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The alpha symbol stands out starker than ever in the faint moonlight. Derek’s given up on getting rid of it. It seems fitting, somehow, that this symbol of his failure is so much more permanent than the red eyes or the electric thrum of power he’s already half-forgotten the taste of.

He doesn’t startle seeing the old blue in the mirror. He’d always known it were there, just hidden, Paige’s blood sunk under his skin. He can still feel her shudder against him, one last jolt of her pain shocking up his veins. Then the heat seeping slowly off her, the impossible sour scent of, of—

A hand on his arm pulls him back.

Eyes burning, Derek lets out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. His fingers flex, human, pale and dry and bloodless.

“I can’t believe we’re just letting them go,” Stiles says.

It’s not that simple, Derek knows. Kali’s dead, and true love turned the twins into heroes. Amazing how everyone else can do that. Can be enough reason for a killer to realize they don’t want to kill. Amazing how Derek can never do anything but break or be broken.

And Deucalion—Scott let him go, and Derek’s call has never helped anything before.

“It’s better this way.” Derek almost believes it. His mother’s words trip off his tongue, make him feel like an inch of the alpha he should’ve been. “’We’re predators. We don’t have to be killers.’”

But sometimes, sometimes, don’t you have to? To minimize the damage, protect what’s left of the pack, sometimes, isn’t—The lone wolf dies; the pack survives—isn’t that how it works? His power for Cora’s survival, an Argent dead for the Hale pack still whole, Deucalion and Kali slaughtered for Isaac, Erica, Boyd, still safe? Still alive?

Sometimes you have to make a—a sacrifice—

In the darkness of his mind, Jennifer grins.

Derek swallows hard, clenches his fists so hard he claws through his palms.

“—have a feeling it’s not gonna be that easy,” Stiles says as Derek watches his hands heal.

“Maybe it will.” Derek doesn’t know who he’s trying to convince. “Scott’s the alpha now. He’s always had better luck than I have.” Derek doesn’t envy the new weight on Scott’s shoulders. For years he’d thought the key to finally feeling safe was what his mother had, the red eyes, the power. The strength of the pack. No one dared look at her wrong, much less—

But that was just Derek being an idiot again. His mother wasn’t respected because she was a powerful alpha. She was respected because she was Talia Hale. Derek, for all the Hale power coursing through him, was still Derek. The fuck-up, the idiot, the killer.

Scott’ll do better. Not because he’s an alpha, or a true alpha.

Because he’s Scott.

“Murphy of Murphy’s Law has had better luck than you have,” Stiles jokes. It doesn’t quite land, here, where Derek can still feel the ghost of two inches of water, his wrists bent back, Boyd’s body heavy on his claws.

Stiles’ thumb rubs the chill from Derek’s arm. They stand like that, their eyes on the sharp black paint, the soft orange sunrise.

“I missed you.”

Stiles' voice is quiet, raw at the edges. His hand warm on his shoulder, on his arm, wrapped tight around his waist, dragging Derek back to the surface.

“We got too caught up in all of this and I just… missed you.”

It hits him, all at once, sinks in like a stone.

Stiles doesn’t need Derek for anything.

Not for alpha power, not for training, not to fight his battles or even to bounce ideas off when everyone else went in a different direction.

But here he is, anyway.

Just for Derek.

Fuck-up, idiot, killer, powerless beta Derek.

Stiles’ palm heats his skin through the cotton.

I missed you.

Derek leans just slightly into Stiles’ touch.

“Yeah,” he says.

Warmth fizzing through him like sunlight.