When Stiles thought about it later, what tipped him over the edge was what he didn’t see. Derek didn’t flinch when the woman slid her hand up his arm; he just froze and then did that horrible fake smile thing that Stiles hated so much. But he’d wanted to flinch, to pull back, and the worst thing was, Stiles realized as he played the scene back in his head that night over and over as he tried to fall asleep, he didn’t think Derek would have let himself move away even if they hadn’t been staking out the bar for reports of bad supernatural activity. Because he’d seen Derek do that before. It happened to him a lot, actually, people touching him. Not just supernaturally, though it sure as shit seemed like every other bad thing coming through Beacon Hills lately liked to take the form of a seductive human and then zero right in on Derek, but pretty much any time the pack managed to convince him to go out, there were hands on him.
Given what Stiles knew about Derek’s history, that… did not seem great. Sure, he’d come a long way from the scared, angry new alpha Stiles had first met at sixteen, but that wasn’t really saying much. They’d all matured a lot since then. Realistically, though, had Derek ever stopped just letting life happen to him and forcing himself to get through it? Playing back that not-flinch, Stiles didn’t think so.
Now what was he going to do about it?
What he was going to do about it was be direct, he decided, because the whole point of this was to give Derek the choice.
He’d gone over to Derek’s to return a book and then Derek had asked if he wanted to stay to watch a movie, and for whatever reason, Stiles’ brain decided watching Derek hunt for the remote was the right time to bring it up.
The view of Derek fishing under the entertainment center while cursing Erica and Isaac was distracting, but Stiles persevered. “Do you actually like being touched?”
Derek sat back on his heels abruptly and stared at Stiles, eyebrows lowering. (That was okay, though; Stiles had learned to discount the eyebrows of doom a long time ago.) “What?”
“Do you like it when people touch you? Or do you just grit your teeth and endure it?”
He wondered if he was going to have to go into a full explanation of exactly what led him to this train of thought to coax Derek into an answer, but Derek had had just as long to get used to dealing with Stiles’ non-sequiturs as Stiles had Derek’s eyebrows.
Derek leaned back over and swiped the remote out, finally, before answering. “It depends on the person. And the situation.” But no lingered as a definite undercurrent.
Stiles just nodded and took a thoughtful pull from his soda. (Gross, over-caffeinated soda so full of dye Derek said he could smell it across the room, and yet he still kept it in his fridge for when Stiles came over.) “Cool. So can I touch you right now, or no?” he asked as Derek took his seat on the couch.
“No,” Derek said shortly, aiming the remote at the TV and stabbing the button to pull up Netflix.
“No problem,” Stiles said, and settled back into the opposite corner of the couch. “Oooh, let’s watch that one, I missed it when it was in the theater.”
Derek relaxed into the cushions on his side and started the movie without even a token argument. They didn’t touch all evening, not even by accident. Stiles wasn’t sure why he got so much satisfaction out of the loose line of Derek’s shoulders as he waved goodbye, but he was willing to take it.
While Beacon Hills continued to attract a stupid number of evil supernatural things thanks to the Nemeton Stiles still hadn’t found a way to kill or cleanse, one of the ways things had improved since high school was that Scott had taken a wilderness EMT course under the guise of preparing to work at a summer camp that didn’t exist. (Though Stiles was pretty sure Scott was now trying to figure out a way to start one for supernatural kids, because of course.) And yes, Stiles would admit that Scott had an admirable degree of professionalism about him whenever he had to patch up the pack after a battle, but he still wasn’t super observant about the more non-medical aspects of what was going on with his “patients.”
Because right now? Derek had a bunch of slash marks across his abdomen, sure, but Derek did not want to be touched. That… thing had had him for hours, and Stiles was very carefully not thinking about what it might have done to him in that time because he needed to function, dammit, but honestly, how hard was it to see how rigid Derek had gone as soon as Scott laid brisk hands on him to start tugging at his shirt?
“Scott, buddy, I’m gonna need you to take a step back there.”
“But I don’t want Derek’s wounds to try to heal around stuff…” Scott started, but he obligingly took a step back, and that was all Stiles cared about.
“I know. Just give us a few, yeah?”
Scott raised his hands in confusion, but turned away to see if anyone else needed help in the meantime.
Stiles took a knee in front of Derek. “Hey, Derek? You know why Scott wants to take your shirt off, right?”
Derek nodded, a sharp jerk of his chin.
“Can you take it off yourself?”
In answer, Derek set his jaw, reached down, and roughly yanked the shirt off over his head.
Stiles winced in sympathy. “That wasn’t quite what I meant, but okay,” he muttered. Louder, he said, “Are you willing to let Scott do his thing now?”
Derek shook his head slightly.
“All right.” Stiles looked over his shoulder. “Hey, Scotty, can you give me the flush bottle?”
“I can…” Scott started, but Stiles just shook his head and handed it to Derek.
“He’s got it,” Stiles said, clapping a hand to Scott’s shoulder and steering him away. “I’m just gonna need you to start asking before you put hands on him, okay?”
“We’ve all got shit to work through, yeah? Just trust me.”
Scott’s brow stayed furrowed, but he shrugged and moved on. When Stiles made it back over to Derek with a sweatshirt he’d found in the back of his car, the wounds were well on their way to healing and his jaw had relaxed enough Stiles no longer feared for his teeth.
He was so distracted by new thoughts of whether werewolf healing regenerated tooth enamel he almost missed the “Thanks” Derek grunted as he pulled the sweatshirt on.
It wasn’t all the time that Stiles felt like he should ease people away from Derek. Sometimes he really was clearly okay with Erica draping herself over his back or Isaac leaning back against his knees, even a bro-y arm across the shoulders from Scott. Calm times, all of them. Low-stress, happy times. (They did have some of those, after all.)
But if Stiles asked one of them to take a step back because Derek had tensed up, they did, and it was never a big deal.
The first time Derek asked people to give him some space on his own, Stiles nearly cheered out loud.
That same night, when the strategy meeting for dealing with the latest horrible thing in the Preserve had ended and Stiles had his head in the fridge trying to figure out what drinks were left and what needed replenishing, Derek startled him by asking out of nowhere, “What about you?”
Stiles smacked his head into the freezer door in response, and rubbed it fiercely as he stood up, hoping it wouldn’t actually form a lump. “What about me?” he asked crossly.
“Do you like it when people touch you?”
Stiles blinked and swallowed down his first flip response when he saw how intently Derek was looking at him. “Yeah. Not always during a panic attack or a nightmare, but usually, yeah.” Fuck it, honesty hour, why not? “Too much, sometimes, I think.” He shrugged. “My mom died when I was still so young, and my dad wasn’t home a lot, so…”
Derek just nodded and then… reached out and pulled Stiles into a hug. Stiles froze in shock. “Derek, you don’t—”
“Shut up,” he said, and Stiles could feel the warm breath of the words against his hair. “I want to, okay?”
“Okay,” Stiles echoed, and relaxed into it, arms coming up around Derek’s waist, head tipping forward to rest on Derek’s shoulder. They stood there for a long, long time. By the time Derek stepped away, Stiles’ only thought was that he still wasn’t sure how long his ideal hug was, but that was probably the closest he’d ever gotten.
A week or so later, Stiles was starting to realize he’d completely fucked himself over. Because now that Derek knew Stiles’ side of this equation? He was touching Stiles. A lot. Clearly only when he himself felt comfortable to do it, but… Stiles didn’t think he was imagining that Derek felt that way a lot more around him than other people.
It was slowly driving him insane.
It wasn’t like he was unaware of his feelings for Derek, but he’d been ignoring them like a champ for years, thank you very much, and this? This was not helping. Derek was just being nice, trying to return the favor in his own weird and totally unnecessary way, undoubtedly totally unaware he was dredging all sorts of things up for Stiles again.
Undoubtedly totally unaware.
Derek had just tugged Stiles over to his side of the couch and finished arranging Stiles half across his chest to his satisfaction. That was a totally platonic thing for him to do. As a touch-averse, traumatized werewolf. Yes, clearly.
It was possible Stiles was an idiot.
“Derek?” he said tentatively, which was kind of weird when he was saying it half into the side of Derek’s neck.
“Hmm?” Derek said, eyes still on the TV, but his fingers moved up to comb through Stiles’ hair.
Stiles fought to stay focused. “Can I touch you?” Because he still always made a point to ask, in case whatever Derek was feeling about touch at the time only went one way.
“Yes,” Derek said, and Stiles ran his hand down Derek’s side, plastering himself more firmly against Derek as he did so. He smiled when Derek gave a contented rumbling sigh under his ear.
He let his hand slip to hem of Derek’s t-shirt. “Can I…?”
“Yes,” Derek breathed against his hair, and ran his own hand up the back of Stiles’ shirt, trailing delicious heat up his spine.
“Mmmmm,” was all Stiles could say as he let himself enjoy the warm smoothness of the skin just under Derek’s ribs. (It never ceased to amaze him that Derek’s skin could erase all the horror he’d been through so easily. In many ways, it didn’t seem fair. Like his own body was trying to gaslight him. But that was not a topic Stiles was going to bring up now. Not when the impossible was actually happening.)
Derek’s other hand came up to the side of Stiles’ face and tilted his chin until he was looking at Derek properly. “Can I kiss you?” Derek asked, and it was all Stiles could do to nod.
When he could next get enough air to speak, he asked, “Can I take my shirt off?” which Derek answered with, “Can you get mine, too?”
It was the most intimate version of the Question Game Stiles had ever played.
“Can I kiss you there?”
“Can you touch me here?”
“Does this feel good?”
“Can you do that again?”
“Do you want to go upstairs?”
“Will you sleep with me?”