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Under Your Skin

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In Derek's family, nobody ever missed a pack meeting. Partly this was because they involved waffles, everyone sticky and stuffed to their eyeballs and crowded around the old battered kitchen table on Saturday mornings. But it was also because anyone who dared to shuffle in late or start an under-table kicking match with their sister met with his mother's wilting gaze.

Derek does his best to imitate that I will take a chunk out of you for your own good look of his mother's, but it has no effect on his own shiftless pack. They're just as sullen and resentful and teenaged as ever. Isaac slouches in a corner of the sofa with Erica draped along his side. Boyd leans against the wall, waiting for the meeting to begin, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else.

Scott changes his mind from one week to the next whether he's actually part of Derek's pack or not, which is annoying enough, but now that he's mooning over the breakup with Allison, he's absolutely insufferable. If he checks for texts from her one more time, Derek is going to grind that phone beneath his boot.

He senses Stiles before he hears the Jeep and the squeak of sneakers on the steps, and that brings on a fresh wave of irritation. Where the hell has he been? Usually he's the prompt one.

"Sorry, I'm—I had this," Stiles jerks his thumb vaguely toward the outside, "thing. What'd I miss?"

Scott looks up from his phone at last. "Derek's been grumpy at us?"

"Oh, good," Stiles says with a grin. "So nothing new then."

Derek scowls, and there's not even a little blip in Stiles's pulse, which just makes Derek more irritated. He misses the days when Stiles was easy to scare. Stiles goes to sit by Scott, and there's something just a little off-kilter about the way he's holding himself. Derek catches a metallic whiff of blood and, when he breathes more deeply, a faint undercurrent of pain. As if Stiles is hurt.

As if someone has hurt him.

"What the fuck?" Derek says, in a tight, pissed off voice.

Stiles startles, almost guiltily, his heart revving, eyes big and dark, but he doesn't answer, and when he sinks onto the chair, he lifts his chin defiantly. So very Stiles. At least Derek has everyone's attention now. The more a pack meeting resembles an episode of reality TV, he's found, the more likely they are to actually listen.

"I'm sure whatever you were doing was important, Stiles," says Peter, who is naturally the last to come sauntering into the room. At Derek's annoyed frown, he adds, with great amusement, "Don't let me interrupt, fearless leader."

Derek tightens his jaw. "There was a body found in the woods. A woman who'd been out running. She was ripped apart by sharp claws, possibly teeth, and there were organs and flesh missing. Maybe eaten. It wasn't a werewolf, and there weren't any animal tracks. I don't know anything supernatural that does that." He looks to Peter, who shakes his head. "We need to figure it out before hunters get too involved in it."

Stiles screws up his face in disgust. "Eaten? I guess I can do some stomach-turning research on that."

He's the only one who volunteers, as usual. Boyd at least looks like he's waiting for instructions, but Erica and Isaac greet the news with matching bored stares. Scott is involved with his phone again, so it's doubtful he actually heard a word Derek said.

Derek grinds his teeth a little harder. "Boyd, see if there's anything at the scene you can pick up. Erica and Isaac, I want you guarding the perimeter in case we get trouble from rogue hunters." He looks over at Scott, who is still not paying attention, so what's the point? "Stiles, report back as soon as you've found anything."

In other words: Don't go off and do something stupid on your own. Stiles nods, but Derek knows it's a crapshoot whether he'll actually do as he's told.

The meeting breaks up. Stiles springs to his feet, eager to go amass new knowledge even if it is of the stomach-turning variety. Isaac and Erica trudge along behind Boyd like recalcitrant children. It's a report card on Derek's judgment as alpha, the difference between those he's turned and those he hasn't. Derek doesn’t seem to be passing this test.

"Let me know if you need any help with that research," Peter calls after Stiles.

Stiles looks confused and not a little creeped out, as he always does when Peter singles him out for attention, and he hurries after Scott. Derek holds back the urge to snarl at his uncle, barely, because he knows that Peter is only doing it to wind him up.

Peter smiles, thoroughly enjoying himself. "I'll see if I can pick up any gossip. Maybe the hunters know something we don't."

He claps Derek on the shoulder and goes off to do who knows what. It seems quaint to Derek that he spent all of five seconds when Peter first returned hopeful that he might be something other than a troublemaking pain in the ass.

There's not much to report when his betas check in the next morning before school.

"I picked up something at the crime scene, really faint," Boyd says with a puzzled tilt of his head. "Not human or werewolf. Nothing I've ever come across before."

"Well, we didn't see anything," Erica says, with a resentful glare at Derek.

"And we're not going back for more of that," Isaac insists. "No one cares about our perimeter."

Derek doesn't bother to point out that they're sitting in the burned-out shell of not enough caution. He was once sixteen and stupid, and he knows the only cure for that is time, if you're lucky enough to get it.

"You're going to be late for school," he says, because that seems more productive than the tired routine of I'm the alpha, you need to listen to me. It's not as if this is going to be the magic occasion when they actually believe that. "Keep your ears open around Allison Argent. See if you overhear anything that might be helpful."

They head off, piling into Boyd's car, and Derek watches them go with the usual sense of what the fuck was I thinking. Not that it matters now. They're his pack, for better or worse.

It's not the most heartening thought in the world, and he sets off for the crime scene, striding grimly through the forest. Maybe he can pick up something that Boyd missed. His parents taught him about certain spots in the woods, sacred places where supernatural energy converges, where rituals might be conducted, perhaps even a human sacrifice offered. But the crime scene isn't on any of those spots. It's just a random patch of dirt in a clearing.

Derek investigates thoroughly, sniffing and examining the ground for traces the human forensic investigators might have missed. There's something there—something wrong—a faint, rank stink, but Derek can't place it any more than Boyd could. He tries tracking the scent away from the clearing to see where it might lead, but it's so weak that he quickly loses the trail, as if the—whatever it is just vanished.

The morning newspaper helpfully publishes the victim's name—Ursula Daniels, an apple-cheeked blonde who liked animals and didn't have an enemy in the world, according to her family and friends. It takes a quick visit to the library's computer to come up with her address. Whatever Stiles might think, Derek does know how to Google.

Crime scene tape bars the door of her apartment, but Derek can tell there's no one in there. He picks the lock and slips inside to look around. He's not sure what he hopes to find, maybe some sign that her run-in with the supernatural was something other than random, horrible luck. There's nothing here, though, nothing but the ordinary artifacts of an ordinary life. No books on the occult, no "12 Months of Wicca" calendar. It's never that easy.

A collection of framed photos hangs on the wall: Ursula in a cap and gown, Ursula on vacation at the beach with her equally fresh-faced friends, Ursula surrounded at the holiday table by a collection of smiling faces, their kinship written in the shape of their jaws, the slant of their noses, the way they just seem to belong together.

Derek isn't sure if it's progress or the opposite of it that he can look at these pictures without feeling anything. Those smiling people will never smile quite the same way again, he knows, but they'll go on. They'll still walk on that beach, still sit at that table, even with the Ursula-shaped hole in their lives. That's just how it is.

He leaves. There's nothing he can learn here.

The next stop is the police station, where he lurks outside for several hours, eavesdropping on what's going on inside. As usual, there's a lot of talk about a possible animal attack. How many mountain lions do people honestly believe are wandering around out there? At least Stiles's father sounds skeptical about it.

Eventually, it becomes clear that the police know less than Derek does, and there's no point in wasting more time. The pack will be home from school soon. Maybe they'll have picked up something useful.

He's nearing the end of Main Street, almost ready to turn off onto the county road, when it hits, a wave of discomfort, distinctly Stiles in origin. It's a fainter version of what Derek experiences with his wolves when they're hurt or in trouble. He jerks the car off to the side of the road and focuses. The connection is so weak it's hard to pick up any details, but it doesn't seem as if Stiles is in danger or any serious pain.

That doesn't answer the question of how Derek is suddenly sensing Stiles like this, but figuring that out can wait, he decides. Except… his hands on the wheel seem to have a different opinion. He finds himself turning the car around, heading back into town, back toward the Stilinskis.

There's a spot two blocks over where he always parks, far enough away that the sheriff won't notice his car, in front of two empty houses for sale so there are no neighbors with prying eyes to wonder what he's doing there. A sturdy elm lines the sidewalk across the street from the Stilinskis' house, and Derek quickly climbs it and settles onto his usual perch. The fact that he has a set routine for spying on Stiles could seem creepy if he gave it too much thought. Good thing he has no use for that kind of introspection.

From his vantage, he has a perfect view through Stiles's bedroom window. Stiles sits at his desk, typing away at his computer, alternating between homework and supernatural research. Derek can tell when he shifts from one to the other; there's a live-wire alertness to him when he's researching.

The sheriff must be working late, because Stiles doesn't stop to make dinner. Twilight sets in, and for a while the glow of the computer is the only light in the room. Eventually Stiles turns on the lamp and stretches his arms over his head, which makes him flinch. Derek tenses and watches more alertly. Stiles shrugs his shirt up over his head, and another wave of discomfort surges off him, and then Derek sees the white bandage just above his hip. It looks fresh, as if it was recently changed. Maybe that's what Derek felt while he was driving.

And then the pieces start to fall into place. Derek can sense Stiles as he does his wolves. That wound is in a vulnerable spot, just the place where an alpha might—Derek is out of the tree, across the street, and up through Stiles's window in an eye-blink.

Stiles startles hard when he turns around. "Jesus, Derek. Ever heard of knocking? You know, at the front door?" He clutches his shirt in front of him, as if he's shy about his body, and Derek can feel that too if he concentrates, a distant frisson of embarrassment.

"Who bit you?" he demands.

Even as he's saying it, he knows it doesn't make sense. Stiles still smells like himself, human and complicated. But the idea that Stiles might be someone else's wolf—rage whites out Derek's judgment. His throat clenches tight as a fist, and his claws keep trying to extend.

Stiles stares at him big-eyed. There's a little fear there, but mostly it's confusion.

"Show me," Derek orders tersely.

"Show—" His mouth drops open and his eyes go even wider when he gets it. He starts to shake his head. "No, Derek, it's not—"

Derek takes a step toward him. If Stiles won't show him what's under that bandage, he'll find out for himself.

"Fine," Stiles says in exasperation. "Have it your way. But I did this for me. Not for you or anyone else. Just so we're clear."

He flinches a little when he peels away the bandage, and Derek feels that like a distant aftershock, but what's under the gauze—that's an earthquake right beneath his feet. The wolf is simple, stylized, a collection of sharp lines about the size of a fist, and Derek doesn't really understand why it's there, inked forever onto Stiles's pale, vulnerable human skin. But then, Stiles rarely makes sense to him.

What Derek does know is that since Stiles got that tattoo he's been stirring Derek's pack sense. Everything else gets lost in a surge of instinct. He can feel the prickle behind his eyes, and his fangs lengthen. His claws extend. He lunges, urgent with the need to possess what's his, to bite Stiles, turn him, have him.

Stiles jumps back. "What the fuck, Derek?"

The wolf on Stiles's hip should mean—but every molecule of Stiles's body is screaming: Don't! He's breathing in panicky gulps, and he glares at Derek, eyes burning with betrayal, because he trusts Derek, even though that's a stupid move and Stiles is usually smart. Derek really will never understand him.

But that desperate don't is enough for Derek to get himself under control again. He takes two long breaths and then says, "So you decided hepatitis would be fun."

It sounds like an asshole comment even to Derek, and that's good. That's solid ground beneath his feet again. Also, now that he's back from his moment of temporary insanity, he has to wonder: who the fuck gives a sixteen year old a tattoo? And why would Stiles be stupid and reckless enough to let someone stick a (probably dirty) needle into him?

Stiles hesitates a moment, his expression like a question mark: Are we going to pretend you didn't just wolf out on me? And then he goes with it, rolling his eyes. "Thank you, Dr. Hale. I'm pretty sure you only get hepatitis from prison tattoos. This kid at school owed me a favor, and he talked his older sister, who's a completely professional body artist in training with totally hygienic tools, into doing it for me." He grins. "She's kind of hot, actually. You know for someone who caused me great pain with sharp objects."

For just a second, Derek can feel the heat behind his eyes again, but he grinds his teeth and pushes the wolf back into its cage. "Do you even know how to take care of it?" he asks, his voice tight.

Stiles holds up a tube of Neosporin, looking sarcastic and triumphant and way too young to be making decisions he'll be stuck with his whole fucking life, even if it's—even if Derek really wants— "All covered, see?" Stiles says.

Derek shakes his head. "Wrong." He takes the Neosporin and tosses it into the trash because, whatever, he feels like being an asshole.

"Hey!" Stiles says indignantly.

"You need supplies," Derek tells him. "The right supplies. And leave the bandage off. Let it dry."


But Derek has already slipped back through the window. The impulse to bite Stiles hasn't entirely gone away, and he really needs to get out of there. "Yeah, thanks for stopping by" drifts to the ground after him, deadpan and Stiles-like.

Derek drives, not with much of a destination in mind, just out into the country where the human distractions are few and far between, and the deep, endless lines of pine trees soothe the wolf. He ends up at the scenic overlook, the one he always used to come to when he was a teenager and needed to sulk in private, not something easily done in a houseful of werewolves. He climbs up to his favorite rock, sits and stares out into the comforting darkness, listening to the familiar night sounds.

You're kind of an idiot, you know that?

That was Laura's reaction when Derek came home with his tattoo, from a rather shady place that did work for their kind, not that this is something he'll ever admit to Stiles. Derek had been so weak afterward he could barely stay upright on the subway ride back to their apartment, skin burning, the unfamiliar taste of bile in the back of his throat. The only way to permanently mark werewolf skin was to make it as vulnerable as a human's with a potent dose of a certain variety of wolfsbane in the ink.

Come here. Let me look at it.

He can still remember how Laura's hands felt as she took care of him, briskly efficient and cool against his too-hot skin. I know why you did this. I know you miss them. He could feel her understanding coming through in every touch, and the pain and the nausea seemed farther away then, as if he were insulated from it, because she was his sister and she cared about him, but also because she was his alpha.

It was funny, he'd thought then, that getting the tattoo should remind him kindness still existed when the point had been to remind himself of pain. Under the needle, it felt only right to hurt—a sort of atonement, as useless as that was, for what he'd done to his family. But the symbol itself was endlessly hopeful, a hedge against aloneness, a promise that it was always possible to belong. And then Laura reminded him that he did belong, because she was his pack, and having a pack meant never suffering alone.

The wistfulness of the memory is at odds with the movie still playing behind his eyes: the tight bow of Stiles's back as Derek grabs him by the scruff of his neck, exposes his throat, the way Stiles fights a little, at first, and then gives himself over to it, how sweet Stiles's skin feels as Derek's fangs sink in, that first copper-sharp taste of blood, and then the full-body shudder, the moment of electric connection as part of Derek becomes part of Stiles.

An alpha never turns anyone without their enthusiastic consent That's one of the first things Derek's parents taught them about being werewolves. He sits there on that rock for a long time, waiting for those pictures of Stiles to fade away.

By the time he stops off at CVS and makes it back to the Stilinskis, Stiles has fallen asleep, shirt still off, carefully turned on his side. The skin around the wolf is red and a little swollen, but when Derek sniffs the air, there's no fetid stink of infection. Stiles doesn't sense Derek there, doesn't stir, and Derek takes a moment to stare.

Stiles's mouth is slack in sleep, his eyelashes dark smudges against his cheeks. It shocks Derek how much he looks like a kid, even younger than he actually is. His body, though, appears more substantial, more like a man's, now that it's only half clothed, with surprisingly broad shoulders, hair on his belly that disappears into the waistband of his jeans. The tattoo should seem childish, like a willful act of defiance, on his young skin, but somehow it looks determined, a knowing declaration.

Stiles only starts awake when Derek shakes him by the shoulder. "Come on."

"What?" He blinks blearily.

Derek heads for the bathroom, confident that Stiles will follow, if only out of curiosity.

"You know you're being a freak, right?" Stiles says, looking more alert.

Derek pulls a bottle of antibacterial hand soap out of the CVS bag and pushes it at him "Use it."

Stiles looks at the bottle and then at Derek, disbelievingly. When it becomes clear that Derek has no intention of leaving, he shakes his head and turns to the sink.

"Dude, you're supervising me washing my hands. That's weird even for you. Not to mention a little insulting. We covered that whole basic hygiene thing back in pre-school."

"Somebody needs to make sure you don't give yourself an infection. Now wash them again."

"Okay, let's add 'condescending' to our list of words to describe this experience," Stiles complains, but he soaps up again.

"Enough," Derek says when he's finally satisfied.

He strides back down the hall to Stiles's room, with Stiles close on his heels. "Not that this hasn't been awesome—okay, it actually hasn't been—but the point is, my dad could come home at any—"

"Here." Derek bought the industrial-sized bottle of Curel, because Stiles is sixteen, and no doubt he'll be able to put the lotion to good use even after he's finished caring for the tattoo.

Apparently, this same thought occurs to Stiles, because he gets a shifty look and the pink rises in his cheeks.

"Keep it moisturized. Use the antibacterial soap. When you take a shower, don't let the water hit it directly," Derek rattles off instructions and waits for Stiles to nod in acknowledgement.

He's halfway to the window when Stiles says, in this oddly hopeful voice, "I guess you know all this stuff because—" He waves his hand at Derek and then reaches to touch between his own shoulders, in the spot where Derek has his tattoo. There's a wanting look on Stiles's face, like he's hungry for connection, and Derek feels the electric tingle of that all down his back.

He doesn't answer though, just stares at Stiles for a moment before slipping out the window. A hunched, unhappy sensation filters through, and a scent, like soured milk, wafts out the window after Derek.

Derek has lots of experience blaming Stiles for things. He practices this some more on the way home, grinding his teeth over how much time he's wasted keeping Stiles out of the hospital with a bad case of blood poisoning when he really should have been tracking down whatever is eating people out in the woods. His woods. Hale pack territory. Even if Derek can't attach that label to his ragtag bunch of wolves without his mouth twisting into a sarcastic shape.

This lost time doesn't actually end up mattering all that much, as it turns out. His three wayward charges give him curious looks when he gets back to the house but no actual information.

Erica shrugs. "Allison did tell Lydia that she wished Scott would quit texting her when they're supposed to be broken up. She said it, like, three times." Erica grins evilly. "Should I pass that on?" She takes an extravagant sniff of air in Derek's direction. "Why do you smell like Stilinski?"

Three pairs of eyes fix on him, and he doesn't even bother to glare or to tell Erica to shut up. It's not like that ever works.

Instead, he goes to find Peter, who is holed up with his computer in what's left of Derek's father's study. "Did you find out anything?" he asks, without any real hope.

Peter squints at the screen. "Nothing that makes any sense."

Great. This is all just great.

Derek spends the next morning and much of the afternoon trying to track down leads. More wasted time. When he gets back to the house, Stiles is waiting, with Scott in tow, and that gives Derek a lurching hope that maybe someone around here will finally know something. He's immediately annoyed at himself for the thought. When exactly did he start counting on Stiles so much?

"You better have something useful to tell me," he snaps, making his voice cold and menacing.

Scott throws him a dirty look.

Stiles is completely unbothered. "See? This is why you can't have nice things." There's not even a hitch in his breath. Not even the least shimmer of fear through the—whatever this connection is between them. "I did find something, but, well, you're going to laugh." He darts a glance over at Derek. "Okay, you would if you actually knew how to laugh."

"Stiles," Derek says, gritting his teeth.

"Ghouls," he says at the same time that Peter does.

Stiles goes big-eyed. "You think so too?"

Derek does the wilting stare at his uncle, who only shrugs. "I told you it didn't make sense."

"Because ghouls don't exist." Peter is clinically insane, so it's left to Derek to be the voice of reason in the family.

"That is the flaw in the theory, yes," Peter says with dry amusement. Hunters could storm through the door right now and send them all to eternity in a silvery hail of wolfsbane, and he'd probably still sound just like that.

How is this Derek's life?

"Actually," Scott interjects. "I went to see Mr. Argent about it."

Derek has to ask again: how is this his life? He gives Scott the how stupid are you look.

Scott just waves him off. "Yeah, yeah, I know. You don't think I should have anything to do with hunters. But Mr. Argent has been feeling more cooperative since Allison and I broke up. He said he's never seen a ghoul personally, but there are some mentions of them in hunter lore."

Of course there are, Derek thinks bitterly.

"Did you find anything about how we can kill it?" he asks. "If what we're dealing with actually is a ghoul."

"Technically, it's already—" Stiles stops when Derek makes an impatient face at him and shakes his head. "The sources I found were folklore, not how-to manuals."

Scott shakes his head. "Mr. Argent was going to look into it some more."

Derek glances over at Peter, who just shrugs again.

"Can you keep on it?" Derek asks them all with forced patience.

Being rage-filled and contemptuous hasn't been getting the results he'd like, so he's going to try a more conciliatory approach to being alpha.

Stiles stares at him. "Sure." Now he seems nervous. Now that Derek is asking instead of ordering. Maybe Derek should go back to slamming him against walls.

"I'll work on it too," Peter says, in a silky, insinuating tone. "Two great minds." He winks at Stiles.

Suddenly, the circuit connecting Derek to Stiles is thrown wide open, and he's flooded with Stiles-feelings: embarrassed and kind of flattered and deeply unnerved. Derek's instincts stir, the way they would to any threat, and he positions himself between Stiles and Peter, and lets out a roar, primal and protective, a warning that shakes the walls.

Scott stares as if Derek has totally lost his mind.

Peter's mouth curves into a sly smile. "Yes, that's what I thought you'd say."

"Really?" Stiles says. "Because I—that—what?" His mouth is softly open, and he watches Derek expectantly. It would be surprisingly easy to believe he's waiting for something other than an explanation.

"Research," Derek tells him firmly.

Stiles lets out a put-upon sigh and starts for the door, with Scott close on his heels. "Werewolves are really annoying. And confusing. In case anyone was wondering." There's a bitter, frustrated undercurrent to the words that doesn't sound like annoyance at all, and Derek wonders if Stiles will ever be anything other than a complete mystery.

"See you soon, Stiles," Peter calls after him.

Derek snarls in the back of his throat, and Peter smirks, as if Derek is just so hilariously predictable. Is it wrong of Derek to wish that the only remaining member of his family might get eaten by a ghoul?

Checking up on Stiles just makes sense. At least it does to Derek. Who knows what stupid, reckless thing he'll do next? The tattoo is evidence of this. Stiles does occasionally prove useful, so it's in Derek's best interest to keep him from getting himself killed. There is a ghoul to get rid of, after all.

He waits for dusk to fall, heavy and granular, and then he skims up the tree and balances in the cradle of branches. The light isn't on in Stiles's room—the sheriff is home tonight, and they're probably still having dinner—and Derek settles in to wait. It doesn't take long. The desk lamp snaps on, and for a moment, Stiles fills the window, turned in profile, before moving away.

Derek can't tell what he's doing until he drifts back into Derek's line of sight, and now he's shirtless, Curel bottle in hand. Derek watches as he rubs the lotion into the tattoo, his fingers long and surprisingly graceful, moving carefully over the wolf, stroking… caressing. Derek starts to lunge, only to remember where he is, and, more to the point, where he isn't, not in the room with Stiles, which is a good thing, because primal need thrums all through him.

This time, though, he doesn't want to bite Stiles. Not to turn him, anyway.

He hits the ground and strides away before he can entertain any more thoughts like that. He's not actually running back to his car. Werewolves just naturally move fast.

After that, staying away from Stiles seems like a good idea. Derek really needs to get control of this—whatever it is. So it's hard to explain to himself how he ends up sitting on the end of Stiles's bed the next day, waiting for him to come home from school.

Stiles doesn't startle when he comes through the door, as if he half expected Derek to be there. "Okay, here's the thing. It's only been two days, and Googling 'how to get rid of ghouls' hasn't exactly been action-packed with results. So." He drops his backpack onto the floor with a heavy thunk as if it's filled with books. "I have to do this research thing the old-fashioned way. That takes time." He holds up a hand. "And don't tell me we don't have time. I already got that memo."

"Show me," Derek orders tersely.

"Do you just never listen to me? Like at all? Because I just said—" His eyes go wide when he finally gets it. "Oh. You mean the other thing."

"I need answers," Derek says, clipped and hostile. "Not you landing yourself in the hospital like an idiot."

Stiles makes a face at him. "Yeah, I'm so glad you care, Derek. And not that I want to encourage this new strain of being an asshole you've got going on, but you are the only other person I know who has a tattoo, and, okay, so there is this situation developing—and I'm not sure if it's supposed—"

Derek doesn't wait for Stiles to meander his way to the point. He grabs him and yanks up his shirt. Logically he knows that if there were infection he would have smelled it as soon as Stiles stepped into the room, but he needs to see. Make sure.

Stiles glances anxiously at Derek. "Is it supposed to do that?"

It's just peeling a little, perfectly normal, and Derek nods.

Stiles doesn't appear completely convinced. "Even though it really itches?"

"Don't scratch it," Derek orders and gives Stiles an open-handed slap against the tattoo.

"Hey! That's not—" Stiles tilts his head, considering. "Actually that feels better."

"I'll be happy to hit you some more," Derek says, deadpan.

"Dude, your sense of humor seriously needs work. Although I suppose the fact that you're even trying to make a joke is progress."

"What makes you think I'm joking?"

There was a time this would have made Stiles at least a little jumpy, but now he just rolls his eyes. Derek still has his hands on him, on his shoulder and his back, and he can feel the heat of Stiles's skin through his shirt. He should probably let go now. He definitely shouldn't make up some flimsy excuse for why he needs to apply the lotion himself, needs to stroke his fingers in slow circles over the wolf.

He pulls away. "Are you—was it worth it?"

It comes out stiffly. He still doesn't know why Stiles felt this was necessary. If he wanted—Derek would have turned him. That has been well established by now. And ever since Stiles got the tattoo, he's been nothing but mixed signals, a confusing mix of defensiveness and hope. Derek doesn't even know why he cares. This whole thing is ridiculous.

"Having it is awesome, even if I do live in fear of my dad finding out. Getting it—so it turns out it's really hard to hold still when someone's making you bleed for, like, an hour. That kind of sucked." Curiosity sparks in Stiles's expression, and Derek is only surprised that it hasn't occurred to him to ask before, "Hey, how did you even get a tattoo? I didn't think anything could mark werewolf skin, not permanently. Are there special werewolf tattoo parlors?"

Derek has no intention of telling him anything, but Stiles's eyes go wide and a little gleeful, which means he's pieced it together for himself.

"Wait. This involved wolfsbane somehow, didn't it?" He breaks into a smile. "I don't think you get to call me stupid or reckless ever again."

Derek gives him a hard look, but it's just for form's sake. He has to fight down the impulse to smile back. What the fuck? He's supposed to be keeping Stiles in line here.

Not that intimidation tactics help particularly. Stiles's smile just gets wider.

"What does Scott think about it?" Derek asks, mostly as a distraction. It's not as if he actually cares what Scott thinks.

Stiles's smile fades, and a flush creeps up his cheeks. He mumbles something, and if Derek weren't a werewolf, he wouldn't be able to make out, "He called it a supernatural tramp stamp."

This time, Derek does smile.

The second attack on humans hardly comes as a surprise. Ghouls are going to do what ghouls do, and people will insist on taking stupid risks. The sheriff's department put out a warning about unidentified animal attacks, but that didn't keep a group of fraternity brothers from descending on the forest for a drunken weekend of camping. There were many empty beer cans found among the gory human debris.

Derek is filling up at the gas station when he spots a caravan of black SUVs streaming down the road like a malevolent swarm. Hunters, obviously. It just gets better and better. He really can't afford any more Stiles-related mental detours, he decides as he pulls out into traffic. He needs to concentrate.

The problem with this plan is that he has no clue what to do, and his thoughts keep sliding back to tattoos, his own, Stiles's, those juvenile attempts to say "this is who I am" that don't feel so juvenile anymore. He formed his pack for the strength it would give him, and he runs it like a boot camp, because that's what he's comfortable with, issuing orders and the distance that creates. But he remembers his sister, the kindness in her hands as she took care of his tattoo, and the way the whole house smelled like butter and sugar on Saturday mornings when his mother was still alive, how she always listened so carefully at pack meetings.

At the Donut Hut, he makes a sharp, last-minute turn into the parking lot. He still doesn't know what he's doing, and he has no intention of making waffles for anybody, but he can at least supply sugar.

Peter eyes the box with amusement when Derek carries it into the house. Derek makes a don't even start with me face at him.

Erica throws off the lid and squeals with delight. "Oooh, glazed! My favorite."

Isaac and Boyd apparently like every kind. The two dozen donuts disappear in a matter of moments. Derek will have to get more next time.

"The research is going slowly." Derek glances over at Peter for confirmation.

Peter turns the page of the tome he dragged home from the library. "It's like living in another century." He sighs with dismay.

"So, does anyone have any ideas?" Derek asks.

They just sit there staring at him, and Derek is glad this whole different approach to being the alpha thing is going so well. Sarcasm very much intended. He scrubs his hand over his hair, frustrated. Maybe the kinder-gentler bullshit is just that, bullshit. Maybe he needs to be more of a hard-ass drill sergeant, not less.

But then Boyd speaks up. "I was texting with Stiles about it, and the thing I'm wondering is, why isn't this ghoul hanging out at a cemetery? Stiles says that's what they're supposed to do."

"There are old family graveyards in the forest," Isaac chimes in. "Mr. Peterson, the groundskeeper at Pine Lawn, told me about it. Some of them go back as far as the early 1900s."

"So why are the ghouls just showing up now?" Erica asks. "What's changed?"

Derek nods. "Good question."

Erica preens, and Derek catches the particular rev of the Jeep's engine, the thud-squeak of Stiles's sneakers on the porch.

"Guys," he says excitedly as he comes skidding into the room, a live wire of manic energy. "I found something. That clearing where the victim was found—"

"Is an abandoned graveyard," Derek finishes the sentence for him.

Stiles deflates a little. "Okay, that's old news apparently." He brightens again. "So get this. I spent some time with the magically inclined ladies at New Moon. You know, that Wiccan store over on Front Street. Anyway, Starshine drew me this map of places in the woods that have concentrations of supernatural energy. Spots where people go to work spells." He pulls a sheet of notebook paper out of his pocket.

Derek shakes his head. "This graveyard isn't one of them."

"No, but look." He shows the hand-drawn map to Derek. "There is one of those places only a few hundred yards away."

Derek stares at the map and then at Stiles. "So what are you saying? The people responsible for this are morons who couldn't even find the right spot to work a spell?"

Stiles nods. "Pretty much. Starshine told me about these three kids who came into the store to buy devil's claw. They thought it would be an actual, you know—" He curls his fingers into would-be talons and slices at the air. "Not exactly your experienced practitioners of magic."

"And somehow they managed to create a ghoul," Derek says, disbelievingly.

Stiles shrugs. "Beginner's luck?"

Derek shakes his head. He's going to kill those morons.

"You can't kill them," Stiles insists. "Because it's wrong. Also, we need to know what they did, so we can reverse it."

Derek sighs heavily. "Fine. You're coming with me."

"Actually, I think we're going to need Erica for this," Stiles says, with a hopeful look in her direction.

Derek crosses his arms over his chest. Who's giving the orders here?

"Hey, I'm not casting aspersions on your ability to scare the shit out of ninth graders. I'm just saying that I know these guys. Or at least I know the type. They probably spend all their free time playing Magic: The Gathering and talking wistfully about cheerleaders. They've never even spoken to a hot girl. They'll tell Erica anything she wants to know."

Erica slinks over to Stiles, taking a giant step into his personal space. "Hot, huh?"

Stiles rolls his eyes, even as his cheeks start to turn pink. "I'm sure you've looked in a mirror lately. You know you're hot."

"That's true," she says, with a toss of her hair and a mischievous smile at Derek. "Okay, I'm in."

"Car. Now." If Derek sounds annoyed, it's not because Stiles called Erica hot. It's because there are morons wandering around the woods leaving behind ghouls for him to clean up. That would make anyone irritable.

"I asked around, found out where these kids hang out," Stiles says once they're on their way into town. He gives Derek directions.

"So, Stiles, tell us more about Starshine," Erica says from the back seat. "What's going on between you two? Is it serious?"

"Oh, yeah," Stiles says dryly. "We're quite the item."

Derek tightens his hands on the wheel and keeps his eyes on the road. Erica cackles with delight.

They end up at a small, tidy house on a quiet residential block. When Derek starts to get out of the car, Stiles lays a restraining hand on his arm. He yanks his hand away when Derek stares at it pointedly.

"Okay, look," Stiles says in the be reasonable tone that always makes Derek want to be very, very unreasonable. "I know how you enjoy doing things the hard way, but seriously, this will take a lot less time if you just let Erica go and use her," he waves his hand and conspicuously doesn't look at her breasts, "wiles."

His cheeks go very pink.

Erica leans over the seat. "That is so cute. If you weren't taken, I'd use my wiles all over you."

"Fine. Erica goes by herself." Derek lets her out of the backseat, anything so she'll just stop talking.

"What—I'm not—" Stiles frowns. "That—earlier—about Starshine? That was just a joke. She knows that was just a joke, right?"

Derek gives himself a gold star in self-discipline for not asking: Why do you care? Do you want her to use her wiles all over you?

"Okay then," Stiles says with a resigned sigh. "Good talk."

Erica comes back after only a few minutes, and Derek notices three moon-eyed faces peering out from the window, staring as Erica heads down the front walk. She knows they're watching and exaggerates the swing of her hips. No doubt she's just made their lives.

Derek gets out so she can hop back into the car, and she proudly presents a piece of paper, worn around the edges, a photocopied page from a book.

Stiles reaches for it, but Derek grabs it out of his hand. "Tell me we don't have ghouls loose in the woods because those three morons tried to use magic to make themselves popular," he says with disgust.

"No can do," Erica says cheerfully.

Stiles reaches for the paper and bends his head over it. "Okay, I want it noted for the record that I have never been this pathetic."

Derek darts an annoyed glance at him. Stiles is not pathetic. Derek honestly doesn't get where these ideas of his come from.

"So now we just need a counter spell," Stiles says. "Too bad none of us knows much about magic."

Erica leans forward. "Maybe your friend Starshine could help."

"Maybe." Stiles darts a look at Derek. "The New Moon's not far from here."

"Fine," Derek says. "But I'm going in."

"I'm not sure that's such a good—"

"Shut up, Stiles."

"Okay, fine. Have it your way. But I really think—"

Derek leans aggressively into Stile's space, staring at him in silent menace.

"I'm not afraid of you," Stiles insists.

It's true, Derek realizes. He's really not. But he doesn't argue when Derek gets out of the car at New Moon and comes inside with him.

A round-faced woman with a long curtain of gray-streaked hair and wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose breaks into a smile. "Stiles! Two visits in two days. Must be our lucky week. What brings you in this time?"

"Hey, Starshine. This is my, uh—Derek," Stiles trails off weakly.

Starshine peers at Derek over the tops of her glasses. "Oh, this must be your werewolf friend. And an alpha too, by the looks of him. How lovely."

"Um, no?" Stiles's voice cracks, and Derek's what the fuck, I'm going to kill you death glare just makes him jumpier. "Come on, dude," he hisses at Derek under his breath. "I totally know the first rule of Fight Club."

"Oh no, dear," Starshine assures Derek. "Stiles didn't tell me you were a werewolf, but he does have that telltale forest-y green shimmering in his aura even though he's human, and the two of you do seem to have a connection. I just drew the logical conclusion."

Stiles gives Derek a look. "It would be just like you to get your aura all over me without asking."

Derek ignores him and plasters on his most polite smile. "We were hoping you could help us, ma'am."

"Starshine, please," she says, with a delighted smile. "What can I do for you?"

Stiles hands over the photocopied spell and explains about the ghouls and the working theory about their sudden appearance.

Starshine shakes her head sadly. "Oh dear. Amateurs can cause such problems. This spell was intended to draw people to them. When they performed it on the site of a graveyard, well—let's just say disturbed spirits can get very testy. I think I have something in the back that can help you put it to rights. Hold on just a second."

She bustles off, and it gets suddenly very quiet, which suits Derek perfectly fine, but Stiles shifts his weight restlessly, darting sideways glances at Derek.

"I really didn't tell her about you." The sudden rev of his heart says Stiles is lying, which he must realize that Derek can tell, because he bites his lip and looks down at his feet, as if his sneakers have suddenly become fascinating. "Anyway, I didn't tell her you were a werewolf."

Which makes Derek wonder what Stiles did tell her and if his aura really has rubbed off on Stiles. He hasn't tried to do that. If anything, he's tried to keep Stiles out of all of this. Except, of course, for the times he's dragged him into it. And the times he's wanted to bite him. And all the times he's thought about—

They're a matching set of contradictions, at least. Stiles doesn't want to be a wolf, but he got that tattoo, a symbolic gesture powerful enough to put him on Derek's pack radar.

Stiles is still watching him, teeth worrying his bottom lip unconsciously, and Derek wonders what it would be like to press his thumb right there, at the corner of Stiles's pretty, infuriating mouth, and kiss him, really taste him, feel the echo of that kiss through the connection. Stiles's eyes go big, and Derek realizes how intently he's staring. He doesn't look away. If anything, he angles closer. Stiles swallows visibly, his Adam's apple moving up and down. He doesn't look away either.

Starshine comes back just in time to prevent stupidity. "Here it is." She slides an open book across the counter and points to a passage. "It'll bind the spirits to the consecrated ground once again. You'll need to make this potion and pour it over the gravesite and then recite this incantation. Let me gather up the ingredients you'll need."

She sends them off with a potpourri of herbs, a special oil blessed by the high priestess of her coven, the book with the spell, and special instructions to "be careful not to singe yourself making that potion; it can be a little troublesome."

"I'm beginning to think the ghoul is less dangerous," Stiles says once they're back in the car. He balances the bag of magical supplies on his knees with the same care he'd use to handle a bomb.

Derek isn't so sure Stiles is wrong. He's never liked magic. But the longer this goes on, the more hunters will become involved, and he likes them even less than hocus-pocus.

Once they get back to the house, he announces to the pack, "We need to take care of this now. Before anyone else gets hurt."

"Really?" Stiles eyes him. "You don't, maybe, want to call Scott and wait until he gets here? Or maybe do this tomorrow when it's full-on daylight instead of nearly dark out? Ghouls aren't zombies. They're malicious, not mindless. They'll put up a fight."

"That's not going to be any different tomorrow," Derek tells him. "And there are enough of us to take care of this without waiting for Scott to get here."

Stiles nods, not happy, but resigned at least. "We're going to need a pot or a cauldron or something. Do you even have a stove?"

"No, but there is something we can use."

"A hot plate?" Stiles says when Derek presents it to him. "Okay, I'm just going to say it. If magic is only as good as the tools used to make it, we're going to end up with—I don't know, deadly werechipmunks or something."

"You don't have to do the cooking," Derek tells him, even though he secretly suspects that Stiles is their best chance of getting this to work. He cast the spell with the mountain ash. That's more experience than any of the rest of them can claim.

"I'm doing the cooking," Stiles says resolutely, pressing his mouth into a thin, grim line. "If this blows up in my face, my dad's going to think I was making meth."

"So don't let it blow up in your face."

"Hey, why didn't I think of that?" Stiles says, dry as dust.

He sets the one pot Derek owns, cheap and battered, onto the hot plate, eyeing the arrangement with extreme dubiousness. "Okay. Here goes." He adds the ingredients one by one, checking and rechecking Starshine's instructions, stirring gingerly. Apparently, he really does expect it to explode.

The gunk turns thick and then black, and only dignity keeps Derek from retching at the stink. Werewolf senses aren't always a blessing.

"I think it's working," Stiles says, eyeing it with disgust. "It definitely smells like the place where dead things go to get even deader."

They pour it into an empty Mason jar, and it continues to bubble in a threatening way long after it's been taken off the heat.

Stiles holds the jar at arm's length. "I think we should go before this turns 'troublesome' as Starshine put it. Which, by the way, does have my vote for understatement of the century."

Derek takes the jar from him, not holding it at arm's length, but only because he thinks that's un-alpha-like. "You're staying here."

Stiles's eyes go comically wide, at first with disbelief and then with outrage. "You need me. And, and," he sputters. "I made this glop. Ordering me to stay here is seriously uncool. Not to mention unfair."

"But fairness would be letting you come along so a ghoul can eat your spleen for dinner," Derek says with extreme sarcasm.

"Okay, one, that's gross." Stiles actually counts on his fingers, which Derek finds both oddly endearing and more infuriating than anything should be. "Two, it's uncalled for. And, three, I'll be surrounded by big, strong werewolves who can protect me." He looks to Derek, practically vibrating with anticipation.

Derek can say no to that face. He really, really can.

"Actually," Boyd interjects. "We do kind of need him."

Derek turns a sharp, quelling look on him.

Boyd shrugs, a little apologetically, but he doesn't back down. "Did you see that incantation? Stiles is the only one of us who has a clue how to pronounce all that Latin."

"Yeah," Erica chimes in. "He's kind of our good luck charm. Like a mascot."

Isaac grins. "Or a pet."

Stiles makes his not amused face. "Thanks, guys. That means a lot. Really."

Even as he's saying it, though, he casts a sidelong glance at Derek, intent and a little pleading. Why is it so important to him? Derek will probably never understand.

"Don't get killed," he tells Stiles sternly.

"Always good advice." This is probably supposed to sound sarcastic, but Stiles is smiling as if Derek just gave him a present.

Definitely never going to understand it.

"I'll hold down the fort," Peter says, hefting a book. "Do some more research. Just in case—" He flashes a smile, cloyingly insincere. "I'm sure it'll be a stunning success."

Derek isn't surprised that Peter is staying behind. He still hasn't completely recovered his strength and doesn't heal as easily as he once did. Maybe he's hoping that Derek will end up a ghoul buffet. That would certainly make it easier for him to take over as alpha again.

"Good luck," Peter says, with a wry smile, waving from the porch as the rest of them head off.

It's a short hike to the clearing, and they cover ground quickly. Stiles complains, "not all of us have superhuman speed, you know," but he keeps up.

He's breathing hard by the time they reach the spot. "We're supposed to—" He waves his hand at the jar of disgusting black glop.

"I can do it," Boyd offers.

Derek nods and hands over the jar. "Erica, Isaac, I need you to help me guard the perimeter, keep the ghouls away from Stiles while he's performing the incantation."

Their expressions turn serious, and they station themselves on either side of the clearing, alert, claws out.

Stiles pulls out the book and a flashlight, flips to the right page, and, at Derek's nod, he starts reading. The Latin phrases fall easily from his lips, and Derek would like to watch him—he doesn't know why—but it's more important to keep him safe. He moves into position, forming a defensive line with Erica and Isaac and Boyd once he's finished pouring out the potion.

For a few seconds, everything is perfectly, eerily still, no wind, no sound except for the steady litany of Stiles’s spell casting. The calm before the clusterfuck, Derek thinks, way too presciently. It’s the vague smell of rot that first alerts him, although there’s no actual sign of the ghouls’ presence, until suddenly there they are, not just one but four of them, inside their perimeter. That must be why the trail just disappeared when Derek tried to track the scent; they can shift back and forth between a corporeal and a non-corporeal state.

Ghouls aren’t like zombies, Stiles had said. Malicious, not mindless. They’re definitely smart enough to realize that Stiles is the one working the magic, that Stiles is the one they need to stop. They start advancing on him, and one gets close enough to take a swipe at him with its clawed hand. Stiles’s shriek is sharp and high-pitched with surprise, and there’s a sudden whiff of fresh copper in the air. Derek’s own belly throbs dully, the pain filtering through the connection, muted, but still enraging.

Derek roars, and his vision is washed in red. Instinct propels him to shield Stiles with his body, slashing at the ghouls he can see, slashing at the empty air where ghouls might suddenly appear. His wolves follow his example, and chunks of rotted ghoul flesh start flying. Stiles is practically babbling by now, heart racing, sweat pouring off him, as he reads faster and faster.

This has to be the longest spell that’s ever existed in the entire history of magic.

Finally, though, Stiles stops talking, and for a moment, the ghouls keep coming, and all Derek can think is, Oh fuck, oh fuck But then they go still, and an unearthly wail fills the air. The ghouls' corporeal forms slowly dissolve until they’re just thin gray plumes of noxious smelling smoke. The ribbons of smoke twist like funnel clouds and are sucked back into the ground, their last reedy shrieks swallowed by the earth.

Stiles is pale, breathing hard and clutching his belly. Derek grabs him around the waist, swings him up into his arms, and carries him all the way back to the house despite Stiles’s very vocal protests.

“Come on!” Stiles keeps insisting. “I’m not hurt that bad. Seriously.”

Derek doesn't put him down.

Stiles rolls his eyes. “Okay then. Be this ridiculous.”

Derek doesn’t answer. When he tunes into Stiles, what comes through is more discomfort than pain, and, yes, Stiles could probably have managed the walk back on his own. But he's exactly where Derek wants him to be.

"Success?" Peter says in greeting, and then his brows knit together. "With one casualty, I see."

"It's fine. I'm fine," Stiles says. "Seriously, Derek." He wriggles until Derek puts him down on the porch.

It's a sad testament to how often Stiles gets hurt while helping the pack that Derek has laid in a stash of first aid supplies, hardly necessary for werewolves who heal before a Band-Aid can be pulled from the box. Derek herds him into the kitchen and pointedly closes the door. He'd rather not have an audience for this. He tells himself it has nothing to do with not wanting anyone else to see what's on Stiles's skin.

"I can do that myself," Stiles says, without much insistence, when Derek lifts his shirt to look at the wound.

Not that it would matter if he were insistent.

Stiles hisses when Derek dabs antiseptic on the cut, even though Derek is trying to be gentle. The gash is long, but luckily not very deep, and Derek covers it with gauze and secures it with tape. The only thing left to do now is to take his hands away and pull Stiles's shirt down. He doesn't. He's almost painfully conscious of the tattoo, knows that if he just lets his fingers drift around to Stiles's side, he could touch it.

He doesn't do that either.

"Why do you always have to get hurt?" he says angrily. It sounds like he's blaming Stiles , and that's not what Derek means. He doesn't know what he means.

Stiles snorts. "Got to be me, dude."

It's true. The tattoo. The research. All of it. Stiles wants to be pack, but only on his own terms. And Derek still hasn't taken his hands off him.

Stiles hasn't pulled away either. He watches Derek, curious and hopeful and a little shy. His pretty, infuriating mouth is already open, and it would be so easy to—

"You owe us pizza," Erica calls out from the other room.

Derek does take his hands off Stiles then and steps back.

The pack comes spilling into the room, and Isaac says, in support of the pizza plan, "We exorcised a whole bunch of ghouls. How many packs can say that?"

Erica nods in enthusiastic agreement. Boyd grins.

"Oh, hey, I should probably—" Stiles waves his hand vaguely in the direction of go somewhere else. Derek can see his shoulders hunch, and he can feel this soured, unhappy something coming off him. Whatever it is, Derek doesn't like it.

"We're getting pizza," he tells Stiles firmly.

It takes Stiles a moment to get that this isn't negotiable and a moment more to decide not to argue just for the sake of arguing. "Pizza works." He's smiling.

They go to the place down the road. Stiles texts Scott on the way. Even Peter comes along, probably so he can smirk at Derek in a knowing way. That does seem to be his primary purpose in Derek's life these days.

"It's no Donato's," Isaac says as they file inside, because that's what he always says when they come here.

The staff is used to them, and they don't even blink when there's snarling over the last piece of pepperoni. That trumps pizza snobbery as far as Derek is concerned.

They order enough food for a dozen people, which hopefully will be enough for six werewolves and Stiles. When Scott shows up, everyone wants to tell him the story, to trash talk about their victory over the ghouls. Derek tamps down the urge to make them shut up, to lecture about the dangers of getting too cocky, to remind them that everything can seem fine, everyone safe, and then one day you can come home from school to find—

Learning to relax is hard, but Derek is trying. Or trying to try. Something.

"You were a pretty good mascot today," Erica tells Stiles teasingly. There's genuine admiration in her eyes.

Scott bumps shoulders with Stiles in congratulations.

"Here's to none of the rest of us having to know Latin." Boyd lifts his Coke in a toast.

"Speak for yourself," Peter says, but he clinks plastic cups with Stiles nonetheless.

Isaac drops his hand onto Stiles’s arm, trying to be inconspicuous about it, but Derek notices. Of course he notices. Maybe he'd want to take a chunk out of Isaac for that if he didn’t know what Isaac was doing. He can feel Stiles's discomfort starting to ease a little.

“It really isn’t that bad,” Stiles insists, yet again.

Isaac just smiles.

And now there’s something else coming through the connection: contentment. Stiles doesn't want to be a wolf, and he'll probably never really understand pack hierarchy. He’ll definitely never do as he's told. But for whatever reason, this is where he wants to be. Maybe it doesn’t matter whose terms it’s on. Maybe all that matters is that he’s here.

This is a thought Derek honestly never expected to have.

It gets quiet after the ghouls have been dealt with, and Derek knows better than to expect it to last. For the moment, though, he doesn’t have any excuse to show up in Stiles’s bedroom.

"Oh God, what now?” Stiles says when Derek climbs through his window. “Can't the evil and the undead take a few more days off? I've got a chemistry test on Monday, and Mr. Harris still hates me. He would so enjoy ruining my GPA." Derek doesn't say anything, doesn’t know what to say to that, and Stiles's forehead creases. "Okay, I know it can't be about the other thing, because that's—" He waves his hand dismissively. "And the other other thing—that’s all good now too."

"Take off your shirt," Derek tells him.

Stiles goes still. “So this is about the other thing.” He gives Derek a speculative look. “What if I say no? Are you going to make me?"

Derek needs a moment, but finally he says, quietly, "No."

Stiles bites his lip. He smells stubborn and aroused and impossible. “Seriously, dude. It’s for me. I didn’t do it for you or anybody else. It's about—”

"Knowing what you want. Making it your own." Each word feels like a struggle, like Derek is trying to invent a language. Understanding Stiles is hard enough. Trying to articulate it is even worse. He meets Stiles's gaze, hoping he'll be able to see what Derek isn't saying very well. "I get it. Really. It's just—"

Stiles studies him a long moment before nodding. "Yeah. I get it, too."

Derek moves closer. "Can I touch it?"

Can I touch you?

There’s a pause. "Okay." Derek catches the slight quaver in the word. Maybe he wouldn’t have noticed it if he weren’t a werewolf. If this weren't Stiles.

Stiles gets up from the chair and strips the shirt over his head, quickly, as if to give himself something to do to get past the awkward moment, but then he’s shirtless, and that’s a whole different brand of awkwardness. Derek can feel it coming off him in waves, arousal mingled with embarrassment and that sour stink that Derek hates even more now that he realizes what it is: fear of being rejected.

He moves close and presses his thumb against the corner of Stiles’s beautiful, infuriating mouth, just the way he imagined, and kisses him, tasting him, until Stiles is breathing hard, and his arms are tight and greedy around Derek’s neck, and he smells sweetly wanting.

"Derek," Stiles says, soft and breathy.

Derek drags his hand up Stiles's arm, stroking his fingers over Stiles's well-developed biceps. In the many layers of clothes Stiles usually wears, he looks skinny in that way only teenaged boys can be, but there's a lean strength to his body. Derek wants to touch him everywhere. He scratches his fingers through the wisp of hair on Stiles's chest, kisses Stiles's throat, that spot above the collarbone where the skin is thin and Derek can feel the pulse against his tongue. He gently touches the cut on Stiles's belly, which is closed up now, but is still an angry red.

"Derek," Stiles says again, more emphatically, tugging at the hem of Derek's T-shirt. Derek raises his arms and lets Stiles strip the shirt off him.

Stiles groans when their bare chests press together, and Derek has already waited longer than he wanted to. He's not going to wait any more. He slides his fingers around, doesn't need to look; he knows exactly where the tattoo is, and he traces the shape of it. Stiles pulls in a breath, loud and startled, and there's nothing distant or faint about the connection now.

"You feel that?" Derek asks him.

Stiles's mouth is open, soft and very pink. "I feel you touching me." He arches into Derek's hands. Then he blinks, and his eyes widen. "Wait. Do you feel it? Is it—like with the pack?"

Derek nods, but he says, "Not exactly." He's never wanted to lick anyone else in the pack until they were gasping and shaking and begging like please is the only word they know.

"Did it just start when I got the tattoo? Is that why you've been so—" Amazement lights up his face, because he gets it now. He did this. Claimed Derek as much as Derek is going to claim him. "Has that ever happened before? That a human—what is this even?"

Derek kisses him before this turns into a class on werewolf theory instead of—he pops the button on Stiles's jeans and pushes down the zipper.

"Yeah," Stiles slurs out. "Talk later."

Derek skims his hands over Stiles's thighs as he pushes the jeans and underwear down his legs. A flush creeps up Stiles's chest, and Derek can feel heat and jitteriness and a little embarrassment coming from him, but he kicks the jeans away and doesn't try to cover himself. Derek ditches the rest of his clothes too. He's as surprised as anyone that what he wants with Stiles is an even playing field.

The bottle of Curel sits on the desk, and Derek knew that was going to come in handy. Stiles groans and thrusts into Derek's slicked palm. It wouldn't be hard to figure out what Stiles likes even without the connection—Stiles isn't any less vocal during sex. His thighs tremble and his mouth does too, and Derek kisses him again, tasting the shapes of the different noises he makes.

"I'm going to—" Stiles pants. "Derek."

Stiles is sixteen, and this isn't the only time he's going to come today. Derek drags a finger through the wetness on his belly and sticks his finger into his mouth; there's the chemical taste of lotion mixed with the bitter-salt of Stiles. Stiles's breath hitches, and his eyes are bright and even darker than usual. Derek is going to taste him everywhere.

"Do you want—" Stiles looks very earnest. "You can—" He shifts around, juts out his hip, presenting the wolf to Derek.

Derek makes a sound deep in his throat, a low rumble of desire, and there's a fresh waft of Stiles-arousal in the air. He takes Stiles by the arm and pulls him over to the bed and down onto it, kneels beside him. Stiles lets out a whimper when Derek slides his hands along Stiles's back, down the dip of his spine, over compact muscles.

He kisses Stiles's shoulder and draws his fingers over the spare outline of the wolf. Stiles shivers, and there's a constant hum of arousal coming through that makes Derek want to give him more reasons to shake. He rubs his hand up and down Stiles's thigh, and he touches his tongue to the tattoo. There's a slight difference in taste here, a faint sharpness from the ink, and a different texture too, a subtle scar from the needle. He drags his tongue over the lines of the wolf, again and again.

"Oh God," Stiles says, voice choked, hips working.

Derek strokes his thumb along the crease of Stiles's ass, and Stiles jolts at the touch, and there's a tangle of want and curiosity and a little fear surging off him. Derek presses a reassuring kiss to the small of his back and parts his cheeks with his hands. He still intends to taste Stiles everywhere.

Stiles lets out a wail at the touch of Derek's tongue, and he scrambles to get his hand under his body, onto his cock. Derek hums contentedly as he eats him out, fingers still pressed to the tattoo, stroking it. Stiles can't seem to decide if he wants to push backward against Derek's mouth or forward into his own hand, his body stuttering with conflicting desires. More and more sounds stream out of him, broken little noises, and his whole body shudders when he comes.

He smells so incredibly good, like sweat and come, like belonging, and Derek stretches out over him, kisses the back of his neck, rubs his cock against the curve of Stiles's ass, more and more frantically. He's still touching the tattoo, hasn't taken his hand off it.

"Derek," Stiles says, his voice rough.

The urge to bite swims up from some dark pool of desire, but Derek doesn't do it. Because he doesn't need to. That thought pushes him over the edge, and he spatters come all over Stiles's soft, thoroughly human skin.

He flops over onto his back and inhales the scent of sex, of them, and tunes into what's coming through from Stiles, a muzzy sort of contentment. It's good. Too good, maybe. Derek could fall asleep here if he let himself.

"You came on the wolf, didn't you?" Stiles's voice floats up from the other side of the bed. "You know how I can tell? Because that's where I'm stuck to the sheets." He doesn't sound like he minds.

Derek smiles up at the ceiling and throws one leg over Stiles's, possessively, because he can, because Stiles will let him. In fact, Stiles wriggles closer, pressed along Derek's side, his head on Derek's shoulder. Near enough that Derek can drop a kiss to his forehead.

This—with Stiles isn't the smartest thing Derek has ever done, but he's made a lot of not-smart choices lately. At least, he's actually enjoying this one.

"Okay," Stiles says, his voice dipping low, as if he's sharing secrets, making a confession, "it's possible I might have considered you just a little bit when I got the tattoo."

Derek rolls his eyes. "You think?"

"Do you have to be a smug asshole when I'm trying to tell you something here?" He huffs out a breath, but he doesn't actually sound annoyed.

On some level, Derek already knew everything he needed the first time he saw the wolf inked onto Stiles's skin, but he doesn't say that. He turns onto his side and says, slowly, with all the patience he has, "What do you want to tell me, Stiles?"

Stiles stares at him, blinking, and then he bursts out with a laugh. "Okay, now I don't even know who you are."

Derek frowns. "I'm trying—"

Stiles nods. "And I totally support you." He's still laughing.

"You're exasperating." Derek kisses him as he says it. Apparently, exasperating is his thing.

In the distance, he catches the sound of the sheriff's truck, with its distinctive hiss from the exhaust system that really needs to be replaced. It gets closer, turns onto the block.

"I've got to go." Derek slides out of bed, fishes his T-shirt off the floor and pulls on his jeans.

"Oh," Stiles says dully. "Okay." His shoulders hunch, and Derek can feel the connection—not close, but narrow, as if Stiles is trying to distance himself, and there's that sour rejection smell again. Derek really hates that. A lot.

He walks back over to the bed and takes Stiles's face between his hands and kisses him. "Your father's home."

The door opens and closes downstairs. "Stiles?" the sheriff's voice floats up the stairs.

Stiles breathes out, and Derek feels it, warm and humid against his fingers, a low throb of relief surging through the connection. Derek kisses him one more time. "I'll see you tomorrow after school. We have a pack meeting Saturday morning."

At the window, he turns back. "You don't have a waffle iron, do you?"

Stiles frowns in confusion. "Is that a euphemism?"

"Never mind," Derek tells him.

He can always make a stop at Walmart.