derek sighs. “If I need his help, I’ll ask. And you can call me if you need anything,” he says, suddenly serious. “I know what Deaton says about instincts, but I can rein those back for a while if I need to. Scott and I can work together in an emergency.”

They’ve both totally got bro-boners for each other, Stiles knew it. “Sure. Deaton’s gonna officially hook me up with some Druid stuff next summer. So. I’ll help too, if you want.” It comes out more needy than it should.

Derek fixes him with a look. “Stiles, of course I want. We’re still friends, my being an Alpha doesn’t change anything between us.”

“I know,” Stiles says. But he doesn’t really believe it. Everything is changing. The whole wolf resurrection thing was supposed to mean they weren’t going to lose Derek. So what the fuck is this Canada business? A fucking bait-and-switch is what.

 

*

 

Unlike Stiles, Kira’s been good at keeping in touch. Most of the specifics he knows about Derek’s new life come through her. About a week after the deer incident she lets him know that she’s picking Derek up from the airport. He’s going to be staying in his old loft, she says, and Stiles should go say ‘hi.’ As if it’s that simple.

There was a time when it was simple between them. Back when Derek came to visit Stiles while he was in Boston for school being friends was easy; he’d come around only a couple less than Scott, actually. And they’d had phone calls, and emails, and texts. Derek had been a good sounding board, making jokes rather than pitying Stiles when he complained about the course load and how little sleep he was getting. It hadn’t felt like Derek was gone, when Stiles was away too. Both Derek and the Pack were equally far, and equally reachable. 

Stiles hadn’t missed anyone while he was at college, not really; it had felt like a vacation more than a life change. He’d had fun spreading his wings and meeting new people, but it was always temporary. He’d never seriously considered not coming back to Beacon Hills. Not with his dad and Scott and the Pack waiting for him. Even Lydia had promised to come back after grad school, and she had been giving up so many more opportunities that Stiles. Sticking with his friends hadn’t felt like a sacrifice; it had barely felt like a choice.

He’d been eager to train with Deaton over the summers to be Scott’s Emissary, too. The power had been good, Stiles liked feeling useful. Deaton had done his best to impress the seriousness of the bond on him, but how can you really explain ‘the rest of your life’ to a twenty year old? He had thought he understood what being an Emissary meant when he accepted the bond to the territory his junior year. If he’s honest with himself, he had thought he understood everything.

He lets himself into Derek’s loft, making enough noise that Derek won’t be surprised. Or, enough that Derek knows he isn’t trying to surprise him--Stiles doubts he could even if he wanted. Still, when Stiles drags the door open Derek is reading on the couch like he wasn’t expecting anyone. He looks soft and comfortable in his v-neck and sweats. Homey. That’s just another illusion, though. In the three years since Stiles' graduation, Derek’s returned to his old stomping grounds maybe seven times.

Learning control was supposed to be the hard part of being Scott’s Emissary. Deaton had shown how important it was well enough just by being his creepily calm self, and to drive the point home there were at least three lectures on how a spark could become dangerous if not carefully managed. Everyone thought that was going to be his big challenge, but it hasn’t been that difficult in the end; Stiles has gotten good at thinking first and not going off half cocked. It’s only with Derek that all his hard-earned poise is useless.

“Stiles,” Derek says.

“Long time no see,” Stiles answers. Derek half-smiles, nodding. His arms flex as he sets the book aside and like always it strikes Stiles how gorgeous he is.

“How’re the betas, eh?” Stiles knows he sounds snide, which is a bit better than jealous, he supposes. Derek never brings them around--it would make the Alpha instinct to challenge Scott that much stronger. Or so he says.

Derek doesn’t take the bait. “They’re fine. Meg’s almost fully controlling her shift now. I think that the forest is her anchor, or nature anyways.”

“Huh. Nice work.” Stiles half remembers the name from something Kira said. They found her hitchhiking next to the highway after her parents kicked her out for kissing another girl at school, wasn’t that it?

“It was mostly Thomas who helped her. He’s good at describing how it should feel. Better than I am.”

Of course. Thomas was the first Derek turned, and he’s been the pillar of Derek’s new pack for years. They still don’t know much about him, not half enough. Stiles tries to think of ways to dig for details that don’t seem creepy. Is he smart like Boyd? Funny like Erica? Do you tell him when you’re worried? Does he get to see beyond the walls you put up? Do you tell him about us?

In the end he doesn’t say anything. Conversations with Derek are what he really misses, he craves the friendship they had back while he was in school. But talking’s become a minefield of things Stiles can’t say. He sits down on the couch next to Derek in silence. It's only half comfortable, after all the time apart. Derek looks mostly the same, but there are always little changes between visits. He's wearing his hair a bit longer, now. Derek looks back at Stiles, probably thinking something similar as he runs his eyes over Stiles' face, his hair, his mouth.

"So," Derek says, leaning in the slightest bit and flicking the tip of his tongue out to wet his lips.

There’s always that uncertainty, the first time they’re back together. That maybe Derek won’t want this anymore, that he might push Stiles away. That this time they won't just miss out on honest conversation, they won't even get the physical closeness that replaced it. But that's not happening this time. Derek's offering first, and Stiles is immensely thankful that at least this is still simple. He pulls Derek to him, licks up his neck before diving in with a kiss. Derek responds eagerly, sucking on Stiles’ lower lip, hands moving to grasp his hips possessively and tug him down onto the couch. Like always, it’s a relief that they get to at least have this, and Stiles hums his satisfaction into the kiss.

He wishes he could leave gigantic love bites, or red scratch marks all down Derek’s back--ones that would stay. Just something that would stay. Maybe his scent will, if he grinds enough of his sweat and come into Derek’s skin.

When they finally break apart for air, Derek smiles softly. His face is flushed and he looks fucked-out already when he blinks at Stiles, dreamily slow. He doesn’t even need to say the words. Stiles looks away. He sure as hell didn’t come here so they could just moon at each other. They don’t have time for that kind of thing.

He unbuttons his own jeans and shoves them down with his boxers, Derek following the waistband with his mouth and helping pull them the rest of the way off, pressing a wet kiss to the thin red scar where Stiles was stabbed before moving lower to his already hard cock and taking in his mouth.

Stiles arches into the heat of it, loving the way he can finally let everything else slide away. No need for pretense or lies or even thinking at all. Derek lets him push all the way in, with a pleased rumble in his throat that sends a shiver of lust up Stiles’ spine.

Words aren’t so treacherous in bed, and Stiles releases a pent up stream of them--God, yes, you’re perfect, fuck, like that, I missed you so much. He runs his hands through the short hair at the back of Derek’s neck, relearning the the little cow-lick on the left, the pattern of his hairline. Derek trails a finger behind his balls and applies flat pressure to his hole, lighting up his nerve endings and making him squirm with pleasure.

Stiles hands him a small packet of lube, feeling a bit more boyscout and a bit less slut than he had when he’d stuffed it in his pocket before he left his apartment. No need to go to the bedroom until round two.

He can feel Derek smile, and the blowjob goes graceless while he shifts his focus to pouring the liquid on his fingers and slipping the first one in.

“God, you’re tight,” he pulls off to gasp.

And Derek probably doesn’t mean that as a question, Stiles is just paranoid. He doesn’t reply, just rocks his hips back into Derek’s hand. Of course he doesn’t do this with anyone else. It’s embarrassing that these few visits are his only release, but he’d tried once with some burly guy from the Jungle and has no desire to bother again. The guy had said yeah, you like that? so fucking smugly, slapped Stiles’ ass and called him a bossy little power bottom. It had all been so ridiculously disappointing that Stiles had laughed until he’d teared up. As much as they can snipe at each other, Derek’s never reduced him to a cliche.

Derek takes his time working him open with his fingers and generous praise that gets Stiles off almost as much as the physical sensation. He loves how good he can make Derek feel. It helps this whole whatever between them seem like less of a mistake.

“It’s fine, I’m ready,” he insists. If he let him, Derek would still be doing this an hour later--there’ve been times when Stiles has.

“Are you sure? I don’t want to hu-” Stiles cuts him off by grabbing Derek’s shirt and tugging it over his head. He wads it up and tosses it carelessly behind him, sends his own shirt flying after a moment later.

“Pants,” he demands, “off.” Derek laughs a little as he complies, and Stiles smiles too. It feels like old times, like nothing’s gone sour between them at all.

Derek sits back on the couch and Stiles straddles him, peppering kisses on his face to make up for the time spent not touching. Derek slouches down, grabs Stiles’ hips again to line them up. He runs a still-slick hand over himself to ease the way.

“Oh, shit,” Stiles moans as he sinks down slowly onto Derek, trying to keep himself from taking too much at once.

“Hopefully not,” Derek says cheerfully.

“Fuck you,” Stiles says, but it’s hard to sound very angry when he’s speaking through a smile.

“No, no--I’m the one doing the fucking,” Derek teases, rolling his hips down and up slightly to demonstrate.

“Stop it, you’re ruining the moment,” Stiles laughs, dropping his forehead to Derek’s. It should be illegal to be this amused and turned on at the same time.

Derek just shakes his head, still smiling though it’s gone tender. They both know it would take far more than that to ruin any of this.

Stiles settles down on Derek’s lap, biting his lip as he shifts to grind that little bit deeper. He breathes through the adjustment, feeling every inch of himself filled up and hot.

“Fuck,” he whispers again, and this time Derek doesn’t joke.

He starts off moving slowly--Derek was right, he wasn’t all the way ready for this--but the slight burn fades quickly and blurs into something delicious.

Derek’s body is familiar. How can he feel so perfectly familiar when they only see each other twice a year?

But that train of thought is dangerous; Stiles moves faster, drops down harder, seeking a pace punishing enough to wipe his mind clean. It’s hard to get the leverage he needs, but Derek’s gotten the hint and matches Stiles’ pace, bucking up into him. Between the two of them, they find the right rhythm. For a beautiful stretch of time there’s nothing but their bodies, the feeling of Derek thrusting into him, the rush of his blood pulsing hard and the pleasure coiling low in his abdomen. Derek’s head falls back against the couch, flushed lips opening slack, and Stiles knows he’s close. He grinds down again, his own cock trapped deliciously between their bodies, sliding on hard muscle slick with sweat.

Derek comes first, trembling up into Stiles’ body with a whining sigh of release as he wraps an arm around Stiles to squeeze him in tight. Stiles only needs to rut into him once or twice after that before he follows, painting Derek’s abs with come. Stiles reaches down to lazily rub it in; Derek reaches out, too, thumbing Stiles’ new scar.

“I didn’t want you to get hurt for me,” he says.

The illusion that this is just simple sex fades as quickly as heat from the dry California air after sunset.

Stiles pushes himself off Derek and flops sideways onto the couch to stare at the ceiling, legs thrown over Derek’s lap. There’s a box of tissues on the table he used to clean up, and he thinks about the deer from the woods. Too stupid to stop struggling against the trap, as if muscle and bone could ever overcome cold iron, worsening the damage with every movement. He looks up at Derek, against his better instincts.

Derek’s already looking back at him, sex-drunk and open. His eyes are fractals of green and gold, and seem ridiculously bright against his dark lashes.  

“I love you,” Derek says. Easy, lazily almost. Like nothing has consequences.

Stiles tenses instantly. “Jesus, can we not? Why do you have to say that?”

Derek frowns, dragging a tissue over his own messy torso. “I want you to know. If something happens…”

"Well, I do know. Obviously. I mean, you never shut up about it. And I’m supposed to believe this is some crazy now-or-never admission? Frankly, I get the feeling that you think you can train me into wanting to say it back." Derek looks away, frustrated or ashamed. "I'm not going to," Stiles clarifies.

"I know that. Or I think I do. But..."

"But then we have sex and you get confused."

Derek’s mouth thins out. Good; Stiles is getting under his skin. "Something like that."

“C'mon, we’re fuck-buddies,” Stiles says, carelessly. A better person wouldn’t be able to come up with these words at all, he thinks, much less twist the knife so calmly. “You understand how sex is different from feelings, right? Don’t tell me you and Braedon don’t do exactly this when she blows into whatever town you’re staying in that week.”

Derek looks away, cheeks flushed. So, wow, Stiles guessed right. It was just a shot in the dark, but of course Derek still fucks her. She’s a badass mercenary with curves for days, they have off-the-charts chemistry, why wouldn’t they be sleeping together? It’s not like he’s got anything exclusive going on.

“That’s not the same,” Derek insists.

“For you maybe,” Stiles says, vicious with misdirected anger. “Newsflash. You're my Braedon. Hot piece of ass up for a good fuck without--”

“I don't treat Braedon like this.” Derek shoves himself out of the couch and drags his jeans on, movements clipped and angry as he snatches his shirt off the corner of the bookshelf where Stiles had thrown it.

“I'm…” Stiles starts, but he chokes on ‘sorry’. “I didn't mean that.”

Derek yanks the shirt over his head, flattening out the ridges in his hair made by Stiles’ fingers. “Yeah? You still said it. Honestly, I’m not sure I care what you mean anymore.”

"You're leaving?" Stiles asks, hating the whine of desperation in his voice.

"I guess I just don't feel like fucking," Derek says icily. He shuts the door behind him, abandoning his own apartment in his need to get away from them. Alone on the couch, Stiles thinks this could be it. Out of all the bullshit he’s pulled, maybe those were the words Derek can’t forgive, maybe this is the breaking point. Maybe he won't come back again. Stiles dresses slowly, tosses the crumpled tissues and empty packet of lube into the trash and leaves with one last look around the familiar room.

How things are now, it would probably be a mercy to both of them if he didn’t.

 

*

 

“I can’t believe you almost killed Scott over ketchup,” Stiles giggles, stumbling into Derek’s firm shoulder and bouncing off again, reaching out to grab it for support. They end up walking crookedly down the road like that, Stiles’ arm slung around Derek’s neck. He’s maybe a little too drunk, but it’s his graduation party. He deserves to let loose a little, especially with Derek here, back in Beacon Hills for the first time since he left for Canada.

“It wasn’t...we weren’t fighting,” Derek protests. He’s not one hundred percent sober either. “I wouldn’t…but it just gets soggy if you just pour it over everything! And the top ones have too much and the bottom doesn’t have any. They give you little cups! That’s what they’re for!”

“Oh my god, you’re still mad,” Stiles moans, stifling another laugh. “Ketchup!”

“And they were your fries,” Derek growls, low and threatening. “He didn’t ask.”

“Aww,” Stiles says, tripping over his feet a bit as he turns to look at Derek. The werewolf’s flushed prettily with the alcohol or maybe a bit of embarrassment. “Gettin’ your hackles all up over the best friend? No need to mark the territory, dude. There’s enough Stiles to go around.”

Derek sighs. “It’s not that. Or… I don’t know. Just catching his scent makes me want to...” Derek mimes choking someone with a toothy snarl that's only half pretend. “I can’t help it.”

“Well, I guess,” Stiles says. He doesn’t really believe instinct can be that strong. “But. You should come back. Be part of the pack again.” They’re walking along the chain link fence behind the high school baseball fields now and Stiles is feeling nostalgic.

“I can’t.”

“I know what Deaton said, but…we’re all bros, right? I’m Scott’s Emissary now. I can totally mediate that shit. You guys will work it out.”

“No, I have a beta.”

“Oh?” Stiles is…he’s happy to hear that. It’s just a weird thought, Derek having a beta he doesn’t know. “Let me guess, is it Jacques? Pierre? Is he quebecois?”

Derek gives him a dry look. “Thomas, and no. You’d like him.”

Stiles isn’t so sure.

And it’s only because he’s wondering about why that is so intently that he trips. Of course he practically takes Derek down with him as he stumbles sideways into the fence. He opens his mouth to protest that no, he is not too drunk, shut up, but Derek doesn’t make the obvious joke. He’s close, looking wide-eyed at Stiles from only a few inches away. Stiles ends up not saying anything, either. It seems very quiet all of a sudden.

Stiles’ hands are wound tight into Derek’s shirt collar, keeping him from moving back. He hadn’t realized he was doing that. Derek has always been attractive, but in the way that movie stars are: Something to notice, joke about, even appreciate. Not to touch. Only now they’re touching, and it feels natural to have Derek’s whole body pressing Stiles’ back into the fence.

Stiles’ fingers migrate from Derek’s shirt to lightly brush his neck. Derek shivers at the touch, his eyes dark with arousal. It’s so obvious, suddenly. It’s Derek, the gorgeous warm body in front of him is the same person who talked him through finals and still complains about not understanding weather reports that give the temperature in Celsius and sends him links to healthy eating recipes for his dad. It’s Derek. He’s so close and he’s brimming with his unique, perfect self. And in this one moment he is looking at Stiles in a way that makes him feel alive and himself and perfect too.

Derek leans in and rubs his nose and mouth against Stiles’ neck. Stiles curses under his breath, arching into the wet drag of Derek’s lips. He wants to be marked, scented, whatever this is. But he also wants…he wants...and then they’re kissing, as easy as falling. It starts with a tender press of lips, but quickly it becomes all teeth and spit and desperation to taste and feel and be closer closer closer. Stiles realizes that this is what all that pent up emotion was supposed to be channeled into. All the longing, worry, and giddy excitement he feels around Derek clicks into place with their mouths locked together and his heart beating rabbit-fast, the simple wet slide of lips and tongues electric like sex had never been for him, not with Malia, not with the boys in college.

Of course, he doesn’t put a name to it until later. He doesn’t think too hard about what it means when you kiss someone and the world falls into place, or how it feels later when they’re gone.

 

*

 

“I can’t believe he’s doing this to me. I knew it. I told you. Scott, didn’t I say he was being an idiot coming back here? I said this was going to happen.”

“Calm down,” Scott says, uselessly. Calm is not an option, not with Derek gone for who knows how long and even one minute is enough for Chester to rip his throat out and steal the power he craves. For all they know it’s been over for hours, they’re already too late. Stiles has been watching reruns of fucking Friends and licking Cheeto dust off his fingers while Derek’s body is already bled out and cold and Stiles never told him, not once, he never said...

“Breathe,” Lydia orders, digging her nails into his bicep. “Stiles, look at me. Breathe.”

He does. In. Out. Derek is fine. Derek could be…but, no. Derek is fine. They have time.

“Can you do a spell? That locator one?” Liam asks, hesitant in a crisis like always. It’s a good suggestion, though.

Lydia lays out a map of Beacon hills while Kira gets her katana and Stiles scrambles around in Scott’s supplies for the quartz on a string that focuses his spark. His fingers close around the familiar, rough shape and he rushes back to the table, clumsy with nerves.

Everyone's watching, but he can’t work the spell until he regains control of his emotions. Stiles closes his eyes, goes deep within himself to find the spark and lets it drown out all the distractions. No fear about what might be happening, no regrets, just the flicker of his power, drawn from the land and trees, and the imperative thrumming under it all, anchoring him; find Derek.

He extends his arm over the map, eyes still closed. He sets the stone swinging, channeling the spark through it and feeling for the slight pull that's more than inertia or gravity. There. The quartz hits the map with a too-heavy thunk. It’s resting on the other side of town from the preserve, in the old farmlands. Stiles pulls the stone away to take a closer look.

“McAllister farm, lets go,” Stiles says, still dead calm.

 

There are seven of Chester’s betas at the old, weatherbeaten barn, five men and two women. On their side, piling out of the jeep like teenagers, it’s just Scott, Kira, Malia, Liam and Stiles.

“We know you have Derek,” Scott says, eyes glowing red. “This doesn’t have to be a fight. Just let him go.”

“Who, the Wolf Alpha?” one of the men says. Stiles can’t decide if that’s a good sign or bad that Chester’s nowhere to be seen. “He’s not your Pack, what do you care?”

“He’s our friend,” Scott says evenly.

"Cute," one of the women says. "But just giving him back isn't really an option." The other pack members exchange smirky glances. One in the back flicks out his claws and examines them casually.

And then suddenly the woman who spoke is diving in to take a swing at Scott’s face. She loses her arm before the claws hit, Kira’s blade severing it easily. All hell breaks loose after that; three of the men rush Scott, who roars, and Malia crashes into one of the others, sending both of them rolling through the underbrush. Stiles throws a mountain ash boundary down around the one toward the back who’s hesitating before he starts running. Liam rushes over to help Scott while Kira holds the remaining woman at bay with her katana.

Stiles skirts the fighting, headed towards the structure; the plan is that he goes to find Derek, since he’s the one who can get through any supernatural defenses they might have put up. Only before he reaches the door, the woman who attacked first slides in front of him, menacing even with one arm half-healed on. He scoops into his pocket and throws a handful of mistletoe powder at her; she goes down clawing at her face.

Stiles is still not an easy target.

Nothing in the near-empty first floor, which is basically one big, empty room. There’s a trap door, though, which reveals a flight of stairs when Stiles drags it open. He runs down the creaky wooden steps, and even in this state he can’t help thinking, really, the basement? Jesus, do they think it’s a fucking horror movie?

A horror movie or torture porn, maybe. The basement is more of a cellar, poorly lit, with a dirt floor and unidentifiable junk pushed into the corners and…and Derek’s there, cuffed to a chunky metal chair circled with mountain ash. His head is hanging forward and he’s covered in blood, oh shit, too much blood. Is it black from wolfsbane or just dried? Stiles’ knees are almost knocking together, now, without the singular drive of find-Derek-find-Derek to keep him focused and moving. He forces himself across the room to kneel in front of the chair, using a simple spell to snap the cuffs holding Derek’s arms behind his back. Stiles is ready to take the weight of Derek’s body when he tips forward.

There’s a pulse under his fingers that he doesn’t quite trust until he feels Derek’s breath against his shoulder, too. He’s alive. A wave of absolute relief washes through Stiles’ body. All of a sudden he feels like he’s on the edge of a panic attack.

“Derek,” Stiles breathes, holding on to the relief and trying to keep the what-ifs at bay. He closes eyes; he can hold it together. But then Derek touches him.

He cards his fingers through Stiles’ hair, weakly. “Stiles, you came for me. God, I…”

“Stop,” Stiles interrupts, coldly. There's no way he can handle that, not now. He maneuvers Derek back into the chair and stands. Takes a step back just to get some space between them. He sends a mass text to the pack, one word: Alive. From the sound of it, the fight’s dying down. “Let’s go, pack’s upstairs.”

“Really?” Derek snaps, his temper lending him energy. “You just saved my goddamn life and I’m supposed to pretend it doesn’t mean anything? I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. I come back and you want me, or I feel like you do, and then something changes and you want me gone. And then you risk your life for me. I can’t tell what’s happening inside your head, or how exactly I’m failing you, but I’m getting pretty damn sick of this game.”

“Then stay gone,” Stiles shrugs obnoxiously. Stay safe.

Derek’s nostrils flare. “I would if you actually wanted me to, Stiles. But you don’t, you keep… I know that this isn’t just sex, and I love you. Just tell me, whatever it is. I miss talking to you.”

“No,” Stiles says, whirling to walk farther away from Derek.

Derek stands unsteadily, and Stiles takes a step back in, one hand already out to catch him if he stumbles.

“Do you mind?” Derek says, gritting his teeth as he gestures to the mountain ash.

Stiles kneels back down, sweeping the black dust aside. Derek steps outside the boundary, next to him, and rests a hand on his shoulder.

“Stiles…”

He’s pleading, and it makes Stiles want to offer up every secret he’s ever kept. He shoves himself to his feet, and that’s worse--they’re eye to eye, now.

“What the hell do you want me to say? That I fucking love you too?” his voice comes out panicky even though he was aiming for sarcastic. Stiles doesn’t want to be having this conversation, but Derek still looks half dead, and they almost lost him today. He takes a step and a half back, but he’s got nothing left to fight with.

“Yes,” Derek says softly.

“I love you.” The words come out smoother than he expected, and once he’s started he can’t stop. “Fine, I love you, Derek. There. I love you. And I am Scott’s Emissary, and I’m bound to his territory--the one place you can’t be. I can’t leave and you can’t stay and we don’t get to be together. Ever, Derek! So sure, yeah, I love you. I would fucking die for you. Do you feel better?”

“Of course I do, Stiles.”

“Why?” Stiles says, voice breaking. He’s pacing back and forth with now, one hand tangling and pulling at his hair. “How is this better? Jesus, I mean, I can do long distance but not permanently. I can’t, with you. It wouldn’t be enough. We’re only biannual fuck-buddies now, and I already I feel like I’m going out of my head when you’re not around. It’s like I can’t breathe sometimes when I want to just see you and touch you and joke around and tell you about my day, and you’re not there. Man, I can’t do half way. I love you. I need all of you and I can’t… How is this okay with you?”

Derek catches him with an arm around his neck, reels him into a tight embrace. Stiles takes big, gasping breaths of his scent, feels himself calming down despite everything. Just being held like this convinces some deep animal part of him that he’s safe now, even though his brain knows it’s nothing but another lie.

“It’s okay, I get it now. I understand,” Derek says, stroking Stiles’ hair. “I just needed to hear you say it.”

Stiles shuts his eyes and lets the tears soak into Derek’s ruined henley. His face is pressed into a truly disgusting patch, crusty with sweat and blood, but it’s warm and it smells like Derek. Stiles can let himself have this, at least for a moment. They can stay like this a bit longer before they go and find Scott and the rest of the pack, before they clean up all the bodies and figure out what to do with the survivors.

They can stay in this embrace for a bit longer, and that will have to be enough. Because Stiles knows a goodbye when he hears one and what Derek just said was a perfect example of a final farewell.

 

*

 

They wake up the next morning in Stiles’ new apartment. He isn’t even hung over, which is probably due to the fact that it seems, from the sunlight streaming in, that they’ve slept into the mid afternoon. Their clothes are scattered around the room, a pair of black briefs snagged on his headboard that Stiles doesn’t even recognize, though he knows he was the one to take them off. He remembers the curve of Derek’s hip bone, instead; he remembers the pattern of hair trailing down from Derek’s bellybutton and the way it felt under his tongue.

Derek’s still sleeping, curled around Stiles’ pillow looking relaxed and tender and so perfect that Stiles wants him here like this forever. Screw the rest of it, he thinks with an intensity that scares him because he can’t. He can’t screw Scott and his father and his role in the pack--shit. Not that one even if he wanted to.

It rolls over him like cold water; they don’t get forever. Not even a week; Derek’s got a flight to catch tomorrow morning back to Montreal. Laying here might feel perfect and easy, but it’s not that way at all. The harsh reality is that Derek can’t come back to Beacon Hills, not for good. He has his whole life somewhere else, and Stiles has already tied himself down with his choices, too. They don’t fit. No matter which way he turns the pieces, there’s no way to make the edges line up.

Derek stirs awake. Stiles watches him take in the unfamiliar bed with his nose as much as his eyes. He calms almost instantly, the slight confusion melting from his face as he smiles up at Stiles and stretches like a cat. Stiles smiles back reflexively, warmth building in his chest despite the fact that he feels a little bit like he's dying. Their hands slot together, exploring what this small intimacy feels like now.

Stiles swallows. “Hey,” he says.

“Hey.” Derek’s thumb is rubbing a little circle into Stiles’ palm. It feels like it could be something huge, if only they had the space. But they don’t. They don’t have space for much, but if they keep it to being friends and having each others’ backs in a fight like always, plus sex, that could fit. They can just…balance there. It will be fine. This isn’t going to be the way his heart breaks.

“Stiles, I think I love you,” Derek says. His voice voice rasps over the words, thick with sleep.

Stiles freezes. His mouth opens of its own accord, but he can’t say it back. How is Stiles supposed to stay balanced in the face of ‘I love you’? This isn’t allowed to be love. They can be fine, so long as they don’t say that

“I, uh. Well. Let’s just keep this casual,” he says, with a wave of his free hand between their bodies.

“Oh,” Derek says. His face goes blank, guarded.

Stiles smiles, or at least he shows some teeth. “Yeah. So, maybe next time you’re around, though?”

“Maybe,” Derek says unsteadily, searching Stiles’ face for…something. Stiles stays ice cold, he doesn’t crack. He doesn’t say, ‘I love you too and I want you in ways I can’t have, ways I won’t be able to stop wanting, and having only part of you will always hurt like broken glass under my skin.’ He’s not going to to admit that because it would mean the smart thing to do is to let Derek go, and Stiles isn’t strong enough for that.

Derek, on the other hand, this new Derek… He’d sacrifice whatever small, compromised relationship they might be able to build in a second if he thought he was sparing Stiles pain. He’d be strong enough to leave for good.

So, Stiles can balance on this knife’s edge. He’ll never say it back.

 

*

 

There are things you can’t undo, and a speech like the one Stiles spewed out in that basement is right up there at the top of the list. Derek’s gone and he won’t come back now, not ever again. It’s fine, that’s been in the works for years, really. Since they kissed the first time, or maybe even earlier than that; when Stiles accepted the bond, when Derek became an Alpha, or some untraceable earlier moment. At the very least since Derek called it love, they’ve been headed here. Pretending otherwise was only delaying the inevitable.

Now it’s all over except for the crying, and Stiles is just waiting for the point when this starts to hurt like something less than an open wound. He feels fucking old for twenty-five and he’s starting to look it, pasty skin and unkempt hair with bags like bruises under his bloodshot eyes and a hunch to his shoulders he can’t be bothered to straighten. Lydia keeps looking at him as if he’s something that needs fixing, and she’d made him swear up and down that he’d come to the pack movie night that’s starting, oh, five minutes ago. He should go, he admits to himself with a sigh, or Kira will be on his case too. If this is just what life feels like now he better get used to it.

Stiles makes his way to the jeep with his eyes on the keys in his hands, and he almost drops his them when he finally looks up.

“Derek! I didn’t...w-what are you doing here?”

"I wanted to talk."

Oh. Stiles bites the inside of his cheek. Derek, gentleman that he is, is here to officially break off their un-relationship. Only Stiles doesn't want to hear the breakup speech, not at all. They both know where they stand now, right? Won't do them any good to rehash why it's a terrible idea to keep on driving each other crazy with hints of how good things could have been. Why remind themselves of what they lost because Stiles was too dumb to work his feelings out before locking himself into a seven mile square of California soil?

"Stiles, do you still love me?" Derek sounds unsure as he asks the question, which is fair enough. It's a pretty fucked up way to start a break-up conversation.

"I love you," Stiles says, hollowly. "Have for years." It's a bit of a relief to just say it. Not like it could make anything worse.

Derek nods, almost to himself. "Okay," he says quietly.

"Yup," Stiles says. There's a tense pause. "Didn't know you were visiting again so soon," he continues, changing the subject. Delaying the inevitable is his forte, apparently. "How long are you staying this time?"

“Indefinitely, I hope,” Derek answers, shuffling his feet. He flashes his eyes at Stiles. Blue.

Stiles stares, stepping forward and bringing his fingertips up to brush Derek’s cheek with about as much intention as a magnet pulling to iron. “What did you do?”

“Deaton was wrong, you can always give power away,” Derek says with a shrug. “I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure, but… Thomas, he’ll be a good Alpha.”

Stiles shakes his head. “No, you were a good Alpha. You wanted…”

“I did. I do want that,” Derek admits. “But you don’t get to have everything, Stiles, and I want you so much more.”

“Oh shit,” Stiles says, laughing and crying all at once in weird, unattractive hiccups. He’s not even sure what his emotions are doing right now, or if he likes it. No, that’s not true. He likes it, a lot. “Man, I…” he cuts off with another watery giggle. “I should have said I loved you ages ago.”

“Yes,” Derek says, with a certain frustration, but less than the situation might call for. His face goes even gentler, and he leans into Stiles hand where it’s still resting on his cheek. “I love you, Stiles.”

“I love you,” Stiles says. mushing their faces together for a sloppy, toothy kiss. “And, I love you. I’m saying it back twice every time until I catch up.”

“I don’t know, you made some good headway in the basement. What was that, five, six times?”

Stiles cackles, slaps Derek’s chest backhanded. “Too soon! That isn’t funny yet!”

“It’s a little funny,” Derek corrects, his mouth twitching into a smile. “Do you want to, uh, go upstairs?”

“What, for sex?” Stiles says, a pulse of the old pain in his chest at the way Derek offers up the suggestion like it’s all he has to give. “Man, no. Sex is barely on this list of what I want right now. Come to movie night with me, okay? Let’s annoy Lydia by making fun of the plot holes and bad special effects and gross everyone out by sitting on each others’ laps and making kissy faces. God, we’re going to be one of those disgusting PDA couples. And tonight I’m going to buy you flowers and take you out to dinner somewhere nice and you’re going to tell me everything about Canada and I’m going to make fun of how you round your vowels now, because you totally do.

“And after that lets go to a bar and make out in the corner booth and tell the bartender fake stories about how we met, or we can go to the Denny’s and share a milkshake and make the waitress listen to our inside jokes. I’m texting my dad now, you’re having dinner with us tomorrow. He’s gonna give you the “I have a gun” speech, just so you know. We can do the dishes together, and he’ll have the ballgame on in the living room and you’ll tell me to stop wasting water and I’ll splash you and we’ll get distracted kissing and...and that’s for starters.” Stiles stops to catch his breath. “Is that too much?”

“Nope,” Derek says, “That sounds just about right. For starters.”

Stiles smiles, bites his lip. Tries to wrap his head around the fact that he gets this now. All of this.

“I love you,” he says, just to taste the words.

“I love you, I love you,” Derek says back, holding him loosely around the waist.

 

(They spend most of movie night whispering it back and forth, each of them insisting that he’s the one who’s said it most.)

 

(Nobody minds.)