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Apparently, Derek is being stalked by a renegade graffiti activist. Because that’s a thing now.

Most people on campus range from mildly amused to downright impressed with the things “Red” stencils onto bare walls and fences, but Derek just doesn’t get it. He didn’t even care about it until this morning, when Red’s latest creation showed up on the cement wall running alongside Murray Hall.

“You’re making that face again,” Erica says, breaking his reverie.

“What face?” Derek tries to school his features but knows he’s failed if Erica’s smirk is anything to go by.

“The constipated grouch face,” Erica says, and Isaac makes his presence known by snickering right along with her.

Derek shoots them both a glare. “Really not in the mood today, guys.” He pushes off the wall and begins to walk toward the sociology building, and Erica and Isaac follow since that’s where they’re meeting Boyd for their next class.

“Oh, come on,” Erica says, looping her arm around Derek’s elbow. “There’s no way they can actually pin this on you.”

“You weren’t there,” Derek insists miserably. “God, I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed than I was at that meeting with Dr. Deaton and Dr. Harris. The dean was there, too!” He sighs. “I’m pretty sure half the administration is convinced I’m to blame for this guy’s spray paint doodles.”

“I think the technical term is tags,” Isaac pipes up. “Not doodles.”

“God, this isn’t funny, guys,” Derek says, exasperated. “I heard Harris talking to Deaton about revoking the last year of my art fellowship funding. There’s no way I can finish my thesis without it.” Never mind that Derek has no idea what his thesis is going to be about. He plans to worry about that later, after he secures funding.

“That’s ridiculous,” Erica says, unimpressed. “I mean, they don’t even have any proof you did it.”

“Red spray painted me,” Derek says, patting his own chest. “In their eyes, this is the most concrete piece of evidence they’ve come across linking anyone to Red’s identity.”

“Why would an anonymous street artist leave the equivalent of a selfie?” Isaac asks, scrunching up his nose. “Kinda defeats the purpose of being anonymous. If anything, this proves you’re the one person who isn’t Red.”

That’s what Derek had said, but the dean hadn’t looked convinced. “Even if I’m not Red, this makes them think I know who he is.” He pauses, looking uncertain. “She? He or she?” Derek shakes his head. “Whatever.”

“Do they think you posed for him or something?” Isaac laughs at the thought. “Tag me like one of your French girls, Red!”

Erica pulls a face. “Okay, that was terrible,” she remarks, then turns to Derek and says, “So, what are you supposed to do?”

Derek’s spent the last couple hours thinking about his next course of action. “Well, logically, there’s no way no one knows Red’s identity, right? How is that even possible in this day and age?”

“I dunno. It just is.” Isaac shrugs. “He’s practically like an urban legend now. I bet even if people figure out who he is, they keep quiet about it. Y’know, to keep the legend alive.”

Derek frowns hard. “He’s probably some undergrad anklebiter with no respect for the rules,” he says vehemently. “It’s not like this is a CIA level undercover operation. There are thousands of students here every day. It can’t possibly be that difficult to figure out who he is. Someone has to know something.”

Erica looks up at him in earnest. “Just don’t do anything stupid. Let campus security figure out who Red is. You don’t even know why Red is so obsessed with you. What if you pissed him off or something?”

“One picture doesn’t mean Red’s obsessed with Derek,” Isaac says dubiously.

“Derek’s the one who always needs to make a million sketches of something before he’s ready to paint it properly,” Erica counters. “Who’s to say Red hasn’t been stalking you for a while? I bet his dorm is wallpapered in photographs of you, and he probably collects your chewed up gum for the Derek Hale bust he keeps hidden in his closet.”

“Gross,” Isaac mutters.

Erica ignores him and continues speaking to Derek. “If you go all Daredevil on his ass, he’s going to club you over the head and harvest your internal organs to make himself new cushions or something,” she says.

Isaac gags a little. “Okay, does someone need to start moderating your Netflix queue? Geez, woman!”

There’s no way Red is that extreme. Probably. But Erica does have a point. He has no idea what sort of person Red is and why Red is so fixated on him. He could be dangerous. Then again, he could be some disgruntled undergrad angry about the grade he made in Derek’s class last semester. There’s really no way to tell.

“You guys don’t know anyone who knows about Red?” Derek asks, interrupting Erica and Isaac’s quarreling.

“Well, you might try talking to Scott McCall,” Isaac suggests as they stop short of the sociology building. “He writes for the campus paper, and he always runs a story on Red’s tags the day after a new one shows up.”

Erica elbows Isaac hard. “What?” he splutters. “Derek asked!”

“Have you not paid attention to anything I’ve said?” Erica demands. Then she turns to Derek and says, “Just leave it to campus security.”

Isaac snorts. “Red’s been tagging up this place for like three years,” he says. “Campus security only exists to issue parking citations and give tickets to bicyclists. They’re not gonna catch this guy unless someone giftwraps him Spider-Man style.”

“Hang on,” Derek says. “If Red’s graffiti has been showing up for three years, that means he’s probably a senior, right?”

“Unless he’s a grad student,” Erica points out. “Or someone with two legs and a heartbeat because literally anyone can sneak onto an open campus.”

“So salty,” Isaac says, shaking his head at Erica. She flips him the bird.

“Listen,” Erica says, fixing Derek with an understanding expression. “I know you’re worried about them rescinding the fellowship,” she says, “but you can just appeal the decision if that happens.”

That’s true, but the wheels of campus bureaucracy are slow and rusty. Moreover, he’s not leaving the fate of his degree to the whims of an asshat like Dr. Harris, which is what would happen if he went through the appeals process.

In spite of Erica’s well-intentioned advice, Derek just can’t sit around and wait for other people’s actions to determine what happens to him. He’s made up his mind before he even realizes it. “Where can I find Scott McCall?”

~ ~ ~

Derek hasn’t even seen the graffiti yet. He’d spent all night in his cohort’s shared studio space; like most grad students, his sleep schedule is completely screwed up, and he functions only on naps and caffeine. When he’d stopped by Poor Yorick’s in the morning for a coffee before heading back to his apartment to prep for class, he’d run into Dr. Deaton, who had escorted him to the dean’s office. At least he’d been considerate enough to let Derek buy a coffee first.

Now, Derek is standing in front of the cement wall that runs along the west side of Murray Hall. He looks shifty in a baseball cap and with his collar pulled up, but he doesn’t want anyone to recognize him. It’s not like there’s a gaggle of students ogling Red’s graffiti, but people are noticing it, and some are even stopping to take pictures with their camera phones. He doesn’t want to create a scene if people realize it’s his likeness that’s on the wall. The entire situation is embarrassing enough as it is.

As he edges closer to the wall, Derek has to admit he can finally see why some people consider graffiti art. Red’s graffiti features two people who look like they might be slow dancing, except they’re actually checking their phones over each other’s shoulders—an intimate moment of real human connection, completely ignored because of people’s obsessions with technology. The person whose face is visible resembles Derek’s own, right down to his thick black hair, facial structure, stubble, and prominent eyebrows, while the other person, displayed from behind, could be a man or a woman with short, spiked up hair. The entire piece is done in varying shades of red, which is probably where Red gets his nickname.

“It’s clever, isn’t it?”

Derek starts at the voice. A tan guy with brown hair and an uneven jawline is standing to his left while staring almost proudly at the graffiti. “That’s one way of looking at it,” Derek mutters.

“I’m Scott McCall,” the guy says, shuffling a stack of notebooks under his arm so he can properly introduce himself. Derek shakes his hand, but before he can say anything in response, Scott gets a good look at him and exclaims, “Whoa! You’re him!” He points to the graffiti. “You’re the guy!”

So much for the effectiveness of his baseball cap.

“Keep it down!” Derek hisses, backing away from the wall and settling on a bench across the walkway.

“Dude. This is so cool,” Scott says excitedly, sitting right beside him. “I write for the paper on campus, and I’m doing a story on your graffiti. Can I interview you?”

“No,” Derek says immediately. Scott looks so disappointed with the response that Derek can’t help but feel bad for growling at him. “And it’s not my graffiti,” he adds.

“Oh. So, whose is it?” Scott asks, undeterred. “A friend of yours?” He flips to a blank page in his notebook and bites the cap off his pen. “Do you know Red?” he asks. “Was this, like, a commission or something? He never does people.”

Derek gives him a withering glare. “Who would voluntarily have their face spray painted across public property?”

“Hey,” Scott says, holding his hands up to indicate his lack of judgment. “To each his own.”

“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t a commission,” Derek responds sourly. “And quit taking notes,” he snaps. “This isn’t an interview. I’m only here to figure out who Red is so I can get him to take this crap down.”

“Crap?” Scott reels back in mostly mock horror. “Dude—”

“Derek,” Derek says, pointing to himself. He’s not sure he can survive being called “dude” for the entirety of this conversation. “My name’s Derek.”

Derek,” Scott says, “this isn’t crap. It’s activism. It’s change.” He puts his palms up again and pulls his hands down around his head in the shape of a rainbow. “It’s art.” And Derek would swear Scott’s got sparkly heart eyes as he stares up at Red’s vandalism.

“Please be joking,” Derek implores. “That,” he says, pointing to the graffiti, “is destruction of public property.”

“Okay. Maybe,” Scott concedes. “Technically. But it’s still art.” He narrows his eyes at Derek. “Have you ever even seen any of Red’s other work?” he asks.

“No,” Derek says. “Because I have a life.”

Scott rolls his eyes. “We’re in college, dude. None of us have lives,” he says with a laugh as he flips open the case where he keeps his tablet. “My friend Danny helps me maintain a website where I archive all of Red’s tags,” Scott says, swiping a finger across the tablet’s screen. “So, check it out.” He scoots closer to Derek so they can both view the screen. “Here’s one of Red’s first tags. I know it’s just words, but this was like three years ago. I think he was just blowing off steam, so it’s probably before he realized his tags had an impact.”

Derek reads the message aloud. “$25,000 yearly tuition, and I have to wipe my ass with shitty 1-ply toilet paper.” Derek resists the urge to crack a smile because he can get behind Red’s sardonic wit. “Still just looks like graffiti,” he says instead.

“Sure,” Scott allows, “Except a week afterwards, all the dorms got 2-ply toilet paper.”

Derek raises an eyebrow. “And that’s what you’re going to call activism?”

Scott looks at him incredulously. “Red did that without even trying!”

Derek’s not buying it. “And what’s he trying to do here?” he asks, nodding at Red’s latest creation. “What’s the point of plastering my face on Murray Hall? Besides getting me on the dean’s shit list.”

Scott grimaces apologetically, putting away his tablet. “Haven’t figured that out yet. Here,” he says, giving Derek his phone. “Put your number in. I’ll text you if I figure something out.”

Derek somewhat reluctantly complies because it’s not like he has any other leads, and even though Scott’s clearly a fanboy, he’s certainly the most knowledgeable source on Red at Derek’s disposal thus far. “You’re sure you don’t actually know Red?” Derek asks, returning Scott’s phone.

“I’ve got my suspicions, but I’ve never actively tried to figure it out.” Scott shrugs. “I feel like it might ruin the magic.”

Derek eyes Murray Hall scornfully and says, “I don’t care about blowing his cover. I don’t care about him at all, actually. I just want to find him so he can tell the dean this wasn’t me. That’s all I want.”

“I get that,” Scott says. “Honestly, I have no clue why Red even tagged Murray with your face,” he admits. “He usually doesn’t feature humans in his work. It’s usually just text or wolves.” A small smile touches his lips. “Although, back in the early days, he did do this hilarious one where he gave a red fire hydrant tentacles to make it look like an octopus, and above it, he wrote HAIL HYDRANT.”

Scott dissolves into a fit of giggles, and Derek responds with something he hopes resembles a smile, since he doesn’t understand the reference.

“Ready to go, Scotty?” Derek whips around to find a lanky young man in black skinny jeans, a plaid green button-up shirt, and a navy beanie strolling up to them. He has an upturned nose, dark moles that dot his pale skin, and an easy smile that makes him look approachable. He catches a glimpse of Derek underneath his baseball cap, then he glances up at Red’s graffiti, and then he turns to give Derek a meaningful onceover. Derek ducks his head, unable to withstand the scrutiny.

“Yeah, hang on a sec,” Scott replies. As he gathers his things, he slaps Derek’s knee twice, which makes him startle and look up. “I’ve got bio, but I’ll text you later.” He offers Derek a reassuring grin. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out,” he promises.

For some reason, Derek believes him.

~ ~ ~

Mere hours later, Derek has his hands spread across a Deputy Parrish’s squad car, where he’s being patted down. At least he’s not being read his rights, so he’s probably not going to be arrested. However, the deputy is preparing to call someone up the chain of command, who will most likely call a dean or a senior professor, which, in Derek’s book, is just as bad as being arrested by a campus cop. He can only hope this doesn’t make its way back to Harris.

Needless to say, Derek isn’t having a good day.

Scott had texted him with the URL to his Red archive, and Derek spent the better part of his evening scouring the website to map all the places Red has tagged—127 in all—in an effort to triangulate Red’s location, only to conclude Red lives somewhere on campus. Which—duh. Then, he’d realized Red uses stencils to create all his graffiti; however, the lines are way too precise to be cut by hand, and the only laser cutter on campus is in the architecture department’s shop.

That’s where everything went to shit. When Derek arrived at the shop, it was closed; so, he used his universal classroom key to open the doors, at which point he carefully began to inspect the shop for a work order log. In retrospect, he’s not quite sure what he’d hoped to find. It’s not like Red would actually place work orders under his pseudonym. But he hadn’t even been in the shop for fifteen minutes before Parrish was yelling at him to freeze, and then hauling him out into the parking lot.

Turns out, the shop is fitted with cameras, and campus security sent in Deputy Parrish when they caught sight of an unknown intruder. Derek is certain the universe is laughing at his expense. Red has evaded campus security for three whole years, and the one time Derek steps a toe out of line, campus security nails his ass to the wall. Seriously. His life.

“Officer, I swear this is a misunderstanding,” Derek tries again.

Parrish fixes him with a stern glare. “Are you authorized to be in the shop?”

“No, but—”

Parrish cuts him off. “And do you realize it’s against campus policy to be in the shop, unaccompanied, unless you have all required safety and training certifications?”

“Well, now I do,” Derek says, turning to face the deputy.

“Keep your hands on the vehicle, sir, or I will be forced to cuff you.”

Derek cringes and turns back around to reposition his hands on the hood of the squad car, which is when he makes eye contact with a familiar figure—Scott’s friend from earlier that day. The guy stares open-mouthed for a moment, and then he swipes the beanie off his head and stuffs it into his back pocket, leaving his hair in lopsided spikes. He abruptly plasters a grin across his face and hollers, “Yo, Parrish!”

The deputy whirls around. “Not now, Stiles,” he replies wearily. “I’m working.”

Scott’s friend—Stiles—jogs around to the side of the car where Derek and the deputy are standing, and when he pretends to get a closer look at Derek, Stiles gasps aloud in a horrible impression of surprise and says, “Derek, there you are!”

Derek gapes. Stiles probably got his name from Scott, but…what? What on earth is actually happening right now? He quickly clicks his mouth shut when Parrish looks uncertainly between Derek and Stiles.

“Geez, Parrish,” Stiles says. “You sure know how to ruin date night.”

Derek has to try really hard not to have his mouth fall open again in shock, but Parrish simply stares Stiles down and says, “You guys were having date night in the shop?”

“You know how it is,” Stiles replies easily. “You gotta make time where you can. I was running out to get us dinner.” Whiskey-colored eyes brimming with mirth flick up to Derek’s. “Right, babe?”

Derek simply goes with it and nods his head violently, hoping it looks convincing to the deputy because Derek just feels like a maniac.

Parrish crosses his arms over his chest. “And where’s your dinner?”

“In here,” Stiles says, twisting around to show his backpack. “Look, could you just let us off with a warning or something?”

Us? Derek idly wonders why Stiles is implicating himself when he’s the only one here who’s completely innocent.

“I really don’t want to explain this to my dad. I haven’t told him about me and Derek yet, so could you keep this under wraps?” He leans in closer to the deputy. “Der wants to take things slow.” Stiles winks at Derek, and Derek doesn’t even have to try to play into the lie because he can feel his face heating up.

“Well,” Parrish hedges, “I haven’t actually called this in yet.” He takes a minute to think things over but eventually relents. “Just remember the shop rules,” Parrish says. “I’m not going to go so easy on you if there’s a next time because it’ll be my ass on the line.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Stiles babbles, wrapping his arms around Derek’s waist and hugging him from behind. “Babe, I’m so sorry I got you into this mess,” he murmurs into Derek’s ear, soft enough that it makes a pleasant shiver run down Derek’s spine, but loud enough for Parrish to hear.

Derek suppresses a frown and turns to look back at him. “I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it up to me,” he mutters.

Stiles looks surprised for a second, but then his expression morphs into one of glee.

“Oh, and Stiles?” The deputy says before they can get too far. “Don’t think I won’t check inside your backpack next time.”

Stiles winces guiltily, caught in his lie, before grabbing Derek’s hand and tugging him back towards the architecture building. “Phew!” Stiles says when they’re safely inside. “That was close!” He bends down to rest his hands on his knees, like he’s trying to catch his breath.

Derek finally seems to remember how his voice works. “What the hell was that?!” he demands.

“Uh, you’re welcome?” Stiles says incredulously, straightening up.

“Do you even know who I am?” Derek blusters, spreading his arms wide.

“Scott’s friend,” Stiles replies. “We didn’t really get a chance to meet. You can call me Stiles. Stilinski. Stiles Stilinski. And you’re Derek. Obviously.” He offers Derek a friendly smile. “Hi.”

Derek mouths wordlessly. “What?!” He does not yelp. “You don’t even know me. Do you just make a habit of swindling the cops or something? What if I was an actual criminal?”

Stiles just looks endlessly amused by Derek’s slow mental breakdown. “Okay, first of all, if you were an actual criminal, Parrish would be terrible at his job for letting you go,” he lists off on long fingers. “And second, you weren’t even handcuffed, so he probably caught you with pot, or being drunk in public, or being somewhere you weren’t supposed to be.” Derek shifts uncomfortably at Stiles’ accurate read of the situation. “And I think it’s dumb when people get written up for things that really shouldn’t even be crimes.”

“Well, rules exist for a reason,” Derek feels the need to say. “But thanks. I guess.”

“Wow. Let me finish drowning in all that gratitude, and then I can escort you into the shop,” Stiles quips. At the confusion apparent on Derek’s face, he adds, “Oh. I actually work in the shop. Isn’t that where you were breaking in?”

“I didn’t actually break in,” Derek mutters defensively. “I used a key.”

Stiles quirks an eyebrow at him in disbelief. “What’re you even doing in here, anyway?”

Derek hesitates to let Stiles in on his plans, but the night is already such a spectacular mess that he chooses to go all in. “I was looking for the shop’s log. For work orders.”

Stiles pulls open the door and switches on the shop lights. “You are so not a criminal,” he chastises. “You realize there’s machinery in here that costs thousands of dollars?” He points to a corner, indicating a large black machine that’s taller than them both. “That’s a Civil War-era letterpress. Like I said, worth thousands of dollars. Arguably priceless. Yet, you broke in to snag the work orders?”

“I didn’t break in!” Derek purses his lips and tries to reign in his frustration. “Just show me where the log is.”

Stiles crooks a finger and waves Derek into a small, cluttered office tucked away at the back of the shop. “Since it’s no longer 1985, the log is online.” He carefully sets his backpack next to his feet, out of the way, and boots up what looks like an ancient desktop computer. “Did you need to change your work order or something?” he asks while pulling up the digital log. “We do a lot of custom stuff here. We cut stuff out of wood, metal, linoleum, and all kinds of material, so it’d be easiest if you could pull up the confirmation number in your e-mail, and then I can get you set up.”

Derek wonders how he’s supposed to ask if he can simply look through all the work orders so he can maybe figure out the identify of the renegade graffiti artist that’s most likely stalking him. Rather, he wants to know how he can communicate that without sounding like a crazy person.

“I don’t actually have a confirmation number,” Derek admits sheepishly.

Stiles tilts his head to the side and scrunches up his nose. “You have to, though. You get one after you hit ‘submit’ online. How else would you be able to pick up your order after it’s finished—”

“Why would I have broken in here if I only wanted to change an online work order?” Derek suddenly blurts out.

Stiles is silent for a moment, perhaps from the shock of Derek’s outburst, until he mumbles almost inaudibly, “I thought you didn’t break in.”

With a groan, Derek runs a hand down his own face and begins to explain. “I’m trying to figure out who Red is. Y’know, that graffiti guy?”

Several emotions cross Stiles’ face all at once, and Derek can’t quite tell what’s going on, but once Stiles gets it under control, he only nods and says, “Yeah. I’ve heard of him.”

“He obviously uses a laser cutter to make his stencils, and this is the only place nearby with one of those,” Derek explains. “I wanted to see if I could figure out who’s been ordering the stencils so I can track him down.”

Stiles purses his lips and makes a noncommittal noise. “Your plan wouldn’t work.” Before Derek can protest, he says, “You’ve never placed an order here, have you?” Stiles takes Derek’s silence as answer enough. “We process hundreds of orders every week. For laser cutter orders, clients create a vector or outline of the cutout they want using Adobe Illustrator, and then they upload the file to our servers. As you can imagine, that eats up a lot of space, so once clients pick up their orders, all data is deleted in an effort to make room for new orders and to keep the server running smoothly.”

“Damn,” Derek curses. “So, even if Red uses the laser cutter here, there’s no record of it. Not anymore, anyway.”

“Exactly,” Stiles says. “Why do you want to figure out who Red is? I mean, I get that you don’t dig the graffiti scene, but he’s not hurting anyone.”

“Well, his latest piece on Murray Hall—”

“Technically it wasn’t on Murray Hall,” Stiles interjects. “It’s on a cement partition next to Murray Hall. Totally separate from it.”

Okay,” Derek says, annoyed with the interruption. “As I was saying, Red’s latest tag features my face. I don’t even care why. I just want the guy—”

“Or girl,” Stiles cuts in.

“—not to do it again,” Derek finishes with a frown. “The dean of my college thinks my face on Murray Hall means I’m Red.”

Stiles’ mouth falls open. “Oh, dang.”

“Yeah,” Derek agrees. “Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m an art student because evidently, that means I possess all the perfect skills to be a graffiti artist. Y’know,” Derek says scornfully, “if you consider stenciling art.”

Stiles bristles at that remark. “Um, graffiti—”

“Stenciling,” Derek interjects with a smug smirk.

Graffiti,” Stiles says over him, “is, absolutely, an art.”

“Oh, geez. Don’t tell me you’re a Red fanboy like your friend Scott.”

“Whether or not I am doesn’t matter,” Stiles says, puffing out his chest. It’s obvious he’s gearing up for a practiced rant. “Graffiti dates back to Ancient Egypt. It’s helped historians understand lifestyles and languages of past cultures. And today, it’s a form of public art that doubles as a tool of social emancipation and change. Graffiti gives people a voice and a means of self-expression. Not only is it art,” he goes on, “it might as well be considered one of the foundations of modern society!”

“Wow,” Derek deadpans when Stiles pauses for a breath. “Scott’s tame compared to you.”

Stiles scoffs. “Of course you deflect when faced with a proper counterargument. Spoken like a true,” he fumbles for the right word, “like a true butthead.”

Derek has to take a mental step back from the situation. He’s going toe-to-toe with an undergrad who seriously just called him a butthead. The last time anyone called him a butthead was nearly twenty years ago.

Stiles is muttering angrily to himself as he shuts down the computer, which effectively sets Derek’s priorities straight. He’s only here to figure out Red’s identity, and he needs to get back on track. “Agree to disagree?” Derek asks by way of an olive branch.

Stiles just narrows his eyes and looks extremely displeased. Finally, he says, “The dean’s really blaming you for the graffiti?”

“I mean, they don’t have any real proof. But there’s this asshole prof named Adrian Harris, and he acts like the graffiti’s basically a signed confession, just because it’s my face that’s been spray painted on Murray Hall.” Derek sighs. “So, you see why it’s important I find Red. Or at least find a way to get a message to him to quit using my face in his art.” Derek resists the temptation to use air quotes on the last word.

Stiles considers this for a moment. “Maybe I can help.”

“What the—” Derek splutters. “Do you know Red?”

“I never said that,” Stiles replies quickly. “But my best friend runs a Red fansite. I’ll see what I can do.”

It’s not exactly helpful, considering Scott’s essentially promised the same thing to him already. “Thanks,” he says anyway. “Let me know if I can return the favor.”

Stiles smiles like that’s exactly the response he’d been waiting for. “Well, I do owe you a date night.”

“What?” Derek squawks, taken off guard by the change of subject. It’s not like he would mind going on a date with Stiles. He’s smart, and he’s interesting, and he’s certainly easy on the eyes, but, “How old are you, even?” Derek blurts out before he can help himself.

“Old enough to know what I like,” Stiles challenges with a cheeky grin.

Derek blanches. He’s been a grad student for so long that undergrads are practically infants to him. Although, he realizes it might seem that way merely based on the way they behave. Then again, he’s the one who nearly got arrested today. And, in reality, Derek’s probably only a handful of years older than Stiles, at most.

“Let’s deal with this Red issue first,” Derek proposes. “Then, we’ll see.”

Stiles fist pumps so enthusiastically he nearly topples over the chair he’s sitting in. He rights himself with Derek’s help and calms down enough to say, “I can totally work with that.”

~ ~ ~

The next morning, Derek stirs awake an hour earlier than intended. He isn’t any closer to figuring out Red’s identity, but at least he’s got some plates spinning, so to speak. It’s not like he’s just sitting around and letting things happen to him. He feels more in control than he did this time yesterday, and that simple thought is calming.

When Derek’s phone chimes at him, he realizes it’s what had woken him up. It’s a text from Erica, which simply reads, “Call me.” Derek briefly wonders why Erica couldn’t just call him and forgo the text message, but whatever.

“Erica?” Derek rasps when she picks up the phone. He clears his throat and tries again. “Erica. What’s up?”

“Um,” she says, drawing out the syllable, “you should probably get to the Academic Building.”

Derek doesn’t understand why she didn’t simply send that in a text message. “I’m gonna need more if you want me to wake up an hour earlier than I planned,” Derek says.

“Red’s struck again,” Erica says, and that gets Derek to sit up.

“What? How?” he demands.

“Chill,” Erica says. “He didn’t use your face this time. But,” she hedges for a moment, “this time it could possibly be considered even worse.”

That doesn’t even make sense. “Can’t you send me a picture of it?” Derek asks, annoyed.

“No, I’m not actually on campus yet. Lydia sent me the pic on Snapchat, and I couldn’t get a screenshot of it fast enough.”

“Huh?” Derek asks blearily. “Wait, who’s Lydia again?”

“Just get to campus!” Erica yells. “Boyd and I’ll meet you there.” And then she hangs up.

Derek frowns down at his phone. What could be worse than his own face painted across a wall, especially considering the repercussions he’s already experienced with the dean?

He’s glad he’s not teaching today, so he dresses casual in a pair of jeans and a gray Henley. He brushes his teeth, runs a hand through his hair, considers the apple sitting on the kitchen counter but eats a spoonful of Nutella for breakfast instead, and then he’s out the door.

This time, there is a gaggle of students surrounding Red’s newest graffiti, and he really can’t blame them. It’s the most scandalous public statement that’s hit the campus in a while.

Red has used one of the wide panels along the side of the Academic Building as his canvas. This time, he’s painted a human again, but instead of Derek’s figure on the wall, everyone’s staring at the unmistakable image of Dr. Adrian Harris. He appears to be pulling back the panel like it’s actually a curtain, and behind the curtain, Red features a loose depiction of faceless deans and administrators sitting in an office. The cornerstone of the entire creation is the can of red spray paint clutched in Harris’ hand because it makes him look responsible for the devil horns, moustaches, clown noses, and other crass facial expressions sprayed over the faceless characters behind the curtain.

“Holy shit.” It’s Erica, who has suddenly appeared next to Derek, Boyd on her arm. “It’s so much better in person,” she marvels, whipping out her phone to take a picture. “I think I need to frame this.”

“Speaking of framing,” Boyd says, nodding to Derek’s left. “Harris, incoming,” he warns.

Derek curses inwardly because there’s nowhere for him to flee. Harris has already spotted him and is stomping over, parting the crowd of students in his way like he’s Moses faced with the Red Sea.

“Professor—” Derek tries, but somewhere deep inside, he knows he never had a chance of placating the seething man.

“Hale,” Harris grinds out through clenched teeth. “My office. Now.”

~ ~ ~

The second Derek escapes the Academic Building, Erica and Boyd, who have now been joined by Isaac, greet him with enough enthusiasm to actually lift his mood for a minute. They walk to Poor Yorick’s, and while Isaac fetches their coffee orders, Derek, Erica, and Boyd snag a table near the back of the café.

“What happened,” Erica demands, her disgust with Harris clear in her tone.

Derek slumps in his chair. “I dunno,” he grumbles. “I can’t—I don’t know what to do.”

“Talk it out,” Boyd urges, offering one of his small, encouraging smiles. “You’re not in this alone.”

But that’s the thing. Derek is in this alone. He’s lucky to have Erica, Boyd, and Isaac in his corner; he couldn’t ask for more loyal friends. But they’re not the ones being indirectly harassed by a graffiti artist and directly harassed by university personnel. The stress and anxiety is beginning to get to him. But he also knows he can’t—won’t—just sit around and let things happen to him. He feels a little untethered right now, but Boyd’s right. Derek needs to talk things out and determine his next course of action.

When Isaac rejoins the table, silently gifting Derek a bear claw to go with his coffee, Derek heaves a huge sigh and starts from the beginning. “While Harris dragged me up to his office, I was freaking out because I knew I couldn’t be in the room alone with him. He’d steamroll the entire meeting. But when we got there, Dr. Deaton and Dr. Morrell were already in Harris’ office.”

“So, it wasn’t an impromptu meeting,” Erica correctly surmises, and Derek nods.

“Meaning there was no reason to make a big show out of dragging you up to his office in front of everyone,” Isaac points out.

“He was embarrassed,” Boyd reasons. “Derek was the easiest way for him to project some of his anger.”

“I’d like to project my foot up his ass,” Erica mutters under her breath.

Derek cracks a smile. “Anyway,” he continues, “Harris kept implying my association with Red’s graffiti reflects poorly on my image and, therefore, on the university’s image. But Dr. Deaton convinced him he can’t blame me for Red’s graffiti based on circumstantial evidence.”

“I’m glad someone at that meeting has a brain,” Erica declares.

“Dr. Deaton really had my back,” Derek agrees. “Thank goodness for small favors.”

“He wouldn’t be much of an advisor to you if he didn’t have your back,” Boyd points out.

“Besides, you clearly didn’t do this. There’s no proof,” Erica says.

“I know, but this isn’t a court of law,” Derek replies as he broaches the issue that’s really got him worried. “Harris, Deaton, and Morrell are in charge of awarding the art fellowship for next year. Harris is allowed to hold the graffiti against me if he wants. Not officially, of course,” Derek assures. “But art is so subjective. He could easily find a way to keep the fellowship from me.”

“Then at this point, it doesn’t even matter if you figure out who Red is. Harris strikes me as the type to hold a grudge,” Boyd observes. “He’ll decide what he wants to decide, regardless of what you deserve.”

“You said Deaton had your back, though” Erica says. “What about Morrell? If she supports you too, then it’d be two against three in your favor, and it wouldn’t matter what Harris has to say.”

“I couldn’t get a read on her,” Derek admits. “She hardly even said anything and just stared a lot. Honestly, she could go either way, which is her prerogative. But I can’t stand to leave this to chance,” he says, clenching his fists. “All this just suddenly happened, totally without my own prompting.”

“As far as you know, anyway,” Isaac reminds him.

“Yeah, but I’m tired of letting this stuff happen to me,” Derek says, gazing intently at each of his friends. “I know I sound like a broken record, but I wish there was something I could do. I wish there was some way I could reassert control over this situation.”

“Get a message to Red,” Boyd suggests. At the perplexed looks he receives, he adds, “Just because you don’t know Red’s identity doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to talk to him. Figure out a way to deliver a message somewhere he’ll get it.”

Isaac frowns. “It’s not like he can just place an ad in the paper. Simply because Scott McCall writes about Red’s graffiti sometimes doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed Red actually reads the paper.”

“Oh! Idea!” Erica says, suddenly tapping away on her phone. “We totally know 127 places where Red would pay attention to a message suddenly showing up.”

Derek’s eyes widen in understanding. “I am not fighting graffiti with graffiti,” he hisses, completely scandalized. “That’s vandalism. It’s a felony in some places!”

Please. It’s a misdemeanor at best. It’s hardly even a real crime,” she says blithely. “It’s like the second base of crimes. Easy enough to get to, whether you’re actually trying to or not.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Derek shakes his head. “No. This is a terrible idea.”

“You haven’t even heard my idea,” Erica counters.

“I think I’ve heard enough, and I think I’m already in enough trouble,” Derek says.

“Do you want to talk to Red or not?” Erica asks, eyebrows raised expectantly.

Obviously, Derek does. And he doesn’t have any other ideas as to how he might go about doing so. And Boyd and Isaac don’t seem to have other suggestions to offer either.

It couldn’t hurt just to hear her out, right?

Derek gives in with a sigh. “Fine. What’ve you got?”

Erica grins in triumph. “Suit up, boys. We’re going to a rave.”

~ ~ ~

The rave is being held on the ground floor of a derelict building that looks like it ought to be condemned. Evidently, it used to house luxury lofts, until the property value of the area went down, at which point the lofts were converted into several smaller apartments. 

Derek’s never been to a rave, but simply based on the wardrobe requirements, he’s not sure he’ll be frequenting them often after tonight. Erica had made an impassioned plea for him to wear something with entirely too many buckles and straps until Derek had talked her down. So now, he’s wearing a plain, bright blue shirt—the tightest one she could find in his closet—and a pair of leather pants he’s borrowing from Boyd. Erica has since taken several pictures of him, and Derek is already regretting everything.

Boyd is wearing a long-sleeved mesh shirt and dark jeans, and Erica is wearing high-heeled boots that lace up past her knees, a pleated miniskirt, and a tight corset top. Her flowing blonde hair has been pulled back into a high ponytail so that it can’t cover up the paint. Derek doesn’t know what that means, and he’s afraid to ask. Isaac is bringing his girlfriend to the party, so he’ll meet up with them later.

“Won’t someone call in a noise complaint?” Derek shouts over the booming baseline of the music blaring from the rave.

Erica gives him a withering glare. “Who do you think is throwing this party?”

Derek wavers for a moment, uncomfortably shifting the shoulder bag that holds his paint and brushes. “People?”

Even Boyd rolls his eyes, and Derek can’t blame him. “The apartment complex, Derek. The point of the rave is to get people to notice this place,” Erica explains impatiently. “No one who lives here is going to call it in. C’mon,” she huffs, dragging him away from the entrance of the rave and around the corner to the adjoining parking garage. To suggest it’s fallen into disrepair is a colossal understatement. The parking garage is literally crooked on its foundation, the entire structure held up on one side by large pieces of rubble that look like they used to be a part of the building. “Struck by lightning, if you’d believe it,” Erica says.

“Is it even safe to be here?” Derek wonders aloud.

Erica and Boyd don’t dignify that with a response.

When they get to the side of the parking garage that faces the street, perpendicular to the entrance of the rave, Erica presents Red’s graffiti with a little flourish. “Your message board,” she says proudly.

Red’s graffiti is…adorable. There’s no other word for it. The tag features a pack of baby wolves tumbling all over each other in play, once again in varying shades of red. The wolf cubs are large enough to be clearly visible from the street and the overpass that runs behind it; Red must have balanced atop several discarded crates and barrels still surrounding the area in order to access the higher sections of the wall, and Derek realizes he’ll have to do the same, too. The leather pants he’s wearing are going to chafe so bad.

“What’s with the wolf cubs?” Derek asks, remembering how Scott had said Red usually tags places with wolves.

The corners of Boyd’s mouth twitch upwards into a small smile. “Red knows his tags end up online. And what do people look at online?” he prompts Erica.

“Cats,” she responds. “And cute baby animals. Like baby wolves!”

Boyd chuckles. “Yeah. So, he tagged this place because he hoped people would reblog and share the picture, and then it could bring attention to the state of this apartment complex.”

“It’s so sassy, I can’t even,” Erica gushes.

Derek has to agree. He’s so impressed with the idea that he considers for a moment not painting over it. This is what activism looks like.

“Too bad it won’t work, though,” Erica says. “Because people are assholes. This tag’s been here for like half a year, and nothing’s happened.”

“Yet,” Boyd counters. “Just wait. People can surprise you.”

Even though she’s in heels, Erica has to stand on her toes to kiss Boyd on the lips. “The yin to my yang,” she murmurs affectionately. Boyd smiles down at her warmly. “Okay,” Erica says, turning in place so she can face Derek but still remain in Boyd’s arms. “Obviously, once you start painting over Red’s graffiti, people on the street will be able to see you, so you’ve got to be quick,” she says. “We’ll be at the rave. If I don’t see your leather-clad butt in there within an hour, I’m going to come looking for you because by then, you either ditched us or got arrested. And I’ll have to kick your ass for either reason.” She narrows her eyes and fixes him with a stern glare. “Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Derek says, waving them off. “I’ll see you in a bit.” Even though he’s promised to make an appearance at the rave, he never said he’d stay the whole evening. He has to teach the next day anyway, so it’s not like Erica could be legitimately angry with him when he leaves the rave early.

Derek lets his bag hit the ground with a soft thump and crouches down next to it, withdrawing several of his larger hake brushes and a few small cans of paint. He realizes graffiti is traditionally done with spray paint, but he doesn’t have any experience with that medium, so he’s decided to go with what he knows. Standing up again, he reaches into his back pocket to retrieve a folded up piece of paper listing a long sequence of numbers.

Leaving a message here for Red is well and good, but figuring out a way for Red to contact Derek without attracting a hoard of random people in the process had been difficult. Covering Red’s tags with a phone number or a meeting place, date, and time would be unwise, considering anyone who uses the highway would be able to see it. So, Derek placed an order at the architecture department’s shop for a linoleum cutout the size of a business card, listing Derek’s cell phone number and the following message: CALL OR TEXT. WE NEED TO TALK.

The plan is to paint the confirmation number for the order, preceded by the word SHOP, over Red’s graffiti. It would be vague enough for most other people not to understand, but considering Red uses the laser cutter at the shop for his stencils, he would know what the number sequence meant. Red could then pick up the linoleum cutout and hopefully call Derek, thereby initiating contact.

Except, now that Derek knows the story behind Red’s wolf cub graffiti, he really can’t bring himself to paint over it. That would be vandalism. And he can’t believe how his opinion on graffiti has suddenly changed, but it has. He doesn’t ascribe to Erica’s cynical views—he does believe people can surprise you, if given the chance. And even if Red’s graffiti doesn’t succeed in inspiring someone with the means to renovate the decrepit apartment complex, Derek’s comparatively petty reason for needing to get in touch with Red is no excuse to trample over Red’s efforts to do good.

But that doesn’t mean Derek can’t go around Red’s efforts.

~ ~ ~

It takes Derek the better part of an hour to finish his addition to Red’s work, and he thanks his lucky stars no one called the cops on him, though that may be because he used dark paint in a dark part of town, under the cover of night. He stows his paint supplies in the trunk of his Camaro and takes a minute to bask in the satisfaction he feels. He’s done what he can for now, and he’s done it in a way that makes him happy.

When he ducks into the rave, Derek finally understands what Erica had meant about paint. The entirety of the rave is illuminated with black light, giving everything a dark, bluish-purple tint. There are several black light painting stations outfitted with UV reactive colors lining both sides of the wall parallel to the entrance, and from what Derek can tell, nearly everyone has been painted with glowing lines and swirls that make the ravers look like mystical, otherworldly creatures.

Derek scans the crowd for his friends; the floor is packed, so it’s difficult to find anyone, regardless of the fact that everyone looks unrecognizable from their ordinary appearances. Bodies bump and grind and tangle together to the sounds of loud dubstep beats being pumped into the air. The room exudes a controlled kind of frenetic energy that’s almost overwhelming, but effervescent and inviting, too.

Derek’s just about to go hold up the wall and wait for Erica to find him, as she’d promised (more like threatened), but then his eyes land on a spastic flailing of limbs that he actually recognizes: It’s Stiles, who’s dressed in jeans, Converse, and a black tank that reads YOU CAN’T RAVE WITH US. He’s got a red bandana wrapped across his forehead like a sweatband, and his entire body is splattered in glowing paint, except for where he’s got two thick lines of paint fingered beneath his eyes. The only reason he sticks out in the crowd is because he appears to be the one raver who doesn’t understand how to move his body to the beat of the music, but for how carefree Stiles looks, Derek doesn’t think anyone around him even minds.

He finds himself moving toward Stiles, feels himself swaying with the crowd, when a hand lands on his shoulder and pulls him back. He turns to discover Boyd, who’s waving at Erica and Isaac and shouting in his booming voice, “I found him! He’s over here!”

Erica and Isaac hurry over, weaving their way through the crowd. Isaac is wearing countless glow stick necklaces and bracelets, appears to have lost his shirt, and is covered in lip imprints that glow under the black light. A pretty brunette wearing a fitted pink crop top follows after him; her lipstick matches the marks on Isaac, and her dimpled smile somehow manages to look both sweet and slightly mischievous, too. “Allison, Derek. Derek, Allison,” Isaac says by way of introduction. Allison waves, and Derek smiles at her.

“Check it out,” Erica says, twisting sideways to show off her own paint. Leopard spots are dotted along her right shoulder, and they run up her neck, over her cheek, and across her forehead. “Boyd did it,” she preens. “And I did his.” Identical twisting, tribal patterns have been painted over Boyd’s shoulders, and they curve down his sides until meeting over his heart. The entire pattern is visible beneath his see-through mesh shirt. “Did you get it done?” she asks. “Run into any trouble?”

“It’s done,” Derek confirms. He feels a little like he’s in the mob, being so cryptic, so he adds, “I think he’ll get the message.” That doesn’t really help.

“All right!” Erica gives him a playful shove. “Time to celebrate the wildest thing you’ve ever done! Let’s get you a drink and onto the dance floor. C’mon, petty criminal,” she snarks, ushering their group toward the coolers. Derek tosses the keys of his Camaro to Boyd, who has already agreed to be their designated driver for the night.

A beer helps loosen him up, and in no time at all, Derek is on the dance floor, pulling moves that will probably embarrass him when Erica replays them for him the next day. He can’t find it in himself to care tonight, though. The past two days have been far too stressful. Hell, grad school is entirely too stressful, and he doesn’t let himself go like this often enough.

He’s going for a refill when Scott spots him and flags him down. “Hey, man!” Scott greets, just as cheerful as he’d been when Derek first met him. “You got a sec? My buddy Stiles will not shut up about you, and I said I’d introduce you if I had another chance.”

Scott looks down at his phone, presumably to text Stiles, so he doesn’t notice the way Derek is blushing. “We already met,” Derek says. “After you and I did. We sort of ran into each other.”

“Oh,” Scott says awkwardly, since he’s already fired off a text to Stiles. “Uh. How’s your search been going?” he asks in order to keep the conversation flowing. “Did you see Red’s new tag with Harris?” he snickers. “Classic.”

Derek’s about to offer his unpopular opinion about that particular piece when an idea strikes him. “Actually, there’s a newer one.”

Scott’s eyebrows go up; his interest has clearly been piqued.

“I saw it from the overpass, on my way here. Red added to the wolf cub graffiti on the parking garage out back,” Derek says, hooking his thumb in the direction of its general vicinity.

Scott excitedly bounces on the balls of his feet at the prospect of a new story, and Derek almost feels bad for lying to him. But getting Scott to run a story on Derek’s addition to Red’s graffiti will be beneficial for more than one reason.

That’s when Stiles shows up. “Scott, what’d you—Derek!” he exclaims, pleasantly surprised.

Scott claps them both on their backs. “Apparently you two have already met, so my work here is done. I’ll be back in a bit,” he says. Then he gives them both a playful look and adds, “Don’t just stand here making cow eyes at each other the whole time.”

Stiles gasps indignantly, and Scott scuttles off to escape Stiles’ attempts at a noogie. “Ignore him,” Stiles says with a laugh. “C’mon, let’s get some paint on you. I can’t believe no one has painted you yet.”

Isaac suddenly sashays next to Derek and says, “It’s cuz we were hoping someone would show up to do it for us.”

Derek covers Isaac’s entire face with his hand and shoves him away. “Paint sounds great,” Derek says to Stiles, and then he winces internally at the awkward rhyme. Paint sounds great?!

“Get it, Hale!” Isaac whoops from behind them.

Stiles chuckles as Derek plots out how he’ll kill Isaac later. “Looks like we both have embarrassing friends,” Stiles says easily. “We have so much in common!” He finds an available painting station and guides Derek to the unoccupied stool in front of it. Stiles grabs a brush and selects a tube of red UV reactive paint, then pauses awkwardly. “Uh…”

Derek suddenly understands the logic of wearing tanks and mesh shirts to parties like these. The only visible skin on his body right now is on his face, which is covered mostly with stubble and eyebrows, and his arms. Having Stiles paint only in either area makes Derek feel a little too much like he’s at a carnival.

“One sec,” Derek says as he peels off his shirt and tucks it into the waistband of his pants.

“Whoa,” Stiles breathes out, appreciatively admiring Derek’s body. “Way to give a guy a complex.”

Derek’s suddenly glad for the lighting because he knows it’s hiding the way he’s flushed all over right now. He’s aware of how he looks. He was on the basketball and swim teams all through high school, and he kept up his workout regimen after graduating. He has broad shoulders and a trim waist, and though his muscle tone has gone down somewhat since regularly playing sports, he hasn’t completely let himself go, in spite of his occasionally poor choices in breakfast foods.

“Any requests?” Stiles asks as he squirts some paint onto a palette.

“Dealer’s choice,” Derek responds.

Stiles hums to himself as he circles Derek and eventually stops at his back. “My plan was to paint a part of you I wouldn’t have to worry about getting my mouth on, but this is just unfair,” he says right next to Derek’s ear.

Derek feels himself smile and glances over his shoulder at Stiles. “You’re one to talk. Your entire body is splattered with paint.” Literally, there isn’t a single patch of clean skin on Stiles. “You look like you mugged Lisa Frank.”

Stiles barks out a laugh. “Oh, I can think of a couple places that are paint-free.”

Derek goes wide-eyed as he squirms on the stool and silently curses the leather pants he’s wearing. As he feels Stiles begin to paint around the triskelion tattoo on his upper back, Derek struggles to come up with something to talk about. They don’t really know each other that well, and this isn’t actually a first date. Eventually, he says, “So, uh, what’s your major?”

“More like what’s not my major,” Stiles replies. “I’m environmental science right now, but I’m still not sure I’m gonna stick with it. I just haven’t found the right fit yet.” He scoffs at himself. “I’ll probably be a fifth year senior by the time I graduate, if I’m lucky.”

“No, I get that,” Derek replies. “I’m an art grad student, but if you’d believe it, I did chemistry during undergrad. I hated everything about it, but it’s how I learned to mix my own paints, and that’s the skill that landed me the art fellowship I’ve got for this year.” He leaves out the part where he’s not sure he’ll be able to renew that fellowship for next year.

“So that’s why you’re so critical of Red,” Stiles says, coming around to smirk at Derek. “You’re one of those stuffy artist types.”

Derek scowls. He is not stuffy.

“I’m only joking,” Stiles says good-naturedly. Then, he winks and adds, “Besides, I still have a date where I can convince you of all the ways you’re wrong.”

“That remains to be seen,” Derek teases. Stiles returns to his painting, and after a few more minutes of enjoyable banter, he decides he’s done. Derek tries to twist around in a fruitless endeavor to see his own back, which only makes Stiles laugh at him. Derek seems to be good at that. “How am I supposed to know you haven’t painted something embarrassing on me?” Derek demands.

Stiles leans in close and says, “I guess you’ll just have to trust me.” Then he closes the gap between them and places a quick kiss to Derek’s lips, pulls back, and cautiously gauges Derek’s reaction.

Derek’s tongue flicks out to lick across his own lips, and he notices the way Stiles’ gaze follows the movement, so Derek surges forward and presses their lips together for a deeper kiss that leaves them both a little breathless afterward.

Stiles is outright grinning now, and under the black light, his eyes glow an absolutely mesmerizing amber that makes Derek stare for too long.

“Dance with me?” Stiles asks hesitantly, almost like he doesn’t want the wrong question or phrase to break the spell that seems to have settled between them.

Derek places his hand in Stiles’ and says, “Lead the way.”

~ ~ ~

Derek wakes up alone on his stomach, his face mashed into a pillow that doesn’t belong to him. He sits up slowly, nursing a killer hangover and rifling through vague memories of Stiles driving them back to his dorm. He recognizes his blue shirt on the floor, but he’s still wearing his pants, so he knows nothing happened because there’s no way anyone would’ve been able to put those leather pants back on him last night if they’d been taken off.

Stiles’ face suddenly appears above him, upside-down, and Derek rears back in alarm. “Morning, sunshine,” he sings, annoyingly chipper for the hour. “You’ve got adorable bedhead,” he comments. Derek blinks groggily, and Stiles hops down from the upper level of the bunk bed Derek realizes he’s in and retrieves a bottle of water and aspirin for him. “Scott spent the night at his girlfriend’s,” Stiles explains while Derek pops a pill in his mouth. “I couldn’t find any of the people you came with, so I just put you to bed in his bunk.”

Derek has no idea why Stiles sounds apologetic. It was incredibly thoughtful for him to make sure Derek got to bed safely. “Sorry for passing out on you,” he says instead.

“Dude, I don’t even think you actually passed out?” Stiles says uncertainly. “Like, I think you just fell asleep. You looked exhausted when I tucked you in. Hashtag grad school, am I right?” He frowns at himself and then chuckles. “Actually, what would I know? I’m not in grad school.”

When Derek pats his pockets, looking for his phone, Stiles says, “Oh. I hooked up your phone to one of my spare chargers last night so it wouldn’t die on you.” He retrieves it from the wall charger at his desk. “I promise that’s the only digging around I did in your pants.”

Derek accepts his phone gratefully and panics the second he sees the time. He abruptly moves to stand up and slams his forehead hard into the top bunk. “Son of a bitch!” he curses aloud, clapping a hand to his pounding head.

“Oh, my God!” Stiles yelps, diving for the mini fridge next to the door. “Sorry, I only have root beer in here,” he says as he helps Derek hold the cold can to his forehead.

But Derek’s only half paying attention. He hits the speed dial for Boyd and paces impatiently as he waits for him to pick up.

“What’s wrong?” Stiles asks, picking up on Derek’s anxiety.

“I have class in an hour and a half, I’m wearing leather pants, and someone else has the keys to my car and my apartment.”

Stiles’ mouth falls open. “Dude, just skip class,” he suggests.

“I’m teaching the class,” Derek huffs out.

“Oh,” Stiles replies lamely, but otherwise remains silent to let Derek sort things out.

It’s too late to request a substitute, and barring an actual emergency, it would be inconsiderate to his students’ time to cancel class. Moreover, Derek really can’t afford to cancel class when he knows it would only cause Harris to look into why, and if Harris ever found out it was because Derek overslept after getting drunk at a rave, where he was defacing public property, there’s no coming back from that.

While Derek is on the phone with Boyd, Stiles ducks out, presumably to take a shower. Boyd, who still has Derek’s keys, agrees to retrieve Derek’s clothes and lesson plans and will meet him on campus as soon as he can. Just as Derek wraps up the call, Stiles pokes his head back into the dorm. His hair is still sleep-mussed, so he clearly hasn’t showered yet. Instead, when he walks in, he’s precariously balancing two cups of coffee in one hand, while he clenches a fistful of sugar and creamer packets in the other.

Derek slips on his blue shirt, suddenly glad Stiles had only painted his back since he doesn’t have time for a shower, and apologizes to Stiles for leaving in such a rush. Fortunately, Stiles seems to understand the situation, though when he hands Derek his coffee, he winks and says in a saccharine voice, “Have a good day, dear.”

“You’re unbelievable,” Derek mutters with a wry grin. And then, more earnestly, he adds, “Thank you.” He really means it.

Stiles gives him a rakish grin and slaps Derek’s ass on his way out.

~ ~ ~

Class wasn’t as much of a disaster as Derek had thought it would be. This is his third semester in a row teaching the same course, so he knows his material thoroughly. And while he still feels grimy and sticky from the night before, in spite of the change of clothes Boyd brought for him, Derek decides he can’t look too horrible, considering the majority of students show up to class these days in pajama bottoms and Ugg boots. Although, he does get some funny looks, and at first he thinks it’s because he must be bruising on his forehead, but later, he discovers it’s because Stiles had left a hickey on his neck.

Whatever. Everyone’s allowed to have one off day. He decides there’s nothing he can do about it now, so there’s no point in worrying.

After dismissing his class, he immediately goes to the studio because he has work he’s put off while trying to track down Red, and it isn’t until late in the afternoon that he finally has a minute to himself.

He goes down to Poor Yorick’s and orders a coffee and a sandwich and checks his phone for all the messages and missed calls he’d ignored in his panic that morning. All his missed calls are from Erica, Boyd, and Isaac, from the night before, and all the unread text messages on his phone were received today:

Text from Erica Reyes, Received at 1:14 AM
> meet @ car in 15

Text from Isaac Lahey, Received at 1:17 AM
> going home w/Allison dont need a ride :D :D :D

Text from Erica Reyes, Received at 1:38 AM
> where r u?

Text from Erica Reyes, Received at 1:45 AM
> call me

Text from Vernon Boyd, Received at 1:51 AM
> Make good choices. Also, call Erica.

Text from Erica Reyes, Received at 1:59 AM
> DEREK CALL ME

Text from Erica Reyes, Received at 2:00 AM
> u better have a good reason for not checking in

Text from Vernon Boyd, Received at 2:03 AM
> I’m turning on your GPS location services tomorrow.

Text from Mom (Mobile), Received at 9:17 AM
> I’m running out of Tupperware containers. Bring back some empty ones with you next time so I have containers I can use to send food home with you.

Text from Mom (Mobile), Received at 9:18 AM
> When do you think you’ll be home?

Text from Mom (Mobile), Received at 9:21 AM
> Don’t forget your multivitamin.

Text from Erica Reyes, Received at 10:54 AM
> boyd tells me ur not dead but got LAID????? omG I NEED DETAILS

Text from Erica Reyes, Received at 11:01 AM
> come over after teaching. boyds cooking stir fry. also DETAILS!!?!

Text from Scott McCall, Received at 12:33 PM
> is it ok 2 give stiles ur # cuz he wants 2 c u again… :)

Text from Unknown Sender, Received at 3:28 PM
> Who is this?

Derek feels bad for making his friends worry, and he’s about to send them all a reply, but the last text message stops him in his tracks. If Derek’s correct in his suspicions, the plan worked, and the unknown sender is Red. He sends a response and immediately receives one back:

Text to Unknown Sender, Sent at 4:15 PM
< Are you Red?

Text from Unknown Sender, Received at 4:16 PM
> Yes. Who’s asking? I got your message. What do you want?

Derek flails a little, his half-eaten sandwich completely forgotten. He has no idea how to respond. Should he be firm and make demands? What if he’s civil and Red thinks he’s a pushover?

After he takes a moment more to think, he packs up his things and texts Erica to let her know he’s on his way to her apartment.

~ ~ ~

“I don’t know if you’re a moron or a genius,” is what Erica greets him with when she opens the door to receive Derek into the apartment she shares with Boyd.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the latter,” Derek replies flatly.

Erica rolls her eyes. “Get in,” she says, shutting the door after him. Derek’s about to apologize for going off the radar last night, but Erica says, “Boyd, pull up the story.”

Boyd’s on the couch with his laptop. “Which one? The local paper has one up now, too.”

Erica squeals in delight and hops on the couch to sit next to him. “Both! Let’s see them both!”

“Both of what?” Derek asks, confused.

Boyd turns his laptop, which displays an article from the Beacon Herald that features a large photograph of Derek’s addition to Red’s wolf cub graffiti. “Holy crap,” Derek mumbles as he sinks onto the sofa beside Boyd. The photo was clearly taken this morning, and in the light of day, or perhaps due to the way the picture is cropped, it somehow looks even larger than Derek remembers. It also looks even better than he remembers.

The plan, as Erica, Boyd, and Isaac had known it, was simply to scrawl the shop confirmation number across Red’s graffiti of the wolf cubs; however, because Derek didn’t want to undermine Red’s efforts to get the rundown apartment complex renovated, he’d added to the graffiti by painting a large alpha werewolf contentedly overseeing her pack of baby wolves. Then, he’d painted a dark gray background to resemble a cave or den, and above it all, he’d painted the caption SAFE AT HOME. The confirmation number seems like an afterthought, as he’d given the alpha a collar and painted the numbers onto the tag hanging from it.

As symbolic as the graffiti is, what really sends home the message is the dilapidated, crumbling remains of the parking garage surrounding it, as well as the apartment complex in the background.

“What do the articles say?” Derek asks.

“Well, Scott’s article is mostly about how you’re obviously not Red because you didn’t use spray paint or stencils, so he kinda took it into this convoluted copycat angle,” Boyd replies, clearly unimpressed. “But the Herald seems to get the message of your painting—that everyone should feel safe at home.” Derek smiles, happy to hear it. “You should check out the comments when you have a chance later. People are really pushing for renovations.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s great and all,” Erica says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I don’t mean to sound horrible when I say this cuz I think it’d be great if those apartments were properly repaired, but why’d you have to write the confirmation number so freakin’ small?” she demands. “Red won’t even be able to see the numbers unless he looks at a hi-res photo or sees your painting in person.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Derek says, digging his phone out of his pocket. He shows Red’s texts to Erica and Boyd. “What should I reply with?”

Erica blurts out, “Well, duh. Tell him to quit incriminating you with his graffiti. Explain the situation to him!”

When she puts it like that, it does sort of seem like an obvious thing to do.

Text to Unknown Sender, Sent at 4:59 PM
< I need you to stop posting your graffiti on campus.

“Really?” Boyd says dryly. “That’s what you’re going with?”

“What?” Derek says defensively.

“Red is obviously a student who lives on campus. There’s no way he’s going to agree to quit posting his tags on campus,” Erica says. “That’s where the majority of his graffiti is posted!”

When Red replies, his text comes attached with a photo of Derek’s addition to Red’s graffiti.

Text from Unknown Sender, Sent at 5:02 PM
> LOL no. You’re one to talk. 

Text from Unknown Sender, Sent at 5:03 PM
> P.S. It’s rude to deface someone else’s tags.

“Told you,” Erica mutters. Then she takes out her phone and texts Derek a picture of Red’s graffiti that actually features Derek—the one with two people slow dancing but actually gazing into their phones. “Reply back with that picture,” Erica instructs, “and write exactly what I’m about to say. No questions.”

Text to Unknown Sender, Sent at 5:08 PM
< THIS IS MY FACE. The university is blaming your graffiti on me. Either find a way to fix this problem, or I’ll turn your number over to the cops so they can trace you.

“Can the cops actually trace him?” Derek asks skeptically after sending the text.

Erica shrugs. “I dunno. But maybe they can pull his phone records and figure out who he is. All my knowledge on this comes from Law & Order,” she admits

Derek grimaces, thinking back to the graffiti featuring the wolf cubs. “I don’t actually want this guy to get in trouble with the cops,” he says, not realizing he felt this way until now. “I mean, he’s got a point. It’d be hypocritical for me to turn him in for something I did, too.”

“But you’re also not inadvertently getting him into trouble for something he didn’t do,” Boyd points out.

And that’s true as well.

Up until this point, Red’s replies have been fairly prompt, but they wait twenty minutes after Derek’s sent the message, and nothing comes back.

“Does this mean he dumped his phone down a sewer grate?” Derek wonders aloud.

“Not unless he’s made of money,” Erica snarks.

“We’re assuming he’s a student. Maybe he’s in class or something,” Boyd suggests reasonably. “Let’s give him some time. Maybe he’s thinking. And while we let him do that, let’s eat.”

“Also,” Erica adds with a smirk, “I’m gonna need some details about how you apparently went and got yourself laid last night?”

Derek runs a hand down his face. It’s going to be a long evening.

~ ~ ~

After dinner, and after Erica finishes laughing over the fact that Derek didn’t, in fact, get laid, but simply fell asleep in someone else’s bed (and not even Stiles’ bed), it’s nearing 10:00 PM, and Red still hasn’t replied to their last text message.

“Let’s give it until midnight,” Boyd suggests as he helps Erica dry dishes.

“In that case, can I grab a shower?” Derek asks.

Please,” Erica implores, waving a hand in front of her nose.

Derek rolls his eyes. “Jerk,” he mutters.

Erica laughs as he heads to the bathroom. “Borrow some of Boyd’s sweats,” she calls after him.

Once the shower is running and Derek has the bathroom door shut, he takes off his shirt and panics for a split second when he discovers the inside of it is tinged red. When he remembers Stiles’ painting from the rave is still on his back, he calms down again, turns his back to the mirror, and glances over his shoulder to see the reflection of Stiles’ design.

Derek just gapes at the mirror for a good, long minute, and then he shuts off the shower and rushes into Erica and Boyd’s living room. They both seem startled to find him randomly shirtless, and Erica looks like she’s about to crack a joke, but Derek opens his mouth first. “Tell me what this looks like to you,” he demands, turning so they can see his back.

“No way,” Erica whispers, coming closer so she can gently run a hand down Derek’s back. She grabs her camera phone and snaps a quick picture.

“Stiles did this?” Boyd asks, walking over as well.

Derek turns around, and all three of them hover over Erica’s phone so they can stare at the picture she took. After a day of rubbing against the inside of Derek’s shirt, the paint has cracked and flaked away in places, but the image is still clear. Stiles had painted a wolf howling at the triskelion tattoo on Derek’s back. Most importantly, the style is unmistakably familiar.

It takes a moment before Derek can even verbalize what he wants to say because he can scarcely believe it. Finally, he swallows hard and looks up from Erica’s phone. “Stiles is Red.”

~ ~ ~

After Derek finishes his shower, he storms down to Stiles’ dorm and pounds on the door until he realizes it’s late at night, and Stiles’ neighbors might not appreciate his temper. He’s pacing restlessly in front of the door when someone yanks it open.

“Dude, what?” Scott groans. “Oh. Uh. Hey, Derek.” He’s rubbing at his eyes like he’d been asleep, and Derek tries not to feel bad for waking him.

“Is Stiles here?”

Scott shakes his head. “He said he had to work late tonight. Dude, can I just give him your number?” he asks through a yawn. “I knew you two would hit it off—”

“Did you know?” Derek demands, cutting him off.

“Uh, yeah,” Scott says. “I just said I knew you two would—”

“Did you know all this time that Stiles is Red?”

Everything about Scott goes still, though he looks completely alert. “What did you just say?”

Derek huffs in disdain and thunders back down the hall to head for the shop, but when he gets there, all the lights are off and Stiles is no where in sight. He paces agitatedly for a few minutes until he decides he should, at the very least, pace elsewhere so that Deputy Parrish doesn’t pick him up again for some inane reason.

He can’t figure out if he’s angry or annoyed or something else entirely. Sure, Stiles had lied to him by omission, but Derek can’t exactly fault him for that since he was protecting his identity. Stiles never intentionally provoked the administration on Derek’s behalf. It’s not like he’d been going after Derek. It was all an accident, of sorts.

Maybe Derek’s just frustrated with himself for not realizing what was going on sooner. Or maybe he’s angry he let down his guard long enough to fall for Stiles, and long enough to be fooled by Stiles. He feels like his trust has been broken, but he can’t figure out if he or Stiles is to blame.

Even though he finally knows Red’s identity, and he finally has the answers to questions that have been plaguing his mind relentlessly, Derek suddenly feels like he understands very little. Although, he does know he owes Scott an apology for taking out his frustration on him.

Derek pulls out his phone and taps out a quick apology to Scott, and once he’s sent it, he realizes he knows one more thing: if Stiles is Red, then Derek does have his phone number. Moreover, because Derek identified himself by sending Red—or Stiles—a picture of the graffiti on Murray Hall, Stiles now knows that Derek is the one who’s threatening to turn him in to the cops.

Derek doesn’t even need to think before he does it: he taps Stiles’ number and holds his breath while he waits for the call to connect. He resolves to leave a message if Stiles doesn’t pick up, even though he’s not sure what he’ll say. Suddenly, there’s a click over the line, and Derek realizes someone has picked up but isn’t saying anything.

“Hello?” Derek tries.

There isn’t an answer, although Derek can hear the faint sounds of rushing air and someone breathing on the other end.

He swallows hard. “Red.” Derek hesitates a moment more. “Stiles. I know it’s you, Stiles.”

Derek waits.

Still, no answer.

Derek thinks carefully about what he wants to tell Stiles. “I’m not mad. I’m not anything. I mean—I don’t know what I am.” He takes a deep breath. “I was frustrated with the situation, but I’m not mad at you, okay?”

A faint hitching of breath comes across the line, but nothing else.

“Can we talk?” Derek pauses, waiting for an answer. When one doesn’t come, he adds, “This was all a stupid misunderstanding. But I need to know what you’re thinking. I wish you’d quit icing me out. We can figure this out if you’d just say something.

Derek waits another minute. He knows someone else is on the line, but when he still doesn’t get any semblance of a reply, he eventually hangs up and goes back home.

He’s getting ready for bed when his phone chimes to indicate he’s received a new text message:

Text from Unknown Sender, Sent at 12:37 AM
> I’m sorry. I promise I’ll make it up to you.

Derek sends several texts in response, but they all go unanswered.

~ ~ ~

He falls asleep holding his phone, and when Derek wakes up, Stiles still hasn’t replied. Derek does, however, have a new e-mail from Dr. Deaton, asking him to send confirmation for a meeting after lunch. He confirms because what else is there for him to do? And then he turns off his phone and simply mopes for a bit because he needs some space from the rest of the world.

When it’s time for the meeting, Derek heads to campus, head down and direction set on the Academic Building. He takes the stairs by twos, as he doesn’t want to delay this anymore than he has to because there’s no point in it.

Deaton’s door is open, but Derek still knocks lightly and tentatively says, “Sir?” And when Deaton looks up and waves him in, Derek sinks silently into the chair across from his desk while he waits for his advisor to finish up whatever he’s working on.

“Derek, thank you for seeing me again on such short notice,” Deaton says after a moment. “How are your classes going?”

Derek hates small talk, but he obliges the professor. “Good. Fine. Um, I’ve got a talkative bunch of students this semester, so it makes for good class discussion, so, uh, that’s been nice, I guess.” He fidgets uncomfortably. “Sir, about the—”

“Good, good,” Deaton says, interrupting him. “How are you doing on research for your thesis?”

Not nearly well enough. If Derek’s going to be honest, he feels he hasn’t accomplished anything at all. “I’m still working on the preliminary reading list. The research is taking a while because I haven’t really focused the project yet,” Derek replies. “I wanted to write on art’s influence on society, but that’s obviously way too vague.”

“Ah, yes,” Deaton says in commiseration. “And you also want to avoid writing on something that’s already been covered.”

Derek nods because that’s exactly it—that’s what makes producing good scholarship so challenging. But that’s the same thing that makes it so rewarding, too.

“What about the function of graffiti in the millennial’s urban landscape?” Deaton suggests.

“What?” This has to be a joke. “But sir—”

“It’s a topic with little to no coverage thus far, and as I understand it, we have a very good source on our campus that could serve as a reliable contributor. I believe he goes by the name Red?”

Derek blanches. He has no idea what’s happening anymore, but he’s also decided he won’t out Stiles if he can help it. “No one knows who he is,” Derek reasons. And that should be enough. Campus graffiti isn’t like the Watergate scandal or something; there’s no way he could get away with using an anonymous source throughout his thesis, so Deaton will just have to drop the idea.

But Deaton’s eyes twinkle with mirth. “Derek, I think you know exactly who Red is.”

He gets up and walks to the back of his office, where he draws up the blinds and looks outside. “I think we all have an idea of who he is.”

Derek warily gets up to join Deaton at the window, and he gapes at what he sees. On the wall directly across from the Academic Building, Red has left a new tag featuring Stiles. The image shows Stiles holding a can of spray paint, and it appears as though he’s just finished spray painting the words I AM RED on the wall. The graffiti is in perfect view of all the offices belonging to university administrators.

Stiles turned himself in.

In disbelief, Derek mouths wordlessly for a second before shifting his gaze from the window to Deaton. “He turned himself in?”

Deaton nods. “This morning. As you’re well aware from personal experience, his latest work on its own wouldn’t be enough to incriminate him,” he says, “but he was here in person this morning, too.”

Derek can’t understand why Stiles would’ve turned himself in. Sure, graffiti is vandalism, and that’s a crime, which is bad. But Stiles isn’t bad. And there’s no way the university’s administrators just let him off with a slap on the wrist.

“I need to go,” Derek mumbles.

“I understand,” Deaton says, and he doesn’t seem the slightest bit annoyed with Derek for cutting the meeting short. “But when you have a chance, e-mail my office so we can finish this appointment.”

Derek looks at him, perplexed. Isn’t this all they needed to talk about?

“We still need to map out your thesis, if you’re interested in the idea,” Deaton clarifies.

Right. Derek nods numbly, really not in the proper headspace to process thesis talk at the moment.

“We’ll sort out the paperwork for the second year of your fellowship then, too.”

Derek’s mouth literally falls open, and all he can do is stare at his professor, completely bewildered. It’s embarrassing, really. “But Dr. Harris—”

“Has already signed off on it,” Deaton states calmly.

“The fellowship is really mine?” Derek asks.

A warm expression settles over Deaton’s features, and though his smile is subtle, it is undeniably filled with pride. “Let’s talk soon.”

~ ~ ~

It’s raining when Derek leaves the Academic Building, and he’s drenched by the time he arrives at Stiles’ dorm. It would’ve been one giant cliché if Stiles had actually been there.

Before Derek can utter a single word, Scott says, “Stiles is gone.”

Derek silently prays that doesn’t mean expulsion, and the look on his face must betray his concern. “He’s been suspended for the rest of the semester,” Scott explains. “That was the deal that would ensure the campus cops didn’t write him up for vandalism. He left for his dad’s house about an hour ago.”

“Oh. Thanks for letting me know,” Derek replies. He can’t help but feel hurt Stiles left without breaking the awkward rift between them. He wonders if this means Stiles doesn’t want Derek to contact him anymore. He left without saying goodbye, after all.

“Did you get your fellowship?” Scott wonders aloud.

Derek furrows his brow. “Yeah, I did. How did you know about that?”

“Stiles,” Scott answers. “He said when he was negotiating the terms of his suspension, he wanted to make sure your indirect involvement in all this wouldn’t affect your chances. He had to trade in his job at the shop for Harris to agree.”

Derek’s mouth goes dry. The shop is how Stiles had been creating the stencils for his graffiti. Does this mean he’s completely giving it up? All for Derek?

“Look,” Scott says. “I want you to know I didn’t know Red was—” He stops and rearranges his thoughts. “I didn’t know Stiles was Red. Even though I was writing about it, I didn’t know it was him.”

Derek pushes a hand through his own hair. “I’m sorry about how I dropped that on you. I was frustrated and lost my temper, and I shouldn’t have taken my anger out on you.”

Scott waves him off. “I know. I got your text. And it’s fine.” He sounds like he means it. “I don’t fully understand why Stiles did what he did, even though it doesn’t make me respect what he did any less. I don’t even know how that makes sense, but it does, y’know?”

Derek nods because he understands the feeling. It seems Stiles stirs up an interesting mix of emotions in everyone he encounters.

“But he’s going to be gone for a while now. And I guess he’s going to sort himself out, reevaluate things.” Scott leans against the doorframe and glances off to the side. “He’s like my brother, y’know?” Scott asks, looking up at Derek again. “I want to believe you’ll be good for him because I want to trust Stiles’ choices and opinions with regards to people. I mean, he picked me, didn’t he?” A soft smile touches his lips for a moment before he continues with his earnest plea. “But if you’re not going to be there for him, leave him alone, will you?”

Derek can respect Scott’s protective instincts, but he wants to assure him there’s nothing to worry about. In the short time Derek has known Stiles, it seems all Stiles has done is had his back. He rescued Derek from Deputy Parrish, made sure he got home safely after the rave, and risked his entire academic career to make sure Derek wouldn’t be unfairly blamed for something he didn’t do. And that’s only some of the things he’s done for Derek. He can’t even imagine the countless acts of kindness Stiles has managed through his graffiti activism.

“Even if I didn’t seriously owe him for having my back, I’d be there for him,” Derek promises. “I’ve never met a person like Stiles, and I really hope I can get to know him better.”

Scott smiles, clearly pleased with this answer. “Do you have a car?”

Derek’s a little taken aback by the question. “Yeah,” he replies warily.

“Stiles only packed the essentials when he left today,” Scott says. “My friend Lydia was going to let me use her car to get Stiles’ stuff back to him next weekend, but what would you say if I cancelled with her, and we used your car instead?”

Derek lets out a relieved breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in. “I’d really like that.”

~ ~ ~

Throughout the long week preceding Scott and Derek’s drive down to Beacon Hills, where Stiles is now living with his father, Derek maintains the wall of silence between himself and Stiles since he feels it’s Stiles’ place to break the divide if he so chooses. But when they finally show up at Stiles’ home, Derek wonders about the wisdom in such a decision since it appears Scott has forgone informing Stiles of Derek’s presence as well.

“Hey, buddy!” Scott chirps, hefting a box of books under one arm when Stiles opens his front door. Stiles smiles at his friend, but the moment his eyes land on Derek, the expression on his face morphs into one of naked surprise. “Thought I’d bring some extra muscle to help me haul in your stuff.” Scott smacks Derek’s bicep a little too enthusiastically, and Derek suddenly has the feeling Scott’s decision not to tell Stiles wasn’t a casual oversight. That punk.

“So, I’m just gonna start piling stuff over here,” Scott says, shoving into the house and setting the box of books into a corner of the living room. On his way out, Derek thinks he hears Scott mutter something about cow eyes, but before he can question it, Scott raises his voice and says, “You two can start helping any time now!”

That gets them both moving, and it’s an awkward exercise in silence and avoidance unloading Stiles’ things from Derek’s Camaro. Stiles is disconcertingly quiet, and Derek can tell it’s even beginning to bother Scott, regardless of the cheery front he’s put on for everyone’s benefit.

They’re just about finished unloading the car when a voice floats through the house and asks, “Is that Scott out there?”

That seems to break the spell. “Yeah,” Stiles mumbles, looking up. Then he clears his throat and says a bit louder, “Yeah, Dad! And, uh, he brought a friend!”

Stiles’ dad must hear something in his son’s voice because a minute later, he appears from within the house, fully clad in a sheriff’s uniform. It’s all Derek can do to avoid staring.

Because Stiles’ dad is the sheriff?!

Derek had noticed a squad car approaching the back of the house, but somehow he hadn’t put it together until this moment. Scott, at the very least, could’ve warned him. That punk!

The sheriff’s eyes glide over Scott’s clearly familiar presence and hone in on Derek, and Derek suddenly realizes this is a terrible idea. Why hadn’t he realized it two hours ago? Or a week ago? In what universe is it a good idea to meet a guy’s parents before the first date? And when you’re maybe half responsible for why he’s been kicked out of school? And when the guy’s dad owns a gun? And is the sheriff?

Right about the time Derek realizes he’s just standing there and having a conversation with himself inside his own head is when he lurches forward and offers his hand. “I’m Derek Hale. Nice to meet you, sir,” is what he hopes the garbled string of syllables tumbling out of his mouth sounds like.

“John Stilinski,” Stiles’ dad says, firmly grasping the proffered hand.

They’re regarding each other cautiously, and Derek has the distinct feeling the sheriff has been informed of Derek’s role—however indirect it was—in Stiles’ suspension. Thankfully, Scott breaks the tension by asking, “Fridays are still burger nights, right?”

The sheriff turns his gaze on Scott and smiles fondly at him. “Now, something tells me you already know the answer to that question; otherwise, you wouldn’t have planned your trip for today.” He winks, and Derek’s taken aback by how much the action reminds him of Stiles. “Why don’t you boys finish unloading the car, and I’ll get changed and fire up the grill.”

“Actually,” Scott interjects, “I was thinking I’d help you out with the grill. Derek and Stiles can handle the rest of the unloading. There isn’t much left.”

Stiles’ eyes widen in alarm, and he appears to be trying and failing to communicate silently with Scott. When his father picks up on the exchange, he claps a hand on Scott’s back and ushers him through the house without another word, leaving Derek and Stiles alone on the front porch.

“You wouldn’t even know Scott’s not actually my brother,” Stiles huffs, and Derek startles a little at finally hearing Stiles speak after so long. “He’s had my dad wrapped around his little finger since we were in diapers.” Stiles closes the front door and rests back against it, staring down at his shoes. Derek’s about to ask how he’s been, which is kind of a stupid question in retrospect, but Stiles speaks first. “Did Scott force you to come down here?” He glances up at Derek, and there’s something indescribably fragile yet resilient about the way he looks. “Because he means well, but I know he has this terrible habit of thinking he knows what’s best for everyone.”

That’s one way of putting it; although, Derek believes that instead of thinking he knows what’s best for everyone, Scott only wants what’s best for everyone. It’s a subtle but important distinction. “He’s a good friend,” Derek says, leaning back against the porch railing so he’s facing Stiles. “And he didn’t force me to drive down here. In fact, he nearly didn’t want me to come.”

“Well, thanks for humoring him—”

“Why have you been avoiding me?” Derek blurts out.

Stiles looks momentarily stunned at the outburst. “I’ve been giving you space.”

Derek tries and fails to keep a lid on his frustration. “Have you even kept track of how many times I’ve called and texted you? God, I feel like I’m in high school again! Why would you think I want space when I’m trying that hard to talk to you?”

“Frankly, I have no idea,” Stiles bites out. “Have you even kept track of how many ways I nearly got you kicked out of school?”

Derek throws his hands in the air. “I told you that was a stupid misunderstanding!” he exclaims. “And everything is fine now. You turned yourself in.” He frowns and says, “Everything is fine, right?”

“Depends on your definition of fine.” A wry grin sparks across Stiles’ face. “I’ve been suspended for the semester, so there’s no refund on my tuition. My dad’s disappointed in me, but the worst thing is he won’t actually say he’s disappointed. Plus, I lost my job at the shop, and my college kicked me out, which means I have to change majors again. But it’s not like I was too attached to environmental science, so whatever,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Shit, I had no idea,” Derek curses. He was aware of Stiles’ suspension, of course, but had no clue about all the crap that accompanied it. He wavers for a moment and says, “Can I ask you something?”

“Go for it.”

“Why me?” At Stiles’ confused expression, Derek clarifies. “Why did you use my face for the graffiti on Murray Hall?”

“Oh, God,” Stiles groans, placing his face in both his hands. “Let me apologize ahead of time because this is going to sound so stupid,” Stiles laments as he glances up again, though he avoids Derek’s eyes. “The first time I ever saw you was one night after I’d tagged some place or another. You were leaving the art building, the sun was just coming up, and the lighting framed you so perfectly. I wanted you so bad, but I didn’t know who you were.” He looks back up at Derek. “I kept seeing you around, and eventually, I built up this idea of who you were in my brain, like you were my own personal Adonis. I know that’s offensive and creepy as hell, but we’ve established I’m an idiot,” Stiles says.

“You had a crush on me?” Derek says slowly.

Yes. Have you seen you?” Stiles demands. Then he cringes and mutters, “Sorry. No brain to mouth filter.”

“Crushes are normal, Stiles.”

“Sure,” Stiles concedes. “But then I got it in my head that if I tagged your face somewhere, I might catch your attention. Only, because I’m an idiot, I didn’t stop to consider you’re an actual person who might be totally freaked out by something like that. Not to mention all the other repercussions the graffiti had on your life.”

“I agree you went about, well, everything in the wrong way, but I’m willing to forgive you,” Derek says. Silently, he realizes he’d forgiven Stiles a long time ago. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he continues. “And, really, I have to thank you for owning up to the graffiti. The administration is off my back now. There was a chance I wouldn’t get my fellowship for next year because Harris was holding out, but everything ended up fine. I heard you had something to do with that. So, yeah. Thanks.”

Stiles fidgets uncomfortably. “That’s hardly something I should be thanked for. It was the least I could do.”

“No, it was literally the most you could do. You more than made up for your role in things. You almost lost everything to make sure I’d be okay on the other side of this stuff. Why would you do that?” Derek wants to know.

“I dunno,” Stiles mumbles. “School’s important to you. You work hard at it, and you’re good at it. And even if that wasn’t true, it was the right decision. Even when I tried to make it better with the Harris tag on the Academic Building, I only made things worse. It’s my fault you were ever under any suspicion. And for something so stupid.” He shakes his head ruefully. “Coming clean was the right choice. You’re going places. Far be it from me to stop you.”

A laugh bubbles up out of Derek. “Call me the day an art major goes places.”

“You know what I mean,” Stiles says.

“Fine,” Derek relents. “If I’m going places, I’d like to take you with me.”

“What?” Stiles looks baffled. “But aren’t you mad? Why would you want anything to do with me?”

“You made an error in judgment,” Derek says, taking a step closer to him. “I don’t think that’s enough to negate what’s between us. I’m not done with you yet.” Stiles’ gaze shifts away restlessly, so Derek catches the tip of his chin in one hand, and once they lock eyes again, he says, “I hope you’re not done with me yet either.”

“God, that’s so cheesy,” Stiles murmurs. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a total dork?” A watery smile lifts the corners of Stiles’ lips. “You really must be strapped for options if you’re pulling out all the stops for me.”

“You’re the only option I see in front of me,” Derek assures.

“That’s not exactly a compliment,” Stiles snarks. Then he adds as an afterthought, “You realize if you stay for dinner that it doesn’t count as the date night I owe you, right?”

“I would hope your dad wouldn’t be on our date.” Derek raises his eyebrows expectantly. “Now, are you gonna shut up and let me kiss you, or what?”

There isn’t much more talking after that.

~ ~ ~

Epilogue: 2 years later

An independent contractor made a deal with the city and agreed to restore the “Safe at Home” apartment complex, a nickname several news outlets had coined based on Derek and Stiles’ joint graffiti of the pack of wolves. To keep busy during his suspension, Stiles became increasingly involved with coordinating renovation efforts, and afterward, he started to follow up on his other graffiti activism endeavors. In addition to that, once he went back to school to pursue a major in social justice, he played a considerable contributing role in Derek’s thesis, which quickly garnered interest from prestigious academic presses nationwide. Following that success, Derek and Stiles opened their own gallery, Shared Canvases.

“Ready for this?” Derek asks, adjusting Stiles’ tie.

“No,” Stiles says petulantly, batting Derek’s hands away.

Derek ignores him and goes back to fixing Stiles’ tie. “Got your speech?”

Stiles holds up a paper that’s clearly been folded and refolded several times over. “Why can’t you be up there with me?” he whines.

“I will be,” Derek replies.

“You’re only introducing me. That doesn’t count,” Stiles dismisses. “Why can’t we do this together?”

“Because you’re the one being honored,” Derek says. It’s an argument they’ve had countless times. “You’re the only reason anyone ever looked twice at those apartments.”

“You should be honored, too,” Stiles insists. “You helped.”

Derek knows that’s not completely true. Sure, Derek had added to the original image Stiles created, but Stiles’ graffiti went beyond the image. His graffiti had inspired real change, and Stiles deserves to be celebrated for that. “You’re going to be fine up there, okay?” He sets his hands on Stiles’ shoulders in an effort to calm his fidgeting boyfriend. “Ignore the nerves. You’ve got this.”

“Can’t you quit being all gross and supportive just this once?” Stiles grouses.

“That’s not such a bad idea. This is an equal partnership, after all,” Derek replies with a smirk. “You can be gross, and I’ll be supportive.”

Stiles laughs and shoves playfully at his shoulder. “You dork.”

A thrill runs down Derek’s spine, like “dork” is a term of endearment or something. “Your dork,” he amends.

“You realize saying stuff like that makes you even dorkier?”

Derek shrugs his shoulders, unabashed, and they bask in the quiet until Dr. Deaton rounds the corner and says, “Derek, we’re ready for you.”

Derek smiles at Stiles once more. “Proud of you,” he whispers, and then he ducks out the door and walks to the podium that has been set in the courtyard. The left and right sides of the enclosure feature two long cement walls that stretch out for several yards, and the far end of the courtyard remains completely open to reveal lush, green rolling hills in the distance. The gap between the two walls acts almost like a viewfinder, making it perfect for landscape practice with art students. And behind him, acting as a backdrop, is a red curtain covering one of the stone walls belonging to Shared Canvases.

The crowd consists mostly of friends and family, as well as neighboring businesses and affiliates, and the gallery frequenters they’ve already acquired. Upon noticing Derek’s arrival, they quiet down on their own, and Derek begins.

“Thank you all for coming today to the official grand opening of Shared Canvases,” Derek says, gesturing to the building behind him. “This gallery has been a labor of love for Stiles and myself, and we’re so happy to finally share it with you.” He pauses while the audience applauds politely. “I’m particularly delighted that our first event honors one of the kindest, strongest, most fearless people I know. So many of us are better for knowing him. Please put your hands together, and join me in congratulating Stiles Stilinski, this year’s recipient of the Beacon Hills Humanitarian Award.”

The crowd bursts into applause, and Stiles is blushing visibly when he appears from inside the gallery. Dr. Deaton, positioned to Derek’s side, presents Stiles with an intricate award made entirely from glass. Stiles poses for a photo, and when he takes his position at the podium, he pecks a kiss on Derek’s cheek, and then waits until Derek takes his seat in the front row.

“This is such a huge honor.” Stiles grins brightly at everyone. “I didn’t do what I did on my own, but I’ll graciously accept this award on behalf of everyone who has taken part in my passion to help people. Thank you so much,” he says earnestly. “Really.”

The crowd heartily gives him another round of applause, and then Stiles sets down his award on the podium and says, “Thank you again. But as you heard from Derek, we’re also celebrating the grand opening of Shared Canvases today. So on that front, I’m sure you’re all wondering why we’re holding a gallery event outside. At the very least, I imagine you’re wondering why I get to stare at the view, while all of you get to stare at a red curtain and this lovely mug,” he says, pointing to his own face. A rumbling laughter bubbles up from the crowd, and Stiles waits for them to settle again.

“You see, Derek and I met because of our art,” Stiles explains. “He’s a classically trained artist, who uses traditional canvases for his work. I prefer more unconventional borders around my canvases. But that doesn’t matter. One isn’t better than the other, even though some people will have you believe otherwise. What matters,” he says, placing more emphasis on his words now, “is the implication that one ought to trump another. A dichotomy exists where one should not.”

Stiles backs away from the podium then, reaches for the red curtain, and yanks it off the wall. The red fabric billows out in the wind for a moment until it smoothly sails onto the ground, revealing the “Safe at Home” graffiti.

There are appreciative gasps and applause from the crowd, and even though he’s already seen it, Derek still can’t get over how wonderful an addition this is to their gallery. While working on apartment renovations, Stiles had discovered the parking garage would need to be demolished completely, so it had been his idea to salvage their graffiti and rehouse it outside their gallery. It’s absolutely perfect.

“As you can see,” Stiles says a little loudly, trying to signal to the audience he isn’t finished yet, “no matter the canvas or medium, it’s all art. Here at Shared Canvases, we hope to inspire an interdisciplinary approach to art, whether that’s through our featured artists, installations, classes, or anything else the future might bring our way. Dr. Deaton, if you would, please?”

From off to the side, Dr. Deaton wheels in a cart lined with several kinds of brushes, paints, cans of spray paint, and neatly folded smocks. “May I present to you our shared canvases,” Stiles says, spreading out his arms to gesture at the blank walls on either side of the courtyard. “Please help yourselves to our materials. Leave your mark before you go, add something new any time. Art is ever changing and everlasting. There are no rules. Just create.” He takes a step back from the podium and smiles. “Thank you.”

The crowd applauds once more and is almost immediately on their feet; many head for the art supplies and start to mark the walls, while several people chat with one another about the new graffiti courtyard as they wait to talk with Stiles. Derek mingles with their guests, but with a speech like that, Stiles is in high demand, and it’s a while before Derek has him to himself again. “You were amazing,” Derek says.

Stiles scoffs, dismissing the compliment. “I still think you should’ve been up there with me. If you think about it, you not being up there kinda goes against the whole interdisciplinary art thing I’m trying to rock here.”

“And yet somehow, you still managed to be convincing. Just look around us,” Derek says, indicating all the people creating art in the courtyard. “Look at what we’ve accomplished.”

“I know. I still can’t quite believe we did all this!” Stiles exclaims. “This is so awesome. We’re so awesome. I love us. I love you!” Stiles stumbles when he seems to realize what he’s said, eyes wide and mouth open. “No,” he says slowly, “I’m gonna stand by it.” He nods firmly and finds Derek’s eyes. “I love you.”

A smile blooms across Derek’s face as he wraps a hand around the little box he’s been keeping in his pocket for the past month. “I love you, too.”