“Pinch me, Erica. No, seriously, pinch me, like really hard, because I'm sure I'm unconscious or hallucinating or something,” Stiles said weakly. Erica punched him in the shoulder instead, which hurt a lot, but Stiles honestly felt he was entitled to some measure of disbelief here. Because Derek was smiling. And cooing. And blowing loud raspberries on the silky soft belly of Scott's baby cousin who squealed in delight and pulled on his ears. And at diaper time, Derek volunteered. Seriously, who even did that?!
Scott's mom was smiling behind her hand and the entire pack seemed to hover around Derek as if they were all dying to have a go with the new toy. Which was a really horrible thing to think about a baby, but Derek's face was lit up like it was Christmas, and it was just infectious, dammit! Even Jackson seemed drawn to the pudgy little face and Stiles was just about ready to have himself committed.
“I get the feeling my sister won't have trouble finding babysitters when she moves here,” Mrs McCall said merrily, and oh my god, could she not see how freakin' weird this all was?! Stiles was slowly and steadily freaking out. Derek was busy making his face go back and forth from wolf to human to the endless excitement of baby Layla.
“I'd be happy to look after her anytime,” Derek said, grinning through his fangs as Layla closed her gums around his nose and drooled all over his face. Scott chuckled goofily and Stiles had to fight the urge to slap him, because seriously?! Scott had seen the kid plenty over the past few weeks while his aunt had been staying at the McCall residence, and he sure hadn't been this googly eyed over the kid before. But apparently a broody alpha made for a broody pack. Oh god, Stiles hoped they weren't about to start having babies in the pack. Or would those be puppies? Oh god.
“Well, we should go pick up your mommy,” Mrs McCall said to Layla and eased her out of Derek's reluctant hands. “Have a good pack meeting, everyone.” She was followed by many wistful eyes as she left Derek's apartment, and Derek didn't stop staring at the door until she was well out of hearing range. Then it was business as usual, and Stiles felt like he was getting whiplash.
“Am I the only one weirded out by this?!” Stiles ranted as he drove Scott home later. He thanked the stars above that Scott's mom had only agreed to drop him off, not pick him up again, possibly exposing the pack to another dose of baby, because frankly Stiles just didn't have the mental fortitude to deal with that.
“What's weird about it?” Scott shrugged. “So Derek likes babies, big deal.”
“That's not weird enough? Not to mention the fact that the whole pack was practically wetting themselves in there.”
Scott frowned at him. “What, you don't like babies?”
“I like babies just fine, Scott. I think they're the most adorable thing ever invented, and one day I'm gonna have a whole little brood of my own, but come on! You didn't care half as much about Layla until Derek got his wolfy hands on her!”
“Look, all I know is that she made him ridiculously happy, okay? And when the alpha's happy, the pack's happy. He's not even really my alpha and even I could feel the difference in the room. It's a wolf thing,” he shrugged again.
“Gee, I never guessed, thanks buddy,” Stiles snapped, and Scott glared at him. “It's not the wolf thing that bothers me as much as the fact that up until yesterday, even as a human – or maybe especially as a human – Derek seemed like a kind of person much more likely to eat babies!”
The look on Scott's face gave Stiles the impression he'd stepped in it somehow. “Did you ever look into Derek's family?”
“Well, no, because I'm pretty sure he'd eat me if he found out I was snooping about his family history.”
“Well, Isaac told me a few things... Did you know that he had three younger siblings? One was still a toddler when the fire happened, and Peter... his wife and his newborn kid were also there. In the house...” he trailed off, and Stiles felt sick.
“So Derek's practiced in the art of changing diapers,” he said shakily, sticking to his point. “That still doesn't explain why a baby would work like Xanax on him. If anything, wouldn't it remind him of the grief?”
“I dunno, man, you're gonna have to ask him.”
Stiles snorted. Yeah right. Because that would end so well.
* * *
“So, Derek. What is it with you and babies?” Yeah, Stiles evidently had no sense of self preservation.
Derek raised an eyebrow at him from where he was lounging on Stiles' bed. “Shouldn't you be researching earth sprites?”
“Sir, yes sir,” Stiles quipped, sending Derek a mock salute. “I'm waiting for a guy in Australia to look something up for me and he said he'd email me back in ten minutes. And since you've apparently got nothing better to do than sit here in my room and glare at me, I thought we could try small talk. Just a thought, no pressure.”
“I swear it's a thing that real people do, Derek, and it probably won't kill you.”
Derek scoffed and cast a longing glance at Stiles' computer, as if willing the email to come in any moment now. When it became clear that no such thing would be happening he rolled his eyes and sighed. “Fine. So I love kids. What do you care?”
Stiles shrugged. “Just didn't figure you for the type, that's all.”
“Yeah, the whole leather-jacket-fast-car-human-emotions-are-beneath-me schtick doesn't really seem kid-friendly.”
“In case you forgot, I'm actually not human.”
“Which just doubles the weirdness factor when a 100% human-made baby gets you all gooey and starry-eyed.”
“My baby sister was human,” Derek said quietly, and shit, getting Derek to pour his heart out wasn't really what Stiles had been angling for. But okay, if Derek was willing to share, Stiles could deal.
“So... Layla reminds you of her?”
“A little, but that's not why I like her. Babies are... innocent. And in wolf communities, large packs mean power and every child is precious.”
“So making babies is like driving the war machine? I get it.”
Derek stared at Stiles as if he'd suddenly grown a second head. “No, you idiot! You only procreate when there's peace. So having infants in a pack means you're powerful enough to maintain harmony in your territory. Children are a luxury, Stiles. A gift.”
“Oh,” Stiles said quietly, feeling properly chastised. “So she's a symbol. Of better times.”
“Stiles,” Derek groaned. “Don't try to make this into some huge thing. She's just incredibly cute, okay?”
“But it is a huge thing! Because this is you! And every time I see a smile on your face I half expect the four horsemen of the apocalypse to ride into town!”
“Not like that you don't. Not ever.”
Derek dropped his gaze, looking pretty stricken. “I didn't know.”
Stiles immediately felt bad. Typical. Try to make smalltalk with the damaged werewolf; end up damaging him even more. Go Stilinski.
“Look, uhm...” Stiles fidgeted for a moment before deciding that he was man enough to clean up his own mess and carefully plopped down on his bed next to Derek. “Hey, I didn't mean to say that you're like an emotional void or anything, and let's be real, all things considered I can't imagine anyone blaming you for maybe having to work on being happy again.”
Derek didn't answer, but he didn't move away or shove Stiles off the bed either, so Stiles considered it a victory and plowed on. “It's just... I personally didn't expect babies to be your happy place, that's all.”
Slowly Derek turned his head to look at Stiles, one eyebrow raised. “And what would you think would be my happy place then? Personally.” Stiles was well aware that Derek was subtly mocking him, but whatever, Stiles probably deserved it a little.
“I dunno, wolfing out in the woods? Chasing squirrels? Peeing on trees?”
“You're thinking of dogs, Stiles.”
“Well what do I know, I'm just a grubby little human.”
“I dunno about little...” Derek mumbled.
“Hey, who are you calling grubby!?”
“I didn't. You did.”
“You're supposed to disagree, asshat!”
And just like that, Derek smiled crookedly but sincerely. Stiles almost fell off the bed. “Oh my god, do I hear hooves?!”
“Cute,” Derek huffed. “Consider it practice.”
“Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope,” Stiles' computer chirped, and he jumped off the bed as if electrocuted, violently shattering the strange moment happening between them. “Oh, there we go! Info!” He read the email aloud, sharing what little information it provided before starting another search himself following a new tangent. Caught up in the chase for viable sources he almost didn't realize that Derek was talking again.
“Why do you even care? Whether I smile or not.”
Stiles shrugged, still mostly absorbed in deciding whether or not he should trust a site written in neon green font on a pink background. “I dunno, maybe it wouldn't shave five years off my life expectancy every time you creep in through my window if you did it it with a smile. At least then I wouldn't immediately assume everyone I care about are dying or something.”
Derek didn't reply, and silence fell, strangely comfortable in Stiles' room. When he cast a glance back at Derek a few minutes later the smile was gone, but knowing it had been there made Stiles feel oddly warm inside.
Great. Now he was really ready for the loony bin.
* * *
It became a thing. The practicing. The corner of Derek's mouth would twitch and he'd visibly try and widen or prolong the mirth on his face. Most of the time he just ended up looking constipated. But more and more often smiles would just happen. Usually when Derek was feeling smug over one of his own cutting remarks. But whatever, Stiles didn't feel like he needed the last word at all times. Plus, he seemed to forget how to form words sometimes when that smile was directed at him. For some obscure reason. Very, very obscure.
On top of that Derek apparently took Stiles' casual suggestion to heart, because he started pasting on a weak smile in greeting every time Stiles came in to find Derek hovering in his room or coming through the window. It was obviously an empty greeting with no real emotion behind it, but Stiles and his blood pressure appreciated the effort.
But things took a turn for the weird again when Derek came through the window one day when Scott was already in the room. Stiles took one look at Derek's grim face and felt ice settle in his stomach. “Oh god, what's happened, who's hurt, what do you need?!” he rambled, caught somewhere between his shoes and his keyboard, still not knowing whether the situation called for a daring rescue or an intense research session.
“Everything's fine,” Derek grumbled, but he still looked disturbingly unhappy, the corners of his mouth turned down and eyebrows scrunched in a frown. “Why?”
“Your face!” Stiles squawked. “It's like a face of ultimate doom!”
Scott cast him a weird look. “Dude, Derek always looks like that. No offense.”
“None taken,” Derek shrugged.
“But...” Stiles started, but then it dawned on him. He'd gotten used to Derek smiling. Even if they were only fake smiles, they'd been happening so much it had become a new norm. But only in Stiles' room. And only when they were alone in it, apparently. With Scott's presence came the old Derek, the one too caught up in his own grief and the crisis of the week to bother with pointless human pleasantries. A different Derek than the one who kissed babies and changed diapers with delight. Different than the Derek who'd been sitting on Stiles' bed, enjoying getting one over on Stiles and not afraid to let the world know he was proud of himself for it.
“Scott, I'm gonna need you to leave,” Stiles said tightly.
Scott frowned, aware that he was missing something and annoyed at being out of the loop. “Why?”
“I'm testing a theory. We'll talk later, I swear,” Stiles said, giving Scott the look that said trust me. And since Scott did he only looked between the two of them one more time before shrugging fake-casually and leaving. “Later,” he reminded Stiles.
Then the door shut behind Scott, and as if on cue, there is was. The tiny polite how do you do smile that Derek had graced Stiles with for the past few weeks.
“Seriously, Derek? Seriously?!” Stiles knew he was freaking out again, his whole body flailing in agitation, but holy crap, what?!
A sentiment Derek apparently shared. “What, Stiles?”
“Dude, what the hell was that?!”
“What was what?”
“Why did you look like gloom and doom because Scott was here? Do you really hate him so much he's not even worth your usual hollow platitudes?”
“I don't hate Scott.”
“Then what was with the face when you came in? You scared the crap out of me, Derek!”
“Because!” Stiles squeaked, hating the break in his voice. “Because I've somehow gotten used to you looking less like a psycho, and when you came in here with death all over your face, I thought someone was hurt!”
“Nobody was hurt,” Derek said evenly, and oh god, missing the point much?
“I get that. But what's the point of practicing common decency if you're never gonna use it on people?!”
Derek frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Stiles flailed his arms in frustration. “Have you even been listening?! The smiling practice! Learning how to be an actual person!”
“That wasn't what I was doing, Stiles.”
“Then what the hell have you been doing?!”
“Trying to make you feel less uncomfortable around me.”
Stiles' thought process stopped so abruptly it felt like he physically had to reboot his entire brain. He couldn't have been more stumped if he'd been Wile E. Coyote and he'd just run into the wall Road Runner painted a tunnel on. Derek was of course completely oblivious to Stiles' inner breakdown, so he just waited, glaring at him while he re-learned words.
Derek looked heavenward, clearly feeling more than a little frustrated with Stiles, which was just unfair, because Stiles wasn't the one spouting nonsense!
“I was just trying to seem less threatening. I know I scare you sometimes.”
“Derek,” Stiles said slowly. “I haven't been scared of you since... well since I met Peter, basically, because nothing really scares you anymore after you've been exposed to his charms.”
“I smell the fear on you, Stiles. All the time. You reek of anxiety.”
“Uh, that might be because we're in constant mortal peril?”
“All the time, Stiles. Even now.”
“That's not you, that's...” Stiles trailed off, unsure of how to even label that constant thrum of terror he'd had as a backdrop for his life ever since his mom died. There was always something to have nightmares over. His dad having a heart attack, Scott getting killed by hunters, some monster having Stiles for a snack before he was even out of high school. Even though it had been a few years since his last panic attack the terror was always right there under his skin. “It's not you,” Stiles concluded vaguely.
Derek didn't answer, but Stiles didn't miss how his jaw tightened. He was uncomfortable. Derek Hale was uncomfortable around Stiles? Was this bizarro-world?!
“Wait... all of this was just to be nice to me?” The nod he got was so tiny that Stiles almost didn't catch it, and he shook his head in disbelief while Derek avoided his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest defensively. “Why?!”
“Why not?” Derek snarled, and Stiles held up his hands.
“Don't bite my head off, dude, but you can't blame me for being a little surprised. Half the time we've known each other you've been slamming me into things and growling at me. Excuse me if this whole new approach to our relationship is a little hard for me to grasp.”
Derek actually looked contrite, and Stiles felt tempted to declare that he'd like to get off the merry-go-round now, thanks, he was getting dizzy.
“I'm sorry,” Derek said, looking like it physically pained him. “I'm aware that I've been treating you badly in the past. I could blame my wolf-side or my grief, but it was still wrong and I should have known better.”
“I need to sit down,” Stiles breathed, and promptly plopped down on his bed. “Derek Hale just apologized to me. Any minute now I'll see pigs fly. Or maybe you'll start kissing babies. Again. Am I going insane? It's okay, you can tell me.”
“You're not half as funny as you think you are, Stiles.”
“Screw you, I'm at least twice as funny as I think I am,” Stiles said automatically, and Derek made a weird sound. Only belatedly did Stiles realize that it was a choked-down laugh.
“You're laughing at my jokes.”
Derek froze and immediately looked like he'd rather be anywhere else.
“You're laughing. At my jokes. My jokes. And you're being nice. To me.” There was something hovering right at the edge of Stiles' mind, just out of reach, as if the answer to this whole hurricane of weirdness that had been his life these past few weeks would come to him if only he could think hard enough. Derek shifted uneasily and scowled at the wall.
“Why me?” Stiles asked eventually, feeling jittery from the feeling of being so close to the answer to something that felt deeply profound somehow.
“Pleasantries mean nothing to people who don't care for you at all,” Derek said tightly.
“Your pack cares for you.”
“Because their instincts tell them to. Not by choice.”
“Maybe. But they never cared if I smile or not. I'm just the alpha. If I hadn't bit them they'd never even have known me.”
“If Peter hadn't bit Scott and killed Laura, I never would have known you either, dude.”
“But you stuck around!” Derek cried abruptly, suddenly agitated, making Stiles jump slightly. “You didn't have to! You're human! You could have moved away or just ignored it all and saved yourself a lot of crap, but you're still here!”
“Right, like I could leave Scott; my best friend to deal with this alone! What kind of person do you think I am?!”
“A good person who shouldn't have to deal with my emotional crap on top of everything else,” Derek said softly.
Stiles chuckled incredulously. “Seriously, what world are you even living in? That's what friendship means, Derek. If your friends feel bad you try and make them feel better. It's not a burden, dude. It's called being a good friend.”
“Are we friends?”
Stiles was taken aback by the simple, honest question, and for once it dawned on him that Derek wasn't actually that much older than him. If not for the stubble and leather-getup Derek could easily have been mistaken for a teenager just then, shifting warily and for once in his life not scowling like he hated everything.
“Well, yeah, we're...” Stiles trailed off, struggling to find a term that accurately described his complicated relationship with Derek. There didn't seem to be a word for someone who you would trust with your life but couldn't spend two minutes with without resorting to verbal abuse, and whom you would also happily explore all your bodily urges with if they weren't so massively out of your league. Stiles had checked the internet. Several times. No such word. “Sure we're friends,” he settled on finally.
There was a pause so long Stiles was half way through Bohemian Rhapsody in his head before Derek spoke again.
If someone had asked Stiles a year before what would be the most unlikely thing for Derek Hale to do he would probably have said kissing babies. But since that had somehow already happened, apparently it was time for the second most unlikely thing. Which would be to express any sort of interest in Stiles Stilinski beyond what he could do with google. To say he was stunned was a massive understatement. It must have shown on his face, because Derek took one look at it and started backing towards the still open window.
“You know what, forget it, just-”
“Ohh no, sourwolf, don't you dare!” Stiles snapped, darting up to grab Derek's arm before he could make it to the window. “You don't just say shit like that and leave, Derek!”
“Nu uh, not a chance. You're not going anywhere until you clarify what the hell you meant!” There was no question that Derek could easily just have shoved Stiles on his ass and made his escape anyway if he really wanted to, so it was weirdly heartwarming that Derek chose to accept Stiles holding him back. But he was obviously still not comfortable in any way, and Stiles unconsciously stroked Derek's arm with his thumb as he pulled him around to face him. “Now, I know I tend to over-analyze things but... when you ask if someone is your just friend, I can't help but think that means you were hoping it was more. Help me out here, Derek.”
Heaving a tortured sigh, Derek finally said “yes,” eyes fixed on the ceiling, as if that was the least terrifying option.
“Yes, what? Yes, I'll help you, yes, Stiles, you over-analyze things or yes, I' hoping we're more than just friends?” Stiles could feel the profound thing happening. Any second now. The answer to this could potentially change his whole life.
“That last one,” Derek muttered. “But you're not... it's just me.”
Stiles could have done a victory dance right then and there, because holy crap, Derek Hale, his supreme dishy-ness had just admitted to wanting some non-friend interaction with Stiles. Stiles. Of all people. But he was apparently also an idiot, because what?! Stiles' jaw dropped slowly open.
“How the hell do you figure that?!”
Finally Derek's eyes settled on him, accompanied by a frown. “You're always anxious around me, Stiles. I'd sort of hoped you'd get more comfortable if I tried being more... friendly. But it's still there. The smell of fear is thick around you.”
He only barely resisted the urge to slap Derek, because he was obviously a complete idiot. “You are a complete idiot!”
Derek scowled, but Stiles let his whole hand stroke carefully up and down Derek's arm, and it was endlessly gratifying to see Derek falter and eventually just give up and let Stiles talk. “Derek,” Stiles said quietly. “It's not just you. I'm always anxious. We could all die in a million ways at any given time, so yeah, my heart-rate could probably double as a rave playlist these days. Plus,” he added with a wry grin, “I'm a teenager, dude. Even though dad is in on the the whole wolf thing now, half my life is still spent lying, trying to convince him that I have really dry hands so I don't have to explain the lotion by my bed.”
“Pretty sure he's not fooled,” Derek mumbled.
“I know, but it's the principle of the thing. I'd rather not have that mortifying conversation if I can at all avoid it, thanks. And it gets worse around people who can actually tell you're lying when you say that you need your coat because it's cold, not because it conveniently covers your crotch. So yeah, I'm anxious around you guys, because no matter how much I've come to trust you, I'd probably die of embarrassment if you ever decided to ask about my inappropriate reactions to shirtless training in the woods. And oh my god, while we're on that subject, how do you still have circulation in jeans that tight?!” Stiles was aware he was rambling, but come on, it was a momentous occasion of mutual attraction going on here, and the object of said attraction was so gorgeous it was unreal, so yeah, he was entitled to a little rambling.
Derek blinked slowly. “So... you're saying...?”
“I'm saying,” Stiles could feel a grin stretching wider and wider on his face, because fuck yes, this was really happening, “yes please to more than friends, and you should totally ask me on a date instead of all this backhanded politeness shit.”
The smile on Derek's face wasn't quite as huge and open as the ones he'd worn around baby Layla, but it was miles beyond the flat, polite practice smiles, and it was real. Stiles had a feeling that this was gonna be awesome.