“And you'll call at least once a week or as soon as you have a signal, do you understand? And if I don't pick up you leave a message with your current location and estimated departure time, just like we agreed.”
“Yes, Dad, I remember,” Stiles said, fighting the inclination to roll his eyes. “Even if you don't believe that dealing with supernatural creatures for six years means I can handle myself, then consider the fact that I've been living alone, almost three thousand miles from home, for four years now. I think I’ll be okay on a little road trip.”
“Do I need to remind you of the number of times you've come home covered in bruises or bleeding? How about the number of accidents you've had in this very Jeep?” his dad asked, and Stiles squirmed a little. It wasn't fair of his dad to pull out the Serious Sheriff Business voice for something like this.
“So, okay, you may have a point about past...problems, but I promised you I'd call and I will call. It’s going to be fine. Now, that TSA agent is glaring at me and you're gonna miss your flight. Go on, shoo,” he said, flapping his hands toward the sidewalk.
“Well, since you promised,” his dad joked, and pulled him into a tight hug. “Drive safe, kid,” he said. He gave Stiles one last squeeze, grabbed his bag, and headed off.
“Hey!” Stiles shouted, “This means you have until I get back to clear all the unhealthy crap out of the house. I don’t want to find a single artery-clogging crumb!”
His dad raised his hand in acknowledgement--Stiles wasn’t naive enough to think it was agreement--and disappeared inside the airport.
The security officer really was glaring, so Stiles scrambled back into the Jeep and started the drive back to his apartment for what would be the last time. It was a nice morning, too early in the year for the oppressive heat and humidity that would strike once summer arrived, so he rolled the windows down and turned up his radio.
He would miss Ohio and the friends he’d made there, but it was time to return to his territory and his pack.
Stiles had learned a lot during his fixation on Lydia, including the return periods for most of the stores at Beacon Hills mall and the entire cast of Gossip Girl. The most humbling thing he’d learned, though, the real takeaway of the the whole experience, was that people weren’t prizes you could win. Loving someone would never mean that they were obligated to love you back.
It hadn’t been a fun lesson.
He’d promised himself there would be no more helpless, obsessive crushes after that. He was going to find someone he liked and who maybe liked him, and he was going to ask them out. It would be totally normal and not creepy at all.
So when he realized he had a crush on Derek, he actively tried to get over it. His efforts all fell apart when he arrived early to a pack meeting at Derek’s loft and caught him carrying Mrs. Nguyen’s groceries up the stairs. Derek liked to complain about her to the pack, said she was too nosy and that she always gave him a hard time about what he was eating. And here he was, carting something like fifteen bags of groceries up the stairs and patiently listening to her talk about her grandchildren.
It felt like someone had punched him in the sternum.
Derek was kind; really, truly kind. Stiles had kept his crush under control by constantly listing his flaws (and oh, did Derek have a lot of flaws) but here was evidence that he was a basically nice person. The asshole probably fed strays, too. And once he started paying attention, the examples kept piling up.
When the Girl Scouts came he bought three boxes from each girl that knocked on his door, even though they were hawking them at $4 a box. He promised Erica that she could use the Camaro to take Boyd to prom, and lent Isaac money so that he could rent a tuxe.
It didn’t matter how many times he recited Derek’s flaws. He’d never put Derek on a pedestal because he’d known all of them practically since they met. It wasn’t just a crush anymore; it was worse. He was pretty sure he was in love.
His first real stop--not counting food or gas or sleep--was Cawker City, Kansas, home to the purported World’s Largest ball of sisal twine. He’d called ahead and someone had promised to meet him there with twine so he could add some. He came into town on US-24. The twine shelter was just off the street, easily spotted in a town without much to it. He pulled into the first spot he saw and walked up. There were a few people clustered around it and taking pictures and one woman standing off to the side. She looked like she was about forty, wearing a bright orange Cawker City t-shirt and comfortable jeans.
“Mrs. Plover?” he asked, approaching her. “I’m Stiles, I emailed you about adding to the ball?”
“You’re right on time,” she said. “One sec, let me just--” She dug in her purse and produced a fat roll of twine. “Here you are; add as much as you’d like. I’ll be back in about ten minutes, I just need to run to the drug store. If you’re done before then you can just leave it hanging from the ball.”
“I’ll probably still be here. Thanks again,” he said. He nodded politely at the tourists and edged past them to tie the end of the twine on. He took a deep breath to center himself, inhaling the strong, diesel-like scent of the sisal. Then he started weaving it around, taking slow, measured steps as he went. Every quarter turn around the ball he wound it under another thread. He concentrated on a different pack member with each circle he made, their connection to the him and to the pack, his desire that they be safe. He’d just finished when Mrs. Plover returned.
He tilted his head back toward her. “Do you have a pair of scissors I can borrow?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, and handed him a pair of nail scissors. They would work. He cut the twine off about a foot from the last place he’d tucked the thread under and began to weave one of the knots Julia had taught him. It was secure but would keep the weaving from binding them too tight. Once he was finished there was a tail of a couple inches.
“Thanks,” he said, handing the scissors back to Mrs. Plover. “Is there a good place to eat around here?”
It was Lydia’s 18th birthday party and Stiles was drunk. It was only the third time he’d been to one of her parties since they entered middle school, and it was thankfully much different than the first time, with its spiked punch and subsequent hallucinations. He’d just stopped playing Never Have I Ever with Isaac and Erica; he’d been winning too easily and it had started to get embarrassing. Everyone he knew was cooler than him.
He was headed to the kitchen to get a bottle of water in the interest of sobering up when he overheard two girls he didn’t recognize, presumably because they went to the private school across town.
“Can you believe she hangs out with them? It’s like whatever happened to her sophomore year permanently damaged the part of her brain used to make good social decisions.” She was clearly talking about Lydia, so them probably meant the pack.
“I know, right? Did you see that one guy earlier, you know, kind of cute if you can ignore that he’s a total spaz? He almost spilled his drink all over Stacy. And he didn’t even apologize!” said the other. Embarrassment lanced through Stiles, effectively eliminating his buzz. That was him; he’d spilled the beer on his shoes instead. He would have apologized, but the girl--Stacy--had huffed and left before he could muster the words. The incident may have inspired his fourth and fifth drinks.
He was trying to get away without drawing their attention when he saw the tell-tale red glow coming from the bathroom doorway. Great. One more time where Derek witnessed Stiles being epicly humiliated for the tally board.
Twenty minutes late he’d had another beer and mostly forgotten the whole thing when he looked up from chatting with Scott and saw Derek lurking in the corner by himself. “Derek!” he shouted, waving both arms in the air to get his attention.
Scott winced. “I’m gonna...go be somewhere else, now,” he said, and wandered off. He was probably going to find Allison. Scott always wanted to find Allison. Stiles had accepted it as a fact of life.
Now he was alone, though. Derek hadn’t moved from his corner, so Stiles went to him. “You,” he said, poking Derek in the chest, and immediately lost his train of thought. It only took him a second to recover. “Oh, right. You have the most amazing eyes. No, shut up, don’t growl at me. You do. And I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you. No wait--no I am in love with you but not because of your eyes. Not just. What I’m saying is, you’re so cool, and you’re nice to me even though you are not obvious about it, let me tell you, it took me like 30 minutes to convince Scott, and also sometimes you growl in your sleep, did you know that? And I just. I’m 18 now and wanted you to know.”
“Uh,” said Derek, but he was staring at Stiles’ mouth. Stiles leaned forward and he was so close, he could feel Derek exhale on his upper lip, and then...Then he was tripping over himself as Derek set a broad hand on his chest and pushed him away. “Stiles, I don’t--this isn’t--I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” And then Stiles was alone again. He stumbled back against the wall and sank to the ground. He’d call Scott in a minute, ask for a ride home. Lydia would be pissed that he’d left before the fireworks but he needed to go before the night got any worse.
He was just going to sit here for a while, first.
“What do you mean, you don’t have a room for me? I made the reservation like a month ago,” Stiles said, not really processing the information. He’d been driving all day and just wanted to collapse. The clerk just sort of grimaced at him. “Wait, wait, I think I have the confirmation email,” he said, swinging his backpack around so he could dig in it for his trip folder. He pulled it out and rifled through the collection of printouts until he alighted on the confirmation papers for the motel. “Ha! Here, see, it clearly says you should have a room for me. Name of Stilinski, s-k-i? Is this ringing any bells?”
The clerk just shrugged, mouth turned down in an exaggerated and all-too-fake expression of sympathy and regret. “Sorry, we don’t have any rooms left. If you call the booking website they’ll arrange the refund. Should hit your account in 3, 4 business days, something like that.”
Stiles gaped at him. “But...but...I mean, why would you bother offering online room reservations if you’re just going to ignore them? That can’t be good for business. Is your manager here, can I talk to them?”
“Nah, he won’t be in for another couple of hours,” the clerk said.
“I just--Joe, is that your name?” Joe nodded. “Joe, I just really need a place to sleep tonight, man. I’ve been driving for like ten hours. You’ve gotta have a room, any room, that I can crash in for a few hours. Please just help me out here and I will leave, like, the most glowing Yelp review of all time. I will mention you by name and recommend you for a raise. I just...anything. I will take anything.”
Joe smirked. “Well, now that you mention it,” he said, “we do have a room. You may need to pay a little extra for it.”
“Sure, fine, whatever. Where do I sign?” he said, tapping his fingers convulsively against the counter.
Five minutes later Stiles was a hundred bucks poorer and carefully creating a mountain ash perimeter around the honeymoon suite.
The Monday after his humiliation at Lydia’s party he received a letter notifying him that he was one of 75 finalists for a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State and he was cordially invited visit Columbus the first week of April so that they could interview him.
“Dad! Hey, Dad!” he shouted, barreling up the stairs. “I’m a finalist for the Eminence!”
He’d originally planned to go to school closer to home, somewhere it’d be easy to check up on his dad or lend the pack a hand with the monster of the week. USC had a good undergraduate folklore program, and while Berkeley only offered graduate degrees they had an apprenticeship for undergrads that allowed access to their folklore archives. There was a lot Stiles could do with that kind of access.
But Derek didn’t want him back, and Stiles needed to get away if he wanted half a chance of avoiding his alpha long enough to get over him. He refused to always be the one pining. A full ride was all the excuse he’d need to go to Ohio. The pack would understand; they knew he’d been worried about loans, and he could always do research over email and Skype.
He had a flight booked by the end of the week.
Stiles had never been on a real backwoods trail before. He’d done weekend hikes in Ohio, even taken some trips on the Blue Ridge trail one year over the summer, but he’d never done anything like the route he had planned in the Rockies.
His mom had been really into backpacking. Mrs. McCall told him stories from before he was born, when his mom would take a couple days off from the hospital and drive up to the Sierras. His dad’s favorite outdoor activity was fishing, not hauling your bed around on your back and having to tie your food up in a tree to keep it from bears, so it was just her, alone on the trails.
After he was born she stopped, spent the long weekends with him instead. Stiles has always thought that she would’ve gone back to it when he was a teenager or once he’d left for college. He started because he thought it would help him feel closer to her, and it does.
It helped him to focus in a different way than the running did, and he’d found it to be invaluable when it came to centering himself for a ritual. He did some of his best work in the middle of a trip. He’d planned a small working for this week, and then he’ll do the big binding in Wyoming.
His first night there was a couple sharing his Thunder Lake campsite. Ben and Susan were probably ten years older than him and laughed when he complained about how much he ached. Ben showed him a better way to secure his pack. They invited him to share their fire and in exchange he regaled them with some of his favorite tales.
Stiles was disappointed to learn they were leaving while he was heading in; he’d come to the park so he could have some time to himself but hadn’t counted on how empty the backcountry would be. He’d always passed plenty of people on his other hikes. His first day had been lonely and it would probably only get worse.
He drew out his storytelling in an effort to delay the inevitable but he’d just finished the story of Arachne and Athena when they pled tiredness and decided to turn in. Stiles figured he should, too. He had something like 6,000 feet of elevation to gain the next day.
Dr. Carpenter taught the honors Introduction to Folklore course. Stiles didn’t go to her office hours until a few weeks into the semester, right after the first class on storytelling. There were a few students there in front of him, so he practiced what Deaton called “finding your spark” and he called meditation. He’d managed to maintain his center for a few minutes when the door to Dr. Carpenter’s office banged against the wall and jolted him out of it. It was his turn.
He knocked on the open door to be polite as he walked in. “Hey, I just had a few--holy shit, is that mountain ash?” He backed across the threshold and entered again, feeling the tell-tale shiver as he did. “Yep, definitely mountain ash,” he pronounced. “So, what exactly are you? Hunter? Witch? Something creepier?”
Dr. Carpenter was behind her desk, watching him with a slight smile. “You must be Stiles. I saw your name in the registry but hadn’t put a face to it yet; Alan told me to keep an eye out for you. As to your question, I suppose witch is as good a name as any. I don’t do many workings these days, though. Not enough time. Now, I believe you had some questions about the lecture?”
Stiles started to frequent her office hours. She was refreshingly forthright after his experiences with Deaton, possibly because she was trained as a teacher. He learned how to choose his symbols and make their meaning stick, and they started meeting outside of her office hours. She began to teach him knotwork and weaving. Soon he was spending most of his time outside of studying or track either in her office or meditating on the lawn outside. Senior year, he wheedled her into being his thesis advisor. Her only condition was that he couldn’t write it on werewolves.
He agreed, and wrote about the Reynard cycle instead. She rolled her eyes and sighed at him. All of his favorite people seemed to do that.
Stiles finally mastered all of the knots she had to teach the same week he finished his thesis. Dr. Carpenter bought him a celebratory latte at their next meeting and told him to design and weave a bracelet using them all. It took him two weeks to finish. He brought it to her and she tied the final knot around his wrist.
“This is so you don’t forget what you learned when you return to that pack of yours,” she said. “Don’t take it off.”
He reached the end of a series of switchbacks and paused to rest. Tyndall Gorge was to his right and he had a great view of the glacier. Stiles wished, not for the first time, that he could share this with Derek. He would have loved the fierce wildness of the park.
Stiles swung his pack off his back and pulled his kit out. His fingers hovered over the silk, but in the end he picked cotton. It was the same red as Derek’s eyes and had been a pain and a half to track down.
“This had better work, Julia,” he muttered, crouched on the ground, and started knotting the thread. Once he had a cord long enough to circle his wrist twice he spit on it, laid it in a circle in front of him, and got out his Zippo. He lit it with one smooth flick of his thumb and held the flame to the cord until it caught. It burned quickly. When there was only ash left, he scooped it up in his palms, cupped his hands, and tried to capture the sense of peace he’d had all week. Once he was sure he had it he breathed in deeply, catching the sharp taste of the fir trees in his lungs, and blew the ash out over the gorge.
Scott wasn't exactly thrilled with him when he found out.
“Ugh, seriously? Haven't you had enough time to find yourself or whatever? This was gonna be our summer. You know, the one we've been planning since we were ten?” he said when Stiles announced his plan during their weekly Skype call.
Stiles picked up a pen that was lying on his desk and spun it restlessly back and forth through his fingers. “I don't know, Scott, I just need some more time. And there's some spark stuff I wanna do, use the geography to ground a few rituals. It's actually really cool, see, there’s what’s called an endorheic basin at the Continental Divide in Wisconsin, it means that none of the water flows out, it just evaporates. Deaton and I think I can use that to--”
“Yeah, sure, you’ve got magic stuff, whatever. I miss you, man. It's been four years,” he said.
“It has not!” Stiles said, gesturing emphatically with the pen. “It's been like five months tops, I was just back for Christmas.”
“For a week,” Scott muttered. “You had to go back early for a meet, remember?”
Stiles started spinning his pen again, concentrating on looping it around all of his fingers with each cycle. Scott was right; he hadn’t spent much time in Beacon Hills the last few years. It was easy to stay in Ohio, where his biggest problem was finding a bar that didn’t think his California license was a fake. The last two summers he’d even taken local internships. He fumbled the pen and it bounced off the edge of his desk to the floor. Stiles sighed. “Scott, you know I love you. This is just...I wish I could spend the whole summer with you, I really do, but if I don’t do this I think I'll really regret it. I have some stuff I need to work through before I come back for good.”
Scott grimaced. “Yeah, okay,” he said, and changed the subject to a quest their WoW guild was preparing for.
Stiles vowed to make it up to him as soon as he got back.
He’d just finished texting his dad to let him know he’d made it out of the park okay when his waitress set the coffee he’d ordered down with a clatter. According to her nametag, her name was Jo. She hadn’t introduced herself; it wasn’t that kind of place. In fact, he was pretty sure their motto was “Service with a Sneer.”
“Know what you want?” she asked.
Stiles gave her his best charming smile. Mrs. McCall said it made him look like a deranged squirrel, but that was just her opinion. “I’m actually having some trouble deciding. What would you recommend?”
She hmm’d, hands at her waist. “Well, the burger can’t be beat. You like curly fries?”
“Do I like curly...yes, yes I do like curly fries. Some might even say I should marry them,” Stiles said. Jo raised an eyebrow and tapped her pen against the order pad impatiently. She clearly wasn’t going to tolerate any bullshit from some twentysomething tourist. Stiles swallowed. “Uh, sorry. I would love a burger and curly fries, thanks.”
“Medium?” Jo asked. Stiles nodded. “Cheese? No? One burger with curly fries, then. Anything else?”
“No, that’s all. Thanks,” he said, and directed his attention to the Colorado map he’d laid out on the table. He was trying to figure out the best way up to Wyoming so he could complete his last working. It looked like it was pretty simple: he could take 34 to 287 and get on 80 from there. That could wait until tomorrow, though. For now he was going to eat something cooked by someone else and then sleep for 12 hours.
“Michael James Reed,” announced the registrar, and Stiles turned to survey the stands again. His dad had texted to say he was on the right side of the stadium but Stiles hadn’t seen him yet. He shaded his eyes with his hand to counteract the glare of the sun; there he was, standing up and waving with both arms. Stiles waved back. He didn’t recognize the people beside him. Dr. Carpenter (“For god’s sake, Stiles, call me Julia. You’re about to graduate”) had been in the processional and was seated with the rest of the faculty, so there were two people here to see him walk.
He tried not to be disappointed; of course Derek wouldn’t leave Beacon Hills for this. Anyway, he probably couldn’t get the time off work now that he’d been promoted.
Andrea Sewell was called. Stiles shuffled forward.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead and consulted his GPS for the fourth time. “Damn it, where is it?” he asked the air around him. He’d been walking back and forth along this stretch of I-80 for the last ten minutes, trying to get the right coordinates for the official crossing of the continental divide in Great Divide Basin. There should’ve been a marker but he hadn’t found it yet.
A minute later he caught a flash of red out of the corner of his eye. Upon inspection it proved to be the scrap of fabric he’d been looking for. “Ha! Found it,” he said, pumping his fist in the air. “Who’s the king? Stiles is the king.” He unzipped his bag and pulled out his thread and a knife so he could get to work.
Stiles pulled to a stop in the driveway, threw the Jeep into neutral, and yanked the parking brake. He was back in Beacon Hills for good. He should go inside, hug his dad for the first time in almost a month, but instead he just sat there.
None of his friends at Ohio State had really understood why he was returning to his podunk California hometown to start a crappy job in customer service. He’d told them about Scott and his dad but couldn’t explain the pack, the bond they’d formed by fighting together for three years. He couldn’t explain Derek, either, the way loving him had pushed Stiles away and then just as unerringly drawn him back.
He knew this was where he belonged, could feel it in his bones as he entered town, but was a terrible job and an unrequited love really the best he could do?
He was startled out of his thoughts by a knock at his window: his dad, beckoning him out of the Jeep. He hastened to unlock the door and jumped out and straight into a bone-crushing Stilinski hug.
While he stood there in the driveway, being hugged within an inch of his life by his dad, he felt his ties to the county stir, tendrils of power questing around his feet. He would always come back to Beacon Hills; he’d put too much of himself into the land to stay away for long.
The summer sun hadn’t made an appearance yet but the birds had already started up their cacophony. He was struggling with a knot in his shoe laces; it was his own fault for never taking them off properly, just shoving at the heel until he could slip them off.
Stiles had only started cross country because of Finstock’s constant ranting about conditioning during the off-season. He hadn’t thought he’d like running, thought it would trap him in his own head. When he started doing distance, though, he found that after the first mile he zoned out, everything narrowing down to the steady drumming of his feet on the trail. He felt more centered after a run, sure in his mind and body in a way he normally wasn’t.
He’d never grown to like morning practices but they’d at least become habit, so here he was, 5:15 A.M. on his first Saturday back in town, trying to get his shoes on so he could start a long run.
“Finally,” he muttered as the knot came loose. He quickly laced up his shoes and did a few perfunctory stretches before setting out for the preserve. He had an easy five-mile loop planned, one of the trails he used to run in high school.
He was vaguely aware that the route would take him by the western edge of the Hale property but he figured Derek would either be out or ignore him. He wasn’t expecting him to join in, but that’s exactly what happened around his two mile mark.
“Sorry, can’t stop for a little werewolf chat. I’m timing myself,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Derek. He was actually dressed for running. Stiles tried not to be distracted by the pale flash of his knees. This wasn’t at all how he’d imagined seeing Derek for the first time when he came back.
“Why?” asked Derek. The jerk wasn’t even breathing heavily.
“Dad told me about a half-marathon trail race out in Granite Bay in the fall, thought I might enter.” Derek was silent. “Think of it as advanced training in running away for humans,” Stiles said. Derek grunted. They continued to run in companionable quiet for a few hundred yards.
“You look good,” Derek suddenly said. Stiles almost stumbled.
“Do you mean, like, my form or my form? What am I saying, obviously you mean my running form. Man, I’d hope it looks good, I have been working on it pretty intensively for the last four years.”
“No, I mean--” Derek stopped, frustrated. “Did Scott tell you I’ve been seeing someone?” Stiles really did trip then, possibly on the pieces of his broken heart, but he recovered before he fell.
“Uh, no, but I have to say I don’t really see what that has to do with my form,” he said. Then he was tumbling off the trail. He heard Derek grunt behind him as he finally caught himself and regained his feet, brushing at the dirt on his legs, looking for any open cuts. He didn’t see anything big, just a few scrapes. “Dude,” he said, “what the fuck just happened?” He turned around and forgot what he was going to say next.
Derek was curled up in the middle of the path, clutching his right calf. He didn’t look good, veins standing in high relief from his skin, which was several shades paler than his usual. Stiles rushed over. “Shit, are you okay?” He tried to pry Derek’s hands away. “Come on, let me see,” he said. Derek shuddered suddenly and dropped his arms to the ground. His color was returning, at least. Stiles inspected his calf. There were indents from Derek’s fingers but no sign of a wound; he’d probably healed whatever it was already. “Seriously, what happened? Did we hit a trap?”
Derek shook his head. “Rattlesnake. You almost stepped on it.”
“Is that when I tripped? No, wait--I didn’t trip, did I. You pushed me out of the way and it bit you instead,” Stiles said, realization dawning. Derek levered himself up and combed his hands through his hair, dislodging the pine needles he’d acquired while writhing on the ground. “You know, it’s not that I’m not opposed to being saved from a potentially fatal snakebite, but I thought you’d gotten over this whole self-sacrificing thing.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Derek said. “I’m fine.”
“It’s not fine, Derek, it’s a frankly worrying pattern of behavior,” Stiles retorted.
Derek bared his teeth in something like a smile. “Maybe if you had a stronger self-preservation instinct I wouldn’t have to be self-sacrificing,” he said. Stiles had apparently touched a nerve.
“I have an excellent self-preservation instinct, okay--”
“Then why were you running out here by yourself, Stiles? What’s the current body count for joggers in the preserve, ten? Fifteen?” Derek asked.
“Most of those were supernatural, and that was before we started to patrol. It’s way safer now, no one’s been maimed in months,” Stiles argued.
Derek rolled his eyes. “Didn’t stop you from almost getting a ‘potentially fatal snakebite,’” he said. “You always do this, you run into situations without thinking--”
“Whoa, hold up. This was a rattlesnake, Derek, not hunters, not anything supernatural at all. I was just as likely to run into it in my backyard or during pack training. I’m not hurt, you’re healed, everyone is fine. I’m just saying that next time I’d appreciate it if you could push me to safety and then jump to safety yourself, okay?”
“Well I’d appreciate it if you stopped almost getting yourself killed,” Derek shouted, and jerked backwards as though he’d shocked himself. “I just--damn it, Stiles, I can’t handle it,” he said quietly. Stiles stared at him. Derek flushed, a bloom of red moving up his neck to his cheeks, and then he was spinning around and stalking back the way they’d came. Stiles had plenty to think about as he finished his run.
The next evening Stiles was trying to make it back to base in Team Fortress 2 when his dad poked his head into Stiles' room and said, “Shut it down, we're going out.”
“Uh, okay, just one sec while I finish this game,” Stiles replied, distracted, as he tried to avoid a grenade.
“You have two minutes and then I'm going to Nana’s without you,” his dad said as he sauntered back down the hallway.
Stiles almost knocked his laptop off the desk in his haste to close it.
Nana’s had the best frozen custard Stiles had ever tasted, and his opportunities to indulge had been severely limited in the last few years. If he’d known that going with his dad would mean he’d see Derek Hale for the first time in months, though, he would have gladly skipped his daily serving of delicious frozen goodness.
The line at Nana’s was about as ridiculous as could be expected at 8 o’clock at night on a Saturday in the middle of summer--that is, something which could be conservatively described as a mob--and competition for the tables outside was fierce. Stiles got his dad’s order and sent him off to commandeer a table. He was a lawman, he could do things like that. (“Your grasp of the United States justice system is terrifying,” quipped his dad.) He was humming to himself and waiting for the line to move when he caught a glimpse of leather out of the corner of his eye.
“Shit,” he muttered to himself, and ducked down, trying to present a smaller target. The line continued to inch forward. Despite his three week--or years long, depending on how you counted--respite, he wasn’t ready to face Derek yet. They hadn’t ever talked about it, the attempted kiss, had just moved on to the next thing trying to kill them. Stiles would like to think that Derek had forgotten, but he knew better. Now that he was back to stay and the number of life-threatening instances in the area had dropped precipitously Derek would probably have something to say about it.
Scott had reported that he talked about feelings a lot more, now. Stiles thought it was probably part of his efforts to be a less terrible Alpha. He applauded the idea in theory but dreaded what it meant for him.
The family in front of him was ordering, which meant he just had to order, wait for their custard, and then escape without being seen.
Oh, who was he kidding? Derek had probably smelled him as soon as he walked in.
So when they called out his order, Stiles grabbed the cups, gathered his courage, and turned to face Derek.
He was staring at the menu, probably deep in contemplation of the merits of caramel over raspberries or something. Stiles walked up and cleared his throat. “Lydia and I have been working on a defense plan the last few months. Is there a time you’re free to consult on it?” he asked.
“Sure,” Derek said. “Does Saturday work? I’m available around noon. We could meet at Francesca’s.”
“Sure, yeah, works for me,” Stiles replied.
“Good,” Derek said, and returned to perusing the menu.
“I’d go with raspberries myself, big guy. They have that hint of sweetness,” he found himself saying.
Derek turned to him and raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you like?” he asked. “Sour with a hint of sweetness?”
Stiles was speechless. Was Derek flirting? Was that what he’d been doing before the whole rattlesnake disaster, too? He shook it off, but it was too late to prevent an awkward silence. “Uh, no, I’m all about the nuts,” he said, gesturing to his custard. Derek’s eyebrows drew down and together. “Not like that!” Stiles said, waving his hands as though it could erase the innuendo. “Or, I mean, yes like that, but that’s not what I--you know what, these are melting, and I think I see Mrs. Whitaker bothering my dad, so I’d better go rescue him.”
He went to make his escape but before he could get out of earshot he heard Derek call, “See you Saturday.” Stiles just walked faster.
After he had gotten rid of Mrs. Whitaker, his dad cheerily started to relay the local gossip. He was in the middle of a story about Mr. Beecham, Mrs. Gonzales’ springer spaniel, and the strawberry festival when he stopped and looked at Stiles knowingly. “You doing alright, kid?” he asked.
Stiles looked up from where he’d been swirling his spoon through the custard, lost in thought. “Huh? Yeah, fine. You were telling me about the strawberry festival.”
“Uh huh, sure. It’s just that your custard’s mostly melted, and you normally finish it before I eat half of mine,” his dad said.
Stiles shrugged. “Not that hungry after all, I guess.”
Scott had planned a marathon of terrible werewolf movies to welcome Stiles back and jump-start their summer bro time. Stiles had been touched, and once again felt a pang of guilt at missing the last few weeks. He pounced as soon as Scott opened the door, using the benefit of surprise to tackle him. Scott quickly gained the upper hand and rolled him off. Stiles stared at the ceiling from his position on the floor with a manic grin as Scott climbed to his feet and offered him a hand.
“Did you miss me?” he asked. Scott tugged him to his feet and pulled him into a quick hug.
“You know I did. It’s good to have you back,” he said. “You owe me a real explanation for that trip, though.”
“Man, do I have to talk about it? I’ll just get feelings all over you,” Stiles said, and walked into the living room, Scott trailing behind.
“Feelings are the keystone of all bromances,” Scott intoned solemnly. “Or, wait. Cornerstone? I think I mean cornerstone.”
Stiles flopped across the couch. “Yep, pretty sure you do,” he said. “Fine, I’ll spill, but I expect many beers and the worst werewolf movies you could find first.
“I can do that,” Scott said. “PBR or Bud Light?”
Four drinks and one movie later (Ginger Snaps, the best worst werewolf movie the world had ever seen), he was finally ready to talk.
“You know that crush I had on Derek?” Scott snorted. “Hey! It wasn’t that obvious. Was it? God, I hope it wasn’t. Anyway. It got worse Senior year.”
“Okay, and...?” Scott prompted.
“Well, and I never got over it, not even with a country between me and his stupidly perfect face,” he said. “I just need a little time to adjust to the idea of living in the same town as him again.”
“Is that all?” Scott asked.
“What do you mean, is that all?” Stiles said, indignant, and tossed the nearest pillow at Scott.
He batted it away easily and shrugged. “I just thought it would be something...I dunno, less stupid. No offense,” he said. “I mean, you know Derek likes you, right? I don’t know if it’s the same as your capital-L love but he’s at least attracted to you.
“Bullshit,” Stiles said. Scott just shrugged again.
“Man, the nose knows, okay? Can we talk about something else now, I really hate thinking about Derek’s dick.” Stiles threw the other pillow. Scott dodged that one, too.
“Ugh, fine. How’s your rotation at the clinic? Is Deaton’s favorite hobby still being mysterious?”
Stiles was waiting for Derek at the coffee shop. He’d almost cancelled when he’d woken up that morning to the hangover from hell. Then he’d remembered what Scott had told him. He and Derek had more to discuss than the defense plans.
He had his face burrowed in his arms in an attempt to avoid the sunlight and only looked up when someone slid into the booth across from him. “Is it your goal in life to always look like a badass? It’s almost 80 degrees out,” he said.
“You know the heat doesn’t bother me,” Derek said as he shrugged off his jacket. “Do you have the plans?”
Stiles’ eyes flicked down to Derek’s newly-bare neck and he felt his own begin to heat. He cleared his throat. “Uh, right! Right. Plans. Consulting, that is...definitely a thing we need to do,” he trailed off awkwardly. Derek just stared at him, and Stiles realized he hadn’t actually gotten the plans out. He scrambled for them in his bag and presented them with a flourish. Derek took the papers and started to read over them.
Stiles held out for maybe a minute. “You know, I was over at Scott’s last night,” he said.
Derek flipped a page. “Yeah?” he said. “I remember him mentioning something about movies.”
“Right. Anyway, we talked about my trip a little. Then he told me something interesting.” He paused, transfixed by the way Derek’s wrist flexed as he added a note to the paper, and loudly cleared his throat. Derek looked up at the sound and raised an eyebrow.
“Stiles, stop stalling and spit it out. What’d he have to say?” he asked.
“Well, I just--” Stiles shifted on the bench. “What did you mean when you said you were seeing someone?” he abruptly asked.
Derek shrugged. It did obscene things to his collarbones. “Just what I said.” Stiles’ heart sank. “I got a therapist around Thanksgiving, I see her every week.”
Stiles...was not expecting that. “Uh,” he said.
“It’s no big deal,” Derek said, ducking his head. “I just have some stuff to work through. It’s been going pretty well, I think.”
Stiles nodded his head a few times. “Cool, cool,” he said. He fidgeted with his cappuccino, aligning the handle so that it was parallel to the edge of the table.
Derek cleared his throat and leaned forward a little. “I wanted to ask, what exactly were you doing that it took you three weeks to drive from Ohio to California?” Apparently it was time for a subject change; Stiles could work with that.
“I dunno, hiking mostly. And I’m now an expert in truck stop diner coffee, like, I could definitely write a thesis on the subject, I am just saying. Also, uh, car karaoke, I got very good at that, and evaluating how sketch a motel would be by--”
“So, hiking. What does that really mean? Were you attempting to become one with nature, some sort of 21st century druid thing?” Derek asked.
“Okay, so, firstly, those totally exist, they have a website and everything, and secondly, no, I meant like hiking. You know, boots, trail mix, a stick so you can poke at stuff? It’s like the running, it helps me focus. I had a lot to think about, needed some time to myself to do it,” Stiles said.
Derek hummed inquiringly. “Like what?”
“Just, you know. Personal stuff,” Stiles said. He couldn’t hold it in anymore. “Scott told me that you like me, is that true?”
“He what?” Derek asked, reeling back and dropping the plans.
“That’s not a no,” Stiles pointed out. Was Derek blushing? He was, that was totally a blush. “See, I was really interested in that information, because I have a giant thing for you. I’ve had a giant thing for you for like five years now. But when I tried to do something about it you pushed me away, so I thought, you know, you weren’t interested. I’ve maybe possibly been trying to get over you ever since.”
“What do you mean, when you tried to--Stiles, you were drunk. And then you never brought it up, so I thought. Are you saying--since then? You’ve had your ‘giant thing’ since then?” Stiles had never heard him sound so incredulous, even when he was dealing with Scott.
“Yep,” he said, popping the last syllable with glee. “Since then. Am I to assume Scott was right?”
Derek just shook his head. “Jesus, Stiles, I thought that was just an ill-advised high school crush, not anything serious. It can’t have been serious. You were just a kid--”
Stiles sighed. “You never listen to me,” he said, and reached across the table. Derek froze as he gently tugged him forward by the shoulder and rested their foreheads together. “I liked you then, sure. More importantly, I like you now, and you like me back,” he whispered, and tilted his head slightly to the side before pressing a chaste kiss to Derek’s lips. When he went to pull back Derek grabbed the back of his head and drew him into a real kiss, nipping at his bottom lip and then tracing it with his tongue. Stiles moaned and sank into it. He had years of kisses to catch up on, and Derek seemed content to trade them back and forth despite the edges of the table biting into their stomachs.
They kept at it until the manager came over. “I hate to interrupt, but if you want to continue that we’ll have to ask you to leave,” she said with a smirk.
Stiles immediately stood and tugged Derek out of the booth. They could go over the defense plans later.
He did the ritual just off I-80 about halfway between Rawlins and Rock Springs. Once he was done, he kept driving until he hit Salt Lake City and crashed at the first cheap hotel he saw. He wanted to push through the final leg tomorrow, which meant at least a 10 hour drive, and he’d given more blood than he was comfortable with to do that morning’s working.
The next day he was almost an hour out of Reno when he took the exit for 20 and finally started to relax.
He was almost home.