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A Painting’s Worth a Thousand Words

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Stiles pulled up to the Hale house—the Hale mansion, really—and took a deep breath. It was just another show, exactly like they did every week at the studio.

Except this was the holiday show, and like every year, it would be just him and Derek in the Hale house basement for at least two hours, and then it would be a half hour drive over to the Beacon Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, at least an hour filming there, and a half hour drive back. Just the two of them. All day long.

Just Stiles, Derek, and Stiles's massive, unrequited crush.

They'd been working together for five years, since Derek had pitched the local public TV station on a painting program. It had been an unexpected hit—well, unexpected to Derek and most of the station management. Stiles had taken one look at him—dark hair, chiseled jaw dusted with black scruff, intense stare, broad shoulders, and a clear passion for painting—and he'd known the show would be huge. Even with people who'd never picked up a paintbrush in their lives.

Stiles had begged to be put on Derek's show. Thankfully, the station management hadn't needed too much convincing, and he and Derek had been together ever since.

Professionally. They'd been together professionally ever since.

Stiles really hadn't meant to go and fall head-over-heels for Derek. Early on, it had been easy enough to chalk it up to physical attraction and move on. But then he got to know Derek, saw how much he loved teaching people to paint, saw how much he loved his family and talking about their nonprofit work at the sanctuary, saw how earnest he was with people who enjoyed the show, and...

Well, at some point in the past five years, it had just happened. And now Stiles spent an inordinate amount of his life pining for one of his coworkers and closest friends. Really, that was just his fucking life.

He sighed, grabbed his camera and tripod, and proceeded to go begin one of the best and most excruciating days of his life.

***

Derek was wearing black-rimmed glasses and a green Christmas tree sweater that brought out the green in his multicolored eyes. He'd pushed the sleeves up to his elbows, revealing tanned forearms with a dusting of dark hair across them.

Stiles bit his lips to keep from making a pained noise and hoisted his tripod in greeting. "Hey, Derek! Ready to get started?"

"Just about," Derek said. "I'm still getting everything set up."

"That's okay." Stiles set his tripod on the floor. "Just stand where you'll be painting and I'll do some lighting tests while you're setting up."

Derek grinned at him, a quick one that showed just a flash of his two front teeth, and Stiles's heart did its usual triple somersault at the sight.

The basement at the Hale house was only a "basement" in the sense that it was the lowest floor of the house and partly underground. It had east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows that let in loads of natural light and a gorgeous view of the Beacon Hills Nature Preserve, and the whole thing was bigger than Stiles's apartment and fully decked out for Christmas. Derek's studio area was just one-quarter of it, and Stiles was pretty sure that part alone was bigger than his kitchen and living room combined.

Derek had an easel and canvas set up, and was squeezing his paint out onto a palette and frowning at the canvas, like he was still trying to figure out what to paint. Or maybe figuring out how to talk about it; even after five years, Stiles still wasn't a hundred percent sure how it worked. Derek usually just...stood up and talked while he was painting and his eyes actually glowed with happiness and Stiles mostly focused on making sure that he got the shots, the audio, and didn't drool on himself.

Once he got his camera set up, he walked around the basement and adjusted the blinds and curtains, flicking lights on and off until he got a lighting setup he was happy with. He might have to get a few lights out of the Jeep after they actually did test shots, but right now, he could probably make it work with just the lights in the basement.

He went back to his bags and got out the lapel mic. "Okay, Derek, mic time."

Derek stood up and lifted the back of his shirt, giving Stiles a glimpse of the strip of skin of his lower back.

Professional, Stiles scolded himself, and hooked the transmitter on to Derek's belt before handing him the mic to thread up through his shirt.

"You sure we need this?" Derek asked with a wrinkled nose, like he did every time.

"Yes." Stiles poked him in his unfairly muscled arm. "We always need to have two audio tracks, you know that. I'd hate to miss out on the scintillating way you say 'phthalo blue' because the shotgun cut out and we didn't have a backup. Come on, let's get started and see if I need to grab any more lights out of the car."

"There should be some in the closet," Derek said, pointing.

Stiles raised his eyebrows. "Wait, what? You have lights?"

Derek shrugged. "We shoot out here often enough that I thought it might be good to have a few lights as backup. Just in case."

Stiles went to the closet Derek had indicated. Sure enough, a lighting case and three C-stands sat on the floor, among the myriad other things in there.

Stiles gaped at them. "Dude, I can't believe you got me lighting stands!"

"It's better than you having to drive all the way back into town because you forgot them," Derek said.

Stiles whirled on him and jabbed a finger in his direction. "That was one time."

Derek snorted. "A memorable time."

Because he always dealt with his feelings in a mature way, Stiles stuck his tongue out at him.

Derek made a face right back, then went back and picked up his palette and brush. "Ready when you are."

Stiles hit the audio recorder, turned on the camera, and counted him in.

Derek smiled brilliantly, and it made Stiles's heart flutter the way it always did. "Hey, everyone. Glad you could join us today for our annual holiday show. As usual, we have a little bit of a change of scenery," he gestured to the room, "which I've used for inspiration for our painting today, since we don't exactly get a lot of snow in northern California. So we'll run the colors across the screen for you, and we'll go ahead and get started."

"Okay, cut!" Stiles said.

Derek frowned. "Everything good?"

Stiles checked the lighting on the video and then the mic recording. "Yeah, no, looks like we're good. Let's keep going."

Filming Derek's painting on location at the Hale house tended to be more stressful than filming at the studio, where Stiles had two extra cameras and way more lighting control. But the holiday episode was always a huge one for the station, and Stiles did enjoy the time they got to spend together here.

Listening to Derek talk about painting and watching him paint was probably Stiles's favorite part of his job. Derek always looked a little flushed and happy when he did, and he got visibly excited to see a painting come together. Even after five years of watching him do this once a week, Stiles still hadn't gotten over it.

They only had to cut twice, and before Stiles knew it, Derek was finishing up the painting and giving his traditional sign off, ending with, "And wherever you are, I hope you have the happiest of holiday seasons."

"Cut!" Stiles called.

Derek set his palette aside. "So what do you think? Does it look okay?"

"Dude." Stiles stretched, staring at the landscape painting of the wildlife preserve in winter. He'd watched Derek push paint around on the canvas for an hour and he still wasn't sure how it was done. "That's fantastic. I think this going to be your most popular holiday episode yet."

Derek ducked his head, but Stiles caught the edge of his smile. "You're just saying that."

"I never just say anything," Stiles said. "Well, sometimes I do, but not about things this important. Seriously, dude, it's good."

Derek scratched the back of his head. "Then you're biased."

"I probably am, but eh." Stiles's stomach rumbled. "Hey, you want to grab lunch somewhere before we head out to the wildlife sanctuary?"

"Actually, we've got food upstairs," Derek said. "My dad made spaghetti last night, and there are tons of leftovers. We also have some apple cider, if you want?"

"That sounds amazing," Stiles said.

The tips of Derek's ears turned red. "Okay, I'll go get it ready."

Stiles grabbed his computer and the memory cards out of the camera and audio recorder. "Then I'm going to dump the files while we're eating."

Stiles followed Derek up the stairs and settled at the kitchen table to dump the files onto his computer, and Derek got out the spaghetti and apple cider to heat up.

Stiles brought the first video files up to make sure everything had recorded correctly, and let out a sigh of relief when the file was clean; you only needed to have a file get corrupted once before it made you paranoid every time.

A mug of apple cider landed on the counter beside him. "How does it look?" Derek asked.

Wow, he was standing...very close. Stiles had to resist the urge to lean back into him. "It looks great, like I told you. I can't wait to put the whole thing together."

"We still need to get the footage from the wildlife sanctuary," Derek reminded him.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Stiles said. "What do you think, head out there around one?"

Derek took a sip of his cider. "That should work. As long as you get something to eat first."

"Dude, you're literally making me lunch right now." Stiles gestured at the microwave. "You act like I don't eat anything."

"You don't, unless Allison or I make you," Derek said. "How many times have I had to drag you away from your computer to get lunch?"

"Just once," Stiles muttered. "Or twice."

Derek poked him. "A week."

Stiles tried to elbow him, but Derek had moved out of reach. "It's not that often."

"It's often enough." Derek went to get the spaghetti out of the microwave and brought it over. "Now eat, and don't get too distracted watching the videos."

Stiles rolled his eyes, but he minimized the videos and dove into his spaghetti. Holy shit, it was fantastic. "Oh my God, I'm going to marry this pasta."

Derek coughed and turned to his own bowl. "I'll let Dad know you like it."

"Does he cook like this all the time? Because seriously, I will camp out in your backyard for table scraps."

Derek rolled his eyes. "We have plenty of bedrooms, in case you hadn't noticed. I'm sure we can stick you in one of those. Mom will never notice."

Stiles grinned at him. "You're a true friend."

Derek jabbed his fork into the spaghetti. "I try."

***

They drove out to the Beacon Hills Wildlife Sanctuary as soon as they'd finished eating, a good thirty minutes across the preserve from the Hale's house. Stiles spent most of the drive trying not to get distracted by Derek's forearms or his soft smile.

"We have a lot of new animals out there right now," Derek said. "Deer, wolf cubs, squirrels...which do you think would be best to feature?"

Stiles choked at the thought of Derek playing with any of them. Derek and adorable animals was really his kryptonite. "Uh, I really don't think it matters. Any of them will be great. Which ones are you most comfortable with?"

"Any of them," Derek said. "I've been helping feed the wolf cubs when I come out to volunteer."

"That's good. Let's do that," Stiles said. "People will go crazy for adorable baby wolves."

"Cubs," Derek corrected him.

"And that's why you do the talking on camera," Stiles said with a wink.

Derek blushed and crossed his arms. "God knows you talk enough off it."

"Aw, come on, what would you do without my rambling?"

"Suffer in silence," Derek said, but he was grinning.

It made Stiles's heart flip, and he had to turn back to focus on the road.

The Hales had been running the Beacon Hills Wildlife Sanctuary as long as Stiles could remember. From what Derek had told him, the sanctuary was his parents' baby, and when they'd first started working together, it had been on the brink of shutting down. Since the painting show had started to take off and Stiles knew at least 50% of that popularity was due to the fact that Derek was hotter than the surface of the sun, he'd suggested featuring some of the animals on the show. The only thing better than watching an attractive man talk passionately about painting was watching him bottle-feed baby deer.

It had been even more popular than he'd hoped it would be, and now the wildlife sanctuary had doubled in size, added three more full-time positions, and featured a ton of cool educational programs Stiles would have killed for when he was in elementary school. It had also helped the popularity of Derek's show as well, which made station management supremely happy.

Stiles had never told anyone the only reason he'd had the idea was because Derek looked utterly gutted at the thought of the sanctuary shutting down, and Stiles would have hand-crafted a rocket out of bubble gum and paperclips to fly to the outer reaches of the solar system if it meant never seeing that look on Derek's face again.

The wildlife sanctuary wasn't terribly crowded, being that it was the middle of a work day and the schools weren't out for winter break yet, so the only person working was Laura, Derek's older sister, who waved excitedly when they walked in. "Hey! You guys are earlier than I expected."

Stiles hoisted his camera. "We got through the painting a lot faster than I thought we would because Derek's an overachiever."

Derek elbowed him. "Hey, I just paint. You're the one who makes it look good."

Laura made gagging noises. "Get a room, please."

Stiles's face heated. "Maybe we will. But make it with the baby wolves."

"Cubs. Wolf cubs. We literally just went over this," Derek said.

Laura raised her eyes to the ceiling and muttered something Stiles couldn't hear. "Okay, wolf cubs. Come on down the hall and I'll get you set up."

The baby wolves—wolf cubs—were even more adorable than Stiles had pictured, and he had a pretty good concept of what adorable looked like. Three gangly, fluffy grey wolves and one gangly, fluffy white wolf tripped all over Derek, chewing at his sweater and making squeaky howls and yips that were so cute Stiles was pretty sure he was going to get a cavity from it. They had to cut several times because Derek was laughing too hard to talk about the wolves and why they were at the sanctuary.

Stiles kind of wished someone would stab him and put him out of his misery, because this level of adorable was too much for one human being to physically handle.

On the other side of the room, Laura watched him with a terrifying smirk. Stiles was pretty sure she knew exactly what he was thinking, which helped him rein in the desire to just throw himself on Derek and pledge undying love. He sure as hell wasn't doing that in front of Derek's sister.

Despite the interruptions, they finished up the shoot in less than two hours, and Stiles had a boatload of footage with Derek and the wolf cubs to use in the holiday episode. Even better was that he had a ton of outtakes to use on the station website, which would make everybody happy.

Laura bid them farewell, staring at Stiles like she could see straight into his soul the entire time. Stiles steadfastly ignored her and really hoped she wouldn't say anything to Derek.

"Your sister's kind of scary sometimes," he said as they pulled away.

"She's harmless," Derek said. "Mostly."

Stiles raised his eyebrows. "Mostly harmless?"

Derek grinned. "Just like Earth."

Stiles laughed out loud. He knew Derek was a not-so-secret nerd, but he still got a kick out of it every time Derek made a reference.

"Do you have a minute?" Derek asked when they got back to the Hale house. "I have something to show you."

"Yeah, sure," Stiles said. He didn't really have anywhere else to be, and even though it was almost painful to be around Derek alone for so long, he didn't want the day to end.

He followed Derek back into the house and down to the basement, and Derek went to a stack of paintings under cloth in the back corner of the room. Stiles stayed back and watched him flip through the canvases until he apparently found the one he wanted and pulled it out.

He walked back to Stiles hesitantly, still holding the canvas backward so that Stiles couldn't see what it was.

His heart beat faster. "What you got there, big guy?"

Derek bit his lip. "I don't...paint people often. But, with this one, I wanted to try, and..." He trailed off and exhaled sharply, and then handed the painting to Stiles. "Here."

Stiles took the painting and slowly turned it around.

It was him.

He was laughing, his mouth wide open and his eyes crinkled at the corners, looking off to the left side of the canvas. The colors were so warm, it looked like he was glowing, and Stiles's heart seized in his chest.

"Where did you...how did you...?" he tried to ask, but the words wouldn't come.

"It was a picture Allison took at one of the station parties earlier this year," Derek said quietly. "I had her send me a copy. I probably threw away five pieces before I was happy with that one. It was...really hard to get right."

He felt completely winded. "Holy shit, Derek."

Derek winced and rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry, I—"

"Don't you dare apologize," Stiles said. He couldn't take his eyes off the painting, because holy fuck Derek had painted him. "Don't—oh my God, dude, this is—"

He didn't have words. For once in his life, Stiles was utterly speechless.

He set the painting down, walked over to Derek, and kissed him right on the lips.

Derek blinked dazedly when Stiles pulled back. "Uh."

"I'm kind of in love with you," Stiles blurted out. "Maybe a lot in love with you. Holy shit, I can't believe you painted me. Do you want to go out for coffee sometime?"

Derek laughed softly. "I feel like we went in reverse order there."

"Dude, you painted me," Stiles said. "I'm pretty sure that's one step before engagement."

Derek flushed bright red. "I think that's moving a little too fast. But...coffee would be nice. Or maybe dinner?"

"Dinner would be fantastic," Stiles said. "And, to be perfectly honest, I would not be opposed to more kissing. Better kissing. That one was really just because I had no idea what to say because you fucking painted me."

Derek grinned and bent his head toward Stiles's. "So, I take it you liked the painting?"

Stiles linked his hands behind Derek's neck. "Yes, Derek, I liked the pain—"

Derek kissed him, and Stiles had never been happier to shut up in his life. And he was right: this was way better kissing. Derek was probably better at kissing than he was at painting, and he was awesome at painting.

"You know, uh, if you ever want me to actually sit for you to paint, I'd do it," Stiles said when they finally stopped making out long enough to breathe.

"You'd have to sit still for a few hours," Derek said. "I'm not sure you could manage it."

Stiles poked him in the shoulder. "Hey, you'd be surprised what I could do for you."

Derek's smile went soft. "Oh, yeah?"

Heat crept up the back of Stiles's neck, and he fought the urge to look away. "Well. Yeah. Obviously."

"I'll keep that in mind," Derek said, and leaned in close. "Merry Christmas, Stiles."

"Merry Christmas, Derek," Stiles whispered before Derek sealed their lips together once again.