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I See Your Face Before Me

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“You're going to love him,” Scott says. “I just know that you two are going to hit it off.” He has Stiles by the wrist and is dragging him through the packed bar, ignoring the disgruntled patrons they're nearly knocking off of their feet. When they get to their destination, Scott swings Stiles in front of him, like Stiles is being presented.

Which, well.

“Derek, Derek,” Scott shouts. “This is Stiles.”

Derek turns from his conversation and whoa. Really? Because in the last two years Scott has mailed and texted Stiles many, many words about Derek. And none of them have been Blinding Hot.

“Hey,” Stiles grins, stretching out his hand, the excitement of finally meeting Derek suddenly notching up a flare or two. “So, you've been the other me for the past two years.”

Derek's handshake is far more brief than Stiles would have liked. It's also oddly formal, given that they've been bros by proxy for some time now.

“I'm sorry?” Derek says, frowning.

“You know, Scott's bestie while I was away. Keeping the buddy seat warm, and all that. Hey, not that I mind sharing now that I'm back.”

“Um, I guess,” Derek says.

This isn't going quite the way Stiles had thought. They should be in each arms right now, regaling the wonders of Scott, while giving him simultaneous nuggies. Something's telling Stiles that's probably not going to happen. That something being Derek's face, set as it is in Polite Interest mode. “Scott's mentioned me, right?” He turns to Scott for some sort of confirmation, but he's already at the bar, bouncing on his toes to get the server's attention.

“Yes,” Derek says, “He's mentioned you. I believe you've been in studying in New York.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, deflating by second. “Four years. Back in LA for grad school.”

“I see,” Derek says, tugging at his shirt cuffs. Classic discomfiture. “Scott tells me that you're interested in criminology.”

Scott didn't tell Stiles that Derek talks like some dude from a Victorian novel. There's probably going to be smoking jackets and brandy in the drawing room soon.

“That's kind of what grad school's about. My dad was the sheriff, so it was something I grew up around.”

“I see,” Derek repeats. “And your dad was pleased with your choice of future career?”

“Nah,” Stiles shakes his head. “He thought I should be a stripper. More money, less taxes.”

Derek blinks at him.

“I'm kidding,” Stiles says, feeling his face flush a little at how badly that bombed, and Derek looks relieved, but not amused. Not at all amused. “So, I came up early to spend the summer with Scott before school starts,” Stiles barrels on. “We've got a few places lined up for viewing. Just something small, somewhere between the museum and college. With A/C, and maybe a little balcony. Nothing higher than the third floor, because I hate heights. I'm working on that though, because I'll probably have to go up ladders and shit when I get a job. It's this inner ear thing I have. Burst both my eardrums when I was a kid. And...”

Stiles trails off because he's babbling, just like he does at formal events like interviews, and, hey – maybe that's what this is. Some sort of initiation before Derek will let Stiles join the Scott'n'Derek club. And okay, he can play along with that. He's just about to suggest shots as an icebreaker, but Derek speaks first.

“It was nice meeting you.” And with that he turns away, dismissing Stiles, and leaving Stiles gaping open-mouthed at his back. His broad, ripped, hot back.

His rude back.

“Here,” Scott says, shoving a bottle into Stiles' hand. “Derek's great, isn't he?”

Stiles gawks at him. “What the hell did you tell him about me?”

~~~~~

Scott had first met Derek when he'd interviewed for work experience at the Hale Museum of Art during the third year of his arts degree.

“It takes him a while to come around to people,” Scott says. “He thought I was an idiot. Didn't let me touch anything for at least six months. I spent most of the time brushing the floor and shooing away the kids when they came in to peek at the naked paintings.”

“And then?” Stiles leans in to hear of some big bonding moment. Maybe Scott had uncovered a Monet under the work of a lesser artist, or saved a sculpture from a clumsy caretaker, and just forgot to tell Stiles about it.

“And then nothing,” Scott shrugs. “One night we went for a drink after closing, and I realised that he was good fun, a good dude. Then when I finished college, he gave me the internship.”

Stiles laments the days when he and Scott agreed on what was good fun.

“Hey,” Scott continues. “I told you about the time we sang My Humps at a karaoke while dressed in squirrel costumes?”

Yes, he had. He had told Stiles all about Fun Derek, who enjoyed shoe-throwing competitions and sliding down the bannisters and conversations that were had in song titles only.

“Does he know about Allison?”

Scott shrugs. “I mentioned her once. We don't really talk like that. He's weird about personal stuff. I think there was a girl once. And a fire.”

“Ouch,” Stiles winces.

“Anyway, that's what I have you for.”

Stiles rolls his eyes fondly. “So when do I get to meet her?”

“She works next door to the museum. In the hippie clothes store.” Scott turns to Stiles, eyes widening as they do when he has an idea. “You should visit me at work on my break and we could call in. For bracelets. And maybe some patchouli oil.”

That's a lot of birds for Stiles to kill. Meet Allison, get to know Derek, and spend time with Scott. All he needs now is a big stone.

~~~~~ 

The following Monday, he makes three sets of identical sandwiches, heavy on the salad and light on the mayo, and pops them into paper bags. To each he adds a ripe peach and a note.

Scott gets – I love you, but please put the lid back on the toothpaste.

Derek gets Stiles' phone number and – Hey, as Scott's bffs, we should hang out more. I'm fun, I promise. :)

Stiles gets – Stiles, you are a volume. Teach Derek how to read you.

~~~~~ 

The Hale Museum of Art is much like every other Stiles has visited – high ceilings, marbled floors and a smell that's both old and fresh. Unlike other galleries, there are a lot of photographs, almost as many as there are paintings. He's studying one that's labelled Genocide when someone clears their throat from behind him.

“I'm sorry, but we're closing for lunch now. We re-open at...” Derek stops when Stiles turns around.

“I declare the title of this picture to be a misnomer,” Stiles grins. “Unless it's one of those ironic pieces.”

“Are you mocking my work?” Derek asks slowly, head jerking back a little.

Stiles' eyes widen. “This is yours?”

“It's interpretive,” Derek says, without actually answering the question. “The classic books pushed into the background by newer versions of the printed word.”

The newer version being a gaudily coloured phone screen saying, sux 2 b u.

“Not everyone is a fan of the classics,” Stiles says, smirking.

“Everyone should be a fan of Bronte.”

“Figures Heathcliff would be your hero. All dark and broody and mysterious.”

“Well, like I said, we're closing for...”

“Lunch. Yeah, I gotcha, and I mean that literally.” He points to his holdall. “I've brought us all lunch. Scott tells me that you guys eat in the office. So where's that at?”

Derek goes perfectly still for too long. “I have calls to make. In the office.” he says. “Working lunch.”

Stiles nods. “Right,” he says, not even trying to hide the scepticism in his tone. “Well, maybe Scott and I can eat out here, and you can join us when your finished with...your calls.”

Derek's now looking at him like Stiles just insulted his heritage. “There's no eating in the gallery,” he hisses, looking pointedly at the exit door.

“Oh,” Stiles says, following Derek's eyeline. “Well, can you tell Scott I'll be waiting outside?”

Derek nods stiffly.

“And,” Stiles says, digging around in his holdall. “Here, this is for you.” He holds out the paper-bag, giving it an impatient shake until Derek reluctantly takes it. He's feeling a bit stupid now and he can't take back the note without making a production of it. Not that anything he does or doesn't do now will make any difference. The dye, apparently, has been cast.

“There was no need...”

“Whatever,” Stiles says shortly. “You might want to wash the peach. And I've wrapped the dressing separately.”

“Thanks,” Derek says to something over Stiles' head. “Um, maybe next time...”

~~~~~

Only next time, a couple of days later, Derek has to sort out some paperwork, and once again Stiles and Scott have their lunch alfresco. They're sitting on a low-wall, halfway between the gallery and the hippie clothes store.

“I don't think he likes me,” Stiles says, shoving his fork around his cilantro salad.

“Who?”

“Derek.”

Scott's head snaps up. “Dude, don't be stupid. Derek thinks you're great.”

Stiles' brows rise. “Did he tell you that?”

“Well, no. But he doesn't need to. It's you. Everyone loves you,” Scott scoffs, and then his face grows stupidly happy. “Scott, a true friend is one who overlooks your failures and puts the milk back into the fridge. Aw, thanks, man.”

Stiles punches him affectionately in the arm, wondering if Derek has read his own little motivational note-of-the-day.

But I begin to fancy you don't like me. How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.

It had been a stroke of genius, because it was a) a quote that pretty much described Stiles and Derek's fledgling relationship from b) Wuthering Heights.

Only Derek still hasn't called the number Stiles gave him, and the only message Scott comes home with that evening is not to send in any more lunches for him.

“He's weird about what he eats,” Scott says. “And he hates cilantro.”

Lots of people do. Stupid of Stiles really, to try woo Derek with such a polarising food.

“I love it, though,” Scott adds.

~~~~~

LA swelters in the summer, and Stiles and Scott have to compromise on their apartment wants to get the A/C they need. They end up with a two bed basement place, a good forty minutes from Stiles' college. On Scott's working days, Stiles cleans up, does the toursity bits, familiarises himself with campus and gets a library card. He also lunches with Scott at least twice a week, waiting for him on what's now their wall with just two bags of healthy goodies.

He also takes the college's advice and gets a pastoral care position in a local call centre. But he needs a paying job because while his grant covers his rent and basic living needs, he's a bit short on beer and chips money.

“No way,” Scott says, when Stiles mentions this one evening late in August. “We need someone in records. It's just a couple of hours a week, but...”

Sounds good. Once classes start, all Stiles will have left is a couple of hours a week.

“Let me give Derek a call.”

Stiles listens in, already pretty sure how that conversation's going to go.

“Derek?...yeah, hi...nothing much...hey, I got someone for that records job...Stiles...oh, since when...really...”

“Job's gone?” Stiles hazards when Scott sits back down.

“Yeah,” Scott says. “Sorry, buddy. Derek promised it to someone just before I rang.”

“I bet he did,” Stiles mutters darkly, jostling the game controller a little aggressively.

“What?”

“Nothing. We playing or what?”

~~~~~

It's all academic anyway because Stiles gets a job the following day in a comic book store. He gets paid to spend his time with Batman and Captain America. Trumps looking at Derek Hale's miserable face any day of the week.

~~~~~

It's not that Derek is horrible to Stiles, per se, it's just that Stiles seems to put a dampner on Derek's festivities. Like he's a giant Stiles-shaped wet blanket.

Case in point: The house-warming party they throw when Stiles and Scott move in together. Sometime late in the evening, Derek is centre stage, arm thrown around Scott's shoulders as he captivates his audience with a story that Stiles can't hear. Stiles is a bit captivated himself by Derek's huge smile and deep laugh and relaxed pose. His eyes - stunning even when they're staring blankly at Stiles - are shining, extra bright when they crease under laughter lines. They make Stiles brace himself and force his way into the conversation.

“Hey, what did I miss?” he asks, hovering just outside the tight circle.

“Stiles,” Scott says, delighted, and pulling Stiles in closer. “Derek was just telling us about the time some militant religious group tried to put clothes on the copy of Michelangelo's David that was on exhibit.”

“Yeah?” Stiles smiles at Derek, and tries to keep on smiling even when Derek gets that shifty look that Stiles seems to put there effortlessly.

“I'm done now,” Derek shrugs. “Wouldn't be so funny to hear it again. Carol, how's your mom?”

“Still sick,” Carol says, not looking nearly as happy as she had before Stiles joined in.

Total Fucking Dampner.

Case in point 2: The paint-balling contest Derek organised between the art gallery and another local museum. It had been a work thing until Janey – taker of Stiles' job and utterly incompetent at records, according to Scott - had bowed out due to a paper-related injury. Stiles had gladly stepped in, and everything was all set until Derek couldn't make it, due to a sudden virus. The dude actually called in sick to his own event.

Case in point 3: The night they had all gone clubbing and Derek had left Stiles talking to air so often that Stiles had taken to the dance floor for most of the night, trying to shake off the rejection and awkwardness.

After cases 4, 5 and 6, Stiles decides it's time to stop pissing all over himself like an overexcited, needy puppy every time Derek's around.

He gives cool and aloof a try, but fares no better.

Stiles is cilantro, and Derek hates cilantro.

~~~~~

Thing is, Scott loves them both to bits and so far has remained completely oblivious to anvil-like tension that hangs between Stiles and Derek. Stiles thinks of telling him, but when Scott comes home and tells Stiles of all the fun he and Derek had at the ice-rink, Stiles can't bring himself to burst his buddy's bubble. They had a friend at school, whose parents hated each other. Broke the poor dude's little heart when they fought in front of him.

It stops being an issue in the fall, because Stiles starts school and between his two jobs and his thesis, he has little time to donate to being tolerated by Derek. Derek, it turns out, is also busy, and the only nights he has free for Scott are Tuesdays and Fridays.

Coincidentally, those are the nights that Stiles works in the call-centre.

~~~~~

Boyd manages the call centre. “They talk, you listen. Don't make any of these calls about you, don't talk about yourself. Encourage callers to reach out to whatever support networks are around them, and advise them of others on your list. If you feel that there is a situation beyond your control, then find me or Claudia. Remember that sometimes these callers aren't looking for a solution, they are just looking for someone to talk to. Try not to get overly involved with any one caller. If there is someone that only wants to talk to you, there is a danger of a dependency forming, and this is never good for anyone involved. Again, find me or Claudia if that should happen. Got it?”

Stiles gets about half of it.

“Good evening. You talk, we listen. Stiles speaking.”

“Hey Stiles.”

“Hey Erica. How are you doing today?”

She says nothing for minute. “I had another fit earlier.”

Stiles murmurs sympathetically. “Wanna tell me about it, honey?”

~~~~~

He goes back home to Beacon Hills for the Halloween break, lets his dad fuss over him, assures him that his studies are going well.

“And life in LA?” his dad asks.

“Cool,” Stiles says, because that's mostly true. He has Scott and college and jobs he loves. He has friends - Simba and Chloe from the comic book store, and Charley, Sara and Jake from college. There's a lot to do in LA, and Stiles is doing most of it.

“And, anyone special?” the sheriff prods.

Stiles winces and calls their waitress back. “Could I change my order? Hold the salad, give me a large fries instead?”

“That bad?” his dad asks.

“And chocolate shake, please.” Stiles tell the waitress. He shrugs then. He'd spent far too many teenage years lying to his dad about where he was going and what he was doing, and he'd sooner bare his soul than see that flash of disappointment cross his dad's face again.

“Age old story. Boy meets Boy, Boy likes Boy. Other Boy doesn't like First Boy. Nothing to make a movie about.”

“Other Boy is going to get shot if he ever sets foot in Beacon Hills,” the sheriff promises.

And this is why Stiles loves his dad so fucking much.

He visits Melissa, gets to eat rhubarb crumble up at the kitchen counter, even if his legs don't swing in the air any more. In between bites he promises that Scott is doing well, and that Stiles is looking after him.

“I put notes in his lunch bags.”

Melissa laughs. “I used to do that for you two.”

Stiles remembers. He always had his own lunch, but Melissa would put two notes into Scott's. Always identical. Eat your fruit first...Stay out of trouble...Look after each other. And they always ended with – Don't forget, I love you.

“Could be you were my inspiration,” Stiles says, lifting his plate for more pie. It's still warm, and sweetly bitter, and tastes of all things nostalgic.

“Have you met Derek?” Melissa asks suddenly, apropos of nothing.

Stiles' fork makes a horrible noise as it cuts across the glass, and Melissa laughs.

“I take it you have,” she says smugly.

“Melissa,” Stiles admonishes.

“Hey,” she says, holding up her palms. “I've seen him too.”

“I need a new second mom,” Stiles grumbles.

He lies.

~~~~~

“Maybe he has a crush on you and this is just his way of pulling your pigtails.”

Stiles sighs. He's tried fooling himself with that notion, too. “Erica, he's not mean to me. He's perfectly civil. Disgustingly polite. He looks at me with this perfect expression of blankness on his face.” God, Stiles doesn't even want to think what his own face is saying is saying when he looks at Derek. Like me, like me, like me. “There's nothing. Not even...that's right ma'am, the Good Samaritan hospital has a clinic that's opened until ten pm, seven nights a week. Let me just get that number for you.”

“Boyd?”

“Yeah. I even told him a joke last week and he looked at me like I'd just kicked his puppy.”

“What was the joke?”

“Two snowmen in a field. One looks at the other and says, hey, do you smell carrots.”

Erica giggles.

“Thank you,” Stiles says. “I'm here all week.”

“Oh, Stiles. I'm sorry, but this guy sounds like an asshole.”

“He is,” Stiles whispers enthusiastically, because finally somebody gets it.

“So why do you have a crush on him?”

Stiles splutters. “I don't. Anyway, we should be talking about you, and how I can help - ”

“I've told you already, talking to you like this does help. A one-sided conversation is hardly a connection. Also, you never let me avoid uncomfortable questions, so right back at you, buddy.”

“Ma'am, if you like, I could organise for someone -”

“Oh, don't you even with me, Stiles Whatever-your-second-Name-Is. I know Boyd isn't there.”

Stiles sighs. “It's just that he's important to Scott. ”

Erica declares bullshit.

“That's some of it,” Stiles insists.

“But there's more.”

Is there ever. Derek might be the hottest thing Stiles has ever seen. And Stiles might have jerked off to the memory of the smile he had seen Derek shoot at Scott last week. And then he might have curled in on himself when he remembered how that smile had died on Derek's face when he saw Stiles. And then he might have fallen asleep in his own mess because he was too disgusted with himself to move.

“I don't know how to explain it,” he says hesitantly. “It's just that I kinda fell for him just listening to Scott talk about him. He sounded like such a great guy, and I couldn't wait to meet him, and when I did, he was so fucking beautiful, and I just...I just...I fucking hate that he hates me.”

Erica says nothing for too long.

“What?” Stiles asks.

“Have you considered the idea that he might be in love with Scott?”

That had occurred to him, just briefly. But Derek has no problem Allison, is even known to laugh around her. “He isn't.”

“I don't know what to say to you, Stiles. Maybe you're right. Maybe he just doesn't like you,” Erica says. “But hey, why not be sure. Why don't you give it one last shot. Make it a big one.”

He makes a trade with her. He'll invite Derek to dinner, a one last throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it affair, if she agrees to leave her house for an hour the following day.

They seal the deal with raspberries blown down the phone.

Boyd's frowning suspiciously at him when he hangs up.

~~~~~

“Scott's not here,” Derek says in lieu of hello, his hands shoved into his pockets. “It's his day off.”

“I know,” Stiles answers, looking back at the black and white image of a werewolf that he'd been occupying himself with while waiting on Derek to appear. “Did you do this?”

Derek nods, hands shoving down deeper.

“It's good.”

“Thanks.” His tone is neutral, measured.

“You like werewolves?”

Derek shrugs. “I admire their strength and agility. Makes for a powerful image, once you can capture it.”

Stiles laughs, and Derek bristles. “What?”

“Nothing, dude. It's just that that's the longest sentence you've ever spoken to me.”

Derek's face closes completely, and Stiles resists the urge to roll his eyes.

“So, Scott needs your help tonight. He bought a shelving unit from IKEA, and he's going to try assemble it. I won't be there to supervise this insanity.”

Derek's eyes widen in horror. “Scott's doing DIY alone?”

“Right?” Stiles says. “This is the dude who was promised a B grade if he'd just stay the fuck away from the woodwork shop.”

“He nearly lost a thumb slotting the curtain rail in place last year.”

“He got twelve stitches trying to assemble a spice rack. And by assemble, I mean taking the pieces out of the box.”

“He got a black eye trying to fix a stuck drawer in the office.”

“So, you appreciate the gravity of the situation,” Stiles concludes.

“I'll be there at seven,” Derek promises.

~~~~~

Derek's punctual. Stiles is just taking the roasted winter veg out of the oven when the doorbell rings.

“Hi,” he says to a stunned Derek when he answers the door. “Come on in.”

Scott appears from his bedroom, scratching idly at his head. “Hey, Derek. What are you doing here?”

“I invited him,” Stiles says firmly. “For dinner. Thought it would be nice for the three of us to eat together. Seems like every time I'm free, Derek's busy. But he's definitely free tonight. Right, Derek?”

Derek glowers at him over Scott's shoulder.

“I mean,” Stiles continues, running a skewer through the chicken. “You're not feeling ill, are you?”

Derek shakes his head.

“Not going to remember something urgent that needs your presence? No emergency phone calls?”

“No,” Derek grits.

“Cool. Let's eat then.”

It's like Scott is a mediator, the only point of interest between Stiles and Derek. Stiles has gone all out – soft lighting, low music, linen tablecloth, and wine glasses, and he spends the first hour of dinner refusing to be cowed by Derek's one word answers and flickering eye contact. If anything, he's aggressive and relentless, badgering Derek for information about his family, his life up to now, his interest in art, until Derek puts down his fork to massage his temples.

“Hey, dude,” Scott says. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Derek answers. “Just those new shipping orders are delayed because the invoices have gone missing. It's a pain in the fucking ass.”

Scott shakes his head. “Should have hired Stiles,” he sing-songs.

The wine Derek had been sipping goes down the wrong way, and Scott claps him on the back.

“Sorry,” Derek mutters after an extended coughing fit. And then he gives Scott a tired smile that makes Stiles' gut twist with jealousy.

~~~~~ 

He throws the towel in during a game of Trivial Pursuit. Stiles' wheel overfloweth with pie after just ten minutes because Scott was never going to be a worthy opponent and Derek outright refuses to be one.

“What famous composer's work was sampled in both Coolio's C U When U Get There and Green Day's Basket Case?"

“Only my favourite piece of music in the world,” Stiles grins. “Canon by Pachelbel. Your turn, Derek. What,” he reads with flourish, flicking the tiny card with his thumb, “Was the name of the Henri Matisse painting that was hung upside down for forty-six days without anyone noticing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York?”

Derek actually pretends to think about the answer for a minute, and then pretends he doesn't know it.

“Even I know that,” Scott scoffs.

Derek also doesn't know who Richard Nixon tended his resignation to, or what puts the fizz in soda water, or how to write the number forty-nine in Roman Numerals.

“What team won the MBL World Series in 2012?”

Derek frowns at him. “That's not a question.”

“I do believe it is,” Stiles says, clutching the card to his chest. “It's a linguistic expression used to request information that is provided in the form of an answer. The very definition of a question.”

Derek turns to Scott. “Do I have to answer made up questions? Is that even fair?”

Scott yawns widely, drowsy after several glasses of wine. “Why don't we just watch a movie?”

Ten minutes into Anchorman, he's snoring loudly on Stiles' shoulder, and Derek's looking more at the ceiling than the screen.

“You can go if you want,” Stiles says dully.

Derek doesn't need to be told twice.

~~~~~

He agrees to go on a date if Erica agrees to go to a salon. It's all part of their new Be Good to Yourself pledge.

Chloe's cousin, Rob, is on-paper perfect. He's handsome, and tall, and has blue eyes that seem perpetually amused. He takes Stiles to an Asian fusion place, orders for both of them after Stiles admits ignorance, but takes the time to ask Stiles what flavours he likes.

“Do you like cilantro?” Stiles asks.

Rob leans in conspiratorially. “Love it,” he grins.

Perfect.

As is the dinner, and the way Rob holds eye contact with Stiles, and the way he laughs at his stupid jokes, and the way he's interested in Stiles, wanting to know all about him. He holds Stiles' hand when they walk through the park after dinner and says his name like he enjoys the feel of it on his tongue. Every time Stiles smiles, it triggers an even bigger one from Rob.

Perfect. On paper. But on Stiles, it just feels hollow and itchy.

“So,” Rob smiles, a little despondent, when he's walked Stiles back to his and Scott's apartment. “Are you going to say that you'll call me and never do, or shall we just skip ahead to the it's not you, it's me portion of the evening?”

Stiles groans and drops his head onto Rob's shoulder. He's a fucking ingrate. “I'm sorry,” he muffles. “I really am.” He forces his head up and looks somewhat desperately at Rob. “You're lovely. You're really lovely, and much, much more than I deserve. And if I'd just met you four months ago, I'd be in a totally different place.”

“But?” Rob prompts.

“But,” Stiles says. “It really isn't you. And it probably isn't even me. It's fucking Derek.”

“Fucking Derek?”

“Yeah,” Stiles laughs softly. “I really wasn't trying to waste your time, it's just that I thought, I hoped - ” He trails off with a shrug.

“Ah,” Rob nods, and then he appears to steel himself. “Do you want to talk about Fucking Derek?”

Stiles punches his arm. “Fuck off. I'm not that much of an asshole.”

He is though, if the expression on Rob's face is anything to go by.

~~~~~

Scott's still up when he gets in. “Well?” he asks, eyebrows almost disappearing into his hairline. Stiles makes a face and heads for the kitchen.

“I'm sorry, man,” Scott says when Stiles flops down beside him on the sofa and passes over a long-neck. “Hey, you wanna hear a joke?”

“Always,” Stiles says after taking a long pull from his beer.

“Okay,” Scott grins, turning a little. “Two snowmen in a field. One says to the other – hey, do you smell carrots.”

“Heard it,” Stiles huffs.

“Yeah. It's pretty terrible. Derek told it to me today. He thought it was hilarious. Seriously, he couldn't even get the words out, he was laughing so much."

Insult, say hello to injury.

~~~~~

Rob texts him a week later, just a hi and how are you. And then, Hows Fucking Derek.

Stiles really wishes he wouldn't, because when he reads it on screen, all he can think about is fucking Derek, and not Fucking Derek.

Absent, Stiles replies. Might have to put out an APB on him.

That would be overkill. Mostly because Derek isn't missing in general, just missing from Stiles' life.

Sux 2 b me,” he texts to Rob, because sometimes he just likes to amuse himself.

~~~~~

“I don't know, Stiles. That sounds like an awful lot of people.”

Stiles pffts. “Just an intimate gathering of our closest friends and family.”

“And how many is intimate?” Erica asks.

“Well, let me see. My family and Scott's, that's two whole people. Some friends from home. Then there's our work people, Scott's miscellaneous friends that he's accumulated in my absence, some guys from college, some guys from this place, so maybe...a hundred and fifty?”

He has to take the phone from his hear when Erica lets out an ear-piercing scream. “A hundred and fifty?”

That's the lower end of the estimate. “Yeah. But you'll get to meet all the people I've been talking about, and they're going to love you.”

Erica's quiet again for a bit. “Will Derek be there?”

“Probably,” Stiles sighs. “I think Scott asked him to do some photographs and video taping, because that's his thing. But feel free to make like I do and ignore him. There'll be more important people there, anyway. My dad, and Scott and Allison, and Boyd. I know that they'd love to meet you. I'd love to meet you.”

There's another pause. “Well, I am blonde now.”

“So you said. How's that going?”

“I went clothes shopping last week. People looked. Guys looked.”

“Well then,” Stiles says insistently. “Come and be looked at at our party.”

“But...” she breaks off.

“Erica?”

“What if I seize? What if I wet myself?”

Stiles' chest tightens. “I take Adderall, for ADHD,” he finally admits. “Scott once got bitten by something in the woods when he was sixteen and was convinced that it was a wolf. He took to howling every full moon. My dad has never gotten over my mom's death. Simba from the comic store's real name is Ernestein Bickerdyke. Mart from college has a conviction for sexual misconduct that he got for streaking. Maisie, also from college, is a furry. And Scott's friend, Jason, eats drywall."

Erica laughs. “So what you're saying is that I'll just be another misfit at this party?”

“What I'm saying is that everybody has their thing. What I'm saying is that I'll fucking punch anyone in the face if they mock your thing.”

“Even Derek?” Erica teases.

“Even Derek,” Stiles promises. “And, yeah he's an asshole. But he's not that asshole.”

~~~~~

The party is an overwhelming success. Stiles' dad and Melissa have hired out a room in the hotel they're staying in over the holidays. Stiles was right about the numbers – he definitely underestimated.

He's busy working the room, catching up with friends old and new, getting dragged to the dance floor and then to bar, and playing Bridget Jones when the need arises.

“Rob, this is Ryan. Ryan, meet Rob. Rob likes Asian food, and Ryan likes hockey.”

“Yeah?” Rob smiles, much like he did the night he and Stiles went on their ill-fated date, and Stiles can't help but fist-pump discretely. “”Who's your team?”

Ryan smiles back. “Chicago born and bred so it has to be - ”

“The Hawks?” Rob finishes for him.

“None other,” Ryan beams. “Red and black, through and through.”

“Hey, watch it,” Rob says, but he's laughing. “I'm from Boston...”

And just like that, Stiles' good work here is done. But there's other places he's needed.

“Allison, this is Scott, Scott say hello to Allison.”

They look strangely at him. “Yeah,” Scott says slowly. “We've met. We were actually talking before you came over.”

“Scott adores you,” Stiles says to Allison. “And Allison looks at you like you've hung the moon,” he tells Scott.

They stare at him, all sorts of betrayed, but Stiles' bullshit barometer is taking the night off.

“Sort this out,” he tells both of them, and then they're back to mooning at each other.

Stiles, surplus to requirements, moves on.

“Hey,” Boyd hisses, tugging on his sleeve. “Who's the hot chick at eight o'clock?”

It's more like six thirty, but -

“Erica,” he says, pulling her away from his father's protective shadowing. “This is Boyd. Boyd, this is Erica. Erica likes the theatre. Boyd likes being grumpy.”

But the conversation cues are unnecessary because Boyd is staring at Erica's wrist and has found his own topic of the evening.

“Hey, is that an epilepsy tag on your bracelet?” Boyd says, like this is something wonderful. “My step-brother has epilepsy. Coolest dude I know. The shit he has to put up with from assholes. Have you had some idiot try to stuff a spoon into your mouth during an attack?”

“Have I,” Erica laughs, not seeming to mind that Boyd's fingers are locked around her wrist.

“So, how did you two meet?” Boyd asks.

“Wrong number, right Stiles?” Erica smiles, and wow, she is hot.

“And we've been talking ever since,” Stiles says with a grin before moving on.

At midnight there's a surprise fireworks display on the roof, and Stiles huddles close into his dad.

“This is awesome,” he says, looking around at Rob and Ryan playfully knocking shoulders while bickering, at Erica and Boyd paying attention to nothing but each other, at Allison and Scott joined at the lips, and then up at the illuminated sky. He makes a promise to himself that this time next year, he'll have something like that of his own.

It's time for him to get out of his own way.

And with that, he releases the balloon he's holding, watching it rise and float, feeling some his heaviness drift away with it.

He's going to tell Scott about this some day. Scott loves a good metaphor.

~~~~~

Later, when everyone is gone and Stiles is cleaning up the remnants on the roof, he's startled by a sudden voice.

“Stiles.”

Stiles.

“So you do know my name,” Stiles says dryly.

“Are you okay?” Derek asks, and it's like he's bare without his camera prop, shifting from foot to foot, looking like he always does when he's in Stiles' company – as if he'd rather be anywhere but here.

“Peachy,” Stiles smirks.

“Do you need - ” he says reluctantly, gesturing around at the mess.

“No,” Stiles says, shaking his head. “My dad will be back in a bit. He's helping me.”

That's two too many Stilinskis - Stilinsky? - for Derek, if the speed at which he exits is any indicator.

~~~~~

With all the party fuss, Stiles never got around to posting their holiday cards this year. On Christmas Eve, he decides to go viral, send around an Ecard with a photograph of his dad, Scott and Melissa at the party. Only he can't find one. He didn't take any on the night, and all Scott has is a montage of Allison, most of them out of focus and far too close up. Pretty and all as her nose is, Stiles didn't ever want to see up it.

“Ask Derek,” Scott suggests, after Stiles had to literally slap his attention away from the phone. “He didn't put his camera down all night.”

It's too good of an idea to dismiss for the sake of another few minutes of awkwardness, or whatever it is that's making Stiles force his feet up the steps of Derek's ground floor apartment. He gives himself a shake and knocks briskly on the door. Derek, when he answers, looks kind of floored to see Stiles there.

“Hi,” Stiles says determinedly, holding out a small cardboard box. “I brought pie.”

Derek stares at it. “No thanks,” he stammers, but Stiles pushes it into his hands as he ducks to get in the door.

“So, I was just passing,” Stiles says, not even trying to disguise the lie. “And I thought that you might have some video footage of the other night that I could copy.” He glances around the studio, at the space that occupies both Derek's work and life. It's more than a little chaotic.

Derek's staring at the door, like he's trying to figure out just how Stiles managed to get through it. “Um, I don't know where it is, and I'm pretty busy right now. I can have a look around later and - ”

Stiles takes a breath, because, really, enough. “Derek, can I say something?”

Derek looks uncertain, but gives a quiet yes.

“I know you're Scott's other best friend, and I know you've never particularly warmed to me. No, look, don't argue,” he says, when it seems as though Derek just might. “We've never gotten friendly, and I don't think that's ever going to change, Not on your end anyway, but I just wanted to say that if you wanted that to change, well that would be cool with me. I'm nice. I'm really nice, I swear. But I'm done with forcing my company on you. That's not why I'm here. I just want to get a copy of the video and I'll be gone. Bat out of hell, and all that.”

Derek's response to Stiles' little speech is to shove his hands deeper into his pockets and squirm right down to his toes.

“Great,” Stiles says sardonically. “Now that we've cleared the air - ”

“I really don't know where the video is,” Derek blurts, and he's moving then, trying to situate Stiles between himself and the door. Stiles ducks it again and makes his way over to the computer table and the pile of CD cases on top of it.

“Would it be this one here,” Stiles says, pulling a disc from near the top. “The one that says Stiles' and Scott's party.” He holds it up for Derek to see. “Do you think we might be on the right track?”

Derek goes very, very still. Like he's suddenly petrified. “I've probably taped over it,” he says desperately, as Stiles slips the disc into the laptop and clicks open with the mouse-pad. He slides down onto the chair, smiling when he sees his face on screen.

Derek's gotten rid of the background noise, changed it for Pachelbel's Canon. Stiles is just about to comment on that, but there's more footage of him, smiling as he talks to someone out of view. And then a different one, where he's looking just to left of the lens, just his face, soft and thoughtful.

He turns to Derek. “You stayed pretty close, eh?” he laughs.

Derek makes a weird sound and Stiles looks back at the monitor. He's dancing now, and then sipping from a glass, and then staring up at the fireworks. There's ten seconds of him wiping cake from the corners of his mouth, and Stiles laughs again, is just about to tell Derek that he ate so much of it that he doesn't think he'll ever stomach cream again, and then he snaps his mouth closed again, his heart tumbling. Because there he is again, arm slung around somebody's shoulder, and yet again, leaning in to talk to someone else. But Stiles can't tell who it is in either frame because -

“They're all of me.” The words sound like he's cotton in his ears, like he can't hear them properly above the strains of his favourite piece of music.

He's waving now, up on the roof top. He was calling Scott over to tell him something. Something Stiles can't remember right now.

“Yeah,” Derek whispers from behind him, and then louder. “Yes.” And when Stiles turns to look at him, his eyes are trained on the screen, every bit of torment etched into his face.

The video plays out with a close up of Stiles' hands playing with a piece of ribbon before it pans out again, and he's laughing, head thrown back as he releases it. The camera follows the balloon as it disappears into the sky, like it's sailing towards the full moon.

Stiles startles when the video clicks off and he stares dumbly at the play again option until his eyes go blurry.

“But,” he says into the perfect silence. “You never talk to me unless you have to. You always just talk to Scott.” When he looks up, Derek is fixated on a spot above his head. “You don't like me,” Stiles insists, and Derek's face creases, like he's just been punched.

“I don't think it'll be very useful,” he says, gesturing with a shaking hand towards the laptop. “And I have to go now. I've got a...a lunch, so - ”

“It's ten in the morning,” Stiles tells him.

“Maybe don't show it around too much,” Derek soldiers on. “It needs a bit of an edit.” He demonstrates edit by making a cutting motion with his fingers. “You can just show yourself out.”

He's moving quickly towards the door, and then he stops and turns, finally looking Stiles right in the eye. “It's a self-preservation thing, you see. I know that Scott...I couldn't do that to him, not when I know how he feels about you.”

He's gone before Stiles can even begin to recover from that.

~~~~~

“Why does Derek think you're in love with me?”

Scott shoots him a look. “Why do you think Derek thinks I'm in love with you?”

“Because he told me. Derek's in love with me.” Stiles feel absurdly confident in making that statement, given the morning's events. “And I just might be in love with him, but he won't let himself love me because he thinks that you're in love with me when you're really in love with Allison.”

Scott scratches his head. “Even though I'm very confused here, there are elements of that that make perfect sense.”

It takes a while for Stiles to get the story out; it's fragmented and messy, much like Stiles himself.

“Wow,” Scott says when Stiles finishes. “That's unbelievable. You mean, there's not one shot of me on that video?”

Stiles slaps him hard on the head. “But how,” he whines.

“I have no clue, man,” Scott says sympathetically. “I told you before, Derek and I don't talk about that stuff. I only mentioned Allison to him once, and that was only to say that I was in love with somebody who had pretty eyes, dimples and flawless skin, and that it was all so impossible. Hey, fuck off, I leaned my fatalism from the best.”

Which, point. Stiles is lying on the floor, half rolled under the Christmas tree, limbs scattered like he's been mortally wounded.

“Hey,” he says, sitting up so suddenly it makes him dizzy. “What exactly did you say to Derek about Allison?”

“What I just said to you.”

“Did you...” Oh sweet baby jesus. “Did you use a pronoun? Like, she?"

Scott thinks for a second. “Nope. I said somebody...oh.” And then he's sitting up too, the cogs in head spinning loud enough for Stiles to almost hear. “Stiles,” he gasps. “You have pretty eyes.”

Stiles glowers at him.

“And you have dimples. And flawless skin.”

“Are you mocking me?” Stiles asks, outraged.

“Not at all, buddy,” Scott says, and begins laughing hysterically. “You two are idiots.”

“You're mocking me now,” Stiles says, when Scott begins clutching at his sides.

“Totally.”

~~~~~

Stiles feels like he does when he's off his meds, off-centre and restless. The walk he's gone on has done little to calm him down. He's all Dusty Springfield, just not knowing what to do with himself as he pounds the streets, lost in his own head. By the time he reaches Derek's place, he's a full-on time-bomb of confusion, hope and fury.

It's a mistake to knock on Derek's door when he's like this. There's a grown-up option, whereby he could take a couple of days to mull this over, let it settle, let himself settle, and then ask Derek for a coffee, see if they can't have a do-over.

Stiles goes for the Instant Gratification option.

It's like deja vu when Derek pulls the door open, that same sick look on his face as there was this morning. Maybe Stiles is a bit more aggressive about pushing his way inside this time, but he has no pie to distract Derek with.

“Scott isn't in love with me,” Stiles blurts. “He's in love with Allison. Has been since he met her. She was the somebody he was talking about.”

He doesn't even give Derek a second to digest this before he barrels on again. “You were an asshole to me. I tried and tried so fucking hard with you, and you knocked me back every time. Do you know how fucking hurtful that was? Do you know that you made me feel shit about myself sometimes?”

He's too manic for this conversation, too split open to be anything but irrational and cruel. “You were so fucking superior. Looked at me like I wasn't fit to be spoken to. And I still liked you, wanted nothing more than for you to like me back. You knew, you fucking knew how I felt about you.”

Derek stares at him miserably. “Stiles,” he begins, and stops.

“What?” Stiles barks. “Spit it out. If you have something to say to me, fucking say it now.”

Derek rubs the fingers of both hands in circles around his temples, like Stiles words are physically hurting him.

“Come on, Derek,” Stiles sneers. “Tell me the truth for once. It's Christmas after all.”

Derek's hands drop down to his sides and his eyes snap shut.

“Why am I even surprised?” Stiles grits, moving quickly to the door. “Well fuck you. And I hope you and your wasted heart have a happy fucking Christmas.”

Yeah. Not his finest parting shot.

~~~~~

Sometimes Stiles exhausts himself with his own drama. He's sitting with his head on Scott's shoulder, his eyelids heavy as he watches Elf, the room dark save for the slow-blink lights on the tree. Scott's even lit some Yankee candles and laced their eggnogs with some, as of yet unidentified, liquor.

“You should be with Allison,” Stiles mutters, hating the sound of his own voice right now.

“I'll see her in the morning. She'll be over for breakfast around the same time as your dad and my mom.”

“Still,” Stiles says, but smiles when Scott gives him a dead leg.

“You know,” Scott says. “It all kind of makes sense now. Did you know that Derek got you the job in the comic store? Leon, the owner, and he know each other from exhibits, or some shit like that. He called him and asked if they had anything free.”

Now that Stiles thinks of it, he did see Leon and Derek talking at the party. “Information might have been more useful to me a couple of months ago, dude.”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

“He even kept those notes you put in the lunch bags.”

Stiles groans. “Don't,” he pleads.

Scott knocks their heads together gently and stands to get them another drink.

“I'll get it,” Stiles says when the doorbell rings.

“It's probably more carol singers.”

It's not. It's Derek, with overladen arms of huge flat canvases and a CD player.

Stiles opens his mouth to say something, but Derek shushes him with a finger raised to his own lips.

“Who is it?” Scott calls.

TELL HIM IT'S CAROL SINGERS, the top canvas reads, in large, bold letters.

“It's carol singers,” Stiles shouts into the house.

“Told ya. Give them a dollar and make them go away.” Stiles hears the volume of the TV being raised again.

Derek reaches sets the CD player down on the ground, and presses play. Silent Night drifts out from it, soft and tuneful. He then stands and lifts the first canvas away. The one underneath says,

WITH ANY LUCK BY NEXT YEAR

He flips again.

YOU'LL HAVE FORGIVEN ME FOR BEING SUCH AN ASSHOLE

Stiles reads it and looks up at Derek and his tiny, rueful smile.

BUT FOR NOW, LET ME SAY

Stiles has to open his mouth to breathe, because he's going to

WITHOUT HOPE OR AGENDA,

Die. He's totally going to die. Right in

JUST BECAUSE IT'S CHRISTMAS

middle of his

(AND AT CHRISTMAS YOU TELL THE TRUTH)

moment.

TO ME, YOU ARE PERFECT.

Dead.

Derek's hasn't looked away from him this whole time, his face earnest and easier than Stiles has ever seen it in his company. Stiles is not so sure his own expression is quite so serene. His heart's thumping in his ears, his stomach is dancing, and could be that his legs might be a bit wobbly.

Derek leaves that canvas up longer than he's done any of the others, long enough for Stiles to read it over and over again. Until he believes it, maybe.

AND MY WASTED HEART WILL LOVE YOU

Stiles ducks his head to smile sheepishly.

UNTIL YOU LOOK LIKE THIS

This being a picture of a corpse that's mostly bones and dry dust.

Stiles laughs, quiet and disbelieving, and Derek smiles back at him, like Stiles always wished he would.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

It's the last card, and Stiles isn't ready for this to be over.

“Merry Christmas,” he mouths, and bites his lip to stop himself from beaming.

Derek gives him a double thumbs up and bends to retrieve the CD player, and it looks like he's leaving.

And, fuck, no.

Stiles is on him so fast that the CD player crashes to the ground and Derek flails a little.

“Word of advice here, dude,” Stiles says into his ear. “Don't fucking hesitate.”

Derek's arms go around his back then, holding Stiles so close that he can't fucking breathe. And well, isn't that the theme of the evening.

"I didn't know," Derek mutters into Stiles' hair. "I swear, Stiles, I didn't know, and I'm glad I didn't. It would have killed me, fucking killed me, to know that you felt the same way, and we couldn't...fuck, from the first time I saw you, I just couldn't...you were just - "

"You really are an idiot," Stiles says, head propped on Derek's shoulder, and smiling into the darkness in front of him. Derek should always put his feelings on canvas - he's much more eloquent that way. "And, in the name of humanity, I'm officially calling an end to all angsting. We're giving it up for the new year."

Derek tightens his hold and Stiles doesn't know how long he holds back, just knows that he's not ready to let go when Derek starts pulling away, but it's okay because Derek just moves enough so that he can kiss Stiles. More than okay, pretty fucking awesome, perfect actually.

“You two are disgusting,” Scott says from behind them, and although Derek releases Stiles' mouth, he doesn't budge on the hold. If anything he tugs Stiles closer, as if Scott's somebody might not be Allison after all. “I'm going to Allison's. Don't forget our parents will be here early. As will me and my girlfriend. Please be dressed.”

“Cool,” Stiles says. “We're going inside now anyway. Derek got me a present for Christmas. Want to guess what it is? I'll give you a clue. It's wrapped in cloth and it's hard - ”

“Stiles, you're terrorising the neighbours again,” Scott calls over his shoulder as he makes his way down the street.

Stiles looks back at Derek, heart stuttering when he takes in Derek's dopey, vacant expression. “You're not allowed make any more creepy videos of me.”

“Fuck you,” Derek says. “I'll do what I want.”

Stiles' answering laugh gets muffled against Derek's neck. “Also,” Derek adds. “I have a few very important things to say and you need to listen carefully. Can you do that?”

Stiles stops laughing and puts on his Serious Business face.

“Good,” Derek says, just as seriously. “The name of the Matisse painting those philistines hung upside down for forty-six days is La Bateau. Richard Nixon handed his resignation to Henry Kissinger. Carbon Dioxide is the gas in fizzy drinks. And, the number forty-nine in Roman Numerals is XLIX.”

The grin is back all over Stiles again. “So what you're telling me here, Derek, is that you're smart.”

Derek leans down to press their foreheads together. “What I'm telling you here, Stiles, is that you should be ready to have your ass handed to you next time we play Trivial Pursuit. Also, we should go inside. Your present is getting impatient.”

Stiles snorts and presses himself against Derek, and wow, Derek wasn't kidding. “Oh, you're right. I can feel my present's presence.”

“Jesus,” Derek groans, and kisses Stiles again. This time with more vigour, more tongue, more intent.

“Oh, Heathcliff,” Stiles pants against Derek's lips when they stop. “Take me inside, clasp me to your manly breast and ravage me until my cries are lost in the hills.”

“Whatever you say, Cathy,” Derek says, throwing Stiles over his shoulder and across the threshold.

~~~~~

“What happened to your tree?” the sheriff asks the next day.

Stiles just shrugs and picks another pine needle out of his hair. "You've left your gun at home, right? Because I have someone here that I'd like you to meet."

~~~~~

Fin.