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You Don't Have To Smile To Be A Good Knight

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Soul-imprints are... complicated.

There are theories and scientific essays done about them all the time, behavioral biologists especially enamored with the subject, and there is a science behind it, all RNA and DNA and nerves, neurons, but for most laymen, it's all instinct. When a soul-imprint is formed, you feel it, when someone touches the mark those imprints make, they know, somewhere deep-seated in their soul, what caused it, or, at least, get a vague impression—which is why most people use ImpFilm, easy to spray on, easy to wash off, coat your marks and stop empath-flashing strangers every time they touch you. Keep your secrets secret and your mysteries mysterious.

Stiles remembers how his mother loathed the stuff, she wore her soul-imprints loud and proud on her skin, expressive, open to everyone, thought that things like ImpFilm were why people were learning how to stop caring for each other. Learning to stop looking for their soulmates. He remembers the sunflower blooming on the side of her neck, velvet-textured sunlight-golden petals unfurling underneath her ear, her hairline, all oil-soaked canvas and the breathless exhilaration she'd felt when she'd seen a Vincent van Gogh exhibit after years in love with his art; stars stippled her shoulder, gleeful and childish, picnics under twilight-soaked skies, mapping out constellations; a silver leaf underneath her ribs, breaking a leg when she'd climbed a tree, the echo of something excruciating, something learned; she had more, too, a picturesque robin that felt melancholy, flowers on a grave, and, after she got sick, tally marks, calligraphy, faux-bruises, acid-stains, their names like scars on her fingertips.

But she treasured no soul-imprint more than the one over her heart, a shield all burnished gold and autumn foliage, the mark that read pure love, that choral-sang and chimed like church-bells. A soulmate's imprint.

Personhood is a tumultuous, expanding thing, full of thousands of little moments, so many profound enough to leave a solid, painted, visible imprint on your soul, your body, but the rarest moment one can possibly seek, the rarest person, is their soulmate. Which is why, more often than not, people's chests are left bare, un-imprinted, their soulmate unknown but their bodies tapestries of people they've loved, anyway, of experiences, life lived, despite it all.

Some people have more soul-imprints than others, some people have barely any at all, but two handfuls or so is what tends to be normal for an adult, maybe another handful as they continue aging—Stiles is in the latter category, read: he's got no soul-imprints.

Well, with the exception of his birthmark (a stained-glass scarlet-plumb dragonfly on the inside of his left wrist), and his mother's deathmark (a swirling, agonizing, oil-paint black-hole soaked in pitch-velvet, gnawing at his shoulder blade), but those don't count. Birthmarks and deathmarks are universal—as unique as they are not, because everyone who is alive will eventually die and all.

Stiles has nothing... noteworthy. Just an incredibly boring, plain life—he was born, had a happy childhood until his mother died, took care of his father and himself while his father worked and drank (until he didn't) and Stiles went to school and tried to help him solve his cases (until he couldn't), exhaustively, he kept to himself, grew up, moved out when he was eighteen, though he stayed close enough to continue taking care of his dad, began pursuing his dream, easy as anything. A steady progression of unremarkable survival.

Which is probably what makes him take such extreme note of Derek Hale.

The man comes into the daycare Stiles works at part-time to pick up Laura's kids (and Stiles knows Laura- though he hadn't known she'd had a brother until now- Laura is one of his favorite parents, and Letty and Freddie, her beautiful twins, are utterly delightful—if you ignore their occasional anger issues), and he is gorgeous. And Stiles isn't just talking about how the man is built like an adonis, no, he's covered in thousands of indelible soul-imprints, vivid ink-stains, pastel watercolors—there's a celtic-style turquoise crescent moon curling from his temple to the edge of his cheekbone, an ancient flowering almond tree blooming on his right arm with splashes of prettied-frenetic overbright outside-the-line color, hummingbirds and crows fighting feather-strewn wars on his left, mandalas and musical notes gracing his palms, tie-dye mistletoe sprigs and fortune-cookie ribbons with tidied calligraphy wrapped around his fingers, a harp settled in rain-soaked foliage underneath his right ear, its' strings woven by a black-widow, creeping its' way down to his collarbone, disappearing behind the v of his soft-looking gray henley; that same webbing sews the dream-catcher eyes of the wolf enfolding itself protectively, guardingly, around the rest of Derek's neck, azure tears encrusting the dream-catcher's leather-wound, canary wood rim, sliding down braided strings that fall across the wolf's cheeks, ending in sun-shattered, luminescent, ethereal-glow crystals, the collectors of all that poignant sorrow.

And that's just what isn't covered by his clothing. Stiles has absolutely no doubt there's more, can see little glimpses, beginnings, hiding under hems, and he wonders, first, if this man's just easily impressionable (it's not unheard of, Scott's like that)—but with the majesty and detail of the imprints, how some of them are interlinked, all of them expressive, somehow, he doesn't think that's it.

His curiosity bubbles, effervescent, as he watches Derek try to wrangle the twins out of the daycare. For all his colorful canvas, his face is set in a thunderous, indecipherable scowl, that just gets more stormy as the kids wither and cry under his intense glare, throwing a tantrum and thoroughly unwilling to leave with him. As Stiles watches on, two other workers get roped in, trying to quell the scene and urge the twins on, but it just gets worse, other children managing to get caught in the crossfire of Derek's murderous eyebrows and the other adults' wringing hands.

Stiles bites back a laugh as Derek begins to shift from foot to foot, like he's uncomfortable and, probably, vaguely harassed and confused by all this, every move he makes to calm them down just riles them up more, both of them yelling for mama, instead, because Uncle Derek is scary.

"Letitia," Stiles finally butts in, taking mercy on the poor man, along with his co-workers, who quickly scurry away to do crowd-control, tossing thankful smiles his way, "Frederica," the girls both look at him with huge, watery, cinnamon-fawn doe-eyes, chubby little cheeks drenched, bottom lips quivering. He heaves a sigh, crouching down to be on their level.

"I know you're scared, and that really, really sucks, I'm sure your uncle didn't mean to scare you," he gives Derek the pointed, get on board and play along because I am a Trained Proessional™ look he learned from his dad, "did he?"

Derek blinks, and, while his face remains all stoic glower, his hands clench and unclench, a kind of trepidatious vulnerability in the motion, in the uncertain tilt of his shoulders. "Yeah," he growls, and Stiles winces because it sounds so harsh it almost sets the girls off again.

He continues valiantly before it can, "So, even though we got a little scared, here's what we're gonna do, okay? We're gonna take a really deep breath." It takes a few hiccupping tries, and a lot of coaching, but by the time they manage it, they're more focused on Stiles than Derek, and the slightest bit calmer, thank god. "And then we're gonna say goodbye to the room-" that takes another minute, their voices subdued and misty- "and now we're gonna go outside, okay? Do you want me to hold your hands? Or do you want to just walk beside me?"

"Your hands," they say, in unison, little arms reaching pleadingly out for him, determined and puppyish, and if that isn't the most adorable thing, he doesn't fucking know what is.

And, with that, he walks them out, Derek seeming vaguely astounded as Stiles talks the girls through getting into his car (a camaro, sweet baby jesus), keeping them as grounded and calm as he can.

"Can you come home with us?" Freddie asks plaintively, and Stiles hooks a lock of auburn hair behind her ear with a little moue.

"Maybe some other day, chickadee, but, alas, I must return to the other children, as I've heard there are dragons afoot, and I can't leave them unguarded." They both gasp, half delighted, half horrified by the prospect.

"What about us?" Letty whimpers, and Stiles coos a conspiratorial smile.

"Didn't you know? Your uncle's a knight. And the bravest, most fearsome one of all, even the biggest, most terrifying monsters are afraid of him. Why do you think your mother asked him to come pick you up? She knew he would keep you safe, protect you."

They gasp, turning to each other, wide-eyed, awed and with realization dawning, before both girls, like flipping a switch, abruptly become utterly excited and agreeable about the idea of their uncle as a babysitting candidate. Stiles flashes a lop-sided grin over his shoulder at Derek, pleased with his accomplishment, even moreso when he sees the way the man's jaw has dropped.

"Can we touch Ani?" "Yeah, yeah! Please?" they beg, all glittering puppy-dog eyes, before Stiles can make to leave, and he sighs, because he's so sure he's taught them better than this.

"Did you lose your hands while I wasn't looking?" he wonders imperiously, "Am I going to have to take up a pledge of vengeance on your behalf?"

"No," Letty giggles, spiriting her hands around wildly, wiggling her fingers, "they're right here, silly!" "Let, Let," Freddie stage-whispers, something quick and calculated twinkling in her eyes, "I think he means—because, because it's not. Because if we have hands we can touch. Anything we want, right?" "Huh? Oh! Oh," Letty's catching up. Stiles is content to stand back and wait.

"May we touch Ani?" Letitia corrects herself, and Stiles grins, wide and proud.

"Yes," he agrees, reaching into the car to hold his arm out for them, his birthmark, fragile pitch-wine dragonfly, Anisoptera, on display, "you may."

As their smile-happy fingertips graze his birthmark, he gets the brief empathic feedback loop that always comes with someone touching Ani: a delicate-quick flexing of faerie-film wings against slow, meadowsweet winds, willow tree branches rasping crooning melodies, the light-hearted scent of a clear, sun-shatter glisten lake, laughter and running with bare, muddied feet. Starlight jingle-bells chime, the dragonfly lands on dainty pastel flowerpetals, and the world around it breathes.

The girls come down from the birthmark's rush calmer, which is something he can only be thankful for, leaning inside the car to gentle kisses to both of their temples. "Happy?"

They both giggle and nod, he makes sure they're all buckled in properly, tells them to behave for their knight, and shuts the car door after himself, satisfied with a job done well.

When he turns around, though, he's scared half to death by Derek being behind him- like, a centimeter behind him- looking at him intensely—to be fair, when you have serial-killer eyebrows and your face's default setting is rage, it's hard not to look at someone intensely.

"Uhh, dude?"

"... You don't use ImpFilm."

It seems like less of a question and more an observation at first, but Derek's still kinda... looming, so Stiles just goes with it. "Nope. Never have, never will. I don't really have many imprints, to begin with, and, well," he flaps a generalizing hand in the girls' direction, "my birthmark has pretty awesome tranquilizing effects, which is great, especially with kids. It's pretty popular with adults, too, though," he stretches his arm out, inside of his wrist bared unashamedly. "Do you want to touch her—Ani?"

Derek's face scrunches up in an expression that anyone else might describe as quailing, but Stiles thinks might just be some ill-fitted form of discomfited confusion.

"You can say no," he reassures sympathetically, about to draw back, take the unintentional pressure off, but Derek makes a gruff, half considering, half aggressively decisive noise, and just clasps his whole, wide, firm, but trepidatious hand around the whole of Stiles' wrist.

As the tide of dream-dust sequence, ethereal emotions, wash over them, all Stiles can think is that Derek being half-caveman should not be as endearingly adorable as it is. And, then, for a moment, everything is washed away by a feeling like a seed being split open as a sapling buds, crawling out of petrichor loam like the hard-fought, growing thing it is, meeting salty rain and a lightning storm that clamors with reckless abandon in the sky, and it's clumsy, frightened, but alive, and brave, unwilling to back down.

He's breathless when he comes out of it, a fluff-tingling feeling coating his chest, his heart tripping up because: "Holy shit, you're my soulmate."

Derek's face has gone slack, oddly youthful in its' vulnerability, floaty-atmospheric eyes gone round and fragile, weak with surprise, searching Stiles' face, caught up in every angle and facet, fingers shakily uncurling, slipping waveringly from Ani to Stiles' chest, splaying there as clouds gather in those eyes, brows furrowing.

"Stiles!" one of his co-workers shout, knocking them out of the moment, and Stiles curses, quickly digging into his pocket for his phone.

"Of course, of course, I meet my soulmate when I'm in the middle of my shift and he has to babysit his sister's kids, of course I do—here, here, give me your phone number."

"I—" Derek's hand is still up in an aborted movement to keep his palm against Stiles' heartbeat, and he looks a little bit unmoored, and, Stiles isn't even going to deny it, adorable for it, resting-bitch-face be damned.

The twins in the car call out, a little impatient, and Stiles, in the name of urgency, pokes the tip of Derek's nose.

"Still with me, big guy?"

"Ye—. Yeah." It sounds a little shakier than the man probably intended, and Stiles is beginning to think the emotional clumsy he felt in their little soul-imprint seedling lies entirely with his other half.

"I have an other half," he breathes to himself with euphoric glee, and Derek, almost helplessly, huffs an almost laugh. "Okay, okay, gimme your phone number-" Derek takes Stiles' phone, a little easier, like he's found some solid ground, somehow, is already inputting his contact information- "and, and, we'll talk later, alright? I'll call you when my shift is over. Just, uh." Stiles reclaims his phone, almost flailingly, fumblingly, dropping it in his haste, which has Derek huffing again, something sugary and badly hidden, and, oh my god, he has bunny teeth. "This is ridiculous," Stiles tells him, their hands just short of lacing around the phone, catching it. "You're ridiculous."

For a second, Derek looks like he doesn't know what he's supposed to take from that, and then Stiles' co-workers are calling him again, the twins get more restless, and Stiles leans in, quick, smacking a winsome kiss to Derek's cheek as he slips his phone away.

"I'm glad I met you," he murmurs, feeling alight and fluttery, champagne fizzing in his veins, heart skipping right out of his chest to the tune of exhilaration and already burgeoning affection, soul swelling with something deep-seated content, sated, whole. The whole world is brimming and bright and Stiles has no idea how he's supposed to leave this man, ignore this fast-paced desperate yearning to have a conversation, to learn him, map him, fall in love with him, and go back inside the daycare, go back to work.

But he has to, so he goes, shouts an, "I will call you," over his shoulder, and texts his new contact every minimal chance he gets.

(The first text, of course, says, 『Keep an eye out for those dragons, brave knight,』 because Stiles absolutely cannot stop himself.)

Derek had been saddled with his big sister's twins for the next month, while she and her husband went on vacation, and, quite frankly, he'd been nervous, because her kids have never liked him, and he's not... good with kids. With people in general.

He's been told he has a scary face, he wonders if it's more than that. She'd told him to smile more, that he was the only one who could possibly do it, and then swanned off.

It's been exactly as harrowing and traumatizing as he expected, for all three of them.

He guesses meeting his soulmate when he went to pick the twins up from daycare could be considered a silver lining. He's still reeling with it, struggling to accept the reality even as he feeds the kids (who are far more at ease now that they're under the impression that his glare is meant to scare off dragons), gets them cleaned up and puts them to bed, even as he tries his hand at texting Stiles a few times, even as he heads to bed himself.

It still feels surreal, like some crazy dream, when he wakes up and looks down at his chest to see a jackalope there, all cream colored fur and limpid pitch-wine eyes, curved, delicately powerful antlers, a soft, small prey-animal amongst all his scars and other soul-imprints.

He doesn't really have to wonder too hard at what person Stiles might be, he can tell just from their short in-person interaction that he's good with words, with kids, with improvising and adapting; he can tell from the text messages he's received (he's only managed to reply three times, monosyllabically—communication is... not his strong suit, he's aware of this) that Stiles is all boundless, frenetic energy, all hyper and nurture and a sarcastic sharp-bite wit, maybe a little bit manic, restless.

It's vaguely worrying, because Derek's not the talkative type, but Stiles doesn't seem to have any expectations (yet. Derek can already imagine dissatisfied disappointment, chicory-bitter, mingled with doubt), and it's also, maybe, a little endearing? He finds himself smiling, anyway, as he reads through all the unread messages on his phone, pieces of trivia, of Stiles' life story, excited questions, random photos with snarky captions, half-philosophical ramblings that sometimes devolve into polish or spanish or french. Polish, Stiles had explained, was his first language, his mom's native language, and the origin for his real first name; spanish and french, he'd learned because of his best friends, Scott and Allison, which leads to a bunch of pictures of them and a pretty detailed diatribe about their complicated on and off again relationship that has Derek snickering into his pillow. Still, considering the time-stamps, he can't help himself from sending:

『Did you sleep』

To which Stiles replies with a hearty, 『Nope! I was wayyyyyy too excited. Also, I have insomnia, this is a thing you learn about me.』
『Good morning, by the way』

He then begins sending a bunch of sunshiny pictures, and an invitation to a date, because they should get to know each other better, which, while Derek does agree, he has the kids, and work—as soon as he sends that, Stiles starts wondering at where Laura is, and Derek finds it surprisingly easy to explain with Stiles' validating commiseration and supportive sarcasm to ease the way.

They do, eventually, decide on Stiles just coming over and hanging out with he and the twins, for all that Derek was a little hesitant about it. He's more than a little surprised when he checks the time and finds he's spent two hours in bed just... texting. It's a... good kind of surprise, he hopes.

The moment Stiles enters his house, it's like the dynamic of Derek's whole world changes. This man, with starlight fossilized in his amberine eyes, silken sun-drenched chestnut hair falling just past the elegant line of his shoulders, and a smile that's vivified, pellucid, so incredibly, immaculately clear that it scours away all the shadowed edges, brightens every ounce of space, saturates everything in some kind of refreshing, open, breathtaking energy.

It's like dawn, it's like getting caught up in a whirlwind, as Stiles somehow convinces them all that baking chocolate chip cookies is a good idea, has Freddie on the counter and Letitia on his hip, Derek ransacking his cupboards for the ingredients. He doesn't even really notice he's having fun until he hears Letty stage-whisper, amazed, "Uncle Derek's smiling."

Stiles doesn't even miss a beat, looking at Derek over his shoulder, already so indulgently fond (and how? really, how? They've only known each other for two days, not even), "Well, of course he is. The dragons have all been slain." He gives the girls significant looks, lowers his voice meaningfully, "I told you he was good."

Letitia and Freddie's jaws drop as both the girls look at him with some kind of awe, and, half uncomfortable under the attention, Derek can feel his face begin to slant down, but before a glare can fully take over, Stiles dabs his nose with a bit of flower.

Derek blinks at him, struggles to keep hold of his incredulity even as the twins cover their mouths to muffle their startled giggles, and Stiles smirks, all smug dimples and mischief sparking in his eyes. Derek, impulse and something like childish joy fizzing in his veins, takes an egg and smashes it over Stiles' head, smirking right the fuck back.

"Oh, ho," Stiles simmers, but he's grinning, "you are gonna get it, big guy."

Frederica squeals, scrambling down from the counter as Letty, completely unabashed about being on Stiles' team, snatches a handful of dough and shoves it into Derek's pocket before galavanting off with a breathless giggle. Stiles splashes a cup of milk in his face, and Freddie, much to his surprise, shouts, "Hey!" stomps her foot, an open tupperware full of overdone spaghetti in her tiny hands, "Don't mess with my uncle!" And then Stiles is covered in noodles and Derek's laughingly scooping Freddie up to run away with her.

Stiles and Letty offer chase, until Freddie converts Letty to their side ("Uncle Der fought off the dragons for us, Let! Remember, remember?"), and then Stiles is running from them, all lithe-wire dancer agile, and far too clever, but they still manage to capture him in a dog-pile that ends in him tickling them because they're far too heavy and he can't breathe.

Derek thinks he's laughed and smiled more today than he has in the past year.

"Thank you," Stiles murmurs, as he heads into the shower after Derek's gotten the girls cleaned up, settled downstairs with a movie and the somehow perfect cookies that Stiles finished baking while the twins were bathing. "For having me over."

Derek chuckles, disbelieving and, just. Overcome. He doesn't know how he could possibly explain that Stiles thanking him doesn't even make sense, explain the way he feels floaty and gooey and his cheeks hurt from all the simple joy he's experienced because of... because of his soulmate. His heart keeps skipping, and his body keeps tingling, and all of him is alive in a way he... he doesn't know that he was, before.

He swallows a tendril of nervousness to lean in, gentle a caressing kiss on Stiles' lips, his breath catching when Stiles tilts into it with a delicate smile, all the anxiety dusted away, easy as anything.

When they draw away, Stiles' expression goes radiant, this gleam in his eyes that's nearly a benediction, so full of gushing, newborn affection that it takes Derek's breath away.

"Thank you," Stiles repeats, voice tinted silvery-sweet, warm, giggling softly as he wipes some spaghetti sauce from Derek's lips. He sighs a little, soft, like he's disappointed they have to separate, even for a moment, but tenderly pushes Derek toward the stairs, anyway, with an, "I'll be down soon, brave knight, and I promise I'll be able to handle any dragons I encounter on my own. Our girls, however," as if on cue a vaguely worrying sound erupts downstairs. Stiles snorts, presses another quick, sugary kiss to his lips and bids him, "Go."

(Derek will probably overanalyze how good the words 'our girls,' sounded from Stiles' mouth, and all the implications that come with that later. For now, smiling, he listens, and even the girls bickering and roughhousing can't possibly deter his good mood—if anything, when they defer to him, more trusting and accepting than they've ever been, it embolsters it.)

Their second date happens when Stiles' day off miraculously coincides with Derek's, and he can drop the kids off at daycare for a time, pick them up after. (Letty and Freddie encourage this, because, according to them, he needs a break from dragon slaying. It's making him mopey.)

When the Diner waitress accidentally brushes the inside of Stiles' wrist, and falters, before actually managing to leave with their order, Derek hums a bit of a question. Stiles, who apparently never needs much to translate what Derek's trying to communicate, answers pretty much immediately.

"My mom," he says, and that's not at all what Derek was expecting. "She used to say," his voice pitches high and a little ludicrous here, "ImpFilm will be the end of kindness as we know it, just you watch." Derek snorts and Stiles dimples at him, shrugs. "I mean, I know. I know, it's not like that, it's-it's privacy and, and a way to keep yourself safe, and you never ever know what a person's gone through or going through or why they might not want to share it with you in such an intimate way, but I guess, I just. I don't really have any soul-imprints anyway, and it's always felt... nice? to-to keep my connection with her this way."

Derek, himself, has... he's always felt he has too many soul-imprints, and many of them are... tainted by the spiders that have been left by—. But he can understand the sentiment. It's actually kind of beautiful, in a way, opening yourself up to others so freely like that. Terrifying, but beautiful.

Not quite knowing what to say to the confession, Derek reaches across the table to catch Stiles' fingers in the tangle of his, smiling helplessly when Stiles looks up through his pretty eyelashes, the amber in his eyes melting to a warm, rich syrup, the smile flowering on his lips all crushed pastel soft, tender, hopeful, as he squeezes Derek's hand in turn.

After the food comes, Stiles starts talking about his dad and keeping an eye on his father's eating habits and how he's bribed almost every deputy at the station, has a whole network of spies and food-wardens on his side. Derek occasionally manages to contribute little things, but is happy to listen, content with his silence, even if he's sometimes insecure, worried about it. There's never a point where anything is awkward or stunted, though, conversations tumble, erratic, go to Stiles' friends, his classwork, the boundlessness of his chaotic (for all that Stiles claims it's plain), but simply happy life, and after they've eaten, and are on the sidewalk outside of the diner, Stiles wraps his arms around Derek's neck and kisses him soundly, says, "You, my soul, are... socially awkward in the most unique ways. But you're an amazing listener, and it's really fucking awesome hanging out with you- seriously, these past few days have probably been the best in my entire life, my whole life, dude- so stop worrying so much about it, okay?"

Derek, wondering vaguely if the universe has some-magnificent-how blessed him with a mind reader, or, or—leans in to kiss him again, hands gentling on Stiles' hips, the languid press of lips going a little warmer when Derek opens and Stiles takes the invitation, licks inside, chases after whatever taste he finds with suspended breath, sudden passion. When they break away, breathless and half laughing, the air between them hot and a little damp, their lips kiss-bruised and tingling, Derek murmurs, "Okay," and Stiles makes an excited, giddy noise, before diving back in with even more fervor.

(Needless to say, they don't manage to stop themselves until some passersby catcalls them, and, even then.)

Stiles, endlessly, relentlessly, becomes more and more a part of his life, soothing every sharpened edge, offering support and kindness and just. Being this person. This whole, wonderful, amazing, inspiring person, who is constantly proud of him and amazed by him and, for reasons Derek can barely fathom, protective of him. There's this base, blistering, blinding, unconditional loyalty that wraps Stiles around him, tight and infinite, almost debilitating (Derek gets this strange feeling that, if it came down to it, Stiles could very easily kill for him, die for him, live for him, and it's as intoxicating as it is haunting, overwhelming, raw).

It's so easy to fall in love with him, with all his babble and vivacious and fierce, his razor-bright clever, the pure strength of him. There's something so honest about the way Stiles cares for people, so complete and whole and selfless that it leaves absolutely no room for doubt, no moment where Derek could ever think that resentments are brewing, no moment where he even needs to contemplate worrying.

He feels... safe. And it's a relief, because he doesn't know if he's ever had that before, if he's ever been with anyone who doesn't make him feel cowed, contained, a too-big thing in a too-little space always misstepping, misspeaking, until the eggshells have made his feet bleed and the minefields have exhausted him and he's lost himself. Too uncomfortable to continue to try when he knows he'll only fail, and punished, then, for the lack of effort, of commitment.

His family noticed, after awhile, got worried for him, but didn't know how to help, how to get through the defences he'd begun to build in order to find him, tell him where he was, how to get home. Laura, out of everyone, was always the most adamant, ferocious in her pursuit, but frustrated and impotent in the face of a stony gaze, an expression too hard to soften, after everything—in the face of spiders, creeping, webs spun around his birthmark, the imprints of family and love and happier memories. She'd tried to get him to date again, tried to get him to go to parties, find friends, reintegrate with normal people. But he was... different.

He couldn't unchange, he couldn't unlose himself, and everything she tried just pushed him further away (he tried not to let it, he tried to latch on, to cling, but he always ended up adrift, unmoored, unintentionally seeking isolation because groups and touch and talking, was overwhelming, uncomfortable, disturbing on some level). He was still that kind of lost when Stiles found him.

He thinks, in a way, he hasn't stopped being that kind of lost.

He just isn't alone anymore.

Maybe... maybe there can be a home for him, here.

And it's so odd, because he'd known, everyone does, about soulmates, their rarity and their miracle. But he'd never...

He feels so lucky. Too lucky. Some days, he wonders if this gift—he wonders if he's worthy of it.

The first time they lie together, it's after a ridiculously long day. They'd both taken the girls to the fair, because Stiles had wanted to do something at least a little special when Derek told him that Laura would be coming home in a week's time. It had been fun, but a little arduous, with a lot of running involved, and too much sugar. Luckily, the girls were exhausted by the time they got home, so all it took was giving them a short, warm bath, getting them into clean, snuggly pajamas, and they were curled up in Letty's bed, out like a light.

Stiles, a little eager, a little anxious, and exhilarated, because he's pretty sure Derek spent the whole day smiling, and quite a bit more of it than usual talking, asked if he could stay over, and Derek had kissed him, light, sticky with cotton candy and syrup, rested their foreheads together, and nodded.

They both take showers first, separately, and, Stiles is going to admit, it's maybe just this side of awkward, but he's never really been in a serious relationship before. A few one-night stands, and the two week, uneventful stint he had with Heather before they'd both decided that staying friends was better. He doesn't really know how to do any of this, and Derek... He gets the feeling Derek's been in more relationships than he, but he also gets the feeling they maybe weren't the best experiences for the man, because Derek has this—.

Stiles has gotten to be excellent at translating those intense eyebrows, and pretty damn good at interpreting Derek's silences, and, more often than not, what anyone else would construe as irritation or annoyance or rage, is just severe discomfort, all tinged with wary, worry, fermenting, boiling over insecurity, something kind of young, maybe a little scared. And it became so easy to see the instant Stiles knew what he was looking for, the constant churning of it, the unease he has with it.

He's brilliant when he opens up, startling, and his humor is the kind that's so incredibly dry, all monotone and deep-rich somber sarcasm delivered instantaneously (Stiles isn't even ashamed to admit that his heart skips, like, twenty beats whenever Derek gets into a snarky mood; it's hot, okay?)—it's easy, to get him talking about his family, fond and over-full of an unyielding affection, Stiles honestly wonders if he even notices, how he gets all soft and whisper-murmur and overflows with it, spilling a sea of delighting, golden-hearted blessings, utterly endearing, the way his eyes melt into the warmth of meadows singing to the summery sky and his face goes the very definition of gentle. But whenever the topic of exes or anything of the kind comes up, it's-it's like he just shuts down, goes completely blank, a chased, haunted aura clinging to the tense line of his shoulders.

The first time it had happened, Stiles' heart had clenched so painfully, and his throat had gone so tight, eyes stinging with the ideas of tears, that he thought he'd choke on it, unable to swallow the anguish of it—because it was anguish. And he began to wonder who, how, why, Derek was the way he was. Who made him so unsure? craven and delicate and withdrawn?

The questions triple, make his heart thud dully in his chest, bilious and vaguely horrified, when Derek comes to the room in only a towel and he sees the scars, harsh-shine, oily pink, bubbling skin frozen in this oddly picturesque way, mantling him, almost protectively, spreading from the edge of his shoulder blades, burning carnivorously down his back, sweeping in, coating his ribs, eating toward his belly. They look like wings. They look like something else altogether. But here Derek is, still with his heart beating, alive and seeming incredibly discomfited by the way Stiles is just staring, and, oh, but Derek survived this. Whatever, whyever, however, the man he loves survived.

And how could he possibly find that anything less than beautiful?

They don't go very far tonight, Stiles electing to spend his time feathering kisses along the scars, along the soul-imprints—for all that it's a little disappointing that he doesn't get to taste the empathic effervescence of them, only the faint chemical cling of ImpFilm, he gets it, and he doesn't really mind. He abandons his own clothing, divests Derek of the towel, laves and sucks and bites at the tapestry of his skin, revels in the flex, convulsing of muscles, the way Derek's abdomen twitches with every hitching breath as Stiles fingers him open, the way keens and whines and moans erupt helplessly, a cacophony of sound (which, Stiles is beginning to learn, is synonymous with trust), the way he curls and spreads all at once with a broken pant, calling Stiles' name, trembling, hips canting, fingers clenching in the sheets.

"I'm here, I'm here. I've got you, Derek," Stiles soothes, his voice husky, half-silky, and he admires that, too, because he's pretty sure he's never sounded like this before, felt like this before. He's kind of high on it. He leans forward, free hand splaying over the rushing beat of Derek's heart, over their soulmark, as he bends down, licking into Derek's mouth, twisting his fingers at just the right angle, swallowing the whimpered gasp it earns him. "I love you," he says fervently, just as Derek clenches fluidly around him, just as he grinds himself up along Stiles' abdomen, and with a breathless, rippling cry, Derek comes.

Stiles keeps thrusting his fingers, kissing, holding him through the aftershocks, until Derek whines, high, oversensitive. "I love you," Stiles murmurs again, helplessly, half laughingly, like it's a revelation when he's known, when it was practically an inevitability from the moment they met. Derek makes a noise, like hope and yearning and crave, as he nuzzles into the crook of Stiles' neck, kissing Stiles' pulse-point as a euphoria-laden shivery hand goes to wrap around him, stroking, once, twice, fingers playing with his hair twist and tug, until Stiles is coming, too, free-falling from some incredible precipice, still giggling slightly, moaningly, shudderingly, collapsing when it's done.

"I love you," he repeats, muffled, into Derek's shoulder. "I love you a lot. I love everything about you. I love how family-oriented you are, and how good you are with kids, and how, even when you tell me to shut up, you never mean it, and—" Derek makes a kind of choked, stutter-stop noise, but Stiles can't stop, now, it's like a really satisfying sigh, yawn, he's overflowing. So he rambles on until, half desperate, Derek kisses him; Stiles happily continues, garbled, between their lips, alight, floaty, overcome, unbridled, and when he runs out of things to say, he just chants it, because he can, because he wants to, because it's there and it's real and it's everything and he's so fucking happy he has it.

"I love you, I love you," Derek's cheeks flush, bloom roses, and Stiles grins, "I'm hopelessly in love with you," Derek's eyes widen, sun shattering on lakes, brimming, "I love you, I do, I absolutely love you."

The tips of Derek's ears look like strawberries, and he soaks them in kisses, too, murmuring an 'I love you' against the shell of either ear. Kisses away the tears, when they come, presses his lips to dew-strewn eyelashes, continues, reverent, hushed, wrapped around his lover, heart soaring, until sleep takes them both.

When he wakes up, they're both clean, relatively clothed (at least enough to be decent), and the twins are already bursting in, jumping up on the bed to regale them both with tales of the fair as if they weren't there with them. Miraculously, over the bustle and the chaotic hype of it all, Derek tenders a kiss on his cheek and says, quiet but endlessly bright, "I love you, too."

Stiles swears he couldn't be happier if he tried.

(If, later, he notices a new soul-imprint, one that looks incredibly like a knight who would love nothing more than to slaughter every dragon, well. He isn't as surprised as he thought he would be, but he is ecstatic.

Not for the reasons he might've been, before, not because a new soul-imprint might make his life, him, less plain.

But because he knows exactly what it means. And it's an imprint to be proud of.)


Elizabeth was giving Laura a look, and she sniffed primly at him, crossing one leg over the other, about ten seconds away from telling him to keep his eyes on the road.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asks, far more sympathetic than she about whatever Derek must've gone through, having to take care of the twins for a month and a couple weeks with little to no prior warning.

"I want to surprise him—I just—. I want to see if..." She trails off with a heavy sigh.

"You want to see if anything's changed?" Elizabeth asks gently, "before he has the chance to clamp up again?"

"Maybe nothing has," she murmurs, swallows down a lump of something bitter, just shy of pained. "I guess I just hoped the girls would be good for him? Something."

"I know, I know," he exhales explosively, "alright, dear, let's do this. But, if he starts to... to do that thing he does—" "You mean that thing where he frightens you?" she coos delightedly, and he tosses her a glare that's so fond it barely even passes for the term.

"I fully expect you to protect me," he continues, utterly shameless, and she laughs.

"Don't worry," she promises dutifully, snatching one of his hands and bringing it up to her lips in a kiss that leaves a dainty carnation smudge, "I will."

To Laura's complete surprise, things have changed, exponentially. For one thing, Derek's house, itself, is different- brighter, somehow, a tacit, intuitive, unexplainable shift- for another, the scene she comes in on, the 'Mama's home!' caught in her throat like a floundering fish in a net when she sees her brother- who hasn't so much as lived, not truly, since Kate- with his head thrown back, laughing like wind-chimes in an unexpected, refreshing breeze, open, full, whole. Letty's in his lap, trying to use him like a jungle gym, while Frederica and... well, a stranger, urge her on, a tranquil kind of raucousness that screams family and... joy.

Simple joy.

It's been so long since she's seen anything of the sort around her little brother that the surprise of it breaks her heart, but she soldiers on, curious, now.

"Well, hello."

Her little brother and his sidekick don't really have any time to respond before the twins are bursting into squeals, climbing over the back of the couch to jumpingly collide with her, and, almost as an afterthought, Elizabeth; they both take the affection in cooing, parental stride, honestly happy to be home. And Laura, herself, preens at the terrible gossips her children are, listening avidly as they talk of their adventures with Uncle Derek- who has now been deemed a dragon slayer, and she wonders faintly how on earth that happened- and their daycare teacher, Stiles. She raises her eyebrows at this, because, "What on earth kind of name is Stiles?" and, after a beat, chancing at some gentle ribbing, "Did you really need help so badly that you had to employ their daycare teacher?"

"Yes," Derek says, entirely deadpan (which throws her, a little, because his humor has been dormant for a while).

"Oh, totally," Stiles chirps, whimsical, and with a sharper, juicier, far more melodramatic version of that same wit. "I mean, one can only do so much. Can you imagine? Protecting all the innocents in the world from fire-breathing monstrosities, and coming home to two little imps right after? No breaks? He was half-dead before I came along, I tell you."

Derek's eyes flutter down as a soft, intimate smile, all bunny-teeth and sugar-soaked, graces his lips, as a small, charming flush adorns his cheeks.

"By the way, hi," Stiles grins, lop-sided winsome, but with the protective edge of teeth, reaching his hand out over the back of the couch for her to shake. "I'm Derek's soulmate, nice to meet you."

Elizabeth makes a choked, high-pitched noise behind her, and her jaw drops.

"You're his what?!"

(There was absolutely no doubt in her mind that she would be swatting Derek later for not calling her, the ass. But she was also, enormously, unspeakably grateful, and while she knew she would never stop worrying about her little brother, perhaps, now, some of her worries could ease.)