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These Four Walls

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“Is your place a mess?”

There wasn’t a scrap of carpet visible. There were Doritos under Derek’s butt. The sink had its own ecosystem.

“Are you alone? Having a hard time meeting someone?”

He hadn’t been outside in…awhile. He’d know exactly how long once he found out what day it was.

“Do you wish you had someone to take care of you and cater to your needs?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Derek replied.

The guy on TV seemed ecstatic, but also unsurprised. “Have you considered getting a human companion?”

“No,” Derek replied again. He hadn’t considered it; he hadn’t even considered washing himself in the foreseeable future.

“Humans are naturally meek and obedient due to their inferior strength and tendency towards mortality. They crave someone to shelter and protect them, and in exchange, they provide, well…anything you want!”

Derek narrowed his eyes. That last part wasn’t funny or subtle at all. This commercial guy had no class.

“So give us a call toll-free at 1-888-486-2648. Or reach us online at www.human4you.com. Your human companion awaits!”

Derek’s phone was all the way on the other side of the couch. It wasn’t worth it. But his laptop was stuffed into the cushion, right by the armrest, so not all hope was lost.

He typed the address in, and it took him to a site with a decent layout and mediocre graphics; the home page was simple, with a few links to the right side, a New? Start here button at the top right corner and a massive picture of two pretty humans, one male and one female, smiling and posing coyly for the viewer.

Derek clicked the Start here button and waited the approximate one second for it to load, a scowl pushing the corners of his lips down. The page loaded to a questionnaire aimed exclusively to betas; there was another button in the corner which said Not a beta? Click here.

Derek clicked it.

The new questionnaire made him even more grumpy. How many are in your pack? Are you mated? Please select on the scale below the degree of docile vs. headstrong you prefer in your packmates. On the next scale, please indicate the degree of docile vs. headstrong you prefer in humans, if applicable.

His answers were, in order: none, no, N/A, does not matter.

He clicked forward. The next page was much more enjoyable: a questionnaire for his preferences in a human companion, based on physicality.

Do you prefer male or female? No preference. Do you have preference for hair color, eye color, or complexion? No preference. Do you have preference for body type, height, or weight? No preference.

There were some questions about preferences in scent, which Derek answered as truthfully as possible. That was really the only factor he took seriously—well, that, and the last prompt on the questionnaire: Please type below any other traits or qualities you find important in a companion.

Derek bit at his lip, furrowed his eyebrows, then licked at a fang, considering. Finally, he typed two simple words.

Bruises easily.

Thank you! We’ll redirect you to our payment and contact page, then let you know when we have a match for you. Expect a pretty human companion on your doorstep soon!

(|)

Derek’s doorbell rang once. It was loud enough to wake him up. He growled and burrowed back under the covers.

It rang again. And again. And again again again—until he rushed out, furious that someone had taken to pressing his doorbell constantly for the full ten seconds it took him to reach the front door. When he swung it open, his hair was a mess and his pajama pants were the only thing keeping him from being stark naked—he simply had no more clean shirts, to be frank—and there was a skinny, pale human standing outside, holding only a duffel bag.

It was silent for a solid twenty seconds. The human caught on that Derek wouldn’t be the first to speak.

“Hey,” he said, holding up the hand which wasn’t grasping his bag. He had long fingers.

“What the fuck,” Derek hissed out, letting his red eyes shine. He hoped to illicit a frightened response, but the kid just shrugged.

“Didn’t you get the email? Or the letter? I’m your mail-order human.” He rustled around in his jeans’ back pocket, withdrawing a folded envelope. “Here’s an official statement, and your papers. You have a week to sign them and send them in to the bureau, or they’ll think I’m a runaway and hunt my ass down. So if you could, you know, do that, that’d be awesome.”

Derek took the envelope and did nothing else. He’d completely forgotten that this was happening today. The human ignored his inaction and moved forward into the house without further preamble.

“I’m Stiles,” he said as he looked around the living room, into the kitchen. “I figured I’d tell you, because the papers will say something else. They’re wrong. I go by Stiles and I don’t want you butchering my birth name.”

Spurred into action by another mention of the papers, Derek sliced the envelope open with a single claw and took them out for a skim. It contained the usual: dry bureaucratic documents, the human4you statements, a quick satisfaction-guaranteed statement with far too much small print to be trusted.

“And you’re Derek, right?” Stiles asked, but he didn’t expect much of an answer, because he kept talking. “An alpha with no betas, no job, but enough of a bank account to afford to buy and keep an entire human. Good on you. You’re just living the dream, aren’t you?”

Derek detected the sarcasm easily. It wasn’t exactly hidden, not while Stiles poked his head around the messes of the house, even sniffing with his pathetic human nose at the piles of trash by the kitchen counter.

“You know, I’ve seen the commercials. I always wondered what kind of person they appealed to. It all makes sense now.”

At that comment, Derek tossed the papers down on the couch and stalked into the kitchen from the living room, towards Stiles. He figured it was time to set some boundaries and rules. Stiles noticed his movements immediately, turning to face him and pressing himself against the counter as a stabilizer, hands clenching at edges until his knuckles went white. Derek immediately enacted the simplest tactics of intimidation and authority establishment he knew: he got in Stiles’s personal space, placed one clawed hand on the side of his neck gently, and allowed his eyes to redden.

Then he spoke, cutting right to the point.

“Today is your grace day. You can be as confrontational and mouthy as you want, and I’ll be tolerant. But by tomorrow, that all changes. By tomorrow morning, I want this entire house clean. By the time I wake up, I want you starting breakfast. I want lunch at one o’clock. Dinner is at seven, and you must join me, though you can eat anytime you want otherwise. If you want to leave the house, you must ask me for permission. You have free reign of any room and any utilities you want, except for the locked room in the hallway. If you want to get into anything else that’s locked, you ask me to unlock it, and I’ll decide if I want to. Is that all clear?”

Stiles nodded. But that wasn’t enough.

“Say it,” Derek ordered.

But instead of acceptance, Stiles asked: “Where do I sleep?”

His human heartbeat sounded like it was trying to flee his chest. Derek did not change his expression, but he breathed in deeply before answering, allowing himself to really take in the human’s scent. It had everything he had requested: musk, richness, and a deep saccharinity, one which was only really found in human blood these days—in prey.

“With me,” Derek answered. Stiles’s pulse jump-started.

“But I don’t want to.”

Apparently, the human was taking full advantage of his grace day.

“That’s fascinating,” Derek said dryly, stepping back and moving to leave the kitchen. He stretched his arms behind his back lazily.

“Did you even read the papers? There’s a How-To Treat Your Human guide in there. It’s written for fucking idiots.”

Derek turned into the hallway, retreating to his room to change clothes. Stiles followed with a spring in his step, probably one fueled by some kind of righteous indignation.

“It’s patronizing and I wouldn’t even wipe my ass with it, but it still says: treat your human delicately. Don’t do anything to upset them, or abuse them.”

“I’ll treat you delicately,” Derek told him, his words heavy and pointed as they fell from his smirking mouth.

“Excuse me for not believing you, Mr. Claws-and—” Stiles suppressed a quiet yelp as Derek kicked off his pajama pants. He rummaged through his drawers for some jeans, buck-naked, and it took Stiles only a moment to compose himself. “Claws-and-Fangs. You can’t just do whatever you want with me. Just because I’m human doesn’t mean you’re entitled to anything, or allowed to boss me around, or better than me.”

Derek buttoned his jeans, then pulled a henley over his head and tugged it down. He said, “Keep telling yourself that. But I’ll still be the one giving you an allowance and paying for all your meals, clothes, shelter—”

“How much?”

“What?”

“How much of an allowance do I get? The papers have a minimum, but they said it adjusts to assets and income on a case-by-case basis.”

Derek nodded curtly then left the room, Stiles hot on his heels again. “I’ll give you a hundred a week, I guess. Not counting grocery money. That’s enough to buy yourself something nice.”

“A hundred?” Stiles echoed, then frowned. “But that’s—four hundred a month isn’t—”

“How much shopping do you plan on doing?” Derek asked mockingly, one eyebrow raised. “That’s plenty. And it’s not up for negotiation.”

Stiles was strangely silent about it, for a while. In the short silence, Derek fished an apple from a cupboard in the kitchen, then settled to eat it against the counter. He watched the human’s face as he considered his circumstances, expression contemplative and guarded. He was pale, with large brown eyes and a boyish look which fitted oddly well with his lean, mature body. He was about the same height as Derek, but even with just a quick glance at them one could tell who was stronger; Derek must have had at least thirty pounds of muscle on him as compared to Stiles’s slighter frame.

“If I wanted to do something,” Stiles began, voice oddly tentative compared to his previous boldness, “like…a part-time job, or a hobby or something—”

“We’ll talk about that when you’ve proven you can keep the house running,” Derek replied, finishing his apple quickly and placing the core on the counter mindlessly. He grabbed his keys and wallet from the end table by the front door in a rush. “I’m going into town. Do you want me to get you anything? Like a present or something?” He asked it so brusquely that it didn’t even seem enticing.

“No,” Stiles said softly, shaking his head. When Derek closed the door, Stiles was already staring at the mess he had to deal with, his face thoughtful and closed-off.

(|)

After a stop at the bank, Derek went to the nearest superstore. There he bought everything he imagined a human could need: food, petty medicines, generic clothing, even multivitamins. They had an entire “human needs” section, and he basically cleared it out, swearing under his breath all the while for not reading those human4you care pamphlets more carefully; he wasn’t even sure if what he was buying was necessary, or if he got everything, so he erred on the side of too much.

On his way out, he grabbed one of the in-store bakery’s small cakes—vanilla with chocolate icing, a safe enough flavor combination. He indulged himself by imagining Stiles’s pleased face upon receiving it, even though the human had not asked for any gift.

When he arrived back home, carrying handfuls of grocery bags, the house smelled like garlic and butter. The living room was strikingly clear of messes; Stiles had even found the vacuum cleaner and done a quick once-over of the carpet. The kitchen was a bit messier, since he was cooking, but it was shocking how much he had gotten done in so little time—Derek had only been gone around two hours.

“Hi,” Stiles said tightly, whisking some thick white concoction in a saucepan. A bag of flour, a milk carton, and a pepper grinder were on the counter to the right of the stove, along with some butter and a block of cheese on the left. The cheese had some strange gouges in it from a knife; Derek wondered if Stiles had been forced to cut mold right off the surface of it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cleaned out the fridge—it just always smelled of mold no matter what he did, so he stopped bothering with it. Fruit and milk were the only things he bought with some regularity, and the latter was only bought so he could have something to eat his cereal with. Cooking was a non-activity for Derek, so fridge maintenance was the last thing on his mind.

But now the fridge was nearly empty—which explained why there were so many black trash bags on the curb outside. Using the new space, Derek unloaded the bags of groceries into the fridge and then into the cupboards, pleased with the new tidiness and pleasant smells. When he finally lifted the cake last from the conglomeration of plastic bags, he leaned into Stiles’s space and along his back to place it on the counter to the human’s left; Stiles went tense, but otherwise made no reaction.

“That’s for you,” Derek said with a grumble.

“Okay,” was all Stiles said in return.

Dinner was a tense, terse affair. Stiles had done the best he could with the ingredients available and whipped together a simple pasta dish with a cheesy white sauce. He asked Derek if he had gotten new garlic, because the old cloves had been fully sprouted; Derek confirmed he had.

It was all very strange—enough so that it wasn’t exactly boring, but also uneventful, an odd mix between fresh novelty and emerging monotony. Derek could easily see how Stiles would become a seamless addition to his life, someone to turn his house into something of a home, at long last.

When he didn’t speak or act out, Stiles was the picture of the docile, fantasized human companion.

Emphasis on the fantasy.

The stressed peace was disrupted when Derek stood to clear his plate. Without a word, he dropped his dish into the sink, then bustled over to the fridge to grab himself a beer. He thought nothing of the actions until Stiles spoke, lowly and with a dark tone: “Are you allergic to dish soap?”

Derek paused and the fridge shut on its own. “Allergic?” He asked, truly confused. Werewolves didn’t have allergies.

“Yeah,” Stiles continued casually. “Or is there wolfsbane in the Dawn? Because there’s no other explanation for why you left your dish in the sink without rinsing it. Like I’m your mother, washing up after a toddler.”

The kitchen went supremely silent. Derek glared at Stiles, standing still and waiting for him to back down—but the human just glared back, eyebrows slightly raised. As the silence lengthened, Stiles’s heartbeat began to pick up, one beat at a time.

By the time Derek popped the cap on his beer with a single distended claw, Stiles’s pulse was near racing. But all he said to the human was, “Grace day.” Then he left the room without a backwards glance.

From his bedroom, Derek could hear Stiles breathing through his nostrils, then out through his mouth, each inhale counted and measured carefully. Then he heard the faucet rush on, and the human’s noises were drowned out by the sound of water sloshing.

(|)

Derek was in bed before Stiles even approached the bedroom. For a long time, the human stood between the living room and the kitchen, in that middle walkway between the two spaces which stretched at either end to the hallway and the front door. Derek could hear him, just standing, taking in the house and his surroundings—perhaps considering the exit, then the hallway which led to where Derek lay, waiting for his kept human to obey his earlier command and join him. Eventually, Stiles took the few steps necessary to reach the end of the hallway, then gave the master bedroom’s doorknob a quick turn.

Interested in the human’s movements—but also lazy—Derek kept from moving beneath the covers, lying on his side. He took the part of the bed closest to the door. The room was dark, but not dark enough to disallow Stiles from making his way to the ensuite bathroom, where he used the new toothbrush Derek had bought for him that day. By the time he returned, Stiles was dressed only in a white t-shirt and simple pajama bottoms, both plain and brand new.

He slid into bed with only the barest ruffle of sheets. Derek allowed a few moments for him to settle, sensing as he turned onto his side, giving his back to Derek—but once he stopped fidgeting, Derek was quick to stretch his arm across the mattress, curl his hand over the human’s side, and press into his stomach just enough to drag him easily across the divide and into Derek’s grip. Still without a word spoken between them, Derek nuzzled his face into the curve of Stiles’s neck; enjoying the smell and heat of him, Derek even extended his tongue for a brief, short taste.

At the brush of tongue, Stiles flinched, curling in on himself. Derek continued, unruffled, and allowed his fingers to roam over Stiles’s stomach, troubling the fabric and bunching it up to reach skin. When his touch drifted lower, playing at the top of Stiles’s pajama pants, the human slapped at his wrist and began to wriggle away.

“Stop it,” he snapped, voice stern and only slightly shaky. “I just want to go to sleep.”

“Then go to sleep,” Derek replied, his own tone a contrast of easy calm. He tugged at Stiles again, eliminating the space between them once more. “Just relax.”

Where Derek’s hands touched then, he kept slow and safe, just enough to lull Stiles into placidity. Then he sent his fingers on their previous path, grazing over soft skin, above lovely flushes, taking his time and enjoying the unhurried, hushed revel of it all; someone was finally, finally warming his bed, and Stiles smelled so wonderful, like gentleness and blushing and a tender musk.

Derek’s enjoyment was cut off soon as Stiles jerked from his hold. He twisted to face Derek, arms pressing into the mattress and pinning layers of blankets between them, and Derek could see his face: reddened, cringing, and distressed, but also unruly and defiant.

“What do you not understand?” He hissed into the darkness. “I said, stop it. It’s not a mystery, or nuanced, or—coy, or something. Why can’t you leave me alone?”

Derek was unaware that his eyes were glowing red, but he knew his gaze was hooded and resentful as he responded: “Do you have any idea how much I paid for you?”

Stiles’s mouth dropped in shock. His lips looked pretty, Derek thought idly.

Without another word, just eyes wide and face blanched, Stiles turned to put his back to Derek again and shifted to the very end of the bed. When Derek tried to pull him over again, he realized Stiles’s was clinging to the mattress’s end—so he crossed the small distance between them, putting Stiles between himself and the bed’s edge. Then he slid his hand back over Stiles’s hip, teasing down into his pants and nibbling gently on his neck. As his fingertips brushed pubic hair and his teeth pushed bruises over Stiles’s pulse point, he nearly rumbled in pleasure to sense Stiles’s heartbeat spiking up—

And then cresting into a full-blown panic attack.

At first, Derek didn’t know what had happened. Stiles just seemed to break, bending his body to take as little space as possible and hide his face by his knees; his chest shuddered into broken, horrible sobs, and the smell of tears and terror was pungent in the room, contrasting revoltingly with Derek’s own arousal. Once that mingling of scents hit his nose, Derek scrambled back in a flurry, shocked and dumfounded.

After a few moments of watching and listening to Stiles break down, Derek tried to shush him, reaching to place a single hand on his shoulder, but Stiles jerked away so violently he nearly tumbled to the floor. Through every attempt to reach him, Stiles kept mumbling: “No no no no no—!” And whenever Derek even implied he would try touching him again, the mumbles turned quickly to shouts.

Shaken and horrified, Derek eventually fled from the room. He slept on the couch that night, but only after the resounding sobs and gasps softened to mere sniffles and winces.

(|)

The next morning, Derek was resolved to move on from the incident as soon as possible. Whenever he thought about it—which he had, extensively, over the last few hours—something in his chest cringed and snapped, shriveling up bitterly and weighing heavy in his stomach, like so many other memories he held.

So at the kitchen table, while Derek was waiting for Stiles to finish cooking, he took a deep breath and got right to it.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a rush. Stiles just continued to watch the stove with bags under his eyes, prodding at eggs in silence. Derek repeated, more slowly: “I’m sorry. It was… a mistake. It won’t happen again.”

Stiles turned off the stove, then moved to drop the scrambled eggs onto a plate. “A mistake, huh?”

“Yes,” Derek grit out. He wanted this over, and it was dragging on instead—but he was sincere, so he pushed through.

“You know what a mistake is?” Stiles asked viciously; Derek began to reply, but the human spoke over him in complete disregard. “Stepping on someone’s toes is a mistake. Dropping their meal—” The plate full of eggs crashed and shattered on the floor. “—is a mistake.”

“I didn’t know—”

“Yes you did!” Stiles rushed out, voice rising and face reddening. “You did! I told you, stop it. But you didn’t; you didn’t give a shit if I wanted you to touch me or not. It took me going into absolute panic for you to—to go away. Am I supposed to be grateful for that, that you don’t get off on raping someone when they’re crying and nearly pissing themselves? Why does it take an entire mental breakdown to make you understand when to keep your fucking hands to yourself? And then you say it’s a mistake?”

Derek felt nearly transported to last night, because he had no idea what to do. So he just said once more, “I’m sorry,” and stayed seated. He had a feeling that if he stood, Stiles would start hyperventilating or run from the room. That heartbeat was like a frantic, off-kilter metronome.

“You won’t touch me?” Stiles asked, beginning to calm down. “Unless—unless I say it’s okay, you won’t touch me?”

One part of Derek’s mind was whispering, vile: you paid for him. He’s yours. Even the papers say so. But another part, the part which he tried to live by more than not, remembered the stench of fear and recoiled from that bitter, shriveling feeling in his chest—so he nodded.

“Say it. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

It was Stiles who nodded then, and breathed out once in a gust. He reeked of misery and distress. More than Derek dreaded keeping his hands to himself, he loathed to think of the future days and weeks, with Stiles shirking his touch and despising his presence. Strangely enough, that was what Derek hated the most: the idea of someone occupying his space, his bed, and hating him.

So he spoke up gently, but with resolve: “I can send you back.”

Stiles’s eyes widened just a bit more, and his face drained of blood. “What?”

“You don’t have to stay here. I haven’t sent in the papers. You don’t have a legal binding to me yet, so I can just send you back.”

“No,” Stiles said, quiet. “You—are you saying that—if you can’t touch me, you’ll send me away?”

“What? No, I just—”

“You can’t.” Through his displayed fear, Stiles exhibited an intensity which sent Derek silent. “You can’t. I’ll still be helpful around here, right? I cleaned the living room quickly, and I’m a good cook. I can be quiet, and I’m really low-maintenance, so—” Quickly, his gaze went downwards, where the broken plate and food were a splatter on the floor. In a dash of flailed movement, he grabbed for a dustpan and some paper towels.

“Stiles,” Derek grumbled, voice rougher than he intended. The human looked up from his spot on the floor, hands stilting from their task of gathering lukewarm eggs. Derek continued, softer: “Go take a shower.”

He didn’t need persuasion. Within two seconds, Stiles was out of the kitchen and retreating into the house, leaving Derek to clean up the mess. As Stiles scurried off, his sounds, his pulse, were still perceptible to Derek; he seemed so skittish, almost delicate—so much so that Derek didn’t mind dropping to his knees, gathering up the debris, and getting his hands a little dirty. It was inconvenient, but it was all right.

And even though Stiles didn’t want to touch him, he didn’t want to leave either.

So, for now, that was all right too.

(|)

Things were better, after that. Derek proved his sincerity through action, never touching Stiles without asking, and occasionally bringing him little presents. Stiles never asked for them; Derek simply liked to give them, and he thought the gestures might be helpful, unprompted though they were.

When he received them, Stiles always said the same thing: “Okay.”

Except once, when Derek brought home a carrot cake, and Stiles said, “I don’t like carrot cake.”

But he still cut up a slice and set it down in front of Derek, once they’d finished dinner. Then he cleared the table to load up the dishwasher. Cleaning up after cooking was primarily Stiles’s job—it had never been vocalized or agreed upon; he simply claimed the task in action, after dinner, every time.

But sometimes, if Stiles hadn’t cleared it yet, Derek would rinse his own plate.

He figured it was enough.

(|)

With the house in order, Derek felt like his life should follow suit—so he went back to work. He didn’t do anything special, just contracting work for custom furniture and carpentry, the occasional fancy commission for a pengola or gazebo cushioning his pocketbook. He had a financial safety net in his lofty inheritance and insurance funds, so he worked to enjoy himself and hone his craft more than out of necessity.

Unless he was running errands—seeing clients, buying materials, et cetera—Derek worked in the backyard. He knew when lunch was ready because Stiles would slide the glass door to the patio open and leave it ajar, letting Derek close it on his way in. While Stiles didn’t mouth off as much anymore, grudgingly accepting of his mandatory attendance to dinner and Derek’s bed, he wasn’t relaxed—and he sure as hell wasn’t happy.

The sheer weight of Stiles’s melancholy in Derek’s home became a bit unbearable, sometimes. One afternoon, after finishing a commission and overseeing its pickup, Derek grabbed his laptop and packed up to the nearest Starbucks just to get away from the subtle smell of sadness that had permeated his home—along with the rest of Stiles’s scent, which mostly maddened Derek to sexual frustration and more.

Taking advantage of free internet and a strong, relaxing coffee, Derek went to Google and typed in, why is my human so

The results listed instantaneously, and Derek found his question as the second entry:

why is my human so disobedient

why is my human so unhappy

why is my human so sick

He took a brief solace in the apparent fact that he wasn’t alone in his confusion; he had truly no idea how he was supposed to make Stiles stop reeking of gloom, or exhibit any sort of affection towards Derek—because Derek didn’t hate him. He actually liked him, and Stiles just didn’t reciprocate, no matter how many little presents he got or how kind and gentle Derek was.

So he checked what the internet had to say.

Derek may have been at a loss, but even he could tell that most of the answers were complete bullshit.

“Humans crave a firm hand and an authoritative figure in their life. Make sure to be forward with them, even a bit aggressive, or they won’t feel fulfilled and wanted.”

“If you give a human too much freedom, they won’t know what to do with it. It’ll just confuse them and make them believe you don’t care about them.”

“Find out your human’s insecurities and faults, then pick at them subtly. Then watch as they scramble to impress you, behave, and get your approval.”

“Is your human miserable, distant, and unaffectionate? Give them MDMA! Only affects humans. Guaranteed to put a smile on their face.”

Considering threats, insults, and anything resembling aggression were all out of the question—and that drugging Stiles was just ridiculous as well as costly—Derek began to wander a little more aimlessly, a little more desperately. Eventually, he stumbled upon a site supposedly written by a human. It was a blog focusing on life in the all-human land reservations; those rural territories were government-sanctioned as human spaces with small-scale human self-government, as opposed to the all-human urban neighborhoods which formed independent of government intervention.

Derek had never even wondered where Stiles had come from. He felt embarrassed, suddenly; for some reason, he had practically assumed humans were kept in a warehouse or something, just waiting for an owner to order them. Now that he considered it, he had no clue as to how human cultures even functioned without the inherent lycanthian hierarchy he had grown up with.

The human’s site didn’t spare any sullenness in calling the reservations slums, tiny territories kept purposefully in poverty by systematic discriminations and violences. Humans didn’t have the same access to universities or jobs as werewolves did; in the reservations, they were expected to be self-sufficient, but in reality were more isolated and contained than anything else. In urban neighborhoods they didn’t fare much better—while those places were also the domain of “autonomous” humanity, they were also in close contact with lycanthian populations, which were notorious among humans for being violent and intimidating.

“It’s ironic and even pathetic, but true: when once werewolves fought to prove themselves more than beasts, they now claim animalistic immunity from being held accountable for their actions. Humans live in fear to walk the streets. Humans live in fear to live.”

The only reason this human could even have access to a computer and the freedom to write as they pleased was that they had been taken in by a kind guardian, then emancipated upon the guardian’s death. They outlined years of cruelty and abuse from various werewolves, yet asserted they were indeed one of the lucky ones.

Derek knew that there were prejudices in society: born wolves, until fairly recently, were ranked higher than bitten ones, and that class rift still resonated even if Derek didn’t personally have to face it. Bitten wolves still distanced themselves from their human roots, shielding their identity; it was even considered rude to ask about someone’s status in that regard.

But this human even had something to say about that: “It’s to distance themselves from humanity, the weak, the loathsome.

It was something he had never paused to think about. Humans were simply different, undeniably so. Expressing bemusement and even scalding disbelief at their continued survival as a species was a common, acceptable opinion in polite company. The humans were physically weaker, so of course they craved someone to protect them; of course they couldn’t take care of themselves; of course they couldn’t be allowed to walk about in public without protection, without keeping a constant eye out for possible dangers.

And the humans didn’t always get forcibly relegated to the reservations—often, they chose them.

Puzzled, but with plenty to consider, Derek closed his laptop, packed up, and went home.

(|)

Stiles would watch Jeopardy as he ironed clothes. Derek would watch Stiles watch Jeopardy.

“What is the Danube River?”

“What is the Seine River?” “No, I’m sorry, it was the Danube.”

“I fucking knew it. You’re blowing it, Jacob. Blowing it.”

On the days Stiles watched the game show, he spoke more to the television than to Derek.

He seemed happier, too.

(|)

One day, during dinner, Stiles said something teasing, his voice almost uncharacteristically light.

“So, I’m pretty good at this, huh?”

Derek looked up from his pot roast, mouth full. “Wha?”

“I said,” Stiles said, a little, smug smile on his lips, “I’m pretty good at this.”

“Um,” Derek started, then swallowed to go on. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Oh, stop. You’ll make me blush.”

Derek couldn’t make sense of this playfulness, so he did stop.

But Stiles went on, for which he was grateful: “Remember what you said, before? When I first got here?”

“Um.”

“You said, if I proved I could take care of the house, we could talk about me getting a part-time job.”

The prompting brought a few things to mind: firstly, that Stiles looked hopeful, which was a far better look on him than Derek had seen for weeks. Then there was the quick wonder as to why Stiles wanted a job in the first place—Derek gave him a big allowance, and brought him presents. Stiles didn’t need to work to feed himself, or pay rent. He didn’t even let Derek touch him; he just cleaned and cooked and warmed his bed.

But as Derek dwelled on it, he realized Stiles had never brought anything home which he spent his allowance on. He brought home groceries and mail, but never new clothes, or even books. Derek knew Stiles had rifled through almost every book in his house, yet Stiles never brought a new one home.

Stiles took Derek’s thoughtfulness for hesitancy, so he ploughed on: “I’ve kept everything tidy and cooked every meal. I’ve polished everything that can be polished, dusted everywhere, done so much laundry I could drown in it—I even alphabetized the spice rack.”

“Okay.”

“I even matched all your stupid socks and—what?”

“I said, okay.”

Stiles eyed him warily, but picked up his fork again and went back to eating. With his mouth busy chewing, he still managed to say: “That’s it? Okay?”

“Yeah,” Derek said with a shrug. “Okay. You’ve done really well with this place. You deserve it.”

Stiles blushed a little, and they finished their meal in silence.

(|)

With the promise of permission to work, Stiles was a lot more lenient with Derek, a little more forgiving of contact.

He hadn’t found a position yet—not many places hired humans; they were a small part of the workforce—but he seemed excited to find one. All his earnings would go back to Derek, but Derek promised to let him keep the wages; it wasn’t like Derek needed them, and the fact that they were labeled “compensation for his sacrifice”—as in, payment for sharing his human with the outside world—really rubbed him the wrong way.

Ever since their harrowing first night together, the only contact Stiles allowed was the necessary. And in order to go out in public with a minimum worry of attack, Stiles had to let Derek mark him. They performed the marking like a little ritual: when the bruise on Stiles’s neck had faded enough to garner concern, Derek would ask to renew it, and Stiles would tip his head and expose the skin of his neck in acquiescence. It was something Stiles bore through, but Derek loved—his one chance to affirm his connection to the human, to smell and taste him without apology. He never got carried away, or lengthened the ritual enough to make Stiles wary, but he watched the mark on Stiles’s neck fade with quiet anticipation, every time.

When the day came once more for the mark to be renewed, Stiles stomped through the front door with groceries and a brisk smile.

“Derek!” He yelled—didn’t need to, because Derek would absolutely hear him even if he whispered, but he seemed too excited to bother with a normal volume. “I found a job today!”

“That’s great,” Derek said as he walked into the main room from his office, the room next to the master bedroom at the end of the hall. He grabbed some of the groceries from Stiles and waited for the human to continue talking, as he knew he would.

“It’s at the library,” Stiles went on cheerfully. “I should have known they hired humans there. Those public buildings love us; they pay us less than minimum wage but the environment is calm and safe, mostly dealing with kids and old people. They say they can start me off with two days a week for training, then three days a week or so once I know my way around. Oh! Here, they gave me this—”

He unfolded a piece of paper from his back pocket and flattened it on the kitchen table—a permission slip. Derek didn’t read it, just scrawled his signature across the bottom on the dotted line. He left the paper there as he went to unpack all the grocery bags, rustling around in the fridge and cabinets for a minute or two until everything was stowed away. When he finished, he noticed Stiles sitting at the table, holding the now-signed paper in his hands gingerly, a soft smile on his face.

“There are other humans who work there,” he spoke under his breath, his excitement settling into contentment. That new smell of him—musky, spicy, and pleased—wafted into the air and occupied starkly against the persistent, older smells of gloominess; it brightened Derek’s mood considerably. Stiles continued: “There’s a werewolf or two, the actual librarians, but they’re really nice. Kind of older. It seems like a nice place, if a little boring.”

Standing over Stiles’s shoulder, Derek said, “You’ll get to borrow some books too, right?”

For once, Stiles didn’t jump at the sudden proximity. He grinned over his shoulder, then turned back to smile at the paper. “Yeah, of course. I’m happy about that too.”

At those words, Derek wished so badly he could reach forward and touch—just to place a hand on Stiles’s shoulder, or ruffle his hair, anything. But instead, he said softly: “The mark, on your neck—it’s faded.”

“Mhmm,” Stiles replied, already tilting his head slightly. “Go ahead. Freshen me up.”

This time, when Derek laid his lips on Stiles’s skin, the human didn’t tense. He raised one hand and, with incredible gentleness, ran his fingers through Derek’s hair, even scratching at his scalp lightly. At the contact, Derek sucked on his neck sharply, and Stiles gasped, but did not remove his hand from its grip. Once the mark had entered its first stage as a large, splotchy red flush, Derek watched it bloom for a moment, then pressed his lips to it delicately—something he had not done in all their marking rituals thus far.

At the kiss, an action so seemingly innocent, Stiles did tense. He slowly withdrew his hand from Derek’s hair, and Derek felt like he was drifting back down from a high. As soon as he’d come crashing back down to earth, he rushed from Stiles’s space and covered his mouth. From behind his knuckles, he muttered: “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Stiles said truthfully—but he didn’t stop Derek as he stomped back towards his office and shut the door hard behind him.

(|)

That night in bed, Derek asked Stiles: “Are you afraid of me?”

It was dark, but he could see Stiles as he rolled over to face him, eyes open in the black.

“No,” he said. “I’m afraid of what you’re capable of.”

To Stiles, it was nothing to fall asleep like that, face slack and visible to Derek so clearly. All he did was lie there, exist—and it struck in Derek so many desires, so many denied affections, that it was hard to remember that his turmoil wasn’t Stiles’s fault.

Through those emotions and desires, Derek knew exactly why humans were kept, coveted, and controlled. That Stiles possessed such unknowing influence over Derek, such a power to bend him and render him nothing but a servant to his will and approval—it terrified him, stripped him of his dignity. And yet a mere hint of affection had Derek drooling like the dog he strived to never become.

It was easier to control the object of his affection than his affection itself.

He watched Stiles sleep, did not touch him, and felt his deep, sickening yearning boil into shame.

(|)

Stiles was, more often than not, an active person. He bustled about the house busily, leaning on vacuum cleaners and wielding squeeze bottles of cleaning fluid; he came and went with Derek’s second car, a clunky Volvo, and made sure to keep a copy of his driving credentials (which included Derek’s signature of permission) in the glove compartment along with another copy in a new paper folder in Derek’s office, all the filing freshly organized and alphabetized perfectly.

In short, Stiles was a busybody. He had Derek’s entire life on lock within his first two weeks of living in Derek’s home. It was simultaneously scary and delightful that Derek had come to rely on Stiles so much just to function: the human did the menial and the complicated, the domestic and the public, juggling his own library part-time work and Derek’s client meeting schedule, plus his checkbook.

And the more he had to do, the more Stiles seemed to calm down. The scent of pungent melancholy evolved into one of soft, unsure contentment, an improvement from negative into neutral—but even that soon tapered and plateaued instead of continuing its rise, leaving Derek still on his precipice of confusion as to what would make Stiles happy.

The times when Stiles smelled nearest to joy was either when he ran—a rare occasion, since he refused to go running at night and mornings were busy—or when he read books. He did it often enough, but only after he’d finished everything that needed doing for the day, and only if he had a particularly fascinating title to keep his prolonged interest. During those times, he would lounge on the living room couch, put his feet up, and relax as he never would in bed, or at the dinner table—or really anytime Derek just occupied calm space with him.

In some fit of masochism, Derek joined him on the couch, one day. Stiles had a large book this time—one comically huge, enough to span his thighs and with pages heavy enough to weigh down and open without effort. Derek’s couch was roomy enough to allow two adults to lie down comfortably, heads or feet together at the corner, but he instead chose to sit close, propping his feet up on the coffee table and facing the same direction as Stiles. He sat closer than necessary, but far enough to leave space between them; it was pitiful, and Derek would never say it aloud, but he simply wanted to be near Stiles.

The TV was on. Stiles liked to let it drone on in the background; he said it gave him enough distractions to concentrate properly, which Derek didn’t understand but wouldn’t question. He watched it as Stiles continued to read, the silence stretching between them, though not uncomfortably.

As a commercial jingle for a fruit juice rang out of the television, Stiles turned the page with one hand and used his other to squirm himself into a more comfy position. Once he was satisfied with his new spot in the pillows, he let his hand flop onto the couch between them. He sighed quietly, eyes perusing in their back-and-forth without pause or interruption.

Derek found himself watching Stiles’s empty hand, not the TV. His chest felt like it was being gnawed on.

He became flustered when Stiles cleared his throat and said: “You can, if you want.”

Derek said nothing in response; he didn’t even nod. He just placed his own hand over Stiles’s, wound their fingers together, and kept his grip light, two parts of him warring between fierce elation and forced tenderness.

It was ultimately Stiles who squeezed their hands together, then went back to his reading without comment.

(|)

That night, Derek was restless. Stiles had allowed him to touch him, after weeks of nothing. Without a reason or justification, and without tension. The prospect that Derek could touch him in bed, sexually or not, left him ruffled and antsy like he hadn’t been since his childhood full moons.

If Stiles noticed Derek’s agitation, he didn’t let on. He got prepared for bed as usual, brushing his teeth and gargling with mouth wash, splashing water on his face. He got into his pajamas as he always did, with a closed door between them—and he got into bed as usual, on the same side as always, and with the same expected apathy.

Once the lights clicked off, Stiles lay on his back and alternated between watching the ceiling and closing his eyes; Derek saw because he couldn’t stop watching him, lying on his side and facing Stiles in the pitch black. After a few minutes, Stiles turned and gave Derek his back; another few minutes, he flipped over onto his back again. Derek entertained the notion that Stiles was just as restless as he, so he asked quietly: “Can I touch you?”

Stiles sighed. “Permission for one thing doesn’t extend to others.”

“I know that,” Derek replied, keeping his tone light, cautious. “But that doesn’t answer my question.”

He sighed again, then rolled over to face Derek. He placed his hand out, just like earlier, and muttered, “Yes.”

Derek took his hand gladly, winding their fingers together again. He enjoyed this, as small as it was. It was progress.

Stiles drifted off soon after that, seeming to take a cue from Derek and relaxing into their slight touch. His heartbeat slowed and evened to the familiar sleeping rhythm, something near and dear to Derek already—calming, reassuring, steady. He wasn’t even sure if he could sleep without it anymore.

Yet—he still craved. He wanted more than anything in that moment to gather Stiles up in his arms, hold him closer. But Stiles wouldn’t let him, and that dragged and burned through him like salt in a gash.

Across the distance between them, towards the sound of a sturdy, wonderful heartbeat, Derek whispered: “What do I have to do?”

To his horror, that heartbeat stuttered to wakefulness. Stiles grumbled, voice already rough, “What did you just say?”

“Nothing,” Derek rushed out quietly. “It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.”

“No,” Stiles replied, withdrawing his hand to prop himself up—to Derek’s dread. “You said something. I didn’t catch all of it. Tell me.”

Derek said nothing. Stiles repeated: “Tell me.” He sounded stern and troubled, such a difference from his lazy, endearing, sweet sleepiness before—and that made something in Derek flare, so he said it again, elaborating and speaking even more clearly.

“What do I have to do for you to want me?” At first, Stiles did not say anything. He frowned, his eyes unfocused in the dark—too dark for a human—and Derek continued, his tone turning slightly into one of frustration. “I do all I can for you to feel comfortable. I don’t touch you without asking, without getting permission; I give you a good allowance and am supportive of your work. I bring you presents, and none of it works, so—what? What do I have to do?”

Stiles turned his face away and looked straight ahead, towards the end of the bed. “Turn on the light,” he ordered firmly. Derek did not obey at first, waiting for an answer—so Stiles said again, harshly: “I can’t see shit and I want to be able to look at you, so please: turn on the light.”

A moment later, the human blinked his slow-adapting eyes against the new brightness, then looked to Derek when he’d finally gathered his thoughts.

 “If I knew what to tell you,” Stiles began slowly, his tone only barely burying irritation, “don’t you think I would? Or do something about it myself?” It wasn’t what Derek wanted to hear, so he nearly began speaking before Stiles plowed over his attempt, annoyance finally rupturing into his words. “I know you want me. You watch me, all the fucking time, and—do you know what it’s like, to live in someone’s house and not be able to leave and they’re constantly looking at you? Wanting something from you, constantly, all the fucking time?”

No, Derek did not know—because he owned the house. He’d always either had property or known it was his birthright.

God, and even worse—I know you’re trying. You’re being patient and accommodating and doing what you think is the best you can. The allowance, the work stuff, and the presents—even if I never asked for them and only accept them because if I didn’t, I’m pretty sure you’d brood for hours. But have you ever just, I don’t know, asked me what I like to do? Or asked about my life? Made conversation about anything other than the crap I dutifully do for you every fucking day? Because I had a life before you were in it, and you don’t seem to care about it. You treat me like I’m something mysterious and cryptic—but I’m really, really not hard to figure out. You want to understand me? Ask me questions. You want to get to know each other, bond and all that shit? Then we can take a walk. We can go to the park for all I care. You want me to want you, but you’ve made no indication that you want me for anything other than domesticity and having the equivalent of a living, breathing potpourri—one you can hopefully hump every once in awhile.

“You have a piece of paper which says I’m legally your responsibility, yet you know nothing about me, and you spend our time together just stewing in frustration and staring—and you fucking wonder why I don’t want you? I don’t even know you.”

“We’re going on a walk tomorrow.” Derek said, brooking no argument, his voice raised to match Stiles’s volume.

“Yeah, fine!” Stiles snapped back, then flopped down onto the bed on his side. “And we can still hold hands. Now turn off the fucking light. And don’t stare at me in the dark like a fucking predator.”

(|)

They left for their walk—first date, some darkly humorous part of Derek thought—just around dusk, after dinner. The park was a ten or fifteen minute walk away from Derek’s house. It wasn’t a big place: some stretches of green lawn for picnics and barbeques, a public toilet, a brightly-colored playground. It was what lay behind the park which was much more sprawling: the beginnings of the preserve, with its winding trails and running routes. Derek knew Stiles liked to run there, but he only did so when it was daytime, and when there were enough people in the forest that he didn’t feel isolated among the trees and shadows.

As they approached the playground area, their conversation tapered off into silence from their light small talk—how Stiles knew how to make gumbo, which they’d eaten for dinner; what Derek had begun building for a client. And as the talking faded, a sense of heaviness descended over them, but one of purpose and tranquility, not dread.

“Come on.” Stiles motioned forward with his hand, heading towards the swing set. “If you bore me, at least I can play on the swings.”

Derek smiled tightly and took the swing next to Stiles’s. Sitting like that, they were close yet still divided, and there was something intimate about it, especially when Stiles reached his foot out to knock Derek swinging and said, “Are you gonna ask me stuff or what?”

Now that Derek had been prompted, he found he had far too many questions for Stiles—so he started simple.

“Why did you become a mail-order human?”

Stiles glanced at him across the divide, then smirked. “Money.”

“Should’ve guessed.”

“Well why the fuck else would anyone do it? Sure as hell not for a fairytale ending.” He hummed, then went on: “And escape. That’s a big reason too.”

Just as Derek was about to ask about that, Stiles interrupted his thoughts.

“My turn. Why did you order a mail-order human? I know your house was a fucking mess, but you’ve got money. You could hire a cleaning service. And you can’t be so deluded as to think you couldn’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend to shower you with affection, if you wanted to. You could hand your number over to just about anyone and they’d be blowing up your phone in a minute.”

Derek frowned; he was positive Stiles had just called him attractive in a roundabout way, and yet it didn’t come off as a compliment. It made him seem…pathetic.

Which—as he considered it—he really, really was. Still, when he answered, he went for complete honesty.

“I was lonely.”

The silence that followed was tinged with shock; Stiles hadn’t been expecting such candidness. It showed when he chuckled nervously and muttered “oh” under his breath, scratching at the back of his head in a nervous fidget.

Derek took his turn. “What were you escaping?”

At the question, Stiles’s feet dug into the sand, halting his swinging completely. After a few moments of thought, he sighed, and Derek was grateful he’d gone for complete honesty when Stiles finally answered.

“A lot of things. I lived on a reservation with my dad for a long time, and while we never had enough money, things were pretty good—well, as good as they could be, with the circumstances. But my dad—he’s getting older. He’s not as strong as he once was. And I don’t expect you to know this, but one of the most expensive things about being human is how much maintenance we need, especially as we age. Medical costs are a fucking fortune. They’re more expensive than they should be, because the people who control the goddamn industry don’t even use the industry, if you catch my drift, and werewolves are just as opportunistic as humans in that they’ll bleed you dry if they can.

“So I signed up for the mail-order thing because I needed money for my dad, the kind of money you can’t make on a reservation. The perks of it: free rent, free food…those things kind of sealed the deal for me. My dad doesn’t need to support me anymore, and I can send him cash every once in a while. But probably the main reason, the true reason I signed up for the human4you crap was because I couldn’t stick around and be faced with my dad’s mortality every fucking day, as pitiful as that sounds. And then…once I got assigned my first wolf, I found out just what price I had to pay for the program’s perks.”

In the quiet between Stiles’s next question, Derek’s mind buzzed in consideration and curiosity. Still, he waited.

The words that followed nearly bowled him over.

“Why don’t you have a pack?” Stiles asked, voice hushed.

Derek considered not answering. But he wanted Stiles to know, even if he didn’t want to do the deed of actually telling him.

“My family died.” He almost stopped there, but once the words were out, he felt such relief, such gratefulness that someone not only was listening but could sympathize and maybe even understand, that he continued. “My pack was my biological family and some in-laws. Everyone was born, not bitten; we were an old family, one which had existed since before werewolves took control. And…there was a fire,” he said quietly, remembering it, seeing the smoldering ruins of his family home. “Only me, my sister, and my uncle survived. For years, my uncle was comatose, his burns were so bad. When he finally regained consciousness, he was insane. The pain and grief had destroyed him. One day, he snapped, started babbling about how we were left behind and needed to catch up—so he tried to kill me and Laura, and I guess he planned on committing suicide after. Bring the family together, or something.

“Laura was the alpha then, and she protected me. She was stronger than Peter, but he was so uncontrollable, so feral—the last thing Laura did was kill him, to protect me. Then she bled out. The damage was so bad, there was no chance her body could recover. And then I was the last one.”

The only sounds then were Stiles’s shivering breaths, his heartbeat, and the crinkling of his swing’s chain under his harsh grip.

Cutting into the tenseness, Derek asked: “Do you like the little presents I bring you?”

Stiles shuddered out a harsh laugh. “That’s your next question? Do I like your presents?”

Derek shrugged. “Well. Do you?”

The smile on Stiles’s face was much better than his previous look of horror, Derek thought—even if it was tense. “There’s nothing wrong with them,” Stiles said, but his tone was too careful, like he didn’t want to hurt Derek’s feelings. “But…I feel like I owe you, after you give them to me. I feel like I need to repay you…and there’s not a whole lot I can give you in return.”

“Do they make you feel pressured?” Derek asked, a little rushed. Stiles chuckled again.

“It’s not your turn,” he taunted. Then: “Did you really like the spinach casserole I made you?”

Derek answered in a rush. “I hate spinach, but I’ll eat pretty much anything you put on a plate for me. Do the presents make you feel pressured?”

Stiles smiled again as he answered; he looked affectionate. It threw Derek for a loop. “Yeah. They do. Would you want me around if I smelled bad?”

“You’ve been smelling like misery for a long time,” Derek replied, almost too quietly for Stiles to hear. “I hate that smell.”

Stiles clenched his jaw. He looked straight ahead, into the sand. On a heavy exhalation, he said: “Ask me about my previous experiences in the program. Ask me about the other owners I’ve had.”

Derek resisted flinching at that word—owner—and obeyed Stiles, keeping his voice steady and quiet. “What have your previous experiences in the program been like?”

When Stiles answered, his voice was a little too calm, a bit too strong, like he was trying to sound confident and unaffected—like he was compensating.

“My first owner wouldn’t let me speak unless spoken to. She only let me eat from her fingers. When she marked me, she did it with her hands, so I always had choke bruises on my neck. She’d keep doing it until I passed out, then she’d punish me for falling asleep, or for going soft during sex when she wanted me to be hard. Sometimes she would make me come, and she would say, see, you like it. I knew you liked it.”

Derek said nothing. He felt as though he could hardly breathe.

Stiles continued. “I got away from her when she made me bleed. She didn’t know how to make it stop, so she took me to the nearest place they sold medicine. It was a pharmacy; they sold herbal remedies and small stuff. She didn’t even know where a hospital or walk-in clinic was. Then she just…left me there. She said it would be too much paperwork if I died. An employee found me passed out and staunched the bleeding until emergency services arrived.”

As Stiles went quiet, Derek released a breath. He had no idea what to say—but then Stiles started again, and he hardly had time to brace himself for more.

“The next one was better. He had more than one human, so I had people to talk to. He had a favorite, and I wasn’t it, so he left me alone a lot—and when he did pay me any attention, it was just for a fuck, nothing else. Sometimes he’d share me with his friends or pack members; sometimes he’d get violent. But at least he didn’t taunt me. Unlike my first owner, he didn’t give enough of a shit about me to try twisting my head around. I was grateful for that. But then he lost a bunch of money and couldn’t afford so many humans, so he paid for the program to take my contract back.

“When I found out I was getting reassigned again, I thought: okay, this is the time I turn it all around. The first-time owners are the easiest to manipulate; all the humans in the program know that. So I was determined to set boundaries early, and stand my ground, be strong and all that shit—but then you made me share your bed, and.” Stiles shrugged. “The rest you already know.”

It took Derek a long time until he was ready to speak again; in that pause between words, Stiles nudged him with his foot again, sending him swaying back and forth. He said, too kindly: “For what it’s worth, I don’t really mind sharing a bed anymore. You don’t snore too bad. And you’re the best experience I’ve had in the program by a decent margin.”

Derek gave him a dull, heatless glare. “That’s not saying a lot, Stiles.”

“But it’s true.”

“Well.” He sighed, then shook his head. “I don’t understand why they did those things to you. Why they tried to reduce you to nothing.”

“It wasn’t about me,” Stiles replied, swinging again just slightly. “It wasn’t even about sex. They just wanted to feel powerful.” At that, Stiles stood abruptly. He scanned the dark sky, the concrete only illuminated by streetlights. “Okay, I’m tired. Let’s do last questions. Here’s mine: have I ever made you feel powerless?”

Derek considered it. He recalled every rejection, every time Stiles had ignored or turned away from him. He remembered the stench of Stiles’s sadness, something he hadn’t been able to change, which had only faded when Stiles himself had done what was necessary: asked to work, adjusted his life as he could.

“Yes.”

Stiles nodded. Then—he laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” Derek asked.

Stiles shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Because all I’ve done is live in your house, eat your food, and drive your damn car—and apparently, all it took to make you feel powerless was a reminder that you can’t fuck me unless I want it.” He laughed again, but it was brittle. “And ain’t that some shit.”

(|)

(|)

(|)

When you wage your wars against the one who adores you

Then you'll never know the treasure that you’re worth.

            “In Memoriam,” The Oh Hellos.

Chapter Text

A few days after their walk, Derek dropped onto the couch next to Stiles. He dropped purposefully.

Stiles picked up the remote and put the volume on the TV down.

“I’ve been thinking,” Derek said.

“Such progress. Congratulations.”

Derek nearly rose at the tease, but he had a plan. He’d rehearsed. “There seems to be a power imbalance in our relationship.”

Stiles clutched at the fabric over his heart in an overly dramatic flail. “You came to that conclusion all on your own?”

So,” Derek cut over, “I thought of how we could…remedy that. So we could both be happier living together.”

“Ah yes, my plan of stinking up the place by being bummed out is working perfectly. Biological warfare.”

Derek still resolutely did not rise to anything. Stiles used sarcasm as a defense method; he was simply nervous now, as Derek could tell with his slightly heightened pulse. “So, as a first step, we could move you into the spare bedroom.”

Stiles’s eyes widened slightly. “You mean the one that’s always locked? The one I’m not allowed into? The one you grumpily told me to stay away from on my very first day here, which I’ve dutifully never snooped into or tried to unlock with a bobby pin or a paper clip?”

It took Derek a moment or two to stop staring at Stiles—of course he’d tried snooping; he was curious to a fault. But finally, he managed to reply: “Yes. That one.”

“Why? And what’s in it?”

“I, um,” Derek hesitated, “did some research. On…rape survivors. Apparently it’s a good idea for you to have your own space, somewhere for you to go to be alone and feel safe.”

“Oh.” Stiles fidgeted and swallowed awkwardly, then derailed slightly. Derek was more than happy to let him, even if the subject still wasn’t bright. “What’s in the room, though?”

Derek averted his eyes as he answered. “My family’s things. Stuff that survived the fire. Just…a bunch of stuff. Junk.”

He looked back to Stiles when the human replied, voice thick and stern: “Not junk. It’s not junk, Derek. And you don’t need to…I don’t need the room.”

“I want you to have it, though.” When Stiles still looked uncertain, he went on, “I don’t want you to feel like you’re stuck with me all the time. Think of it as a favor.”

“Okay. But I’ll still share a bed with you.”

“No, we can get you a bed—”

“Derek,” Stiles cut in, half-smiling. “I’m fine sharing a bed. Seriously. I lost my mom; I know it can be worse, at night. To be alone.”

After that, they shared a few moments of silence. Derek felt cluttered and stifled by gratitude—but he quickly regained his voice when he recalled the papers he’d amassed for this occasion.

“Here,” he mumbled, pulling the papers from his back pocket. “I made you an account at the bank. You’re my dependent, so if I wanted to access it I could, but I promise I won’t. It’s under your name. Your work pay will go directly there, and so will your allowance.” As Stiles read the bank statements, Derek concluded quietly, “I even got you a credit card.”

Stiles rustled the papers—and widened his eyes when he reached the one at the bottom of the bundle. “What is this?”

“A registration form. It’s for the community college nearby,” Derek replied. He’d already signed the permission portion. “You can go to classes as my dependent that wouldn’t be open to you if you were autonomous; I researched it. They have classes that would work for your schedule. And we can set up the spare room as desk space.”

“Derek,” Stiles said, tone measured and thoughtful, nearly stunned. “Are you implying what I think you are, here?”

Derek shrugged. “You can’t ever be independent without having career skills or options. No one will hire you without a degree…So.”

He’d thought about it for a long time. Constantly, really, since they went for their walk a few days previous. The dynamic they held was better than anything Stiles had ever had with a werewolf, but it was still unequal, dreadfully so—enough that it stunted their interactions and kept Stiles from being comfortable around him, even then, three months or so into their cohabitation. So Derek had had a choice: have Stiles happy, or have him contained.

“I was thinking we could work to get you emancipated.”

He knew it was all worth it when, finally, wonderfully, Stiles scrambled across the space between them to hug him.

(|)

Stiles started his classes as soon as possible. He continued working at the library, working three and sometimes four days a week—and the difference those dedications made was radical.

With every class Stiles attended, the air in the house became lighter. With every rant Stiles had about his infuriating professor, or the loud sassy kids in the sci-fi section, the less space they kept between them as they slept. They spoke openly to one another—they’d pretty much already said the worst about their past, so at this point there was nothing to shock or frighten each other with anymore—and they even squabbled about what curtains to buy since the old ones had gotten too raggedy.

Moving things from the spare room had been taxing on Derek, but something about that afternoon they’d spent together: Derek recalling which object went where in his childhood home; whose handwriting was whose on old school papers—it seemed precious to Stiles, who had listened to every word and touched everything with a soft reverence. Even when Derek had found an old mother’s day card he’d penned himself in first grade and nearly choked on grief, Stiles only placed a single hand on his shoulder and asked, “Do you need me to leave?” And when Derek said no, he didn’t, Stiles wrapped his arms around his shoulders and breathed with him until the pressure felt looser in his chest.

So while things weren’t perfect, they were getting closer. And as it approached bliss, they also hurdled steadily towards the day when Stiles wouldn’t need Derek anymore—something which terrified Derek enough to keep him awake at night, if he dwelled on it.

He instead tried to think of the increased instances of affection shared between them, or how his house wasn’t empty anymore.

Until one day, during dinner, Derek had a horrifying thought: Stiles had not once shown any indication of romantic affection. Unlike werewolves, who experienced attraction on a more case-by-case basis and considered scent and personality more important than other things—like looks, or gender—humans were different. They had specific preferences; they had types. Stiles might not even be able to see Derek in a sexual way.

“Oh god,” Stiles said with a stifled laugh, setting down his glass of water. “What is it? Why do you look so terrified? Did you forget to buy more hair gel? I know you secretly love that stuff.”

Derek ignored the snark; it was a honed skill, at that point. “Are you even—gay?” He didn’t know a lot about human sexual identities, but he knew that was a thing: gayness, or whatever.

Stiles boggled at him for a second, then laughed hard. He picked up his then-empty glass and walked around the table, moving to grab Derek’s cleaned plate so he could serve him seconds. As he entered Derek’s space, he replied—and nearly made Derek drop his head on the table in hopelessness.

“No,” Stiles said, then paused; his voice was playful, borderline cruel. “It’s called bisexual. You can look it up later. And stop looking like you’re going to die.”

Then, after he snatched the plate, he leaned down and pressed a kiss to Derek’s temple—so quickly that Derek pretty much blanked out for a solid five seconds, in which time Stiles had bustled over to the stove, clumsily scooping out food as his heartbeat thudded in a rush.

(|)

Derek did look it up.

Bisexual (adj.) – sexually responsive to both sexes; a human who is attracted to both men and women. see: human sexuality.

He made a note to check out the index of human sexualities later; there seemed to be a lot of them. But for the time being, he closed his laptop, turned off the light in his office, and went to get ready for bed.

Unlike previously, when Stiles had held his hand, Derek did not allow the new, recent contact between them to rile him up. Knowing what he knew now, expecting anything or becoming eager would only burden Stiles; rather, he prepared for bed as usual, ignoring how Stiles was tense and clipped in his own routine.

As they met in bed, Derek did not turn out the light. The only thing he expected, to the point of surety, was that they would talk before settling tonight—and he was right.

“Um,” Stiles began, awkward and anxious. He didn’t look towards Derek, instead staring at his hands. “So. I like you. Sexually. I think.”

Derek waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. Se he replied: “Okay.”

And it made Stiles tsk in apprehensive frustration. “Okay? That’s all you’ve—”

“Stiles,” he said in a soft rush, and the human quieted down immediately. They’d turned so they faced one another, shoulders against the headboard and knees bending into the gap between their bodies. “It’s okay. I like you too. But—you told me, remember? About what happened with the, uh—other werewolves.”

There was a long silence, then Stiles drawled out blankly, “…So?”

“So.” Derek sighed. “I don’t want to push you. Or scare you.”

“Thing is, though,” Stiles said, voice going quiet and a little embarrassed, “I want you to touch me. But I haven’t been, um, intimate with anyone in a long time. At least—not in a way which wasn’t totally horrible. I don’t know if I won’t get scared even if I want it. What if I start panicking in the middle of things?”

“Then we stop.”

“But I don’t want to have to stop. I just…really wish I could be normal about this. I feel like I’m a virgin or something. A really, really nervous one.”

“Okay,” Derek said again. Truly, he was excited at the developments, but Stiles’s fears kept him calm and completely in check. “You said you want me to touch you,” he reiterated, then waited for Stiles to nod before continuing. “But do you want to touch me?”

Stiles blinked. “Yes,” he said bluntly. “Yes, duh.”

It was Derek’s turn to be embarrassed. “Why don’t we do that, then?”

“Just—” Stiles shifted closer, just a small bit. “—have me touch you? That’s all?”

“Yeah. If you want,” Derek replied. He tried to act blasé; it wasn’t working. “I could just…sit back, and let you have control. And then you wouldn’t panic, right? Because you could just do whatever you were comfortable with. You’d set the pace.”

Stiles shuffled even closer. He took hold of Derek’s hand, movements gentle, and laced their fingers together, his other hand busying itself by running fingertips over the grooves of their mingling knuckles. And while Derek wanted to touch him back, he instead simply allowed the contact to happen—and it was comforting, intimate. Satisfying.

Into the quiet, Stiles let out a soft, short laugh. “I’ve never been allowed to touch.”

That sent a deep ache ricocheting into Derek’s chest—but he stayed still, patient, even as Stiles leaned close enough to tentatively press their lips together.

It lasted only a few seconds before Stiles pulled back. “In this particular act,” he said with a small smile, “I’d like your equal participation, please.”

“Are you sure—”

“Shh. We’re gonna kiss now.”

They did. Derek wanted to grin into it, grab and snatch him up—but even as Stiles sucked softly on his lower lip, Derek kept his hands at his sides. He itched to take hold of Stiles’s hips, bring him closer, anything—but he abruptly forgot his wishes when Stiles shifted one leg up and over his body, then settled into a straddle on Derek’s lap.

As Stiles kissed him then, he was gentle, yet still assured. He released his grip on Derek’s hand only to bring both of his own to either side of Derek’s head, taking his jaw into a delicate cradle; it was perfect to Derek, especially when Stiles broke the liplock to whisper: “You can put your hands on my sides, if you want.”

So Derek did, grazing his palms up and down Stiles’s sides, just slight touches over his ribs. Stiles squirmed, laughing under his breath. “Ticklish,” he said, the words ghosting over Derek’s lips—only to be replaced by another sweet kiss.

After a few minutes of that, just swapping lazy kisses and blissful touches, Derek’s heart leapt into his throat when Stiles placed a hand over the top of his pants and asked: “Can I?”

“Yes,” he replied, entranced by the way Stiles’s fingers were grazing his skin, how his eyes shone with fondness. “Yes. You can.”

Another kiss, and Stiles’s fingers slid down Derek’s pajama bottoms, slow and measured. As he dragged the fabric down, exposing Derek’s cock, Stiles moved his lips down as well, pressing kisses to Derek’s jaw and neck delicately.

“I want—” Stiles said, and just that was enough to send Derek’s pulse wild and singing—“I want to bring us off together. Would you like that?”

At that point, Derek wanted basically anything Stiles was willing to give; so words meant practically nothing—he just nodded twice, sharply. He only opened his mouth to meet Stiles’s next gentle kiss, reveling at the taste and warmth of his tongue as it slipped between his lips. So focused was he on their kiss that Derek missed Stiles situating himself up and tugging his own pajama pants down; and when their cocks were pressed together, held tight by Stiles’s own hand, Derek realized that for all he gave Stiles the reigns for a slower, safer pace, he already felt as though he was struggling to keep up.

“Take your shirt off,” Stiles ordered. Derek rushed to comply, gritting his teeth against the rush of lust which flooded him upon hearing Stiles’s firm, confident tone. “Good, that’s—you’re really good-looking, you know that?”

Derek hardly knew his own name anymore. He shivered as Stiles ran a palm up his abdomen, then looped his arm around Derek’s shoulders, bringing their bodies even closer. The heat between them felt searing; the tension and firmness in Stiles’s grip felt overwhelming. Derek nearly whimpered as Stiles licked down his neck, then bit down, sucking a momentary mark into his skin.

“Hold onto my hips, Derek,” he commanded. Derek obeyed that too, mindless and eager—just before Stiles rolled those hips, creating perfect, blessed friction in a harsh, grinding rush.

Stiles,” he bit out, unthinkingly.

Stiles grinned, though his next words were sincere and tender. “Is that good?”

Derek didn’t respond to that; he just tipped his head up, wordlessly asking for another kiss—which Stiles gladly deigned to give him. Through it all, he built a rhythm, dragging himself against Derek in tiny motions with his thighs; up and down, up and down. The tempo blended into a slow, gradual crescendo, sending Derek’s nerves firing and his thoughts scattering; he could barely keep a solid grip on Stiles, as though the human were slipping from him even now, when they were closer than they’d ever been. It made Derek desperate to cling to him, his hands wandering only enough to grasp once more on Stiles’s thighs, solid and steadying. His nails—not claws; he was not so mindless yet—dug into Stiles’s skin urgently, causing Stiles’s breathing to hitch and stutter.

Only, in the following moments, that breathing did not stabilize. Rather, it sped viciously—and it was with a sinking, horrified feeling in his gut that Derek let go of Stiles, allowing him to slide off and hyperventilate next to him above the bed covers.

“Stiles,” Derek pleaded, quickly pulling his pajama bottoms up. “Stiles, it’s okay. I’m not touching you. You’re okay. You’re safe—” He broke off at a particularly sharp, wobbly exhalation, Stiles still struggling to contain his panic. From his position, sitting on his heels with his torso curled over his thighs, Stiles couldn’t get enough air, but he still tried, inhaling through his nose and breathing out his mouth in a way which seemed practiced.

“Stiles, you need to sit up. You won’t get enough air like that. Please, Stiles—it’s okay, just—” In a flurry of confused, worrisome desperation, Derek reached to grab the knit blanket at the end of the bed and draped it over Stiles’s shoulders. Surprisingly, it helped; maybe it was the subtle weight, or the impression of being held without actually being touched—either way, it had Stiles sitting up and clinging to the heavy loops and patterns of the wool, swaddling himself mindlessly and covering himself all at once.

Derek waited for him. He listened acutely to his heartbeat, how it eventually slowed. He spoke every so often, just repeating the same mantras: you’re safe, I’m not touching you, you’re breathing. When Stiles was wrung out but aware enough to truly listen, Derek said something different.

“I’m sorry.”

Stiles shook his head. “You don’t have to apologize. I didn’t…I thought that wouldn’t happen.”

“What made you panic?” Derek asked. Stiles had seemed so confident, so assured.

“When you—” He cut off, shifting to get up off his heels. “It wasn’t your fault. It was—I can show you. Can I show you?”

Confused, Derek nodded.

Stiles dropped the blanket, got to his knees, then reached for the top of his pants. He was still exposed, hadn’t had the wherewithal to tuck himself away, but his thighs were mostly covered. A quick tug of his pajama bottoms brought the entire stretch of his thighs into the light—revealing long, discolored scars which spanned from the bottom of his buttocks to the crease of his knees. Derek could see them clearly on one side from his position to Stiles’s left, four deep gouges, and knew that the other side must be an exact match.

“This was where she made me bleed,” he said, matter-of-fact, then slowly pulled his pants all the way back up. “You didn’t know, and—you dug your fingers in.”

He sat back on his heels and brought the blanket over his shoulders again.

When Derek didn’t say anything, Stiles went into a further explanation. He sounded lifeless.

“I don’t remember a lot of what happened. I remember some of the stuff she said, you know, after, when I was bleeding—and I remember waking up in a hospital. They said it was a miracle I avoided cutting my femoral artery.” As though an afterthought, he added: “That’s like, a huge vein in the leg. When humans cut it, they die.”

“I know what the femoral artery is, Stiles.”

“Okay.”

“I think you might have post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“Yeah, you might be right.”

“Stiles—” Derek stopped, rubbing at his eye tiredly. He had no idea what to do. Or, more accurately, he had no idea what was best.

In his same dull tone, Stiles asked, “Have you ever had a panic attack, Derek?”

Derek sighed, but spoke patiently, plainly. “Yes. My family all died in a fire. Then my sister died protecting me from my uncle. I’ve had a panic attack before.”

“Oh. Yeah. Stupid question.” His breaths were stable, but still shaky. “You know when you start breathing again, but you still feel like you might not exist yet?”

“Yes.”

“I’m kind of…coming out of that.”

“Okay.” Still not knowing quite what to do, Derek figured it was best to ask. “What can I do?”

“Can we just go to sleep?” Stiles said it like he needed to beg, like Derek would deny him.

“Yes. Of course.”

Stiles relaxed further at the reply. When Derek stood and started to walk to the bathroom, though, he tensed. “Where are you going? Are you leaving? Why are you—”

“No, Stiles—I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay with you, unless you ask me to leave you alone. I’m just getting a towel.”

“Why?”

“Your face is swollen and wet. You’re crying.”

“…Oh.”

After Derek came back with a small towel and a box of tissues, he climbed into bed again. Stiles got under the covers as well, shuffling closer wordlessly until he was pressed against Derek’s side, his cheek resting over Derek’s chest.

He seemed so fragile, so small.

“Can I wipe your face?” Derek asked, holding up the towel. Stiles nodded; Derek felt it against his chest.

With the fabric muffling him, Stiles said with strangled mirth: “So, worst sex ever or worst sex ever? Give me a number. One out of ten. Negatives count.”

“It’s not a performance.”

“But if it was—I flopped.”

“Stop that,” Derek snapped, albeit with considerable mildness. “You got scared. It’s not a failure, or a disappointment. It’s just what happened.”

Stiles said nothing, for a bit. His hand was splayed over Derek’s stomach without pressure, just a warm presence. They were lying together mostly on Derek’s side, near the bedside lamp; next to the lamp, Derek had placed the box of tissues, which Stiles reached for clumsily, blowing his nose once he’d snatched a single square.

“Sorry I’m all snotty,” he said nasally.

Derek huffed a short laugh. His amusement quickly became irritation, however, when Stiles stretched his arm out and dropped the soiled tissue on the floor.

“I’m going to step on that, in the morning.”

“M’sorry.” Stiles let his arm drop across Derek’s torso, clinging to him and rubbing his face into the sheets over Derek’s torso. It sucked all the fight right out of him.

Sleepily, Stiles mumbled, “Can we try again? Sometime?”

“Yeah. When you’re ready.”

“I dunno when I’ll be.”

Derek sighed; he felt helpless, but unlike the other times, it was not from Stiles’s supposed rejection. It was because he couldn’t snap Stiles’s problems away—nor his own.

Stiles mistook it for disappointment. His voice was small as he said, again, “I’m sorry.”

The sense of powerlessness swarmed in Derek’s chest; it made his next words halted, doubtful. “Can I touch you?”

For all Stiles had cuddled up to him, Derek hadn’t taken hold of him. He hadn’t even considered it; he’d gotten so used to refraining from active contact, at this point, that it was an automatic response—one he was glad for, considering the circumstances.

“Yeah,” Stiles muttered, obviously exhausted. “I think I’d like that.”

Carefully, Derek gathered him up, slipping one arm beneath him and the other over. At the slight jostling, Stiles clung tighter to the bedcovers; but soon, they’d settled, warm and comfortable. With Stiles pliant and finally calm in his arms, Derek said in a hushed tone: “You have nothing to apologize for.”

Then, they drifted off.

(|)

“I’m so tired of his shit!” Stiles yelled, stomping through the entryway and dropping his keys on the counter. “Professor Douchebag gave me a C on that first econ test just because I got a little off-topic. Sure, okay, I detailed the history of male circumcision because I blanked on that other boring shit, but still. You’d think there’d be some points for creativity—”

He noticed Derek sitting at the kitchen table, motionless, staring at a bundle of troll keychains. Their neon-shade tufts of hair were snarled, faded, and smelled like ash.

“What’s wrong?” Stiles asked, approaching slowly and stopping at Derek’s back.

When Derek began to speak, it was with a dry, lifeless tone. “I fucking hated these trolls. They scared me when I was a kid. I think that’s why Laura collected them—she not-so-secretly liked to scare the shit out of me. Explains why she was so obsessed with leaving them around in weird places for me to find. You know I found one in a shampoo bottle one time? She had deliberately drained the bottle, stuffed a troll inside, and waited outside the bathroom just to hear me scream.”

In the ensuing silence, Derek realized Stiles had no idea why he was saying any of it.

“It’s her birthday.”

All Derek heard after that was a long, sharp inhale—then he felt Stiles’s arms come around his shoulders, and the gentle press of his lips to the top of his head.

“What do you want for dinner?” Stiles asked.

Staring at those godforsaken trolls, Derek only remembered Laura’s favorite food. “Donuts.”

Stiles laughed; the gust of it was warm on Derek’s hair. “Yeah? I can do that. Any specific kind?”

“Glazed. Colorful icing. Maybe some sprinkles.”

“Hmm, sure. And I’m grateful you didn’t put hair gel in today. I might have sliced my face on your glued-up locks otherwise.”

Finally, Derek turned his head to stop facing the table—but only to give Stiles a heatless glare. As though in soft apology, Stiles pressed a kiss to Derek’s frowning mouth. “Just kidding. Your hair is great. I’m impressed by its ability to retain shape. Like concrete, only sexier.”

 With the part of his mind that was practically a saint for its patience, Derek gave thanks that living with Stiles had given him thick skin. “Just tell me there will be donuts.”

“Oh, baby. Will there be donuts.”

In the next hour, Stiles had set up a pot full of oil. He sent Derek on a kitchen mission to find the thermometer—which had been exactly where Stiles thought it would be, he just hadn’t looked closely enough.  When the first donuts came out of the vat, fully cooked but without their glaze coating, Derek tried to snatch one; Stiles wasn’t hesitant about swatting his wrist with a wooden spoon, scolding: “This has to be done right. Trust me.”

So Derek waited. He helped coat the donuts with their glaze; he stirred dye into small bowls of icing, gathered rainbow sprinkles—and fetched them from the floor when they inevitably scattered all the over the place. He even stood still as Stiles used a single finger to spread red icing on his lips, grinning and cackling as he cooed: “Just like a beauty queen. Why don’t you ever pretty yourself up for me? You look lovely.”

He stood very still as Stiles licked that icing off—and joined him in subdued laughter when the rest of it cracked off, becoming crumbly as it dried on his skin.

It felt strange, to laugh on Laura’s birthday; though somehow it also felt right. Laura had liked to scare him, he remembered well, but she liked even better to make him laugh. For once, it didn’t feel like a betrayal to be the slightest bit happy without her being there for it.

They ate eight donuts each, then sprawled on the couch, legs and bellies fully stretched. Their heads were close together in the couch’s corner.

“See? Had to be done right,” Stiles said, suppressing a stomachache groan.

“Yeah,” Derek replied softly. Then he rolled clean off the couch, got to his knees, and crawled the short distance to the television. “We’re watching the entire original Star Wars trilogy. Laura was obsessed with them and got me to watch with her every chance she could. She even used her alpha status to force me, one time.”

“Man,” Stiles said with a grin. “Your sister was the best.”

As he returned to the couch, Derek smiled. “Yeah. She really was.”

(|)

The Star Wars trilogy blended into late-night television, then snibits of infomercials, then old re-runs as midnight turned to the wee hours of the morning.

“Derek,” Stiles whispered, poking at Derek’s cheek from his spot on the other part of the couch. All Stiles had to do to reach Derek comfortably was roll on his stomach; their heads weren’t even a foot-length apart.

“Deeeeereeeekkkk.”

“Mhmm.”

“It’s really late. We should go to bed.”

 “Sure.”

Except, he didn’t move. Left where he was, undisturbed, Derek could easily slip back into unconsciousness; his right leg was propped on the coffee table while his left was bent at the knee, foot on the floor. Luckily they had nowhere to be in the morning, so a bad night’s sleep with the television droning on wouldn’t be too irresponsible.

“Well I’m not carrying you,” Stiles prompted, poking again at Derek’s face. “C’mon, babycake. Time for bed.”

“D’you just call me ‘babycake’?”

“Yes. I’m trying out pet names. What do you think?”

“It’s nice,” Derek replied, words slurring in tiredness.

Stiles chuckled. “I’ll make sure to remind you of that tomorrow, when you think it’s annoying again.”

Derek just mumbled again, not really making words, but agreeing to whatever. He still did not move.

For some tiny stretch of time, Stiles didn’t disturb him. Then, just when Derek was sure he’d be left alone, Stiles got up from his spot on the couch and moved closer, squeezing between the careless splay of Derek’s legs, even stepping over one of them where it was stretched onto the coffee table. Once he stood in the slight space between Derek’s legs and the coffee table’s edge, Stiles dropped to his knees and placed his palm on Derek’s thigh.

“Hey, Derek?” He whispered, only the glow of the television illuminating the outline of his body.

The intimate contact had finally startled Derek mostly awake. “Yeah?”

“I want to try again.”

At that, he completely woke up. “You want to—right now?”

“Yeah,” Stiles said, voice hushed but tinged with playfulness. His palm slid up Derek’s thigh, tracing a path towards his groin. “Can I?”

“Yes,” Derek rushed out; he was still sleepy enough that he didn’t have quite a handle on himself, particularly his reactions. “Just, hang on, let me—” His eyes lit up red as he peered into the dark, hands scrambling for the remote control. When he grabbed it, he rushed to mute the television; he really didn’t need some infomercial salesman talking about laundry detergent while Stiles was offering sex.

“You know, I kind of like your red eyes,” Stiles muttered, tone still light. His own eyes must have been well-adjusted to the darkness, because his fingers were deft at loosening Derek’s belt. “All the others, they had blue or yellow eyes. No alphas.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t talk about them,” Derek answered, barely hiding his anger—or jealousy; he couldn’t quite grasp the rush of it, just a wave of displeasure at the reminder of Stiles’s previous werewolf ties.

“Maybe not,” he agreed, still casual about it all. “But it’s strange, isn’t it? That the red eyes should be the most intimidating, but in my case, they’re just—interesting. No really bad memories from them.”

Derek was tongue-tied as Stiles dipped a hand down his pants, groping him through his underwear. He wriggled as Stiles directed him, allowing the human to drag all the obstructing fabrics down and out of the way. Once he was exposed to the open air, Derek was already fully  hard, wound-up in anticipation. He gripped the couch in a near-violent grip; he gritted his teeth and distended his fangs silently, eyes still locked on Stiles’s movements at his lap. Those fingers—long and a bit bony, features Derek had noticed even in the first hour of Stiles’s presence in his home—were chilly at his cock, making Derek hiss in surprise.

Stiles licked at his lips and stroked, watching the way Derek’s cock shifted with every motion, the foreskin rolling with his hand and precome steadily leaking.

“You’re gorgeous,” Stiles praised. Derek felt strikingly small under his scrutiny; Stiles could bend him at any command, or break him apart with the least effort—like how Derek nearly moaned when all Stiles told him was: “You can hold my head, if you want. Just don’t pull my hair.”

So Derek wove his fingers through Stiles’s hair delicately, carefully, and kept his hand loose even when the human closed his lips over Derek’s cock.

Fuck, Stiles,” he bit out.

Stiles pressed his tongue flat, drawing it down the shaft slowly. Under his hand, Derek’s thigh jumped; where his other gripped, spit slid over his fingers, dripping from Stiles’s mouth sloppily as he rubbed and licked the length of Derek’s cock. It took Stiles some time to establish any kind of rhythm; first, he simply enjoyed, exploring the taste and shape of Derek enthusiastically. Once Stiles was satisfied with that—Derek’s cock thoroughly wet, even his pubic hair catching the slick—Stiles slowly began to bob his head in measured increments, focusing his tongue on the underside and swirling it around the head every so often, whenever it pleased him.

Soon, the movements became overwhelming. Derek took his hand from Stiles’s hair, not trusting himself to follow the previous orders not to grab or pull. Instead, he sunk his claws into the fabric of the sofa, ripping holes in his need to hold on—feeling not so much like he was careening anywhere, but rather melting into the cushions with every passing moment.

“Stiles,” he gasped out; somewhere in the fuzzy background, there was the sound of further ripping under his hands. “I’m com—”

The words strangled to silence, because Stiles sucked—and it may as well have been a bullet for all it tore through Derek, leaving him wrecked and blank.

It took Derek a laughably long time to stop staring at the ceiling. What brought him back to awareness were two things: one, that his fingertips were touching upholstery, completely torn and sunken through the couch’s surface; and two—that Stiles’s head was pressed to his hip, breathing warm and damp on his wet and wilting cock. He was simply watching, seemingly taking note of every change as Derek went from hard to flaccid, and he looked proud, blissful, the expression only more striking for how Stiles’s cheek and lips were smeared with come.

With a shaking hand, Derek reached to touch him, stroke his face, hair, whatever he could—then paused. His hand hovered by Stiles’s head, just in the human’s view—and Derek’s breath caught as Stiles leaned up to press a kiss to the middle of his palm.

“You were perfect,” Stiles told him, gentle.

Derek was too stunned to respond.

(|)

They cleaned up quickly in the kitchen, then Stiles led Derek by the hand to their shared bed.

Derek slept lightly; every so often, Stiles would graze fingertips along his skin, searing paths in his flesh, like claws reaching bone.

While the early morning sunlight leaked through the windows, Stiles asked him: “Did you bring me here because you knew I wouldn’t be able to leave?”

Not like the rest of them, Derek thought—but answered, “Yes.”

Stiles did not ask anything further; he just dragged his fingertips along Derek’s skin, one by one.

(|)

The house smelled like lasagna. Underneath that, there was the undertone of cake, and an impression of contentment.

“I want to invite a friend over for dinner,” Stiles said as he pulled the marble cupcakes out from the heat. He’d swapped the cupcakes into the oven right after the lasagna had finished cooking; sometimes, Derek wondered if Stiles had an underlying fear of sitting still. “He’s a co-worker. I think you’d like him.”

“Why do you want to invite someone over?” Derek asked bluntly, once he’d paused shoveling dinner in his mouth.

“What, you got something against guests?”

“No, but—” He tsked. “Are you making icing right now?”

Stiles looked down at the bowl in his hands, the various ingredients within it. “Um. Yeah?”

“Sit down. That can wait. And who do you expect to eat all those cupcakes?”

“I’m bringing them in to work. It’s another co-worker’s birthday tomorrow.” He fidgeted further with the ingredients, laying everything out on the counter. Once Derek tuned into his pulse, he noticed how Stiles was slightly restless, perhaps nervous. “So, can I invite that friend over?”

Definitely nervous, then—and about inviting someone over, of all things. “Sure, fine,” Derek answered, then repeated: “Can’t you sit down?”

Stiles nodded and sighed, obeying tiredly. “Yeah. Sorry. I guess I’m feeling kind of antsy.”

“Why?”

“It’s nothing.”

Stiles’s pulse suggested otherwise, but it settled within moments.

 (|)

A few days later, Stiles’s friend came over for dinner. His name was Isaac.

Upon their first meeting, Derek did not take a liking to Isaac.

“Is everything okay, Derek?” Stiles asked, tone obviously and pushily implying that everything should be fine.

“Of course,” Derek replied, passing the garlic bread to Stiles’s waiting hand. “I was just expecting your co-worker to be human. That’s all.”

Isaac detected the tension, but used Derek’s words to make conversation, not antagonism. “Yeah, a lot of the people who work in the library are human. I don’t really work there—not technically, I mean,” he rushed, noticing how Derek had tensed once more. “I volunteer. The library was a huge part of my life as a kid, like a safe haven. I try to help and put in time whenever I can.”

Isaac was a beta; furthermore, he was a particularly responsive beta, one who picked up on alpha signals extremely well. That kind of perceptiveness was normally limited to intuitive pack members. Begrudgingly, Derek was impressed by Isaac’s level of insight—a lesser wolf would not have been as skilled at avoiding conflict.

“Isaac’s really helpful,” Stiles added. Something about his demeanor was contrary towards Derek, a little irritated, though he sounded pleasant enough. “He also volunteers instead of taking a job because it would take the job away from a human. Isn’t that right?”

“Um, yeah. I know it’s really tough to work when you’re human. Most people prefer to hire werewolves, because of those weird anti-exploitation laws. And because they have packs to support, I guess.”

“And it’s not like humans have families,” Stiles grumbled out. Once silence followed his words, he quickly spoke again. “Sorry. I’m dragging down the mood. Does anyone want seconds?”

Overall, it was a bizarre evening.

Worse, to Derek: it was an evening filled with talking about the praises and virtues of someone he’d just met. Someone who spent a lot of time with Stiles, apparently; they even had an inside joke or two. Every time Stiles implied how great Isaac was—which was often—Derek’s mood took a darker turn.

Once the dinner came to a conclusion, Stiles filled a few tupperwares of leftovers and shoved them in Isaac’s hands. “You can take them back to your pack. Maybe your alpha will like them.”

“I don’t have an alpha,” Isaac answered, slightly confused. “You know that.”

“Right, yeah, well.” Stiles led Isaac to the front door, a firm hand at his back. “Thanks for coming. See you tomorrow, maybe?”

“Yeah, tomorrow—”

The door shut on the tail-end of Isaac’s goodbye.

Stiles turned back to look at Derek, who hadn’t moved from his spot at the table—and looked quietly furious.

“What the hell was all that?” Derek asked. He glared at the napkin holder in the middle of the table.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Stiles replied, his tone just as stern and purposeful as Derek’s. “But I do know one thing: you had no reason to be as cold and unwelcoming as you were tonight. Isaac’s my friend, and I told him such great things about you—what was the deal with you?”

“What was the deal?” Derek watched as Stiles walked around the table, grabbing empty dishes as he went. “Did I really just sit through a meal with some other werewolf—some stranger—and listen to you harp on about how amazing he is, how much you enjoy your time together? How the fuck do you expect me to respond?”

While he was listening, Stiles had shuffled to the sink, dropping the dishes down in a clang. Once Derek finished, Stiles turned to face him, face crinkled in confusion and eyes wide. “What? You think I—that Isaac—”

“I have no idea how you could be so insensitive, Stiles,” Derek cut in, his anger growing at Stiles’s seeming obliviousness. “I’m fucking in love with you, and you bring someone over, talk about how much you like spending time with him, shower him with compliments, put your hand on him—I have no idea why you would be so cruel—”

“I wanted you to like him!” Stiles interrupted; he was flushed pink, and his hands were curled into fists. “He doesn’t have an alpha! You don’t have a pack! I wanted for you to like him, and maybe—I don’t know. It was stupid, okay? Fine. It was stupid.”

The following lack of words was heightened by the running of the sink, the clatter of dishes. Stiles’s hands were unsteady when he turned back to his chore; he kept dropping things, making unnecessary noises, and his heartbeat seemed deafening to Derek.

Finally, it was Derek who continued the conversation. “You could have told me, you know. That you wanted me to consider taking a pack.”

Stiles breathed heavily through his nose before responding. He did not turn, not yet. “I didn’t know how to breach the subject.”

That made sense, Derek supposed. He was willing to put that line of talk on the back-burner; there were other things he was more concerned about, at present. “Tell me,” he began; he could still sense his anger, waiting just beneath the surface. “Are you attracted to Isaac?”

Stiles clamped his hand loudly onto the counter’s edge. His next words were heavy with anger. “Oh, great. More jealousy. That’s cute. You know, I talk to a lot of people, when you’re not around. I work at a place you’ve never visited or asked me about, and I see lots of people you don’t know. Maybe you should ask me about all of them, make me give an assessment of their attractiveness. It’s not like I don’t know that you’d rip someone to shreds if I came home smelling like them. It’s not like I purposefully avoid touching people when you’re not around just so I don’t accidentally rile you up.”

After a beat, Derek said, “You never answered the question.”

At that, Stiles turned sharply, putting his back to the sink. “No. I’m not attracted to Isaac. But what would it fucking matter, if I was? It’s not like I can do anything about it. I wouldn’t even tell you, or clue you into it, if I found someone other than your grumpy ass attractive. I’m not dead, Derek—there are going to be people I think are good-looking, other than you.”

The horrible thing was, Derek wanted to know—because he wanted to destroy whoever they were, these people who Stiles may one day turn to. It was irrational, ridiculous; so much so that Derek bit it down, determined not to make a complete fool of himself.

But Stiles, horribly, wasn’t finished. “And you know what else? I find it fucking hilarious that the first time you directly ask me about my work, or my co-workers, it’s when you’re worried I want to fuck one of them. But maybe that’s my fault; I keep just telling you things, thinking you might be interested to listen. No more of that.”

They finally seemed to be winding down. Derek was abruptly exhausted; he’d spent long enough stewing in frustration that he wanted nothing more than to be finished with this squabble, even if it meant appeasing Stiles somehow.

So he asked about Stiles’s work, since the human had been clear enough in expressing his dissatisfaction with Derek’s mere passive listening.

“Who were the cupcakes for?”

Stiles stared at him blankly for a moment. Then he smirked, betraying his continuing fury—and spoke in a clear, taunting voice.

“The hot girl at work.”

It was just the comment to send Derek furious. He stood in a flurry, knocking his chair over with a loud clatter, and allowed his overwhelming temper to draw out his fangs, claws, and reddened eyes. In an instant, he had rushed across the room and towards where Stiles was standing, the human clutching the counter and crumpling in on himself defensively.

Despite their nearer proximity, Derek did not move to touch him. He didn’t even enter Stiles’s space; just stood firm two feet away, voice like a growl: “Don’t provoke me. Don’t you ever do that again, do you understand me?”

Stiles nodded, head rattling frantically. He shook in fear. It was enough to make Derek take a step back, then make him hide his claws and fangs.

“Stiles,” he started, lifting his hand up, hopefully to comfort. “I didn’t mean to—”

Except, he had. He had meant to scare Stiles; to make Stiles understand, and obey. It was the way an alpha tended to function, as Derek had seen throughout his childhood—not with violence, necessarily, but with authority based on respect and inherent hierarchy. The strongest made the rules; the strongest should be the wisest, for the sake of those they tended and protected.

So instead of deny his intentions, Derek asked: “You know I would never hurt you, right? I would never—”

He stopped, rendered silent as Stiles hurried from the room. The door to the spare bedroom shut with a bang.

(|)

Derek sat on the couch, against the wall, so he could see the hallway. He held his head in both hands and let his legs splay out, leaning both elbows on his spread thighs. He sat so he could see exactly when the doorknob turned, when Stiles had decided to leave his room, his safe space.

Not so long ago, Stiles had taken Derek’s cock in his mouth on that same couch. Now, the house was near-silent and filled with a tight, muffled air.

After a vague gap of quiet time—too long, too silent—Stiles stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him. He stood still and watched Derek watch him, eyes unwavering even as they were irritated to pink in their swollen lids.

When Derek spoke, it was with a cracked, tired voice. “I thought you weren’t afraid of me. Not anymore.”

“I’ve never been afraid of you,” Stiles answered, devoid of emotion. “I’m afraid of what you’re capable of.”

Slowly, Derek leaned back on the couch, allowing his head to fall back to face the ceiling. He did not stand; he wrangled himself still, like a pacing animal snapped to a leash, locked in a crate. Housebroken, something traitorous within him whispered—yet he still kept seated as he leveled his head and spoke again.

“I’ve never—” He stopped momentarily, scratching at his stubble. “I wouldn’t hurt you. You need to know that.”

“You could,” Stiles said casually. “Others have before. It’d be easy. I’m all…soft. Breakable. You just need to lose your head a little.”

“But I didn’t. I won’t.” Derek stressed. He dropped his hands, opened his palms up to the ceiling, the stagnant air. “Don’t think so little of me, or of my control. Don’t—will you always punish me like this, for what others have done to you?”

Stiles’s expression went dark. He tipped his head to the side, slightly and slowly, and spoke in a deep, vicious tone. “I ran from you because I can’t stand raised voices. It was a defense mechanism. My entire life is defense mechanisms, one after the other. What the fuck do you want me to do? Shut them off? If you’ve got any tips, I’m all ears.” He rubbed at his forehead quickly, then rushed out: “No, you know what? Fuck that. I don’t even want to shut them off. I don’t want to unlearn the shit I’ve gone through hell to learn. Because you might not hurt me, but there will be others who will, or who will try. This is my life, Derek—I live from one incident to the next. All I need to do is walk out that door and I’m already on my toes, never letting my guard down. It’s like everything in the fucking world is trying to make me feel weak, and it’s working.”

Derek looked at him for a few seconds, struggling to gather something to say: hasn’t Stiles been safe here? Isn’t his work environment secure? Isn’t he allowing his anxieties to control his life, make him frightened of even strangers and threats that may not exist—and doesn’t he know Derek will protect him, has been protecting him, marking him, for a long time?

“You don’t have to feel unsafe anymore. I would never—”

“Stop making this about you, you piece of shit.”

He stomped forward then, through the hallway, straight to the front door’s walkway. He grabbed the old Volvo’s keys from the side table by the door.

“I need to cool off. Don’t wait up,” Stiles snapped out quickly, not even allowing Derek a word in, stunned as he was.

The door banged shut behind him, the second and last door to slam that night.

(|)

With Stiles gone, it left Derek one thing to do: pace.

That got old quickly. So he made up more things to do.

He cleaned up the kitchen, did laundry (his first load since Stiles had moved in), tidied the garage, and went on a run before the sun had even risen. When the sky was finally growing pale, Derek made himself a simple breakfast, sat at the kitchen table, and spent an undeterminable amount of time just staring at the wall. At every passing second, he felt like he could either crawl out of his skin or implode.

He heard the Volvo approach the house long before it reached the driveway. By the time Stiles opened the front door, Derek was sitting in practically the same place Stiles had left him.

“Fucking christ,” Stiles said under his breath. “I should have known.”

He moved straight to the kitchen; Derek followed him. “Where have you been?”

“Did you sleep?”

“No.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t anticipate this.”

“Where have you been?” Derek asked again. Stiles took off his jacket, one he’d had in the car, and laid it over a chair’s back; he smelled strange, like nothing he’d ever carried home. “You smell different. Whose smell is it? What is it? Where were you?”

Only when Stiles had stopped pinching at the bridge of his nose did Derek realize how insecure and needy he’d sounded; it had been a long, quiet night, even with how busy he’d kept himself.

“I was at a friend’s place. I met him at work. I went there because I knew I could trust him. He doesn’t make me uncomfortable, meaning he doesn’t want anything from me, other than maybe some company. Meaning he’s no one you need to worry about. So no need to get all possessive and alpha on me again.”

While he sounded long-suffering, Stiles was also more patient with his words, a little more lenient to Derek’s antics. But Derek still wouldn’t settle; his hands kept balling to fists, and he looked to Stiles with a stern, scrunched brow—one barely hiding insecurity and worry. Stiles smelled wrong.

There must have been enough of it on Derek’s face to clue Stiles in. He sighed. “Come here. Lean against the counter, okay?”

Derek followed his instructions, but his arms remained taut, fingers clenched in towards his palms. Stiles grabbed him at the wrists, tugging them up and out to open his body up a bit, then settled against his chest, bringing Derek’s arms around himself in the process. It was somewhat strange—a manual hug, Derek letting it happen like a particularly conscious and willing marionette—but it was nice, once the placements were set.

It was better, even, when Stiles spoke again, his voice more gentle and open than it had been for the last day. “Go on, do some weird wolfy nuzzles or something. Don’t you guys love scent-marking, or whatever? Do that. We’re having a cute reconciliation cuddle.”

Derek breathed out, and it sounded like obvious relief. “You stink,” he said lightly, yet still meaning every word.

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Hmm,” Derek rumbled, scraping his stubble against Stiles’s neck, the shadowy green bruise there. “Artificial cheese. Dr. Pepper. Undertone of mold.”

Stiles laughed under his breath and lifted his hand to scratch at Derek’s scalp. “That’s a pretty good summary of my night. We played video games for a long time.”

Derek tightened his loose hold, just a bit, and pressed his nose to the skin of Stiles’s neck. “Please don’t leave like that again.”

“Are you jealous?” Stiles asked, still calmly. “That I spent time with someone else? In someone else’s house?”

“Yes,” Derek admitted. “But I can handle it. What I mean is—I was worried. I didn’t know where you’d gone; you don’t have a phone.”

“I don’t need you to protect me, Derek.”

Derek frowned. He thought of what could happen if Stiles didn’t wear his mark, or smell like him; of how he trusted Stiles not to stray—but he also thought of how he didn’t trust others, not when he knew how desirable Stiles was. It was something Stiles simply couldn’t be fully aware of, not as a human—and something which other wolves could surely see and smell from an initial scrutiny.

So Derek muttered, “Yes, you do.”

Stiles stiffened in his arms. Quickly, Derek spoke again, concerned Stiles would draw away. “And you left on bad terms. You were upset.”

“I was,” Stiles agreed; he relaxed minutely, then turned to kiss Derek’s temple. “I’ve got a bad history, Derek. You know what that’s like. Not the same thing, but—do you remember when I got distracted and burnt something while cooking? Garlic burns really easily. You told me it smelled like burning, and you looked as though you were about to throw up. You were silent the rest of the day. There’s some things we can’t forget, no matter how hard we try.”

“I’m sorry I raised my voice at you.”

Stiles smiled. “And I’m sorry I said something hurtful on purpose. I knew it would piss you off. And just for the record: that was me punishing you, not—not the other stuff.” His smile faded and he tipped his head down, hands clenching where they held Derek’s sides. “I can’t really handle you making me feel guilty for having issues, Derek. I mean, I already feel shitty enough about everything as it is—you ordered a human online to come clean your house, make you food, and sex you up, and instead you got me, some skinny jumpy kid with more anxieties than dollars to his name. I’m like—I’m fucked up, okay. I wish they had sent you someone else, someone to appreciate you and take better care of you than I can.”

It was times like that that Derek wished he had more talent with words—or at least the liberty to sweep Stiles up and carry him to bed.

Instead, he just said, “Thank you for coming back. Thank you.”

Because that was what had kept him up more than anything else: that the day had come when Stiles would be finally, truly gone.

(|)

(|)

(|)

You think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star?

I’ll swallow you whole.

            Warsan Shire.

Chapter Text

With the smell of cooking steak wafting in the house, Derek knew without a doubt that Stiles was trying to please him. He wouldn’t object to it; a steak was a steak, and it wasn’t like Stiles wouldn’t force some veggies on the plate anyway. Besides, it was nice, every so often, to have Stiles indulge him so blatantly.

 “Now don’t get too used to this,” Stiles told him, checking on the mashed potatoes. “I nearly had an aneurysm buying this for dinner. Next time you want steak, go out and fetch me a live cow, okay? I’d rather be covered in fresh blood by cutting up the damn thing myself than let the butcher charge us like he hand-fed the animals golden straw and personally sang them lullabies every night.”

Derek sipped a beer, leaned against the counter, and simply watched. He liked seeing Stiles here, busy and bustling, in his kitchen.

Stiles moved to grab something from a nearby drawer. As he stepped closer to Derek, Stiles quickly looked up to see his face, looked away—then did an exaggerated double-take. Derek let his eyebrows go up slightly, beer bottle close to his lips. His brow continued its ascent as Stiles darted closer, tugging the bottle down and away, and placed a peck on Derek’s lips.

When the kiss ended all too abruptly and his face went slack, Derek realized that he had been smiling—grinning like an idiot—and hadn’t even noticed.

“You looked like such a smug bastard,” Stiles joked, the sides of his eyes crinkling in amusement. He stood close, and his heart thrummed strong and steady. “Like a pleased puppy. Not a bad look, though I do like your patented ‘slack-jaw’ look too. Very flattering, honey bunch.” With a slight pat to Derek’s cheek, then a definite pinch to another, lower cheek, Stiles grinned and continued, “Now move your butt. You’re blocking the drawer.”

So they ate steak. And Derek enjoyed it, despite the meat being more medium than rare.

At the end of the meal, Derek took a chance. He slid Stiles’s empty plate from under his hand, hurriedly cleared the table, and pressed a kiss to the top of his head, muttering: “I’ll do dishes tonight. You go get cleaned up.”

So Stiles left the kitchen without tidying, just grinning at Derek softly before he left the room—and his pulse indicated no discomfort at Derek’s unsolicited display of affection.

Washing dishes felt like a victory, that night.

(|)

Since they went to bed together, Derek and Stiles usually woke up at the same time. Stiles would be half starfished and half cuddled into Derek’s side; Derek would be lying straight, limbs and torso in one line, face crumpled into the bedding and belly down—but sometimes, he’d have one hand out, elbow bent, with his fingers curled lazily onto the bottom hem of Stiles’s t-shirt; a touch so slight and slack it was about as threatening as a kitten paw.

And while the lazy morning light trickled through the curtains, Derek would immediately tune into Stiles’s perfect, even heartbeat. He would keep lying still and silent, but only until Stiles took the grumbling initiative to climb from bed and get breakfast started; then, Derek would let out a cranky chest-rumble, unwilling to give up the gentle tenderness of loose limbs, groggy minds, and the odd warm-tang of Stiles’s morning breath gusting softly into the air—and how gone was he, Derek thought, that he even managed to weirdly enjoy Stiles’s morning breath?

At the cue of Derek’s groan, Stiles would chuckle under his breath. He would make a quick trip to the bathroom, relieve himself, then trot back into the bedroom on light feet, plopping a quick sloppy kiss to Derek’s temple on his way out. “Morning, sunshine. The earth says hello,” he would say, and Derek would mock-growl his displeasure.

That was how things usually went, in the morning: peaceful, delicately sun-tainted, if burdened only with a touch of grumpiness. It was a good case scenario—not the best case, since best would include morning sex—but Derek reveled in it, came to expect it in a manner which never quite lost its delightful novelty.

But things did not always follow the usual.

One morning, just a touch shy of Stiles’s seven-month mark in Derek’s home, the occasional happened. When Stiles rose from bed to go to the bathroom, Derek made no sound. His eyes were open, staring blankly ahead to the wall, gaze sideways with his head still dropped limply on the pillow. Upon Stiles’s return, and then his minty-toothpaste kiss, Derek’s stare did not waver; he did not acknowledge the touch, nor the sunlight, nor the morning in its demand for rise.

He merely wished acutely to go back to sleep, for the bland non-existence of unconsciousness. He wished, vaguely, to die.

Stiles stood straight, swiping a tender hand over the side of Derek’s face. He watched Derek’s face carefully, expression plain, bordering on a frown. “Morning, sunshine,” he said in a soft, fond tone. It was more cautious and questioning than his customary taunt; he waited for a response, but got none.

He sighed. His footsteps thumped in the hallway dully. He fixed himself a bowl of cereal, poured milk into the bowl. He carried that with him to Derek’s office, thumbed through a planner, and made precisely three calls to three different clients, rescheduling appointments and pick-ups with a hasty, sincere I’m sorry, something’s come up.

Derek listened to it all with a detached sense of apathy. The wall was blank, unassuming. It demanded nothing, and he was glad for it.

On those days, Stiles would largely leave him alone. He would either go to work, run errands, or perform chores, just as regular monotony dictated. Through experience, he knew not to disturb Derek or try to cheer him up; also through experience, he knew when to enter the bedroom as quietly as possible, carrying brothy soup and one of the muffins he’d baked the other day.

He placed the tray on the end table with a clack. If he simply left after that, he would only find the tray cold and untouched an hour or so later; instead, he slid his hands under Derek’s torso, voice gentle: “Sit up, Derek. You have to eat today.”

Derek did not respond, but he did not resist. Soon, his back was against the headboard and his eyes were plastered to a different wall’s dullness.

Stiles lifted the bowl of soup and sat on the edge of the mattress. “You just need to drink this. Okay?”

The broth smelled sharply of chicken and lightly of carrot and celery. It made Derek nauseated.

Gripping the bowl with one hand, fingers splayed on the base, Stiles brought his other hand to stroke at Derek’s forehead, then to clutch at the side of his jaw. “Come on, baby. I won’t leave until you drink it.”

Those words—I won’t leave—made Derek’s jaw clench, his eyes flutter shut on a grimace. He still raised one had to take the bowl, though, and brought the stupid thing to his lips, tipping it steadily and opening his throat; not hastily enough, for he nearly choked on it.

“Hey, hey, slow down,” Stiles told him—and he sounded so gentle, so concerned, it made Derek want to throw up.

He handed the drained bowl back. Then he let his arm drop heavily back to the bedspread, palm up and fingers curled.

“Good,” Stiles said, softly proud. “Will you try to eat the muffin, too? At least try?”

After a long pause, Derek knew Stiles wouldn’t leave without some recognition, so he blinked once, slowly.

“Okay,” Stiles breathed out. “Okay. I’ll be back in an hour or two.” He leaned over to kiss Derek’s forehead; when Derek winced, Stiles’s expression went strained and pinched. If he could have summoned enough energy for it, Derek would have been annoyed by that—that Stiles had the audacity to seem affronted by Derek’s lack of joy at his touch.

Instead, Stiles left without another word, without further contact—just walked out the door, without looking back.

And Derek watched the wall.

(|)

By the time Stiles returned to check on him, Derek had taken one bite from the muffin and managed to achieve shallow unconsciousness.

The sun was still doing its best to slice through the curtains, though it was deeper now, and the shadows on the floor were long. It had to be afternoon, but Stiles made no mention of the time or how long Derek had wallowed in bed that day. He just lifted the covers, slid in next to Derek, and wriggled himself into a limp embrace.

This time, when Stiles kissed Derek’s forehead, he did not flinch away.

“You took a bite,” Stiles stated, pleased. “I’m glad.”

Derek made a soft noise in the back of his throat, eyes still shut against the bedding.

“Have you gone to the bathroom?” Stiles asked, and Derek didn’t know how he kept from sounding patronizing. He just seemed placid, conversational.

Instead of a yes, Derek made the same noise again. Stiles sighed, nuzzling underneath Derek’s jaw; his exhalations were warm and soothing on Derek’s skin.

“Would you be up for a bath, if I got one ready?”

Derek considered. He still felt rather horrible, but at least he didn’t regret breathing anymore. So he made the same affirming sound once more.

Stiles smiled, whispered: “Okay. Good.” When he tried to retreat from Derek’s arms, however, the hold on him tightened a bit, so he stopped moving and went easily limp. “Yeah, you’re right. A quick nap is a better idea. We’ll get a bath going later.”

Derek did not answer. With Stiles’s scent in his nostrils, he chased sleep. That familiar human scent: sweet, almost syrupy, with a dark twinge of musk like sweat and fresh blood—it flooded his senses, his awareness, and seemed to consume him even as he slipped into vacant unconsciousness.

It wasn’t the total, soulless blank he wanted—but it was close.

It was better.

(|)

When the sun went down, Stiles helped him out of bed with one steady, grasping hand. Derek held that hand all the way to the bathroom, where the light from the shoddy bulb irritated his eyes. He let go to allow Stiles free use of his fingers, which made short work of Derek’s clothing, their touch nimble and slow-going. Stiles stripped him bare with absolute ease, and the affection in his eyes as he performed the task clanged and battered in Derek’s chest like it was testing him, hollowing him, and filling him up, one piece—one glance, touch, word—at a time.

Formless words caught in Derek’s throat. Contact stuck on his skin; moments slugged by to the background noise of Stiles’s heartbeat and the rush of the steaming faucet. Derek breathed through his dry lips, tasting a stubborn clutch at the top of his mouth, like he’d break into tears if a single clogged noise came loose.

But nothing did. So he didn’t break or falter, not even when Stiles began to strip himself, pressing a single palm to Derek’s shoulder so he could balance while he squirmed out of his pants. By the time the bath was full, Stiles was naked, and Derek felt lost.

Stiles gripped his hand again. “Come on. Let’s clean up.”

They climbed in, Stiles first. Derek settled between his legs, back to chest. The press of their bodies was warmer than the water; it nearly burned Derek straight through.

Running his hands along Derek’s forearms, Stiles sighed sulkily.

“I forgot to add bubbles.”

Like it was ripped out, Derek laughed in one harsh, jagged gasp.

Later, after they’d climbed from the bath, bodies clean and bare, Stiles got to his knees and crawled up to the bed’s headboard. He let Derek between his legs again, held Derek’s jaw as his mouth worked over Stiles’s cock; he shivered when Derek’s sigh gusted over him, and when the droplets from their bath slid down his skin, cool and slickening with his newfound sweat.

Derek sucked him like he wanted to choke, like he wanted Stiles to suffocate him dead.

(|)

The calendar in Derek’s office had a date circled. It seemed important; there was even a star sticker next to it.

“Stiles?”

“Yeah?” The human yelled from the living room, the dust buster whirring over the couch cushions.

“What’s this star on the calendar for? What’s tomorrow?”

“Oh!” Stiles shut off the handheld vacuum. “A dinner. I forgot to tell you that Isaac’s coming over tomorrow.”

Derek stuck his head out of the office doorway. “Did you forget, or did you avoid telling me?”

A nervous laugh escaped Stiles’s throat; he waggled a finger, as if to say, good one. “Uh, both? He was nervous to come around again, so I told him why you didn’t like him before, and…he agreed to another dinner.”

Stiles fidgeted, and Derek stared at him with his lids lowered. “Fine,” he snapped out, irritated. “And you don’t have to dance around the subject. I’ll consider Isaac for pack. Consider it. Still haven’t decided if I even like the guy or not.”

At that, he went back into the office, and the vacuum droned out the sound of Stiles exhaling in relief.

(|)

Isaac came over on a Wednesday evening, before dusk had even begun to tease the horizon. He brought two bottles of wine: one traditional merlot, and one new-age chardonnay, bane-laced and potent. Stiles nearly kissed the merlot upon receiving it; bane-laced alcohol wasn’t all too compatible with human palates, too overpowering, and the detoxified monkshood could still make their lips swell and guts ache.

Derek appreciated the gesture, though he usually preferred traditionally crafted beers. Drunkenness was nothing he valued so much as to seek out new-age brew.

Still, when Isaac offered the gifts with a quiet, “I wasn’t sure which to get,” Derek gave him a nod.

Stiles wasn’t finished cooking; he had insisted upon slow-roasting the pork chops and waiting to make the risotto last minute, supposedly for achieving and maintaining perfect, fresh texture. Derek saw through him completely—especially when he shooed both werewolves outside to the patio, even swatting at Derek’s back with an oven mit.

“Get out, get out. You’ll just get in the way. Drink and talk about wolf things; I’ll call you in when everything’s ready.”

And so Isaac and Derek found themselves sitting at the patio table, sipping at glasses of chardonnay and not noticing the brisk chill in the oncoming night air.

“Does he always do that?” Isaac asked.

“Do what?”

“Order everyone around fearlessly. Maintain an iron grip on the household,” Isaac replied. From another wolf, it may have come across as an insult to Derek’s authority; in this case, it was easy to tell from Isaac’s tone that he found it all charming.

“Pretty much,” Derek said with a light-hearted sigh.

Isaac laughed politely. “It seems like a nice life, though.” He half-grinned and ran a finger over the base of his wine glass. “He seems to balance you out, somehow. Anchor you.”

Derek gave his own half-smile back, then ducked his head a bit. The words pleased him, but also made him uncomfortable; it was hardly anything he’d come to complete terms with himself, when his relationship with Stiles kept seeming to shift and alter greatly with time.

Isaac seemed to notice the discomfort. When he spoke again, his tone was cautious and only slightly rushed, striving to keep the conversation rolling. “When I first met him, he seemed really sure of himself, almost—loud-mouthed. Snarky. I don’t think he much cared that I was a werewolf—or well, he cared, but he didn’t think it was anything to bow down to.”

It was Derek’s turn to chuckle, then; a tension in his shoulders eased. “Yeah, pretty much. And even if he bows, he’ll spit on your shoe.”

Again, Isaac grinned—but his next words, after a settling of relaxed silence, were even more careful. He swallowed before speaking, as though gathering a bit of courage; Derek sensed the shift in mood and listened carefully.

“Honestly, I didn’t like him, at first. I thought he was kind of unpleasant and intimidating. We only started becoming friends when one of the librarians dropped a pile of books onto a table, and the noise made us both jump. I could hear Stiles’s pulse race for the rest of the shift, and mine was the same. He noticed my hands shaking.”

They weren’t shaking then, but Isaac did grimace slightly. Still, he went on: “I don’t want to dampen the mood, or…I don’t know. Sorry if you don’t want to hear this. But I figure if I’m here for you to get to know me, and possibly make me pack in the future, then in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I come from a pretty shitty pack. My dad was alpha, but my mom was the strong one, and when she died—my dad just snapped. His life fell to pieces, and I was the only anchor he had, the only constant in his life—and he hated his life, so he beat the shit out of me. Constantly.

“And it sounds really crappy, but I only became friends with Stiles because we had that one thing in common: people we’d trusted, or at least depended on, had treated us like total shit.” Isaac sipped at his wine again, mouth twisting at the taste and his discomposure. After a long beat of silence, he laughed nervously. “Maybe I should have waited to tell you all that.”

“No,” Derek replied, leaning back in his chair. He scratched at his stubble. “You don’t waste time. I appreciate that.”

And Isaac’s behavior made sense, then: the need to placate, to avoid conflict or confrontation of any kind, and his adeptness at sensing an alpha’s moods. They were desirable traits, even if they’d come from a rough source—and while they could easily be valued, they would never be abused. Derek saw in Isaac’s eyes, in his steady, undaunted gaze, that he would never live through his childhood again.

From inside the house, Stiles broke his constant humming and spoke, at normal volume: “Dinner’s ready.”

They went inside, and they both rolled their eyes when Stiles had asked if they’d played nice.

(|)

When the wine bottles were empty, Isaac had gone home with more tupperwares of leftovers, and the messy dishes were stacked in the sink, Stiles climbed into Derek’s lap, warm and smiling through his contented buzz. He brought Derek’s head into the cradle of his neck and shoulder, letting him sniff and nuzzle, and looped his arms around Derek’s shoulders.

“That was fun,” he said happily. He set his chin down on the top of Derek’s head; he smelled like merlot, musk, and sweet cream. “So, what do you think? Does he pass muster? Shall he join the ranks? Will you go running in the moonlight, howling together and taking down great elks—”

Blunt teeth dug into Stiles’s neck; he laughed loudly, breaking the house’s quiet to pieces.

(|)

Isaac came over again, the next Wednesday, and the week after that. Derek offered him the bite after that fourth dinner—purely symbolic, traditional, but important nevertheless. The beta smiled at the offer, pleased and a little flattered.

It was commonplace for betas who gained a new pack to take the last name of their new alpha, though it wasn’t always the case. Derek hadn’t expected Isaac to do it; he wanted it—but he still didn’t expect it.

So when Isaac shrugged and waved a hand, nonchalant, and said: “Lahey means nothing to me anymore. Just bad memories and a dead alpha,” Derek couldn’t help but be glad, and wielded a smile of his own.

Every Wednesday evening from that week on was known as pack dinner.

(|)

Derek clicked through some channels, feet propped up on the coffee table. He was sipping a beer, just like he did most nights after dinner.

Though he heard Stiles coming, he didn’t anticipate the plate of apple slices being plopped onto his gut.

“You don’t eat enough fruit,” Stiles told him.

“I’m a werewolf. I’ll live,” Derek replied. But he still put an apple slice in his mouth, then set the plate down on the coffee table with the beer bottle.

They sat in familiar silence, the news reporter on TV droning on about stocks or something similar. The relative quiet was only disturbed by Derek’s occasional munching—Stiles took the time to prepare and give him food, so he’d eat it—and by Stiles, who fidgeted every so often, apparently restless about something. Derek figured he’d speak up once he’d found the words.

He was right. It still didn’t make the words any easier to take in.

“So I’ve been masturbating.”

Derek coughed on his gulp of beer.

“Uh?” He strangled out, fist thumping against his chest once as he set the bottle down again.

Luckily, Stiles elaborated, since Derek had no clue how to appropriately react. “What I mean is—we’ve been doing pretty well for ourselves, like, bed-wise, you know? But there were still some things I was nervous about, and I don’t think I’ve had my head on right for a while, when it comes to sex. My shitty past experiences makes it difficult to have a good attitude, let alone to do anything creative. So I’ve been masturbating, just to see what I like—what I’d like to do in the future.”

Derek tried to nod sagely, but he was almost positive he just looked slack-jawed and stunned. “Okay,” he said, aiming for a considerate tone. He went on: “And—what have you found out?”

 “Well,” Stiles began, scratching the back of his head nonchalantly. “Hm. I found out that my nipples are sensitive. And I fingered myself last week, when you were out at the post office, sending in Isaac’s documents. I really enjoyed that, once I got over the initial kind of…squirmy, invasive feel of it.”

Derek nodded more. And swallowed.

Stiles grinned impishly as he watched Derek’s reaction.

“I got to three fingers comfortably,” he continued, voice slowly turning to a teasing purr. “I like the slow stretch of it. I like to press against the skin just outside with my thumb, put a little pressure there. I can feel it all the way through, all the way up my spine—but I can’t do that too much, because then I clench down and my fingers can’t move. So I need to relax.”

Stubbornly, yet with a definite twinge of desperation, Derek looked ahead to the TV. The reporter was talking about weather.

“But it’s really difficult to relax, especially when I pinch my nipple. When I tried that, I couldn’t unclench for a few seconds. And I’m pretty sure I used so much lube, I was practically dripping—wish I had a dildo or something, so I could stretch a little wider and have an easier time pretending it was your dick—” He broke off at the sound of ripping upholstery, then grabbed at Derek’s wrists, tugging his claws from the couch urgently.

“No no no—damn it, Derek—we just bought these cushions,” he scolded, but there was laughter in his voice, and he’d already climbed to straddle Derek’s lap. He chuckled and pressed kisses to Derek’s mouth, then to his stubble and down his neck. He came back up when Derek nudged at his chin, and they made out like teenagers for an untold number of minutes, occasionally grinding and getting steadily more frantic.

By the time Stiles spoke up and commanded: “Hold onto my ass. We’re going to bed,” Derek was bordering mindless. But having directions spurred him into action immediately, and he took hold of Stiles just as he’d been told, Stiles wrapping himself around Derek in turn. “Like a koala,” Stiles joked, his laughing mixed with frequent kisses.

Once they’d fumbled their way through the hallway, leaving the TV on because who cared, it took them a few seconds to stop bashing into the bedroom door and simply open it. Eventually, they accomplished a lumbering stumble onto the bed, and Stiles dragged his tongue from Derek’s mouth to whisper over his lips: “I want to—let me show you what I like, where I want you to touch me, just how to do it—Please, can I—”

Finally, Derek spoke over him in a rush, yet it sounded more like a groan: “Yes, fuck yes, anything you want—”

“Get my pants off; get your pants off—why do you wear pants.”

Derek huffed a breathy laugh and swatted Stiles’s hands away from his fly; the human was too clumsy, couldn’t even get the button undone. While Derek took care of his own clothing situation, Stiles went between racing to get naked himself and reaching under the bed—until finally he pulled a shoebox from underneath the mattress. He held it under his right arm, tucking it to his bare torso.

“This is my fun box,” he told Derek cheerfully, wriggling to help as Derek began to pull on the fabric of his pants. “It has everything we will need for ensuing fun times. I bought the stuff because I figured you might be a little clueless as to what a human male needs for sex, since you bought me so many stupid fucking multivitamins. You even bought me supplements for my period, oh my god—no offense; it was very thoughtful of you.”

“Stiles, let’s focus here,” Derek snapped fondly.

“I am, jeez. You just can’t let a guy have a little preamble,” he mumbled, then opened up the box. “Okay, we need: lube, maybe a condom, and gloves.” He tossed the items onto the bed next to him, then let the box land onto the floor.

Derek frowned. “Gloves?”

Yes, gloves. Do you know what butts normally do?”

Derek shrugged and grabbed the box full of latex gloves, dispensable like tissues, and snatched one. Before he started to put it on, however, he leaned down to place a sweet, slow kiss to Stiles’s lips. Then he asked gently: “Do you want me to finger you, Stiles?”

He had mostly meant it as a tease, as well as a means to ease his mind. Instead, he was met with hesitation.

“Um,” Stiles mumbled, “Yeah.”

Derek kept his face close so Stiles could feel the full force of his frown. “Stiles,” he began, voice slow and dry, “I’m not going to do this unless you really want it.”

“No, it’s totally fine,” Stiles replied. He sounded a little too carefree. “I already, like, teased you about it and stuff. It’ll be really fun.”

The frown turned into a tired, weak glare.

“Okay—honestly?” Stiles rushed out, squirming; he spoke in a nervous rush: “I kind of wanted to try fingering you? That’s—maybe what I meant when I said ‘show you what I like.’ I could…show you through a demonstration, you know?”

The frown-and-glare faded to light surprise. Derek nodded. “Yeah, okay. But I’ve never done that before.”

“That’s fine,” Stiles said, visibly relieved. His relief quickly turned to excitement, however, as he helped Derek get situated lying down, guiding his limbs and kissing the skin near his reach. “That’s good, even. I’ll be the best you’ve ever had.”

You are the best I’ve ever had, Derek wanted to say—but instead he just smiled, watching Stiles put a glove on his right hand timidly.

“I’ve only ever done this to myself,” Stiles admitted as he clicked open the lube bottle. “Well. Myself, and this one girl at the reservation—but that wasn’t anally. She had a vagina so we went the easier route.”

“Stiles.”

“Yeah baby?”

“Don’t talk about other people you’ve had sex with.”

“Right, right, not in bed. That’s an established rule; you’re right.” It went quiet just as Stiles dropped some lube on his fingers, rubbing the slick between his digits, warming it up. He looked down at Derek, who was lying partly on his side and watching Stiles avidly. “Um—here, if you could—put your leg over like this.”

With his ungloved hand, Stiles lightly shoved at Derek’s right leg until it crossed over to rest on the other side of his body. It also forced his body more sideways than before, and didn’t allow for much movement, but Derek could still see Stiles clearly and he had no complaints.

“Is this—really okay?” Stiles asked. He’d placed his ungloved hand on top of Derek’s hip, in the curve made between his lifted leg and hipbone. “Do you…want me to walk you through it?”

At first, Derek wanted to scoff; but upon second thought, it was his first time doing this. He liked the idea of having an idea of what was happening next. “Yeah. That’d be good.”

Stiles grinned. “Okay. I’m going to rub the lube on you, just on the outside.”

He did. The contact made Derek immediately clench; he was surprised about it, because the touch was so gentle. As he was touched, Derek watched Stiles’s face, and he found himself slightly entranced by the concentration there—Stiles’s eyes looked huge, barely blinking, and a lovely flush was blooming on his pale skin.

The fingers went away, and the lube bottle clicked open again. “You never have enough lube,” Stiles said, his voice light. He was relaxing; Derek wondered if letting Stiles talk through this was helpful for them both. “I’m going to go with one finger now. Don’t be surprised if I pull out quickly, or seem to back off. Sometimes it takes a few times to get it, since I don’t want to force my way in.”

When his hand returned, Stiles rubbed at the surface again, but only for a moment. Then he was pushing one finger inside, movements slow and measured—but he was meeting resistance; Derek could feel it, and he also couldn’t stop it. So Stiles withdrew, just as he’d said he might, then tried again, hitting the resistance three times before it finally gave way.

It felt—intrusive. There was really no other way to put it. Stiles leaned down to kiss just below where his ungloved hand was settled, then said quietly: “It might help if you touch yourself.”

But Derek didn’t, not yet. First, he waited, and listened to what Stiles told him.

“I’m going to move around, now. Loosen you up slowly. Okay?” Derek grunted in response; it was enough for Stiles. He started to move his finger slowly, almost solely using his wrist, not his knuckles. Keeping his hand loose and lax, he was able to press delicately against Derek’s rim, just rubbing and twisting in a circle, more like a massage than a stretch. In the beginning, the motion just doubled the sense of intrusion; where the base of his finger touched and pressured was extremely sensitive, far more so than where the rest of his finger was buried. It was impossible to ignore and wholly unfamiliar.

But Stiles kept at it. Soon, the steady circular motion went from unfamiliar to oddly pleasant, and Derek finally went to pull at his cock.

That was when things got really enjoyable.

When Derek let out a loose moan, Stiles chuckled under his breath, almost disbelievingly. “Is that good?”

Derek was too busy turning into mush to answer, tugging at his cock and shutting his eyes to focus on the feeling of Stiles’s finger. He nearly moaned again when he realized: it was only the one finger; they hadn’t even moved on to more. Truly, it seemed like the one would be plenty good enough.

“I’m going to press on your perineum,” Stiles informed him—and Derek was going to ask what specific part that even was, but then it was happening, and his question was replaced with a hissing, breath-hitching noise. Shutting his eyes even tighter, he quickened his hand over his cock and tightened his hold.

With his thumb pressed onto the skin behind Derek’s balls, Stiles could no longer move his finger as he had before. He said next: “I’m going to try pushing in and out. You might need more lube, in which case I’ll pull out.”

Derek huffed in frustration. “Just drop it right on there. Just spit, whatever—but keeping doing that.”

Stiles paused for a moment. “You want me to—spit on—?”

 “Yeah,” Derek affirmed. He sounded grumpy; he didn’t much care, since Stiles had stopped moving his finger. “Spit on my ass.”

He heard a gust of air whoosh from Stiles’s dropped jaw. “Oh my god, okay, yeah, okay.” The next noise Derek heard was the rustle of sheets as Stiles leaned over him. Opening his eyes to watch, Derek saw Stiles look down at his hole, the human’s wide eyes glazed—then he let his puckered lips open, dropping a line of saliva down onto Derek’s ass.

He still had to pull his finger out, in order to push the spit in. Derek made sure to growl about it.

Once they had more to ease the way, however, Stiles continued without a hitch: starting slow, he pressed his one finger in and out, twisting it slightly to give Derek the pressure around the rim he enjoyed. He steadily increased the pace, but paused and slowed down when Derek tensed; after some testing and careful observation of Derek’s reactions, Stiles settled into something comfortable, but fast enough to make Derek feel loose and open.

As Stiles spoke again, Derek was busy stripping his cock. He somehow managed to listen anyway. “I’m going to massage your prostate,” Stiles told him sweetly, his expression fond and the slightest bit smug; he had that air of authority and confidence that always drove Derek insane in the best way. “Tell me if the pressure is too much, or not enough, okay?”

 “Oka—” Derek cut off; the sure push of Stiles’s finger sent a spark of feeling all the way to his cock, almost like the finger was wriggling and pressing in there rather than in his ass—but then it became a bit too much, and Derek bit out: “Ease up a little.” He gritted his teeth until Stiles lessened his push.

“How’s that?” Stiles whispered back, tender and mindful as his finger continued to rub, gentler then.

Derek was fairly sure he’d never been so hard in his entire life. It was almost alarming how quickly he’d gone from fairly interested in the proceedings to being ready to come in the next minute. “That’s good,” he strangled out, his grip on his cock approaching too tight. “Fuck, that’s—really good.”

Stiles grinned fully, then took his ungloved hand from Derek’s hip to press his weight against the sheets, leaning down and over to give Derek an awkwardly angled kiss. “Do you want to come like this? Or do you want to try for another finger?”

But as he’d asked the question, Stiles hadn’t paused the massage; Derek hardly had the wherewithal to answer, too focused on the all-encompassing sensation of that finger—one finger; how the fuck did Stiles accomplish more, he wondered fleetingly—and it was all Derek could do to pull on his cock and whisper: “Don’t stop; I’m going to—”

“Yeah baby, let me see, come for me—”

Derek’s throat locked and his breath stalled as he came, back arching; it rocked through his veins, all the way to his toes and back, making him clench all over and forcing out his fangs.

It was easily one of the strongest orgasms he’d ever had. It almost hurt.

Stiles laughed delightedly, like he couldn’t remember how to breathe either. He watched Derek’s face, his body; he glanced down to where his finger continued to pet and squirm, where Derek’s rim tightened like a vice around him. “You’re so gorgeous; oh my god, oh my god,” he mumbled, but Derek just focused on regaining feeling in his toes and control over his shift. Once he’d stopped clenching over Stiles’s finger, the human leaned back on his heels and pulled out slowly—but once he’d withdrawn, his patience wore out, and the glove snapped off near-frantically.

“Derek,” he mumbled, sounding desperate as he tossed the inside-out glove off the bed. “Derek, can I, I don’t even know, but can I just—”

Groggily, Derek dragged his leg over to lie on his back. He was still limp and out of it, but he nodded and caught Stiles’s fingers; he drew him closer until they were lying together, with Stiles on top and their sticky limbs tangled. He kissed Stiles’s temple with wet lips and whispered: “Go ahead. Take what you need.”

Stiles whimpered in the back of his throat, then slowly began to grind his cock against Derek’s hip. Stiles’s hand was slippery with sweat, so he entwined their fingers tightly, and soon his nails were pressing into the top of Derek’s knuckles. Perhaps if Derek hadn’t been a werewolf, he would have found the position imposing—Stiles’s entire weight was on him, and those nails, though blunt and harmless, were digging in quite roughly—but instead it just felt perfect, Derek supporting Stiles and murmuring encouragements in his ear as he rubbed against him desperately.

When Stiles let out more little noises from the back of his throat, seeming so fraught and delicate, Derek ran his hand along his spine and pressed him down; Stiles whined wonderfully in response, pleading: “Please; oh god, fuck—”

And as Stiles fell to pieces in his arms, Derek just kissed his temple and stroked light fingertips down his spine.

(|)

On a rush order, Derek stayed in the backyard working for long hours on end. From breakfast’s end to just after dusk, he measured, sawed, hammered, and wondered who the fuck demanded a gazebo to be created within such a short amount of time. At least the bonus from the swift work was lofty, and the assignment was interesting, or else Derek would have turned it down flat.

Every so often, Stiles would slide open the glass door to the patio and lean against the doorway. He’d watch Derek work for a few seconds, then call to him to come inside. Normally, Derek waved him off—but on the third day of rush order, Stiles commanded in his mild, impatient tone: “Take a break, Der-bear. Ten minutes and a sandwich won’t kill you.”

Derek dropped his tools, stood up straight, and sighed. He walked to Stiles resignedly and stopped in front of him when Stiles didn’t move from the doorway. “Der-bear is even worse than honey bunch,” he said tiredly.

Stiles smirked, then walked back inside the house without another word.

Derek hadn’t known exactly how badly he needed lunch until it hit his taste buds, a concoction stuffed with avocado and bacon. Stiles sat next to him at the table and ran his fingertip along the condensation on his glass of iced tea.

“Stiles,” Derek prompted between mouthfuls; Stiles raised his eyebrows in response. “Isn’t your birthday coming up?”

Stiles’s eyebrows went up further before he answered. “How did you know that?”

A shrug; then: “From your papers.”

The mention of Stiles’s contract made the human tense, but he just sipped at his drink and shrugged. It was one of those days when Stiles was quiet—not neglectful, or cold, but simply more wordless than usual, almost as though his normal level of talkativeness had worn him down to comparative quiet.

 “What do you want? For your presents,” Derek asked him.

Despite his quieter mood than usual, Stiles’s response was light, delivered from a mouth curled in mischief. “Hm. I guess I’d like a cake, since it’s textbook, but—yeah, don’t buy me one. Make it for me yourself. I got enough of that little present stuff in the beginning of our relationship, thanks.”

“Okay,” Derek replied, mouth clear now that his sandwich was finished. “What else?”

That mischievous smile remained completely intact. “A vibrator,” Stiles revealed, voice plain and seemingly uncaring. Then he stood, kissed Derek’s head, and retreated into the house.

Derek remained at the table in stunned, flustered silence.

(|)

Two hours later, Stiles’s strangely quiet demeanor snapped. Derek heard it from the backyard; he rushed into the kitchen just as Stiles rushed in as well, near-panicking as he hurried to the sink to fill himself a glass of water. He timed his breathing—in out, in out, on loop and constant, though straining—and sipped at the water in between.

Derek had learned by then, several long months into their cohabitation, that Stiles’s panic attacks were never compatible with physical contact. Sometimes, they weren’t permissive of speaking, or even open fretting; this was such a case, Derek knew, as Stiles immediately fended him off when he approached. Instead, Derek sat at the kitchen table quietly, waiting for Stiles to calm down.

Luckily, this attack was easier to subdue than others had been in the past. Within minutes, Stiles was tampering his pulse to a semi-regular beat, and his hands were steady enough to disallow the glass from clattering clumsily every time he set it down on the counter.

Derek still waited. He watched his own tapping hand on the table, but kept all his attention towards the source of that pulse, the one he coveted so strongly. Stiles was pale and sweating, yet when Derek finally turned to look at him, he held Derek’s eye without wavering.

Even when he sucked in a deep breath to speak, tone embittered with dark, biting mirth, Stiles kept that unflinching stare.

“I’ll go to therapy if you will.”

He said it like an insult. Like an absurdity.

So Derek replied: “I’ll make some appointments tomorrow.”

And that was how Stiles inadvertently convinced Derek to see a psychiatrist.

(|)

Another Wednesday, another pack dinner. Stiles served burgers, which paired well with the six-pack of IPA Isaac had tugged from his oversized messenger bag. The house rang with the echoes of laughter and the occasional hiss of a bottle cap releasing; Stiles scolded Derek for side-eyeing the sweet potato fries, insisting they were just as good if not better than the usual fries, and far better for you.

As the plates went empty, Isaac started to fidget. Stiles snapped up the dishes, and when Derek offered to help, he said: “Shut up. Sit down and talk to your beta.”

Isaac gave Stiles a sheepish grin.

“I, uh,” Isaac started, keeping that shy smile as Derek sat down at the table with him. “I wanted to show you something. Maybe get your opinion, or—well. Here.” Rustling in his bag, Isaac pulled out a folder. He set it down on the table and pushed it across to Derek’s resting hand.

Instead of questioning him, Derek simply opened the folder and rifled through it. There were pages and pages of profiles: three sheets each, stapled together, with pictures and information on a dozen individuals from the nearest hospital’s records. Long beats of silence passed as he took in what Isaac was asking—the possible addition of their second beta, a current human with a chronic illness only curable through the bite.

“I just figured,” Isaac said with an understated, nervous shrug, “Since we’re a small pack…we could consider it?”

Derek was rather stunned, even though he should have seen this coming. Isaac, like Derek himself, was in the mind of rebuilding from a past long lost, and a larger pack would bring comfort for them both. So within moments, Derek had gathered himself again to send a small look of approval Isaac’s way.

“Who did you have in mind?” Derek asked him, because there was no way Isaac hadn’t poured over the profiles already.

Isaac beamed.

(|)

Erica seemed a quiet, doe-eyed thing, cracked and battered from years of hardship.

Yet, she harbored a ferocity and capability for strength which shone through every bitter bow of the head, every tremble of the hands.

Derek liked her immediately.

(|)

As Stiles’s birthday approached, the dates marching by in a near-flurry—and how routine made the weeks disappear, tossing them headlong into Stiles’s tenth month in the house—things continued on as usual, comfortable and peaceful.

“You should take the day of your birthday off,” Derek suggested, running his fingers through Stiles’s sweat-damp hair.

Stiles grinned through his post-coital blush, snuggling into Derek’s side. “Nah,” he responded. “I like work. And I don’t know if I wanna make a big deal of it, you know? It’s just another day, when it really comes down to it. We’ll have your pack over for dinner, you guys will cook for me for a change…” He kissed Derek’s skin, above his nipple. “…And once they’re all gone, you’ll do all the dishes and I’ll watch, because that kind of thing gets me off, and you’ll blow me against the kitchen counter. Boom, done, birthday plans set.”

Derek chuckled under his breath, but pressed it again: “Are you sure I can’t convince you? We could go drive somewhere. Or we could stay in bed all day,” he said between peppered kissed to Stiles’s forehead, cheek, and lips. “I could do whatever you want. Follow your every order.”

Stiles laughed tightly. “You practically do already, right?” He shoved at Derek’s face with light but insistent fingers, then turned from him and burrowed into the covers.

“Hey,” Derek said, voice gentle. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Stiles chirped. His heartbeat stuttered the slightest bit.

Derek placed one hand on Stiles’s waist, mild and questioning. Three long breaths later, Stiles shifted to lie on his back and took Derek’s hand, pulling him closer.

“You’re too good to me,” Stiles admitted, voice in a fragile whisper. “Make me wish I was better.”

The words sunk heavy, but Derek did not respond. He just curled his arms around Stiles’s frame and buried his head into the crook of the human’s neck.

 (|)

By the time Stiles arrived home on his birthday, everything was ready.

Erica and Isaac had come over in the late morning, when Stiles had already headed out to work. Isaac had read aloud from the cookbook and asked semi-rhetorical questions about technique and the importance of creaming butter and sugar; Erica had perched on the counter and shrugged at his questions, instead sneaking fingerfuls of cake batter from over Derek’s shoulder. Eventually, they’d wrangled a cake out of the ingredients, and it hadn’t even burnt the slightest bit—the benefit of having three werewolves around to smell for in-the-oven trouble.

The other present Stiles had asked for, Derek did not wait until his birthday to buy. There was already a new addition to the “fun box”—one which had been in plentiful use for the past two weeks.

So the only other thing to worry about was getting the timing right for Stiles’s surprise.

Which, judging by the face Stiles made when he walked through the front door—humming happy birthday to himself—and looked up to see his father sitting at their kitchen table, went off without a hitch.

“Dad—oh my god, what are you—how are you here right now?” Stiles rushed, ecstatic and shocked all at once.

His father hugged him and laughed under his breath. “I didn’t miss your birthday last year. Like hell am I gonna miss it this time, either.”

They clung to each other for a long time. Derek watched, leaning on the counter; he’d offered Stiles’s father a beer (“Call me John, son”) and had been plucking his memory for stories about Stiles’s childhood, his reckless teen years. John had been more than happy to recall them, animated and confident in a way which reminded Derek of Stiles, though admittedly much calmer in demeanor.

When Stiles finally separated from his father, he caught Derek’s look from the corner of his eye and quickly raised a finger at him. “You! How could you not tell me? Is this why you wanted me to take the day off?”

Derek grinned bashfully. “Surprise.”

Just then, the doorbell rang. Stiles’s eyes widened and he bemoaned: “What now?”

John chuckled again, nudging his son over to the table. “It’s just the delivery. Derek ordered us dinner.”

“What happened to cooking me dinner?” Stiles teased as Derek came back inside with bags.

“I baked the cake and nearly strangled Erica in the process. Figured your favorite Chinese place would do a better job at dinner than me.”

And he was right, because Stiles was delighted to have his favorite restaurant’s food for dinner; he was even more overjoyed to have his father there, who teased Stiles about stuffing too much food in his mouth—“That box of orange chicken isn’t going to run away, Stiles”—and asked questions about their lives, and about recent developments in Stiles’s studies, all revealed in the letters they sent back and forth to one another.

“I didn’t know you wrote letters,” Derek mentioned, when Stiles referenced his last note to his father.

“Yeah,” Stiles replied, shrugging and half-smiling self-consciously. “We just send hand-written stuff, every once in a while. It’s the most reliable way to communicate, since Dad only has access to a shitty computer at work. I always save them in my desk, in the spare room.”

“And your last letter mentioned a crap grade in your computer science class,” John said sternly, redirecting the conversation.

Stiles huffed. “It was one test! Not a big deal.” His words trailed into a surly mumble.

 “Well as far as I’m concerned, you can’t afford that, even if it is just one test,” John replied, his tone one of reluctant affection and worry. “Especially not if you want to get that degree all in one year. If you fail a class, that’s it, you’ve got an extra semester ahead of you.”

After John finished speaking, there were no more words—not for a good minute or two—and the atmosphere steadily grew tenser. If John hadn’t been there, Derek honestly had no clue who would have broken that thick, charged silence.

“Stiles,” he began slowly, voice already revealing disappointment. “Have you told Derek that you’ll be getting your degree early?”

When Stiles finally replied, his tone was small, strained, and defensive.

The defensive part of it was what frustrated Derek the most.

“I was going to,” he answered—but by then Derek was already pushing from his chair and leaving for the patio, beer in hand. When John next spoke to Stiles, it was in a harsh whisper; he likely forgot the capability of werewolf ears for eavesdropping, or simply didn’t care.

“What the hell is wrong with you? I thought you liked this guy.”

“I do, I just couldn’t find the right time—”

“Fuck’s sake, kid. He’s helping you emancipate. Least you could do is clue him in a little.”

“I know,” Stiles mumbled. “I know.”

They ate Chinese food in hushed tenseness, and Derek paced the patio outside.

(|)

When Derek rejoined them, they didn’t talk about it.

Stiles tried, prompting Derek in a small-voiced: “I wanted to—” But Derek just shook his head.

“It’s your birthday,” he said, feeling somewhat proud of how level he sounded. “We can talk about it later. For now, it’s your birthday.”

So they ate dinner, and had a slice or two of a cake that was just one step above mediocre. Even when John retired to the spare bedroom, and Derek and Stiles retreated to the master bedroom, they did not talk about it; Derek lay down on his side of the bed with his back to Stiles, and when the human shuffled over to cling and spoon up behind him, he didn’t shove him away.

The next morning and afternoon, Derek mostly worked in the backyard while Stiles spent time with his father. John had to leave for the long drive soon; he had work in the morning the very next day, and only if he left before dinner could he get a chance to have two or three hours of shut-eye before then. No sleep for the wicked meant no sleep for the sheriff, either.

They said goodbye to him together, waving from the doorstep. After he’d watched John’s car fade into the distance, Stiles sighed, then turned around and faced Derek, who was standing just behind him. Stiles took one step forward and grabbed hold of Derek’s upper arm, leaning in to give him a single, chaste kiss. He said, “Thank you for bringing him here for me.”

And with that, Stiles walked back into the house, awaiting the inevitable.

Derek shut the door behind him.

“Five months,” he muttered, just loud enough for Stiles to hear. “Five months from now, and you’ll have your degree.”

“Yes,” Stiles answered, his back still mostly turned to Derek. He stood in the hallway, facing the kitchen.

Derek pinched at his brow; he felt exhausted already. “Why didn’t you tell me? It wouldn’t have been—it’s up to you, in the end; it’s not like I would have changed what you were going to do with your studies. But it normally takes two years to get an associate’s degree, not one, and—it’s important to me. To know these things.”

“For what it’s worth,” Stiles started, after a few moments had passed, “I wasn’t sure it would happen, for a while. I needed to take a bunch of online classes and test out of some pre-requisites…and it’s only the start of the second semester now. I didn’t know if it would all work out.”

“And when did you know for sure?”

“A month ago.”

Are you fucking—are you serious, Stiles? An entire fucking month and you still didn’t get around to it?” His words were met with silence. Derek swore under his breath again. “I just—I don’t get it. I’m supportive of you getting emancipated; I do everything I can to help you, and yet you still keep me in the dark. Why do you—”

Stiles cut in, his hand flying up to placate and his voice going plaintive: “Derek, can we please…you’ve been upset with me since yesterday. I’m sorry I waited so long to let you know. I’m shitty at bringing up stuff; it seems like we talk too much about shitty things anyway—from the past, the future, whatever. I knew it would stress you out, that things are happening ahead of schedule. I’m not asking you to forgive me immediately, but…if there’s nothing else to talk about, can we at least let things simmer down?”

It was evasive. There was more to say; whether or not Derek knew what it was, or even had a clue what was going on Stiles’s head half the time—he knew there had to be more.

But for that night, at least, he wanted things to be easier just as much as Stiles.

“Fine,” he snapped. He walked quickly to grab himself a beer, this time bane-laced; he needed something strong. “Give me space tonight.”

Stiles stood in the hallway for a little longer, just watching Derek with a brittle, dread-sunken expression.

(|)

Despite his promise to let things cool down, Derek couldn’t quite bring himself to show Stiles affection that night, or the next day. The entire incident wouldn’t have been a big deal; it was just that Stiles had avoided telling him something important for so long that Derek couldn’t help but feel like there was more. He wondered how many other things Stiles purposefully kept him in the dark about.

He felt like they’d been blasted back in progress by a few months—back to when Derek couldn’t touch him, or even attempt to understand Stiles at all.

But Stiles understood him. It was frightening, sometimes, how much the human had him down pat.

In the kitchen, Stiles smiled furtively when Derek asked him, “What are you doing?”

“Toasting almonds,” he replied, smiling.

“What for?”

“I’m making you an ice cream sundae. Putting some of the birthday cake in it, too.”

Derek frowned subtly and turned back to his work, papers and plans all spread out on the coffee table. He’d been working in the office for a while, but needed a slight change of surroundings in order to keep focused.

When Stiles brought over the treat and sat down next to Derek gingerly, Derek grumbled out: “You didn’t need to make me anything.”

 “Yeah, I did,” Stiles replied, then stuck a spoon into the top of it. “This is a ‘remember how much you adore me’ sundae.”

At Derek’s lukewarm glare, Stiles nudged the bowl of ice cream towards him further and waited. Derek picked it up, and Stiles smiled again triumphantly. As Derek ate, Stiles rifled through his work papers idly, making an absolute mess of everything—but when he had a mouth full of chocolate sauce, strawberry ice cream, and cake bits, it was difficult for Derek to be grumpy about anything, no matter how much he tried.

Which was what Stiles had expected, the nefarious sneak.

Derek shot him a tired, disappointed look. Stiles just grinned back like an angel.

“Would you bite my face off if I tried to kiss you?” Stiles asked, setting his hand down on Derek’s knee. “It’s just, you look really cute when you try to glare over ice cream.”

And before he even knew what had transgressed, Derek had a lapful of Stiles, and they were kissing lengthily, Stiles licking into his mouth to steal the taste of chocolate.

“Hey—hey,” Stiles gasped out while Derek nibbled his neck. “This is all really awesome, and totally going according to plan, so I’m going to be frank here and just say: time for phase three.” He dug into his back pockets and plopped various sex supplies between them, a packet of lube included. Derek looked up at him, after studying the items briefly. “I made a withdrawal from the fun box,” Stiles said, pausing for dramatic effect while keeping an extremely straight face, “so you could make a deposit into my fun box.”

Derek dropped his head onto Stiles shoulder with a muffled, embarrassed groan.

“What, you didn’t like that one? Was it not clear enough? I practically rehearsed for this. Okay, how about: Derek, please put your boner—” Stiles groped him through his pants, “—into my boner basket. My dick dunker. My cave of wonders.”

“Can you please stop—”

“Those were all quality! Except dick dunker; that could use some work—”

Derek cut him off with a kiss and a mangled, mortified sound.

While the prep work of anal sex sometimes irked him, Derek could never be too impatient when Stiles was flushed, sweaty, and bossy beneath him. He directed Derek in practically everything during foreplay, talkative even then, but he tossed enough compliments and praises out along with the crass instructions that Derek miraculously found it all endearing.

It was especially worth the bossiness when Stiles squeaked—vehemently denied it was squeaking—and ordered him: “Pick me up and put me on your dick now, so help me—so help you, I swear to fucking god.”

Derek laughed under his breath and slid his hands under Stiles’s lower back, propping him up from where he’d been lounging on the couch’s cushions. Stiles was still uncomfortable being grabbed by his thighs—or having his hair pulled, or being touched or fucked from behind—but they worked around it, Derek keeping to the safer erogenous zones and letting Stiles grab his own damn thighs when position demanded it.

Like then: Derek gripping him tight by the waist, by the ass, tugging him open wide with one thumb pressed next to his rim, and lowering him down slowly onto his cock. Stiles bit his lip viciously and whispered in a hiss, “Thank fuck for your super strength, god damn—” and gasped when Derek’s cock penetrated past the rim, then slid further inside with ease. When he was fully seated, Stiles let go of his thighs and wrapped his legs around Derek’s back, pressing them closer.

“You set the pace, baby,” he mumbled, placing small kisses along Derek’s neck. He already sounded spent, even before coming—and his cock had wilted slightly.

“You’re not hard,” Derek whispered back; Stiles just huffed.

“I have an entire dick in my ass,” he explained dryly, though he still took hold of himself and pumped, trying to get fully hard again. “It’s a little straining. Just get going with the fucking; I’ll catch on.”

So Derek laid his palms along Stiles’s ribs firmly, yet always minded his grip; he didn’t want to leave bruises.

Well—he did. But Stiles wouldn’t like it. The perpetual mark on his neck was more than enough for the human.

Derek watched that bruise as he set the pace—an exquisite, maddeningly slow slide and build—and held up Stiles’s weight easily, gently, like he was made of porcelain. Stiles liked when Derek would push him down, bottom out, and keep him there, just grinding in little circles to press against his stretched rim. And what Stiles liked, Derek couldn’t help but like too—along with the noise of Stiles’s hitched breaths, the scratch of pubic hair against delicate skin, and the rustle of fabric as Stiles clenched his trembling fingers into Derek’s shirt.

But Derek’s absolute favorite—his ambition, every time they had sex—was when Stiles would let out a mindless moan, eyes misting over and face going a splotchy red, and grab desperately at Derek’s neck and jaw, pressing their foreheads together so he could see Derek’s eyes and face clearly.

It was like Stiles was losing his mind, and he needed to remind himself where he was. He needed to remember who was fucking him—who was allowed to fuck him, Derek thought fiercely, the only one—and inevitably made him toss his head back and choke on a yell, making a mess all over Derek’s shirt and tightening like a perfect vice over his buried cock.

(|)

Yet the feeling of distance persisted. No amount of sex or sweet talk could breach it, though Stiles gave it a valiant try; instead, they settled into it, Derek slowly slipping into a sense of powerlessness again—like before, long months ago, when the reek of misery was rampant in his home.

Stiles sat on the edge of the bed, his head lowered towards his spread knees. His heartbeat was wild and his chest shuddered on every exhale; the smell of fear, sour and revolting, made Derek’s throat taste like bile.

“I’m fine,” Stiles whispered—and Derek knew it was a lie and a truth, in its way. They both woke up with nightmares, from time to time. He understood. So when Stiles repeated it, more strongly: “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he knew it was not for his benefit, but for Stiles’s own.

He was toothless in the face of memory. They both were.

“I would give you the bite,” Derek said into the hushed, deadened silence, when Stiles had lain back down under the thin covers. “If you want it. I would bite you, and then you wouldn’t need to emancipate. You wouldn’t need to ever be afraid again.”

Stiles, in his lifeless, blunt, post-panic tone—one Derek knew too well—replied: “I would rather shove a pistol down my throat.”

And Derek was so terrified of it, he went absolutely silent, letting the topic drop and shrivel into silence.

(|)

Derek thought the sense of distance would be done away with by Stiles’s own intiative, just like before, when he’d changed his own circumstances and bridged the gap between them as easily as he cooked a massive dinner for four.

He was wrong. Stiles evaded for as long as he could.

The pack was over, and Erica was teasing and showing Stiles attention as she always did—something Derek had pulled her aside to talk about, using choice phrases like “mind your damn hands” and “wink at him again and I rip your eye out,” a nice litany of colorful threats she found delightful and fascinating. It had made her rein it in, but never stop completely, for she too much adored getting Stiles flustered and frowning.

Not to mention that together, Stiles and Erica could hijack any conversation and hold control until they were blue in the face. Most of the time, Derek and Isaac just let them run free, sniping at each other until food forced them to shut up—or at least muffled them a bit.

So over dinner (Stiles’s flawless fettuccine alfredo) she asked him flippantly: “What are you getting your degree in, again? Criminal studies?”

 “Criminal justice.” Stiles rolled his eyes. “I’m not studying how to be a criminal. Hardly need to go to college for that.”

“Well you hardly need to go to college for your future career, either.”

“Oh yeah?” Stiles replied, his tone a matching lilt of teasing. “What’s that?”

Erica grinned predatorily. “Alpha-mating. Or housewifery, in your case—being still human and all.” She said it disdainfully, like it was a drag. Erica had never, not for one moment, missed her own humanity; she probably still resented it, truly, even though it was long gone. She continued: “You should have done domestic studies; I’m sure you would’ve set the curve.”

Stiles barked a laugh, then continued in good spirits: “Yeah, right. I’m hardly hustling to get my degree in one year just so I can sit around the house for a few extra hours.”

“Then what are you getting it for?” She tilted her head to the side. “What’s the rush? Too eager to get away, to run off into the great beyond? And here I thought you loved us,” she snarked, elongating the word like a grade schooler.

And just like that, the evasion was over: Stiles hesitated. He opened his mouth, closed it; he tried again, eyes widening as he looked for words—the right ones, nothing that would register as a lie to three pairs of werewolf ears. “It’s not—” He tried, pulse steadily increasing. “I’m—”

“Get out,” Derek snapped out, cutting over Stiles easily. Before it made the betas obey, his tone sent their heads bowing; both their expressions were ones of confusion, fear, and slight hurt—Erica because she was terrified of angering her new alpha and damaging their still-fresh relationship, and Isaac because an alpha’s displeasure was a beaten-in phobia. But Derek didn’t have the mind to comfort them; he simply ordered once more, tone one of absolute authority: “Get. Out.”

As Erica and Isaac left, the house was a racket of rushed hearts and hurried footsteps.

The door shut in a slam. It sounded like finality.

Derek sat back down at the table. Stiles sat across from him, already flushed red with his brow creased in discomfort and dread. When he didn’t speak, Derek began the conversation himself.

“No more dodging,” he said, voice slow and rigidly even. “No more pushing things aside. No more sweet-talking me, or pleading for us to let things simmer down. And don’t you fucking dare lie, because I’ll know. And I won’t have it.”

Stiles stared at the table and gritted his jaw. He breathed deeply through his nose, trying to steady his pulse. But not even Stiles’s fear could deter Derek—not anymore.

“Stiles.” Derek waited until he looked up. “Start talking.”

When Stiles obeyed, his voice croaked in nerves and misery. “I got a job offer. It’s—it’s on the reservation.”

Derek almost buckled under a rush of panic—but he didn’t. Instead, his voice hardened further, burying that anxiety under bitterness and a cruel tone. “Do you even have enough to buy your freedom?”

Stiles flinched, his eyes focusing back on the table as he flushed a deep, burning red. “No.”

“Then don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself?” Derek asked darkly. His voice seemed foreign, it was so merciless and cold.

At the patronization, Stiles flicked his gaze back up, fixing Derek with a glare. Even through nerves, he could always manage indignation. “I’ll have enough money soon. And when I do, I’ll need to have a job lined up, with proof of employment. Without that, I won’t get anywhere with the bureau. So no, I don’t think I’m getting ahead of myself, fuck you very much.”

“But—the reservation?” Derek wondered aloud. He still had his defensive anger, but it took a backseat to confusion, and to the bitter fear which was roiling in his chest. “You told me you entered the system to get away from it. Why the fuck would you want to go back there?”

“Turns out the reservation was kinder to me than anywhere else,” Stiles said quietly. “I can be safe there. I can be with my father, and other humans. I can stand on my own two fucking feet, for once.”

Derek couldn’t help it—he rushed to stand, his voice rising and his chair clattering to the floor behind him. “You can be safe here!” He yelled. In the ensuing pause, there was only the sound of Stiles’s quickened pulse; but Derek couldn’t tamper his volume, not this time. “Haven’t I been kind to you? Haven’t I done everything you asked—given you everything you needed?”

“You’ve been good to me,” Stiles replied, hushed and soft, as though if he spoke louder he’d break into pieces—or Derek would. “But it’s never been what I needed. I always—I kept telling you, you’re too good to me, because—you can’t fix me, Derek. And you deserve better than that—than me.”

“Fuck you,” Derek croaked out. He was losing his fury fast—but the terror and frustration kept steady. “You don’t get to say that. You don’t decide what I deserve. You’re—you could be everything to me.”

“That’s bullshit,” Stiles tried to bite back; it just sounded miserable. “Things would be a lot simpler if we could be everything to each other, but we can’t. We shouldn’t. Do you think I’d want to subject you to that, even if I could? Being my everything? I’m a fucking wreck, Derek, and—and you need a pack. You need someone who doesn’t still jump at a sudden touch, or who—” He covered his face in one hand, briefly, and sighed in a shudder. “You need more than I can give you.”

Derek leaned his hand against the table, arm straight. He took a steadying breath, head down, then spoke again, feeling sick. “Did you—when you first invited Isaac over, did you do it because you wanted to make sure I would have someone, when you’d left?” The words were thick and raw, but he pushed them out anyway.

Stiles gritted his jaw again. Beneath his crumpled brow, his eyes shone with gathering tears; beneath his shivering chest, his heart beat in irregular thuds. He whispered breathlessly: “Yes.”

After a quiet minute, Derek raised his head. All force left him when he said: “I love you. I’ve always loved you. Doesn’t that matter?”

Instead of responding, Stiles began to cry helplessly, his tears plopping onto the table with wet, ugly sounds. Derek watched him as though through a barrier of glass; he felt wrung out and hollowed, perfectly empty where once there was affection and warm acceptance.

More than anything, he needed that back.

“I’ve never asked you. I never wanted to push it; I wanted things to progress in their own time, but—just tell me, Stiles. Do you love me?”

Stiles answered truthfully, his voice watery and soft.

“I don’t know.”

And Derek was finished.

As he moved for the door, Stiles kept talking—babbling about indecision, about never knowing what he wanted, about confusion—“I care about you but I don’t know what love should even feel like anymore—the last person to love me almost killed me.”

But Derek didn’t care. He didn’t listen. He simply wanted to erase himself, to run and run until he felt nothing but the burn in his muscles and the scream in his mind that demanded nothing but more oxygen; he wanted to be a beast, to never have to deal with the nuances of emotion ever again.

He shifted into full alpha form when Stiles had his hand curled around his arm. When Derek growled, mindless and feral, Stiles dropped his touch like he’d been seared.

Derek ran for the nearby preserve without looking back.

(|)

If it were up to Derek, he would stay in the preserve, in his alpha form, and get so lost in all of it that he’d eventually disappear.

But it wasn’t up to Derek. He had a pack now, because of Stiles—worse than that, he still had Stiles as his dependent. If he left, Stiles would be confiscated by the human4you program or by the government for owner’s neglect, and he would have to drop out of school. He’d lose his chance at a degree, lose his chance at a job from that degree, and no amount of meager money he had saved up would ever even go to him, since Derek technically controlled all his finances.

And fuck Stiles, because Derek still loved him—and would sooner gnaw off his own arm than have him ever in the possession of another werewolf, someone who slobbered kisses onto him and sucked on his throat and watched him cook in their kitchen.

So he went back. He walked into his own damn home with his head down, watched his muddy footprints sink into the pristine carpet, and trudged all the way back to the bedroom, their bedroom, where Stiles was lying in the dark wide awake, waiting for his return like the mockery of a worried mate.

Stiles turned onto his side when Derek walked in, both their eyes open and staring. He kicked off the covers, revealing himself as fully naked, his pale body already trembling from a heightened pulse. The moon’s glow perforated the windows, allowing Stiles to get up and crawl across the bed right to where Derek stood, still covered in the forest’s filth and the bitterness of misery.

Or perhaps it was Derek’s crimson eyes, which continued to shine, that allowed Stiles to approach him so certainly. Derek kept the animal much alive, and close to the surface; to banish it would only heighten his wretchedness, make the taste of rejection all too real.

When Stiles took his hand, Derek let out a bestial noise. Neither could tell if it was a whimper or growl.

When Stiles purposefully leaned on one elbow and brought that taken hand back to his slick, loosened hole, the sound Derek made was a definite, possessive snarl.

He grabbed Stiles by the waist and yanked him further up the bed, settling behind him. The human pressed his own chest to the mattress, presenting himself; Derek didn’t even pause to consider this strange behavior, instead sinking into him immediately, reveling in the heat, tightness, and how Stiles was completely placid beneath him.

But once he had him—was balls-deep and gripping beneath his ribcage fiercely—Derek stopped. He remained motionless there, on his knees on the bed which reeked of them, and studied every line of Stiles’s back, every quiver of the muscles beneath his skin. He didn’t wish to speak—would gnash his teeth at Stiles if he tried—but he wished, desperately, to understand, because even now with Stiles pulsing all around him and laid bare, he couldn’t grasp what was possibly flooding through the human’s mind.

At Derek’s inaction, Stiles whimpered. He sounded like a pathetic animal, mindless and desperate—but in that sense, they would never be the same.

He began to fuck himself back on Derek’s cock with short, frantic motions. Sweat started to drip on his back, trickle from the back of his knees where he’d bent himself over and braced himself on the sheets. Keeping one elbow on the bed, he grasped with his other arm for the headboard, seeking something to cling on to as he fucked Derek without looking at him—as he made some point which eluded Derek, some meaning which he hoped to convey without uttering a single word.

But they didn’t live in a poem, where meaning could be poured from the fingertips, or even pounded into one another by a hard fuck. While Stiles rolled his hips and slapped himself onto the front of Derek’s thighs, over and over again, he could be pledging his love, or devotion, or lust—or just his gratitude.

By the time the sheets were soaked with Stiles’s sweat and the human was reduced to pitiful whimpers and sobs, Derek grasped that Stiles had no idea what he was trying to say either.

So he fucked him hard, leaving the shadow of his fingerprints under his ribs, until Stiles wept. He hovered his lengthened fangs over the human’s neck, tasting the sweat above his pulse—but he never, never bit down.

(|)

In fifteen months, the house had never been so hushed. They tiptoed around one another, making bare-minimum conversation and avoiding touch with flinches and obvious, ludicrous levels of evasion. Stiles slept in the spare bedroom for the first time in their cohabitation, and he stayed there for weeks, only leaving the room to go to work, cook, go to class, or perform chores.

Stiles cleaned up Derek’s muddy footprints on the carpet, body stiff and hands trembling, and let out only one single, shuddering sob.

Not that Derek was in any better state. One day, Stiles couldn’t find the grocery list; he opened the office door, peeked his head in, and asked: “Derek, have you—”

“Get out.”

So they didn’t speak much, and they touched far less. When the pack was over, Stiles would serve them and retreat for the spare bedroom, where no one would follow him. Erica would blatantly watch him go, face pinched in sadness; Isaac would stare at nothing, looking quietly devastated. The one time Erica had tried asking about it, Derek had snarled at her fiercely, forcing her to be silent and crumple her posture low.

Finally, the inevitable day came when Stiles banged through the front door, letter in hand.

By then, Derek was exhausted. Resigned.

“I got my degree,” Stiles said breathlessly, cheeks flushed. He subdued his excitement in tone and body language, but the smell of it blew in with the open door’s breeze, and Derek nearly choked on it.

That scent of happiness would always be his undoing. He replied, quietly and sincerely: “Congratulations.”

Stiles dropped his bag. His keys hit the floor with a jingle. He walked forward and stopped in front of Derek—who couldn’t bring himself to flee for his own sanity—and he said, tone fond and overwhelming, “Thank you.”

All Derek saw or noticed was how Stiles’s eyes grazed over his lips, then back up to hold his stare, expression strained, torn, and undeniably tender.

Derek pulled him in by the back of the neck, pressing their lips together in a wild rush.

He expected Stiles to beat him back, or even bite him—but he didn’t. He just groaned in the back of his throat, wove his fingers into Derek’s hair, and gripped him in a painful clutch.

Stiles spent that night in Derek’s bed, where they clung to each other and kissed, Stiles holding him with a ferocity and fearlessness that left him shaking. The only exchange they had that night was hushed, spoken into one another’s skin, and drenched in honesty, Stiles whispering: “Forget me. Just—for your own damn sake, forget about me.”

Derek laughed in his face, replying: “Fuck that.”

“Then,” Stiles said, his voice blending into a tense moan, their bodies close and tangled, “Promise me this: don’t stay in one place. I left you once and found you in the same fucking spot when I came back, just waiting for me. So don’t you fucking dare stay in the same place—and I’ll promise the same.”

They sealed it with their insistent lips and the press of unrelenting fingertips, saying nothing more.

(|)

Stiles left.

He took with him only a stuffed duffel bag and the clothes on his back.

(|)

Two weeks passed before Erica stomped into Derek’s bedroom, ripping the curtains off and damn near blinding him in sudden sunlight. He roared at her, red eyes flashing; she planted both feet firmly on the ground and glared back at him with unwavering amber eyes.

“I’ve had it!” She yelled, tugging the covers off the bed before marching to the bathroom for a towel. She came back and threw it over her alpha’s face, growling continuously under her breath. “Take a fucking shower. You’re a mess. You have two betas who haven’t seen you in weeks, and we took your fucking name, so get your damn act together!”

She stomped right back out the door.

Derek considered ignoring her, but he heard her dire tone from the kitchen: “I will drag you into the bathroom if I have to.”

So he got up.

She and Isaac were emptying the refrigerator when he emerged, freshly showered for the first time in two weeks. Isaac smiled at him in greeting; Derek ran a hand along his back and gripped the back of his neck briefly, and Isaac nearly melted under the affection, relief evident in his shoulders.

Derek did not show the same affection to Erica. She didn’t give a damn; she scooped him into a ferocious hug before he could even protest. “I can touch you now that you’re not filthy,” she said with deep, profound gratefulness. Derek sighed over her shoulder and patted her resignedly.

They made him a grilled cheese—the only thing Erica professed a mastery of, when it came to food—and Isaac dragged him over to the couch. He dropped papers into Derek’s lap: the classifieds, both for those looking for a new pack and the for-sale property submissions.

“Tell him about the cutie at the garage!” Erica yelled from the kitchen, and Isaac chuckled under his breath, bringing one werewolf’s entry to the forefront—some guy named Boyd who worked at a car repair shop.

When Derek took the property advertisements in hand gingerly, Isaac brought his hand up to his own lips, rubbing over them contemplatively, as if deciding on words. After a few moments, he said gently: “It will never stop smelling like him, here. You know that?”

Derek sucked in a breath tightly, then nodded.

“We could get a big house. We could all live together,” Isaac suggested—and despite cautious efforts, the soft hopefulness in his voice still bled through. It felt like I punch to gut, like a necessary reminder to Derek that this was his family; they needed him, and they couldn’t afford to lose him, no matter how often he wished to dissolve into the floor these days.

“I want a nice, big yard, and a wrap-around porch,” Erica stated matter-of-factly, dropping the plate with the grilled cheese on the coffee table. She stared at Derek dangerously until he picked it up.

Derek muttered his first words in weeks: “My childhood home was like that.”

Erica grinned broadly. “That’s perfect.” She snuck a bite of the second half of the sandwich, then spoke again with her mouth full; the bite smeared her red lipstick. “Because we can’t rule out the possibility of little wolf kiddos. Especially not if we bring garage cutie into the mix, let’s be real here.”

Isaac tried to smear the rest of Erica’s lipstick, Erica tackled him, and when Derek showed signs of not finishing the grilled cheese, she threatened to literally stick it up his ass.

(|)

They bought a house. They met Boyd.

Isaac had asked Derek, all too casually, if he’d rather stay at his place before move-out day rather than be surrounded by the constant, taunting smell. Derek had agreed, and though he still couldn’t keep his mind off the freshest wounds, it no longer seemed like someone was rubbing salt in them.

On the last possible day, after the old house was sold—fully furnished, because everything reeked—Derek went by to get his last batch of mail. In the handful of spam and bills, there was one crisp envelope marked with a distinctive handwriting; Derek’s pulse skyrocketed when he immediately recognized the familiar scent on it, even after its travels and handling by strangers.

Derek sliced the envelope open with a single claw and yanked the letter out.

Derek,

            I’m all settled at the reservation and living with my dad. I’m working in his office, putting my degree to good use. They have a decent therapist working here as well, who I’ve started to see regularly. I hope you’ve kept up with your appointments, too.

            If you don’t want to speak to me, I get it. I’ve done nothing but take your kindness and flop in the reciprocation, so if this is out of line, I totally understand. It’s just—I left because I never know what I want, and I need to figure it out, especially if I ever want to be with love someone again. I bogged you down and fucked us up—but of course, I’m stupid enough to never know when to quit.

I just want to talk to you again. I’m selfish, and fucked up, and I don’t want you gone from my life forever.

And I would say I’m sorry, but you’d just laugh in my face.

            - Stiles

(|)

Stiles,

            On the front of this envelope is our new address.

            I love you.

                        - Derek

(|)

(|)

(|)

nothing is infinite,
not even loss.

You are made of the sea and the stars, and one day
you are going to find yourself again.

            Finn Butler.

Chapter Text

Month 1

This werewolf was pathetic.

He couldn’t clean his own house. He didn’t know how to cook; he hardly knew how to use the microwave, or boil pasta. He knew nothing about humans or the nuances of their existence, especially how their bodies worked, other than that a rough shove could turn them black and blue. Stiles had enough superfluous supplements to stuff himself full of vitamins for the rest of his life, courtesy of Derek—or to make sure his cycle was balanced, if he ever decided to mystically grow a uterus.

But the part that drove Stiles up a wall was simply the utter neediness. The guy had no idea he was even doing it: demanding emotional work from Stiles, whose slight touch could send the werewolf into a tizzy of unrequited lust. He stared at Stiles for moments at a time seemingly hundreds of times throughout the day; Stiles wished he could record it, discover the actual minutes and cumulative hours of this single werewolf’s every day devoted to looking at Stiles longingly across a room.

If Stiles didn’t touch him, Derek was sad. If Stiles did touch him, they both suffered for it—Stiles from extreme discomfort, and Derek from the sting of rejection when he noticed that discomfort. A large part of Stiles wanted to slam his fork down during dinner, look Derek square in his lovelorn, woe-is-me eyes, and yell: “we’re not going to have sex! Get the fuck over it!”

But multiple factors stopped him from doing that.

Stiles made a mental list:

  1. This is the best you’ll ever get.
  2. It’s probably flattering.
  3. Other people would like this.
  4. So don’t make things difficult.
  5. It’s not like he’s raping you.
  6. This is the best you’ll ever get.

So he kept distant. Detached. It was more difficult than it seemed—tends to be, when your entire life has grown to consist only of someone else’s life.

But he would make do.

If the only reasons he was kept around were to cook, clean, and be cute, he’d damn well do his best.

(|)

Month 3

Over the years, Stiles had discovered that everything—the panic, the dread, the nightmares—came in waves.

It was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it was perpetual. There was seemingly no way to stop it all; he could only grit his teeth and endure. But on the other, it wasn’t a constant, just ebbs and floods. So sometimes he could rest, or even believe things were getting better, if he was feeling particularly naïve that day.

Either way, without those brief, misleading times of peace, he’d probably have given up a long time ago.

Sometimes he wondered if that endurance was part of the problem. He wondered if it would have been better for everyone if he just…gave up.

He considered it as he gripped the steering wheel of the Volvo bracingly, hands clenched until they trembled. His breathing was slow, purposeful, and his expression was one of dry, pained dread. “You can do this, Stilinski,” he muttered to himself. The grocery store seemed to glare back at him through the windshield, asking: you sure about that? “Yep,” he replied, nodding in a jiggle. “Today’s the day.”

Normally, he did all the grocery shopping at a small, independent store which was known as being accommodating to humans and their needs. However, that grocery was three times farther from the house than another, more conveniently-placed grocery, one that wasn’t known as human-friendly but not known as hostile, either. It was just typical—a plain, regular chain grocery location, like hundreds in the sprawling tri-state area. And if he could get accustomed to using that grocery rather than the farther one, he’d ultimately save time and money on gas.

Put bluntly: his anxieties were actually costing Derek money. And just because it wasn’t his money going to the gas, it didn’t mean Stiles felt comfortable racking up the bills.

So he needed to change.

“Time to go,” Stiles mumbled, rushing from the car in a split decision. He then rushed back in even more of a flurry; he’d forgotten the bags and grocery list in his eagerness.

But for all his irrational terror at stepping foot in a new place, when he actually walked into the grocery, he was pleasantly greeted by a nice old lady in a colorful, name-tagged vest. She smiled and said: “Hello, shopper. Do you need a cart or a basket?”

“Um.” He blinked. “A…a cart, please. But I can get it.”

He retrieved the cart. She smiled indulgently, like a true-blue granny; it was hard for him to wrap his head around her near-definite lycanthropy, under all the gray hair and endearing wrinkles.

He then quickly decided his plan of action: start by the fruits, all the way across the store; he’d make his way through the entire place slowly, then exit out of the same doors he’d arrived through. He liked the old lady and wanted to make sure his visit ended with her nice smile. It’s a good idea to create some positive associations, he thought to himself clinically.

Then, he put the plan right into action.

First on the list: apples.

Derek liked red delicious ones. He also liked honeycrisp, but he’d accept gala if Stiles said they’d had a sale. Ultimately, Stiles grabbed six of each—except only three of the gala, which weren’t on sale but should be plentiful in a few weeks. I’ll wean him onto them, Stiles thought, since they’ll be so much cheaper.

Finishing with the fruits, Stiles moved onto breads and grains. In the cereal section, he quickly dropped a box or two of those sugary-cinnamon cereals into the cart. Derek loved them but was too embarrassed and stubborn to admit it, so Stiles sometimes bought them without comment. If asked, he would claim they were for himself, but Derek was allowed to have a bowl, out of the goodness of his heart. That should earn a smile, Stiles considered, preemptively pleased with himself.

Next, he stopped at the dairy section at the end of the bread, spice, and snack aisles. He was debating the pros and cons of one-percent vs. non-fat when a man walked up to the large refrigerator, pointed at the glass, and asked, “Can I…?”

“Oh,” Stiles said quickly in realization, moving away from the door a bit. “Of course, sorry.”

“Thanks,” the man said, flashing Stiles a quick smile. Something about it was sharp, accompanied by a strange flare in the man’s nostrils—or perhaps Stiles was just imagining it, as prone to nerves and distrust as he was.

“Sure,” he belatedly responded. The man tucked a half-gallon of two-percent into his basket.

“Indecisive?” The man asked; Stiles nodded yes, then hurried to grab the one-percent to avoid further interaction.

But as he grabbed for a full gallon, the man moved in a flash and took hold of Stiles’s wrist delicately, though with a definite, unmovable grip. “That one smells like it might go bad soon,” the werewolf said, his voice soft and eerily affectionate. “This one is better.” He led Stiles’s hand towards a different jug, and Stiles could tell there was no way for him to wrench his hand away—at least, not until the stranger allowed it.

The man dropped Stiles’s wrist only after following it back to the cart; they placed the milk in the cart together. To that, the man smiled and said with mirth: “It’s heavy. Don’t want you dropping it.”

Like Stiles didn’t even have the strength to lift a gallon of milk on his own.

In a hurry, Stiles took the helm of his cart and set off at a brisk walk down the hall, at the end of many aisles. “You’re welcome,” he heard the man say, just before he left earshot.

He would cut his trip a bit short that day.

But even in the checkout line, that man—that wolf, that leering half-animal—stood only a few feet away, over at the next line; he stared at Stiles’s neck, where the bruise on his neck was faded to hardly a mark.

He followed Stiles out to the crowded parking lot. When Stiles pulled the Volvo up to the traffic light leading out of the complex’s parking lot, he noticed a blue SUV one car behind him, in the next lane. The face through that car’s windshield looked frighteningly familiar, but Stiles fiercely kept his eyes on the road, his jaw gritted and brow tightly downturned.

That blue SUV took all the same turns he did for the next ten minutes.

So Stiles took a hasty detour to the nearest police station. He had nothing to report; some guy in a car simply took the same turns as him—that was all. But after he pulled into the station’s driveway, the blue car suddenly jetted off, turning at the next intersection that led out to the freeway.

Stiles gripped the steering wheel, hands clenched until they trembled.

(|)

Derek gave him a bank account. He gave him permission to work, study, and drive. He allowed Stiles the freedoms he should have already had—and it scared Stiles to bits.

How could he be quiet and pleasant when Derek didn’t punish him for screaming?

(|)

Month 4

Stiles remembered the grabby woman by the drive-thru; the man in the grocery store; the police officer who had pulled him over to warn him to make a full, complete stop at the quiet stop sign because he was highly at-risk for injuries caused by motor accidents, then called him sweetheart and winked at him before driving off; the countless pairs of amber eyes which had peered at him from outside suburban houses the last time he’d tried to have an afternoon walk.

He bared his neck for Derek to bruise without hesitation or vocal protest.

Derek watched him with worshipful eyes and didn’t press for more.

(|)

Isaac needed an alpha; Derek needed to not rely on Stiles in order to feel happiness.

A match made in wolfy heaven, if you asked Stiles.

(|)

Month 5

From time to time, there were scant, blessed moments when Stiles’s mind quieted. His defenses lowered; he could breathe, think, and see clearly.

Strangely enough, those moments were often around Derek.

Derek, who would kiss him chastely and smile for it, content for the rest of the day; who would eat everything Stiles put on his plate enthusiastically; who would listen to every word that came out of Stiles’s mouth, even if he didn’t understand or truly want to understand.

It was when Derek held his hand—doing something small like reading on the couch together, Stiles’s study materials spread out clumsily on the cushions—that Stiles thought: I could love him.

He could do it.

He just needed time.

(|)

On the same day that Derek admitted he loved him, Stiles believed he was going to be beaten.

(|)

Month 6

Stiles prepared the chicken for the oven, and Derek kindly reminded him to wash his hands well with soap.

“Raw meat can carry diseases, right?” Derek said, even though he obviously knew the answer. Derek only ever feigned ignorance when he wanted to hide or play down something; he’d done it before when he’d researched human sexuality. Stiles recalled his cautious, leading questions on the differences between bisexuality and pansexuality, efforts to engage Stiles in conversation while also subtly proving his newfound knowledge of the odd-and-humanly.

Stiles’s best guess: Derek had spent hours online scaring himself silly with stories of medical woe, from the most mundane to the rare and exotic.

So Stiles mentioned casually: “The air can carry diseases, too.”

Derek tried to nod like it didn’t bother him. Stiles wondered how close Derek was to buying him professional-grade face masks—then remembered that Derek had, back when Stiles had first arrived and Derek thought it necessary to clean out the humans’ needs section of the drug store. Stiles almost lost it right then, but instead he said: “Maybe I should wear something over my mouth. Keep out the tuberculosis. You never know when that stuff’ll getcha.”

“Maybe you should,” Derek replied with forced nonchalance. As Stiles spit out his laughter, Derek grabbed an after-dinner beer from the fridge and huffed.

(|)

Stiles lay on their bed, his back to the mattress and his legs pressed together. His thighs were slick and trembling where they clamped on Derek’s cock. For every thrust, the slap of their skin ricocheted in the bedroom; only the sound of Derek’s heavy, irregular breathing broke through that loud rhythm.

Every time Derek touched or jostled Stiles’s wilted cock, Stiles winced—he’d already been sucked off, and Derek had drank him down, stealing Stiles’s breath just as he took everything else: gladly, gratefully, desperately. For all it had made Stiles shake and cry out, it had made him feel sexy; he wasn’t sure when Derek’s affection had gone from being a weight to a kind of heroin.

As Derek reached climax, he choked out: “Stiles—I lo—”

His come was warm and sticky where it smeared on Stiles’s skin.

In the ensuing post-coital cuddles, Derek continued to mumble sleepily; Stiles filled in the blanks: he loves me. He needs me.

Stiles said nothing in return, but he wasn’t afraid.

That’s probably what love felt like, and he was just bad at recognizing it.

(|)

Month 7

The guest on the news segment said: “I don’t understand why we’re not looking at this as a fading problem. Soon enough the humans will all be bitten; lycanthropy is inherited…it’s inevitable. And until then, humanity is a liability. Flat out, a burden: health care, safety regulations, immunizations…seems the only upside to it is the shorter life span; it’s less of a drain on the state. I, just, I—what I’m saying is: why do we keep discounting compulsory turning as an impossibility, or an immorality? Why do we simply put up with a problem that can be fixed?”

While ordinary people chatted about the eradication of humanity on the television, Derek kissed Stiles’s neck.

(|)

One of the strongest people Stiles had ever known was a girl named Lydia. He dreamed of her sometimes, when things were especially hard to handle; the memory of her words always helped with the panic, the loneliness.

Out of all of the humans Stiles’s second owner had ever possessed, she had been by far his favorite. Lydia was permitted to speak when she pleased, go wherever she liked, and access their owner’s credit cards. She spoke to their owner like she was speaking to an ill-behaved beast: severely disapproving, yet entirely unsurprised by any depravity displayed. Once, she had even hissed over the beginning of his words so that she could finish her conversation with another human uninterrupted.

For a long time, Stiles thought she didn’t know he existed. Or rather, she was ranked so much higher than him in their little “family” that he thought she just didn’t care about his existence. After one too many overlooks, he convinced himself that she must have been too busy being worshipped and coddled with gifts to spare him even a glance.

But one night, their owner had had a bit too much of the new-age brews for anyone’s comfort. He became enraged and huffy about something; it was hardly like he needed an excuse to grab Stiles by the back of the neck, shove him onto the table face-first, and begin to tug at Stiles’s pants, all while the other two humans in the kitchen looked on in terror and thankfulness that they weren’t the ones chosen this time.

But werewolves could forget that humans were fragile. Normally, Stiles had time to prepare for his owner’s nightly visits; they had a schedule, and Stiles clung to that stability as he would a lifeline—after all, the kind of sex demanded of him could take his life if he didn’t have the proper prep completed.

Not that night, though. That night, their owner was demanding, and drunk, and needed to feel in control of his life again. Stiles, as his property, would act as a convenient metaphor for all that.

Stiles only screamed twice before he heard the sound of glass shattering, and the attack abruptly stopped.

Their owner stepped back in a stagger, rubbing at his bleeding head. “Lydia?” He asked, shocked, like he couldn’t believe it was her holding the broken beer bottle, and her who began to scream at his face: “You stupid dog! You’ll send him to the hospital!”

The werewolf blinked stupidly, at a loss. It was like he didn’t even know where he was, or what he was doing.

“Get out!” Lydia yelled, throwing the broken bottle at him; he just barely managed to dodge it. “Don’t show your face around here until you’re sober, you fucking embarrassment.”

To the surprise of everyone witnessing, the werewolf fled.

Lydia turned to Stiles and spoke to him for the first time. “You,” she said curtly, snatching up Stiles’s arm. “I’m sorry. Come with me.”

Stiles could remember how puzzled he was that she had apologized, or acknowledged him. But he followed after her without protest, and they soon reached her room, a tiny shoebox of a place right next to their owner’s bedroom. Lydia spoke to Stiles over her shoulder as she opened the door. “This is my private room. No one can come in without my permission.”

That had baffled Stiles as well—none of the other humans had their own rooms.

“Sit down, sit down,” she ordered flippantly, turning the lock behind them and moving to fuss and pace in whatever room there was. For a few moments, she said nothing; in the silence, she stole a few glances at Stiles, who was sitting limply on her soft mattress and just trying, unsuccessfully, not to shake anymore. When she spoke again, her voice was horribly gentle. “Would you take a bath, if I made you one?”

Stiles looked up at her with wide eyes and a boggled expression.

“I have bath salts,” she added, seeming nervous.

“Are you sure that’s appropriate?” Stiles finally drawled out, summoning enough playfulness to wax over the reality that was his shattered sense of self.

She huffed and clucked at his silliness, but relaxed as well. “I don’t mean to share. I mean…I mean.” Her expression faltered as she watched his knuckles squeeze white over trembling fingers; within a moment, the weakness was gone again, and her voice went light. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she teased, “but you look like you could use one.”

Stiles barked a brittle laugh. “Yeah. I bet I do.”

Another moment passed in silence, then Lydia clapped her tiny hands in concrete resolve. (Everything about her seemed dainty and jagged, like a doily made of barbed wire.)

“Okay. I’ll go do that. Stay here.”

“Don’t forget the salts,” Stiles called out, watching her leave. He laughed again when her response drifted back: “What am I, an amateur?”

He had never known the virtues of a good bath until that day.

When he emerged from the bathroom—the large ensuite master bath, the bridge between Lydia's and their owner’s room—Stiles felt much more stable, not to mention more fragrant. Lydia had changed into a satin matching pajama set and was fluffing pillows when he walked in; she looked up to give him a shy smile.

“Oh, you’re done! Good. Have a chocolate.”

Stiles flopped down onto her fluffy mattress with slitted, suspicious eyes. He asked in a dry tone: “Why are you doing this.”

Lydia hummed and ate a truffle. “Doing what?”

“This.”

“What?”

“Being nice.”

She frowned. “I’m nice.”

“Lydia,” Stiles said gently, taking her hand. He remembered every single time she had ever ignored him, then looked her right in the eye to say: “You’re not nice.”

She stared back at him, her mouth slightly open in surprise. Then, to Stiles’s surprise, she broke down. Amidst sniffles and fervent nods, he heard her reply: “I know. I know. I know.”

Stiles let go of her hand and scrambled for something, anything, to make it stop. “Oh no, oh—I’m sorry—what should I do? What do you want me to do?”

That, in short, was how he found himself lying back on Lydia’s plush pillow-nest, chatting and eating candy.

“How did this happen?” Stiles wondered aloud. Lydia hummed and sniffed in question, so he elaborated: “I don’t…how did we get here? How did you get all this stuff? How can this possibly be our lives?”

After the sounds of her nibbles quieted down, Lydia replied, “Do you want me to start with the first question?” Stiles nodded against the pillows and turned onto his side, nuzzling down into the fabric. He listened to Lydia with closed eyes. “You got here through a mail-order company,” Lydia said slowly, waiting for Stiles to correct her. He didn’t. “And me…I was won in a poker game.”

His heart clenched and his eyes fluttered opened; the look on Lydia’s face was calm, betraying none of her feelings.

She went on darkly: “From the moment our dumb mutt of an owner saw me, he wanted me. I was a treasure. He still treats me like that.”

“Must be nice,” Stiles mumbled.

Lydia laughed under her breath and stuffed another chocolate in her mouth. “Yeah, sure. It’s relatively nice. But a prize is still only an object.”

“But he’s not violent with you. He doesn’t share you,” Stiles reminded her, his tone turning steadily more deadened. “He doesn’t slam you onto tables and try to rip your clothes off.”

“No,” she said quietly. “No, he doesn’t. So I take my clothes off for him willingly.”

The silence was broken by crinkling chocolate wrappers and the rustle of the comforter underneath them.

“That’s why I couldn’t look at you,” Lydia whispered. Stiles could hear the sobs buried in her throat. “He worships me. I let him do it. I do my best to play his fantasy, to make him happy and content—and he still hurts you, the others. I don’t know how to be enough.”

On a hunch, Stiles reached for her hand. Their fingers tangled and Lydia bustled closer, breathing easier for the contact; both of them did. Stiles hadn’t known just how much he missed platonic, safe physical contact until he had it again.

“It’s not your fault,” Stiles told her. “He’s not your responsibility. And if you didn’t indulge him, I think he would treat you just like everyone else.”

Lydia didn’t respond. They held one another for many minutes before speaking again; just as they were about to drift to sleep, Lydia propped herself up on her elbow and looked down at him, her expression one of fierce, subtle intensity.

“When you get out of here, Stiles—” She took a bracing breath. “Because you will get out of here, and before me. I’ll be the last to go.”

They both knew that to be true.

“But when you do get out, remember this: they have no idea how powerful we are. They can puff up their chests and rip each other’s heads off, but where it counts, they’re weak, and we’re strong—because why the fuck else would they spend so much time trying to convince us all otherwise?”

 Stiles still dreamed of her—of her words, and seeing her again one day.

(|)

Month 9

The first time Derek fucked Stiles’s ass, Stiles nearly panicked. But only nearly—Derek’s hands kept to safe spots; his expression was beautiful and affectionate, and he made sure Stiles could see him, had an immediate view of the one inside him.

It hadn’t hurt. Derek hadn’t let it hurt.

Stiles came easily and cried and hated himself for it; Derek smudged his tears away with his thumbs, and Stiles was so grateful for that, he cried even harder.

The last person to kiss his tears had not been gentle.

(|)

Stiles looked out at the rain, tranquil and warm.

He noticed Derek watching him and smiled.

(|)

Month 10

“Yes, Mrs. Espinoza, he’s working on your cabinet right now.”

Derek continued to hammer at it in the backyard without a hitch.

“Yes, Mrs. Espinoza. He is shirtless.”

That hammer slammed down harder, just once.

“Oh, I don’t know, Mrs. Espinoza. I haven’t been outside in a while. But I imagine you’re right; he is pretty sweaty. I’m going to bring him a drink soon, so I can tell you about it later.”

The hammer clattered to the ground, followed by harsh, purposeful footsteps.

“Uh-oh—call you later. You’ve gotten me in trouble now—”

The sliding door opened and rebounded against the wall with a snap. Stiles turned to face Derek with wide, doe-like eyes, his brow raised innocently.

The phone beeped in a dropped call, and Stiles broke into the ensuing silence: “Want a drink, sugar-dumpling?” He scanned his eyes up and down Derek’s torso, pointedly ignoring the redness of Derek’s irritated face. It had taken him a while to become comfortable checking Derek out; he then did it with relish.

“You,” Derek strangled out, evidently too pissed off for sentences.

“Me?” Stiles asked, keeping up the blameless act without missing a beat.

When Derek approached this time, and Stiles backed himself up to a counter, there was something different about it. Mainly, that Stiles didn’t feel like he was in incredible danger—especially when Derek snatched the phone from his hand and replaced it with his own, tangling their fingers and bringing Stiles’s palm to rest on his bare, muscle-tight lower back.

They kissed firmly, and Stiles couldn’t help but chuckle out of it. “How did that rev your engine?”

“Don’t question it,” Derek replied quickly—because you’re getting away with it was unspoken.

“I’m not,” Stiles mumbled lightly, hopping himself onto the counter so he could bring Derek between his legs.

If he ever came home a murderer, Derek would hide the body.

(|)

Month 12

Derek had given him a safe space. Derek thought that one safe space was enough to live a full life.

(|)

Even when things went wrong—so incredibly, irreversibly wrong—Stiles still knew that Derek would forgive him.

But Stiles doubted he would ever forgive himself.

As he fucked himself back onto Derek’s cock, Stiles thought in a desperate, vicious haze: I love him. I love him. Sweat dripped from his hair and his lips felt cracked where he chewed them, trying to stifle the whimpers and soft, pathetic noises.

Please —let me love him. Let him be enough.

I love him.

I need him.

It felt like a lie.

Derek punished him for it, as Stiles fiercely believed he deserved—but Derek didn’t deserve it, to be lowered to just one of the others, someone to drive clawmarks in Stiles’s waist and splatters of come into his battered body.

Derek deserved many things, but not that.

He still forgave Stiles, in the end—because his fangs never sank through—and while Stiles was grateful, he would have reacted to a ripped throat in the same exact way.

(|)

Month 16

Stiles was safe and thriving. He also knew that—finally, completely—he loved Derek.

If only the two could ever coincide.

(|)

(|)

(|)

and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
prettier
less volatile, less awake.

you can’t make homes out of human beings.

someone should have already told you that.

            Warsan Shire.