The house is small, but big enough to feel like a home.
The bay windows jut out over the edge of one of the mountain’s more dramatic inclines, and thick woods go on for a few miles in every direction around it. The large, stone fireplace in the living area takes up as much space as the tiny bathroom in the back. The kitchen, though open and sunny, is barely more than a haphazard extension of the main room. And the single bedroom stops short, at the edge of an old tree stump, a few inches sooner than it probably should.
Derek doesn’t quite realize how much he loves it until he’s already decided not to leave.
It’s been about a year now, since he packed up what little he had in Beacon Hills and headed to this small hideaway in the mountains of Colorado. Scott’s pack were all starting their senior years of high school when he’d given them his brief goodbyes and vague excuses, but none of them questioned it. Not even Stiles, who questions everything.
Looking back, Derek thinks that they probably all assumed he’d return eventually. That this absence would be as temporary as all his others. Beacon Hills has always kept him on a tight leash. How could any of them possibly know that he finally intended to break that tie for good? Hell, Derek didn’t even really know it himself until he was well outside Beacon County lines and suddenly it felt like he could breathe again, for the first time in years.
The woods where he ends up, a few miles up a narrow mountain pass from some two horse town, is not anything like where he imagined himself, and yet everything he apparently needed.
That summer is spent working the small garden on the south side of the house, reading library books on the front porch in his underwear, and hiking through the forest on the trails of random scents that lead nowhere special and that often turn into afternoons of lazy bird watching.
He makes the trek into town about once a week to restock supplies or to find wifi in order to email Cora, and he has, if begrudgingly, grown to appreciate the locals and their proclivity for inane conversation. It’s easy and comfortable in a way that Derek hasn’t let himself indulge in since childhood.
The town itself is only just big enough to not feel like everybody knows everybody else’s business while still knowing everybody’s names. There’s a small university, boasting more wilderness than landscaping between buildings. The supermarket is locally owned, and so is the one bookstore and the one coffee shop. The Farmer’s Market sets up in the parking lot of the high school every Sunday, and the town newspaper is just a leaflet of recent weather conditions and knitting tips.
The moment autumn hits, heralded by a sudden gust of restless, chilly wind, Derek strips down to nothing in his open front doorway, shifts into the wolf that still surprises him how much looks like his mother, and he runs.
He doesn’t shift back for three days. It’s exhilarating and honest and doesn’t feel like the kind of “running” he ever did before. It doesn’t feel like retreating or hiding. It feels like... being.
It feels like living. Instead of just marking off days.
Derek senses the school year start back up at the local college with a shiver down his back as a couple thousand foreign bodies enter the territory he now calls home. He puts off going into town for a while so that he can adequately brace himself for the change in scent and the slight increase in white noise that will have occurred.
Before he knows it, September starts to bleed into October, and he takes up the task of chopping firewood just like he’d done when he arrived here the year before. That first time, it had felt like a fight, every downward swing of his axe an intentional, mortal blow. Now, it’s a steady exertion that calms his senses and drowns out the rest of the world.
The sheen of sweat across his forehead and the one across his bare chest feels ice cold when the breeze hits, but Derek keeps going. He can plow through a winter’s worth of wood in an hour, but when he’s deep in thought he’ll do enough to supply half the town without even thinking. Esther Lee down the road will help him haul it out to the highway and enlist her kids to paint a sign in cheery colors advertising free firewood. The whole lot of it will be gone within an afternoon, so Derek doesn’t worry.
He grabbed a heavy flannel on his way out the door, but didn’t bother buttoning it up. He rolls up the sleeves to his elbows once he gets going and warmed up, and is about ready to take it off entirely when he hears the approach of careful footsteps from the treeline on his right.
Derek keeps chopping, pretending not to notice, while his ears stay alert to the intruder slowly ambling up to the house.
Maybe it’s been too long. Or maybe the idea is just too absurd to compute. But Derek doesn’t place the scent of the man until well after his eyes have finally caught a glimpse of long limbs and pale skin. Of the red hoodie zipped closed all the way to the neck, hands shoved deep in its pockets, hood up over the guy’s head like armor.
“Wow. Are you even real?”
Derek stops chopping and raises his head to meet Stiles’ bright eyes with his own narrowed ones. He doesn’t speak, hoping his expression says it all for him.
Either it doesn’t, or, more likely, it does and Stiles elects to ignore it. “I mean, nice to know you still make it a point to look like a ridiculous Vanity Fair photo spread even when there’s nobody around to witness it. And here I was worried you wouldn’t have any real hobbies.”
Stiles’ gaze trips over Derek’s bare chest a second too long, and for the first time since Derek was a teenager he feels momentarily self-conscious and wrong-footed about how he looks.
Derek levers his axe down into the tree stump he’d been using as his base and wipes a forearm across the sweat and dirt on his brow.
“So I was in the neighborhood...” Stiles drawls with a smirk.
“How are you here?” Derek asks, monotone, for the first time in over a year having to consciously restrain himself from doing something he’d probably regret. “Why are you here?”
Stiles shrugs effortlessly and saunters forward a few steps. “School. My Freshman year officially started three weeks ago.”
Derek glares, half in annoyance at being so caught off guard by this visit and half because the idea of Stiles settling for some nameless college like the one in town is... not right. Not what was supposed to happen. It goes against the very order of the universe that Derek has in his head.
“You should be at Yale,” he says dumbly.
“I can’t afford Yale.”
“I’ll write you a check.”
“Fuck you, I’ve got a full ride here, okay? And they’ve got a decent criminology program. One of my dad’s new deputies went here. Says the snowboarding is ‘choice.’ Not that I know how to snowboard. Plus it still gets me out of Beacon Hills for a little while. Life experience, or whatever.”
Derek huffs and turns to head back inside rather than continue the argument. “As long as you keep your ‘life experience’ off my property, we’ll be good.”
“Asshole,” Stiles mutters, and then sarcastically shouts, “It was nice to see you too, Derek!”
But Derek doesn’t bother getting in the last word. Just slams his front door shut behind him and distracts himself with making lunch while listening to Stiles wander around the woods for a few more minutes and then finally head back the way he came.
Derek doesn’t know how to deal with this first and only disturbance to his new life. This first and only physical reminder of his old one.
This unexpected distraction that, truthfully, Stiles has always been.
It doesn’t matter, though, because Stiles will get bored of this place within a week and Derek just has to grin and bear it until then. It’s only a matter of time. Stiles will be speeding his hunk of junk Jeep back through the mountain pass toward California without looking back before he’s even made it to midterms.
Stiles Stilinski was made for bigger, greater things than this, and it won’t take long for him to realize that. Derek is certain of it.
Stiles doesn’t leave.
Stiles, in fact, seems to be just about everywhere Derek turns when he goes into town each week. Derek is careful never to get too close to campus during the months when school is in session, yet there Stiles always is anyway.
The first time it happens, Derek’s got groceries sitting in the back of his pickup and a stack of new books to read sitting on the passenger seat as he ducks into the local coffee shop before the trek back up the mountain. The owner, Hiram, makes a mean cup of Joe, but his wife, Alice, does a Chai concoction that tastes like Christmas morning and makes Derek’s mouth water at the thought.
He’s third in line to the register when he notices that sitting amongst the usual array of college kids and locals is the one person he was hoping to avoid.
Stiles has both hands wrapped around his steaming coffee mug, long fingers tangled together and thumbs hooked on the lip, as he hunches over a thick textbook. He’s so focused on the words he’s reading that he keeps nearly missing his own mouth each time he absently brings the mug up to sip from it.
There’s a pile of wool on the table beside the book: what looks to be a hat and scarf in dark blues and grays. Stiles’ hair is sticking up in all directions like he just tugged the hat off and didn’t bother to pat anything down afterwards. His Chucks are neon green, his T-shirt features a Velociraptor riding a Harley, and the sleeves of his purple hoodie have been stretched too long, hanging loosely just past his wrists, the cuffs fraying from where he’s obviously chewed at them.
Derek doesn’t realize he’s staring until Hiram clears his throat pointedly, and Derek looks up to find the two patrons before him in line now long gone.
“Hale,” Hiram nods at him when Derek gets to the counter, already ringing him up without waiting to hear his order. “Bit preoccupied today, huh?”
Derek forces a shrug that he hopes is more casual looking than it feels. “Didn’t sleep well.”
Hiram smirks a little as he takes Derek’s money and tosses the change into the tip jar without needing to be told to. “Just be careful not to give the book club any ideas. They’ve been looking for gossip on you since you got here.”
“They’ll have to keep looking then,” Derek tells him, and manfully resists the urge to glance back over at Stiles on his way out.
The following week, Derek returns his library books and then heads over to the bookstore to buy his own copies of the ones he liked best. The shop is small and intimate, dusty shelves lined along narrow hallways and former bedrooms inside an old, converted townhouse. The connecting unit has been turned into a bakery, and the scent of flour, sugar and yeast mingles with the scent of paper and ink in a comforting way that always settles the naturally tense set of Derek’s shoulders.
He hears the scoff, more amused than derisive, before he notices the body sidling up next him. “You would be a Raymond Chandler sort of guy.”
Derek very deliberately doesn’t let his eyes stray from the cover of the book he’s holding to where Stiles is now standing beside him, a little too close for comfort. He’s either doing it on purpose or doesn’t have any sense of personal boundaries.
“I think the children’s section is in the next room,” Derek shoots back.
Stiles snorts. “I saw you eyeing Harry Potter when you got here, dude, don’t front.”
“Stalking me now, huh?”
The rustle of fabric as Stiles shrugs is deafening in the quiet room, no other customers in the shop at the moment. “It’s a small town. I’m surprised we don’t run into each other more often. Actually, no, I take that back. You’re probably too busy playing hermit out in the woods.”
Derek finally glances up to get a look at him, and maybe he stares for a little longer than necessary.
Stiles is wearing three different shirts beneath his jacket. The grey thermal and the orange T-shirt over it are the most obvious, but the collar of an unnecessary undershirt is visible whenever he tugs at his cuffs in a nervous gesture. His hair is un-styled, but not unwashed. It looks softer than Derek remembers it, probably due to the refreshing lack of product.
There are dark circles under Stiles’ eyes, but his stance is relaxed, his expression is playful, and he looks so much more like himself right now than the last time Derek saw him, back when he’d just come out the other end of the nogitsune possession-- alive, sure, but uncertain as to whether that was a good thing or not.
Derek grits his teeth and ignores whatever feeling in his chest has erupted at the sight. “What do you want, Stiles?”
“Nothing? Just saying hi.” He gives Derek a small wave and a shit-eating grin. “Hi.”
“I thought I told you that if you were going to be living here, I didn’t want to have to be reminded of that fact by having you anywhere near me.”
“No, you grumpy old man’d me and told me to get off your lawn. Which I did, and have continued to stay away from. You’re welcome. But anything here in town is fair game.”
“It’s really not.”
Stiles just rolls his eyes, and then reaches forward to grab the small stack of books out of Derek’s hands before Derek knows what’s happening. He then proceeds to sort through them with an excited glint in his eyes. “Oh boy. Far From the Madding Crowd? Blood Meridian? And, of course, The Long Goodbye to round it all out.” He looks back up at Derek with big eyes. “You’re adorable.”
“They’re good books,” Derek huffs.
“They are. They’re just all very... you.”
Derek jerks the stack out of Stiles’ hands and turns to head toward the front of store to pay and get the hell out of there. But Stiles catches him with a hand on Derek’s elbow.
Derek turns back to face him, except that Stiles is eyeing the bookshelf instead. He doesn’t remove his hand from Derek’s elbow, though. His long fingers are wrapped loosely up into the crook of Derek’s arm, and it feels inexplicably intimate. It’s been a long time since someone’s touched him so casually, without thought or motive.
“Just-- Just do me a favor and mix it up a bit, alright? Add some levity?” Stiles grabs a book off the shelf and sets it on top of Derek’s pile. “I’ll buy it back from you if you hate it.”
Derek looks down to find... Emma. “You want me to read Jane Austen.”
Stiles shrugs. “Sure, why not? Lydia swears by her.”
Derek gives him a flat look, and then turns and continues heading for the front. But he doesn’t put the book back.
He can sense the movement behind him as he goes, without having to glance back to see it, as Stiles not so subtly fist pumps the air. This is probably the equivalent of feeding the stray that forever comes back for more afterwards, but something in Derek can’t help it. Probably the same something Laura used to tease him about when they were kids, and then quietly cry into her pillow about the loss of after the fire. If only she could see him now.
Derek doesn’t immediately recognize the young girl working the register, assumes she’s a seasonal employee and a student. She’s oddly quiet during the transaction, not that he minds, but he does grow suspicious of that quiet when the cell phone resting on the stool behind her starts lighting up with text messages that Derek can clearly see include his name.
He clenches his jaw and pays for the books, and then drives straight home without looking back. He ignores the couple of friendly waves he receives on his way, and sighs a breath of relief when he’s finally surrounded by more trees than people.
The weather gets increasingly colder, a chill whipping around the mountains to hit Derek’s house first before it settles casually across the town below. Derek makes stew and contemplates getting a dog. Maybe a cat. He reads by the fire and sleeps naked beneath a single flannel sheet just so that he can wake up to the slight goosebumps of cold air across his flesh, and then burrow into the mattress sleepily in search of warmth.
He runs through the forest full-shifted every day now, the cool air making it more comfortable than it would’ve been in summer. He’s still not used to the thick, black coat, and has trouble remembering to regulate his body temperature when he starts to overheat.
It’s after one such shift that he grabs the book Stiles insisted he buy and takes it to his bed, still naked and breathless from his run. He doesn’t have a reason or a motivation for this. It just suddenly feels like something he needs to do.
It’s a good book, though not something Derek would’ve expected from Stiles, even taking into account the Lydia factor. All the same, it feels like Stiles is hiding somewhere in there. Like Derek might be able to find him in the pages if he just looks hard enough.
The Farmer’s Market is the most crowded place Derek ever forces himself to visit. The fresh produce is a huge draw, as are the craftworks that have kept Derek supplied in eco-friendly socks and homemade bath soaps that don’t irritate his senses.
But even in the coldest weeks of winter there’s never a lull in activity. Now that pumpkin season is upon them, along with the university’s fall semester, it’s especially hectic. Derek hurries to grab some squash and a bag of dates and get the hell out of there, but is sidetracked by the unexpected, familiar scent of Stiles around the corner.
He tries to resist the urge to look, to lurk, and manages several purposeful steps in the direction of the nearest exit before the sound of Stiles stops him altogether.
Stiles is laughing.
Derek glances back over his shoulder just in time to see it. Stiles is laughing at something the vendor in front of him has said, his head thrown back, the long line of his throat only somewhat concealed by his scarf, and Derek loses his breath for a split second. It’s like being the only one in the room who hears the pin drop. It’s like honing in on something significant that everyone around Derek doesn’t even know to look for.
It has been a very long time since Derek has heard Stiles laugh.
And not just because Derek’s been away from Beacon Hills for over a year now. Even when he was there, for a long while it didn’t seem like Stiles would ever really laugh again. Like the piece of him that processed joy had fallen out of alignment with the rest of him as he pressed determinedly forward through all the supernatural chaos.
He looks to be alone right now, clutching his bookbag strap in a tight fist like he’s anchoring himself with it as he continues conversing with the vendor. He keeps tugging at his scarf with the other hand until it’s about to fall off, and Derek has the sudden, ridiculous urge to walk up to him and adjust it so that it’s secure.
Derek jerks his head to the side at the sudden interruption to his thoughts, to find Marianne Begay looking at him from behind her table of mason jars filled with jellies and marmalades. “Excuse me?”
She rolls her eyes. “Buy something and pretend that you were standing in front of my booth for the last five minutes because you were admiring the wares and not because you were staring at that kid over there like he broke your heart and put it back together in the same breath.”
“I wasn’t-- I don’t--“ He feels the tips of his ears burn red.
“Derek, just buy some preserves.”
Derek sighs. “Yeah, okay.”
In November, Esther invites him to join her family for Thanksgiving, but he claims to already have plans. It’s an obvious lie, but she doesn’t call him on it. She never does. That’s a large part of why he likes her.
He gets three more similar invitations from various locals, turning down each of them as politely as he can and ignoring the pitying looks they give him when he makes excuses that they can see right through. He didn’t used to be this bad at lying... He hopes.
It doesn’t occur to him to wonder after anyone else’s plans, to wonder after Stiles, until the university lets out for the entire week of the holiday and students start to head home, but Stiles is still wherever Derek turns as if it were any other week.
Derek spots him at the coffee shop again, once more sitting by himself with a mug of coffee and a thick book. As often as Derek’s caught sight of Stiles now, he’s never once seen Stiles not alone. Derek knows that being away from Scott and Lydia and his father must eat at him, but he never thought that Stiles wouldn’t easily charm and make friends with a whole new group of people. He’d just assumed...
But every time Derek’s seen him around town, he’s been by himself. He studies on his own, eats on his own, interacts only when someone else initiates, and even then keeps it brief.
In fact, the only person Stiles has intentionally struck up conversation with is Derek. And it hits Derek all at once, out of nowhere, what this might mean. Stiles isn’t just alone here, he’s lonely.
Derek throws himself into action before he can second-guess himself, and drops down into the chair across from Stiles.
Stiles startles, nearly spilling his coffee, before course-correcting with a scowl and a hiss when some of the liquid sloshes onto his knuckles. He sticks a couple of fingers in his mouth to slurp off what he can, which should be disgusting, but instead makes Derek swallow heavily and look away.
“I thought we were pretending we don’t know each other,” Stiles says idly.
Derek hesitates, but then decides to jump straight to the point. He leans forward across the table, resting his elbows near Stiles’ book. “Are you okay?”
“That is a very loaded question.”
“Only if the answer is ‘no.’”
Stiles shifts in his seat. His eyes dart around the room like he’s looking for anyone who might be listening in. “I’m... better than I was.”
Derek knows that particular feeling a little too well. Knows even more so the unspoken “but” at the end of that kind of statement. “Why aren’t you home for the break?”
Stiles shrugs a shoulder and looks at his coffee instead of at Derek. “Money’s tight. I’m going back for Christmas, which is in less than a month. Seemed like a waste of resources to go now too. I’m good, though. I’ve got my dorm room all to myself for the week, and my dad sent me a little extra grocery money, so I might splurge on Thursday and eat an entire pizza. Maybe mainline the whole MCU and, like, drink my weight in Mountain Dew--”
“Spend Thanksgiving at my place,” Derek interrupts. It isn’t until the words are out of his mouth that he realizes it’s been a half-formed thought in the back of his head ever since he started to suspect Stiles would be alone that day as well.
Stiles’ eyebrows shoot up in surprise, and then immediately narrow in suspicion. “I’m not a charity case, Derek.”
“You’ll be saving me the headache of trying to convince everyone around here that I’m not a charity case either. Maybe Alice will stop writing platitudes and dinner invites on my coffee cups if she knows I’ll have company that day.”
Stiles bites back a laugh and shakes his head. “I wonder if everybody in this town would still love you so much if they knew about your criminal record.”
“If you try to get me arrested again just to prove a point, I will punch you in the throat.”
“Lies,” Stiles grins.
Derek feels one corner of his mouth tug up a little in response, and he doesn’t bother trying to hide it.
He stops by the bakery to pick up a pie the next day, and makes the mistake of telling Patrick Danvers that he won’t be the only one eating it after the guy keeps shooting him worried, judging looks as he boxes it up.
Patrick’s expression turns acutely curious. “You got family coming in then?”
“...Something like that.”
Unfortunately, the vagueness of his answer only seems to spark further interest. He’s barely made it back to his truck when the girl from the bookstore hurries out to meet him, like maybe Patrick gave her some secret signal through the dividing wall to send her out and breathlessly hand Derek a flyer for the Thanksgiving potluck the library will be hosting. “It’s super casual,” she tells him, “and you can always hide in the book stacks if it gets too crowded or whatever.”
“Thank you, but I’m having company over that day,” he says carefully.
“Oh? I mean, they’d be welcome to come too.”
“I really don’t think he--”
“He?” She takes an earnest step forward.
Derek runs an exasperated hand over his face. “Thanks, but no thanks. I need to get going.”
She doesn’t look like she was really expecting to get anything more than that from him, though, because her smile is genuine and friendly as she waves goodbye at Derek’s already turned back.
Occasionally Derek misses the anonymity of New York. Or even the pseudo-anonymity of Beacon Hills, where everybody knew everybody but admitting as much meant admitting to everything else that they all saw but dared not acknowledge.
He doesn’t miss that kind of deception, though. The way you could feel an undercurrent of bitterness throughout the whole town just from how hard everyone was lying to themselves about what was going on around them. Not one single Beacon Hills native would ever have given up so innocent and happy a smile, especially in response to Derek’s terseness, as the one given so easily from this girl. So Derek supposes it’s a fair trade.
A turkey seems a bit much for just the two of them, so Derek cooks a couple of Cornish game hens in a large casserole dish, surrounded by red bell peppers, onions and baby red potatoes.
Stiles shows up wearing the same red hoodie he wore the first time he came to visit, but also wearing a whole lot less bravado. His steps are uncertain and slow as Derek listens to him make his way up the dirt path that winds through the trees from the nearby cinder road’s dead end where Derek parks his truck.
When Stiles reaches the small clearing at the front of the house, he idles for a moment before continuing. Derek opens the door when he’s still at the bottom of the porch steps.
Stiles stops short, shuffles his feet, and then gives a half smile and holds up the grocery bag in his hand. “I, uh, I brought salad? Dad told me I had to bring something, because he doesn’t want me being rude to an entirely new crop of people who might actually not realize I’m an asshole yet.”
“Who does he think you’re having dinner with?”
“A possibly made-up friend’s very made-up family.”
“I’m flattered.” Derek rolls his eyes and heads back inside, leaving the door open for Stiles to follow.
Stiles kicks off his shoes just inside the door, and then meanders in a circle around the living area, poking and prodding at anything not bolted down. He stops at the opening to the kitchen and sets the grocery bag on the counter while watching Derek check the oven.
“Why did you move here?” he asks, out of nowhere, and Derek startles. The question sounds a lot more like “why did you leave Beacon Hills?” than he’s exactly comfortable with. Or maybe more like “why did you never go back?”
Derek busies himself with getting out plates and flatware, and setting them on the little table in the corner by the window. “This was one of the few properties my mother owned that Peter didn’t liquidate. Probably because it wouldn’t have netted enough to be worth the hassle. After everything that happened... It seemed like as good a place as any to settle down.”
Stiles’ eyes widen a bit. “Wait, like, ‘settle’ as in... settle?”
Derek shrugs. “Gotta stop running some time.”
Stiles is quiet after that, aimlessly exploring the rest of the small house with zero regard for Derek’s privacy. Derek is expecting dinner to be awkward, but the moment the food is dished up and Derek indulges Stiles by offering him a beer, a switch seems to flip.
“I can’t believe you can actually cook, dude. The last three years of my life are a lie.”
“Because there was so much time for brushing up on my grandmother’s shortbread recipe while we were fighting for our lives.”
“Hold on, back the fuck up. You bake too?”
Derek throws a carrot from the salad at him, but Stiles just digs into his food with even more gusto, his grin blinding.
They argue about various topics for the next hour, but it never escalates beyond companionable teasing. It’s... fun. And, more surprising than anything else, it’s easy.
Afterwards, as the sun steadily disappears behind the trees, Derek builds a fire to stave off the cold, while Stiles watches him intently from the couch. The blaze roars to life with a little coaxing, filling the room with a warm glow and a comforting heat. Derek brings out the pie and a couple of forks, and they go to town on the thing without bothering to cut it into pieces first.
There’s no television, but the quiet is never tense and the conversation never lags. They don’t talk about the past much, per some unspoken agreement, but Stiles updates him on how everyone is currently doing. Scott is pre-med at a state school close to home. Kira is at NYU but is going to take next semester off to travel the globe with her mom. Lydia graduated early and already has everybody at MIT eating out of the palms of her pristinely manicured hands.
In turn, Derek tells him what little he’s learned about the townsfolk over the last year. How to get away with parking where you shouldn’t and why it’s best to avoid the lunatic from the local radio station at all costs.
Derek adds another log to the fire around midnight, and then stretches in the middle of the room with a yawn. “It’s late,” he says softly.
Stiles’ eyes drink him in for a second too long, but then he turns his gaze to the fire and pulls the quilt on the back of the couch down around his shoulders. His expression is unreadable, but oddly vulnerable as the light of the flames flicker across it, moving shadows around delicately over his cheekbones, his jaw, his chapped and bitten lips. “You, um, you mind if I stay here for a little while?”
Derek nods slowly. “Stay as long as you like. There are blankets and pillows in the hall closet.”
Stiles nods back, though he still doesn’t look back up at him. Derek hesitates a moment, watching Stiles watch the fire, and wondering how on earth either of them ended up here. In this particular house, in this particular moment.
But then he forces himself to shake it off and to walk down the short hallway to the bedroom.
Sleep is a long time coming that night, but when it hits, is more restful than he can ever remember it being before.
Derek wakes up with the sun the next morning and wanders into the kitchen to put the kettle on before he remembers he’s not alone. Stiles is passed out on the floor in front of the dying fire, the quilt wrapped tightly around him, caging his arms in, his cheek smashed into the rug.
Derek sighs and goes to put on actual clothes.
He fries up about a pound of bacon and blackens the leftover potatoes, bell peppers and onions from the day before in the fat. He makes a pot of coffee, twice as strong as he normally would, and he brings it all out to the porch, setting plates and cups in a semi-precarious train along the porch railing.
When he goes back inside, Stiles is still out like a light. Derek’s tempted to throw a glass of water on him, but some treacherous, secret part of him is just as tempted to run his hand through Stiles’ wild hair, and then up and down his back a few times, so he ignores both impulses.
He makes sure the fire is completely out and lets the poker drop back into its place with a loud enough clatter to rouse Stiles without Derek having to touch him.
Not that Derek’s afraid to. Or that it would mean anything. Of course not.
Stiles eats with quiet enthusiasm, and not a word gets spoken through the first half of breakfast. The air is chilly outside, the food losing its temperature fast, but Stiles doesn’t complain.
“You know, the couch is a lot more comfortable than the floor,” Derek says idly into the comfortable silence.
“I’ll keep that in mind next time.”
Stiles flushes and pretends to be suddenly very interested in blowing the steam off his coffee. He takes a tentative sip after a minute and then shrugs a shoulder, eyes locked on the forest before them. “If you ever meet my roommate, you’ll understand,” he lies, trying to get away with it by being flippant, his heart rate steady. He knows what he’s doing, Derek’ll give him that.
Derek considers Stiles’ profile for a long time, not bothering to hide the fact that he’s staring. He takes in Stiles’ hunched shoulders and restless legs; the circles that remain under his eyes despite the fair amount of sleep he just got, and the painful fluttering of his heartbeat whenever his focus on keeping it even starts to wane.
Once Derek’s had his fill, he turns away and looks out at the forest as well. Takes a sip of his own coffee, and leans back in the rickety chair. “That couch doesn’t see much use as it is. If someone were to crash on it occasionally, I doubt I’d even notice.”
This is also a lie, but if feels like a necessary one.
Stiles gives him a sidelong glance that suggests he can read through Derek’s lies as well as all the locals seem to. Probably better. But he doesn’t say anything, just takes another sip of his coffee and runs a hand through his wild hair.
The rest of the season passes quietly. Derek spends a large portion of his days fully shifted out in the forest. He takes his time cooking dinner in the evenings, experimenting with foods he doesn’t really know how to prepare but enjoys figuring out. He starts drawing up designs to build a table based on what little he remembers his father teaching him as a kid, and plans to pick up a few books on carpentry the next time he goes into town.
He doesn’t see Stiles for more than a week, but he doesn’t know why this should be of note when he spent an entire year here without any thought of Stiles at all.
December brings with it a relatively mild snowstorm, but it’s enough to make getting up and down the mountain something of an adventure. Derek puts chains on his truck’s tires and scouts the road as a wolf before each trip.
Esther Lee has her own plow that she occasionally drives further up the mountain road than her own house to clear a path for Derek without him having to ask. Out of all of his neighbors, she is definitely Derek’s favorite. Her husband, Tom, owns the diner in town, and she’s a professor at the university of some subject that Derek never bothered to remember. But it’s more her innate ability to always know when she’s needed and when she’s not that Derek likes, and that in either case she never pries.
In town, Derek stocks up on nonperishables in preparation for the rest of winter, and spends an hour in the library pulling everything on carpentry he can find, along with a stack of fiction to read during the increasingly longer nights.
He finds Stiles in the coffee shop, at what Derek is starting to think of as his usual table, off in the corner, as far from the other patrons as is possible to sit.
It’s not Derek’s concern, he knows it’s not, repeats it to himself in his head over and over again, but he still can’t help but be drawn over to Stiles. It’s like Stiles is purposefully lonely, like he’s actively not trying, and Derek wishes he had never noticed it because now he feels compelled to do something about it.
“Hey,” he greets, but doesn’t sit down.
Stiles raises his head, and only looks a little surprised. “Hey.”
“...Have a good break.”
Stiles snorts indelicately. “Thanks? A for effort on the small talk, man. I appreciate the attempt.”
Derek scowls, this was obviously a bad idea anyway, and starts to back away, when Stiles’ voice stops him.
“Oh wait, I got you something!” Stiles whips out a spiral bound notebook from his bag, opens it up to somewhere near the back, and rips out one of the pages. He folds it into a rushed, crumpled square and presents it to Derek with a proud grin. “Merry Christmas.”
“You’re a couple weeks early,” Derek says flatly, in lieu of anything better, because... what? He surreptitiously takes the paper from Stiles’ hand and warily unfolds it.
The writing inside is barely half a step up from chicken scratch, but immediately recognizable as instructions for cooking. A recipe.
Derek looks back up and raises a questioning eyebrow.
“You know,” Stiles shrugs. “‘Cause you bake.”
Derek furrows his brow at the word at the top of the page. “Kolaczki?”
“They’re a kind of cookie.”
“Did you make this up yourself, or...?” He feels it prudent to ask. It’s not like werewolves can die from food poisoning, but it’s not exactly a pleasant experience.
“No, it’s my mom’s recipe. My mom’s mom’s recipe actually, but for all I know they stole it from Betty Crocker. I’ve never really tried to make it myself. Dad’s got this thing about me and ovens that he’s probably not completely off base about, and he can’t cook for shit either, so... Maybe you can do something with it? Somebody should, anyway.”
“This is... Stiles, I...” Derek stares down at the scribbled ingredients, smudged in places, the stain of what smells like Red Bull in one corner. He takes a deep breath and meets Stiles gaze determinedly. “I didn’t get you anything.”
Stiles laughs brightly. “You made me dinner on Thanksgiving, okay? Consider us even.”
Derek folds the paper back into its square and holds it up between them. “You realize I’m probably going to fuck this up the first few times. I haven’t actually baked anything since I was young enough to have more experienced people on hand to help.”
“Practice while I’m away.” Stiles gives him a small smile.
Derek gives him a tentative one of his own back, nods his head in farewell, and heads to the counter to get a hot drink for the road.
Hiram gives him a look, which Derek is more than happy to ignore.
Alice draws a winking smiley face on his cup.
Derek barely notices Christmas come and go, or the New Year. The snow keeps falling, the fire in his fireplace keeps burning, and in the middle of one sleepless, frozen night he pads out to the porch on bare feet, flannel sleep pants his only protection against the cold. He stares at the untouched ice glistening in the moonlight, the crystallized drifts pulling branches down low with their weight.
He thinks about building tables and baking Polish cookies. Wonders if he’s only putting off starting either project because of fear or guilt or... something else.
He thinks about how such simple things can hold so much significance, sometimes even more so than any of the more complicated, life-or-death things. And about how it’s taken him this long to realize that.
Derek doesn’t see Stiles for over a month.
And then, towards the end of January, suddenly Stiles is always there.
Or, at least, that’s what it feels like. The moment the road up the mountain is clear enough to drive without risking death and dismemberment at every snowy turn, Stiles practically sets up camp in Derek’s living room one weekend without warning. And every weekend after that.
He claims he studies better without real world distractions. “It’s just us and the trees up here, Derek,” he says. “What else am I gonna do but homework?”
Derek doesn’t know why he allows this, only that it’s always easier to just let Stiles do whatever it is Stiles is going to do versus attempting to stop him.
It’s strange at first, having another body under foot every few days when Derek’s spent the last year so secluded and solitary. Strange and annoying, given this particular body.
Stiles steals food from the cabinets without any regard for what Derek might have intended it for. He keeps a pile of blankets on one end of the couch, never actually folding them when he’s done with them, just pushing them aside when he wants extra space for his laptop and books. Stiles laughs at him when Derek brews tea from herbs he’s gathered himself, and makes sarcastic jokes about weirdo werewolves being the real force behind community gardens and gluten free diets.
But he still clutches his steaming mug to his chest like it’s sacred, noticeably inhaling the soft mint scent periodically and humming contently on the exhale.
In town, it’s another story. Derek never approaches Stiles when he sees him around, and Stiles pretends not to notice, never making eye contact.
It only sometimes feels as childish as it sounds.
Of course, Stiles also thinks it’s hilarious to push the limits of this restriction whenever and however he can.
“Already paid for,” Hiram raises a hand to stop Derek from handing the cash over for his drink. He glances over to the corner of the coffee shop pointedly, but Derek refuses to look at whatever smug asshole face Stiles is most likely making over there.
Derek aggressively shoves the cash into the tip jar instead. “If he does this again, give the drink he paid for to someone else.”
Hiram levels a look at him. “He spends more money here than you do, Derek.”
Derek sighs heavily in defeat.
The next time it happens, Derek bites back a low growl, and then calmly sets a hundred dollars in tens and twenties on the countertop by the register. “Will this cover his drinks for the next couple weeks?”
Hiram considers Derek with a quirked eyebrow. “That kid really gets to you, huh?”
“He gets to everyone. I just happen to have the misfortune of being his latest target.”
Hiram shakes his head in amusement, but he takes the money.
Derek’s one saving grace is the fact that Stiles still doesn’t seem very willing to attempt to make friends with anyone. He’ll engage in idle chit chat with a barista or a grocery bagger, lament about homework woes to whoever he runs into in the library stacks, but Derek never sees him with any of the other students. And, judging by what little he reveals during his weekends on Derek’s couch, he barely knows half the names of any of the locals he occasionally interacts with.
The whole thing doesn’t sit right with Derek. He knows something is wrong here, something that isn’t being fixed and isn’t even being admitted to, but he doesn’t presume to interfere. And, anyway, it means that Stiles’ influence only extends so far.
It also means that Derek is a little surprised to walk into the bookstore one day and find Stiles and the girl at the register talking animatedly over an open textbook on the counter. Derek heads to the back of the shop without acknowledging either of them, and then shamelessly eavesdrops on their conversation while he pretends to browse.
He finds out that the girl’s name is Nikki, and that she’s a year ahead of Stiles, but they share a class this semester. They talk a little about an upcoming essay deadline and their mutual dislike for a particular TA. It’s all completely innocuous and Derek has no idea why he’s holding his breath the entire time.
He shakes it off, reminds himself that he doesn’t care, and then finds the book he’s looking for and brings it up to the front to pay.
Stiles’ eyes light up gleefully when he sees it.
Pride and Prejudice.
“Not a word,” Derek warns.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Stiles raises both hands, but his grin only widens.
Nikki looks back and forth between them, absolutely riveted.
Derek just clears his throat awkwardly, and quickly hands over the money so he can get the hell out of there.
“So... you guys know each other?” He hears Nikki ask as the door closes behind him. Derek pauses on his way to his truck to listen in.
“Nah, not really,” Stiles hedges.
“I saw you guys talking in here once, awhile back. And Alice Bernstein says she’s seen you together at the coffee shop a few times.”
Stiles chokes on a laugh. “Please tell me the latest gossip in this town does not actually revolve around me and Derek Hale occasionally exchanging sarcastic pleasantries. That’s just sad.”
“No one means any harm by it. Everybody likes Derek, okay? But he’s lived here more than a year now and we can all count how many things we know about him on one hand. You’re kinda one of those things now. Or, at least, we think you are?”
Stiles chuckles and shuffles his feet. He sounds suddenly nervous and withdrawn, but he puts on a good show. Derek’s probably the only one in a thousand miles who would catch it. “Well don’t get your hopes up, Nik. That guy’s as much a mystery to me as anyone.”
“Can you at least tell me how you know him?” Nikki pleads.
“Sorry, buddy. First rule of fight club, ya know?” Stiles starts moving toward the door, and Derek hurries to get into the cab of his truck before he’s caught. “I’ll see you in class, alright? Good, uh, good talk.”
Derek pulls out of his parking spot at top speed and refuses to glance in his rearview mirror at where he can sense Stiles stumbling out of the store. He has a feeling he wouldn’t enjoy the shuttered look on Stiles’ face if he did.
Derek’s first full shift happened while he was searching for the nogitsune. Searching for Stiles.
He didn’t tell anyone.
He was alone at the time, running circles around the town for any trace of a scent of the thing or of the boy it was possessing. He was running on instinct, and for a moment that instinct took over everything else. The intense desire to find Stiles save Stiles pushing everything else into the background in a way little had been able to do in a very long time, and without even noticing... he shifted.
It took a few seconds of running before he even realized, and the surprise of it sent him shifting right back to human and tumbling backwards to end up in a naked heap on the side of the road.
He thought that maybe it was a one-time thing, and didn’t really have the inclination to test it again until after everything had settled down, the nogitsune defeated, what was left of the pack in a fractured state of grief.
Derek shifted for the second time on the first night he spent in his new home in the mountains. Didn’t even have to think about it. Just walked out onto his porch, felt the cool breeze hit him without even a trace of anything human on it, and some primal part of him wanted to feel that breeze as he ran. So that’s what he did. He ran. And, as he ran, he shifted.
After that, it was effortless. The transition back and forth was like remembering something he didn’t even know he’d forgotten.
He shifts almost daily now, though less often in the warmer months. But it’s about six weeks into Stiles’ weekly takeover of his home that Derek spends the morning as a wolf prowling through trees and melting snow, and returns, still shifted, to find Stiles waiting for him on his front steps.
Derek doesn’t even question his first impulse in response, wrapped up in instinct and the ease with which everything seems to come to him in this form. Nothing is ever very complicated like this and he adores losing himself in that feeling. So he trots right up to Stiles without a second thought and nuzzles his snout into Stiles’ stomach.
“Holy shit. Oh, holy fucking shit, you are a wolf. You’re a motherfucking--“ Derek rears back, half at Stiles’ genuine panic and half in surprise at himself for the boldness of the action, the easy affection of it. Nevermind that Stiles has never seen him like this, doesn’t even know he can do this at all, that no one does.
But Stiles stops short suddenly, frozen, as Derek stares back at him, now from a safe distance away. He blinks and his mouth falls open. “...Derek?”
Derek shakes off the shift and stands upright.
Stiles scrambles up the steps to standing, tripping over himself in his shock, and falls back against the front door. “And... now you’re naked.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t mean-- But you’re a--” Stiles scrubs a hand over his face. “I’m sorry, this is not a conversation I know how to have when one of us isn’t wearing pants.”
Derek rolls his eyes and makes to go inside, but Stiles doesn’t move, and his breath hitches when Derek gets close.
“You’re blocking the door.”
“Oh. Right.” Stiles scrambles aside, and Derek pretends he doesn’t notice his gaze drop down to Derek’s ass.
Once he’s pulled on some sweatpants and a T-shirt, Derek glosses over the when and how of his first full shift as he answers Stiles’ nonstop, rapid-fire questions. “It’s something my mother could do. I don’t know much more than that. I know it’s rare. But I don’t know what it means.”
Stiles nods his head, wheels spinning. He’s obviously frustrated with Derek’s lack of information on the subject, but equally as intrigued by the potential mystery of the thing. “But you can just do it at will, right? Do it now. I wanna get a look at the wolf when I’m not pissing myself in terror.”
“If this is just a ploy to get me out of my clothes again...”
Stiles whole face flushes, but he scowls and throws a pillow from the couch at Derek’s head. “Don’t be a dick.”
Derek catches the pillow easily. “Oh, so no dick then? You’re sending a lot of mixed signals there, Stiles.”
“Oh my god, shoot me,” Stiles whines as he doubles over, face first, into his blanket pile at the end of the couch. Derek smirks and heads into the kitchen to make lunch.
He shifts again later that evening, undressing in the privacy of his bedroom while Stiles does homework and chews on three different pens where he’s seated on the living room floor in front of the fire. When Derek approaches him on four paws, he startles, but there’s no fear there this time.
Stiles looks Derek over carefully, not touching, and Derek allows the inspection for a couple of minutes. Despite Stiles’ close scrutiny, Derek doesn’t feel uncomfortable, or like he’s been put under a microscope. He feels... appreciated. As if Stiles’ undivided attention were some kind of gift.
At the end of it, Stiles finally reaches a cautious hand out, stopping halfway to Derek’s head. “Is this alright?”
Derek steps forward in response, shoving his forehead into Stiles’ palm.
Stiles scratches his long fingers through the course hair around Derek’s ears, and then down Derek’s back, before pulling back and grinning stupidly at Derek. “This is awesome, man. Can we go into town like this sometime and freak everyone out with my new pet wolf?”
Derek snaps his teeth a hair’s breadth from Stiles’ nose at the mere suggestion. Stiles doesn’t even flinch, just laughs loudly and loops an arm around Derek’s back as he leans into Derek’s side. “You are so easy sometimes,” he says.
Stiles continues doing homework while half lying on top of Derek’s wolf form. Derek sleeps off and on, watches the fire lazily, watches, a little less lazily, Stiles’ long fingers twirl highlighters and turn pages. He wonders in the back of his head if it was true what Stiles said at the bookstore. If Derek really is as much a mystery to him as Derek might be to a relative stranger.
He wonders why he cares either way. But falls asleep before he can come up with an adequate answer.
Derek finishes his first table three weeks after he starts it. And then promptly destroys it and starts all over again.
The second table he leaves standing for a couple of days before it meets the same fate.
He bakes Stiles’ mother’s recipe only when Stiles is nowhere around to find out about it. Derek has no intention of letting Stiles see just how many times he’s tried it and then scrapped the results.
It doesn’t feel like failing, though. He isn’t obsessed with perfection, with getting it exactly right. He just likes the idea of learning a thing inside and out before he’s finished with it. Especially when the thing is so important. Especially when the process is just as important as the finished product will hopefully be.
Derek reads Pride and Prejudice, once again looking for Stiles in the pages. It’s a ridiculous notion, he knows. But the book does fill him with an emotion--the name of which, on the tip of his tongue, he can’t quite define--that makes him think of the first time he saw Stiles, in the woods around the Hale property, and how so much seemed to have been said between them, even then, with nothing more than a glance and a ducked head.
“Have you read it?” Derek asks, one Saturday evening in late February after a dinner of cold pizza that Stiles brought up with him from town and insisted they needed to finish off rather than let anywhere near his roommate’s leftover-stealing clutches.
They’re sharing the couch, Stiles half buried in his blanket pile with his laptop propped against his knees, Derek finishing his second read through of the book in question. He raises it up to show Stiles the cover.
Stiles just shrugs and returns to his laptop. “Lydia made me watch the movie once? The one with Kiera Knightly. I fell asleep halfway in, but, I mean, it was right after... Well, you know. After. I don’t think I would’ve been able to stay awake for any movie around that time.”
Derek hands over his now worn copy of the book. “Here.”
Stiles makes a face at it as he takes the book from Derek and then holds it out at arms length while he examines it. “Granted, I deserve this for forcing Emma on you, but give it to me straight: Exactly how many times will I want to stab myself in the face due to boredom?”
“Just read it, Stiles.” Derek rolls his eyes, but then hesitates. “And let me know what you think.”
Stiles eyes him curiously, but doesn’t say anything more. He flips idly through the first few pages, skips to the end for half a second, and then sets the book carefully on the arm of the couch beside him before nodding and returning to his laptop.
It’s mid March when Derek realizes belatedly, as an after thought, that he’s... happy. That he’s been happy for a while now. The kind of quiet contentment that somehow snuck up on him, filled in all his darkened corners so softly and slowly that he never really took notice until the darkness was already gone. He’s not all there yet, but it feels like he’s steadily on his way as he sands the rough edges of his fourth attempt at building a table that he hopes his father would have been proud of.
Unfortunately, Stiles seems to be heading in the opposite direction.
The further into the spring semester they get, the more distant Stiles becomes. He’s a little harsher with his teasing, a little quicker to find fault with whatever Derek says or does. He smiles less. Stops coming by the house every weekend, now only every other.
At first, Derek assumes his coursework has finally caught up with him. That he’s busy and stressed from school as his freshman year comes to a close. But the closed off look on his face when he thinks no one is watching says differently.
Stiles doesn’t go home for spring break, but he also makes himself scarce enough that Derek doesn’t even realize he stayed in town until after the fact.
Derek isn’t going to say anything about it. It’s not his business, not his concern, and if Stiles needs to talk out his issues he’s got Scott and Lydia and his dad for that, all of them just a phone call away.
This is not Derek’s job, not his place. But all the same...
“I don’t know if I’ll go back home for the summer,” Stiles surprises Derek with the admission on a Sunday afternoon, his voice a little too tight to be as casual as he seems to be going for.
“What will you do instead?” Derek plays along, muscles tensing, but his tone carefully even.
Stiles shrugs, not looking up from his homework. “Maybe get a job in town? I don’t know.”
Derek is going to say something. He should say something. But instead, he hesitates, nods, and returns to redrafting plans for a new table, the drawings and notes spread out across the uneven boards of his last attempt.
He can feel Stiles’ eyes on him, though, studying him. The gaze is sharp and calculating. The kind of gaze that means he’s looking for an excuse to attack.
Five minutes later it comes. Out of left field, of course, so as to more easily get past defenses. Baffle the target and it won’t notice the blade. “Hey Derek, have you ever gone swimming with sharks?”
Derek raises his head. “What?”
“You ever bungie jump off a cliff in New Zealand?”
“Stiles, what the hell--”
“Because you act like you’ve already knocked off everything on your bucket list, so, you know, I’m just curious.”
Derek stares at his hands and breathes evenly for a few beats, willing himself not to take the bait. When he looks back up, it’s to find Stiles’ anxious but calculating eyes and pursed lips directed back at him. “I don’t have a list.”
“So you’ve just given up on ever doing anything else with your life? This is it. This is where you die.”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
Stiles looks momentarily taken aback. Startled into a split second of vulnerability, before his mask comes back up and the light behind his eyes shutters into something cold and hard.
Derek presses anyway. Pushes like he’s been wanting to do since Stiles first appeared in front of his house with a flimsy excuse about his reasons. “Why did you really come to school here, Stiles?”
Stiles rolls his eyes and busies his hands with picking at the threads unraveling along his shirt’s hem. “It wasn’t because of you. I didn’t even know you were here, alright? I mean, this was one of the areas we had on our list of potential Derek Hale hideouts, but I didn’t know for sure until after I was already enrolled.”
“So why? Why choose this tiny, middle of nowhere place a thousand miles from home? And then why get here and avoid everyone you meet? It’s been six months and you haven’t made a single friend, have you? You come up here to my place to avoid your roommate, you go to the coffee shop to avoid other students on campus, you hide in the back of that bookstore just to keep from running into people on the street.”
Stiles’ face is turning redder by the second, an unpleasant mix of anger and embarrassment rolling off of him in waves.
But now that he’s started, Derek can’t stop. “You came to this town to hide. You came here to runaway.”
“Oh, like you didn’t?” Stiles spits.
And Derek roars back, “I came here to stop running!”
It takes everything in Derek not to get in his face and keep yelling. To, instead, steady himself, before saying plainly, “I came here to remember how to live.”
Stiles looks gutted, his anger rushing out of him so quickly his shoulders sag and his hands shake.
Derek heads for the door. He can’t be in this room anymore, can’t deal with that look on Stiles’ face or the numb defeat in his scent. “If you decide you’re interested in doing the same, you know where to find me.”
He sheds his clothes as he walks, until he reaches the porch without a stitch left on him and breaks into a run, shifting as he goes.
Stiles isn’t there when he gets back.
The last snowfall of the season has long since melted away in town, but the mountains are still capped in white and there’s still frost underfoot in the woods around Derek’s place. He spends as much time outside as possible, reveling in the biting chill in the air before it’s gone.
But if he’s honest with himself, that’s only part of the reason. The other part has to do with avoiding anything that might remind him of Stiles, which is pretty much his entire house anymore.
Stiles’ absence is more pronounced now that Derek is pretty sure it’s indefinite. Derek’s no longer able to spot him around town either, never once picks up even a trace of Stiles’ scent when he runs errands, when he visits the coffee place or the bookstore. It’s as if Stiles has disappeared entirely, not just from Derek’s life but from the world.
He wonders if it’s his imagination or not, but the whole town seems quieter now. Specifically, it tends to be quieter where Derek is concerned. No one wants to go out of their way to talk to him anymore. He should be grateful, he thinks, but...
But then, one day, three weeks later, Derek catches Arin Joshiapte giving him a judgmental look from behind the information desk at the local library, and Derek has no idea what he did to deserve it. When Derek goes up with his stack of books to check out, Arin dismisses the student intern who was at the station and scans them all himself with a briskness that borders on outright cold.
Derek doesn’t understand. Arin is probably his second favorite local after Esther. The guy tends to mind his own business, is as much a hermit on occasion as Derek can be, and has read more books than any ten people Derek’s ever met combined. He’s a better resource for random information than Google, and with an infinite supply of recommended readings on any given subject. And sometimes he quietly renews Derek’s book loans instead of charging him a late fee, and then pretends he has no idea how that happened. Arin is good people.
“If I did something--” Derek starts, because it’s been over a year and a few thousand miles now since anyone’s decided to hate him just because they can. He should’ve known it wouldn’t last.
Arin holds up a hand to interrupt him. “Listen, Hale, the only person who ever borrows more books that you do is that kid. And the only person I’ve ever seen him talk to is you, so the fact that he hasn’t been here in two weeks when he used to show up everyday... Either you did something, or you know enough about whoever did do something to help, but aren’t. So whatever you have to say to me, I don’t want to hear it.”
Derek gapes a little, completely caught off guard.
Arin shoves his stack of books back to him. “These are due in two weeks. Take care to remember that, as we have a rather strict renewal policy.”
“You also owe ten dollars and twenty-five cents in back due late fees.”
Derek has been gored through the chest by blood relatives and it stung less.
After that, he starts to notice that everyone else in town now looks at him with similar expressions. And it occurs to him that as much as Stiles intentionally set himself apart from them all, they all still decided he was worth doting over regardless, even if from afar.
Exactly the same--though it pains him to admit it--as they’d taken to doing with Derek.
He’ll later blame the lack of service, or even eye contact, at the grocer’s for his next move. But, really, it probably has more to do with hating the idea that Stiles has been driven even further away from the human contact he’s obviously already starved for due to something Derek said in the heat of the moment.
He goes to the bookstore, and doesn’t even pretend to browse. “Have you talked to Stiles recently?”
Nikki looks up from her phone, startled, and then nearly does a double take at the sight of Derek, her tight curls bouncing around her face. After a lengthy pause, she finally manages a bewildered, “No?”
Derek huffs a frustrated sigh, decides this entire endeavor was doomed to fail from the start anyway, and heads further into the shop to pick up a few books on woodworking so as not to make this visit a complete waste of time.
It’s barely five minutes later when Derek senses the girl meander over to him while he glares at a C. S. Lewis boxset without really seeing it.
She stands beside him for awhile, hesitating, and then says softly, “He’s been... sad.”
“What?” Derek rounds on her.
“Stiles. I mean, I don’t really know him that well. I don’t think anyone at school does. But he’s definitely different now. Has been for a couple weeks. He’s sad.”
Derek swallows hard. “And I’m supposed to be able to do something about that?”
Nikki gives Derek an unimpressed look, and says slowly, like she thinks he’s an idiot, “Well, you’re his friend, aren’t you?”
Strange to think that in all the years of knowing Stiles, this is the first time anyone has ever suggested out loud that that might be the case. Or that it might even be obvious.
Derek considers calling Scott, for the first time in a long time. They’ve texted occasionally, because neither have become completely comfortable with trusting the other not to die without supervision. But Scott doesn’t even know that Derek is in the same county as Stiles, let alone that they’ve become closer than either of them would ever own up to willingly.
So, instead... Derek bakes.
He rereads Austen.
And then he heads over to the local university.
Derek’s been on the campus exactly once, when he first moved here, and it was just to map the position of the buildings and walkways, an instinct in regards to new territory that he allowed himself in order to fully settle into his new home. It’s not his favorite place, the sheer number of bodies all in close proximity to each other reminding him of how claustrophobic New York had felt. And the sheer intensity of chemosignals from those just barely out of high school and on their own for the first time is overwhelming in a way that makes him queasy.
He does his best to filter it all out, to ignore the looks from passing students and the whispers of the professors who know him from town. He keeps walking in no particular direction until he catches Stiles’ scent. And then he follows it until he reaches where it still lingers outside the locked doors to one of the dormitories.
It isn’t difficult to get inside, a trio of talkative girls holding the door open for him on their way out a couple minutes later. After that, Derek stops tracking by scent, the air too thick with weed, sex, stale junk food and hormones for his liking, and asks around until someone points him to a door at the end of the hall on the third floor.
A boy is leaving the room just as Derek gets there. “Oh thank god,” he says in lieu of a greeting. “Can you please fix him? I can’t even bring girls back here anymore. His fucking sad sack rain cloud scares them all away.”
Derek has the primal urge to clock the kid, but valiantly ignores it and shoulders past him to the door without comment.
Once inside, Derek stops short. The room looks exactly how one might imagine any freshman boy’s college dorm room would look, but with this impossibly depressing veneer that Derek doesn’t quite know how to define.
The curtains are drawn. Stiles is curled up on one corner of his bed, highlighter falling out of his half-open mouth, eyes squinting intently in the low light at the textbook in his lap. The rest of the bed is covered in more books, crumpled pages of notebook paper and empty energy drink cans. “That was quick,” he says, not looking up. “You forget your phone again?”
“No, not my phone.”
Stiles jerks his head up so suddenly he knocks the back of it against the wall behind him. “You-- You’re in my dorm room,” he says blankly, like his brain can’t even begin to process the idea.
“I am.” Derek steps forward and gives a pointed sweep of his gaze around the mess of the room. “I’ve been reliably informed that you’re not doing very well lately. And that it’s probably my fault.”
Stiles scrambles off the bed to stand before him. “What? No, dude, it’s fine, I--“
“I shouldn’t have said what I did,” Derek interrupts.
“Derek, you don’t have to--“
“Stiles, whatever it is you’re doing here in this town... I have no room to judge, alright? I stopped running when I came here, yes, but I...” Derek takes a deep breath. “I might still be hiding.”
“No, look, you were right, okay? About all of it.” Stiles ducks his head and stares off to the side. He licks his lips nervously. “There’s a lot I still haven’t dealt with. But, I just, I needed time? And I never get that back home. That’s why I came here. In Beacon Hills I was getting better at first, but I never got a chance to figure it all out on my own. Somebody was always there, was always trying to pick up the pieces for me, instead of showing me how to do it myself. And I need to figure out how to pick the pieces up myself if I’m ever going to... I don’t know. If I’m ever going to ‘learn how to live again.’”
Derek knows then that he’s done the right thing today. That, for what feels like the very first time in his life, he is exactly where he’s supposed to be and is in possession of exactly what is required to help the person standing before him. It’s a heady sensation.
“These are for you.” Derek shoves the paperbag he’s been carrying around with him unceremoniously at Stiles and holds it there until Stiles warily takes it from him.
Stiles opens it up, and then freezes at the sight of the Kolaczki inside. Derek isn’t exactly satisfied with this batch, but it’s the best he’s made so far and it’ll have to do. He hopes it’ll do.
“Derek...” Stiles’ eyes are glassy when he looks back up.
“Come back with me to the house and I’ll show you how to make them yourself.”
Stiles’ heart stutters in his chest. And Derek suddenly wants nothing more than to give into the pull he feels, a line between them trying to reel them both closer to each other, and to just hold him.
Instead, he clears his throat awkwardly and breaks the moment by pulling a face. “Shower first, though. You reek.”
Stiles laughs, a bit brokenly, but nods and grabs a towel hanging off his desk chair and a bottle of shampoo from off a pile of laundry on the floor. He looks like he wants to hug Derek on his way out, but hesitates and then lamely punches him in the arm.
He comes back smelling cleaner and a little less miserable, though still not right. Not yet.
They take Derek’s car up the mountain, the quiet between them during the trip feeling more companionable and welcoming then the other kind of quiet Derek’s been experiencing these last three weeks.
At home, Derek talks Stiles through every single mundane step of the recipe, and somehow the cookies still come out burnt. But it doesn’t seem to matter in the face of the grateful, if entirely too amused, smile Stiles gives Derek as he rushes around the house opening windows and doors to let the smoke out.
Unfortunately, after that, the cold air of nightfall seeps into every nook and cranny of the place unhindered. It’s late April now, but it almost feels like autumn when Stiles starts yawning on the couch and wraps his arms around himself to try to stave off the chill a little. Derek would build a fire, but doesn’t have any wood left for it at this time of year.
He makes tea, and when he returns with two steaming mugs, Stiles has got three different blankets on him and he’s curled around a throw pillow like an anchor to keep himself from shivering.
“You’re ridiculous,” Derek sighs. “Hold on, I’ll be right back.”
“Uh, I think I’ve already got literally every blanket in the house out here, so unless you’re gonna go magic up a space heater, I’m not sure how you can help.”
Derek just shakes his head and heads for the bedroom, where he quickly shucks his clothes and shifts.
Stiles gives a winded “oof” as Derek sprawls across him. And then his eyes go wide as he stares at Derek in shock and confusion.
Derek flicks his tongue out and licks the tip of Stiles’ nose.
Stiles is so surprised for a moment that all he can do is blink. But then he bursts out laughing and shoves Derek’s snout away from his face. “Gross, dude.”
Once his laughter has subsided, he squirms a bit under Derek uncertainly. But then sighs a soft “fuck it” and relaxes fully into the cushions, closing his eyes and burying one hand in the fur at Derek’s nape.
After a long quiet, their now matched breaths evening out the closer to sleep they get, Stiles asks softly, “Is it weird that this isn’t weird?”
Derek huffs a short breath into Stiles’ collar.
“Yeah, I know. Since when has that ever stopped either of us, right?”
Derek’s nearly asleep when Stiles speaks again, just a half-conscious whisper into the dark. “Thank you.”
Derek sleepily buries his nose in Stiles’ neck and drowns out the war of emotions in the back of his head with the steady sound of Stiles’ heartbeat.
In the morning, Derek goes to his room to shift back and get dressed. When he returns, Stiles has got his head shoved in the fridge, his clothes rumpled from sleep and smelling of both himself and of wolf in a pleasing way that Derek definitely doesn’t want to analyze. “Your fridge is depressingly empty. Have you just been living on burnt Kolaczki since I last saw you?”
“Well. Not burnt ones.”
Stiles throws a dishtowel at his head that misses by a mile.
“Take a look in my dresser and find some clean clothes that fit, and we can go into town. The Lee diner does a decent veggie omelet. I’ll buy you breakfast and you can complain about your finals in front of a larger audience.”
Stiles stills, his carefree expression of just a moment ago morphing into something wary and anxious. “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
“You do mind. I know you mind, Derek.”
Derek forces an ever-so-casual shrug. “Gotta stop hiding sometime.”
Stiles’ throat clicks around a dry swallow at that, but he doesn’t protest. Doesn’t say much of anything actually, as he wanders back to the bedroom and spends a little too long rifling through all the dresser drawers before he settles on an unassuming Henley and a pair of navy drawstring cargo pants that Derek forgot he even owned.
He doesn’t stop playing with the pockets in the pants the entire drive into town, tugging at the flaps and then smoothing them back into place like the repetition is the only thing keeping him from doing something drastic.
Derek actually starts to wonder who’s taking the bigger step here by venturing out into the world without their usual armor of distance and reticence, him or Stiles.
The Lee diner is always busy but never crowded. The chairs are all mismatched and secondhand, the menu is half vegan and half heart-attack inducing, and the cash register on the bar is an oversized antique that they only use to store extra mints and crayons for the kids, while ringing up all the bills, instead, on the oldest Lee daughter’s old high school calculator that sits beside it.
Derek rarely makes a point to stop by, despite how much he secretly enjoys the place. But he figures he might as well start changing that now, if as much for Stiles’ sake as his own.
“You’re really okay eating out?” Stiles asks as they take their seats at a table beside the front window. He immediately starts jiggling a leg rapidly beneath the table and grabs for a napkin to start shredding between his fingers. “Putting yourself on display first thing in the AM like this?”
“You make it sound like going to breakfast were akin to starring in our own reality show.”
“Dude, I think there are maybe two people in here not staring at us right now. And those two people are us.”
“We can get the food to go if you want.”
Stiles studies Derek’s face carefully, chewing on his bottom lip, his eyebrows drawn inward. “If you’re cool, I’m cool,” he shrugs, but he keeps his eyes locked on Derek like he’s trying to read him, and taps his fingers on the tabletop nervously. “Are you cool?”
Over Stiles’ shoulder, Derek spots the top of Tom Lee’s head through the window into the kitchen as the man ducks back down over the stove like he wasn’t just watching them. Patrick from the bakery is three booths over with his girlfriend and her son, and has mumbled the phrase “don’t look directly at them” often enough in the span of five minutes that Derek’s pretty sure the advice isn’t being heeded. Their waitress, Matilda, has passed by a dozen times already to check on their progress with the menu and hasn’t even glanced at where Jonas at the bar is frustratedly trying to flag her down with his order.
It’s true, this is the most exposed Derek has ever been in this town, among these people, but it strangely doesn’t feel like it. There’s nothing malicious behind any of the completely unsubtle glances or whispered comments about how Stiles is very obviously not wearing his own clothes or how Derek hasn’t shaved in far longer than usual. It feels almost like a family get-together from when he was a kid. Like maybe, after all this time, years of laying low and trusting no one, not even himself, not really, he’s finally among people who would never mean him actual harm.
And at the center of them all, across the table from Derek and more distracting than any ten of them combined, is Stiles. Still looking like he just woke up, picking at the collar of his borrowed shirt like he’s self-conscious about the fit. Or like maybe he wants to duck his head down into it and hide from the blatant stares.
“Yeah,” Derek says with a small, honest smile. “I’m ‘cool.’”
Matilda comes back around yet again and they order. Stiles spends a few minutes talking about his classes before the food arrives and then happily digs in.
“Okay, seriously,” he says a few minutes later around a mouthful of hashbrowns, shooting a sidelong look at the old ladies currently gawking at them through the window from the grocery across the street. “I get that you’re the mysterious mountain man that everyone in town pines for from afar, but what’s with all the looks?”
“You haven’t been around town much lately.” Derek shrugs.
“They’ve been worried about you.”
Stiles chokes on his coffee. “Wait, what?”
“It’s a small town. People talk. And some of them noticed you haven’t been lurking in your usual spots and they got concerned.”
“But... Why? They don’t even know me.”
“I don’t think it matters. They have a habit of communally adopting strays without the stray’s consent.”
Stiles’ eyebrows draw together thoughtfully as he glances around the diner like he’s seeing the people there for the first time. When he looks back at Derek, an amused smirk starts to tug at the corners of his mouth. “They adopted you, too, didn’t they?”
Derek sighs, long suffering, but a part of him knows he doesn’t really mean it. A part of Stiles must know too, because the smirk breaks fully across his face into something more like a grin and his eyes twinkle in obvious delight. “They tried.”
“They totally did.”
“Shut up and eat your pancakes.”
Stiles does so happily, though he tosses sideways glances up occasionally, as if trying to covertly get a read on all of these relative strangers he did not realize until now supposedly care about him for some reason. He seems suspicious, if hesitantly hopeful.
Derek knows the feeling well. He’s only just now coming out the other side of it himself, right now this morning, sitting with Stiles while two thirds of the local knitting circle text their other members with updates about how many times he almost smiles at Stiles when Stiles isn’t looking, or what the exact shade of blue his sweater is and how many washes its seen.
He chuckles softly into his coffee as it all hits him, and for the first time he’s not annoyed or inconvenienced or wary about any of it. He’s safe here.
And, anyway, he’s mostly just amused right now at how ridiculous Stiles looks when trying to run a hand through his hair before remembering that same hand has syrup on it.
Unfortunately, despite Derek’s comfort level at the diner, he didn’t account for the headache that would follow in the wake of that shared breakfast.
Hiram gives him a warning look the moment he steps through the coffee shop doors two days later, but Derek doesn’t manage to interpret it until it’s already too late and Alice is cornering him with a printed list of pricey weekend getaways on the coast.
It takes Derek a couple of overwhelmed minutes of Alice’s excited chatter about the merits of off-season versus on and how much square footage one really needs if one never leaves the bedroom, wink wink, before he manages words. “This is, uh-- thoughtful? Of you. So thank you. But I’m not really looking for--”
“It’s romantic, Derek,” she informs him with no room for argument, and shoves the printed pages into his chest. “Big gestures like this are what make memories. Think about it.”
“Thinking about it” is honestly the last thing he plans on doing. He doesn’t even dare let himself figure out what she’s even talking about, though a part of him already knows.
At the Farmer’s Market, Marianne smirks at him as she hands over his change. “Don’t screw it up, Hale. We’re short on folks to live vicariously through at the book club.”
Derek scowls and stuffs his marmalade into his canvas totebag, the one with the silkscreened windmills on the front that his closest neighbor made and gave to him as a housewarming present but that he’s never used. That is, until Stiles pulled it out of the back of the cupboard where it had been hiding. “First of all, I think the whole point of a book club is to live vicariously through books. Secondly, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Marianne chuckles and busies herself with rearranging the remaining jars of preserves. “Of course you don’t. Sometimes I wonder if you only live all alone up on that mountain because 24/7 contact with your ridiculousness would prove fatal to mere mortals.”
“I am not ‘ridiculous,’” Derek mutters. And then sidesteps over to Cal Rutherford’s booth of Cthulhu stained-glass mosaics. He wonders idly if Stiles has seen these yet, and if he gets as much of a kick out of them as Derek does. He makes a mental note to ask, and then has to shake the thought away as Marianne’s words continue to ring in his ears.
He is not ridiculous.
If Stiles is on the receiving end of similar attention, he doesn’t mention it. He shows up at Derek’s house the following weekend with a textbook and his laptop tucked under one arm, shuffling his feet on the porch and looking uncharacteristically nervous about his welcome. “You mind if I study on your couch for a couple hours?”
Derek crosses his arms over his chest and leans against the doorjamb in the open front doorway. “I don’t know. Should I be worried that this is the first time you’ve bothered to ask for permission?”
“Well you woulda said ‘no’ all those other times.”
“And I won’t now?”
Stiles smirks, but there’s an obvious caution behind it. An insecurity in his eyes that’s hard not to notice. “Nah, you love me now.”
“A couple hours” turns into the entire day, but Derek doesn’t comment on it. He works in the garden all morning and then makes enough lunch for two.
They eat on the porch, watching a wall of dark grey clouds slowly move in from the west over the trees. Stiles is oddly quiet, chewing anxiously on his bottom lip as much as his sandwich.
Derek just waits patiently for whatever it is Stiles needs to work himself up to saying. Stiles told him that he never felt like he had “time” back in Beacon Hills, so time is what Derek will give him here.
“So I might’ve done something I shouldn’t have,” Stiles says at last.
Derek braces himself for the worst, watching Stiles take a deep breath before he continues. “I told Scott that you’re living here.”
“And I told my dad.”
Derek shrugs, not knowing what else to say. It’s not like he was trying to keep his location a secret, exactly. He just didn’t want to deal with the conversations that advertising it would require.
Stiles looks back down at his food, but his heart rate picks up even more. “They think we’re living together.”
Derek raises an eyebrow, more surprised than anything. “Kind of a big leap to make from us inhabiting the same county.”
The tips of Stiles’ ears turn pink, and a flush spreads across the sharp lines of his cheekbones. He colors so easily, at the slightest temperature drop or change of mood, and Derek has always been a little fascinated by it. It’s one thing to be able to decode chemosignals, and to have grown up in a household where everyone around him could do the same. But having such a clear visual indicator of emotion makes him both want to look away for privacy’s sake, and also want to lean in and trace the color with his nose to see if he can follow it to its abstract source the way he would a scent.
“I told them I crash here sometimes,” Stiles explains. “Innocently! Completely innocent crashing. But they... inferred a lot of things that the more I argued against the more guilty I looked, so I just sort of let them think what they wanted to think.”
Derek looks away, towards the treeline and the rustling of branches as animals head for shelter before the oncoming storm. “It’s fine,” he says shortly. “Of course the only reason you would stay here is if you were getting something more out of it.”
Stiles does a double take. “Uh, come again?”
“Or do I have it backwards? They just think so little of me that the only reason I’d let you stay here is if you were providing me with something in return?” Derek keeps his head turned away, but slants his gaze back over.
Stiles’ whole face pales and he sputters. “No! That’s not-- No, okay? They both fucking adore you now. Which is a little hilarious since both of them kinda hated you at the start. But the point is that they love you now.” Stiles clears his throat uncomfortably. “They just don’t get why I would need to crash here unless there was something else going on.”
“The idea that you might want to be near me not out of necessity or sexual favor is so unbelievable?”
“They just don’t... They don’t see things the way we do, man.” Stiles looks at his hands. He starts to shrug but gives up halfway in and heaves a sigh. “Even when I hated you, I knew you’d give your life to save mine. And I knew I’d do the same for you. Even when I didn’t trust you, I trusted that you would be there. My dad and Scott, they don’t get that. And they don’t get that I would value that. That I would need it. They never have.”
The tension drains out of Derek’s body all at once, replaced by something warm spreading out from the center of his chest. He softens his expression and nods reassuringly at Stiles. “They do tend to view things through a certain set of rules that not everything always fits so neatly into. I used to find that admirable, actually. Defining your life and your actions through rigid obedience to a black-and-white morality.”
Stiles smiles back at him tentatively, one of those rare genuine ones, rooted in fondness and camaraderie more than amusement. “’Used to,’ huh? And now?”
“And now...” Derek stands up and collects their plates just as the wind picks up and lightning flashes in the distance. “Now I’d like to finally stop punishing myself for failing so spectacularly at meeting those kind of impossible standards.”
The rain starts up innocuously around four in the afternoon, a gentle pitter-patter against Derek’s roof. Stiles keeps one of the windows in the living area partly open beside him on the couch while he reads, and continuously gets distracted running his long fingers through the pools of drops that form and then disappear seconds later in the grooves of the wooden sill.
The heavy cloud cover creates a muted dimness that makes it seem later than it is. Derek likes the thought that something so seemingly fixed as day and night could be derailed by a storm. He likes the reminder that nature does not fit into the boxes people give it. That his own nature is just as real and just as grey as anyone else’s, and that that’s okay.
Around eight o’clock the downpour and wind speed both increase so suddenly that it manages to soak Stiles’ entire upper body and most of his textbook before he can shut the window against it and sputter a few expletives. The couch itself doesn’t fair much better, but Derek’s too busy silently laughing at Stiles to care.
He gets both of Stiles’ middle fingers raised in his direction for it. “Yeah, okay, asshole, it’s your rug I’m dripping on. Can I borrow some dry clothes?”
“You still haven’t returned the last ones I lent you.”
“Be thankful for that. I haven’t done laundry in, like, a month and I really don’t think you want them returned still reeking of eau de Stiles.”
Before he has a chance to think it through, Derek shrugs a shoulder and offers a teasing smirk. “Wouldn’t be the worst thing.”
He means for it to be a joke. Obviously. But for some reason it doesn’t quite come out that way. And Stiles freezes where he was already on his way back to the bedroom.
Derek clamps his mouth shut, gripping the book he was reading with white knuckles and praying Stiles lets the comment slide.
A tense moment passes, but then Stiles continues walking, disappearing down the short hallway, and Derek lets out a held breath. He tries to go back to reading, but his heartbeat is erratic and the words swim in and out of focus. He reads the same sentence a dozen times and still doesn’t know what it says, or why there’s an emotion caught in his throat that he’s too scared to name.
When Stiles returns, he appears uncharacteristically shy. Not nervous, exactly, but his eyes keep darting around the room from beneath thick lashes, and he picks his cell phone up gingerly, like he’s afraid of breaking something, only to scroll through it sightlessly and set it right back down.
Despite this, he also seems more solid, more real and here, than Derek’s ever seen him. Grey sweatpants hang low on his narrow hips. He’s barefoot, his hair is still wet, and a few drops of rainwater are still scattered across his forearms. His shoulders have always been broader than Derek gives him credit for, but Derek’s never been more startled by that fact then when seeing them now clad in one of his worn T-shirts, pulled taut in some places by the damp and in other places by defined muscle. It fits Stiles just as well as it ever fit Derek, except in completely different ways.
“So, uh, I guess I should start heading back into town.” Stiles ducks his head and scratches the back of his neck.
Derek frowns in confusion, until Stiles motions vaguely at the rather large puddle directly in the middle of the couch, and the soggy remains of where only about half of his blanket pile made it through the onslaught unscathed.
“I’m not letting you drive down the mountain in a thunderstorm.”
Stiles gives him a dirty look. “I realize this is my own fault, and I probably owe you a new couch now, but please don’t make sleep on the floor again, dude. Once was enough for my neck. Also, it’s cold.”
Derek sighs and sets his book aside as he gets up from his chair. “Despite popular opinion, I’m not actually that much of a dick. The bed is more than big enough for the both of us.”
“Both of us, as in me and the wolf, or me and the dude with the distracting six pack?”
“I suppose I can shift if it’ll make you more comfortable.”
Stiles raises an eyebrow. “But?”
“But I’m not good with heat or humidity in that form. It can feel... a bit suffocating.”
“Right. So no puppy piles when it’s raining. Fair enough,” Stiles nods congenially, though he smells like anxiety.
“I guess I could take the floor if you’re really that--”
“No! No, it’s fine. Just been a long time since my last real sleepover. Wasn’t sure of the protocol.”
In the bedroom, Stiles stares down at the bed like it’s about to eat him, while Derek lifts his shirt over his head to change.
“Scott is never going to let me live this one down,” Stiles mutters, and then startles when he looks up to see Derek only half dressed. “Oh my god, warn a guy!”
Derek grabs a T-shirt and kicks off his shoes. “I’m going to regret everything about this, aren’t I?”
“That’s what she said.”
“I swear to god, I will make you sleep on the porch.”
“Alright alright. Sorry. Let’s get this sleep train out of the station already. I’ll be on my best behavior, I promise.”
Of course, they aren’t lying in bed more than a minute before Stiles starts to fidget. He kicks off the covers in a sudden fit, then pulls them back up over his legs a second later. He beats at his pillow, scoots closer to Derek, then shoves quickly away like he just remembered himself and nearly topples off the mattress in his haste.
“Really?” Derek sighs, adjusting the covers over his own legs and trying to ignore Stiles’ flailing.
Stiles is silent for long enough that Derek starts to worry. But then he says, softly, out of nowhere, “I read the book.”
It takes Derek a second to understand what he’s talking about. The loaned copy of Pride and Prejudice. God, he feels stupid now for having insisted that Stiles read it. The whole thing seems so silly in retrospect. Marianne was right after all. He is ridiculous.
But Stiles doesn’t look like he’s making fun of Derek. His eyes shine, bright and earnest, in the darkness. ““It took awhile to get into it, but I think I liked it? I liked the way they had to figure everything out through this strict framework of social convention. Like, they had to be con artists about their emotions kinda, and tiny things ended up having such huge significance. The characters were all forced to say things through the smallest gestures. A touch of a hand or whatever. It’s like they had to say everything that really mattered in code. Like they had to use all the things that didn’t matter to explain what did.”
Derek swallows heavily, searching for the right response. Searching for a way to say that he’d thought the exact same thing while reading it, and had discovered his and Stiles’ own relationship buried somewhere in the idea. Years of code between the two of them suddenly translated for him now and so glaringly obvious in hindsight. Con artists about their emotions, though not because of social convention, but because of their own baggage.
All Derek can think to do now, though, is continue the secret dialogue. Confess all the most important things about himself and about what he feels right now in this moment, through an innocuous gesture.
He reaches across the few inches separating them, and gently touches Stiles’ hand.
Stiles pulls in a short, sharp breath and closes his eyes. The world goes quiet and still for a moment, and then Stiles is turning his hand over and so they’re palm to palm, fingers wrapped around the other in an actual hand hold.
“Nikki’s going away for the summer,” Stiles whispers. “And she said she’d talk to the guy who owns the bookstore about me filling in while she’s gone. All I’d need to do is find a cheap room to rent since they kick us out of the dorms the week after school gets out, and then I’d have the whole summer here to--”
“You should go home,” Derek interrupts, not sure he’d be able to get this out if he let Stiles finish that thought.
Stiles’ face falls, features crumpling with the bitter sting of rejection.
“I think you need to,” Derek explains. “Just for the summer. See your dad and Scott and Lydia. Let them know you’re okay. Prove to yourself that you’re okay... Everything will still be here when you get back.”
Stiles’ Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows, and he licks his lips like he doesn’t even know he’s doing it or that Derek’s eyes track the motion. “Everything?” he asks shyly, which is not an emotion Derek had ever thought he’d witness from him, let alone twice in one evening.
Derek squeezes his hand gently in answer, not trusting his voice. But Stiles seems to understand. He nods like he’s made the decision, and then shifts onto his side to go to sleep, but he doesn’t let go of Derek's hand.
Derek closes his eyes and attempts to do the same. He falls into unconsciousness aided by the sound and smell of the rain outside and the sound and smell of Stiles in his bed. He doesn’t let go either.
Summer was already Derek’s least favorite season, but this year is especially bad.
It wasn’t always this way. He has fond memories of many a summertime from his childhood. Of tussling with cousins at the swimming hole all afternoon until his mother’s howl called them back for large dinners spread out buffet style on the porch and eaten on blankets under the trees. Of marathoning episodes of Saved By the Bell with Laura all day in the air conditioned rec room, and then staying up all night whispering secrets to each other in the tent in the backyard.
After the fire, the summer’s heat felt more overwhelming than comforting. In New York, he and Laura would take in matinee double features at any theater with working A/C, and then moonlight for minimum wage at the nearest bar that didn’t attract enough people, even on a good night, to make the place heat up with too many bodies.
And now, on this especially hot mid morning in late May, Derek helps Stiles load up the Jeep for the long drive back to Beacon Hills, and he wishes more desperately than he ever has before to be able to just skip ahead to September.
His poker face must need work because Stiles approaches him with a smirk, after closing the hatch with a finality that feels like lead in Derek’s gut. “Aw, you gonna miss me, big guy?”
Derek frowns and refuses to answer that.
Stiles crosses his arms over his chest and leans sideways until his shoulder rests on the driver’s side window. “See, your scowl says ‘no.’ But my ability to extrapolate whatever made-up data I want to from your silences says ‘yes.’”
“Have a safe trip,” Derek says blandly.
Stiles brings a hand up to cup one ear. “What was that? You can’t stand the thought of me being so far away?”
“If your piece of shit car breaks down halfway there, call Triple A, not me.”
Stiles grins. “Nah, but really, man. I... Thanks. For, you know, all the stuff that I am far too manly to start listing.” Derek snorts. “And, I mean, it’s not too late. I could still stay here. Crash on your couch for the summer. Learn to fish or hunt defenseless bunnies or whatever it is you do out in the woods in your free time.”
“That’s not what I--” Derek starts, and stops himself at the shit eating expression on Stiles face. He rolls his eyes and tries not to press forward and fall prey to the pull between them like all of his senses want him to.
“Text me when you get there, so I know you didn’t get yourself killed along the way.” He turns and heads back to his own car without waiting for a response.
“I’ll miss you too, Derek!” Stiles calls after him.
It takes everything in him not to look back over his shoulder.
Derek thinks that without Stiles around, his life will quiet down back to what it was during his first year here, only occasionally interrupted by the well-meaning neighbor before most of them learned better.
Instead, it intensifies. Suddenly, no one wants to leave him alone. Ever.
Professor Wyatt from the university’s math department, who Derek has met in passing maybe once, pays for his groceries one sunny afternoon before Derek even knows what’s happening.
Cal Rutherford starts working on an addition to the mural he painted along the side of the hardware store and won’t let Derek continue walking past him until he’s gotten Derek’s explicit approval on every single color of paint being added to the piece.
There is a brand new copy of Jane Eyre that smells like Nikki sitting in his truck bed when Derek gets back to it one day. A post-it note tucked into the cover says, simply, “Got a new copy in, and it made me think of you.” He’s not entirely comfortable with what the girl seems to be implying about the story’s correlations to his own life.
When Derek stops in at Hiram’s for the first time in a month, he’s greeted with a face full of Tupperware before he’s even made it to the counter.
Derek glowers at the plastic lid, then raises his gaze back up to meet Alice’s beaming smile.
“It’s soup,” she says helpfully. “Gazpacho, to be specific. That means you eat it cold.”
“I know what Gazpacho is.”
“Oh good. Perfect for summertime, right? This should last you for a couple meals at least. Let me know if you like it.”
“Alice,” she interrupts.
“Alice. I’m not-- You know I don’t need to be taken care of, right?”
She gives him a fond, if somewhat condescending, look. “Oh, hon. Of course you do. Everyone does sometimes.”
“But this is not one of those times,” Derek manages through gritted teeth.
Alice rolls her eyes and turns on her heels to head back to the line of customers at the counter and Hiram’s exasperated hand gestures.
Derek sighs heavily and heads back out the door with his soup and no coffee.
He knows what they’re doing. He knows what they think, but he’s not-- It isn’t-- He’s only on edge because of the rising temperatures. That’s all. And shifting in this heat just makes him more miserable because of that thick fur coat, so he doesn’t do it for days on end and it grates on him. That’s the source of his foul mood. Not... Not Stiles.
All of his usual projects have been abandoned for the time being. He’s restless with the heat, uncomfortable in any skin most of the time. Cooking requires raising the temperature even more and so he just doesn’t. Eats salad instead, and, now, Gazpacho, apparently. Woodworking results in enough sweat and flushed skin to require a lengthy cold shower not twenty minutes in. And reading is only a small comfort, since he can’t seem to stop reading the same two nineteenth century romances over and over again, like a skipping record.
He goes to the library every week anyway, not for the books but for the email access.
Stiles texts Derek daily for the first few weeks of his absence, but Derek is sporadic with his responses, flinching every time he presses “send” and knowing that he’s been too brisk and aloof for the medium. Not casual enough to be friendly, not playful enough to be seen as the banter it would if the conversation were in person.
Besides, his cell service on the mountain is spotty at best, and he doesn’t like going for hours or even days wondering if he’s being ignored or if the message just didn’t go through.
On a whim, he asks Arin to walk him through the procedure for setting up an online account with the library that will allow him to access the internet from any of their four, decade-old computers set up in study corrals behind the periodical section. Derek usually just takes his second-hand laptop to Hiram’s for the free wifi, but does not want to get caught by the book club with this.
I don’t like texting, he writes and then sends the single line with no subject.
I know. That’s what makes it funny, is the single line he gets emailed back to him the next day.
Derek huffs and types out a quick response. Your ability to annoy me when not even in the same state is impressive.
Hey, you’re the one who emailed ME, bub. How’s the table coming?
Derek considers writing something flippant back, but pauses with his fingers hovering over the keyboard. There’s a dull ache in his chest that feels like something’s been trapped there these past few weeks, and he wonders if it isn’t his own voice.
I hit a road block on the eighth attempt, he writes. The heat’s been stifling lately and manual labor works up too much of a sweat to be comfortable, no matter what lengths I go to in order to stay cool.
Once he starts writing with honesty, it feels impossible to stop, and it’s several paragraphs later before he manages to sign off.
Wow, I really did not need the mental image of you doing carpentry naked. I’m only human, dude, the email he gets back begins, and then continues on for just as long as his own did.
Whatever they are to each other anymore, Derek both can’t bring himself to define it, but also can’t bring himself to leave it alone. He emails Stiles every other day for the entire rest of the summer, even when he has nothing to say. He avoids thinking about the implications or the reasons. Avoids thinking about what conclusions Stiles might draw from any of it, and avoids drawing any of his own.
In mid August, Esther manages to somehow get Derek to agree to a family dinner invite. He has no idea how she did it, but figures going through with it falls in line with his decision to “stop hiding” that he hasn’t been very proactive about of late.
It’s not nearly as bad as he feared. Tom cooks and seems to care more about the state of his soufflé than making small talk. Their younger three kids fight over whose movie pick it is that night and bemoan the fact that the older two are away at college instead of being there to cast crucial deciding votes in the matter. And Esther gives Derek a knowing look halfway through everything, followed by a convenient excuse for a brief escape in suggesting he go take a look at their home office’s impressive book collection.
She sidles up next to him in front of one of the bookshelves after desert is over, and places a glass of wine in his hands. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think I liked you better when your stony silences had more to do with your personality rather than your heartache.”
“Not you too,” he smirks over the rim of the cup before taking a sip.
She raises up the hand not holding her own cup in innocence. “You’ll get no ulterior motives from me, Hale. But I can’t say I don’t worry occasionally. Always have, really. It’s just for different reasons now.”
“It was a hell of a lot easier to deal with your mood swings when you just needed a snowplow or some firewood hauled. This? Shit, I made Tom talk the kids through their first loves. It’s not my bag.”
Derek frowns. “I’m not in lo--”
“That being said,” she interrupts easily, “I’m glad you found this for yourself, Derek. Whatever it is.” She runs her knuckles along the spines of a couple books, looking momentarily as reverent as she ever gets. “It can take a lot out of a person just trying to be happy sometimes, and even more out of them when trying to find someone they trust enough to search for that happiness with them. So I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re doing alright. Better than you probably ever hoped for yourself, I suspect. And I’m glad.”
She tosses him a rare smile, and then turns her gaze back to the books and downs the rest of her wine in a single swallow. “Even if you are a grumpy shithead while the kid’s out of town.”
Derek feels it, the moment the wind shifts and autumn starts its slow approach. It feels like coming home.
Or maybe just like home is coming back to him.
Stiles mentions in his latest email that he’ll be getting in at the end of the week, but Derek doesn’t press for specifics, and certainly doesn’t hang around in town more often than usual hoping to accidentally be there the moment Stiles arrives, doesn’t go looking to catch Stiles’ scent as he wanders around the woods in wolf form.
He does keep an eye on the highway that leads out of town to the west whenever he’s near it, and an ear out for the rumble of the Jeep. He tells himself it’s only for old time’s sake, the idea of catching Stiles on his property. The idea of having the upper hand, even if he’s realized now that he’s never really had when it comes to Stiles. Neither of them have, thought neither of them would ever dream of admitting it.
But Stiles finds him first. The same way he found Derek when he first came to town. His hands are shoved deep inside the pockets of his hoodie, hood drawn up, but not too far this time, so that the brim rests just before a tuft of hair that sticks out over his forehead. It’s the same red one from before, though now faded from washing and wear, the string pulled out and long gone, the sleeves stretched too loose and fraying at the cuffs, the zipper broken and so left open to expose the charcoal grey shirt beneath. Derek’s shirt, Derek realizes belatedly.
Derek isn’t chopping wood this time, but he is less than fully dressed. He spends most days shifted for hours on end now, if only to make up for lost time over the summer, and he’d just gotten back from one such excursion. He’s got a pair of sweatpants pulled on as an afterthought, and nothing else. That was all that seemed necessary at the time, when all he had planned for the rest of the day was pulling weeds and cleaning gutters.
He’s perched on the edge of the roof, about to start doing just that, but hops down the moment he scents Stiles on the breeze.
They stare at each other for a few long seconds from several yards away.
“You know, I was back in California barely three months and I’ve already lost all of my cold weather street cred. Not that I had much of it, but still,” Stiles finally says.
Derek furrows his brow. “You’re cold?”
“Literally all the time since I got back here and it’s only September. But that’s not the point. The point is that you working on your roof shirtless and barefoot is making me feel even more pathetic about it.”
Stiles smirks a little. “No, you’re not.”
“No, I’m not. Do you want me to build a fire?”
“I want...” Stiles takes a step forward, then pauses, eyes darting away from Derek’s face. He holds his breath for a few seconds and lets it out in a whoosh. “Dad says hi.”
Derek stifles a snort. “Really? I’m surprised he even let you come back here if he’s still under the impression that we live together.”
“Funny story. He actually figured out that we weren’t doing that all on his own. Was super embarrassed about assuming.”
“At least he knows better now.”
“Yeah, except then I went and ruined things by telling him I wished that we were. That... that I’d like to.”
Derek blinks dumbly, convinced he didn’t hear Stiles right. “You’d like to live with me.”
Stiles shrugs and looks down at the leaf-strewn ground. “I’d like a lot of things. But I’ll take what I can get, if... if the cost of more is too high. I don’t want to lose you just because I wish I had more of you.”
“...I don’t understand,” Derek manages, voice caught in his throat.
“I missed you, okay? Like, a lot.” Stiles’ cheeks are flaming. He keeps crunching the same dead leaf with the toe of his left shoe over and over again. “And look, I need you to know that I had a really good time this summer, back home. I didn’t think I would, but it was actually really great. No nightmares, even, which I haven’t had for awhile but I thought for sure they’d start up again as soon as I was back there and they didn’t.”
He takes a deep breath, and his eyes skitter to the trees behind the house, beyond Derek. “I need you to know that so that you know I’m not just, like, looking for a quick fix, or that I think of you as a life raft or something. You helped me figure out how to do it myself, and that’s what I’m doing. I was okay all summer without you, and I can keep being okay without you. But... I don’t want to. I want to be okay with you. I want to be more than okay with you, and I want you to want that too.”
Derek’s heart skips at least a couple of beats. “I do,” he breathes, barely loud enough to carry across the short distance between them.
Stiles’ gaze snaps back to his sharply. “Don’t say that, unless--“
“I do. I want that too,” Derek repeats in a rush, and surges forward in two long strides to capture Stiles’ slack mouth with a kiss.
As first kisses go, it’s not like any Derek’s ever experienced before. It’s warm and firm and grounding. It’s a little awkward at the start, and yet completely comfortable throughout. It’s the last first kiss he ever wants to have.
They barely pause for air before they’re back at it. And between one kiss and the next, they’re moving, as if by unspoken agreement, separating only in starts and stops in order to make the journey inside the house a little quicker.
Panting, they finally pull apart once they’re standing in the bedroom, and they stare at each other with blown pupils and heaving chests.
Derek hasn’t thought seriously about sex with another person in a long time. Even his fantasies tend towards the vague and abstract. It keeps his headspace safe, makes getting off on his own not so much of an exercise in bad memories and buried guilt. But right now, standing before Stiles in this sunlit bedroom in the middle of this forest in the mountains... For the first time in years, Derek wants.
And he has no idea where to start. He feels poised at the edge of a great precipice that he didn’t even know was there until he was on it.
Derek pulls Stiles back in with a hand on the back of his head, until they’re embracing tightly, and Derek can scent along Stiles’ collarbone.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Stiles admits shakily into Derek’s neck, the tip of his nose moving back and forth across Derek’s stubbled jaw.
“Do you ever?” Derek teases, but the way his voice cracks a bit betrays him.
“Shut up, we’re having a moment here.”
Derek takes a deep breath. “I don’t know what I’m doing either, Stiles. I’ve-- I’ve never been with...” He struggles to find the right words.
“...Another dude?” Stiles hazards.
“Someone I trust.”
Stiles swallows thickly, drawing back to catch Derek’s eyes. Without a word, he tugs Derek gently down until they not so much fall onto the bed as sink into it together.
The late morning sunlight is bright through the trees and into the open window, illuminating in pale gold tones all of the bare skin Derek takes his time exposing, kissing down the freckled expanses as he goes. Stiles is lean and compact beneath him. The muscles in his arms and legs are insistent weights in Derek’s palms and wrapped around Derek’s hips, his whole body like a lodestone leading Derek back to the world whenever he drifts too far into his own head. Like a tether to this moment in time. Like an anchor.
Derek runs his hands up and down Stiles’ sides, resting finally with fingers teasing at the waistband of his boxers.
Stiles’ own hands, he notices, are shaking, and Derek freezes for a split second before quickly pulling away. “Are you-- We don’t have to--“
“No, wait, come back.” Those same shaking hands reach for Derek, grabbing almost desperately and pulling him in until they’re chest to chest. “I want this. I want-- I want you. It’s just a lot. What I’m feeling, it’s just... a lot.”
“It’s almost overwhelming,” Derek agrees.
He feels Stiles smile against his temple. “But in the best way.”
They continue simply making out for awhile, slow and languid, twisting and turning into the sheets and scrambling for purchase against the warm mattress with bare feet and knees and elbows to grind against each other through their underwear. Stiles ends up straddling him after a time, and his hands aren’t shaking anymore.
“I want to do everything with you,” Stiles whispers into skin as he mouths along Derek’s shoulder, hot and wet, and then down to lave at a nipple. “Can we do everything?
“Yeah,” Derek breathes, the response immediate and more certain than he’d ever thought it could be again. “Where would you like to start?”
Stiles grins down at him wickedly.
Turns out they’re starting with a hefty amount of the lube in Derek’s medicine cabinet and Stiles on his hands and knees, stretching himself open while Derek tries not to come just from the sight. He pushes his own fingers in around Stiles’, deeper due to the better angle, and Stiles moans into the pillow, his upper half going instantly boneless like a string has been cut.
“I didn’t think,” he says around fast breaths, Derek’s fingers punching a gasp out of him every time they hit just the right spot, “that this would be,” he groans and arches up when Derek adds a fourth, “as hot as I imagined it,” he swallows brokenly and only just manages not to choke on his own spit. “But it’s way hotter, oh my god.”
Derek pulls his fingers out. Stiles whimpers involuntarily in the back of his throat, but then lets out a surprised, high-pitched sound when Derek flips him onto his back.
“I want to see you,” Derek tells him, a little more earnestly than he usually allows himself.
Stiles smiles softly, even through how fucked out and dazed he already looks, and reaches up to card a hand through Derek’s hair. He slurs a little, punch-drunk, “I always want to see you.”
Derek grins. And then he lines up and bottoms out in one long slow push that leaves both of them trembling in its wake.
A few heartbeats later, Stiles shifts restlessly, and so Derek starts moving. After that it’s just hard slaps of skin against skin and breathless pleas for more harder god please fuck...
He finds Stiles’ hand at one point and laces their fingers together, pistoning his hips at an unrelenting pace and barely supporting his own body weight with his other arm. Stiles is breathing like he’s at the tail end of a marathon and about to keel over. But he meets Derek’s eyes, and squeezes his hand back, and drives his own hips up in time to meet him.
Derek comes first and can barely see straight as he starts to pull out, only just remembering to get a hand on Stiles as he goes.
Stiles doesn’t seem to mind, especially when Derek drifts suddenly back to his senses and then doubles over to take him into his mouth. A few bobs of his head and a couple well placed fingers and Stiles is coming hard down Derek’s throat, cursing into the pillow as he does.
They take their time returning to earth and remembering themselves enough to clean up a bit and migrate out of the wet spot. Stiles is already mostly asleep by the time Derek comes back from tossing the washcloth into the hamper and chugging a glass of water.
Derek climbs back into bed and wraps himself around Stiles with his back to the window, a shield against the cool breeze coming in, as sunlight shifts over them with every moving branch to warm alternating patches of skin. He wants to lie here for the rest of the day. Wants to doze through the afternoon and then spend the twilight taking Stiles apart all over again, letting Stiles take him apart, making each other come again and again as night falls and the only sounds that fill Derek’s ears in the darkness are their heavy breaths and fraught moans.
“I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” Stiles mumbles sleepily as he pulls Derek’s arm a little more securely around himself.
“I’ll make us something later. Or we can go down to the diner.”
“As much as I’ve missed Mr. Lee’s California Club this summer, ironically enough, I’d rather just rummage through your fridge and then have more sex. Like, all the sex. Though judging by this first round, it’ll probably kill me. But what a way to go, huh?”
Derek smiles and nuzzles into the hair at Stiles’ nape. “We’ve got time.”
“We do, don’t we?” Stiles yawns, smacking his lips as he sinks further into the mattress and further into sleep. “You always give me time.”
Hiram Bernstein has never looked so done with the world as when he spots Derek and Stiles enter his coffee shop at the same time, their shoulders brushing.
“Oh for the love of... Do not let Alice catch--” he starts to warn when they’re at the counter, but is interrupted by his wife shoving him aside with an impressive hipcheck to excitedly take their orders herself.
Stiles snorts in baffled amusement as soon as they have their drinks in hand and are headed back outside. “Well that wasn’t weird or anything. What do you think she was so happy about?”
Derek catches sight of quite a bit of cash trading hands before the door closes after them, and overhears three different patrons along with Hiram himself grumble about rigged betting pools. “I think we may have inadvertently made her a lot of money.”
Stiles chokes on his coffee. “Are you saying people have been betting on us?”
“Cheap thrills,” Derek shrugs, used to this sort of thing after a very long summer. “And the nearest movie theater is an hour’s drive away.”
By the time they reach the bookstore five minutes later, Nikki seems to already know whatever it is Hiram, Alice, and the rest of their coffee shop think they know about Stiles and Derek. She rushes out from behind the till as soon as they step through the doorway and looks like she’s about to combust. “Do you still wanna work here next time I’m gone?”
Stiles raises an eyebrow. “Hi, Nik. Nice to see you, too. Oh I’m great, thanks for asking. How was your summer break?”
She huffs. “Hey, Stiles. My break was way too short, and I’m thinking of taking next semester off to go to Europe. Want a job?”
“Is this because I borrowed workbooks from you last semester instead of buying my own? I swear I was just trying to beat the system, I’m not that hard up.”
Nikki rolls her eyes and puts one hand on her hip, bangles jangling down her forearm. “I just thought it would make sticking around between semesters easier for you. You know, so you don’t have to leave your boyfriend.”
Derek stifles a sharp laugh by turning it into an inelegant cough.
“Jesus Christ, did someone send out a group text?” Stiles asks, face bright red. But he takes the offered job and he smiles happily through the rest of his conversation with Nikki about their upcoming classes, while Derek browses in the back.
The moment they leave the bookshop, Patrick appears from out of the bakery next door and shoves a boxed pie at them. Apple, from the smell of it. “The book club sends their regards.”
“Oh my God,” Stiles groans.
Derek has trouble hiding his laughter this time. Patrick’s eyes go wide at that, and he stares at Derek like he’s never seen him before.
Stiles just shakes his head, takes the pie, and shoves Derek in the direction of where they parked the truck down the road.
Of course, Cora sends a text later than night that has Derek spending an hour very vocally wondering who in this town managed to find out she even exists, let alone get in touch with her, and how.
Stiles laughs unabashedly at Derek’s expense, before he gets a text from Scott that has him cursing loudly and throwing his phone onto the couch.
It’s different, having Stiles living with him on more than just the occasional weekend. Different and fucking annoying, to be perfectly honest. But it’s also... good. Still quiet in all the right moments, still simple in all the right ways, but fuller. Warmer.
There is, however, an irrational fear in the back of Derek’s mind that Stiles is just using this as another way to hide from the world.
He’s pretty sure he’s just being paranoid, but he might force them both into trips to town more often than before just in case.
He thinks, by the glint in Stiles’ eyes, that Stiles knows what Derek is doing. But he goes along with every poor excuse for an excursion easily, and even starts coming up with his own excuses.
It’s already November before Derek realizes that Stiles isn’t just humoring him anymore, he genuinely enjoys going into town, whether it’s for classes or for grocery runs. He strikes up conversations with others often and willingly. He even agrees to a weekly poker game with some of the students in his Psych class, and then confesses the fact to Derek like it’s a terrible secret a week later. Like he feels guilty for making friends.
“You know I’m glad that you’re settling in, right? That you’re... getting better.”
Stiles bites his bottom lip and plays with the strings on his hoodie where he stands in the bathroom doorway. Derek was just about to take a shower before bed, but now stands in front of the sink with his shirt in his hands and a worried expression on his face as he watches Stiles figure out what he wants to say.
“Okay, so, I’ve never really had a lot of casual friends before?” Stiles finally admits. “Even before everything that happened, I always just sorta figured that Scott was all I needed. And now there’s Lydia, too, and you, and a handful of other people I guess, but this is different. This is hanging out regularly with people who have no idea that you can turn into a wolf at will or that I was once possessed by an evil Japanese fox. It kinda feels like lying to myself sometimes just going to class with them, nevermind having a weekly get together over beers and card games. So I don’t know if it is ‘getting better,’ or... or if it’s just more running away.”
Derek drops his shirt and steps forward, putting a firm hand on each of Stiles’ shoulders. “You haven’t had a nightmare in a long time.”
“You sleep through the night and you get your homework done on time and you talk to people on the street like you’re happy to do it.”
“Okay, what’s your point?”
“I get doubting yourself sometimes, I do. But even if all of what I just said wasn’t true? You’d still belong in the world that these people inhabit just as much as they do. And so what if they don’t have knowledge of every detail of your personal life? That doesn’t mean you can’t tie yourself to them in other ways. It doesn’t mean you’re lying and it doesn’t mean you’re hiding. You’re living.”
Stiles mouth falls open, an expression of such vulnerability crossing his face that Derek’s breath hitches. He steps forward to meet Derek, and kisses him soundly. Then pulls his own shirt off and turns on the shower.
In truth, Derek finds he enjoys their now rather frequent trips into town more than he thought he would. What started as something he rationalized in his head as being all about Stiles, becomes something as much an integral part of his own life as shifting on a cold day, or cooking breakfast while Stiles is still passed out beneath a mountain of blankets that seem to be moving, one by one, from the couch to the bedroom whenever Derek isn’t looking.
Half the time anymore, Derek will even go with Stiles into town for his classes. He’ll kill time at the library while he waits, then pick up coffee on his way to meet Stiles once the lecture or study session is over. They take their time walking the several blocks back to where Derek’s parked, talking or not, arms bumping companionably into each other like they can’t fathom putting even that half an inch more of space between them to avoid knocking elbows.
One colder afternoon, Stiles tosses his finished coffee cup into a nearby trash bin, waves cheerily at someone through a shop window, and when he’s back beside Derek again he winds an arm around Derek’s waist, tucks his bare hand up under Derek’s jacket, and closes what little distance between them was left.
“This alright?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Derek nods, looking straight ahead. He hides a small smile behind his own coffee cup, but he thinks Stiles probably catches it.
He glances over at Stiles, whose hair has probably gotten a touch too long the way it sticks out in every direction from beneath the ridiculous looking hunting cap he found at the Farmer’s Market two weeks ago and just had to have. His cheeks and nose are pink from the brisk wind blowing in their faces, and there’s a hardening patch of maple syrup on his jeans from breakfast.
He looks good. He looks... happy.
“So I was thinking about going home again for Christmas,” he says, a little too casually.
Marianne is just up ahead, filling up the trunk of her Volvo with crates of produce. She smiles at them, and then rolls her eyes with a smirk when she spots where Stiles’ hand is.
Stiles’ heartbeat goes a little erratic and Derek frowns at him, trying to figure out the source of it. “I wouldn’t be gone very long,” he continues. “Not the whole break, anyway. But, uh, I was thinking maybe you could come with me.”
Derek tenses, and his steps falter for a second.
Stiles starts to pull his arm away, but Derek catches his wrist and keeps him where he is. “I’ll think about it.”
“You can just say ‘no,’ you know. Don’t strain anything on my account.”
“I’m not trying to be an ass about this.”
Stiles sighs. “I know. And I don’t want you to do it if you’re uncomfortable. But I thought maybe you’d like to see my dad and Scott now that, you know, we’re... Whatever, it was a stupid idea.”
Derek stops walking altogether and turns, reaching his arms out so that they circle back around Stiles. He bumps their foreheads together lightly. “It wasn’t stupid. It’s just... Beacon Hills isn’t my home anymore. It hasn’t been for awhile now. But every time I go back there, it still manages to get a hold on me and not let go until I’m bleeding for it, and everyone around me is too. I don’t want that again.”
“Okay,” Stiles nods. Then grins. “But you owe me a freaking kickass Christmas present if you’re gonna insist on being in a different state for it.”
Derek finishes his ninth and final version of his very first table just before the university’s winter break.
The ends of the four outer legs are vaguely inspired by wolf paws. The Craftman style inner support beams are single pieces that he found at various points in his wandering around the mountains. The surface is even, but with two noticeable grooves, one from where Stiles decided to try to help and ended up backing quickly away with raised hands and apologies thirty seconds later, and one from where Derek used a claw to carve the first tally mark for when when they had sex across the thing. He isn’t really planning on keeping score, but the scratch made Stiles laugh so loudly and for so long at the time that Derek grins helplessly whenever he looks at it now.
“Would you quit patting yourself on the back already and come help me with this stupid essay?”
“I’m allowed to appreciate my own hard work.”
Stiles looks up, notices the smile on Derek’s face before Derek manages to rein it in, and smiles goofily back at him. “You obsessive weirdo. I bet you end up destroying it and starting all over again within a week.”
“Nah,” Derek says easily, with a shake of his head. “I think I’m done now.”
Stiles considers him seriously. “Done done? Or just done with the dining area?”
Derek shrugs. “Might redo the deck in the spring.”
“If you do, you’re only allowed to do it once. Seriously, man, I can’t leap up collapsed stairs like you can. I like having a functioning porch.”
“Shut up and do your homework.”
Stiles grumbles, but returns to his laptop and books, spread out across the living room floor.
Derek watches him fondly for a moment, and then heads over to help. He’s not sure how--he’s just as lost when it comes to advanced sociology coursework as Stiles is--but maybe they’ll figure it out together. They usually do.
1 year later
Derek Hale returns to Beacon Hills on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. He and Stiles cross county lines and get into the city at around noon, and then get all the way to the Stilinski residence without anything trying to kill them along the way. Which Derek figures is some kind of record for them.
“I am not sharing your twin bed from high school with you, especially while staying in your father’s house, Stiles,” he reiterates for the umpteenth time as they pull into the driveway.
Stiles scoffs back at him. “Like that totally isn’t one of your top ten fantasies come to life. Or, wait, oh shit, maybe it’s one of mine? Caught me there, damn.” He waggles his eyebrows ridiculously.
Derek shifts into park and kills the engine, and then doesn’t move.
They rented a mid-sized sedan for the trip, and Stiles hasn’t stopped playing with the new stereo the whole way, but he turns it off now and levels a look at Derek. “Thank you for agreeing to this.”
“It’s only for a couple days.”
“Still. I know what this means for you.”
Derek takes a breath and looks steadily out at where Sheriff Stilinski is opening the front door to raise an impatient eyebrow at them. “It was time.”
Things go surprisingly smoothly. The sheriff shakes Derek’s hand with a tight grip and narrow, assessing eyes, but then seems to forgo any kind of inquisition in favor of practically tackling his son and never letting him get more than a few inches away for the entire evening.
Scott and Melissa are already there, arguing over who will get banished from the kitchen this year to be the official “Stilinski Minder and Taste Test Interceptor.”
Scott seems more subdued than Derek remembers him, but also more grown up. Decades older almost, but not necessarily in a bad way. He offers Derek a cautious smile and a friendly pat on the back, but looks like he wants to say something that whatever glare he gets from Stiles keeps shut up.
They eat a light meal and watch Netflix while finalizing the menu for the holiday the next day. Melissa begs off early, the fact that she’s still in her scrubs all the reason anyone needs.
It’s midnight before Derek even realizes it, and Stiles is beside him on the couch, ignoring the movie in favor of trying to text while wearing the mittens Kira knitted him last Christmas. Derek rolls his eyes and snatches the phone away. “If you’re that desperate to update Nikki on your social calendar, maybe you should have gone home with her for the break instead.”
Stiles scoffs. “Nikki already knows every detail of this trip. That was Alice. If I don’t check in every couple of days she gets worried. It’s adorable.”
“How the hell are you better friends with these people that I’ve known two years longer than you?”
“Not ‘better,’ just... differently, alright? There are only so many people in this world that I can commiserate with about your marshmallow innards and I am not going to turn away a single one of them.”
“Oh god, you’re not texting Cora too now, are you?”
Stiles barks a laugh. “I am, but not about marshmallow filling. She thinks you’re more, uh, peanut brittle-y.”
“Let me guess, too sharp? Too hard?”
“Old-fashioned and an allergen.”
Derek tackles him into the cushions for that one, and doesn’t let up until Stiles is wheezing with his laughter and choking out a breathless “Uncle! Uncle, you fucker, oh my god!”
When Derek sits back up, he finds the sheriff and Scott both staring at them with wide eyes and slack mouths. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat and looks down at his hands, uncertain what exactly he did wrong and embarrassed about it. Though Stiles is seemingly too busy trying to catch his breath to notice.
Derek lies on the lumpy mattress in the guest room for about an hour staring up at the ceiling after waking up with the sun the next morning. He can hear Stiles still asleep down the hall, but the sheriff has been puttering around the kitchen, quietly cursing at the aging coffeemaker for about thirty minutes now, and Derek feels like he should probably just get this over with already. Rip the bandaid off, so to speak.
“Morning,” John mumbles over his shoulder when he spots Derek enter the kitchen.
“How do you like your eggs, son?” he asks while ducking into the fridge to retrieve the butter.
“However you’re making them.”
John smiles tightly as he stands up right, contemplating the tiles on the floor like they might know better what to say next than he does. Like the difficult conversations he’s navigated in his life have generally always happened in this room, and he’s always had this particular tile floor to look down at and debate with for help.
“His mother would’ve loved you,” he finally says, turning his back to Derek under the guise of starting breakfast.
Derek swallows. “My mother probably would’ve forbidden me from speaking to him, to be honest, sir.”
This startles a quiet chuckle out of the sheriff. And then he starts cracking eggs into the skillet for a few, long, wordless seconds. Finally, he turns around and levels Derek with a no-nonsense look. “Please be good for him. It’s a lot to ask, I know. But he told me you two were... He told me you are what you are and all I could think was that I hope more than anything that you’re up for the challenge.”
“...You think I’m not?”
“I think I started to suspect you were up for it right around the moment we stood in your old loft and you looked like you’d rip Argent to shreds for putting a bullet in the nogitsune just as soon as I would. But then you left town, and I don’t know what that means for you, but Stiles and I... neither of us is very good at letting people leave us. The question isn’t if you can, it’s if you’re willing to. If you want to.”
Derek closes his eyes. He can see the red bursts of dancing sunlight behind his lids and smell the thick scent of dark coffee about to burn. He can smell death down the block and decay slinking in from the preserve and a hundred other things that trigger sense memories in him that he’d rather keep buried. But underneath it all, there is Stiles. And Derek has never felt so safe in the one place in the world that will always want his blood.
“I love him,” Derek says, and means it with everything he has.
The sheriff pulls in a sudden, deep breath. He looks up to the ceiling with unshed glassy eyes and then exhales with a small smile and a glance back down at Derek. “I know you do, son. And I hope you know I’m grateful for it.”
They spend Christmas at home, everyone else coming to them. The snow is thick, and the road up the mountain is barely passable, but Esther lends Derek her plow to bring their guests up in from town on the Eve.
Derek stays in wolf form all day every day for the week up until then. Stiles seems to find this adorable and hilarious in equal measure, throwing snowballs at Derek’s head that Derek snaps his teeth at, catching them in his mouth.
Derek bribes Hiram into showing him how to make a decent hot cider and a not horrible eggnog. He stocks the fridge and the pantry until they’re overflowing, and bakes his own pie three times over before deciding to go get one from the bakery instead, along with a few dozen cookies.
That night before Christmas--with everyone gathered around a roaring fire, and a freshly cut sapling in one corner, decorated sparsely with a single strand of lights and a slightly crumpled, origami wolf--Derek wonders, not for the first time, how he got here. And if he actually got here himself, or if it was a joint effort.
They eat dinner with plates on their laps or tucked into the crooks of their arms due to the lack of seating. They exchange poorly wrapped gifts and a few gifts that aren’t wrapped at all. Lydia spends half the night on her phone, finalizing her New Years travel plans. Esther’s youngest demands piggyback rides from everyone she comes into contact with, no matter what they’re in the middle of at the time. The sheriff tells the same story about a foiled ‘B and E’ four times, while Stiles grouses that his father’s ability to embarrass him wouldn’t be an issue if they had a television set to distract people.
Everyone will eventually retire to their own homes, or to their rooms at the Bed and Breakfast that Derek booked for them months in advance. Stiles and Derek will fall into their own bed afterwards, exhausted and happy and clinging to each other in the cold air as the warmth of the fire in the living area starts to fade.
“I love you,” Derek will say quietly.
And Stiles will grin, half asleep, and pet the stubble on Derek’s cheek with a tired, limp hand. “I know. I love you too.”
Derek will nuzzle into Stiles’ neck with a soft, unintentional whine, making Stiles chuckle. Derek will wrap Stiles up in himself and drift off with a peaceful certainty that he’ll never let go.
But, until then, they huddle together with friends and family over food and drink and idle conversation, and Derek doesn’t quite mind the crowded environment as much as he thought he would. Doesn’t mind it at all, actually.
It’s a small house, true. Too small for everyone to fit comfortably, really. But it’s big enough where it matters. Big enough to feel like a home.