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For A Pessimist, I'm Pretty Optimistic

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Stiles is the one who convinces him to get a real place to live.

"Clearly," the kid points out one afternoon, "you're not going anywhere. Don't you think it would behoove you to have, like, I don't know, modern amenities like water and electricity? Or some windows, maybe? Fewer tetanus hazards lying around?"

The problem with Stiles is -- always has been -- that it's so much easier to just grab onto one of the many things he chatters out at once about and run with it. "I can't get tetanus," Derek says bluntly.

"But I can!" Stiles retorts, unfazed. "I am thinking about me here, Derek, not gonna lie. Pure self-interest. Your digs are seriously making me fear a Final Destination moment."

Derek stares at him. Stiles stares back. "Final Destination?" Stiles finally elaborates slowly. Pointedly. "Death stalks the hapless kids? It never comes from the expected direction, either, you're sitting there like whoa, you just managed not to get hit a train and then your freaking head gets chopped off by -- okay, god, you are not getting this metaphor at all, are you? Say, for instance, that I survive...everything I have been through since like, knowing you. And then I die from stepping on rusty metal. That would be bad. I would have to haunt you."

"I've seen Final Destination," Derek informs him. "Why are you still talking about it? And you get tetanus from dirt, not rust." Stiles's jaw drops and Derek allows a faint, mean smile. "Come to think of it, lockjaw might be a good look on you."

"Asshole," Stiles says mildly. "So?"

So it's not that easy, Derek wants to say. It's money out of pocket, monthly expenses he largely avoids right now. It's being stationary, being noticed.

It's putting down roots.

It's knowing those roots could be burned out from under him at any time.

He shrugs instead. "It would be a headache," he mutters. "I'd need something without -- not around a lot of people."

Stiles's eyes brighten with the enthusiasm of victory. "I'll help, if you want," he offers.

"Yeah, okay," Derek says.

He has no idea why.

Not then at least, not until after Stiles shows up in Scott's wake a few days later and hands him some battered pieces of paper. "Found a few that might work on Craigslist," he says, like it's nothing, it's no big deal. "Check 'em out. But if you need more options there are still a few deep dark spaces of the internet I haven't trolled on your behalf. I could be convinced."

Derek only realizes he's frowning when Stiles holds up his hands in exaggerated surrender and backs off. For a second he's tempted to apologize, to explain -- he's not mad, he almost says. Just surprised that Stiles actually followed through.

It makes him think of Laura, in a weird way. She would do that, do things for him like it was no big deal, simply because she wanted something done and knew he would never do it himself. Because he was her brother and she was his Alpha and because that's what caring meant.

Sometimes it made him want to kill her.

Sometimes it reminded him that he hadn't lost everything, not quite.

"Thanks," he mutters in Stiles's general direction. "I'll look into it."

******

The night after the fire, Derek walked out of a hospital waiting room and went home. The day before the house had been bright and airy, cheerful open spaces suited to being filled with family, with pack, and suddenly it was a smoldering shell cordoned off behind bright yellow tape. Everything he'd ever known had been reduced to an interdiction: Police Line Do Not Cross.

He ignored it and picked his way through.

Parts of the house had gotten off lightly. The kitchen had, mercifully, been spared at least in the corner where his grandmother's china hutch stood. Derek took what he wanted and crept away again without leaving a sign that he was ever there.

Laura was furious when he returned to the hospital -- where there was still no news, it was still touch-and-go for Peter, there were so many burns and nobody could believe he was alive at all -- smelling of fire and guilt. Not that he'd gone at all -- just that he hadn't gone for what they needed. She went herself before dawn, before protective services showed up to try and take them into care, and she did her own scavenging to find the items that were useful. The geneology crammed full of history and politics, the splintering and migrating of packs. Their mother's jewelry and the lockbox under the floorboards with all the safety deposit keys. Their birth certificates from the safe and the Rolodex from their father's desk, the numbers of everyone they could trust.

Derek hadn't cared, didn't care about any of it. Let Laura; she was Alpha now, and better suited than him to see to the details of saving them from the mess he'd made. He hadn't even thought of those things.

He'd thought instead, for one, of the metal tin in the hutch, full of faded index cards in the smudged writing of so many hands, all the freshest ink in his Gram's flowing script. When he was a kid -- a kid, he'd become a man now, Kate made that of him in so many ways -- he could pick apart the desserts from the stews, the marinades from the casseroles, all by nothing more than the smell of the ingredients smeared across weathered paper.

Now there was nothing but the heavy, acrid scent of smoke and ash. But the recipes hadn't burned and he wanted them, they were his.

Gram had always promised they would be someday, anyway.

******

For about a week, Derek doesn't really think about what it means to have taken on an actual habitable living space. It's the kind of thought that gets kept just shy of actually having it, not quite ready to be faced: this is no longer temporary.

It was supposed to be, is the thing. Laura had been the one with long-held notions of returning to Beacon Hills and reclaiming their territory, more and more serious about it as the years passed. When Derek came back it was simply to find out why she'd stopped calling, find her. And when he stayed, he told himself it was only until he got justice for her.

But for all his resistance to the idea he does understand better now, the itch that Laura must have had the entire time -- the insatiable urge to take back what was rightfully hers, to provide him with what was his. He thinks now that staying away hadn't been about safety like she said after all. She would have flung herself into certain death on the principle of it, had it only been about her.

Instead she'd done it for him, for as long as she could stomach it, long years of instinct getting edged out by her loyalty to him. He never wanted to go back, he'd told her. It didn't matter. They could start over somewhere else. Answers wouldn't bring back the dead.

She never said anything about the stink of lies that must have been all over him. He never admitted what he'd done and she never asked what he was hiding, and it's not until he finds himself staring blankly at the empty, functional kitchen he apparently has now that he accepts what's been true since the moment he started building a new pack.

Stiles was right. He's not going anywhere.

Which means he might as well make this home. He doesn't know any better way to do that than to sift through his Gram's box and pick a place to start.

It turns into a slight fiasco. Raiding the Crate & Barrel in the mall for everything from silverware to skillets is a good three hours of his life he's never getting back -- and if he's honest with himself, he doesn't even mind. He resurrects the memories of what they used to have, his grandmother's perfectly seasoned cast irons and heavy bakeware and his father's penchant for more modern equipment, mixers and gadgets and the pasta maker.

Derek winds up having to go home just to unload everything before getting actual food.

He runs into Stiles at Whole Foods. Literally runs into him, as Stiles comes stumbling backward around a case full of incredibly pungent cheeses, too busy reading the package in his hands to look where he's going.

Derek's cart clips him in the ankle. "Ow, hey," Stiles yelps. He staggers sideways away from the impact and nearly careens into a tower of cured meats. Derek tilts his head and watches the intricate process of Stiles getting his limbs and balance under control again, all without actually knocking anything over or flinging anything out of the basket hooked over his arm. It has to be exhausting, Derek thinks, being so human and so spastic all at once.

Stiles glances around once he's recovered, like he's looking to see if anyone noticed, if anyone cares to see his yeah, I'm cool, meant to do that, it's all good expression. When his eyes fix on Derek, they narrow. "Oh my god, did you do that? Did you do that on purpose?"

Derek glares. He's just shopping; he hasn't done anything to warrant accusations of assault. Stiles is, frustratingly, a little prone to making them. "You walked in front of me," he grinds out in a low tone. "You should really watch where you're going when you're -- what are you even doing here? Don't try to convince me you shop here."

"Says the pot," Stiles scoffs, eying his heaping cart. He waves his hand as if Derek is supposed to understand whatever he has clutched in it. "I'm trying a new tactic in the ongoing quest to get my dad to eat better," he admits after a beat. His chest puffs out a little.

Derek, not sure how shopping at a store that markets itself as health food is a tactic clever enough to warrant Stiles's obvious pride, stares at him blankly.

"Going exotic!" Stiles elaborates. "I found recipes, all right. If he thinks it's just unfamiliar instead of dictatorially good for him, he won't whine, his arteries won't clog, and we'll both be happier for it. I'd be even happier if Safeway hadn't been a total bust on some of these ingredients, but a sojourn in hippie town is a small price to pay for cardiac health, am I right?"

Derek catalogs the part of Stiles's ramble that explains: I am taking care of my father with dedication and determination. He discards the rest as so much chatter. "Oh," he says.

Stiles rolls his eyes. "What about you, dude? I mean..." He gestures vaguely at Derek's cart. "What the hell?"

"I have a fridge now," Derek says tersely. It makes him uncomfortable, puts him on edge, the unspoken thanks to you. "I thought I should probably put things in it."

"Clearly that mission is a go." Stiles smirks. "I guess I just figured you for buying out the butcher, maybe keeping a bunch of baked beans around for variety's sake."

"The meat here tastes best. It's -- there aren't hormones," Derek grumbles. "And I eat vegetables. A lot of them. I like vegetables."

"All right, Popeye, all right, don't bite my throat out." Stiles glances down at the package still clutched in his hand. "I think I've been led astray and into some bizarro world of trendoid cuisine," he suddenly complains. "I don't even know what seitan is and this...does not look good. Getting Dad to eat better doesn't really do a lot of good if he barfs it all up, does it?"

"Wheat protein," Derek tells him absently. His mind is finally catching up and something in him finds the glossy scraps of paper clutched in Stiles's fist fascinating, the idea of Stiles poring over magazines and cutting them out in an effort to cater to his father's health and tastebuds at once.

The rush of warmth he feels at -- at Stiles all of a sudden is a punch in the gut. It makes his mouth go dry and his jaw clench against the unexpected, unwanted surge of approval. He crams it down, refuses to think about it. "It's gluten," he forces himself to say. "That brand is a meat substitute."

Stiles looks at him like he's grown a second head. "Do you happen to know what bulgur is?" he tries with weak, reluctant fascination.

"Also wheat." Derek frowns. Stiles is going about this all wrong, launching a nuke into what should be a war of attrition. There's no way he's going to get a meat and potatoes guy like Sheriff Stilinski to suddenly go granola, no matter how artfully he tries to hide what he's doing. Derek has a lot of recipes that would be good for Stiles to try, lean cuts and fresh ingredients, the result of years of his own father working out how to feed a family full of wolves and humans both and keep them in equal health.

While he's lost in thought, mentally flipping through what he should suggest Stiles try, Stiles tosses the seitan into his basket and sidles away. "Don't start growling at me, dude. Message received, loud and clear. I'll leave you to your stockpiling."

Derek grinds his teeth and stares after Stiles's retreating back.

******

What he'd started out being -- well, if not excited, at least nostalgically enthusiastic for, the prospect of settling into the old rhythms of cooking again, has lost its appeal by the time he gets home and crams the refrigerator shelves and cupboards full.

Derek's never cooked just for himself. Somehow he hadn't thought far enough ahead to realize the snag, to consider the fact that he hasn't put so much as a single meal together since Laura took off and left him behind in New York.

There was no point. Cooking was, is, will always be a communal act for him, something to be done for others, something to share. But it's just him here in this damn space that's too big for him, where every sound echoes and the ceilings are too high, let the scents disperse too fast after the pack visits.

They don't come over enough. They have other obligations, all of them, other things and people that come first. Even Isaac has settled in well with his foster family and is toeing the line there, trying not to blow a good thing.

Derek prowls the silent loft and wonders what Stiles wound up making for his father.

He wonders if it turned out well.

He wonders if Stiles will show up with Scott after school tomorrow so that he can find out for sure.

And finally he wonders why the hell he just spent the last half hour thinking about Stiles, and decides to call it a night.

He avoids the kitchen the next day, doesn't feel like thinking about it. Near four, Scott bursts in without knocking, Stiles and Boyd trailing in behind him. "Isaac and Erica got detention," Boyd announces.

"Show of hands, who's shocked?" Stiles adds, shaking his head, mouth turned down in a deep frown. "I'm definitely disappointed, myself. I had such high hopes for -- "

Scott cuffs him on the back of the head. "Everyone else has -- oh, dude, chips!" He grabs a bag off the kitchen island and catapults onto the sofa with Boyd to tear into them. Derek crosses his arms and indulges for a second in watching the both of them cram food from his kitchen -- even if he didn't have anything to do with making it -- into their mouths.

When he finally pulls his gaze away, he catches Stiles staring at him skeptically. "Seriously, dude? You had to have realized the inherent hazard involved in keeping anything edible within reach of teenage boys -- especially metabolically enhanced teenage boys. Not sure you even have room to get pissed."

"I'm not pissed," Derek mutters. "It's -- I don't mind. Provid -- they're just chips. Whatever. They can have them." Stiles raises a doubtful eyebrow and Derek shrugs. "How'd your -- with your dad. How did it go?"

"Totally cheesy, I admit it, but I'll just go ahead and make the very bad joke about seitan being demonic and evil and wrong." Stiles grimaces. "Dad said if I ever try and poison him like that again, he'll disown me. And he said it in his I mean it voice that is not to be trifled with, like, I think they taught it to him at anti-terrorism bootcamp, maybe. So it might be back to talking up the many and varied positive aspects of veggie burgers like there's no tomorrow."

"There are other options, you know. Ones that actually taste halfway edible."

"Dude, you couldn't have told me that yesterday?"

"You didn't ask," Derek points out. "And you said it didn't look good. Why the hell did you buy it anyway?"

Stiles bares his clenched teeth and raises his hands to mime throttling Derek. "You know what, never mind," he sighs after a second. "You don't care about my epic battles with my dad's cholesterol." Derek actually opens his mouth to contradict that, he does care, but Stiles barrels right on. "Anyway, so! Full moon this weekend -- the munchkins gonna be okay for it?"

Boyd lifts his head over the back of the sofa and shoots Stiles a dirty look. Stiles waves him off. "Term of endearment!" he insists. "And if you kill me I'm betting Derek will make you clean it up. I'm a bleeder. Totally not worth it."

"Everyone is going to be fine," Derek says evenly. "Isaac is fine, and Erica and Boyd have...made progress. Jackson is going to help. You -- stay home. Stay out of the way."

Stay safe for once, he thinks with an unfamiliar pang of desperation, a twist in his gut so close to nausea that his knees nearly buckle from the shock of it.

Stiles doesn't take it like that and gives him an annoyed, faintly offended look, but apparently decides not to pursue it. "Fine, fine. I have to work out the logistics of disguising soysage as the real deal, anyway."

Soysage. Christ. Derek throws up his hands in despair and stalks off before he winds up shaking the damn kid.

******

For awhile Stiles boiled down to basic facts, details that Derek could observe.

Scott's friend. Pain in the ass. Complication. Talkative, jesus, he never shut up. Inconveniently smart at times. Inconveniently dumb at times. Annoying. Helpful. Embarrassingly uncoordinated. A risk. The son of an even bigger risk. Anxiety simmering just out of sight. Fear.

He was so fucking afraid all the time and Derek had no idea how it never seemed to stop him, when the same thing had paralyzed Derek for years. The first time he consciously realized it, Stiles had a blade to his arm and would have done it.

He would have cut. Derek could smell and hear it on him, terror and disgust bleeding out his pores and pulse, and all of it drowned out by sheer determination.

Stiles wasn't going to let him die, no matter the price to himself.

And for the life of him, Derek couldn't figure out why the hell not. Those reasons are the less obvious pieces and they come together over the weeks, crystallize in the wake of the chaos that reigned during his first months back and come into full focus as he watches Stiles stress over taking care of his father.

It's not just worry, Derek realizes. It's not just about the bond of family.

It's simply what Stiles does. He may be an obnoxious little shit with an attitude a mile wide, and he may have far too much bound up in a need to prove himself, to demonstrate his value, but Derek sees it now, what's underneath it all.

Stiles protects what's his.

When Derek catches himself thinking about it that night with a hand wrapped around his dick and his stupid brain dragging up the sense memory of Stiles's scent, he finally acknowledges what may have been true for awhile now.

He is well and truly fucked.

And there's nothing to be done about it. Conscious understanding brings with it a slowly dawning discomfort but then a surprising calm, acceptance settling of how and why it even happened that he came to think of Stiles as one of his own, part of the pack.

Which is what it is, his cobbled together bunch of misfits. It's all he has, the only option there was and the only future he can make. Derek may be the last of the Hales but he can rebuild, is rebuilding, and to the last of them they've been drawn into his heritage, his line, either marked by a Hale or bonded into his fold.

Except Stiles. Stiles, the fucking exception to every rule Derek could ever dream up. He could change that easily - he could hold Stiles down and turn him in an instant, one quick snap of teeth into tender flank.

The thought used to not interest him. Now it makes him full-on ill.

It's not the risk of death; he can practically smell it on Stiles, that the bite would take and Stiles would do just fine. But Stiles would change and Derek isn't sure when that became a bad thing, when his unflinching pride in what it means to be a wolf took backseat to -- to stasis. To preservation of the most aggravating person he's ever known.

Stiles doesn't need the bite. Not to measure up, and not to be trusted. He's fine the way he is.

What he does need, Derek is realizing, what Derek needs, is just...Stiles.

In other ways. For other reasons.

He just has to figure out how to make that happen.

******

The full moon passes without incident. He'd told Stiles the truth: Scott is fine, Isaac has found a strange peace within himself, and Erica and Boyd have worked hard. Between him and Jackson he feels able to contain them.

He doesn't particularly like pushing his will on Jackson as overtly as he does for the night, but Jackson actually insists. "The don't-murder-but-do-as-you-want leash you've got me on is great, don't get me wrong," he points out, "but really not enough for this. You wanna make sure I don't hurt them if things get out of hand, you gotta make sure my lizard brain is up on the rules."

Derek huffs and puffs a bit because he doesn't want Jackson thinking it's no big deal or anything, the necessity of the role Derek stepped into for his, for everyone's sake, but secretly he's pleased that Jackson trusts enough to ask.

Morning brings with it the pleasant exhaustion of a night spent roaming freely, and startled pleasure at the sight of the five of them raiding his fridge for anything and everything in a ready-to-devour state. He reminds himself to ask the others to show up for this part next month, thinks it might go a long way towards completing the feeling that's starting to set up shop inside him.

When they're all fed and watered, he kicks them out to nap or study or whatever the hell they want to do with their Sunday and then cleans up their mess in a haze of contentment before going to get some rest himself. Falling into the lull of sleep, he thinks through the satisfaction of things going right for once, of providing for what's his, for them, and he thinks of Stiles and the creeping desire to accomplish the same for him.

He's going to, he decides fuzzily, scratching at his stomach, letting his palm slide lower to give himself a slow rub that he knows won't go anywhere but feels good regardless. He'll have Stiles over. He'll make him dinner. He'll teach him how to feed his dad in a way that will work.

Derek falls asleep before he gets to the part where he figures out what he hopes even comes of it.

His determination survives into the next day. He flips through every recipe he has before deciding to keep it simple, a well-marinated lean roast with spring vegetables. It means he has to hit the grocery again, pick through produce and then bypass the mouth-watering prime strip streaks in favor of something that won't make Stiles accuse him of trying to single-handedly do away with the Stilinski line.

At two, when he's sticking the meat in the fridge to marinate, he realizes he forgot the getting Stiles over aspect that is integral to his plan. Irritated at his own lack of foresight -- and the fact that this isn't family, he can't just expect anyone to be around, ever -- he texts Stiles a blunt Come over.

He grinds his teeth a little when Stiles blatantly misunderstands, clarifies, goes to take a shower, and then sits down to wait.

Like far, far, far too many other things in his life for far too many years now, all his intentions fall apart rapidly. Stiles trips in at a quarter after four looking his wired-up jittery best and trails to a halt in the middle of the open floorplan. "Deeeeeeeerek," Stiles drawls slowly.

"Stiles," he returns.

His mistake, he realizes later, is pausing there. But it's the first time he's seen Stiles since beating off to thoughts of him, and he finds himself at a momentary loss for what to say. Stiles fills in the silence with his usual rambling ease. "Point of interest, dude, sitting alone in the dark is maybe the sort of macabre cliche you should refrain from indulging in if you want to, you know, give this whole normalcy thing a real go."

Derek frowns. It's not even fair -- his place faces east, is all, and the light is fading as afternoon wears on. He wasn't sitting in the dark on purpose, he's not like that.

Not that Stiles would really know that though, Derek realizes as Stiles drones on about Scott and gas and how he'd assumed there was a pack meeting. Which, of course he would think that, summoned over out of the blue without explanation. That's all he ever does come over for.

Derek swallows hard and accepts that he went about this all wrong. Stiles is nowhere near prepared to shift expectations on Derek's own turf, ensconced in all the baggage that makes up their working relationship to date.

Like any hunt, Derek needs to come at things from the most strategic direction. He needs to approach Stiles when his guard is down.

He needs a new plan.

He sends Stiles away and trashes the roast. It was a stupid idea anyway.

He'll make sure the next one is better.

******

Ultimately, it's not so much an idea he gets as it is an opportunity. The school year is ending and he's trying to lie low, well aware that the ordinary demands of life have to take precedence whether he likes it or not. Scott is in a panic, anyway, grasping desperately at the slimmest of hopes for passing all of his classes.

Derek seriously cannot wait until he's done having to cope with heaps of high school bullshit. He helps in the one way he figures he can: tells them all to stay the hell out of his face until they reek less of stress and idiocy. For extra measure he bribes Lydia into doing anything she can to haul Scott into junior year.

Or, more accurately, he lets her stare him down and wrangle a worrisomely vague promise of anything you want, Lydia, all right, just do this! out of him. If he were capable of developing an ulcer, wondering when and how she's going to call in the debt would probably accomplish it.

On Sunday the silence and the restlessness get the better of him and he has to get out. He heads for the preserve to blow off steam in the woods, but when he's cutting through town he spots Stiles's Jeep and, without thinking, parks and stalks into the library. Stiles is easy to sniff out, up to the second floor and back to one of the quietest corners, and Derek spends a good five minutes leaning against a shelf, watching.

Even alone, apparently, without anyone to distract him and with the singular objective of focusing, Stiles still bleeds energy into the space around him. At any particular time he's bound to be tapping his foot, drumming his fingers against the table, bobbing his head, scribbling notes, and flipping back and forth in the pages of the three different books in front of him.

Derek gets having that kind of fire simmering just under the surface. What he doesn't get is how Stiles manages to function on a daily basis without having learned the kind of discipline Derek had to ingrain from an early age. It's as fascinating to watch as it is nerve-wracking to imagine coping with, and it makes Derek want to touch, to stride over and lay his hand over Stiles's fluttering fingers and just make him stop for a moment.

Instead he slips through the stacks to find a book and then slides into the seat across from Stiles without a word. He figures he'll just....he'll just be there for awhile.

Curiosity isn't a scent but a sound, a shift in heart rate, an adjustment in breathing. It's Stiles going perfectly, completely still for the first time since Derek tracked him up here. Derek tries to ignore it and flips open his book, tries to remember where he was last time he picked this one up.

"What are you doing here?" Stiles finally blurts.

And isn't that a loaded question, the answer too complicated to even try and begin addressing here and now. "Reading," Derek tries, with the somewhat far-fetched hope that Stiles will let it go. Stiles blinks at him so doubtfully that Derek feels himself start to bristle. "I know how to, you know."

Stiles's right eyelid twitches briefly. His tongue flicks out quickly to wet his lips. "Rest assured, Derek," he says slowly, "of all the things I have ever suspected of you, illiteracy is not one of them. Why are you reading?"

To have an excuse, Derek thinks. "Because I feel like it," he says instead.

"Now," Stiles says. His eyelid goes spastic again. "At this table. You feel like reading -- is that Little fucking Women? Are you actively trying to mess with my head?"

Derek's fingers curl defensively around the edges of the book and it takes more of an effort than it has in awhile to keep the wolf in check. This is not going at all like he wants it to, mostly because Stiles is impossible. "I feel like reading and I feel like reading here," he insists. Stiles's slightly nervous expression just makes the burn of frustration spike higher. "Do you have a problem with that? And it's just Little Women. There's no fucking in it. It's not that kind of book, they don't fuck."

Stiles, thank God, backs the hell off and lets Derek proceed with his damn plan already, which was supposed to be simple. Just sit there. Just sit there quietly and read and carve out at least one occasion for Stiles to associate him with normal for once.

It was probably kind of a crappy plan, he admits to himself after several minutes of quiet. What was Stiles supposed to think other than that Derek might be screwing with him for the hell of it? Stiles doesn't really know him at all, only knows the shadow of himself that Derek has shown since Laura died and whatever details he's been able to dig up on his own.

Derek suddenly can't stand knowing that Stiles's deepest understanding of him probably came from stolen peeks at police reports. He fumbles for something, anything to change that. "I hate this book," he mutters.

He doesn't have to look to feel Stiles's eyes on him. "Why are you reading it, then?"

The admission has to be forced out. It feels foreign on his tongue, the suffocating mess of things he hasn't spoken of in years because Laura already knew and nobody else needed to. Once it's out, though, it feels good to have said. "It was my little sister's favorite. Sometimes I try to figure out why."

It's not the entire truth, but Stiles would probably think he'd lost his mind if he said much more. Opening the floodgates on Maizie, on helping her learn to read, on so many weekends spent with her right downstairs in the children's room...jesus, Stiles would probably run screaming to search out the closest wolfsbane he could lay hands on.

He's pretty sure they're nearing that point, actually. Stiles's heart is pounding and his scent has shifted, and his knuckles are white around the pen he's using to viciously scratch lines into his paper. Derek wants to kick himself for how completely wrong this is going.

Again.

"Sometimes," Stiles suddenly says, and clears his throat. "Um. Sometimes when I'm alone at home I blast shitty 80s music. My mom kept a radio on the sill over the sink. She'd do dishes to it."

Oh, Derek thinks. He figures out, finally, the bittersharp upturn to Stiles's scent. It's not fear or anger or annoyance; Derek knows those smells well, Stiles has practically drowned him in them on plenty of occasions.

What he's never smelled before is Stiles sad. He curls his hands into fists and lets his nails sharpen just slightly, lets the pinch of pain in his palms distract him from the desire to reach out, to try and calm with a touch. He watches Stiles carefully, eyes the blotchy stain of pink in his cheeks, and it's a war with himself to stick to what Stiles has willingly opened for discussion instead of asking everything he wants to know. "You do it to pretend she's still there?" he asks carefully, hoping it's not too much, not too far.

Stiles meets his gaze, the challenge in his eyes a familiar blend of stubborn and wary. "No," he says frankly. "I do it to make sure it still hurts. I think if it stops hurting I might stop remembering as well, you know?"

Derek knows. He knows too well, the fear of it and the experience of it both, faces getting fuzzier in his memory over time, sometimes doubting his own recollections of childhood but having nobody to confirm them or set him straight.

He nods slowly. Stiles watches him warily for another few seconds and then stares down at his book. It takes a long time for the tension to bleed out of his posture and heart rate. Derek pretends to read as he tracks the signals, and when he becomes aware that Stiles has fallen asleep he gives up the act and stares like he's never able to openly do. Stiles is slumped over his own notebook with one hand still curled loosely around his pen, lips slack and breath whistling softly through his teeth on every inhale.

Derek has never seen him look so tame. He reaches to pull the pen away, telling himself it's to keep Stiles from accidentally poking himself in the eye with it or something, and lets the pads of his fingertips bump across the knobs of Stiles's knuckles as he does.

He stays until Stiles's pulse announces his stir out of sleep and then slips away. He's had enough for one day, more than he ever expected.

More than he's entirely sure he can actually take.

******

Summer brings with it more change, more shifts in routine that Derek has no choice but to accept, adapt to.

In some ways it turns out to be a relief. Not at first; at first he's just annoyed, in ways he refuses to look at too closely, when it turns out he has to share the summer with a bunch of jobs. Jackson and Lydia don't need to and for Allison, work consists mainly of letting her father run her ragged with training.

But the others need cash and that means employment. And that means scheduling just as rigid as and even more chaotic than school.

Derek spends days resenting the intrusion into his ability to plan his own training, which probably contributes to a minor incident in which he goes absolutely barking mad and convinces himself, for a brief and gut-wrenchingly hopeful moment, that Stiles has miraculously gotten on board and invited Derek over for...for something.

Something other than what it turns out to be: facilitating group time and accommodating Derek's apparent failure to meet modern standards of home entertainment.

Even prepared, even bracing himself for the fact that it clearly means absolutely nothing, an evening at Stiles's house watching movies somehow becomes a major incident in which Derek might actually lose his mind for awhile. What he means to do is find a good vantage point and watch all the little hellions suffer through the movies he hadn't been able to resist demanding just to screw with Stiles in the wake of his own disappointment.

What happens instead is that Stiles sits down with about ninety percent of the width of Derek's body left open between him and the arm of the couch, and others still standing.

Lydia, still standing, while Stiles gazes up at her with a sickeningly hopeful gleam in his eyes.

Derek levers himself into the space and cannot, for the life of him, imagine moving. He genuinely doesn't care when Jackson and Isaac tussle and destroy the furniture, just like he doesn't care when the first movie ends and Scott gripes about having to change the DVD when Stiles is the host but Stiles happens to have an elbow caging him in in the oddest manner Derek can pull off while still hoping for casual. And he doesn't care when he has to piss like a racehorse and the choice comes down to relieving the throb in his bladder or staying soaked in the proximity of Stiles's scent.

It's an easy choice.

His sanity returns quickly, turns out to be right there waiting for him in the airy confines of his loft where he must have left it. Along with it comes a deep sense of shame at his own lack of control. He hasn't let baser instincts run away with him like that since Kate, hasn't lost himself to want since the last time he was between her legs and thinking I love you, I love you and was sure, heading home after, that he said it out loud and she let him off the hook.

Even then he knew he was a stupid teenager. He just hadn't understood the scale. But two days later his family was dead and now he can't help but have...associations.

Things need to get back to normal, Derek decides. He just has to ignore all of this, this colossally bad idea of a development in his life, his head. He needs distraction.

He drives out to the bay, far from anyone who knows his face or his name or his history, and he fucks the first willing person he can find. He doesn't like it like that, never has, but it's worked well enough in the years since his eighteenth birthday when Laura dragged him out and played wingman because she was absolutely convinced he could stand to get laid, already.

She was good at that. She was also mildly surprised when he wound up on his knees for a guy with huge hands and a thick, heavy cock instead of lapping up the attentions of the many prettily made-up girls she tried roping in for him, but Laura always had been one to roll with any punch so long as it was thrown by family. The only way she changed was to be more equal opportunity in her efforts towards casual matchmaking after that.

Back then she drove Derek crazy. Now, remembering, he just misses her. Were she here, had he dared talk to her about it, she'd have helped him figure this mess out without batting an eyelash.

Instead he's on his own and he falls back on old habits. When he returns to Beacon Hills he's determined to put the entire situation behind him, and for awhile life seems to cooperate with his goals. He doesn't see Stiles but once or twice over the next few weeks; Stiles is working as many hours as he can get and Derek has Jackson to deal with anyway, throws himself into at least trying to help Jackson find his inner moppet and spank it soundly.

He gets in three good weeks. He thinks it's gone well, he thinks he's conquered this thing.

He's about as wrong as he's ever been.

Even he has to admit that's saying something.

******

It's a Wednesday when Derek decides that he probably actually should get a television. Not for any reason having to do with certain opinions Stiles might have expressed about his lack of one and what it might say about Derek -- there is nothing wrong with him, for pete's sake, he just didn't have electricity until recently -- but simply because he wants one.

Normal people have televisions. And it's for him, besides; hell if he's going to have a bunch of teenagers lazing around his place being couch potatoes ever.

And if all else fails, Derek is secure in knowing that he's the Alpha. He can call dibs on his own damn remote if it comes down to that.

Since he doesn't particularly feel like driving all the way out to the Best Buy by the mall, he tries the electronics store in town first. Or...he means to try. He never quite makes it. He gets as far as parking directly in front of the store, in fact, but just as he levers himself up and out from behind the steering wheel he catches sight of Stiles's Jeep lurching its own way up the street and angling into a spot directly across from Derek.

Derek doesn't really...think. He just moves, lopes across the road and reaches the Jeep just as Stiles jumps out and slams the door.

Stiles nearly backhands him in the face in the midst of turning, seeing him, and jumping about a mile high. "Jesus! Warn a guy, would you?"

Derek makes a mental note to try and do better about remembering that not everyone has senses honed to be aware of his surroundings at all times. Then he makes a mental note to do something about teaching Stiles to be more aware regardless because seriously, the kid is going to get himself hurt or killed one of these days. That thought makes Derek suddenly, physically ill, makes him take an almost involuntary inventory of Stiles's outward physical health. Good skin tone, strong pulse, nothing off about his scent.

"Sorry," Derek mutters, trying to regroup. He flicks his gaze over Stiles's shoulder at the coffee shop behind him. "Are you going to get coffee?"

He wants to kick himself for asking obvious questions even before Stiles follows his gaze and looks back at him with an expression and a belabored agreement that suggest he might find Derek particularly slow. He tries to shake it off, though, the frustration at himself and the distraction of Stiles being so close for the first time in ages, and think through the situation.

Clearly he'd been fooling himself about getting past this thing. It was a stupid thing to believe about what was a long shot in the first place; the reaction he's feeling now may be his most visceral yet, but he never should have thought he could shed himself so easily of what had already taken hold.

Hell, it had been a good two years before he stopped catching himself wanting to find Kate, to beg her to tell him he was wrong, he'd misunderstood, she'd had nothing to do with it. And Stiles...Stiles is nothing like Kate.

He could never be. Derek was an idiot to think he could get around any of it. Where it leaves him is facing an opportunity: him and Stiles. Broad daylight. No circumstances that could be even remotely mistaken for pack business. All Derek has to do is play like he was doing the totally normal thing of getting coffee, too, and would prefer company to his obvious lack thereof, and they'll spend some time together -- being normal -- and he'll show Stiles he can do nice things like treat him to caffeine even though Stiles is the last person on earth he thinks needs stimulants.

Easy. He can do this. He looks away and plays it cool. Sort of. As cool as anyone can be when faux-admitting to being all by his lonesome, he guesses. "Yeah, I -- me, too. Only I didn't have any -- would you mind?"

That could have gone better, he admits to himself. It could have involved a lot more smoothness and a lot less tripping over his own damn tongue. Ideally, it also could have resulted in Stiles tripping over himself to agree, instead of hesitating and only giving in with more reluctance than Derek would prefer.

Still, though. Stiles did agree and Derek is trailing inside after him and this is good, this is -- this is what people who might have potential together do. They go somewhere. Do something. Like have beverages in public and converse.

Derek positions himself close enough that he can keep catching Stiles's scent even over the overpowering blends of coffees and teas and gets caught up in wondering if, if things ultimately go well, this will wind up counting as their first date.

He snaps back to attention when Stiles's hand hooks around his bicep to yank him out of line. "Part of venturing out in the world is making way for the little people," Stiles says dryly. "This is us moving along, moving al -- ow." Stiles releases him and rubs the side of his leg where he glances against the corner of a table, then seems to get super interested in watching the barista do her thing.

Derek himself feels more interested in what just happened and how he managed to fuck this up already. He frowns back towards the line, disconcerted by how the hell he spaced out so badly that he didn't even notice Stiles ordering.

For both of them, apparently. Derek wracks his brain and can't for the life of him find even the slightest memory of what happened. He hadn't registered his surroundings at all while he was thinking about -- about dating Stiles.

Christ, but he's beyond fucked. He is gone.

It's like an actual physical feeling inside him, a snapping as he gives in to it once and for all. He's searching for something easy and casual to say to break the ice when Stiles rocks on his toes and says, "So this has been fun. We'll have to do it again."

Derek likes the sound of that. Again. "Yeah?" he asks hopefully.

And then it all goes to shit. "Absolutely," Stiles says, rolling his eyes. "The mooching, the taciturn silence, the swift parting of ways -- "

Blood roars in Derek's ears because what the -- "I didn't ask," he starts angrily, because he hadn't, he just got sidetracked. And just because he had some housing issues for awhile doesn't give Stiles any good reason to assume he would even need to bum a cheap coffee off of --

His train of thought grinds to a halt as the far more important consideration in play here hits him. "You're leaving," he says, disappointed and pissed, pissed that he misread pretty much everything so badly.

Stiles shoves a coffee into his hand with a graze of skin that jolts embarrassingly from Derek's fingertips straight to his dick, and -- while Derek stands there in a daze from his emotions and his body all going haywire at once -- disappears off to work.

Derek stays put for a long time, letting life move on around him while he considers.

He doesn't know what he's doing. How to do this. How to make Stiles see.

And he needs to figure it out.

Before he goes completely insane.

******

Derek is, like any semi-decent-learning-on-the-job Alpha should be, capable of admitting when he needs to turn to his pack for support. Hell, helping him, making him stronger, that's what they're for. The only problem he really has is who among them to turn to for this.

Jackson and Lydia are out; whatever bizarre emotional codependence those two have going on in their strange dance around admitting what they really mean to each other, Derek wants no part of it. He wants to admit things. He wants Stiles to have similar things in the first place, and to admit them in the second.

Things are still a little too fragile with his growing peace and trust with Allison to lay this on her, and hell if he's asking Scott about anything important enough to need competent advice.

Which leaves him lamenting, just a little, that he hadn't snagged anyone on the more emotionally secure and adequately socialized end of the spectrum when he started biting wayward teens. Isaac and Boyd would, he suspects, be even more at a loss than he is if confronted with the same problem, and that -- that means Erica.

Derek really, really misses Laura -- even if her solution would probably have been as direct, and as humiliating, as walking up to Stiles and telling him point-blank that her brother wanted in his pants. One of his sister's greatest knacks in life had been simply filling in where Derek's own words habitually failed him. Derek's not ready to trust Erica to do anything of the kind -- and isn't exactly wild about the thought of anyone doing the equivalent of passing a Check Yes Or No note in the first place -- but after two weeks of seeing that Stiles, even as obtuse as he's being about everything, is noticing Derek's brooding moods around him and getting weirded out, Derek finally figures he has absolutely no other choice.

He seeks her out at home and finds her sitting out on the front steps, braced back on her elbows with her face tilted up to the sun. "A house call," she purrs without opening her eyes, when he comes up the walk. "Careful, Derek, I might get spoiled."

"I need your help," Derek says bluntly. "And if you breathe a word of this to anyone, I will feed you several of your own internal organs before I let you die."

Erica finally peeks at him. She looks more intrigued than intimidated, but he can't read anything but honesty in her nod of acceptance and the impatient arch of her eyebrow. "I'm trying to...do something," he hedges. "It's not going so well."

"Wow, is that the story of your life or something?" Derek glares at her, lips curling back in the start of a warning, and she subsides easily. "Sorry. What's the problem, then?"

It's a fight to get the words out. But he has to, it's worth it. "I want someone to start seeing me differently. Nothing I do seems to work."

"Have you tried becoming a werewolf and getting hot, because that worked wonders for me -- oh, waaaaait." Erica grins cheekily at his increasing annoyance, but after a second it becomes a smirk with a bitter undercurrent. "It's funny, you know. You thinking I know anything about getting someone to want you." Derek opens his mouth but she shakes her head sharply to cut him off, a warning and a plea all at once. "Never mind, experience ain't everything. Got some free time?"

Derek gives her a dirty look.

Like he has much other than free time.

Mere hours later he's convinced he really needs to find more things to keep himself busy. "Was I supposed to get something from that?" he asks reluctantly, staring at the credits for Love, Actually rolling across the dusty TV screen in Erica's living room.

Erica gives him a pitying look. "Really."

Yes, really, Derek thinks sourly. He crosses his arms and clenches his jaw and glares at the screen. He tries really hard not to think about Laura Linney. "I don't want to learn to play drums," he muses. "Nothing loud. My ears. No."

"Yeah," Erica says slowly. "Also, you're not ten years old and that is the crap plan of an ten-year-old."

Derek nods because that's true. He's not. "Portuguese," he mutters. "Fuck."

"Oh god -- Derek. Maybe try something easier first, like in English?" Erica laughs. "You didn't like the cue cards?"

"No, that was -- she's his best friend's -- no. That was creepy and doomed. I'm sick of being creepy and doomed."

Erica's eyes sparkle with an irritating amount of mirth. "Right. Got it. But c'mon, something like Natalie's Christmas card, then? Anything other than 'Gee, where's the nearest place I can buy Rosetta Stone?'"

"Well, it's like we're speaking completely different languages," Derek says defensively. "I just meant -- did they even teach you about metaphors in --"

"Question." Erica flicks the television off and sits up, angles toward him. "Have you tried speaking at all?" Derek scowls at a point over her shoulder. "Uh-huh. Should I bother hoping you're interested in a werewolf? Someone who might have any chance at all of reading between your lines?"

Derek calculates the distance between himself and the wall and considers how long it would take him to get there and start bashing his head against it. Erica gives a put-upon sigh. "I changed my mind, you are the ten-year-old. So just tell her. Him, whatever. If that doesn't work, come back. I have a lot of movies."

The sad note coming back into her voice makes Derek refocus, give her a long, hard look. "You remind me of my sister," he says bluntly. Erica blinks and looks like she has no idea whether to be pleased or offended by that. He fumbles at an attempt to be more direct, more clear. It's good practice, he figures. "She always managed to be...helpful," he tries. "Thank you?"

Erica's smile is blinding in the instant before it seems to embarrass her and make her turn away. "Go away, Derek," she mumbles.

******

Boiled down to basics, Derek does actually get what Erica is steering him towards. The problem remains, though, implementation.

He's not about to chase Stiles down and make grand declarations of any sort. That was always more Laura's style, and he knows himself at least well enough to know that more likely than not, any such attempt on his part would result in him simply ranting at Stiles for being a complication Derek's life did not need in the first place.

Which he feels would be true enough, and yet. Hardly productive. Or seductive, when it comes right down to it.

And more than that, it carries risk. It puts something out there that can't be taken back, or explained away. It puts him on the line and Stiles right along with him, because rejection...rejection is an all-around destructive thing.

Derek can't force Stiles's hand. He can't take the chance.

He needs plausible deniability, for both their sakes. Which means he needs something that means something, indisputably, if it's noticed.

And nothing at all if it's not.

It comes to him slowly over the following days, days he spends swamped in memories of Laura that have taken on a tinge of bitterness they didn't use to have. He never minded before that she knew how to do it all, had somehow managed to balance keeping them both safe with her drive to enjoy life, to have friends, to connect with people.

He gave a damn about the former. All of the latter he could do without.

Until now. He thinks back on all of her casual, careful relationships, all the little signs he'd see again and again that told him as surely as her own admissions that she had gotten beyond casual drinks with someone. The frequency of text messages and the particular tilt of her smile when she read them, the amount of time she would put into getting ready for a date, the aggravating introduction of a new scent into their apartment if it went long enough to allow entry into her home.

Valentine's Day one year when he'd come home to an overwhelming, dizzying spray of roses cluttering the dining room table. Laura got rid of them quickly, but he remembers the little smile that had curved her lips as she did, the way she'd tucked her nose in to smell them even though he knew it had to bother her as much as it did him.

He hauls himself out of bed the night that comes back to him and goes rummaging through the one small steamer trunk he keeps everything important in. He has the contours of a plan in mind; it's the details he needs.

Aside from his grandmother's recipes, Derek had taken exactly one other thing from the house before he and Laura ran, the one thing he'd actually gone back to find. His relief at discovering that the library hadn't burned was shamefully on par with what he felt knowing that Laura was fine, that Peter might have a chance, because tucked into the bottom drawer of his father's heavy oak desk was the single book he wanted.

It was Maizie's drawer, specifically. Their father had started keeping a box of crayons behind the files for her when she was three and liked to sit at his feet and color, and over the years it had morphed into a dedicated space crammed full of art supplies for the hours she spent taking over an entire end of the desk while their father just worked around her.

Maizie was -- Maizie was human, fully, but always more a creature of the woods than any of them. She'd been scrambling through the underbrush and up and down trees practically since she could walk, and when she was six she set out to make a record of every flower she ever found. For three years she did exactly that.

And when she was nine she burned alive.

Derek went back, more than anything else, to save what little he could of her.

But he hasn't actually looked through the book since taking it, partly because it hurt too much and partly because it felt like he had no right. The stupid thing was a map of his sister's life, the burgeoning of her art skills and the steadying of her penmanship, where she'd been and what she'd come across, and for years Derek kept it hidden away because he couldn't even glance at it without remembering how many pages never even got filled.

Now he sits on the floor and goes through every page she did fill, skims his fingers lightly over wax and charcoals and pastels and watercolors, all the phases she'd gone through. He laughs around the churning in his stomach at the two full pages she filled with drawings and notes about forget-me-nots compared to her scant attention to roses -- do not bring home, Peter sneezed two days! -- and then goes still and quiet when he turns the page and his eyes settle on words looped out in her most careful cursive.

Your presence eases my pain.

Derek recognizes the small flowers, down to each of the species of milkvetch that Maizie drew in meticulously. What's more he knows where there's a patch in bloom, saw it only recently when he hit the woods just to get out of his head for awhile. The more he thinks it through, the more he actively imagines himself actually going through the steps, going out and gathering and jesus, following through and leaving them for Stiles...the more he thinks he can actually do this.

It's small. It's safe.

It's what he can't bring himself to say out loud. The constant that he's finally come to recognize is that unlike anyone else, when Stiles is pissing him off or amusing him or complicating his life or saving his life, he's also distracting him from the crushing weight of...everything.

It's probably the kind of thing that deserves to be acknowledged, if nothing else.

He goes out in the early afternoon when he knows Stiles is working and spends more time than is probably necessary selecting new, undamaged blooms to mix in with greenery growing nearby. He balks only slightly when he's actually in Stiles's room and trying to convince himself to set the damn plants down already and just go, but when it comes right down to it he manages it, and he gets all the way home before the restless itch to go back, to take it back, sets in.

Erica shows up with Boyd before he can do any such thing. "Oi, Derek!" she says with a sly smile. "Como vai?"

Derek glowers. "I went another route," he confesses regardless, and her mouth widens in pure glee as Boyd glances back and forth between them like they're crazy. Derek can't exactly blame him. "What are you two doing here? I wasn't expecting anyone tonight."

"Erica insisted she had to -- "

"Ask you a very important question," Erica cuts in breezily, curling a hand around Boyd's upper arm in a flash of lengthening nails. "Asked and answered! C'mon, Boyd, Derek needs to brood."

"I do not need to brood," Derek insists, but it's too late. They're gone.

He honestly tries not to, tries not to worry when he doesn't hear anything. He knows he didn't make this exactly easy for Stiles, and he's perfectly willing to admit to the element of safety he still falls back on in his more restless moments, that he'll dodge a bullet in the end and Stiles won't figure it out at all.

Sleep is impossible that night. By morning he starts counting down the hours until Scott shows up that afternoon to train. He nearly throws his phone against a wall when he gets the first text.

hey derek can't make it, mom is finally letting m

It's only confusion that reins in Derek's frustration long enough for the remainder of Scott's message to arrive after clearly hitting Send prematurely.

e in to visit stiles. later?

The underlying meaning sinks in slowly. The pieces of Scott's life and what they add up to when applied to his words. Derek's hands might shake the slightest bit when he sends back What the hell happened to Stiles?

Fucking Scott takes a fucking hour to respond. dunno yet his dad's looking into it. allergic reaction almost killed him.

Derek gives serious thought to finding some wolfsbane and causing a similar reaction in himself. Because seriously.

This cannot be his life.

******

It takes Derek more than a day to work up the nerve to go see Stiles. When he finally does sneak into the hospital room in the pre-dawn hours, the wash of guilt and pure disgust with himself only intensifies.

He's gone and disfigured him. Stiles looks like a fucking Garbage Pail Kid, the entire lower half of his face swollen out of distinguishable shape, skin an angry red with rough patches and the beginnings of bulbous blisters in spots. His hands....his hands are even worse and drive Derek to turn his eyes anywhere and everywhere else as he makes himself sink into a chair instead of running like he wants to. Stiles is sleeping, a slight rasping wheeze to each breath he takes in.

Derek forces himself to stay put and listen to what he's caused.

It's still dark out when Stiles stirs. Derek focuses in on him, watches how he shifts under the covers and goes still with a slight wince when his hands brush over the blanket surface. Even through the antiseptic stench that throws Derek's senses out of whack, the muted pain pouring off of Stiles is distinct and suffocating. He's about to pipe up -- really, he is -- to see if Stiles needs a nurse or anything, when Stiles's puffy eyes flit in his direction.

Derek could swear something akin to if not quite amusement flickers over Stiles's warped features. He has to be imagining it, though, since the first thing Stiles mentions is, "You tried to kill me."

Something loosens in Derek's chest. Stiles got it; it's out there now and can't be taken back, and it's no small relief to have at least that beyond his control at last. And Stiles doesn't sound particularly angry about anything, either, so that's something. He sounds so matter-of-fact, even, so nonchalant, that Derek's immediate instinct to fall into their normal rhythms kicks in before he can stop himself. "I did not try to -- " he starts to protest, and falls short in his ability to even say the rest. What he has an abundance of, though, is defensiveness rooted in shame. He scrubs a palm across his cheek and leans forward wearily. "This isn't what was supposed to happen," he says. "How could I have known you'd be allergic?"

Stiles's mouth contorts oddly for a second. Derek really doesn't get why he doesn't sound at all upset when he points out, "The fact that the vast majority of the population is allergic to poison oak and would never, ever, ever use it as part of a bouquet could have been something to tip you off to a potential risk."

Derek manages to unclench his jaw enough to at least try to explain that the only purpose he ever had for botanical matters was to learn the relatively few things that could actually harm him. Stiles doesn't seem overly concerned, though that could be the sheer fatigue that's already dragging his eyes shut again. "S'cool," Stiles mumbles carelessly. "Figured out what they were before that whole thing where I started dying." Derek flinches. "And what you've been trying to do."

Derek flinches again. It's one thing to know that Stiles knows. It's another to hear him say it outright, that's he's figured out more than just the ill-considered floral code that Derek nearly killed him with -- especially while watching his brow furrow tighter and tighter in a pinch of pain the more he tries to talk. "I'm not good at this," Derek offers plaintively.

It's hardly the apology he knows Stiles deserves, the one he wishes he knew how to put into the right words. But Stiles huffs a little breath that sounds like it's trying to be a laugh, then yawns his way through claiming to be perfectly aware of that already, thank you. "Let's talk about it in a couple weeks," he suggests.

Derek forces his own impatience down. He swallows his need to know what that means. "Yeah," he agrees.

He should probably go, he figures. He's not exactly supposed to be in here anyway, and Stiles needs his rest, and someone will probably be coming around to check on him sooner or later. But it's far easier to stay exactly where he is and listen to Stiles's breaths start to even out, relaxation helping to dissipate the acrid scent thrown off by discomfort, and he allows himself the excuse that Stiles is on the precipice of sleep. Moving might disturb him.

Stiles suddenly jolts back to full awareness without any disturbance at all. "Derek," he slurs. "'m glad, y'know. About the. If I, if having me around...you know."

If that's all he ever gets, Derek thinks, if that's all Stiles is ever able to, ever wants to give him...well.

Derek will figure out how to make sure it's enough. "It does," he says roughly. His feet are already moving, getting him out, getting him to safety. "You do."

He heads out into the woods and spends hours running, resolutely refusing to think. By the time he gets home in the early afternoon, Erica is at the loft. In the loft, in fact, and Derek has not yet gone around handing out keys. His malevolent glare earns him nothing but a careless shrug. "I brought ice cream," she says innocently. "I had to get it in the freezer."

"Ice cream," he echoes flatly. "Why did you bring ice cream?"

"Relationship woes always call for ice cream." Derek watches Erica warily, feeling his shoulders bunch reflexively, defensively. She just gazes right back. "You smell like hospital," she adds, wrinkling her nose. "So you know what's funny, Derek? Scott says Stiles told his dad he just happened to find a weird bunch of flowers on the street and decided to pick them up for god only knows what reason."

Derek folds his arms over his chest and looks away. "I don't see what's funny about that."

"I didn't mean funny ha-ha," Erica tells him bluntly. "Chocolate or vanilla? C'mon, the faster you let me do my duty as your oh-so-concerned beta, the faster you get rid of me."

Forcing ice cream on your Alpha is not in the job description, Derek means to say.

"I don't want to get rid of you," he mutters instead. Erica ducks her head and smiles like she can't help herself, then bounds over to the freezer and returns with two pints of ice cream and two spoons, lets Derek take his pick from her hands.

He grabs for the vanilla and tears it open. "Remember what I said about telling anyone."

"Feed me my internal organs, yeah, yeah. Mmmm." Erica sucks a giant bite of ice cream off her spoon and licks away every last trace. "Stiles, huh."

"Stiles," Derek confirms. He nurses a bite of his own before glancing at her. "Should I be apologizing?"

"Why? Because he doesn't want me or because you don't?" she asks pointedly. Derek blinks at her, taken aback, until she snorts and rolls her eyes. "Don't sweat it. He know?"

"He does now." Erica waits. He shrugs. "He said we'll talk about it later. I'm not holding my breath."

Erica waves her spoon in his face. "You are so. And stop worrying. I hit him in the face with a piece of his own car once and he totally forgave me. He's kind of cool like that."

Derek does actually find that mildly cheering. "That's true. He is." He pokes at his ice cream. "Did you get any toppings?"

******

He stays away from Stiles.

It turns out to be easier than he thought it would be, a matter of keeping busy. For once the pieces fall into place, schedules working out to give him several times a day with at least one or two betas to work with on their senses and control, and Jackson filling in a lot of in between spaces. Derek frankly suspects Erica of putting her foot down and reining them all into looking after him.

Them looking after him. If it didn't carry such a measure of comfort, Derek would be a little disturbed at how backwards he and his pack seem to be.

Erica stops by most nights, sometimes for five minutes to talk, sometimes for hours to kick back in front of movies with him. He never mentions the shift in the way she carries Boyd's scent these days, and she never mentions Stiles. Derek puts some time into wondering if having a favorite makes him a bad Alpha.

Probably, he decides. But fuck, he'll just add it to the list.

By the end of summer, Derek actually feels like he might have managed to steady the ground beneath his feet. There's a hole in his pack where Stiles's physical body is supposed to be, yes, and he finds himself bracing more and more against the looming question kept at bay only by Stiles's ongoing radio silence, but other than anything Stilinski-related, life is settling into comfortable rhythms and patterns.

With everyone doing well on the control front, he decides to use the start of the school year as an opportunity to shift focus and throw some learning objectives of his own into the studying routines about to take hold. Jackson is hardly the only creature out there failing to fall conveniently into human or werewolf categorization, and Derek figures he could do with a brush-up on things he was taught as a child as much as the rest of them could do with knowing...anything at all.

And if it's also a convenient means of initiating some contact with Stiles without pressuring or anything, he thinks he can be forgiven for that. His motives are at least 80% pure, anyway, since it really does make his head hurt to even think about the shitstorm they'd all be in if vampires suddenly popped into town. He'd put good money on every single one of them thinking garlic and crosses would actually work.

Inventorying the books still cluttering the shelves in the house library turns out to be a waste of time other than determining that he is in fact facing a shortage of things both basic and written in modern English. What he's got is impressive, albeit covered in soot, but it's also old and for the most part not geared towards an audience of stressed, hormonal teenagers with dozens of other demands on their attention.

He needs Supernatural Realities For Dummies, honestly. Too bad he kind of doubts Amazon has that in stock.

There is, however, a place down on Cherry Lane that he remembers his parents designating both legitimate and safe, remembers they checked it out when it opened as they would anything that moved into their territory bearing too much potentially dangerous knowledge. What they'd found: a friendly if somewhat clueless couple in their fifties with an eye for authenticity but nothing dangerous in their inventory and no ill intent.

Hell, the Janssens had come over for dinner more than once that Derek can recall. They hadn't had a clue who they were breaking bread with.

Which is why it comes as a particularly nasty shock when he walks into the store on the first day that school leaves him on his own and restless, and the chime of the bell coincides with something deep inside him bristling.

Bristling impotently. Every instinct Derek has is howling in a way that should, all things considered, have him tearing through town on an unleashed rampage -- and Derek can't so much as pop a claw or two.

"The way out is two steps back the way you came." Derek swivels in the direction of the steady voice and stares warily at a woman slipping out from behind the small sales counter. She's young, probably only a few years older than him, and looks nothing so much as completely ordinary. Thick blonde hair in a loose ponytail, jeans gone ratty where they drag under her heels, a faded Coke II emblem on her t-shirt. A nametag pinned to her chest just says 'Jen'. She eyes him just as carefully. "Or you can take a deep breath and realize there's no threat here. Only what's necessary to make sure it stays that way."

"You're a witch," Derek spits out, before he can catch himself.

"I'm a small business owner," she retorts coolly. "And you're welcome to look around. Mind the sign."

Derek follows her quick gesture to a small placard propped against the ancient register. Owner reserves right to refuse any sale to any person.

He glares at her, mostly just to demonstrate he can still do that, at least, and stalks past a nauseating stand full of incense to get to the bookshelves tucked away in the back of the store.

The bright spot in the trip is that he does actually find several books which, after flipping through them in spot-checks, seem fairly accurate and easily digestible. He takes them up to buy even though his educational plans have been drastically retooled in the past ten minutes, and though he's braced for problems as he approaches the counter, the woman just glances at the books and then returns her steady stare to his face. "Grand opening sale," she tells him. "These are all from the old inventory, five apiece."

Derek pushes a twenty across the counter to her, yanks his hand back rather than risk so much as a brush of skin. He's at his limit and needs to get out, retreat the only option from a fight he can't even have, much less win. "Thanks," he manages to mutter.

"Likewise," she says. She never takes her eyes off him. "Come back any time."

Yeah, right. Derek keeps it together long enough to get home and fire off texts for everyone to get their asses over there that night, and then things go slightly fuzzy for awhile as everything kept crammed down first by magic and then by sheer desperation insists on coming out to play.

Later he'll just have to deal with the fact that his security deposit is toast, unless he can figure out what to do about claw marks in the hardwood floors.

He probably should have gone to the old house, come to think of it.

******

Erica and Boyd show up together a good quarter-hour before he actually told anyone to arrive. Boyd makes a beeline for the fridge, while Erica prioritizes claiming the overstuffed armchair for herself. She whistles at the stacks of books heaped on Derek's coffee table. "We need to get you out more," she says. "I saw Stiles in school today. He coming tonight?"

Derek clenches his jaw and listens to the clatter of the mayonnaise lid against the counter. "If he knows what's good for him," he says tersely, "just like everyone else."

Erica snorts lightly. Derek bares his teeth and throws a book at her. "Do something useful and get a head start," he says.

A second later he glances at her. "He look okay?"

"Good as new," she purrs. "Hey, wow, really? Mermaids?"

"No, not mermaids," Derek growls. "Why would I even care about mermaids in Beacon Hills?"

"We have a lake," Boyd pipes in from the kitchen. "The mermaids in Harry Potter lived in a lake. There could be mermaids."

Erica grins and sticks her tongue out at Derek. Derek bleakly contemplates his life choices yet again. "There are no mermaids. Read the chapter I marked."

"Witches!" she exclaims happily, flipping pages with a perfectly manicured nail. "Harry Potter has those, too. You know, in case you haven't read it."

Derek goes ahead and outright reconsiders every positive feeling he's ever had for her. "Everyone's read Harry Potter," he snaps. Boyd ambles over and squeezes himself in with Erica, hands her half his sandwich, and earns a glare from Derek. "None for me?"

Boyd takes a giant bite and shakes his head silently.

Derek scowls and stomps off to make a sandwich.

The others trail in slowly. By the time Scott shows up, smelling faintly of used cat litter, Derek has crammed down a hastily-made ham and cheese and braced himself for the next however long of dealing with his pack's understandable-yet-incredibly-aggravating levels of relative ignorance.

Only then he strides back into the common area just in time for Scott to lean down, read over Erica's shoulder, and blink rapidly. "Dude, mermaids are real? No way!"

Erica snaps her book shut and smiles innocently at Derek. "Shut up, Scott, you're a fucking werewolf," she says, saccharine sweet. "Derek wants to talk about witches, don't you, Derek?"

Derek ignores the surge of pique that tempts him to inform all of them of the great many things he wants, none of which have a fucking thing to do with witches. He also ignores the fact that Stiles is, at five after, conspicuously absent. "Yes. I was in town today and ran into a warding spell." He grabs the stack of books he decided would be decent introductory material for them and starts handing them out. "So we've got at least one. The first thing you all need to know is that I don't care how normal and nice a witch seems or even is, she can get pissed off just like anyone else and then make your life hell. And since all of you are incredibly good at pissing people off, your new official goal in life is learning how not to get on a witch's bad side -- or mine, while you're at it. Do not get me in a war with a witch, I mean it."

While he's levying threats and earning himself little more than a chorus of rolled eyes, the door opens and footsteps skid to a brief stop before resuming. Stiles slips into the last small space left beside Allison. His gaze barely flickers in Derek's direction as he takes stock. "Witches?" he asks. There's a slight waver in his voice. "We have witches? Do they have warts?"

Derek can't help it; he stares. He hasn't seen Stiles in weeks and he looks as whole and healthy as Erica said, not a blister or rash in sight. "Stiles," he says carefully. He takes a deep breath, ready to, happy to realign his senses and fold Stiles back into his perception of the scents that make things right.

He nearly gags.

For some godforsaken reason Stiles has gone and drenched himself with something that has a slight undertone of fucking roses.

It takes concerted effort -- and tightly clenched fists, stabs of pain into his palms -- to keep control of his urge to deal with the olfactory assault on his territory. On Stiles. Derek goes through life every day dealing with all manner of offensive smells, but it's different when it's in his space, on things that are his. It's distracting, it's infuriating, it's wrong.

It needs to be fixed and he wants to shake Stiles, grab him and rattle him around until he gets that he can't just go doing shit like this, can't stretch Derek's patience thin and show up different, show up and practically challenge all of Derek's baser instincts in front of people.

"You're late," he snaps unsteadily. He breathes carefully through his mouth and commits himself to getting through this and then getting rid of everyone before he deals with the new problem. Repeating himself about the warding spell helps, with the side benefit of getting Stiles to perk up with interest instead of frowning at Derek like Derek's done something wrong just by existing in his own damn home.

"Is that something you can just feel?" Stiles asks. "Is it like a disturbance in the Force or something?" He smirks. "Should we start calling you Derek Wan Kenobi?"

Seriously, shake him until he gives. "Only if you want me to kill you," Derek grumbles, and immediately wants to kick himself. To his left, Erica coughs lightly. "Or call you a droid," he adds lamely.

Stiles stares at him silently for a second. "No way," he finally says with a lightness Derek can tell is forced. "I'm totally Han Solo."

Somehow Derek manages to wrangle everyone into taking things seriously, which for the most part turns into Lydia and Allison and Isaac firing questions at him, Stiles blatantly ignoring him, and Derek's head throbbing more and more from the stench that hits him every time Stiles moves. Nobody else seems bothered, making him wonder for the first time if roses are only noxious to born wolves.

Question for a different day. For now he needs to clear people out and figure out how to deal with Stiles -- and it just figures, even that can't go well. Isaac corners him with stress leaking from every pore over his foster parents paying way too much attention lately, and by the time Derek sets him to rights Stiles is gone.

The smell, unfortunately, is not.

Derek curses everything about his life these days, throws his windows open wide, and bails to give the air a chance to clear.

******

Climbing in Stiles's bedroom window is not so much an idea (much less an idea with any sort of plan behind it) as it is a...thing that just sort of happens. One minute Derek is considering heading to the woods, the next he's hauling himself over a windowsill and feeling disappointed that Stiles isn't simply there waiting for him.

What is there is evidence that Stiles may actually be trying to kill him. The same note of rancid cheese that rose water turns into on human skin is present here, as well, but even worse is something in the room saturating every wafting breeze with -- with sex.

When Derek tracks the source he bristles with rage at teenage boys and their cleaning standards. He was the one raised by wolves but Stiles is the one with a trashcan crammed a quarter full with crumpled tissues. Even taking his age into account Derek can't imagine it constituting less than several days worth.

Derek hunches over on the edge of Stiles's bed and tries to drag his thoughts away from whether any of those tissues got sacrificed with him in mind. It's difficult, though, with the smell of come thick in the air as he hears Stiles get home, hears him clattering around downstairs before finally thumping up the steps.

Derek will never claim to be proud of way he basically pounces on Stiles and drags him kicking and yelping down the hall to the bathroom. Of course, he's not proud of a great many things in life, and this at least falls into a relatively safe category of Absolutely Fucking Necessary. He's not going to be able to get anywhere with Stiles smelling like raw sewage, and he --

He can't take not getting anywhere with this thing, not anymore.

He locates the offending cologne on the counter, and staunchly ignores Stiles's protests as he dumps several ounces of vile chemical down the sink and rinses it away. Only Stiles's tone turning morose breaks him loose of his internal celebration over vanquishing hard-sought prey. "That was my dad's," Stiles mutters forlornly.

Derek whirls on him. "Why the hell are you wearing it, then?" Stiles's pulse beats out a stutter of anger and embarrassment, and in the stubborn silence that follows Derek fights the urge to throw Stiles in the shower and scrub him down himself.

As ideas go, it feels like it could have merit on a profoundly disturbing number of levels. He just points instead. "Get it off."

Stiles gapes at him. "Dude, what is your problem?"

You expect me to pick just one? Derek thinks angrily. "You stink," he snaps. "You smell like formaldehyde."

Stiles's face reddens in blotches along his jawline and Derek recognizes the look settling into his eyes, the last-ditch desperation of a cornered animal forced to fight for its life. As much as his wolf wants to battle this out to the end and win, Derek himself has no such desire to actually hurt Stiles and can see he's dangerously close.

Or rather, that he has already. "It doesn't mix well with your body chemistry," he tries. "Just...get it off?"

Stiles closes in even more on himself and his mouth works in a fruitless effort to put voice to whatever is going through his mind. All he ultimately manages is, "Formaldehyde? Really?"

Derek winces as the air in the small room gets more and more stifling for him. "More like the actual rotting corpse. I was trying to be nice."

He was. Honestly. Stiles doesn't seem to appreciate it, but what else is new. "Your technique could use work," Stiles informs him bitterly. "Fine, go. I'll shed myself of the offense to your delicate sensibilities and then we are going to talk, buddy. Like about whether I'm gonna have to invite you along every time I buy toiletries from now on."

Derek blinks. That's a good idea, that will keep this kind of mess from ever happening again. That's a good idea that carries the sound of the future with it.

"That's a good idea," he says with a nod. "That would work well, I think."

For some reason his attempt to be supportive and optimistic makes Stiles look murderous. But Derek shrugs it off as the shower starts up in a reassuring spatter of water that smoothes the jagged edges of irritation in him, and he's bordering on cheerful as he takes the opportunity to whisk Stiles's clothes off to the washer, set out clean ones, and take out the trash. With the window open and the problems removed, Stiles's room returns to proper order in no time.

Then Stiles himself comes in bringing warm skin and soap and shampoo, and it's the end of a long day of restraining too many impulses, and Derek just wants.

He pushes Stiles flat against the door and smells to his heart's content.

And fuck, but it's good, sweet and earthy and rich, damp hair under his fingers and the slightest rub of soft hairs against his skin when he nudges too close -- and arousal twisting into the air between them as Stiles's breath catches and his body temperature climbs.

Derek has to back off fast or wind up unable to at all. "That's better," he mutters. He finds a seat by memory alone, unable to take his eyes off Stiles. "What the hell, Stiles?"

Stiles sucks in deep gulps of air and stumbles for his bed. "I thought you were inviting me over," he complains. "Only me, capisce? For...you know. A do over? Once more, with feeling?"

Derek's mouth goes dry. Why, why can't things just go his way ever? On the one hand: Stiles was evidently okay with seeing him again, seeing him alone again, to the point of trying to...impress him?

And on the other: a witch, a testy nose, and his own predilection for screwing up anything and everything possible. "I was going to ask you to stay after," he offers. "So that we could...figure this out."

"Only then I smelled like death."

"Then you smelled like death." Not anymore, though. God, but Stiles smells good even from a distance. And he's biting down on his lip suddenly and shifting where he sits and there's another spike of want in the air that makes Derek dig his fingers into his thighs just to keep himself still. "That was stupid. You don't need to do anything differently for -- because of me."

"Well excuse me for trying," Stiles mutters with a frown. "I haven't done this much. The whole...seeing someone...thing."

Derek pauses at the gratifying notion of Stiles looking at this like that, as them potentially seeing each other. Then he pauses even longer at the faintly amusing, very distressing implication that he has any more clue than Stiles. "What, like I have?"

"Uh, you look like you, dude. So...yes, I would say. Very much emphatically yes, the odds and every single rule of the universe argue in favor of you having done this a time or two."

No, no actually, no I have not, Derek thinks with a surge of irritation. There was just the once and he hardly thinks that counts, the stolen trysts in Kate's small apartment and the secrets he didn't even know were being kept until bodies were in the morgue. He's treading far deeper water here than Stiles and Stiles needs to get that, needs to be smarter than this.

He tells him so. "There was Kate Argent," he says pointedly. "And then there was a period of time during which I dealt with the fact that the woman I thought I was falling in love with used the kinds of innocent things you tell the person you think you're falling in love with to murder my family."

Stiles's mouth tightens and twists in the moue of someone thinking his way out of his own bullshit, but he has the grace to hold Derek's gaze as he does it. "I'm going to concede this point," he says with false blitheness. Derek narrows his eyes and tips his head, waits to see where this is going.

Nothing unusual about needing to do that, given that it's Stiles. "Just for you," Stiles prattles on, "I'm going to throw in a promise that I will never try to kill your little winged monkeys. Unless they're trying to kill me, in which case I admit that all bets will be off. Also, if we're doing this? I will probably have at least mild expectations that you keep them from trying to kill me."

Derek watches him. He wonders why it doesn't bother him, Stiles's glib reduction of one of the ugliest of his fears. He wonders if he should break it to Stiles, the fresh hell that Erica alone would unleash to protect Stiles -- and the fact that she would have plenty of backup. He wonders if Stiles has any idea what he's getting into and he wonders what it says about him that he's not going to let the potential no fucking way stop him.

He pushes it all aside and meets light with light. "I'll do my best." And because he needs to hear it, needs it to be out there, once and for all, he adds, "Does that mean we're doing this?"

The once-over Stiles gives him is exaggerated to the point of comical. "If I say yes, I think it's reasonable to assume I will at some point get to have sex with that," he points out. Derek swallows hard and shifts in his seat. Stiles chatters obliviously on. "If I say no, I run the risk of you making more misguided gestures that land me in the hospital. Under the circumstances, I'll choose yes."

In all the months Derek has spent wanting Stiles to choose him, he somehow overlooked genuinely deciding he would handle things if that actually happened.

Someday he's going to get better at thinking things all the way through, seriously.

For now he deflects. "You should probably know that bringing that up makes me want to tear your throat out."

Stiles is, unfortunately, seemingly immune to deflection. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather tear my clothes off?" he retorts.

Derek shifts in his seat again.

It is definitely time to go.

******

The notion that Stiles could actually return his feelings, that Derek might actually be able to have this, feels like he's taken three steps to the left and is seeing the entire world from a new angle. And for all his scheming and planning and trying, being on the precipice of success with all of it feels, remarkably enough, like nothing so much as teetering the wrong direction towards a long and incredibly scary fall.

Derek can't help but have a few thoughts along the lines of how it's not the fall that kills you.

It's the ground whipping out a match and setting your family on fire.

It's entirely possible that he panics for a few days. Luckily, they're days he's already told everyone to lie low, concentrate on getting used to school again and not calling attention to themselves until he gets the witch situation figured out. He can only hope a single one of them actually manage to be helpful and stay out of trouble for once.

It's not a hope he has a really great feeling about.

By late in the week he still has no idea what to do about either situation. Not for the first time, he feels an impotent bitterness at the fact that he's on his own, tasked with responsibilities he never asked for, was never prepared for. He owes it to all of them to know how to handle this, how to shield them from this new threat, but he just doesn't. Which is an additional hurdle in contemplating Stiles, as well; he has no right to have what he wants when he can't fathom how he's supposed to keep the kinds of promises Stiles makes him want to make.

By Thursday he's close to crawling out of his skin with the impatience and restlessness and worry. As if the universe was just waiting for desperation to set in, that's when he runs into the witch at the bakery on Ninth. Without particularly considering the sanity of the decision, he corners her in front of the display case. "I need to talk to you," he tells her bluntly. She raises an eyebrow. "At your store."

"Derek," she says. He blinks at her knowing his name, but she just winks in return. "Looking for more books?"

"No," he says in confusion. "I figure you'll be able to speak honestly there without worrying about me hurting you."

"Oh. Then we can talk here," she says plainly. "I can take care of myself. The spell is for my inventory -- I don't want shit getting broken. Go sit down, I'll buy you a cupcake."

Derek purses his lips. He finds her confidence off-putting in its rub against the part of him that wants to be respected, damn it, when instead he gets the feeling that she's laughing at him on the inside. "Strawberry if they have it," he finally relents, and endures more laughter in her eyes as she turns back to the cashier.

Too late Derek has the faint worry that one of his pack will come in and witness him sharing colorfully frosted cake items with a witch, decide he's gone insane, and abandon him to roam wild or find a new Alpha -- which is why Jen returns to find him glaring out the plate glass windows to keep a careful eye on passers-by. "Expecting trouble?"

"I don't want...people to see me with you," he mutters. Instead of taking offense she laughs and pushes a sedately decorated cupcake in front of him. "So. You're not scared of me."

"I'm not scared of you trying to gut me in front of witnesses in the middle of the town you call home, anyway," she replies, rolling her eyes. "You don't look that dumb."

"Wow, thanks," Derek snaps. She grins and sucks a thumbful of frosting into her mouth. "Look. You're a -- and I'm -- I have...responsibilities. People to protect. Everything in me says I'm looking at a threat to them."

"... Sitting down for cupcakes with a potential threat is your way of protecting your pack?" Jen asks. Derek stares at her and thinks with petty pleasure about the wrinkle she's going to get if she keeps raising her stupid eyebrow at him every five seconds. "Wow. Maybe I should just move you right off my Things To Worry About list."

"This is nice," Derek says conversationally. "Discovering there are reasons to hate you other than what you are, that's actually really helpful."

"Stop, you flatter me." She looks contemplatively at her cupcake, then glances up at him and shrugs. Her tongue flashes out and she shamelessly licks a huge glob of frosting right off the top. "Is that how you want this to go? We hate each other just because?"

"Do you have any better ideas?"

"Sure. We could try not hating each other just because?"

Derek can't help but roll his eyes. "Witches always hate us. You've got me on your little list and everything."

There goes her eyebrow again. "That's not actually true. The hating thing? I used to live here, you know, until I was ten or so. I remember your family. Mine had no problem with them." Derek frowns, struggling to remember something he's not sure he ever even knew. He can feel a headache setting in as Jen pops a piece of cake into her mouth and finally takes pity on his confusion. "It helped that the Hales hadn't given the bite in more than three generations." The light humor suddenly falls from her face and voice. "From what I understand, that's no longer the case."

Tension crawls up Derek's spine and he is overly, distressingly cognizant of how badly Jen could probably fuck his shit up if she decided to. "Yeah, so?"

"So you're a natural creature, Derek," Jen says carefully. "The ones you change aren't."

"What does that mean, my existence is natural but my instinct to have a pack isn't? That's unacceptable to you? It's a package deal, lady."

"I never said unacceptable. I said it had helped." Jen gazes at him thoughtfully for a few seconds. "It was quiet here when I was a kid. Things were settled. I could feel things like that even then. Now..." Derek waits, and she shakes her head slowly. "It's just different. Beacon Hills has a tension to it that it didn't used to have. And here you are, and there are kids out there who were meant to have ordinary lives -- "

"Who are you to say what's ordinary?" Derek snaps. "Maybe they were meant to cross paths with me so I could give them better lives -- "

"Are you?" Jen asks sharply. "Is that what you've done, Derek?"

A sour taste fills his mouth at the immediate thought of the turmoil his betas alone suffered early on. But if he thinks too closely about Isaac and his father, Erica and whatever accident she might have had in the midst of a seizure some day, Boyd and his isolation, it just gets worse. "I'm trying," he says honestly. He is now, original motives aside. He's trying. "Things -- you're right about the tension. There have been...problems. We're trying to move past it all. If you just let us be..."

"There you go again, thinking things I haven't said." Jen smiles. It creeps him out. Fucking witches. "I'm not looking to pass judgment on you, Derek. I just don't know you, and it's beyond my abilities to know if you're telling me the truth right now. I need to know if you deserve the same benefit of the doubt your family used to prove itself worthy of."

"Let's assume I'm just itching for your approval," Derek snaps. "Wanna clue me in on how the hell someone gets that?"

"Sure," she says calmly. "I'm going to see my grandmother this weekend. You should come with me. She'll be able to tell what I can't."

"Tell what, exactly?"

"If we're going to be friends, or enemies." Jen shrugs. "If Gran says your path is okay by her, I'm cool not sweating the small stuff along the way."

******

They leave on Saturday morning after Derek gives Scott and Isaac stern instructions to keep everyone out of trouble. Jen's grandmother lives on the coast and the drive is long, winding, and full of awkward silences.

Derek finds them awkward, anyway. Jen seems perfectly content. Derek kind of hates her ability to radiate calm.

Her grandmother is another story. The woman looks harried when they finally arrive and she opens the door to them, and she immediately thrusts a spritzer bottle into Jen's hands. "Be a dear and water the plants, love. I'm going to be late if I don't leave right now."

"Gran has bingo at the church on Saturday afternoons," Jen tells Derek placidly, stepping aside to let her grandmother whisk by them and make a beeline for the battered old Geo sitting in the driveway. "Come on in, you can get the plants I can't reach."

Derek frowns. He's pretty sure it would be just his luck to wind up hexed for overwatering a witch's house ferns.

Jen laughs at him when he comes across potted wolfsbane in the living room windowsill and snarls that he's going for a walk. He finds the ocean by sound and scent and kills a couple of hours listening to the surf crash against the rocks far below, and when he finally goes back Jen and her grandmother are both sitting on a porch swing, sipping tea from giant mugs. The old lady looks a lot more relaxed than before, and she gives Derek a cheery smile as she thrusts out a hand. "Nice to meet you, son, I'm Vivien. Go on in and help yourself -- I brewed this batch up just for you." She winks. "It's safe, I promise."

"I had her put strawberry leaves in for you," Jen offers.

Derek questions his sanity in the matter, but goes into the house and pours himself a cup of steaming hot tea that, at the very least, doesn't set off any alarms when he sniffs it cautiously. A small sip yields nothing but a sweet, soothing flavor, and Jen and Vivien both look on him approvingly when he returns. "Trust, I like it," Vivien declares. "Sit down, Derek, I'm getting a crick in my neck just looking at you."

Derek sits on a low wooden stool set out near the porch steps. In the distance he can still hear the roar of the ocean against the cliffs, white noise in the background. "Tell me about yourself," Vivien demands bluntly. "That is why you're here, isn't it?"

For a minute, Derek considers discretion being the better part of valor. Then he considers the monumental stupidity that lying to a witch's face would probably require, and in the end he opens up and talks. He just talks, tells them both everything from the fire to Laura to Peter to himself, his choices, his betas and the rest of his pack, his worry that Jen's presence is going to destabilize everything he's managed to accomplish.

All of it takes about five minutes and he feels exhausted after even that. When he falls silent neither of them pries for anything else; Jen just glances expectantly at Vivien and Vivien watches him shrewdly.

"Get your house in order, Hale," she says tartly at last, and gets to her feet with the soft groan of the elderly and achy. Derek stands on instinct and holds out a hand as if to help, to steady her. She doesn't take it, but she does nod in thanks before heading into the house, clearly expecting them to follow. "And keep my granddaughter out of trouble while you're at it. I'm still not too fond of her moving back there by herself, so do me a favor and help keep an eye out."

Derek glances at Jen. Her embarrassed scowl makes him look quickly away, back to Vivien pouring herself the last of the tea before thunking the kettle onto a back burner. "That's it?"

"That's it. She stays safe and you're still on a good track when you come back and see me in a few months -- don't argue with me, you're coming back -- and then we'll maybe think about calling this truce...stable."

Derek raises an eyebrow. "But not permanent."

"I'm not psychic, young man, I don't predict the damn future. Now be a dear and fetch me the sugar cannister from the pantry. The bowl is empty."

"Was that a dog joke?" Derek asks flatly.

Vivien smirks at him. Derek offers her a slow, cautious smile in return, and she gives him a satisfied nod and a wink. "Don't you worry, honeybunch, when I start making dog jokes you'll know it -- and they'll be better than that. Now go, do as you're told. This tea ain't gonna sweeten itself."

As good as the tea was, dinner is even better. Over dessert, thick hunks of a day-old caramel glazed bundt cake that reminds Derek just enough of something his grandmother used to make to send him reeling from the surge of nostalgia, Vivien finally admits to having known his parents. "Met them once when I went down to visit this little minx," she says, tipping her head towards Jen. Jen sticks out her tongue. "I mostly remember thinking your mother had remarkable manners, considering what she was." Derek bristles, but Vivien pays him no mind. "You, there's some work to be done. But then I guess you'd be a work in progress still and the basics are there. Could be hope for you yet."

"My manners are fine," Derek grumbles. His mouth happens to be full at the time, but hell. The cake really is good.

Vivien pats him on the hand and offers a pitying smile. "Sure they are, sweetie pie. Want some more?"

Later Vivien refuses to even consider letting Jen make the winding trek back home after dark, and she sticks Derek on a futon in the sun porch for the night. He stretches out with one arm tucked under his head and the ocean breeze flowing over his skin through the screens, and he falls asleep with the roar of the sea in his ears and the thought that Stiles should come along next time, would probably get a kick out of Vivien and go nuts for the shelves jammed full of the kinds of books he can only wish were scanned in by Google.

In the morning Vivien cooks up a storm and Derek decides he might love her just a little, all things considered. She sends them off with a cloth tote bag crammed full of sandwiches and other food for the road, and unlike the trip up Jen is chatty all through the long drive, like her grandmother's approval really was exactly what she required to treat Derek like just another person. When he drops her off outside her store, she tells him to bring everyone by at some point, she'd like to meet them.

He decides that he will. For the first time in a long time he thinks he can actually do this.

He can get his house in order and keep it that way, and more than that, he can live up to the standard his family once set.

He can.

******

Derek's confidence, amazingly, not only survives the night but holds up in the harsh light of day. Just before noon he texts Stiles. After school. Just you. Nobody else. If you reek, go home and fix it first.

Within minutes, Stiles sends back Bite me, jerk.

Derek grins and goes for a run to kill some time. By three he's home and showered, and is just cleaning up from a late lunch when Stiles barges in and immediately stalks towards him. "Are you done messing with my head yet?" Stiles demands. His voice carries less rancor than his pointy index finger digging into Derek's chest.

Yes, Derek thinks, almost numb with relief at feeling certain for once, certain that he can reach for Stiles and have it be welcomed, certain that he can have this thing he wants. "There were witches," he grumps. "I had to deal with the witches."

Stiles blinks at him warily. "Are they planning to do us grievous harm?"

Derek twitches an eyebrow just to mess with Stiles's nerves. "Possibly."

"Today?" Stiles asks warily.

"Unlikely." He can't take it anymore, has to lean in and steal a long, close sniff, drink in the late day scent of natural flesh overcoming the remnants of that morning's soap. Stiles jerks slightly against him and his heartbeat flutters gratifyingly, an uptick of enthusiasm. The sharp hints of his burgeoning arousal hit Derek hard, high in his sinuses. "I'm willing to take the chance if you are."

Stiles swats his arm and gripes indignantly. It makes Derek want nothing so much as to stop him, and things run together in a swift rush of overpowering a pesky annoyance. In between snatching control of Stiles's failing arm and running mouth both, Derek realizes just how long it's been since kissing felt like this.

Like it matters, like it's more than simply part of the act. When he used to kiss Kate he felt like it was all he had, the only way he could tell her secrets that were too big for words. Since her he's indulged in pure mechanics, lips and tongue meeting, nothing like this. Nothing at all like wrapping a hand around the back of Stiles's neck, thumb rubbing into the crease of his earlobe, to tell him through slow, careful kisses everything Derek hasn't been able to get across for months.

To tell him, with an insistent press of his tongue, just how bad it's gotten. Stiles responds with the caution of inexperience at first, uncertain and clumsy, his hands flattening against Derek's chest and then flexing convulsively. And then he's overly eager, sloppy even in his enthusiasm, and Derek palms his back and draws him in tight. He gasps openly at the collision of their trapped, rigid cocks.

Derek is on him, on the sofa, before he quite realizes what's happening. "Stiles," he mutters. He sucks on Stiles's pulse and yanks and drags, getting Stiles where he needs to be, under Derek, Stiles's fractured bitching ignored in favor of wedging a leg in and grinding hard.

Derek doesn't exactly mean to have fast, bad, half-clothed handjobs on his couch. But the trouble with slippery slopes is that downhill really is the only viable option, and once Stiles starts twisting around him, grabbing at him, writhing for it, it just happens: one frantic move to the next until Stiles is panting beneath him and they've both come, slick and sticky between their stomachs.

It's been a long, long time since Derek felt so right. He nuzzles into Stiles's neck, tongue flicking greedily at the sheen of sweat. Stiles talks but he doesn't pay any attention, just thinks quietly about getting what he wants by finally using his words and asking for it.

"We should have sex," he mumbles.

"Uh." Stiles squirms a little under him. "I just asked you to get some coffee, dude, not come in for some coffee. I mean, in case you're like, mistaking that for a euphemism or something and also didn't we just? Were you here for what just happened?"

"I want to fuck you," Derek says plainly. "I'll make you dinner after."

"Sort of doing things out of order there, champ." Stiles's heart is thumping erratically all of a sudden. "Unless -- oh god, is that your game? Is that how much, no, strike that, how totally little game you actually have? Put out and there might be a sandwich in it for you. That's...that's worse than me, man. I have like, negative amounts of game, I have a lifelong black hole into which all the game disappears, and you have just outdone me. Your game-sucking gravity well vastly exceeds -- "

"I was actually thinking lasagna," Derek cuts in. Stiles laughs, weak and nervous, but his cock stirs against Derek. "I make it with five cheeses."

Stiles's breath shudders out. "You're totally gonna judge me now if I give it up for the promise of cheese and noodles, aren't you?"

"And meat," Derek clarifies. "It's a meat lasagna. I've been wanting to make it for you."

He doesn't actually really need Stiles to say anything; the answer is in Stiles's hips hitching up and his soft groan as they rock together. Derek's cock is full and straining again already, nowhere near ready to give up the ghost just yet, but Stiles is still struggling, barely plump. "Throw," Stiles says tightly, and he stops to gasp when Derek rucks his pants further down and shifts, shoves his cock messily into the tight space between Stiles's legs. "Oh god, fuck, Derek, throw in some garlic bread and fuck, yes, yeah, you can fuck me."

Derek staggers off the couch, reaching down almost carelessly to drag Stiles along with him. "I'll make fresh garlic butter," he promises as he pushes Stiles into his bedroom and makes him stumble briefly before steadying him and tugging at his shirts. "Off."

Stiles bats his hands away. "You're totally screwing with me, aren't you?" he asks. The sound gets muffled under two layers of cotton getting hauled over his head. "Let me guess, you make your own pasta, too --" He stops short as his head comes free and he catches sight of Derek's mouth tightening with embarrassment at the thought of the pasta maker he only got around to installing that morning. "What am I talking about, of course you do. We're starting you a blog, dude, The Epicurian Lycanthrope or, fuck, I don't know. Something with pizzazz. We can ask Isaac, he has a flair for words -- did you know he writes poetry? I found a -- hey!"

Shutting Stiles up is an unexpected side benefit to shoving him down in a sprawl across the mattress and reaching to peel his jeans and boxers down. Stiles's body makes an aborted effort to curl in on itself and he trembles with the tension of someone unused to being so exposed, so intimately. But he doesn't move to hide from Derek and a flash of heated approval crawls under Derek's skin like a shock wave. He likes the flush rising in Stiles, the way it spreads all over and isn't an even creep of pink, is just mottled and angry like a rash as if Derek has already had time to rough up the pale expanses with his stubble.

He clenches his teeth and sucks in sharp breaths through his nose. He will, he will have time, he'll follow the pattern of every blush and rub it into Stiles's skin in a way that will last. He can hear his own soft growl as he strips off his clothes but he makes no effort to stop himself, lets it rumble out even after he's crawling onto Stiles and taking his mouth in a harsh kiss. Stiles has finally gotten hard again and he groans, thick and heavy, at the grind of Derek's cock alongside his. "Derek. Fuck."

Derek bites his lip and fumbles blindly at the side table. He slicks his fingers by feel alone, getting more on the duvet than his skin in the process, and gives only a perfunctory swipe of his hand to Stiles before giving himself three swift, wet tugs. "I'm just," he gets out in a jarring huff of air. Then he gives up in favor of kneeling in and scooping one of Stiles's legs into the crook of his elbow. He goes down hard on his forearm, trapping Stiles's foot in the vicinity of his ear, and with his free hand he fists his cock and rubs the head along the cleft of Stiles's ass, presses into place against him.

Stiles stares at him, eyes wide, breath trapped in his chest. "Derek," he says in a strangled twist of sound. "Uh. Don't you think you should -- aren't you supposed to, I mean, uh. Seriously dude I haven't done this before but I've watched a lot of porn and I read things okay I'm pretty sure you're supposed to -- "

"Quiet," Derek rumbles against his ear. Stiles twitches a little, hole spasming right against the head of Derek's cock and sorely tempting Derek to just force his way in, fuck Stiles open and apologize later. His vision burns red and he squeezes his eyes shut against it. He has no right to ask Stiles, no right to ask anyone, but he sucks in a sharp breath and says, "Trust me?"

Stiles is silent and his fingers don't loosen their death grip on Derek's shoulder. But when Derek lifts his head and looks, Stiles is blinking up towards the ceiling, holding otherwise perfectly still. "Stiles," Derek insists.

Stiles looks at him. He looks at eyes Derek knows are still flared a hot crimson and he doesn't so much as flinch. His own eyes dilate and his mouth slackens, lips shiny with spit. "Yeah," he whispers. Derek tips his weight up slightly, lets the angle and pressure push him that much more tightly against resistance, lets himself brave that small test of Stiles's questionable resolve.

Stiles licks his lips again. "I -- yeah. Just. Go slow."

"Yeah," Derek swears in a scraping growl. "Breathe. Match mine."

It takes some time. The process is interrupted by the lazy, thorough kisses Derek can't resist taking, but gradually Stiles's breath evens out and falls into cadence with Derek's own. Long, deep inhales turning smoothly in reverse until it's Stiles who searches out his mouth, tongue twisting hungrily in, and his fingers loosen and stop bracing against Derek, start feeling him.

And in the end it's nothing more than gentle but unrelenting pressure and the giving way of Stiles's body, distraction and relaxation making Stiles succumb without even realizing it's happening. Derek knows, can feel every excruciating millimeter of progress, tightly puckered skin opening in a reluctant clutch around his cock, but when the flared head finally sinks in with the slightest easing of pressure Stiles gasps like he's been shocked and goes still. "You're okay," Derek murmurs, half a question.

Stiles's gaze is so open and exposed that he might as well have been flayed alive. "Yeah," he says on a dry pant of air. "Right. I. That's just -- oh crap, you're not even close to all the way, are you?"

Derek has to laugh at the resigned note in Stiles's voice, like the very fact of Derek's cock consisting of more than a single inch is some personal affront Derek has committed on purpose. "Nope," he confirms with a quick nip at Stiles's jaw. To prove it he nudges his hips, works just a little deeper. "C'mon, you let me in, might as well take it all."

"And there we have it, people, the story of our entire relationship." Stiles's voice wavers around the attempt at light sarcasm. Every tiny thrust Derek takes, every bit more he feeds himself into Stiles, seems to hit like a detonation and punch a hard gusting breath out. "Get an inch and you take a mile, you territorial jacka-aah!"

"Took you long enough to catch on," Derek mutters into Stiles's throat. He licks away sweat and savors the salt. "Be quiet. I'm trying to concentrate."

"Is there something specific about the in, out, in, out repetitive motion aspect that confuses you?" Stiles asks tartly. "Or -- "

"I'm trying," Derek hisses, "not to hurt you."

That shuts Stiles up, makes his eyes go wide for a second. But when Derek pulls in a deep breath, he doesn't smell a whiff of fear. Only Stiles and sweat and precome, and so much lust Derek's senses feel assaulted by it. He untangles himself from Stiles's hooked leg and leaves it to Stiles to play along, to keep up, as he drags his hips back a few precious inches and pushes in again. He's finally in deep, pressed far as he can go, and the spike in Stiles's heartbeat is gratifying, exciting. He does it again and Stiles groans, and he does it again and --

-- and it's a headier victory than he ever would have suspected, to have Stiles let him in and tip his head back. Stiles's eyes are heavy with want but sharp in their focus as he watches Derek take in his submission, and Derek knows that he's doing this because he's considered it, because he's decided to.

Not because Derek holds sway over him, not because anything in him tells him to obey. Derek snaps his hips again and again, fucks into Stiles in long, jarring thrusts that take everything being freely offered and earn him sharp moans to top it all off, staccato punctuation to each deep slide of his cock. "Derek," Stiles pleads vaguely, hands grabbing at the bunching, flexing muscles in his back.

Derek wishes he knew how to respond, how to give Stiles whatever else it is that he needs, but he feels clumsy and heavy and fumbling, unequal to any task beyond what is rapidly reducing to a frantic rut into Stiles's body. "Just," he grunts, and mouths blindly at any skin he can reach. "Sorry, I -- damn it, next time, we'll do better, just -- I can't -- "

Stiles shakes his head frantically. "Dude, it's good, just -- your hand, gimme your hand, I'm close."

Close. As soon as Derek shifts his balance and weight and gets his fingers curled around Stiles's cock, gives it a few quick tugs, Stiles's mouth falls open on a choked cry and he pulses hotly over Derek's fingers and his own skin. The fresh smell of come hits Derek like a kick to the stomach. On a whim he smears his hand against Stiles's lips, hooks his fingertips over the bottom ridge of teeth.

After a moment's hesitation, Stiles tentatively laves his tongue over the invading digits to taste himself. Derek clenches his jaw and watches avidly, but when Stiles gives in and starts sucking openly the feedback loop of tight, slick heat around his cock and his fingers at once pushes him over the edge. Once, twice, three times he pumps in deep and then holds, can't stop his canines from elongating as his cock pulses and his instincts roar with approval at knowing Stiles is marked inside and out as his.

When he pulls out it's with a sticky, wet sound. Stiles winces more in evident distaste than serious discomfort. "So," he says faintly. "Sex is kind of disgusting, huh."

Derek murmurs a vague, wordless agreement, already settling half on top of Stiles and sucks contentedly at the soft, sweaty skin at the juncture of his arm and chest. "So I'm using your shower," Stiles goes on. "Your nose better not pitch a fit over your soap on me or anything."

"It won't."

"And I'm holding you to that promise of garlic bread."

Derek listens to Stiles's heartbeat slowing and lets himself go still, be satisfied with holding Stiles within the cage of his limbs. "Okay," he says simply.

Stiles's fingers tapdance restlessly over his bicep. "Oh, and."

Derek waits.

"Don't even think this gets you out of owing me a coffee, dude."