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"I'm sorry," Stiles says, "I don't think I heard you right. Could you repeat that?"

Scott says, "I said --"

"And please understand that by 'repeat that' I mean 'say something completely different from that thing you just said that I will never, ever, even if I live to be a hundred, ever be able to unhear."

"Stiles! Come on, man, it's not that bad."

"On a scale of what to what, exactly? Because unless the top end of that scale involves genetically engineered dinosaurs in the streets or an imminent zombie apocalypse, this idea goes right on up to eleven."

"Thanks," Derek says, offended.

For a moment, something that feels weirdly like guilt knocks around his insides. Then it passes, leaving behind a simmer of rage. "Are you kidding me? This is about your ego now?"

"It's about keeping you alive," Derek says. "There's a pack of Alphas bearing down on Beacon Hills as we speak, and whatever you may think of me, I promise you, they're worse."

"Well, we basically have your word for that, don't we," Stiles snaps. "You and your crazy uncle, I mean. And since both of you have threatened to kill us -- no, threatened to kill me, specifically -- several times since we met, I'm not really in a very trusting place with you right now. For all we know, these Alphas are like a pack of fluffy bunnies compared to you, ready to descend on us all with puppies and hugs and rainbows. They could be bringing cookies. Given a choice between cookies and death, I'm taking cookies every time."

"I'm convinced," Derek says, his eyes snapping over to Scott. His mouth is set in a grim, unpleasant line. "Let's do it his way."

"Derek," Scott says.

"There might be cookies, Scott," Derek says.

"Stiles," Scott says patiently, "there aren't going to be any cookies. Or rainbows or puppies or whatever. Derek is an ass," he takes a moment here to glare in Derek's direction, "but I trust him on this. When the Alphas come, the only way to be safe is to be Pack."

"And there are only three ways to become Pack," Lydia says. "Blood, bite--"

"Boink? No way," Stiles says, holding up a hand. "Look, no offense to anybody here of a non-human persuasion, but if I'm going to make the beast with two backs, I'd really rather there weren't any actual beasts involved."

Lydia stares him down with an extremely familiar look in her eyes. It's the look she gets when she wants something. Worse -- it's the look she gets when she wants something, and knows she's going to get it.

"Do not even, Lydia Martin," he says, with so much focus and certainty of purpose that she doesn't even laugh at him. "That might have worked on me in the distant past, when I thought I had even the remotest chance in hell with you, but now that you're all soulmated up with Jackson, your wiles will get you nowhere."

Lydia steps closer and lays a hand on his arm. Her eyes do something liquid and persuasive and terrifying. "Stiles," she says in a low, whispery voice. "Please. I don't want to lose you."

"I would honestly rather let him bite me," Stiles says plaintively. "Can't I just let him bite me?"

"I don't like this any more than you do," Derek says. "I wouldn't even consider it, if I thought there were any other way."

Stiles doesn't say any of the many, many possible things he could say about Derek's ratio of being right to being full of shit. Everybody's heard it all. Everybody knows it. And they're still looking at Stiles like he's the one being weird, like he's the asshole here.

"I'll think of something else," he says. "I -- I appreciate, you know, you guys being worried about me. It's kind of sweet, in a ... right now, in a very weird and pervy way. But I'll be fine. I'll find some other way."

"There is no other way," Scott says. "It's got to be somebody who's not already bonded, and it's got to be pretty soon. Stiles, I know this sucks, I know it. But you have to, okay? This is how we keep you safe."

"Fine," Stiles says. "If that's what you think, if that's what you all genuinely believe, fine."

"You'll do it?" Lydia says.

Stiles shakes his head. "No," he says, lifting his chin and meeting Derek's eyes squarely. "I'll leave."

 

~

 

How is the problem. The logistics of it. He's got the Jeep, he's got a driver's license, he's even got some money in the bank. But if there's anything in life he knows, it's that if he runs, his dad will find him. If he just takes off, he'll be back in Beacon Hills under permanent house arrest faster than you can say Amber Alert.

And there's nowhere he could legitimately ask to go. He's got family on his mom's side in Portland, but he hasn't seen them since before the funeral. His dad was an only child, parents gone before Stiles was even born. There aren't any cousins or aunts or uncles he could visit, not even any friends of the family. Since his mom died, it's been Stiles and his dad against the world. Up till now, he hasn't really needed anything else.

Stiles grabs a gym bag from his closet and starts stuffing T-shirts into it. Socks, underwear. A couple of comic books. He looks around his room, wondering what else he should take with him, what else he needs. Everything looks strange, like it belongs to somebody else. He feels like an actor walking onto a movie set; everything there is supposed to belong to him, but deciding to go put up some kind of wall between him and the rest of his life. He can't figure out how to attach it to himself in his head.

"Get a grip, Stiles," he mutters to himself, grabbing his wallet and his keys. "Work out the existential angst on the road."

"You don't have to leave," Derek says, behind him.

Stiles lets his bag fall to the floor beside his feet, drops his head back, and sighs. "Apparently, I do."

"There's nowhere you can run from this."

Oh, Stiles gets that, all right. Everything he knows, everything he cares about, is here. He's humiliatingly aware of how small his world is right now. "I can try," he says.

Derek's hand closes around his shoulder. "And you can get yourself killed."

Stiles lets Derek spin him. He's learned to pick his battles. "How is that unlike any other day since I met you, dude? Probably getting killed today; must be a day of the week that ends in 'y'." His knees wobble, and he sits down hard on his bed. "I don't understand why I have to -- to marry into the pack, all the sudden, to be safe. And anyway, I don't understand why all the sudden you actually care. I keep pretty close track of direct threats to my life, and over the course of the past two years, most of them have come from you."

Derek gives him an annoyed look. "Would you stop saying that?"

Stiles laughs. He leans forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped tensely in front of him. "Well," he says weakly, "I'm sorry if I've offended your wolfy sensibilities."

Derek sits next to him. He's silent for a moment, and very still. Given what Derek's here to talk him into, Stiles should probably feel weird or uncomfortable about sitting next to him on a bed in an empty house. But he doesn't actually think for a minute that Derek wants to do what... he says they need to do. He thinks if he can just make Derek talk, they can get to the bottom of the problem, and Stiles can find some way out of all this that doesn't involve him taking one for the team, so to speak.

"I was never going to hurt you." Derek spits the words out one at a time, as if each one has offended him deeply and personally. "I'm sorry if you thought otherwise."

"Uh, hello? Remember that forehead-meet-steering-wheel incident? I had cartoon stars circling my head for a week. Not to mention bruises, and a bump the size of a grapefruit that was extremely difficult to explain to my father. He almost pulled me out of lacrosse, did you know that? Plus what about the billion other times you shoved me into stuff, or --"

"Wolves heal. And I don't always remember you're not a wolf."

Stiles sits back and stares at Derek, eyes wide. "You don't always remember I'm not a werewolf?"

"You've bled with us. You've killed for us. A year ago, maybe -- if you'd left then, maybe that could have worked. But it's too late now. If you run, the Alpha pack will find you."

"Why --" Stiles feels his breath coming too fast, and he stops, trying to get it under control. "Why me? Why would they come after me?"

Derek's eyes narrow menacingly in what Stiles assumes is a universal werewolvish reaction to being asked to share pertinent information. At first he's not sure Derek will answer, but then his shoulders square and his jaw unclenches by a microscopic degree. "A conflict like this," he says slowly, clearly muscling through his own resistance. "It's about territory. You win by taking things away from the other pack."

"And by things," Stiles says, "You mean people."

"People," Derek says with a short, sharp nod. "Not pack. If you're with us -- if you're bound to us, they won't touch you."

Stiles stands up to pace, his mind spinning around his options, the implications of his options. "If I'm... if I'm really in the pack, my dad is, too, right?" he says, trying to work it through. "Because he's related to me directly, by blood."

"Yes. But--"

Stiles stops moving and looks at Derek. "So if I do this, he's safe, too?"

"He's unlikely to be in any danger, regardless," Derek says. "He's not close to us, the way you are."

"No, but he's close to me the way I am with you guys. He lives in this werewolf-smelling house with me. They get him, they've got me."

"It's not the same. You don't have to worry about him."

"Wow," Stiles says, staring. "Just, wow." He takes a breath, then another one; his nerves are shot, his heart's pounding in his chest, it's like having a panic attack except for how everything is suddenly completely clear and in focus. "Well, you're about six years too late with that advice, Derek," he says. "Where were you when I was ten?"

"Stiles." Derek stands up and grabs his arm. "That's not why you should say yes."

"That's too bad," Stiles tells him. He looks at Derek's hand, tense and too tight around his biceps, and then back into Derek's face. "You want me to say yes," he says. "Fine, whatever. You don't get to pick why." He considers his bed, trying to remember the last time he washed his sheets, and squares his shoulders. "I'm in, all right? Let's do this thing. Let's get it done. Should we do it here?"

"What?" Derek yanks his hand back, and backs away like he thinks Stiles is about to violate him. He backs off all the way to the window, and looks like he'd happily back out of the window if he could do it without looking like an asshole. "Now?"

"Why not? I've got the place to myself for like an hour," Stiles says. "How long can it take?" He drops onto the bed, making it bounce, and pats the mattress beside him. "Come on, dude. The sooner the better, right? Before I--"

"Lose your nerve?" Derek says, glaring. "Nice."

"Well, yeah, Derek. Of course, before I lose my nerve. I'm volunteering to be deflowered for the good of the town, basically, so yeah, there's a certain amount of loin-girding going on here that shouldn't go to waste."

"We're not doing it now. And we're sure as hell not doing it here." Derek folds his arms across his chest, which basically turns him into a wall of annoyed leather.

"Why? Does it have to be under the light of the full moon? Is there something we need to chant? Some special sacrificial chamber in the woods somewhere that we have to go to? I know I spend a disproportionate amount of time out there, but that's just because my best friend's a werewolf. Personally, I prefer the great indoors, especially for any activity that requires me to be naked."

Derek shakes his head, the beginnings of a smile softening his habitual glare. "Where do you get this crap?"

"Google, dude. Where did you think? It's not like you ever tell us anything."

"There's no sacrificial chamber," Derek says.

"Then you're gonna have to tell me how this works. Because I don't have a clue, and my imagination is terrifying."

Derek unfolds his arms, and leans back against the window sill. He's quiet -- no big surprise there. He rolls his shoulders, like he's trying to relax. "There's no rule book," he says after a while. "But we're not doing it now."

Stiles has always been a rip-the-bandaid-off kind of guy. "Why not?"

"Because it's a big deal! For me, and for the pack, if not for you. This isn't -- inviting someone into the pack isn't something we do lightly."

"Right. That's why your uncle bit the first moron who tripped over him in the woods last year. And that's why you yourself went out right after that and bit three dysfunctional, borderline sociopathic kids who were, I might add, total strangers to you at the time. Which is not only really fucked up but also somehow the only thing that makes picking them remotely defensible."

"That was about going to war." Derek pushes off from the window sill and moves in on him. When he's inside the personal space bubble Stiles usually associates with shouting and incipient violence, he stops. His voice drops, the low growl in it so soft it could almost be a purr. "This is about family."

This close, Derek's not just his occasional lycanthropic stalker. He's solid. Stiles can smell the quality of the leather he's wearing, he can feel the elevated heat that comes off him. Werewolf metabolism, check. Animal magnetism, Stiles thinks with only a slight edge of hysteria, check. He isn't sure where to put himself -- does he step back? Would that be weird? He's already agreed to a hell of a lot more than a little close-talking. What should he do with his hands?

He settles for letting them hang at his sides. And he ignores the way his heart is pounding and his breathing is way too fast; he's just nervous. He's within extremely easy reach of a werewolf's teeth, that's all; a little panic is natural.

"So," Stiles says, just before the quiet becomes truly excruciating. "It's...a big deal."

"We have some time." Derek reaches for Stiles, closing his hand carefully around the back of his neck and letting it rest there, his thumb brushing just under Stiles' jaw. "We can do this right."

"Right?" Stiles says, hyperventilates really, since the land of coherent speech is miles back in his rearview mirror at this point.

"Treat each other like people," Derek says. "Like friends."

Stiles nods. "Friends," he parrots. "We're -- wait." His eyes narrow for a second, and he tries to hold it back, he does, but a smile pushes its way onto his face despite his best intentions. "We're friends? Really?"

Derek gives Stiles a little shake, then lets him go and fades back toward the window.

"Derek!" Stiles snaps, "not fair, dude!" He gets to the window just after Derek eases through it, sticks his head out into the dark and says, "Come on! Are we?"

It's too dark to make much out, but there's a quick flash of red from Derek's eyes in the shadows. It lands somewhere under Stiles' rib cage and makes itself at home.

"We're friends," Derek says. Low laughter drifts up from the lawn below Stiles' window. "With benefits."

 

~

 

There's a respectful interval of about an hour before the text messages start to flood in. Stiles could have set his clock by it. He used to think Scott backed off in rough times to give him space to deal, but later Stiles came to understand it was almost always a bad case of having absolutely no idea what to say. Never having suffered from that particular malady himself, Stiles tries to be kind about it and respect the interval, even when they have a fuck of a lot to talk about. Like right now, for instance, when he's gone from deadly peril to dating Derek Hale in the space of twenty minutes. Which, arguably, isn't actually all that great a distance, given who Derek is and how many people and/or creatures of the night are trying to kill him at any given moment.

So he waits, and then there's:

Hey you there?

You better not go anywhere without talking to me.

Are you freaking out? Call me, dude

You did always want to know if you were attractive to gay guys

Ha ha, sorry, jk

Stiles?

Dude, I'm coming over.

Stiles rolls his eyes at that last one, grabs his phone, and hits the first number on his speed dial. "Do not come over here," he says when Scott picks up before the phone has a chance to ring. "I have had enough earnest, protective werewolf action in my bedroom tonight, thank you."

There's an awkward pause, during which Stiles takes a moment to flinch at his word choice and Scott takes a moment to lose his shit.

"Scott," Stiles says. "Scott. Scott? Scott! I swear to God, if you don't stop laughing--"

"Sorry, man, sorry!" Scott says, still choking. "You just--"

"I will hang up this phone. I will change my number, and move to another state."

"Don't," Scott says, catching his breath. "Seriously, Stiles. Don't go anywhere, okay? We'll figure this out."

"Yeah, well, it's figured." Stiles throws himself onto his bed, staring up at the ceiling. "I caved. My virginity is in its last days. I thought it was in its last minutes, but apparently Derek is old-fashioned. He wants to woo me."

Scott barks out a laugh; in the background, Stiles can hear Allison giggling and shushing him. "Dude!" Stiles says, "am I on speaker?"

"Sorry, Stiles," Allison says, sounding not even a little bit sorry. "I was worried about you."

Stiles sighs. "I hate you guys, I really do."

"We really are sorry," Scott says, and that's the problem with Scott McCall, right there. He totally is sorry. He cares. He doesn't just give a fuck; he gives all the fucks. That's why no matter what's good for Stiles, no matter what the smart thing is, no matter how much better off he'd probably be, Stiles isn't going anywhere.

"Yeah, well," Stiles says, sighing. "I really do still hate you."

"I know, man," Scott says. "So, I guess Derek followed you home?"

"We had a nice little conversation about my ass and the disposition thereof."

"And you agreed," Scott says. He's trying to sound like it doesn't matter, but Stiles isn't stupid, and he didn't meet Scott yesterday. "You did agree, right?"

"Well, I kind of had to," Stiles says, thinking wistful thoughts about the romance of the open road. "I don't get my allowance again till Thursday, and I'm almost out of gas."

 

~

 

"Until we know what the Alpha pack's intentions are, we'll be proceeding with the plan to protect our human assets," Derek says at the next pack meeting.

"But not our humans' asses," Erica pipes up, grinning.

Stiles drops his face into his hands and groans.

"You know I'd help you out if I could," she purrs. She's aiming for sexy, but since she's right next door to falling over laughing, the effect isn't all that seductive.

Erica is blonde and brain-meltingly hot, and though she was even more of a loser than Stiles just a couple of months ago, he has a feeling she's used those months to gain quite an education for herself. Stiles wouldn't mind getting helped out by Erica. But he's fairly sure if he ever laid a hand on Erica with real intent, Boyd would rip his throat out and Isaac would play in the blood. It has to be somebody unbonded, Scott told him.

And in this cliqued up little pack, that brings it all right back to the Alpha.

"Stiles," Derek says repressively, "has been invited into the pack. I know all of you are in favor, and I know all of you understand how this works, so let's just move on."

"Are we sure Stiles knows how this works?" Jackson says, smiling so widely his teeth give off a sparkle of innocence and purity. "I mean, the mechanics? He's pretty inexperienced."

Stiles feels a weird prickling sensation, starting in his cheeks and radiating outward until his entire body is a bright red beacon of embarrassment.

"You see, Stiles," Jackson continues, "When an unbonded werewolf loves an unbonded dork very much--"

Jackson breaks off with a gurgle. Scott, who has him by the throat, gives Stiles a wolfish grin and winks one glowing, golden eye.

"We all need to stop talking about this," Stiles says, "right now. So help me, I will turn this abandoned subway car around." He throws Derek a pleading look -- end the meeting, end Jackson, end his life, whatever, just end this misery of white-hot humiliation.

But Derek just stands there, his arms folded across his chest so his biceps bulge in an alarmingly attractive fashion, his eyes glazed over with either boredom or disgust -- it's not always easy to tell the difference with him.

"You can't just screw somebody into the pack, though," Isaac says to Scott, like he's continuing an argument they've been having all their lives. "I asked Deaton, and he said there had to be intent. Otherwise we'd already be an army, based on Erica's weekend plans alone."

"Attraction and affection," Peter says from the shadows, where he's been lurking in a devil-may-care fashion for the past half hour. Score a point for Stiles Stilinski's Fascinating Sex Life, because this is the first time Peter has felt compelled to contribute to a pack discussion since he came back from the dead. "Plus a pure intent to serve the good of the pack in all things."

Preternaturally unconcerned, Derek says, "We've got all that covered."

Stiles' mouth falls open, but it's like all the words are jammed up against each other, fighting to the death to see which horrified exclamation will emerge as victor. He sputters, coughs, and what finally comes out, high and choked and strained, is, "I never said that!"

Derek shrugs. "You didn't have to. You're not exactly subtle."

"Don't mistake the normal, healthy activity of my sixteen-year-old hormones for a compliment," Stiles snaps. "There are trees in my neighborhood I wouldn't turn down, and they come with a lot less baggage."

Lydia twirls a long, strawberry blonde lock in her rose-tipped fingers and says, "You don't find Derek at all attractive, Stiles?"

"Sure I do! The way Juliet found Romeo attractive. The way Bella found Edward attractive! The way Katie found Tom attractive -- wait, why am I always the girl in my own bad romance metaphors? The point is, I find Derek attractive in an extremely short-term and incredibly doomed way that will likely lead to my eventual consumption by werewolves who, at this point, I just pray are not among those currently present."

"Are you saying you want to have Derek's werewolf babies, Stiles?" Jackson asks, stone-faced.

Jackson's short and tragic life flashes before Stiles' eyes and ends, abruptly, in a bloody, screamy mess reminiscent of one of the Saw movies. Stiles takes a step toward him, wondering which limb he should rip off first.

"It doesn't work like that," Scott says, laying a restraining hand on Stiles' chest. "Tell him it doesn't work like that, Derek."

Stiles shifts his outraged glare to Scott, compelled to stillness by wolfy muscles and disbelief. Derek, the traitor, is staring at the ceiling, obviously pretending furiously to himself that he's all alone in the forest primeval. Probably chasing bunnies, or sunbeams, or leaves or something. He says nothing.

Confusion dawns on Scott's face, followed rapidly by panic. "Does it work like that?" he asks Peter in a faint, horrified tone.

"Oh, for-- of course it doesn't work like that," Stiles says. "Are you even real?"

"Okay," Scott says, relieved. "Thank God. So it's all okay then." He gives Stiles a warm, gentle grin and pats him on the chest. "You and Derek, dude. I don't know. It's actually kind of cute, when I think about it."

"Oh, we think so, too," Erica, Boyd, Isaac and Jackson say with a single creepy voice.

Stiles looks pleadingly at Allison, who shrugs. "Don't look at me. I'm new."

 

~

 

So Stiles figures that's what it's going to be like from now on, and ditches the entire pack. The only exception he makes is Lydia, and only because the novelty of her wanting to be around him hasn't worn off yet. Plus, now that the problem of Stiles' virginity has been appropriately delegated, she no longer cares about it in the slightest. Stiles finds Lydia's utter lack of interest in his life problems bizarrely soothing.

It's easiest to avoid them outside of school, when Derek has most of them on constant drills. Allison is also in training, though Stiles is fairly sure her father still has very little idea of what he's training her for. The capacity for denial in the parental species in Beacon Hills is astonishing and alarming. Stiles uses this time to study and do his homework, excellent distractions from the latest season of As the Pack Turns. He's acing all his courses this semester. His father loves it.

In school, his avoidance tactics require greater skill. He has classes with everybody, a foolish choice made over the summer that he now deeply regrets. He keeps his head down as much as he can, darts in and out of classrooms right before and after the bell, and regretfully explains that he's grounded whenever Scott corners him and asks him to come over. Scott can obviously tell he's lying, but he's too polite to say so out right, and that's good enough for Stiles.

After about a week of this, he finds Derek waiting for him in his bedroom when he comes home from school, wearing jeans, the customary rebel-with-too-many-claws jacket, and a threadbare JanSport backpack.

"You can stop dodging them," Derek says. "I told them not to bug you about the sex thing."

Stiles, who's been feeling pretty good about his amazing ninja-fu lately, slumps back against his door. "Crap. I thought that was probably too easy."

"They're just worried about you."

"Right," Stiles says. "Jackson is worried about me."

"Jackson's worried you'll take off and Lydia will never speak to him again," Derek says.

"His self-interest is a heart-warming constant in my life."

Derek doesn't respond, and Stiles isn't sure where to go after that. It's been an entire conversation about relationships and feelings, and as anybody could have predicted, it dies young. Stiles likes it better when Derek shows up wanting something, because that way there's always something to do. Google up some tasty monster lore, rescue somebody from their own stupidity, jump in his trusty Batmobile and race around town being chased by something creepy. Tasks Stiles can sink his short little human teeth into. This? This is just painful.

"Well," he says, when the silence has elongated beyond endurance. "I guess I should do some homework. Thanks for stopping by."

Derek doesn't budge. He's got his hands balled into fists and shoved into the pockets of his jacket, elbows held defensively in to his sides. He looks nervous.

Suddenly, Stiles is nervous, too. "So," he says, "good night?"

"I brought a movie."

Stiles blinks. "You what?"

"I brought a movie," Derek repeats, staring fixedly at a spot just to the left of Stiles' head. "I thought we could watch it."

"Here?" Stiles squeaks. "In my house, where my father the Sheriff lives?"

"He's got the late shift. I checked."

"Half his job is driving around town, Derek. He drops by all the time. Why do you think I get so much homework done? I'm very well parented."

"I'll hear him a block away. It'll be fine. Do you have any popcorn?"

Derek asks this last question with the cold intensity of a serial killer. Are you in the house alone? Stiles thinks on a rising tide of horrified amusement.

"I do," Stiles says gravely, trying not to grin. "Indeed I do."

 

~

 

Derek has brought three movies: Ginger Snaps, An American Werewolf in London, and Jaws. He pulls them out of his backpack and hands them over to Stiles silently, his eyes never leaving Stiles' face. Stiles is almost seventeen, and he's spent two of the past three years meeting with a child psychologist on a weekly basis. He senses a test.

"I'll take 'Scary things with teeth' for a thousand, Alex," he says.

"I've noticed you're kind of into werewolves."

"Spend your life in a forest," Stiles says, "you develop an interest in trees." He pops Jaws into the DVD player, and when Derek raises his eyebrows, he says, "I don't like reality TV. And, bonus: If Jaws bites you, you generally don't turn into a shark."

Stiles leaves Derek on his own with the movie and goes to the kitchen to nuke a couple of bags of popcorn. He approves of popcorn for his father's benefit - dry, white, unsalted. For himself, and for a werewolf with supernaturally cast-iron arteries, he digs around in the back of the pantry for his own private stash. When he returns to the living room wreathed in the thick scent of cheap butter, he finds the movie cued up and Derek standing awkwardly in front of the screen, the remote clutched in tense fingers.

"What's wrong?"

Derek scowls. "Nothing. Why?"

"You look like you're about to bolt, dude."

"I'm fine. Are you ready?"

Stiles tilts his head and gives Derek a measuring look. "You didn't get a lot of play in the Big Apple, did you."

Derek scowls harder, which Stiles wouldn't have thought possible, and says nothing. Maybe he only hooked up in bars in New York, Stiles thinks. Or zoos.

"Look, just sit down, okay?" Stiles puts the popcorn bowl on the coffee table, takes the remote away from Derek, and sits down on the couch. He pats the cushion beside him encouragingly, but Derek ignores the hint. He settles down at the far end of the sofa, leaving light years of space between them.

Stiles sighs, and moves the popcorn from the table to the middle cushion. It's going to be a really long night.

 

~

 

On Monday, Stiles pauses at the door to the cafeteria, lunch in hand. Across the room, the pack is sprawled in various poses of fake unconcern around a single long table, with a single empty chair glaring out of their midst. No one is looking at him. Erica is idly playing with a lock of her long blonde hair and staring out the window; Boyd is staring at Erica, and Isaac is staring at his sandwich. Scott is eating quickly and messily, as if he's never seen food before; Stiles actually buys his obliviousness. Lydia and Allison have their heads together, and they're both smiling, which is more than a little bit terrifying.

Stiles takes a deep breath and stalks across the cafeteria to sit down across from Allison. This puts him next to Scott, and everybody gets quiet and weird.

"Hi," Stiles says, and shoves half a sandwich in his mouth. He chews furiously and magnificently, if he does say so himself, and never takes his eyes off the table.

"Hi, Stiles," Allison says.

Stiles grunts, and takes another bite. He's exquisitely aware of the studied inattention of everyone around him, and equally determined to ignore it. He won't avoid the pack anymore, but he's not answering any questions, and he's not entertaining any commentary on his life or his choices. He's here to eat and be seen eating in the company of wolves, so when the pack has their next meeting, nobody will be able to tell Derek he's still hiding from them.

Allison tries to make conversation. She asks him about his Chem notes, because she and Scott presumably spent that hour trying to suck each other's faces off in a back corner of the library. Stiles hands them over, and that's the end of that conversational gambit. Which turns out to be the only one she has.

After a while, the intensity of the silence from all non-Allison quarters starts to get to him. Stiles picks at his sandwich and tries desperately to think of something to say that won't give them any kind of an opening to inquire about his personal life. He's about to venture a lengthy and generally positive opinion about the weather when he notices that Scott is surreptitiously sniffing him.

"Oh, my god," Stiles says.

Scott has the decency to look ashamed. "Sorry," he says, "I didn't mean to--"

"No," Stiles says, loudly enough to be heard by Chinese werewolves in actual China, "I have not yet been sexed up by my virile, emo, leathered-up werewolf boyfriend! Please take a moment to update your twitter feeds."

There's a brief lull in the conversations at the tables nearest them; then it passes, the general cafeteria noise rising back to its pre-revelation din. Even the werewolves now look convincingly bored. Scott hisses, "Stiles!"

"What?" Stiles hisses back. "Nobody cares, Scott! That's not even the weirdest thing they've heard me say this week."

"I wasn't -- look, I'm just concerned, all right? You're my best friend, I don't want anything bad to happen to you."

"See, that's funny, since last I checked you wanted something legitimately terrible to happen to me, in the form of Derek's dick up my--"

"I have to go to class!" Allison interrupts loudly, her cheeks a charmingly bright red. She doesn't meet anyone's eyes. She pops up from her seat and throws a pleading look at Lydia.

Lydia rolls her eyes, scoops up her books, and stands up to follow her. "You are both crude and inappropriate," she says majestically, dismissing them both with a toss of her glorious hair. "We're leaving."

They stalk off together, side by side. Stiles and Scott watch them go, frowning. "Weird," Stiles says. "What was that about?"

Scott blinks, bewildered. "What did I do?"

As they clear the door of the cafeteria, Stiles hears the clear ring of Lydia's laugh and Allison's bubbly giggles. Stiles shakes his head. "Chicks," he says. "Who knows what goes on in their heads?"

Beside him, Scott's still staring at the door Allison departed from, the beginnings of a mope sidling up across his baffled features.

Chicks and werewolves, Stiles amends in silent disgust, and reapplies himself to his sandwich.

 

~

 

Derek shows up at his house twice that week, and twice the next. Each time the conversation is stilted and uncomfortable. Each time, Derek sits so far down the couch it's like he's in a whole different zip code. There's no smiling, there's no flirting, there's absolutely no touching. Stiles is left with the certainty that Derek has not the faintest idea how to woo.

In week three, their second "date night" is a Saturday, and Stiles is already in his bedroom when Derek climbs in the window. Before Derek has time to produce another triptych of movies and demand popcorn, Stiles holds up a hand. "I've done some math," he says. "With the kind of progress we're making so far, I've calculated that we'll need two dates a day for the next six months if we intend to get me laid by Christmas."

Derek pauses, one leg still outside the window. He eyes Stiles warily, and says nothing.

Stiles growls in frustration. Contrary to what he told Scott, he's not wildly opposed to the idea of having Derek all up in his business. But he's starting to think Derek might have some hang-ups. "Look," he says. "I get it, you want to go slow, you want to do the whole romance thing. I'm on board, honest. But does it have to be a Regency romance? Jane freaking Austen would be frustrated with the pace of this relationship. Do you--" It's not the first time Stiles has wondered, but it's the first time he's had the nerve to ask. "Do you just not want to? Because if you don't, we can go back to the Werewolf Protection Program plan."

Derek sits down, straddling the window sill, and fixes Stiles with a tired look. "That's not the problem."

"Yeah? So what exactly is the problem?"

"I'm trying not to make this any more difficult for you than it already is."

"Newsflash, Derek: You're trying too hard. If I were freakable in this area, I'd be freaked. But I've already said yes to the monkey business, so this whole," he waves his hand in a jittery arc between them, "this whole weird thing we're doing is just lame, and also boring. I'm sick of movies, and I'm sick of popcorn, and I'm sick of waiting for you to make your move and having no idea when you're going to get around to it. If ever!"

"In case it hasn't crossed your mind," Derek says tightly, "it's a little hard to make a move on somebody who's just not that into you."

Stiles gapes at Derek. Derek shrugs. His hands are still in the pockets of his jacket, balled into fists like they almost always are, and it suddenly occurs to Stiles to wonder why. Derek's not shy, and he's certainly not scared, so why would he need to sit so far away, why keep his hands clenched and hidden, why all this when up till now, invading Stiles' personal space bubble has seemed like Derek's favorite hobby? Does he honestly think Stiles doesn't want him?

"I'm not," Stiles says, and then when Derek's face starts to close off, "I mean, I'm not not into you. So, you're a guy, which -- when I started thinking about having sex for the first time, I gave that about a twenty-five percent chance -- but it's not, I'm not philosophically opposed, and you're." He waves his hand at Derek's entire being; it's ridiculously obvious that anybody even twenty-five percent into guys is going to be one hundred and ten percent into Derek Hale.

"But you don't want to do this," Derek says. "You were going to leave so you didn't have to do this."

"I would rather not have to do this," Stiles agrees. "I just -- I find this entire situation off-putting in the extreme, sure," he says. He goes to Derek, and tugs at his arm until his hand comes out of his pocket, knuckles white. "But I don't -- I don't find you, personally, off-putting. If that helps." He shrugs awkwardly, and his face goes red. "And if it doesn't help, it's still true."

Slowly, Derek's fist relaxes. His hand opens, and Stiles takes it, slides their fingers together. Derek says, "It helps. Thanks."

Hesitantly, Stiles says, "And you don't... you don't find me personally off-putting, right?"

Derek tightens his fingers around Stiles' hand, and a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. "No."

"Okay," Stiles says, and the unhappy tension coiled in his stomach starts to ease. "Okay. Good. That's good."

"Anything else?" Derek says, "Or should we just--"

"Please, please don't make me watch another horror movie," Stiles begs. "It's too much like research, and I've already seen them all."

Derek nods. "Okay. What do you want to do instead?"

"Well," Stiles says with a wide, seductive grin. He cracks his knuckles loudly. "I know a great little place in Stormwind where we can get cheap booze and some Scooby snacks..."

 

~

 

World of Warcraft is a qualified hit with Derek. Qualified, because it takes three dates -- involving a lot more swearing than hand-holding -- before he really gets the hang of the controls. But once he's got it, the guy is a killing machine. He flies up from level two to level twenty in one marathon session that lasts till two in the morning. He only leaves because Stiles' dad is due home from work, and when he does, the look of regret and longing he delivers to Stiles' laptop is less than flattering. This is not the progress Stiles has been hoping for; there's very little time for hooking up on Azeroth, at least on the non-RP servers.

"Do you have actual electric power at your place? Internet access?" Peter had a laptop, there has to be something, right?

Derek tilts his head. "Yes," he says cautiously. "Why?"

Stiles sighs, and unplugs his laptop. He hands it to Derek, along with the power cord, as he walks him to the window. "Don't stay up too late," he says. "If the Alpha pack wins because you were up all night slaughtering murlocs, I'll never forgive myself."

Derek's face goes blank, and then it goes strange. He folds the laptop in to his chest with one arm and with the other, he reaches out for Stiles and pulls him in. Stiles resists at first, because he's not sure exactly what's happening, and that's not his fault -- Derek is unpredictable and occasionally prone to violence, and maybe accusing him of plotting Murloc genocide has pissed him off somehow. But Derek keeps his hand around the back of Stiles' neck and after a couple of seconds the patience and the lack of pain filters through. Stiles lets Derek pull him closer, until they're pressed together with nothing but circuitry and OSX between them, and after that he's not so much letting as he is fully and openly encouraging because hey, progress.

Derek's mouth settles onto his, and Stiles -- who has gotten a slightly better instinctive sense of Derek over the past week or so -- grabs at Derek's shoulders, and then at his hair, holding him firmly in place. He's so intent on making sure Derek doesn't go anywhere for the next little while that he almost misses the part where Derek's not actually trying to pull back.

"Relax," Derek says against his mouth.

"Put down the computer," Stiles says in a low, determined voice, "I can't afford a new one," and then he opens his mouth against Derek's and everything in life gets very, very good in ways Jane Austen never even dreamed about.

Derek, in a rare and precious show of interspecies cooperation, does exactly as he's told. Stiles has just enough time to exult quietly in one tiny corner at the back of his brain before the machinery of rational thought grinds to a hault. Derek feels good against him, hard and solid and strong, it's like making out with an extremely well-built wall that likes him a lot. Stiles tilts his head for a better angle, and Derek's tongue slides against his, hot and wet. All the blood rushes out of Stiles' head, destined for points south, and he makes an involuntary wanting sound that indicates both his enthusiastic consent and his utter lack of experience in this area. It's not his fault, kissing is new, except for a few awkward experiences in middle school that he'd rather not think about (one of which, never to be spoken of again, was with Scott). And Derek is new -- at least, Derek grinding against him and pressing hard, biting kisses into his mouth is new. It's all Stiles can do to keep from climbing Derek like a tree, so a little moaning is totally allowable, even if it is a little, okay maybe a lot, high-pitched.

He's just about to give himself permission to begin the ascent anyway when Derek starts to back off. He eases their bodies apart until there's a little air between them, and the kisses, the kissing, turns into something a little more gentle, with a little less tooth and claw. Stiles opens his eyes and groans in disappointment when Derek's mouth leaves his entirely.

"Oh, my God," he says, "seriously? You're just going to leave me like this?"

Derek gives Stiles a small, amused smile and tugs at the hem of his t-shirt. His eyes scan Stiles' face, pausing for quite a few breath-stealing seconds at his mouth, which feels red and swollen; great, probably he's got clown-lips now. "You look good like this," Derek tells him. "And your dad's on his way home."

Stiles reaches for Derek stubbornly. "He always stays late after his shift ends. We've got plenty of time to--"

Derek shakes his head, and smiles. After a few seconds, Stiles hears what Derek's been hearing all along -- the low drone of a lonely car pulling onto his street.

"Crap," Stiles says. He pulls Derek in again and kisses him fast and hard. "Go. But when you come back, we're talking through this slow business. I'm over it."

Derek scoops up the laptop, grins, and vanishes into the darkness outside. Stiles leans out the window, and says, "By the way, Hale, in case you hadn't noticed -- I'm totally into you."

Quiet laughter drifts up from the tree-line at the edge of the yard, just as headlights sweep across the lawn.

 

~

 

At breakfast the next morning, Stiles makes his dad toast with butter and jam, scrambled eggs, and bacon, the traditional Stilinski Meal of Supplication And/Or Apology. The light of suspicion dawns in his father's eyes almost immediately, but he's not concerned enough to let good food go cold. He takes his time, and when there's finally nothing left but coffee, he pulls the cup toward himself like a shield and says, "Okay, Stiles. What did you do?"

"I'm dating a guy," Stiles says. "An older guy."

His dad's hands go tight around the mug, and an indescribable expression spreads across his face. If Stiles had to plot it on a graph, it would fall about halfway between "I support your life choices" and "you're grounded forever."

What his dad says, in a determinedly even tone, is, "How much older?"

Stiles takes a deep breath. "He's about Derek Hale's age."

The sheriff puts down his fork and levels an interrogator's gaze at Stiles. "That's an oddly specific reference, son."

Stiles winces.

"This older guy, who is about Derek Hale's age. Is he, in fact, Derek Hale?"

"I just want to point out, before I answer, that Derek never actually killed anybody, and all the stuff Scott and I thought he did last summer was actually his crazy uncle, and --"

The expression on his dad's face slides precipitously toward 'grounded.'

Stiles swallows, hard. "Yes," he says, "He is, in fact, Derek Hale."

His dad lets out a long, low sigh and rubs at his eyes. "I'm glad you're good at breakfast," he tells Stiles, picking his fork up again. "You're gonna be making it every morning, for quite a while."

 

~

 

There's a whole speech after that about being careful, and always letting his dad know where he is at all times, and never letting anybody talk him into doing anything he doesn't want. Then there's a bit about how Stiles can talk to his dad about anything at any time if he wants to, if he has questions, and about how if he doesn't want to and doesn't have any questions it's perfectly all right to never go into any significant level of detail at all, especially details his dad might never be able to unhear. It's like volunteering the truth somehow short-circuits the fatherly instinct to withhold permission -- something Stiles is definitely going to remember for the future -- because there's nothing at all in the entire conversation about permanent grounding or jail time.

When it's blessedly over, Stiles gets in his car and goes to pick Scott up for school. The trip takes less than five minutes, and he's still blushing furiously at the end of it.

"Dad knows I'm dating Derek," Stiles says with studied nonchalance as soon as Scott climbs into the front seat. "He's cool with it."

"Awesome," Scott says, grabbing Stiles' backpack from the back seat. "Hey, did you do the trig homework? I kind of forgot."

"Front zipper pocket," Stiles says.

Scott says, "Awesome," and pulls out Stiles' trig notebook. "You're a lifesaver, man. Thank you."

Stiles rolls his eyes and backs carefully out of Scott's driveway.

Two hours later, in World History, his phone buzzes. He makes sure Ms. Finley's not watching him, and pulls the phone out of his pocket, just enough to see the screen.

Scott's text reads, "Dude! U told THE SHERRIF!?!"

Stiles shakes his head and grins.

 

~

 

Derek takes the news with a lot less drama than Scott. "Did you tell him about the werewolf thing, too?" he says, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. "You can, if you want."

"What? No!" Stiles says, eyes wide. "I figured I'd lead with the older gay boyfriend thing, and if he didn't kill you for that, move on to lycanthropic sex rituals somewhere down the road."

"Pretty smart," Derek says. "For jailbait. Since I'm not dead, I guess he took it well."

"Better than I expected," Stiles says. "But I need to tell him things, when I can."

"So," Derek says, leaning against the counter next to Stiles and giving him a sidelong glance. "You can. If you want."

"Thank you," Stiles says. "Really, dude, thank you, but I'm not ready for that. One coming out experience a year is all I can handle. Plus, when it comes to wolf business, I think the less he knows, the better off he'll be."

"We're not going to let anything happen to him, Stiles. Or to you."

"Yeah, well." Stiles shrugs uncomfortably. "Perfect world, right? We can't really know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Derek turns, and brackets Stiles' body against the counter, between his outstretched arms. He stares until Stiles has to look up, and when he does, Derek's eyes are warm and bright. "Maybe we can't," he says. "But I've got a pretty good idea of how the next ten minutes are going to go."

 

~

 

Once the kissing starts, Stiles can't think of a good reason to avoid the weekly pack meetings. The wolves can just tell, and they all seem pretty happy about it. Even Jackson relaxes enough to slap Stiles on the shoulder and say, "I don't get it, man, but whatever. Maybe Derek will chill out a little now." Lydia, who has decided Stiles is basically engaged to the entire pack, gives him a sunny, besotted smile and a warm hug before forgetting about his existence entirely. Erica, Boyd and Isaac make room for him at lunch now, and ask him questions about how his day is going, and try to get him to tell them potentially embarrassing things about Derek.

Scott just shrugs, bumps fists with him, and goes back to staring at Allison. And Allison, for her part, beams at Stiles and says, "I'm so happy for you both."

So he starts showing up again, on a semi-regular basis, bringing his homework while the others run around and train, or bond, or cuddle, or whatever's on tap on any given day. They don't make a big deal of it, and he settles into the routine. He's still not getting anything more than kissing out of it, but whatever. If Derek wants to go steady before they go all the way, Stiles can make that work.

He gets to the last meeting of the school year at the very last minute -- about ten minutes past the last minute, actually. Everyone's already there. The approval of a pack of wolves, his best friend, and his best friend's hunter girlfriend makes it easy to stroll into Scott's living room, drop down onto the sofa, and prop his feet up on the coffee table. At least until Scott's mom comes in with a tray of sandwiches and stares at him until his feet drop down to the floor of their own accord. He smiles up at her, and eventually, reluctantly, she smiles back. He takes a sandwich, does a quick headcount, and says, as casually as he can, "Hey... where's Derek?"

"He'll be here," Scott says. "He's been running late the past few weeks."

"He's been with me before meetings the past few weeks," Stiles says. "But he's not with me now."

"Maybe he got hung up in traffic?"

Stiles frowns. "In Beacon Hills?"

"Bike traffic?" Scott hazards. "I don't know. Maybe he stopped for coffee."

Stiles has known Scott approximately forever, but the guy's capacity for blind optimism never ceases to amaze him. As deeply as Scott believes that everything is fine, Stiles believes something terrible has probably happened. His foot taps out an uneven rhythm on the carpet, and his knee jitters up and down in time.

"Maybe he did stop at your place, and he's on his way here now," Allison says. "Do you want to call him?"

Stiles looks around at the rest of the group. They're all looking at him. Some of them -- Erica, Isaac, Lydia -- seem to have picked up on his worry. He starts to feel a little ridiculous, and almost says no, but then -- Derek's not there. Slowly, he nods, and pulls out his phone. "Yeah," he says, "it's probably just, you know, crazy old Stiles with his crazy old worry, but."

"Call him," Lydia says gently. "We can all make fun of you after."

With a grateful look, he heads out into the hallway, already dialing. He can still hear the low rise and fall of the conversation back in the living room as Derek's phone rings, and rings, and rings. He waffles over whether he should leave voicemail when it picks up -- what's he going to say? He doesn't trust Derek to get from home to Scott's place on his own? -- but the decision is taken out of his hands when the line clicks open and a woman's voice, deep and sweet as honey, says, "Hello, Stiles."

The hum of conversation vanishes as his focus lasers in on that voice. "Who is this?" he demands.

"Friend of a friend," she says. "He can't come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?"

His stomach does a slow, sickening roll. "Put him on the phone."

She laughs, and says, "I'm sorry honey, he's a little busy bleeding to death at the moment. But he says to tell you he misses you a lot, and not to worry. It'll all be over soon enough."

The case of the phone creaks, and he forces himself to loosen his grip on it, just a little. "You wouldn't have picked up if you didn't want something," he tells her, praying he's right. It's the only in he has. "What is it?"

"What I wanted was the last Hale Alpha in my pack, under my will," she says. The honeyed tone is gone; now her voice is a frustrated growl. "But he's fighting the line a little, and I don't have time to romance him. Can you think of anything that might persuade him to join me instead of dying in...." there's a pause, and Stiles is horrified to hear a thick, pained groan that could only belong to Derek, "...about fifteen minutes or so, I'd say?"

His heart clenches in his chest; he can hardly breathe, but he grates out, "You mean something like a hostage?"

"You are one terrifyingly bright young werewolf," she says. "I hadn't even thought of that, but what an interesting idea."

"Where and when?"

"Willow Glen Apartments, second floor, number 215. And if you want to have a chat with him while he's conscious, you should probably get here pretty damn soon."

The line closes, and Stiles stays where he is, frozen like a statue of himself in Scott's downstairs hallway. He needs to think, but his thoughts flicker like candles in a strong wind, there and then gone. The Alphas were supposed to come for him, that's what they'd expected, that's what they'd trained for. Stiles hadn't even gone to any training sessions, he'd been doing French homework and studying the Second World War.

He tries to figure out what Derek would do, what Derek would want. But he thinks the thing Derek would want the most is for Stiles to stay put, and that's just not going to happen. He's pretty sure the Alpha chick will keep Derek alive long enough for Stiles to get there, assuming he goes now. But Stiles, by himself, is a liability, not a plan.

He leans against the wall and takes a deep breath, then another. He listens; in the other room, the wolves are still talking in low voices, waiting for him to come back. He's never been so happy to have his privacy respected (or, probably closer to the truth, to be considered too boring to spy on.) He thinks about what to tell them, how to tell them, when he goes back into that room, and that's when he realizes he knows what Derek would want. He knows what Derek would do.

Derek would protect his pack.

 

~

 

"Hey," Stiles says, sticking his head in the door, "Derek's car broke down, something about the battery. I'm gonna go pick him up."

"You want me to ride with you?" Scott says.

"Nah, I got it. You stay here and make eyes at your girl. We'll be back here in no time." He gives what he hopes is a convincingly casual smile, waves, then turns and leaves them all behind.

The Willow Glen Apartments are on what would be considered the wrong side of the tracks, if Beacon Hills had tracks. Stiles drives as fast as he can without getting pulled over, his mind racing. He's got nothing -- no weapons, no plan, no backup -- and he has no idea what he's up against. One Alpha werewolf? More? The whole pack? This is the stupidest thing he's ever done, and he's the guy dating Derek Hale.

He's got one chance to do this right. With shaking fingers, he pulls his cell phone out of his pocket, and makes the only call he can.

 

~

 

He parks halfway on the sidewalk, tumbles out of the Jeep and races for the stairs, heart thudding in his chest. He goes up, taking the steps two at a time. Stiles is shaking -- not visibly, but on the inside, in his bones, there's a deep and unsettling vibration. No one stops him, no one challenges him, and that gives him hope. If they're all in one tiny fleapit apartment, how many of them can there be? Maybe the odds aren't as bad as he feared.

He comes to a stop in front of the door and for a moment it's like he can see right through it. An image of Derek, slumped pale and broken in a pool of wine-dark blood, flashes before his mind's eye. He stops thinking, almost stops breathing; he can't make himself touch the door. Not because there's a crazy Alpha werewolf chick behind it, but because there's every chance Derek might not be.

A voice at the back of his mind says, You don't know what's going on back there. Maybe he's fine! and Stiles groans inwardly. Scott's voice, and Scott's unbearable optimism. It's like he got too close, over the years, and got infected with it. What does Scott know? Scott's back at home counting the stars in Allison's eyes, he's useless to Stiles here.

But still. Maybe he's fine, Stiles tells himself. Won't know until I knock, will I?

So he knocks. He's in this. Too late to turn back now.

The door opens almost immediately. Stiles has to admit, he expected more leather. Not that this isn't a good look -- the Alpha is in fine shape, jeans hugging her wide hips, pretty pink cardigan clinging fuzzily to a white halter top that barely covers a truly inspirational landscape. She looks more prepared for lunch on the quad than murder and mayhem, but given who Stiles hangs out with on a regular basis, he knows better than to let down his guard for a pretty face.

"Hey," she says, "glad you could make it. Come on in."

"Hey," Stiles says, grinning insincerely. "Thanks for the invite." He squares his shoulders, spares one quick glance for the parking lot, and follows her inside.

Derek is not bleeding out on the carpet. He's not even hurt, as far as Stiles can see. He's sitting on a battered, shredded sofa that might once have been an unpleasant shade of green, and his hands are unbound, resting on his knees. His face is twisted into a helpless, hopeless snarl of anger. He doesn't move when Stiles walks in, doesn't even blink.

"Oops," she says, "Kinda lied about the bleeding. I hate running with damaged goods, don't you?"

Stiles tears his eyes away from Derek's. "What's your name?" he says.

"Becky Rydell," she answers, easily enough. It's bad news; it means she doesn't care what he knows. Either she's lying, or she's so far off the grid the name won't help him track her when she leaves. Or she's planning to kill him before she leaves; Stiles is kind of hoping it's one of the former. After all, a live hostage to fortune has to be more useful than a dead boyfriend when it comes to keeping Derek in line, right? Hopefully, Becky is smart enough to know that.

"Stiles Stilinski," he tells her. "Honestly, not all that pleased to meet you."

She laughs, that bright and shiny laugh that strips away any hope that she might be marginally sane, and says, "Sassy. I like it."

"Thanks."

"So you're the boyfriend, huh? I guess I expected you'd be older. And a werewolf."

"Sorry to disappoint you. If it helps, I will get older eventually."

She smiles, a slow, dark smile. "You hope."

Stiles bites the inside of his cheek, reminding himself to keep his mouth in check. Now that he's not racing Derek's potential exsanguination, what he really needs most is time. "It's true I'd rather not die tonight if I can help it," he says. "Mind if I ask where the rest of your pack is?"

The grin melts off her face like ice on a summer sidewalk. "Why yes," she says, "I do mind. Why on earth would I tell you such a thing?"

"Sorry," he says quickly, "I don't mean to step on your toes. I just expected a little more of a reception, that's all." He cuts his eyes over to Derek as he says, "How many of you are there, anyway?"

"You ask a whole lot of questions," Becky says. "Why is that?" She takes a menacing step toward him, and he jerks his eyes back to her face. But he's already seen enough, all he needs to: the quick tap of one finger against Derek's knee, the burning look of fury in Derek's eyes.

Just one. But what does that mean? Becky, alone? Or Becky plus just one other? And either way, where are the rest of them? Is Derek sure, or is he guessing?

The apartment is a long one-room studio, with a bed in one corner and a rudimentary kitchen running along the back wall. There's two doors that Stiles can see; one probably leads to a bathroom. The other is probably a closet. Is there another wolf in the apartment? There can't be. What would be the point of hiding from a puny, helpless little human?

Just Becky then, Stiles guesses, and his confidence cranks up a single notch. He glances at the clock on the microwave on the far wall: 5:05. He hopes it's right.

"Becky," Stiles says, "I think you're here by yourself. I don't know why, but I don't really care. I think if you get distracted, you won't be able to hold Derek down quite so hard, and I think if he gets even a little bit loose, he'll be able to distract you a hell of a lot more than I can."

"And you think you can distract me?" she says, looking him up and down. "You? Seriously?"

"Yeah." Stiles grins at her. "I'm going to take Derek out of here, with or without your cooperation. With would be my preference, because I'm not a fan of bloodshed in general. But in your case, I don't think I'd mind it that much."

"Who exactly do you think you are, kid?" Her eyes, up till now a warm, deep brown, flash over to red in the space of a blink, and sharp white fangs push her mouth into a feral grin. Her skin ripples and darkens, her clothes peeling away as hair pushes up through her skin. Amazingly, the corners of her lips are drawn back into a twisted canine smile. Her voice is rough as gravel now, deep as a canyon. "Don't you know what I am?"

"I'm the sheriff's kid," Stiles tells her. "And I know exactly what you are."

 

~

 

The arrow, swift and silver-tipped, takes her through the heart just as the bullet slams into her skull.

Derek comes off the couch like he's been launched from a canon, tackling Stiles to the floor and shielding him with his body.

The Alpha falls, still only partly transformed. Her spine twists into a shattered, spasming arc and she claws at her chest, at her head. White foam flies from her lips, drips from the sharp points of her fangs. And behind Stiles and Derek, the apartment door flies open and hits the wall with a bang like a second gunshot.

"I know you're new at this," Sheriff Stilinski says from the doorway, "but son, I sincerely hope this is not your idea of dating."

Pinned between Derek and the floor, Stiles lets go of the breath he's been holding, and starts to laugh. "This," he says, "is not what it looks like."

His dad's eyes flick from the live werewolf sprawled on top of Stiles to the dead werewolf sprawled in a geometrically disturbing pile by the sofa. "You know, when I said you could always call if you needed me, I was thinking about your car running out of gas."

"I know," Stiles says, grinning at his dad. "Thanks for showing up anyway."

"I'm going to need a more in-depth explanation of...everything that's happened in the past two years...really soon."

Stiles nods. "I'm aware," he says. "But first things first, okay?" He shoves at Derek, who is alive and panting with abject terror at the presence of Stiles' father. Stiles thinks maybe he was happier with the Alpha. "Get off me, you mutt," he mutters, giving another gentle shove, and Derek rolls off him light as a feather.

Stiles stands up, dusts himself off, and goes to take a look at his erstwhile nemesis, Becky. He kneels down, and pulls the arrow out of her chest. He's seen it before.

"I made that call you asked me to," the sheriff explains.

A new shape appears in the doorway, a man with a crossbow and an unsettling smile. "Stiles," Chris Argent says. "Good to see you again." Stiles shudders; he can't help it. Even when he's being nice, the guy gives him the creeps.

Looking down at Becky, Stiles says, "Forgot to mention, I'm also the best friend of the guy who's dating Chris Argent's daughter."

Predictably, Becky has no response to that.

 

~

 

Stiles, Derek, Chris and the Sheriff confirm that there are no other Alphas lurking in or around the building -- Derek with his nose, Chris and the Sheriff with some casual door-knocking, and Stiles with his finely-honed sense of self-preservation. Chris fades out of their attention and into the night once he's satisfied, and Derek and Stiles leave the Sheriff to manage the police report and the clean-up. It's going to take quite a bit of creativity to sell the purely earned killing of an Alpha werewolf as some kind of drug deal gone wrong, but Stiles has all the faith in the world that his dad can pull it off. Plus, Stiles has Derek to worry about, so Dad is on his own.

"Are you okay?" Stiles asks in the hallway at the top of the stairs. "Like, with the walking? Did she hurt you?" Stiles thinks those may be the most emasculating four words in the universe, but that chick was extremely bad news, and he needs to know. "Are you...are you bleeding, anywhere?"

That image from outside the apartment door is going to be hard to shake, but Derek banishes it with a half-hearted smile. "I'm fine," he says. "She wanted to recruit me, not kill me."

At the car, Stiles opens the door for Derek, ignoring the disgusted look Derek shoots him. He makes sure all Derek's fingers and toes are inside the vehicle, and closes the door firmly before going around to his own side. He starts the car, puts it in first gear -- and then takes it out of gear, and turns the engine off again.

He stares out the windshield, his fingeres tight and white-knuckled on the steering wheel. "She said you were bleeding out," he says, and he's not happy with the high, strained tone in his voice, but he can't help it. "I just kept thinking about it, about what she might have done to you. I know Alpha wounds are different for betas, but I don't know if they're different for other Alphas. Would you have healed?" A terrifying thought crosses his mind. "Oh, God, did you heal? Did she do something and you just healed and--"

"No," Derek says sharply. "I'm okay."

Stiles takes a deep breath to chill himself out. And then another. "Okay," he says, nodding. "You're okay."

"I told you, she had no interest in hurting me."

"Then -- how did she manage to grab you?" Stiles looks at Derek, head tilted in confusion and possibly, maybe, a little bit of lingering disbelief. Maybe Derek would tell him if he'd been hurt, and maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he'd go all deceitful and protective instead. "She was just one tiny little Alpha!"

Derek glares. "She was older," he explains slowly. "And stronger. And I was cut off from my pack. She kept me close to paralyzed after I refused to join her." He adds a sneer to the glare, but Stiles gets the idea he's sneering at himself. "I wasn't expecting an attack. It's not -- we don't do things like this. I've never heard of a pack trying to capture a rival Alpha. She must have been acting on her own."

"The Lone Alpha on the grassy knoll," Stiles says, a little more than slightly giddy now that all the actual danger has passed. "So she grabs you, drags you back to her pack, wins all the good prizes? How does that work?"

"She made an offer. If I accepted it in good faith, I'd be bound by it."

"She had to know you were never going to do that," Stiles says. "Why on earth would you do that?"

Derek stares at Stiles. "Yeah, I wonder," he says drily. "What could possibly motivate me."

"...oh." Stiles' eyes go wide. "But that's --"

"You were the one in danger, Stiles. Not me. You shouldn't have come."

"Going out on a limb here," Stiles says sourly, "but I'm guessing her big plan wasn't to ask you nicely and then just let you go if you turned her down."

"No, her big plan was to kill you slowly, and force me into her pack!" Derek's voice cracks out like a whip, and his face is closed and pale. "I was never going to let that happen."

"Well, I wasn't about to just leave you in her evil clutches," Stiles snaps, and starts the Jeep again, twisting the key viciously in the ignition. But instead of throwing it into gear, he stops and takes a breath. Then he turns and looks at Derek, sitting over there without a scratch on him, just as scared now as Stiles was in that apartment.

"You're no more expendable than I am," Stiles says after a long, tense moment. "You should try to remember that."

Derek lets out a surprised laugh, hollow and desperate. "Yeah."

"And I'm really not a sit-on-the-sidelines kind of guy. You should remember that, too."

Derek jerks his head in a sharp nod. "Noted."

"Especially if we're going to be dating," Stiles says.

"Right," Derek says, and then his eyes cut up to Stiles', startled out of his semi-hysterical brood. "Wait, what?"

Stiles gives Derek a warm, pitying look, and pulls out into the street.

 

~

 

On the way home, Stiles calls Scott and says, "Derek got kidnapped by a lady Alpha and me and my dad had to rescue him. I'm spiriting him away now, to an undisclosed location." In the stunned silence that follows, he adds, "Sorry I lied to you about the Camaro breaking down," and holds the phone away from his ear.

After that, there's a lot of yelling. First Scott, and then when he loses coherence, Allison steps in and does her share. Getting yelled at by Allison is like getting chastised by an extremely angry kitten, but since Stiles has seen her shoot people full of arrows without blinking, he has a healthy amount of respect for her rage. He doesn't interrupt until he pulls into his own driveway, and then it's just to say goodbye for now, thanks, you can both finish yelling at me later.

He drags Derek upstairs, grateful for every second his dad's going to have to spend at the station, filling out paperwork about an imaginary drug bust. He pushes Derek toward the bed.

It's like pushing a mountain. Derek doesn't budge. He pushes again, and Derek's hands come up to hold him at arm's length. "Stiles," he says warningly. "Don't."

"Oh, my God." Stiles slumps against the door. "What now? Hasn't this unfortunate series of events proven beyond a doubt that I'm a guy in serious need of some mystical bonding?"

"It's not --" Derek's eyes slide away; his hand goes up to scratch the back of his neck. "You don't have to now."

"But--" Stiles frowns. "Scary Alpha pack, unbonded Stiles, imminent danger -- all the major variables appear to remain unchanged."

"Except they didn't go after you. They came after me."

"One rogue Alpha went after you," Stiles says, his heartbeat speeding up. "Who knows what the rest of them will do?"

"That's my point." Derek shakes his head, and scrubs a hand through his hair. Stiles has never seen him look so awkward; it's like he's lost control of his own body language. "We don't know. They're not playing by the traditional rules. If they'll come after another Alpha like that, there's no guarantee they won't come after you, whether you're bound to the pack or not."

"Or the others," Stiles says. "Allison, or Lydia--"

"Any of you."

Stiles' knees go watery, and he sits down on the bed, his mind spinning. "So we're doomed," he says, looking up at Derek, "That's what you're saying?"

"We've always been doomed," Derek says, like it's nothing, like doom is just the background noise of the universe to him. "But now we can't keep you safe just by binding you to the pack."

"Wow," Stiles says, staring. "Wow, Derek. Were you born in Hellsylvania? Is Horrible your first language? Why would you say something like that? That's legitimately awful!"

"It was the most comforting thing I could think of," Derek says, glaring.

"Oh, my God, there you go again!"

Derek sighs. "I thought it would be good news, Stiles," he says tiredly. "I thought you'd be glad you don't have to take one for the team."

"Well then, you're kind of a moron, aren't you," Stiles snaps, "because I've been telling you I want this for weeks." He laughs; it comes out bitter and too loud. "I guess what I want is not as important to you as your martyr complex."

Derek growls, a low rumble of annoyance, and stalks to the window, like he's going to just take off. Like this is all going to be over, just because he says so. Stiles panics, coming up off the bed to stop him, but Derek doesn't leave. He stands there, his back to the room, his arms braced on either side of the window while his back heaves with deep, slow breaths.

Carefully, Stiles goes to him and lays a hand on his shoulder. The muscles are coiled tight under his fingers. "I'm sorry," Stiles says quietly. "I don't really think that."

For a moment, Stiles isn't sure Derek heard him. Then, with a low, amused snort, Derek says, "You don't think I have a martyr complex?"

"I don't think it's your top priority," Stiles clarifies. A little more sure of himself, he tugs at Derek's shoulder, and Derek lets himself be turned. In the last of the afternoon light, he looks tired and a little lost. "I think I'm important to you," Stiles says, "and I know you're important to me. And we can't save everybody right now, and my dad's not going to stay at work forever, so--"

He tugs at Derek again, and Derek is suddenly right there, breathing deep and closing his eyes and smiling, like breathing in the scent of recently-terrified Stilinski is the best thing that ever happened to him. "You're sure?" he says, his arms coming up to lock Stiles in.

"I really can't be the tough, secure guy in this relationship," Stiles says, "I'm not cut out for it, completely constitutionally unsuited, and --" he shudders and lets out a long, stuttery hiss when their bodies come together. "-- that's clearly more your thing, so --"

Kissing Derek is way, way better than fighting with him. It's actually better than just about everything. Stiles is more than happy to forget about fighting altogether; he turns his attentions instead to the relentless exploration of Derek's unresisting, undamaged body. Derek is warm, enthusiastic, and far, far too patient; Stiles tugs pathetically at his zipped leather jacket, and sighs. "Seriously, is this thing just a really stylish growth? Is it attached somehow?"

Derek grins and dislodges Stiles from his chest. He tugs the jacket off, tosses it at the chair in front of the computer desk, and misses.

Stiles whistles. "Those are some major supernatural reflexes you have there," he says appreciatively. "I am impressed."

"Thanks," Derek says wryly.

"It's almost hard to believe I had to come rescue your sorry ass not forty-five minutes ago. You know, traditionally, the damsel in distress bestows unnamed sexy favors upon the prince who saves her from certain death."

"What does she do for the idiot who throws himself into danger and nearly gets himself killed?"

Stiles glares, but he's not ready to die on that hill. "Same thing."

"I bet she kicks his ass all over the kingdom," Derek says, but he pulls Stiles closer anyway, and Stiles is not inclined to argue with results. "And you didn't rescue me. Your dad did."

Stiles nods, ready to agree to any amount of bullshit as long as it keeps Derek looking at him like that, amused and warm and a little hungry. "He did," Stiles says, "absolutely."

"Because -- you told him." Derek goes still for a minute, and looks at Stiles. "About the werewolf thing."

"Because he believed me about the werewolf thing," Stiles says. He's amazed all over again, just thinking about it. "I should really make that man more bacon."

"Yeah, you probably should."

Stiles strips off his shirt, smiling; without asking permission, he grabs for Derek's too. He pulls it off, with only moderate cooperation from its wearer. "Wow," he says, staring at Derek's chest and trying not to drool. He's no longer thinking about his dad at all.

Derek grins. "Eyes up here, Stiles."

Stiles feels himself blush, and says, "Oh, my God, Derek, it's so not my fault. Seriously? I can't believe how long you made me wait to get a decent look at you."

Smugly, Derek says, "You're welcome."

"You're such an asshole. And yet, weirdly amazing." Stiles reaches down and fumbles with the button on Derek's jeans. "You're...seriously hot, which I've known for a long time, and you have great taste in terrible movies, and you're kind of fun to be around when you forget to be terrifying, and I think," he slides Derek's zipper down, slow and easy, while Derek moves not a muscle, "I think it's time I got screwed into your pack." He swallows, hard, and tries to catch his breath. Derek's hot and stiff under his hand, and that's crazy and awesome at the same time.

"You can't -- you can't just screw somebody into the pack," Derek says, stumbling over the words. His hands tighten on Stiles' arms, pulling him closer.

"Oh, I know." Stiles leans in and kisses Derek quiet, awash in filthy intentions. "It takes affection and attraction, too. But I hear we have that covered."