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Derek comes back in October, when the nights have started to get colder. He stops by Scott's place, "just to check in," but Stiles recognizes werewolf courtesy for the novelty it is. He glances up and gives Derek a half-wave from Scott's bed, keeping one hand on his game controller. Derek's got a weird look on his face, and it takes a second for Stiles to place it. He looks relaxed.

Stiles half-listens while Scott and Derek do their little alpha-to-ex-alpha dance. Scott flashes red eyes at Derek once, then immediately ducks his head and blushes; Stiles rolls his eyes and lets out an involuntary groan, while Derek laughs.

"It's okay, Scott." Derek claps him on the shoulder, squeezes, and lets go, smiling. "You'll get used to it."

"You think?"

"Not any time soon, I hope," Stiles says from the bed. "The transition from asthmatic geek loser to werewolf alpha has got to span more than a year, or you'll just make the rest of us look bad."

"You'll get used to it," Derek says again. "Call me if you need anything, okay?"

Stiles says, "Are we talking emergency back-up claws, or romantic advice? Because on any given day, Scott could need either or both. Choose your words wisely."

"Whatever," Derek says.

Scott smiles. "Thanks, man, I will."

"Tell your dad I'm back in town, Stiles. I'll stop by sometime tomorrow."

"Just to check in, huh?"

Derek shrugs. "Werewolf alpha. Human alpha. Covering all my bases."

Stiles sits up straight, rearing his head back. "My dad? He's the human alpha? Seriously? Wait, what even is a human alpha?"

"A smart human who knows about werewolves and doesn't want to kill us all," Derek says. "Plus, the badge and the gun don't hurt."

"He'll want to know why you're back," Stiles says. "Is something horrible about to happen? Do we need to batten down all our hatches?"

"Stiles," Scott says, frowning. "Dude. Don't be mean."

"What, I'm not. I just want to know what's coming at us. If anything is."

"Zombies," Derek says, flicking his eyes over to the TV. "You planning to do anything about it?"

On the screen, photorealistic animated undead are ripping the skin off Stiles's avatar and making noises that sound disturbingly like 'nom nom nom'. Stiles slumps, and drops his controller. "You suck."

Derek laughs, and retreats from the field. Stiles shakes his head. "He sucks."

Scott slings an arm around Stiles's shoulder. "Warned you not to be mean, bro. You wanna play again?"

"Fine," Stiles says, glaring. "But you suck, too."

~

Stiles is making dinner when he hears a car in the driveway. He's got garlic under his fingernails and olive oil smeared down the front of his shirt, but he goes to the door anyway, expecting to find his dad there with the broccoli and the extra package of chicken he asked for. Instead, it's Derek, looking pretty much exactly like he looked yesterday at Scott's. Possibly even wearing the same clothes.

"Hi," Stiles says. "You don’t happen to have any shareable protein on your person, do you?"

"...no. Is your father home?"

Stiles stretches himself out along the edge of the door, leaning with one arm curved over his head, his mouth quirking up in a leer. "Why, Derek --"

Derek gives Stiles an extremely skeptical look. "Really?"

"You're an awful person." Stiles drops the pose and steps back, waving a hand toward the hallway in invitation. "I was totally selling it."

"You're not selling anything in that shirt." Derek comes inside, catching the screen door a second before it slams shut, just like Stiles and his dad do every time they walk through it.

Eyes narrowing, Stiles follows Derek past the stairs and into the kitchen. "This is my cooking shirt."

Derek drops his jacket on the back of one of the kitchen chairs, and pushes up his sleeves. "What can I help with?"

Stiles stares at him. "I'm sorry?"

Derek gestures at his chest, which really doesn't need the extra help getting Stiles's attention, and smiles. "Consider this my cooking shirt."

~

Derek is a fine chopper of vegetables, and microwaves a nice cup of butter. Stiles's dad is unabashedly pleased to be breaking whole-wheat bread with the guy who saved his son's life on several occasions. The whole wanted-for-extensive-questioning thing never even comes up.

The food turns out great. Everything is moderately healthy, in that none of it has ever seen the inside of a box or a can, and a large portion of it is green. Stiles has been watching Gordon Ramsay videos on YouTube, and say what you will about his attitude, the guy knows his way around a frying pan. The internet is divided on the evils or blessings of butter, but even for his dad, Stiles can't deal with plain broccoli. The meal is werewolf-approved, too, so Stiles chalks the whole thing up as a win.

The conversation is easy and relaxing. Derek talks a lot about Cora; Stiles offers a highly redacted version of the past three months (leaving out anything that would freak out his father or trigger any guilt complexes for Derek). His dad talks about work, which is usually at its most boring when Stiles's life is at its most terrifying. Right now they're both on kind of an even keel, and Stiles is trying not to think of it as the calm before the shitstorm.

When they're finished, Derek follows Stiles into the kitchen to help with the dishes.

"What is this madness?" Stiles runs the tap, testing the water until it's almost too not to stand. He glances over at Derek, just to check that it's still actually Derek. "You're being weirdly personable, and it's kind of freaking me out."

"I'll wash," Derek says, and hands Stiles a dish towel from the drawer where Stilinskis store such things.

Stiles puts his dish towel down and leans against the kitchen counter. "I've been misled," he says, watching Derek's expression carefully. "I was under the impression you'd only been in my bedroom and the bathroom across the hall. But you seem to know this place pretty well, for a guy who's never been downstairs."

Derek folds his arms across his chest and leans against the opposite counter. He shrugs, and doesn't say anything. The return of his nonexistent communication skills is reassuring; it's like the crooked world has suddenly righted itself.

"How much time have you spent here, exactly?" Stiles asks.

"You and your dad keep roughly the same hours."

"So?"

"So, I used to hang out here sometimes, when you were at school. I like your sofa."

Stiles stares. "You ... like my sofa. You like my sofa? Derek! You broke into my house? That is totally creeptastic! And uncool!"

"I lived in an abandoned subway station, Stiles." Derek shrugs again, so casual and unconcerned Stiles expects him to start yawning at any moment. "I spent more than a few nights on Scott's sofa, when his mom had the late shift. Before he learned to use his nose."

Stiles sags against the counter, glad to have something to hold him up. "My whole life has been a lie."

"It's not a big deal."

"Derek, my dad had warrants out for your arrest, and you were snoozing in my living room. It's kind of a big deal."

"Getting caught would have been a big deal," Derek allows. "But I didn't, so relax."

"You're such a freak." Stiles grins in spite of himself. "You're like a werewolf ninja."

Derek's face goes slightly -- but gratifyingly -- pink. "Are we doing the dishes, or what?"

They do the dishes. Derek washes, Stiles dries. They mostly work in silence, until Stiles leans closer and punches Derek in the arm.

Derek turns to him, eyebrows raised. Stiles just shakes his head. "I think I actually missed you," he says.

~

Life with Derek back in Beacon Hills is surprisingly, relentlessly normal. In spite of Stiles's worst fears, dark forces don't descend en masse to slaughter every man, woman, child and werebeast in town. The Nemeton (which Stiles feels less as a darkness than as a constant certainty that something horrible is about to happen) acknowledges Derek's return with only a faint, unconcerned mutter that sinks immediately back into its usual background grumbling.

A month slides by, and California begins the long, uneventful shift into what passes for winter in this part of the country. It's marked most notably by an expanded selection of drinks at Peet's and the appearance of tinsel and yards of colored lights in the aisles of pretty much everyplace. The Stilinski household adamantly refuses to acknowledge Christmas until December. But things work differently if you're a Hale -- he catches Derek in the grocery store, carrying a box of ornaments and a chocolate Santa the size of his own head.

Stiles stops, grins -- and then, when Derek notices him, grins a little more. "I knew something unnatural was going to happen, as soon as you got back in town. I just didn't expect it to be quite this disturbing."

Derek rolls his eyes and says, "Stiles. Are you okay?"

"Fine," Stiles says, "Fine, really. How are you?"

Derek raises his eyebrows. "Fine?"

"Not under any kind of a Christmas spell? Cursed by an elf, maybe?"

"I meant, are you really fine? You look worried." Derek closes in on him, reaching out like he's going to grab Stiles's shoulder.

Stiles eases back a step. It's impossible to miss the concern in Derek's face, because it's the first time Stiles has ever seen it pointed in his direction. It's an event, worthy of further thought and study. But it's also uncomfortably perceptive, leading down a road Stiles would really rather not follow. Not on the day before Thanksgiving.

Shrugging impatiently, Stiles waves a hand. "I'm always worried. I have a darkness around my heart or something," he says, "Whatever. No big."

"You look tired." Derek frowns in a way that reflects Stiles's rumpled hair and gritty, sunken eyes better than any mirror.

"I had a late night," Stiles says, jerking his chin up. "Let's talk about you. Can werewolves even eat chocolate? Maybe I should take that off your hands."

"Thanks for your concern," Derek says. "But I can handle it."

"What are you doing here?"

Derek looks down at the Santa, then back up at Stiles. "Shopping for Thanksgiving dinner?"

Stiles stares at Derek with dawning horror. "You're kidding me."

"I'm still fixing up the loft. The oven doesn't work yet. Neither does the fridge. I've got a guy coming in soon."

"How soon?"

Derek's eyebrows draw together, and his voice drops into a low, warning rumble. "Soon."

"Derek, oh my god, you can't just eat a hunk of chocolate for Thanksgiving. Not now that I know about it, anyway. That's -- that's stupid." Stiles clutches at his hair, torn equally between wanting to escape Derek's overly-deductive attention and wanting to feed him protein and vegetables. "How am I supposed to eat turkey and mashed potatoes and yams and pumpkin pie with that image in my head?"

"Try not to think about it," Derek suggests.

"I'm going to think about it! I can't help thinking about it! Do you have power there? Do you have internet? Any of the usual trappings of comfortable civilization?" Come to think of it, last time Stiles had been at Derek's place, it had been basically a ruin. "Do you even have a bed?"

"I have a bed. Stiles--"

"Damn it, Derek. Seriously, what is wrong with you?"

"I'm fine."

"You're not fine. You're squatting -- in your own home! And you didn't tell anybody. That's -- that's really not fine!"

"I'm used to roughing it. It's not ideal, but I'm working on it. It's not your problem."

"Right," Stiles says. "Right, it's not my problem. So many things in this town, really not my problem at all. I'll just add this one on to the list. Derek Hale, not Stiles Stilinski's problem. Well, that's a huge relief."

"Stiles--"

"No, really," Stiles snaps. "Glad to hear it. You just lope off home with your chocolate Santa and your lights and your general failure as a person, and I'll do some fucking shopping. Nice chatting with you, but those pies over there aren't going to buy themselves."

Derek grabs Stiles's arm before he can start moving, squeezing harder than he needs too. "Hey. Cut it out."

Stiles's heart kicks up a notch and he yanks himself back, but Derek's grip is unshakeable. Stiles doesn't even come close to breaking free. He takes a steadying breath and tries to calm down. "You want to let go," he says evenly. "Right now. Before this becomes a scene."

Derek lets go. He lets go so fast it's like Stiles zapped him, and backs away, his hand up between them, his face a perfectly blank canvas. "I'm sorry," he says. "I was out of line."

"No, you weren't." Stiles looks around, and doesn't see anything odd in the faces of the other shoppers; he looks inside himself, and doesn't feel any reaction from the part of him that isn't a hundred percent himself anymore. His heart beat slows, his breathing slows, it's all good. "I mean, you were, but I don't care." He taps his chest meaningfully. "It's just, I'm not the only one in here anymore, and when my little passenger gets nervous, I don't always get first say on the topic of proportional response."

"Stiles--"

"I know. Derek, I know, believe me. Just, can we not talk about it in Aisle 7?"

"Where, then? When?"

"Tomorrow night," Stiles says. "After Thanksgiving dinner. Which you're coming to, by the way."

Quietly, Derek says, "You don't have to do that."

"In fact, you should probably sleep on my couch tonight, because at House O' Stiles, Thanksgiving preparations start early. And you shouldn't think of yourself as a guest. More like manpower."

Derek laughs softly. "Oh, is that how it is?"

"Yeah." Stiles feels himself going red under Derek's warm look, and curses his pale, emo skin. "It is."

"Since when do you care where I sleep, anyway?"

"Since you helped me get my dad back." Stiles's heartbeat kicks up in his chest, but he meets Derek's eyes and doesn't look away. "Since you believed me."

~

On the drive home, Stiles gets a text from Allison, but he doesn't see it until he's in his driveway, pulling bags of groceries out of the back seat of the Jeep. Scott's looped in, too.

7:00 pm. Meet at the Arboretum.

Stiles sends back, Panic? y/n?

n dont wig out, Scott replies, and Allison says bring me a diet coke (and a few seconds later: please.)

It could really go either way, with Allison; she's remarkably chill about things that require shooting and bleeding and magic and death. It's the little things, like choosing between hot werewolf boyfriends, that make her nervous. Scott's response is pretty definitive, though, so Stiles puts away the groceries, makes himself a sandwich, and catches up on the last episode of Walking Dead before saddling up again.

Allison and Scott are already there when he arrives. Allison is stretched out on her side across the rough surface of the giant, ancient stump; Scott leans over her, that old hopeful smile tugging up one corner of his mouth.

They look over when he trudges up to them through the underbrush, and Stiles smiles at them for oh, so many reasons. Because they're Allison and Scott, but also because they're all three tied together now, and when they're apart it's like something between them is stretched too thin.

And because they're here, and here feels a lot like home to a part of him now.

He tosses Allison her soda; she catches it out of the air with a kind of negligent grace that still somehow surprises him. He hands Scott a bottle of water when he's closer, and takes a seat next to Allison with his legs stretched out across the stump.

"Unless there's impending doom, I've only got about an hour." He leans back to catch the last of the light on his face. The trees here are so tall, their ranks so thick, that only a spatter of sun penetrates the shadows. It was warm out on the road; here, it's already starting to get cold enough for a jacket. Which he didn't think to bring.

"Hot date?" Scott asks, grinning.

"Sleepover with Derek," Stiles says. "I need to figure out which pair of footie pajamas go best with my complexion."

"The red ones," Allison says. Stiles has taken the twinkle right out of Scott's eyes, and transferred it into Allison's. "You look good in red."

"Wait, what, Derek is sleeping at your house?" Scott's jaw drops open, and his IQ drops twenty points just on the visual.

"Well, apparently it's that or the burned-out husk of his apartment, which he didn't bother to have repaired -- or, you know, sold -- before he got back to town."

"He can't afford a hotel?"

"Why would he?" Stiles says. "He wouldn't be able to feel half so sorry for himself if he were shacking up at the Marriott."

"So, what, he's going to live on your sofa now?"

Stiles gives Scott a look filled with irony, which Scott misses completely. "Two words for you, Innkeep. 'Isaac Lahey.'"

"That's totally different. Isaac was--"

Stiles holds up a hand and mimes endless talking at Scott. Allison laughs.

"Fine," Scott says. "But don't come running to me when he uses all your toothpaste and leaves his wet towels on the bathroom floor and steals your girlfriend--"

"Scott!"

Scott grins at Allison. She's demonstrably not stolen, at least not completely. It's more like a complex time-sharing agreement entered into under protest from both werewolf parties. It's working for them, so Stiles is keeping out of it, except when it helps him win an argument.

"Anyway," Stiles says. "I'm sure you guys didn't drag me out here to discuss my Thanksgiving plans. What's going on?"

Allison looks at Scott, who looks at Allison, who widens her eyes and makes a stern, annoyed face at Scott. Scott turns to Stiles and, after a little nervous fidgeting, says, "We're going out of town for a little while."

After a beat, in which no one says anything, Stiles sits up straight and says, "Um. No."

"Just for a little while," Scott says, "and not very far."

"Negativo," Stiles says, "No way. You can't."

Allison sits up and lays a gentle hand on Stiles's shoulder. He feels better with the contact, but there's still something inside of him that flares raw and ugly and angry at the thought of them leaving Beacon Hills. He knows it's not him, he knows it, but the feeling still sits there under his thoughts, cold and unpleasant.

"It's good that Derek's staying with you tonight," Allison says. "We just want to try it. We have to know if it's possible. Deaton thinks we might be able to make it out if we do it right. If we just go for a short trip at first, and ... if we ask permission."

"Permission." Stiles tucks his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them. "Jesus. I can't believe that's where we are."

"We have to start somewhere," Scott says with an unattractive excess of rationality. "I mean, at some point, we're going to want to go to college."

"Enough," Stiles grits out, hiding his face against his knees. "Don't tell me anything else."

Allison stops talking immediately, and Scott scoots over to press himself against Stiles's other side. Stiles sits curled between them with his back clenched in knots, with a pit in his stomach, and lets everything they've said drift away.

It's different for him. They all know it. Scott is insulated by his dual nature; Allison's training has taught her how to put things at a distance, how to be at a distance. Stiles can't do that. Whatever the Nemeton broadcasts, Stiles picks up like the world's most sensitive radio tower. More than either of them, Stiles lives every day with the sacrifice they made, with the consequences of it nestled deep inside him. Most of the time it's quiet; sometimes he can even forget. But not now.

Not when they're talking about leaving. They can't leave.

"Stay together." Stiles looks up at the darkening sky, thinking furiously wow, what a nice evening it is, what a totally unexceptional boring evening in which no one is going to do anything unexpected. "Take Isaac and Lydia. Come right back, if anything happens. Stay in touch with me." He keeps his tone calm and casual, nothing interesting here at all, pay no attention to the Stiles behind the curtain.

"We will." Scott slings an arm around Stiles's back and squeezes his shoulder. "And you, if anything happens--"

"I'll be okay," Stiles says. He feels the rough scrape of wood against his palms, the ridges of concentric rings between his fingers. He's not fooling himself, but maybe, if he's careful, he can fool the damn tree. "It is a good thing Derek's staying."

"Just hide your toothbrush," Scott says, bitterness in his voice, and Stiles lets out a raspy, desperate laugh.

~

Derek shows up at nine, coming down stairs just as Stiles is setting out a quilt, some sheets and a couple of pillows for the sofa.

"There's a front door," Stiles says. "My dad will expect you to make use of it."

"He's not home right now."

"Late shift. He won't be home until around 2 am. He takes a lot of the holiday shifts, for the guys who have wives and kids to rush home to."

"You don't mind?"

Stiles shrugs. "I'm not exactly a kid anymore, Derek. And I get him, I respect it. In a way, I'm kind of doing the same thing."

"What does that mean?"

He clutches uselessly at the pillow he's still holding. "Scott and Allison are doing a little operational testing tonight. I'm pretty glad you're going to be here. I could use the company."

Derek takes a step closer, his mouth curled down in concern. "What are they doing?"

"I can't really talk about it." Stiles grins, and it feels weak, even to him. "I mean, I shouldn't even think about it. Did you eat before you came over?"

"I'm good. Thanks."

Stiles blinks. "No more questions?"

Derek sighs and looks away. "Not if you don't want to talk about it, no."

"Not -- it's not that I don't want to. I actually can't, if it has any hope of not blowing up in our faces. I can talk about other things, though."

"Can you talk about the Nemeton?"

"I can talk far longer than you can listen about that. What do you want to know?"

Derek tilts his head. "You sure?"

"Maybe... could we do it outside?"

"It's cold out."

Stiles shrugs.

Derek pulls the blanket off the top of the stack Stiles left him, and tosses it at Stiles's chest. "Take this with you."

"Wow, you're like the nanny I never wanted. Thank you." Stiles unfolds the blanket, shakes it out, and drapes it around his shoulders. "You want something to drink? Coffee? Cider? We have about twenty gallons of it in the fridge."

"Go outside," Derek tells him. "Try to relax."

Stiles goes. He's fidgeting, he can feel it; his fingers feel twitchy, and he can't seem to hang onto any one particular thought stream at a time. It's like his ADD has been thrown into high gear, Adderall notwithstanding. He trudges out onto the deck behind the house and folds himself up on the steps that lead down to the yard.

Head five minutes out of town on either side, and the temperature is five or ten or twenty degrees warmer, depending on the time of day. They've measured it, with Isaac on the far side of the invisible line that separates Beacon Hills from everywhere else. Allison and Chris Argent spent the summer charting the boundary; it doesn't match up to any map they've ever been able to find. Deaton thinks it might have something to do with the Nemeton's root system, but that's one avenue of study to which the Nemeton is emphatically opposed; they haven't really looked into it yet. Looking at temperature records of the surrounding towns, it's clear that the difference is almost as old as the tree itself. Stiles figures nobody noticed the boundary because nobody was ever stuck on just one side of it before.

Lucky them.

He pulls the blanket tighter around his shoulders, watching the light fog of his breath spill out in front of him. The sky overhead is littered with stars, the moon lost somewhere behind the trees and nowhere near full anyway. Light spills out from the back door when Derek opens it, then cuts off. Stiles scoots closer to the side of the top step to make room.

Derek puts a mug into his hands, so warm it's almost hard to hold. Stiles breathes in the steam, closes his eyes, and moans. "You are so much more awesome than I ever gave you credit for."

Derek snorts, and drops down next to him. "That wouldn't take a lot of awesome."

Stiles leans sideways to nudge into him, at least partly in apology. Derek seems to take it as it's meant. They sit and drink cheap grocery store cider. The mug Stiles is holding keeps his hands still, and the wind high in the treetops has more to say than Stiles does for a while. Derek doesn't push.

When Stiles starts talking, he keeps his voice low. "About a month after you left, Scott's dad talked him into a trip to Monterey, to see the aquarium. Crazy, right? I don't think Scott gives a crap about looking at otters, but the guy's really been pushing, and Scott's always been nicer than he is smart. Plus, I think his dad's got legal visitation rights till Scott turns 18.

"So the day comes around, and it's like any normal day. The new normal, anyway. Only around noon, I get this panic attack, like nothing I ever felt before. Seriously, Derek, I thought I was going to die, right there in my kitchen, in the middle of making a fucking sandwich. My dad called an ambulance, that's how bad it was.

"And then it just -- went away. I could breathe again, my heart wasn't exploding. My phone rang, and it was Allison, in hysterics about Scott -- something terrible happened to him, she said, she had a nightmare and she woke up and it was real. She said he was dead."

"I've seen him," Derek says. "He's not dead."

"No." The wind whips Stiles's blanket off his shoulder, and he grabs it back, chilled inside and out. "But he was. His dad called an ambulance, too. They had to restart his heart twice on the way to the hospital. They made it two miles out of town before Scott collapsed, and they couldn't resuscitate him until he was back in Beacon Hills."

Derek stands up, walks down the steps into the yard and stands there for a second, looking out into the trees that circle the property. Stiles huddles in the blanket, waiting for some sense that something's wrong, waiting for his heart rate to spike or his blood sugar to crash or his brain to implode -- whatever happened to him when Scott tried to leave, times two. Waiting to see what Derek's going to say, or do.

When Derek finally turns around, his face is impressively blank. "So tonight," he says. "Allison and Scott--"

"Right." Stiles cuts him off before he can say it out loud. It's crazy, maybe, but a part of him thinks if he can trick himself into not knowing it, or not believing it, nothing bad will happen.

"Does your dad know?"

"He would. If you weren't here."

"But since I am here--"

"No point in worrying him, right?"

Derek shakes his head. Stiles can read his expression easily now: complete disgust. "Stiles."

"Look, if nothing bad happens, nothing bad happens, and we know a little more than we did before. If something goes wrong, they'll turn around and come back, and I'll probably still be fine."

"If," Derek says. "Probably. That's not good enough." He makes a low, frustrated sound in his chest, almost a growl. "You need a keeper," he mutters. "I shouldn't have left."

"Hey, no." Stiles shrugs off the blanket, and immediately regrets it. He stands up, rubbing his arms for warmth. "I know it's dangerous, Derek, believe me. But you didn't put me in this position, I did. And there's nothing you could have done to change it or fix it. I made my creepy icebath spell, and now I have to lie in it." He smiles, tentatively, trying to change the mood. "I appreciate the concern, though. I didn't know you had any. I mean, for me. Specifically."

"I didn't either," Derek mutters, not meeting Stiles's eyes.

Stiles bites his lip, but his smile widens anyway, out of his control. "Then I guess this has been a good learning experience for both of us. Total win, right?"

Derek stalks over to Stiles and looms in a way that used to be menacing; now, Stiles just rears back a little and gives him an amused side-eye. Derek sighs, takes off his jacket, and hands it to Stiles.

Stiles puts it on, never taking his eyes off Derek. "Killing me with kindness," Stiles says. "Vast improvement on just killing me, so. Thanks."

"This thing we're not talking about," Derek says gruffly. "Do you even know what their plan is?"

Stiles shrugs. "I'm pretty sure they have one? I'm trying not to dwell on the details. Little pitchers," he says, then waggles his hands on either side of his head. "Big, big ears."

"I can't believe you dragged me over here to talk about what's wrong with me," Derek says.

~

Outside, the wind through the trees sounded like waves crashing on a beach. Inside, the sound is muted. Stiles turns on more lights, until the living room and kitchen are both blazing, and starts pulling out anything that might taste good between two slabs of bread. He puts the finishing touches on two desperately overburdened plates and carries them out to the coffee table.

"Dinner is served," he says with a wild flourish of his folded paper towel, and drops down onto the sofa next to Derek.

Derek favors the sandwiches with a skeptical look that says, I gave up Chocolate Santa for this? But he digs in like he means it. Stiles feels a complicated but generally pleasant glow in his chest at this implied approval of his sandwich-making skills, and in honor of his extreme ridiculousness, his entire face goes warm. He applies himself to his food, and prays to the gods of inappropriate crushes that Derek won't notice anything he shouldn't.

Later, they take the wreckage of their plates back into the kitchen, and Stiles loads the dishwasher while Derek starts a pot of coffee. He knows where the mugs are, and where the coffee and filters are, and he knows he has to hold the brew button down until it clicks, or it will just shut off again. Stiles rolls his eyes.

"It never occurred to you or your dad that you mysteriously never run out of coffee?" Derek asks. He raises his eyebrows, and tips Stiles half a grin. "Did you think elves were bringing it?"

"Like that would be the weirdest thing that ever happened around here," Stiles says in his own defense. "It wouldn't even make the top ten."

Derek leans back against the counter, his legs crossed at the ankle. "Tell me the top ten since I left," he says.

"Well, vampires." Stiles accepts the distraction for what it is, and raises one finger. "Kind of pathetic, actually, and they didn't really make any trouble. They just wanted to hang with the tree and get high at the new moon." He raises another finger. "Strange unidentified spirit thing snatching little boys and leaving them at random locations in the Preserve in the middle of the night. A couple of hunters came through tracking it, so we just stayed out of their way. Eventually they banished it, one or both of them showed Lydia a hell of a good time, and they left." Another finger, and another, and another: "Pixies. A rash of domestic violence incidents that turned out to be a demonic infestation. Giant spiders, that was a personal favorite--"

"We used to get those all the time. My mother would--"

"Soak a sharpened rowan stick in water from a blessed spring and do what sharpened sticks do best?"

Derek nods.

"Yeah, I was never really convinced the water was necessary. The stabbing seemed to be the key to our success. But Lydia insisted. Anyway, they're long gone now. You want the rest of the list?"

"Was there anything you felt like you couldn't handle?"

Stiles sighs, and runs a hand through his hair. "No. Never. That's kind of the problem. There doesn't seem to be anything we can't handle anymore. At least, nothing that's darkened our metaphorical door in the past six months. And the stuff that does come, it's..." He shrugs, looking away. "It's easy. It's too easy."

"And it's not that you're just that good?"

"Oh, yeah, if only. But no. Not that I'd mind that, but -- truth? The Nemeton is just really fucking powerful, and when it senses a threat, it tends to vaporize first and ask questions later. A lot of the real work this summer has been trying really, really hard not to feel threatened." Stiles twists the dishtowel in his hands, cinching it tighter and tighter. He laughs, and his voice cracks in the middle, comes out broken. "You try feeling safe and relaxed in this town," he says unsteadily. "I dare you."

Derek's hands come down on his, and gently take the towel away from him. Without it, he doesn't know what to do with himself, what to hold onto. Derek says, "Hey, look at me."

Stiles looks. Derek's eyes are warm, and bright blue. He takes Stiles's hands in both of his, keeping them still. "I'm right here. Nothing's getting past me."

Stiles nods rapidly, and squares his shoulders. He keeps his eyes on Derek, keeps his mind on the warm grip of Derek's hands. "There were...these kids. They were messing with stuff that was over their heads. They had, like, zero sense, and even less power. It wasn't even that they didn't want to hurt anybody -- they couldn't have, even if they set out to. But...they managed some pretty impressive metaphysical flashbangs, and scared the living crap out of me when I tried to convince them Beacon Hills was not the best place to get their dark arts on."

Derek's hands tighten, and he moves closer, forming a flesh and bone barrier between Stiles and the rest of the world. But he can't get between Stiles and the look in that girl's eyes, the agony in her brother's voice when he screamed, and screamed.

"I know it wasn't my fault," Stiles says carefully, quietly. "I know it wasn't me. And they -- it didn't kill them, so that's something."

Derek says, "But?"

"It...burned something out of them. Not just whatever minuscule spark of magic they might have had. The idea of it, the memory of it. They left here like shock victims, didn't even remember how they got to Beacon Hills, or why they came. There may be a lot they don't remember now."

"You're right," Derek says roughly. "That's not your fault."

"Scott and Allison...you know how they are. Scott has his fangs, and Allison has her arrows, and they're both -- they don't freak out. So it came through me. It burned them out, through me, because I --"

"Stop it." Derek lets go of Stiles's hands, and cups his face instead, making Stiles meet his eyes. His palms are warm and rough, and Stiles could turn away if he wanted to, Derek wouldn't hold him.

But he doesn't want to. The beta blue has faded out of Derek's eyes, leaving them warm and accepting. There's no judgment there, no blame. Derek knows what it's like to be used, to be forced to break something precious with his own hands. There's no way Stiles could look away from that, not now that Derek's laid himself open for him.

Stiles bites down on his lip to shut himself up. So many crazy things he wants to say, and none of them are right. He shakes his head, and doesn't say anything at all.

"We'll get you through tonight," Derek tells him in a low tone that leaves no room for doubt. "We'll fix this."

Stiles nods. "Yeah. Yeah, okay."

"Then we'll get you some therapy," Derek says with exaggerated kindness. "You've got issues."

Stiles clutches Derek's shoulders, presses his face into Derek's chest, and laughs.

~

Scott, Allison, Lydia and Isaac arrive two hours later, banging on the door so loud Stiles falls off the sofa and lands, hard, on his ass. Derek jerks awake in his chair, half asleep, half murderous, and entirely adorable. Stiles picks himself up, dusts himself off, and heads for the door, tossing a "My hero!" over his shoulder while Derek tries to put his frown back on right side down.

Everyone starts talking at once -- Scott loud but not making a lot of sense, Allison with more information but almost entirely drowned out. Isaac and Lydia aren't even talking to Stiles -- they're deep in consultation with each other, in excited whispers.

"Did you do it?" Stiles demands, cutting across all of their voices. "Did you --"

"We did it!" Allison jumps at Stiles, and Stiles catches her awkwardly, enfolding her in an unplanned hug just to keep her upright. "Did you feel it? Did anything happen? Are you okay?"

"Are you guys okay?" Stiles pushes her back and looks at her, then at Scott. Both of them are beaming, bright eyed, bushy tailed, all that jazz. They look normal. Scratch that - they look awesome. "You're okay," he says, relief making him dizzy. "You're really okay!"

Scott shoves Allison aside in a manner not entirely becoming a gentleman and grabs Stiles in a bone-snapping hug. "Dude!" he crows into Stiles's ear. "Not a glitch, not even a hint of a problem. We told the tree where we were going, then we went five miles north. Then we swung back and went five miles south, just to be sure. It's all good. You didn't feel anything?"

Stiles shakes his head, dazed. He never felt anything at all. He'd been wrung out after talking to Derek, they'd moved to the living room to get more comfortable, and -- and they'd fallen asleep. While Allison and Scott were out risking God knew what to test the boundary, Stiles was snoozing on his couch, dreaming happy dreams about what might or might not -- but he's leaning toward might -- be happening with him and Derek.

"I didn't feel anything," he confirms. "And I was awake the whole time."

Behind him, Derek starts to laugh quietly. Stiles throws him a silencing look over his shoulder; it doesn't help at all.

"We're going out for ice cream," Isaac says. "Come with us. There's a lot to talk about. We've got some other ideas for things to try."

"Yeah, Stiles, come with us." Scott loops an arm around Stiles's neck and hugs him again, beaming. "Ice cream and strategy. Lydia's buying."

Lydia examines her nails and sighs, and finally looks at Stiles. He can see straight through the bored facade; somewhere under all that gorgeous hair, terrifying wheels are turning. She cracks, gives him a real live smile, and reaches out to adjust his collar. "I'm buying," she confirms. "But you're not coming, are you."

It's tempting. A little victory-celebrating would totally hit the spot. But...he's got a guest.

"Go," Derek says. He gives Stiles's shoulder a little shove. "I'm not going anywhere."

Stiles looks at his friends. It's still kind of awesome that the cool kids (sans Scott, who will never, ever be cool) want to hang with him. It's like an embarrassing loser fantasy, and he can admit he's more than a little into it.

He holds up a hand for Scott to slap; Scott complies instantly. "You guys go," Stiles says. "I'm guarding the house till my dad gets back." He leans in and whispers in Allison's ear, "We've got werewolves in town."

She laughs, and hugs him, and everybody says something snide or nice or victorious or whatever. Stiles shoves them all out, one by one, even Lydia. When they've all crossed the threshold, he closes the door and leans against it, taking a deep, cleansing breath of chatter-free air.

Derek stands a few feet away, silently judging Stiles with a slight smile on his face. His hair is a little worse for the nap in the Sherriff's easy chair, and he's flushed, his eyes bright, his whole Derekness lit up like Stiles almost never sees him. "You could have gone with them," he says.

Stiles grins. "That would be pretty rude. You're my guest."

"Oh," Derek says. He takes a step closer, and another, until he's all Stiles can see, or feel, or think about. "That's a terrible reason."

Stiles pushes off of the door. It brings him close enough to share breath with Derek, to feel the heat of Derek's body all across his skin. "I didn't want to?"

Derek tilts his head, seems to think about it. "Better."

"I wanted to stay here, with you."

Derek's half-smile turns wide and sweet and amazing. "Yeah?"

Stiles wraps his hands around the back of Derek's neck and pulls him closer. "Oh," he says, "Oh, yeah, definitely. Absolutely."

He's careful, because all the signs are right, but this is still Derek -- man of a thousand moods, most of them bad. Stiles wouldn't have believed Derek could look at him like this a few days ago, and he wouldn't have thought it would hit him so hard.

But Derek's smiling when Stiles kisses him. His mouth tastes like apple cider, and his hair smells like leaves that aren't quite ready to fall, and it all takes Stiles's breath away. He gasps into Derek's mouth, and Derek laughs -- Derek is an ass, and Stiles can't even bring himself to care. Derek pulls away and pushes in again, kisses Stiles and holds him back, just far enough to breathe. He licks his lips, then tilts Stiles's head and nips at his mouth, and it's all Stiles can do to hold on and keep himself upright while Derek opens him up, opens up to him. Stiles feels safe and scared all at once, the good kind of scared, the kind that makes him shiver and moan and slide his knee between Derek's thighs.

"Your dad's going to be home in an hour," Derek says, his mouth pressed against Stiles's throat. "God, I can't believe I said that."

"A lot can happen in an hour," Stiles assures him. "I'm young and vital. A lot can happen several times, if you play your cards right."

Derek laughs. He leans his forehead against Stiles's, breathing their shared breath; it's warm, and comfortable, and weird. And really, really good. "I'm glad the test worked out. I'm glad you can leave, if you want."

"I don't want," Stiles says. He pushes back a little to look Derek in the eye. "Leaving was never the point. Being able to leave--"

"I know. But I'm still glad. It gives you options."

"It means we're not completely owned by it." Stiles nods. "And if we can figure this part out, maybe we can figure out the rest."

"You can," Derek tells him.

"By we, I meant 'you and me'. Us. Uh...whatever we are, that involves lots more of whatever this is we're doing. Together." Stiles bites his lip, and rolls his eyes at himself. "What I mean is, thank you. And -- I like this, more of it would be A-Okay with me. This is good, you know? I think we're good."

Derek grins. "Not worried something horrible is about to happen?"

"Well, yeah," Stiles says, "perpetually. Did you think making out was going to change the basic nature of my personality? You're good, but you're not that--"

Derek reels Stiles back in, touches his jaw, his mouth; sinks his fingers into Stiles's hair. It's a while before Stiles can think again, let alone breathe. Let alone talk.

When he can, his eyes snap open and he pushes back from Derek's mouth. "Okay," he says, dazed and turned on and buzzing with an unsettling sense of optimism. "Maybe you are that good."

Derek kisses the wide smile on Stiles's mouth, and laughs.

~ ~ ~