In between the lines / is the only place you'll find / what you're missing / that you didn't know was there. –Next Year, Two Door Cinema Club
If someone asked Derek why he had moved to New York, he would say he had wanted a change of scenery, and the city, being the direct opposite of a ranch in Northern California, seemed like the perfect place for that. In reality, though? He moved because his grandmother died.
As much as Derek loved his parents, Grandma Hale – called Mimi by all of her friends and family – was everything to Derek. Growing up on a huge ranch with his much of his seemingly endless extended family, Derek found it easy to get lost amid the chaos of so many people, but for some reason, Derek became Mimi’s favorite. Mimi would tell him bedtime stories, she would save him extra cookies, and she always hugged him the longest before sending him off to his first day of school each year. Mimi was, essentially, Derek’s best friend, so her death, though a peaceful one while she was sleeping, took a heavy toll on Derek.
And though Derek loved his family, he could not bear to be at the Hale house without knowing Mimi was just around the corner in the kitchen, or out on the porch watching her grandchildren tussle and play after dinner; her ghost permeated the whole ranch, constantly reminding Derek of his loss. Thus Derek came to his somewhat rash decision to move all the way across the country.
But now, seven years later, Derek cannot regret his decision. New York has grown on him; the city cacophony, which used to drive him insane, is now as comforting as the buzz of insects in late summer nights of rural California. He loves being able to walk everywhere. Though he is more of an introvert, he enjoys the feeling of being constantly surrounded by other people, and while Derek will swear by his aunt’s home-cooked meals until the day he dies, Aunt Emilia’s coffee is never as decadent as the blend from the family-operated cafe just around the corner from Derek’s apartment. Derek can go back to the Hale ranch – Mimi’s presence is nostalgic now, rather than haunting – but the city has taken residence in Derek’s heart, and he cannot leave it behind just yet.
He is on the phone with Laura, at the moment, as he walks back to his apartment from the bookstore where he works. It is early November, and the wind is biting enough for Derek to drag out his heavier coats. He has yet to bring out his scarves, though, so he turns up the collar of his leather jacket as he listens to Laura ramble into his ear.
“– and Aunt Emilia is going to be baking her thirty different pies again, and this time Des swears she won’t put chili powder in the pecan pie –”
Derek snorts. “Des swearing not to do something means she’s definitely going to do it.”
Derek can practically hear Laura roll her eyes. “Yeah, I know, Der. I watched her grow up too. But Uncle Peter threatened to hide her Shakespeare collection again, so she might actually keep her promise this time.”
Laura sighs, and her tone takes on an unusual sincerity. “We just want to see you, Derek,” she says. “It’s been over a year since your last visit. Liam misses you; he wants someone to show off his daughter to.”
“He’s your brother too,” Derek argues weakly. He turns a corner and the wind suddenly dies, blocked by the buildings rising on either side of the road.
“She’s your niece, too,” Laura retorts, the bite back in her tone.
Derek sighs. “Look, Laura, I’ll visit sometime. Okay? Just … not now. I have things going on.”
Laura makes an irritated sound, but Derek is suddenly distracted. Across the street, an old woman is shuffling along with several large grocery bags. A ball of yarn has fallen out of her purse and is unravelling behind her on the sidewalk. She has not noticed it yet, and Derek’s heart clenches a little as he recalls the way Mimi, in her later years, would spend a whole day without realizing her blouse was on inside out. Before he fully realizes what he is doing, Derek is crossing the street to the old woman’s side.
“Hey, Laura, I have to go,” he says.
“I’ll call later. I promise I’ll visit soon.”
Derek hangs up, knowing he will hear an earful from his sister later. For now, though, he crouches down and retrieves the red yarn that has tumbled out of the old woman’s bag.
“Excuse me?” he calls after the woman.
She does not hear him, or simply does not respond, so Derek trails after her. “Excuse me? Ma’am?” he asks.
The old woman turns, and Derek is faced with two bright blue eyes twinkling from a tanned and wrinkled face. “Hello, dear,” she says sweetly.
Derek holds out the dropped yarn, careful to leave both of his hands visible and away from his pockets. “Your yarn fell out of your purse,” he says.
“Oh! Thank you,” she says. She takes the yarn and squints up at him appraisingly. “You’re a fine young gentleman, aren’t you?” she asks.
Derek flushes. “Ah, yes, ma’am,” he says, unsure exactly how to respond.
She laughs delightedly and then pokes his arm with a bony finger. “Are you strong? You look strong.”
Derek was not quite sure what to expect from this woman, but he certainly did not think she would be this outspoken. Most elderly women in the city tend to avoid him, especially on days like this, when he wears his leather jacket and his beard is three days old.
“I guess?” he offers as a response.
“Good. You can help me carry these.”
She holds out her grocery bags, and next thing he knows, Derek is following the old woman home.
Her name is Mabel Stilinski, she says, and she just really loves the fall, you know? The air is fresh, the best pastry and pie competitions are starting up, and it is finally cold enough to wear sweaters, and that means she can begin knitting the holiday sweaters she makes every year for her son and his son. They are both only children, and how funny is that? She was not an only child, she grew up as one of seven, and she never knew what a quiet household was until she met her best friend Adelaide in kindergarten, and Adelaide, bless her soul, she was also an only child …
And on and on until Derek realizes he is standing in a house not too far from his apartment, helping Mabel put away her groceries into various cupboards and the fridge.
“ – so that’s why I never have orange juice after eleven in the morning anymore,” Mabel says, head buried in a cupboard. She wiggles her fingers, seemingly searching for something, then says, “Aha!” and reemerges with a tin in her hands. She opens it and offers it to Derek. “Would you like a cookie, dear?”
Derek does a double take. “Oh, no thanks –”
“Are you sure? I made these from scratch, peanut butter chocolate chip. They’re my grandson’s favorite, you know. He always tries to eat the batter when I’m making them.”
Homemade cookies are Derek’s weakness. He remembers afternoons spent in the kitchen with Mimi, helping her roll out dough or crack eggs, or simply watching the cookies rise in the oven while Mimi scratched her fingers through his hair, humming off-tune to some Chopin nocturne she had heard earlier.
Derek takes a cookie.
Mabel beams at him and places the tin on the counter. “Would you like any tea? Perhaps some warm milk?”
Derek shakes his head. “No, thank you, ma’am,” he says, but his words are muffled by the cookie in his mouth. A cookie which, by the way, is damn delicious. Nearly as good as the masterpieces he and Mimi would make.
“Please, call me Mabel,” she says, “though, really, you’re such a gentleman. Lord knows I tried to put some manners in my boy, but he never really got it until he met Claudia. Lovely woman, she really brought out the best in my son.” Mabel shakes her head. “Now. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Derek,” he says, surprised. He forgot to introduce himself. Idiot, he thinks.
“Thank you so much for your help, Derek,” Mabel says. “I forget I’m not as strong as I used to be, back in the day. My husband and I, we used to be able to go at it all night long – “ Derek’s face reddens, and she laughs, sudden and loud. “Oh, but you don’t need to hear about that!” she cries.
Mabel cuts him off with another laugh. She bustles around again, opening drawers and shutting them. In a minute,she has completed her task, and she thrusts a plastic bag into Derek’s hands. It is full of cookies – the peanut butter and chocolate chip, but a few other kinds, too.
Derek blushes again, but for a different reason this time. “Please, this is –”
“Nope, nope, nope, I’m not hearing any excuses from you, mister,” Mabel says. “You helped a little old lady without any prompting and that deserves cookies.” She begins to herd him towards the front door, hands insistently pushing at his elbow. “Now, I hope I didn’t make you late for anything, Derek,” she says, “But I am very grateful to have had your help.”
Derek stops just over the threshold of the front door. “Thank you,” he tells her, overwhelmed by a sudden rush of affection for this woman who is not Mimi but is, in so many ways, just like her.
Mabel smiles softly, eyes twinkling kindly. “You’re welcome, my dear. Have an excellent day.” She kisses his forehead and pats his cheek with a warm, wrinkled hand before shutting the door on him.
Derek cannot help smiling all the way back to his apartment.
Only a week has passed when Derek sees Mabel again. He is on a run in Central Park, relishing in the pull of his calves and the sharp November air pushing in and out of his lungs, when he recognizes the old woman sitting down by the pond.
Derek’s legs make the decision for him, and he finds himself slowing to a halt beside Mabel’s bench. “Hello, Mrs. Stilinski,” he says, panting a bit.
She turns to him, and that ridiculously wide smile splits across her face. “Derek! Didn’t I tell you to call me Mabel, dear?”
Derek smiles and sits down when Mabel pats the bench next to her. He reaches down and begins to work out a knot in his right calf. He has been neglecting his running.
“Isn’t it chilly to be out without a scarf?” Mabel asks him.
Derek shrugs. “I was running. And anyway, I can’t find my scarf. It seems to have disappeared since last winter.”
“Well, that won’t do.”
“I’ll find one before the snow comes.”
Mabel nods curtly and then plunges a hand into her purse. From it she produces half a loaf of bread, and she begins to tear off bits and toss them into the water. The few ducks nearby all flock towards the bread crumbs.
“Isn’t it bad to feed the ducks?” Derek asks.
Mabel shrugs. “They’re idiot ducks.”
Derek double takes. “What?”
“They’re idiot ducks,” Mabel repeats. “It’s mid-November and they’re still in New York. Why haven’t they flown south? Because they’re idiot ducks.”
Derek cannot help laughing at her strange logic.
They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes. Mabel continues to feed the ducks, and when she offers a slice of bread to Derek, he joins in. The ducks squabble over the bread, and Derek snorts. Idiot ducks, he thinks.
“Stiles and I used to feed the ducks all the time,” Mabel says.
“Stiles?” Derek asks. He has never heard that term before.
“Yes, Stiles. My grandson.” At Derek’s confused look, Mabel tsks and throws some more bread. “Claudia wanted her grandson to have a Polish name – she’s Polish, you know, her parents were first generation immigrants to America. Anyway, she gave my grandson her father’s name – even I can barely pronounce it on a good day – and when Stiles was old enough to realize his peers were never going to get it right, he just started calling himself Stiles. Funny, the names children come up with, aren’t they?”
“He named himself,” Derek says. “Yes,” Mabel says, and her voice is a mix of pride and don’t-you-dare-critique-my-grandson.
“Does he like animals?” Derek asks.
“Not as much as he used to,” Mabel says. “He outgrew his veterinarian phase quickly. He doesn’t like needles or blood.” Suddenly she grins mischievously. “Have I told you about the time he was attacked by a family of ducks?”
Derek decides not to point out this is only the second time he has had a conversation with her. “No, you haven’t.”
“Well! It happened when I visited my son’s family in California. John and Claudia were out for the day, so I took Stiles to the park that was just down the street. Stiles was so excited to see the ducks! He hadn’t been to the park in a while – it was hard, you know, for him to get out often. His father was a deputy, and mother was working two jobs – this was before she got sick – so Stiles spent most of his time with his friends. And you know how difficult it is to manage so many young children at a place like the park! I’m not sure how my parents managed me and my siblings. Perhaps that’s why we always visited my grandparents’ house; they lived in countryside.
“Where was I? Ah, yes. I took Stiles to the park. And those ducks – you should never underestimate a duck. I told Stiles to be careful, since these weren’t pet ducks, but I wasn’t too worried. They were ducks, they weren’t supposed to be harmful, but I suppose I underestimated by grandson’s ability to get into trouble.
“I had brought along some bread and given it to Stiles, and it started out all right. Stiles tossed the bread to the ducks, the ducks ate it, and I just watched him while I knitted the scarf I was making for Claudia. And then, next thing I know, Stiles is screaming and flapping his arms as he runs away from a bunch of ducks!
“I’m not sure what happened – knowing Stiles, he probably startled a mother duck – he has ADD, he was a very hyperactive child – but I certainly knew I had to defend my grandson. I got my umbrella out of my bag and started chasing the ducks, trying to scare them away from Stiles.”
Mabel laughs, shaking her head. “What a sight we must have been! A little gangly boy with a bag of bread chased by a hoard of ducks and an old woman with an umbrella in the middle of the summer.”
“That’s quite something,” Derek says, smiling unconsciously.
“We made it out all right,” Mabel says, a mischievous sparkle in her eye. “There were a few bruises – ducks bites are not something to trifle with – and I broke my umbrella when I unintentionally walloped it into a tree, but we defeated those ducks, Stiles and I. Stiles drew a picture about it later that day – his parents were a bit horrified by our misadventures, but by then, they knew Stiles was special. He attracts trouble like no other.”
Derek smirks softly. He remembers, growing up on the Hale ranch, all the escapades he, his siblings, and his cousins would get into, and he can particularly recall the scrapes his younger relatives would involve themselves in. Once his youngest sister and his cousin made a bet about who could climb higher on the ancient oak tree in their backyard. Caitlin ended up breaking her arm, but she still won, so she gloated over William for days, until William tried again and beat her – only to fall from the exact spot Caitlin did and twist his ankle. From then on, the oak tree was off-limits; but in a few years, the adults had forgotten their order, and the tree again became a popular hangout for the Hale children.
“I think all the young ones tend to get in trouble easily,” Derek says.
“Oh, you haven’t met my Stiles,” Mabel says and winks. For a second, Derek thinks there’s something suggestive in her tone – but how could that be? For one, she’s a little old grandmother, and additionally, Stiles has got to be – what, six or seven? No older than middle school age. Mabel suggesting something with Stiles and Derek –
No, Derek is not even going to think about going there.
“I’m sure he’s a great boy,” Derek finds himself saying.
Mabel’s eyes glitter again. “I always say, Stiles is going to be a fine young man.” Derek laughs, and Mabel smiles back at him. Derek could get used to her smiles. Like Mimi’s, Mabel’s smiles are sincere, unguarded, and it has been a while since Derek met anyone so easily amused and open about their happiness. Yeah, Derek loves the city, but the city can sometimes get a bit too cynical for him.
Derek rises. “Unfortunately, I have work in about an hour, so I need to finish my run and head home. It was nice too see you,” he says.
“It was lovely to see you, too, dearie,” Mabel says, and she blows him a kiss right as he takes off, causing him to stumble. He catches himself and continues on, cheeks and ears flushing red, the sound of Mabel’s laughter floating after him on the crisp autumn wind.
Derek is not entirely sure how he has managed to keep his job for the last three years. Working at the bookstore had not even been Derek’s idea; it was Laura’s, and Derek still questions why he ever follows Laura’s suggestions. Liam, even Cora could give better advice than her.
Regardless, Derek works for a bookstore – Brownstone New and Used Books – even though he usually dislikes it. He has to deal with, on a daily basis, people who ask him to locate books (because for some reason, they cannot read section labels nor locate an author in an alphabetized arrangement), repeated requests for the latest vampire or dystopian novel, and – most aggravatingly – overhearing people pass up purchasing a book because they did not like the movie version. The movie version.
It is on a Thursday afternoon when Derek, reading Fight Club (for like the hundredth time) behind the counter, is distracted from his novel by the sound of high-heels clicking on the worn bookshop floor. His first glance up is only enough to register a screaming amount of cleavage, and his head quickly snaps back up – up to the woman’s face this time.
Upon recognition, Derek raises an eyebrow. “This is a bit … much for a bookstore,” he says, gesturing at the woman before him.
Erica Reyes rolls her heavily outlined brown eyes. “It’s my body, I can dress it how I want, and you have no right to shame me for feeling good in the clothing I chose to wear.” She snorts. “Besides, I’m not dressed like this to visit you. Boyd and I are headed out after his shift ends.”
Derek nods, recalling the huge black man Erica referred to. Derek has met Boyd only a few times, each time at Boyd’s workplace, an upscale bar a few blocks away from the bookshop.
“So what brings you here?” Derek asks Erica.
“Can’t I just visit a friend?” Erica asks, putting on her best doe eyes, but her hardly contained smirk gives her away.
Derek sighs. “Who was it this time? Cora or Laura?”
Derek opens his mouth to protest, but Erica holds up a hand. “I know, I know, you can’t go this year,” Erica says, “And I told your sisters that I can’t change your mind for you. Hales are so damn stubborn.”
“You should see the debates about which movie we should watch on Christmas Eve,” Derek grumbles. He always suggests Dead Poet’s Society or Lord of the Rings, but no one else ever agrees with him.
“Yeah, Cora’s told me,” Erica says with a grin. She shifts her weight and asks, “So, why can’t you go home for the holidays?” Derek scowls, and Erica smacks his forearm. “Growling isn’t going to deter me, Derek.”
“I have that huge commission from the Waltman family,” Derek says. His answer is only half a lie, but Erica is perceptive. She narrows her eyes dangerously.
“You’re on track to finish that in a week. Really, Derek, what’s going on?”
And how does he explain it, really? Derek does not know. He cannot explain something he cannot even explicitly articulate in his own head; he only knows vague misgivings. He is growing restless; he feels purposeless, but he does not know how to fix it. Yes, Derek loves his family, but every time he returns to the Hale ranch, something feels a little more … off. He cannot look his parents in the eye when he tells them he is fine; he cannot laugh as fully as he used to; when he sees his siblings and cousins moving on, falling and love and creating their own families, he feels this clench around his heart that he does not know how to alleviate. Derek feels like he is missing something, but he does not know what he is missing, and it is eating him alive.
“I can’t put up a façade,” he eventually says.
Erica’s expression turns concerned, but Derek keeps his eyes cast down to the counter. Though he considers Erica a friend, Derek still cannot bring himself to open up completely.
“Just … remember, they miss you,” Erica says. “They worry about you.”
“Thanks,” Derek grumbles.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to a club with my boyfriend, after which we will have fabulous sex that I will describe to you in detail on a later date.” She winks at him and turns on her heel.
“I will forever rue the day Cora brought you home from college!” Derek calls after her.
“You know you love me!” she shouts back, pushing the door open.
Derek turns back to his book and smiles. He does, and she knows it.
A couple hours later Derek is done with his shift, and he packs up his books – Fight Club and Anna Karenina and a recently published Shakespeare satire he knows Des will love – before heading home. Clouds cover the city sky, but they are an innocent shade of white; they do not foretell heavy rain or snow. Derek stuffs his hands in his pockets, contemplating how long it will be before he has to break out his snow boots. He passes Mabel Stilinski’s house and vaguely wonders if she has anyone to help prepare her house for winter. The woman may be constantly baking and knitting up a storm, but there are still other things that need to be done, window screens that must be dealt with and walkways that need shoveling.
Derek turns to see Mabel leaning out of her doorway. “Hello!” he calls.
“Come in here, boy,” she says.
Well, it is not like Derek has anything better to do tonight. Which, now that he thinks about it, is a little pathetic.
Mabel has decorated her house for Thanksgiving. Fake, colored leaves, pumpkins, and an alarming number of turkeys clutter the entryway and kitchen. Derek sets his bag down by the kitchen table and straightens a construction paper turkey.
“Stiles made that one for me,” Mabel says, noticing what caught Derek’s attention.
Derek smiles and brushes his fingers over a cotton ball that serves as a button on the turkey’s waistcoat. “I can see that,” he says. It is clearly the work of a young child; the turkey is misshapen, with uneven edges and sloppily drawn facial features. Across the turkey’s breast is a shakily written Happee Thanksgivng!
Mabel sets a plate of cookies in front of Derek, and with one glance at her expectant face, he takes one. Gingersnaps. His Aunt Patricia’s favorite.
“How are you doing?” Derek asks her. “Oh, fine, just fine. I’m behind on my knitting though; I’ve been distracted by this new cookbook my friend gave to me. Jill – have I told you about her?”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Well, I met Jill in college when we got into the same sorority, and weren’t those some party years.” Mabel raises her eyebrows at Derek, and when his cheeks flush, she cackles to herself. “Anyway, Jill gave me a new cookbook, and I’ve been experimenting with its recipes. The lasagna was all right – I still prefer my mother’s old recipe – but the cream of mushroom soup? Oh, that was a disaster. What do you think of the gingersnaps, dear?”
Derek nearly chokes on his cookie in his rush to swallow and answer. “Really good,” he says, red in the face and coughing, and Mabel laughs as she gets him a drink of water.
A large cardboard box in the corner of the room catches Derek’s eye. He takes the water Mabel offers him and tilts his head at the box. “What’s that?” he asks.
“Oh,” says Mabel, “that’s a new shelf for my cookbooks. My son got tired of hearing me complain about storing my books in the cabinets, and Stiles had the smart idea of getting a shelf. So they sent it to me, but I’m afraid it requires assembly. I’ve been meaning to call Linden – I also met Linden in college, and boy was he a might fine kisser – but he’s away visiting his daughter and her fiancé in Alabama.”
“I could do it for you,” Derek offers.
Her face lights right up. “Oh, you’re such a darling,” she says. “Is there some time that’s best for you this week? I know, young man like yourself, you must be very busy –”
“Right now is fine, actually.”
Derek gets an extra hard cheek pinch, so he figures Mabel is okay with that.
The shelf is not too hard to put together. It is made of a sturdy wood stained dark brown, and only requires a few metal supports to be screwed in. The entire time, Derek listens to stories from Mabel, and it is not so much several stories as it is one long, continuous narrative with connected anecdotes. The main subjects of her narrative are her son, her late husband, Stiles, baking, and sex.
The last one comes as a surprise, but for some reason, the sly innuendoes and lecherous jokes just fit Mabel. The first few risqué comments make Derek flush and drop his screwdriver, but by the time he has finished the shelf, he is laughing along with Mabel.
“Thank you so much, Derek,” Mabel says. She opens a cupboard and – okay, wow, that is a lot of cookbooks. Derek takes the binders and books as Mabel hands them to him.
“Would you like these in a certain order?” he asks Mabel.
She snorts and waves a hand. “Not now. I haven’t figured out how I want to arrange them yet.”
Derek nods and simply puts them in the new shelf as they come, though his fingers itch to at least alphabetize them.
When all the cookbooks have been transferred, all but one of the four rows has been filled in the new shelving unit. Mabel produces yet another tray of cookies and pushes a mug towards Derek. “Chai tea with milk and cinnamon,” she says at his questioning look.
“Thank you,” he says.
Mabel pointedly nudges the cookies at him, and Derek picks one that he recognizes as peanut butter and chocolate chip.
“So,” Mabel says, and Derek immediately senses an interrogation coming on. “I don’t know much about you, Derek. Tell me, what’s your life story?”
Derek would be more alarmed if he did not recognize the kind, teasing glint in her eyes. “Uh,” he says, “I’ve lived in the city for seven years.”
“And where were you before that?”
“Central California,” he says. “My parents own a ranch. Most of my family live and work there.”
“Do you have a large family?” Mabel asks.
And Derek finds himself telling Mabel all about growing up on the ranch.
The ranch belonged to the Hales for many generations, as far back as the great-grandfather of Derek’s grandfather, Leone. Leone and Mimi had three children – Talia, Peter, and Patricia – and as their children got married, more and more people moved into the Hale ranch. Eventually Daniel, Talia’s husband, expanded the Hale house to accommodate the ever-growing number of ranch inhabitants.
Before New York, Derek never knew what it was like to not be surrounded by family. Even when he went to college, Laura and Des both attended universities near his, and once they graduated, Derek had relatives from his father’s side within driving distance. Derek tells Mabel stories of starting prank wars against Laura, learning basketball from Uncle Peter, playing poker and cards with Puck, and teaching little William how to tie his shoelaces; Derek recalls launching fireworks on the fourth of July, the huge barbecue every Labor Day to which nearly half the town was invited, and running around naked in thunderstorms with his cousins. For all the talking Mabel does, she is an attentive audience, nodding and gasping and laughing at the right places.
“What made you move to New York, if you loved California so much?” Mabel asks.
Derek falters. “I – I wanted a change of scenery.”
But that explanation seems too empty, after all that he has told Mabel. He trusts Mabel. The truth will not hurt.
“Seven years ago –” Derek takes a breath. He will not cry here. He is a grown-ass man. He will not. “My grandmother died.”
And suddenly he can breath, he can talk, and God, it feels like some kind of burden has been lifted from his shoulders. “I was really close to Mimi, and it felt wrong without her around the ranch. So I left …”
Unrestrained concern and sympathy leaks from Mabel’s eyes. “Oh, honey,” she says, “you can’t let a few old ghosts keep you from your family.”
Derek swallows. “She doesn’t – I mean, I can go back there. I have visited in the last few years.”
“But you’re not going this holiday.”
Derek does not ask how Mabel knows this. Mimi always seemed a bit psychic, nearly omniscient, and Derek would not be surprised if all grandmothers were like that. “No, I’m not,” he confirms. “It doesn’t … I can’t deal with them. I love them, but they expect things I don’t know how to give.”
Mabel nods sadly and pats his hand. “Well. Don’t spend Thanksgiving alone.” Her tone turns harder, but it is still teasing. “I mean it, young man! If I was going to be around, I would invite you to come over, but I’m going to my cousin’s place in Boston.” She pats his hand again and gets up, hurrying over to the kitchen.
Derek follows her, and the next thing he knows, he is standing at the door with his bag, his coat, and another container of cookies in his hand. He hesitates at the door, though, glancing at the newly constructed shelf in the back of Mabel’s kitchen.
“Do you have paper and something I can write with?” he asks.
“Yes, yes, just let me find –”
Derek takes the pen and jots down his cell phone number. He gives the notepad back to Mabel. “If you ever need anything, and your friend isn’t around to help, you can call me,” he explains.
Mabel smiles. “You, Derek, are a very fine young gentleman.” She opens the door, kisses his cheeks, and sends him out the door.
Outside, the wind nips at Derek’s nose, but he smiles all the way home.
Two weeks later, it is one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon when Derek gets the call. He woke up only an hour ago – due to some very poor judgement, he stayed up until two in the morning working on the Waltman commission – and he frowns when he does not recognize the number on his screen. “Hello?” he asks, voice still scratchy from sleep.
“Now that is one hell of a morning voice,” the caller says.
Derek double takes. “Cora?” he asks, because really, his sister is not above making a comment like that, but his brain catches up and he realizes Cora does not sound like an old woman. Plus, he has her number in his phone (saved as ‘Sister #2’).
“Mabel. Hi,” Derek says, scrubbing some of the sleep out of his eye.
Mabel laughs. “Did I wake you?” “No, no, I was awake. Is everything all right?” He opens the fridge and rifles around for something to eat. He really needs to go grocery shopping soon.
“Yes, everything is fine. Well. Not really. I need your help.”
“Do you want me to come over?”
Silence. Then: “Now?”
Twenty minutes later Derek walks up Mabel’s stairs. He is about to knock when the door flies open and he is yanked inside and towed to the kitchen.
“Is there a fire?” Derek asks Mabel, only half joking. Fire was always a major concern during dry spells at the Hale ranch.
“No, and thank goodness there isn’t, because if something caught on fire, I swear on my mother’s soul –”
They make it to the kitchen and Derek is slammed with a wall of aromas. It is absolutely heavenly, and when Mabel manhandles him onto a chair, he is seated before an extremely scrumptious looking pie.
“What’s this for?” Derek asks, taking in all the baked goods. They cover every semi-flat, open space there is in the kitchen.
“The annual pastry and baked goods contest, of course,” Mabel says. She opens a cupboard and takes out two plates, then goes through another drawer and grabs half a dozen forks.
“What do you need help with?” Derek asks, slightly apprehensive. “Because I can’t really bake … at all.”
Mabel laughs. “You’re not baking,” she says. “You’re eating, young man.”
“Doesn’t a baked goods contest require baked goods for the submission?” Derek asks, eyebrow lifted with amusement.
Mabel levels him with a yes, dumbass look. “The contest is in four days. I need you to taste test.”
“I can do that,” Derek says, and Mabel laughs, patting his cheek.
For the next eight hours, Mabel plies Derek with different baked goods and pastries, and Derek tries to keep up with her baking jargon when she asks for his opinion. Her questions range from, “Is this sweet enough?” to “Would these flowers turn out better if I use the sixteenth-inch froster opening or the eighth-inch?” Most of the time, though, they exchange stories.
Derek’s tongue slips when he tries the lemon squares. “Lemon squares were the one thing Mimi could never make to her satisfaction,” he says.
“Your grandmother was a baker?” Mabel asks.
Derek nods. “She baked all the time. I used to help her out, with cookies and cakes, but I was never that good. I’m better at cooking.”
“I’ve been trying to teach Stiles how to bake,” Mabel says. “It’s been quite the adventure so far.”
Derek snorts into his lemon square. He remembers how underfoot Cora, Caitlin, and his cousins used to be when Mimi was trying to cook, especially during the holidays. Mimi, Aunt Emilia, and Derek’s father would be scrambling around the kitchen, making enough food for nearly thirty people, while the younger Hales played tag and made a huge mess trying to decorate Christmas cookies.
“I imagine having a grandkid in the kitchen is a bit chaotic,” Derek says.
“You have no idea,” Mabel says dramatically, and Derek laughs. “I swear, that boy has absolutely no coordination over his limbs! He spills things, he gets it all over his clothes, in his hair. There was this one time, a few years ago, when we were trying to make a birthday cake for his father. We made the cake batter from scratch and got it in the oven all right, but making the frosting …” Mabel cackles. “I left the kitchen for two minutes to use the bathroom. And when I came back, I kid you not, a tornado had gone through the place. There was milk spilled across the counter, raw egg on the walls, and somehow, Stiles managed to cover his whole front with half a bag of confectioner’s sugar!”
Derek laughs, imagining a small brown-haired child with sugar coating his face. Derek has only seen a few picture of Stiles, but they were merely glances. For some reason, Mabel does not seem to have many photos of her beloved grandson, but then again, Derek has only really been in her kitchen and entryway. In his mind’s eye, Stiles looks a bit like William, Derek’s cousin, did when he was five or six.
“The one time Mimi tried to teach Laura how to cook,” Derek says, “Laura broke the blender and three spatulas.”
Mabel nearly spits her tea out, she starts giggling so hard. “The first time I let Stiles use the electric beater, he almost took off two of his fingers.”
“My cousin Des is banned from the kitchen for tampering with pie recipes.”
“My son broke the coffeemaker when he was trying to replace the filter.”
“I once mistook garam masala for cinnamon.”
Mabel laughs, incredulous. “Garam masala?”
“I was six!” Derek says defensively. “I didn’t read the label!”
“When Stiles was five he accidentally drank some bad milk. He vomited for days,” Mabel says, scrunching her nose.
They fall into silence.
Derek finishes his lemon square. “The squares are good,” he says. He is starting to feel full.
Mabel cocks her head. “Lemon squares are a bit ordinary, though, aren’t they?”
Derek shrugs. “I suppose. I’m no dessert expert.”
Mabel sighs. “If only I had Stiles with me. He’s very improvisational, you know, just kind of throws things in. He calls it ‘winging it.’ I prefer sticking to a recipe, but Stiles makes it up as he goes along.”
Most children are not good at following instructions, Derek thinks, but he decides not to point this out to Mabel. Sometimes Mabel talks like Stiles is an adult and not a child.
“How many more do I have to taste?” Derek asks.
Mabel pulls out a whole freaking list. “Hm. We just had lemon squares, yes? So … ten more.”
Derek slides down in his chair, groaning, and Mabel whacks his arm with her list.
Seeing Mabel becomes a frequent event. It seems like Derek is at her house every other day. She finds him at Brownstone New and Used Books one day, and the next thing Derek knows, Mabel has made a deal with Mr. Brownstone in which she gets a book for half-price every time she brings in a tray of homemade cookies or sweets. Mabel wins ribbons for her pączki and her lemon squares (“I called Stiles,” Mabel says with a wink, “And he gave me a secret ingredient to make them perfect”) at the annual baking contest, and she brings two whole platters of each to the bookstore to celebrate.
“This isn’t your only job, is it?” Mabel asks Derek as he munches on the pączki.
Derek shakes his head. “I’m also – well, a wood carver,” he says. “I do a couple commissions every month.”
A glint appears in Mabel’s eyes, and Derek knows a salacious comment is coming. “The Stilinskis love a man who is good with his hands,” she says, and Derek goes red in the face, choking on his pączki. She pats his back between his shoulder blades, and he laughs weakly.
“Geez, Mabel,” he says, wheezing slightly.
“Just telling the truth,” she says and winks.
Derek grabs his thermos of lukewarm coffee. “Any book you’re interested in today?” he asks once he has regained use of his vocal cords.
Mabel tilts her head, pursing her lips and thinking. “How about historical fiction?” she asks at length.
“American, European, African –?”
“I’m feeling American.”
Derek snorts at her word choice. “Have you read My Ántonia?”
Mabel follows him as Derek finds the novel and then returns to the register to ring it up for her. He hands her the book in a plastic bag (it snowed a couple days ago, and there is no telling how wet the book could get), and Mabel is about to leave when she reaches into her purse and pulls out a hat that she proceeds to jam over Derek’s head.
“Take care of those ears, young man!” Mabel calls out as she marches out the door.
Derek takes off the hat. It is hand knitted, a dark navy blue with white lining, with earflaps and a string to tie under the chin. Derek recognizes it; Mabel has been working on it for the last week or so. Affection swells in his chest, and Derek pulls it on again. He does not care if it ruins his hair or if he is indoors; Mabel made it for him, and, according to Cora, he is “adorably fuckable” in hats.
The first large snowfall of the year hits on December 15. Derek spends the morning at the bookstore, then returns home to grab a shovel before heading to Mabel’s house. He knocks on the door, but when no one answers, he sets his bag down on the sheltered stoop and starts to clear the steps of snow.
Derek is done with the stairs and starting on the walkway when the door opens. Mabel, bundled in at least three sweaters with her feet in ancient fuzzy slippers, marches out of the door and stalks towards him.
“Hi, Mabel,” Derek says.
She yanks him down by his sleeve and wraps a long scarf around his neck, tucking the ends into the front of his jacket. “You’ll get sick, leaving your skin exposed like that,” she grumbles. She heads back inside, still mumbling, “I swear, you young men these days, Stiles is just like that –”
Derek glances at the scarf. It is in the same colors as his new hat. He smiles, shaking his head, and continues shoveling.
Half an hour later, Derek finishes the walkway. He tries the door, and when it is unlocked, Derek takes off his boots, jacket, hat, and new scarf before wandering towards the kitchen.
Mabel is on the phone while she stirs a pot of soup on the stovetop. There is a steaming cup of hot chocolate and a plate of gingerbread cookies on the counter, and Mabel tilts her head at them. Derek smiles gratefully at her and sits down, wrapping his hands around the hot chocolate mug. The mug is another Stiles creation; it is covered by several white and black colored shapes (which can be loosely described as ovals) attached to orange triangles. Mabel says they are supposed to be dancing penguins. Derek decides it is wrong to judge the artwork of a six-year-old.
“– and it finally snowed, so you and Stiles can see what a real Christmas is like,” Mabel is saying.
So Mabel is talking to her son. He says something, and Mabel snorts. “It’s closer to a real Christmas than California is,” she says, and Derek’s ears perk. He was not aware the other Stilinskis live in California. He vaguely wonders what region they are from when he hears Mabel say his name.
“– Derek came and shoveled the walkway for me. You know that young man I told you about?” Mabel’s son says something that causes Mabel to roll her eyes. “No, it is not extortion. I pay him! In cookies and hot cocoa.”
Derek laughs quietly and dunks a cookie into his drink.
“Yes, well, I have to go. Derek has finished, and I need to see he hasn’t gotten pneumonia or frostbite. He refuses to wear proper gloves or winter wear. Goodbye, dear. See you in a week!”
Mabel hangs up, and Derek shoots her an indignant expression. “I won’t get frostbite!” he says.
“Says the young man who wears gloves without fingers,” Mabel fires back.
“It’s not like this is the Arctic,” Derek mutters, and Mabel lightly smacks the back of his head.
“Thank you for the scarf,” Derek says, grabbing a second cookie. Mabel has fed him so much in the past two months, Derek has been doubling his exercise routine to burn off all the extra calories.
“I wouldn’t want your pretty little neck to get cold,” Mabel says. She narrows her eyes at him. “Did you shave?”
Derek runs a hand over his jaw. His facial hair grows quickly; even though he shaved just a day ago, he already has a respectable amount of stubble. “A day ago,” he tells Mabel.
She hmphs. “It looks sexier when it’s longer.”
Comments like that do not even faze Derek anymore. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he says instead, and Mabel snickers.
“I was just talking to my son,” Mabel says. “He and Stiles are coming over for Christmas. They haven’t been to the city in ages.”
Derek smiles halfheartedly. The approach of holiday season means his family is starting to call him again, and Derek would just leave his phone off all the time if Mabel did not call him from time to time.
“You’re not going to your ranch?” Mabel asks, as if she has read his mind.
Derek shakes his head. “I’m sticking around.” He hesitates, then asks, “Would you like me to take Stiles out for a day?”
Mabel starts. “What?”
Derek shrugs. “I mean, if he hasn’t been to the city in a while – I can take him out for a day if you want some time alone with your son.”
Mabel lights up like Derek just told her she won a lifetime supply of merino wool, or whatever type of yarn it was that she raved about for a solid ten minutes the other day. “That would be wonderful,” Mabel says.
A timer goes off, and Mabel turns off the stove top before ladling her soup into two bowls. She sets one in front of Derek and takes the seat next to him.
“Is there anything in particular that Stiles likes?” Derek asks.
“He’s a very smart boy,” Mabel says, “so he likes museums. He also loves movies, absolutely loves them. He can skate, too, though I have no idea how. He’s dangerous enough on dry land; Lord knows how Claudia had the courage to take her boy out on ice.”
“Sounds good,” Derek says, already wondering where the nearest ice rink or frozen pond is.
Mabel smiles at him. “Thank you so much, Derek,” she says. “Stiles is going to love it.”
Derek ultimately decides to bring Stiles to the movies and the science museum and maybe, if they have time before or after dinner, to an ice rink that Derek discovered only a few blocks from Mabel’s apartment. Derek figures a day full of activities will tire the kid out; Mabel says her grandson is always energetic, but Derek grew up surrounded by his tireless family members. He thinks he can handle one hyperactive kid.
Soon enough, it is December 23. Derek wakes up, gets in a short workout, showers, and reaches Mabel’s house by 9:30. The snow has started to fall again, but it is too light to really add anything to the five or so inches left from the last big downfall. Derek blows air into his cupped hands (okay, maybe Mabel is right; fingerless gloves are not the smartest decision) when Mabel suddenly flings open her door.
“Derek!” she cries, standing on her tiptoes and dropping kisses on Derek’s cheeks. “Come in, come in! My two favorite Stilinskis can’t wait to meet you!”
Derek toes off his boots in the foyer and follows Mabel into the kitchen. He hears a man’s voice talking rapidly about the Mets’ potential for next season when he rounds the corner and freezes.
“This is Derek!” Mabel says smugly, but Derek does not hear her, because holy shit.
Leaning casually against Mabel’s kitchen counter is pale, lanky young man. He is wearing plain gray pants and a simple V-neck sweater, and Derek would probably be more appreciative of the guy’s collarbone and neck if Derek was not so distracted by his face. The guy has a sharp jaw, a slightly upturned nose, a few small moles scattered across his skin, and amber eyes that remind Derek of the decadent whiskeys his grandfather used to drink. But the most ridiculous part of his face is his mouth, left hanging open from when he stopped mid-sentence, outlined by bowed lips.
“Derek, this is my son, John,” Mabel says, “And this is my grandson, Stiles.”
Derek turns to Mabel as the young ma– Stiles makes a strangled sound. Derek has a million and two questions flying through his head, but his brain has temporarily stopped functioning, and all he can do is stare at Mabel and her complacent, absolutely shit-eating grin.
Somewhere in the back of his head, Derek hears Mimi cackle in approval of Mabel.
“Derek?” Stiles finally says, and though the question is directed at Mabel, the sound of Stiles saying Derek’s name does something to Derek’s insides. Something decidedly not bad.
“Yes, this is Derek,” Mabel says, “the young man I’ve been telling you about.”
A chuckle rumbles through the kitchen, and Derek notices for the first a middle-aged man sitting at the kitchen table. “You’ve made him speechless, Mom,” John Stilinski says. “You deserve some sort of award.”
“Oh, come on, Dad,” Stiles says, “I wasn’t expecting him to be so – you know –”
“Devastatingly handsome?” Mabel offers, and Derek flushes bright red as Stiles splutters.
“No! I mean, not that you’re not good-looking,” Stiles tells Derek, “but I thought–” Stiles turns back to Mabel, his tone accusing, “I thought he was, like, ten!”
“What?” Derek says, frowning. “I thought you were ten.”
John is laughing so hard tears are leaking out of his eyes when Stiles finally makes eye contact with Derek. “I’m twenty-two!” Stiles cries, and Derek wants to shoot himself in the face because the first thought he has is legal.
Mabel is so going to pay for this later. Derek has no idea what he is going to do, but there will be revenge.
“Don’t you have brunch?” Mabel asks innocently, and Derek nods, not entirely trusting his voice just yet.
“Oh, my God, get me out of here,” Stiles says, rushing out of the kitchen, “and away from these evil scheming people I am forced to call my family!”
Derek watches Stiles leave, then looks back and Mabel and John. Mabel winks at Derek, and he blushes again. His thoughts are still looped on variations of holy shit and attractive and Mabel and Stiles??? and holy shit.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Stilinski,” he manages, then hurries to get out of the damn building.
The potential awkwardness of the situation does not hit Derek until he is standing outside with Stiles. They are a bit cooped up in the small, sheltered stoop of Mabel’s house, and Derek realizes Stiles is an inch or two taller than him, and his shoulders are much broader up close. Holy shit. Holy shit.
“Breakfast?” Derek eventually asks, because there is no way in hell he is calling it brunch. Brunch implies … oh, Derek does not know. Some sort of intimacy, something romantic. Which Derek totally would not turn down with a man who looks like Stiles, except Derek has spent the last two months imaging this person as a ten-year-old. Derek has a bit of reorienting to do before he thinks … about anything else, really.
Stiles is squinting at Derek’s scarf. “Did Bel make that for you?”
It takes Derek a second to realize Bel stands for Mabel. “Yeah, she did,” Derek says.
Derek can see the gears turning in Stiles’s head, but the younger man merely shrugs. “Okay. Breakfast it is.”
“I should have known something was up,” Stiles says, nearly flinging a piece of pancake off of his fork. Again. “Bel has never before made such a point to talk about a single person in every one of our phone conversations.”
Derek stares at Stiles as he continues to rant. In the last twenty minutes, Derek has been frantically going over every interaction he has had with Mabel, and he realizes he never did ask Stiles’s age. He always assumed Stiles was in elementary or middle school. All the Stiles-made decorations around Mabel’s house were the work of a young child; the photo or two Derek has seen of Stiles were from before his adolescence. Now all the times that Mabel said something that sounded a bit off, things that made it seem like Stiles was older than Derek assumed he was; well, now those times make a lot more sense.
“– cannot believe the amount of audacity there is in that little old woman. She’s, like, five feet tall, how can she possibly be so devious?” Stiles sighs and flops back in his chair. “I have to admit, though,” he finally says, defeated, “that she is kind of genius.”
“Genius?” Derek echoes.
Stiles nods. “The Stilinskis are widely known for two things. No, three. Four. Whatever! Two main things: one, always having a plan. Two, the best long-running jokes and pranks.”
“Prank?” Derek says.“What did you think you were doing today?”
Stiles shrugs, and really, how does he get his whole body involved in such a simple gesture? “I thought I was playing babysitter to a kid while my Dad suffered through shopping with Bel,” Stiles says. “I didn’t expect you to be so –” Stiles waves a hand up and down at Derek, and Derek raises an eyebrow.
“So what?” Derek asks. He has really got to stop parroting the last thing Stiles says.
Stiles’s cheeks tinge pink, and Derek smirks. The blush really works for Stiles. “You know,” Stiles says. “So … old.”
“I mean–!” Stiles groans, head rolling back to the ceiling. Derek cannot help following the line of Stiles’s neck with his eyes. “See, Bel, this is what happens when you put me with an attractive person. My words don’t work anymore. I can’t do English!”
“You think I’m attractive?” Derek prompts.
Stiles lifts his head again and levels him with a flat look. “Have you looked in a mirror recently?” he asks sarcastically.
God, sarcasm. It is one of the Hale family weaknesses: sarcasm, intelligence, and dry wit. “Your grandmother thinks I look sexy when I don’t shave,” Derek muses, curious to see the reaction it draws from Stiles.
“Oh, my God, Grandma,” Stiles gripes, and Derek laughs. The corner of Stiles’s lips twitches in response, and Derek digs back into his eggs, inexplicably happy.
“So,” Stiles says, once he is sitting upright again and attacking his breakfast with a new relish, “since we’re spending the day together and we have both made very obviously inaccurate assumptions about each other due to a certain old woman’s neglect of detail, why don’t we trade some mundane questions or something?”
“Sure,” Derek says.
“Okay. Um.” Stiles sucks on the tongs of his fork, and the way his cheeks hollow is extremely distracting. Even worse, Stiles does not even seem to be aware of what he is doing. “How many siblings do you have?”
“Oh. Wow. I’m an only child.”
Derek nods, deciding not to mention that is one of the first things Mabel told him about Stiles.
“What’s your favorite book?” Derek asks.
“Do comic books count?”
Derek raises an eyebrow, and Stiles laughs. “Okay, fine. Uh, Heart of Darkness or Fight Club, probably.”
Derek grins. “You have good taste.”
“I’ll take it those are your favorites?”
“How about favorite movies?” Stiles asks. There is a certain challenge to his smirk, and Derek thinks, It is on.
“Lord of the Rings and Dead Poet’s Society.”
Stiles nods approvingly, then turns serious. “This is a really important question, okay?” Derek lifts his eyebrows, and Stiles leans towards him from across the booth. Derek finds himself swimming in those whiskey eyes, so bright and shining and alive.
“Have you seen Star Wars?”
Derek snorts and rolls his eyes. “Of course.”
“Good,” Stiles says, leaning back, “because if you hadn’t, I would have been forced to abandon our day out together.”
“Would it be that much of a loss?” Derek dares to ask.
Stiles blatantly looks Derek up and down, then meets Derek’s eyes and smirks. “I think it would be a shame.”
Derek feels his cheeks and, ah, other regions heat up under Stiles’s attentive gaze. He fumbles for his coffee and nearly spills it all over himself.
“So whatcha got planned for us today, big guy?” Stiles asks.
Derek shrugs. “My initial plans were made around the presumption that you were ten.”
Stiles laughs. “Understandable due to misunderstandings.”
“We could still go to a movie, though, if you’d like.”
Stiles’s eyes light up. “Uh, yes. I’ve been dying to see that new Chris Nolan film.”
“Who’s Chris Nolan?”
Stiles’s jaw drops. “You’ve never seen Batman?”
“Of course I’ve seen Batman,” Derek scowls.
“Chris Nolan was the – you know what, no. No. I will not rest with this bullshit. Hey, waiter!” Stiles calls, flinging a lanky arm into the air. “Can we get the bill?”
The waiter, who looks a bit disgruntled at being called for from across the diner, nods begrudgingly, and Stiles turns back to Derek. “I am going to educate you on the wonders of Christopher Nolan, okay?” he says. Derek opens his mouth to respond, his lips curling in amusement, but Stiles holds up a hand. “No, don’t answer that,” Stiles says with mock disgust. “You don’t have a choice. It is my mission, and I will not stop until I succeed.”
Derek laughs (and somewhere, in the back of his mind, he wonders what it is about this Stilinski that can make him laugh more than he has in what seems like years). “I’ll hold you to that.”
“Prepare yourself,” Stiles warns, “‘Cause when a Stilinski sets their mind to something, they never fail.”
Two minutes later, they are back out in the snowy city streets, and Derek revels in every time his shoulder or arm brushes against Stiles.
“Wow. That was even better than I expected,” Stiles says as they exit the theater.
Derek pulls his scarf up to cover his ears. “I don’t know,” he says. “The ending was a bit of a deus ex machina.”
Stiles makes an indignant noise. “Dude, are you –” Stiles catches Derek’s expression and stops. “Oh, my God, you are totally just screwing with me –”
Derek laughs and staggers away when Stiles punches his shoulder, but Stiles reaches out at the last moment and snags Derek’s forearm. He draws Derek right back to his side, his touch lingering longer than necessary, but Derek does not mind in the slightest.
“It was good,” Derek admits. “Nolan knows what he’s doing.”
“Told you,” Stiles says smugly. Then he drops his taunting smile and continues, “Seriously, though, Nolan is a god. Remember that one scene in The Dark Knight? With the two boats? Gives me fucking chills every time I think about it.”
Derek murmurs in agreement.
“So where now?” Stiles asks. “What part of this beautiful, enchanting city will you share with me next?”
Derek snorts. It is just past two in the afternoon, and Derek is fairly sure Stiles does not want to go to the kid’s science museum. “Ah … we could grab something to eat or drink and then – well, I know of an ice skating rink nearby?”
“Sounds good to me,” Stiles says.
They drop into a coffee shop, and the warmth is welcome after the biting cold outdoors. Derek automatically opens the door for Stiles and leads the young man into the shop with a hand on his lower back, and Stiles raises an eyebrow at Derek over his shoulder. “What a gentleman,” Stiles says, and Derek’s ears burn.
“Shut up,” Derek mumbles, and Stiles just cackles.
They are halfway through the line and Derek is listening to Stiles debate the quality of the latest Black Keys album when Derek sees her. Derek freezes, eyes blown wide, and Stiles frowns. “Yo, Derek? You okay?” he asks. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
Derek rapidly shakes his head. “No, no I’m – I’m fine.”
“Uh … ohhh-kay,” Stiles says, grin slightly less easy.
“Can I help you?” the barista asks flatly.
“Regular black coffee,” Derek says shortly.
“Uh, regular mocha, please?” Stiles says. “And a slice of that lemon pound cake. Actually, make that two.”
The barista nods. “Twelve dollars and five cents.”
Derek reaches for his wallet, but Stiles is already putting down bills. When the barista hands him the change, Stiles pours it into the tip jar. Derek follows Stiles down the counter, glancing constantly at her. Erica.
Derek would not mind running into her, really, except for the fact that he is with Stiles. Since baked goods suddenly appeared in the bookstore, Erica eventually learned about Mabel, and by extension Stiles. If Erica were to see them now – specifically Stiles, the non-adolescent, obscenely attractive Stiles – she will never let Derek live this down. Never.
“You sure you okay?” Stiles asks, genuinely worried.
“Yeah, yeah.” Derek clears his throat. “Ah, you said you liked Brothers?”
“Yeah, best album. Tighten Up is a classic.”
“Personally, I prefer El Camino.”
Their drinks are placed on the counter, and Derek herds Stiles to table. “El Camino? Really?” Stiles asks disbelievingly.
“Yeah. It’s also my brother’s favorite album.”
“What’s your favorite song on it?”
“Gold On the Ceiling.”
Stiles slips into his seat and smiles. “Okay, you have my respect.”
Derek glances around again, searching for Erica, when a hand lands on his shoulder. “Derek,” a voice purrs, “who’s your friend?”
Derek’s shoulders sag. Someone please let the floor swallow me, he thinks. “Erica.”
“What?” Erica asks, pushing out her lower lip. Her eyes slowly rake Stiles up and down. “I just want to meet your friend.” She winks at Stiles, and Stiles nearly spits out his coffee.
“Ah,” Stiles says, “Ah, um –”
Derek raises an exasperated eyebrow at Erica. “Really, Reyes?”
“What’s your name, honey?” Erica asks Stiles, and oh, God, why is this actually happening –
“Stiles – Stiles Stilinski,” Stiles says.
For a second Erica is shocked; then she laughs so hard she doubles over, attracting the attention of half of the shop’s patrons. Honest-to-God tears leak from her eyes.
Stiles is nonplussed. “Um…”
Derek wants to hide under the table. “Yes, it’s Stiles,” he grits out, and Erica launches into another round of giggles and snorts.
“I – I have to go tell Boyd,” she says.
“Is there something on my face?” Stiles asks, gesturing at himself, and Derek sighs the sigh of the utterly defeated.
“She thinks you’re supposed to be –”
Comprehension spreads over Stiles’s face. “Ten years old,” he completes. “Got it.”
Erica finally gets herself together. She leans over and whispers into Derek’s ear, “Are you glad he isn’t a little tyke? Because you should totally tap that.”
“Erica!” Derek yells (he does not shriek, he is a grown-ass man, he does not shriek), and Erica breaks into another fit of giggles.
“See you around, Stiles,” Erica says and fucking prances out of the shop.
Derek sags in relief as soon as she is out of the door. Stiles’s expression of shock slowly morphs into a huge grin. “Erica?” he asks.
Derek nods and angrily takes a bite out of his pound cake.
“She’s the reason why you were so fidgety?” Stiles presses on.
Derek scowls, and Stiles bursts out laughing. Derek has to fight the smirk that threatens to overcome his face; there is something contagious about Stiles’s laugh. “She’ll never let me forget this,” Derek protest weakly. “And she’s intimidating.”
“Not as intimidating as Lydia,” Stiles says. “Lydia Martin is five feet three inches of pure genius, and you do not mess with her under any circumstances.”
He gets this wistful look on his face when he talks, and Derek wonders if there are some unrequited feelings in their relationship. Stiles’s expression looks just like the one Liam wore for a whole seven months when pining for the woman who eventually became his wife.
Something burns deep in Derek’s gut, and he pushes it away. He is sure Lydia is more than lucky to have a guy like Stiles.
“I was wondering,” Stiles says, “How did you even meet Bel?”
Derek shrugs, relaxing back into comfortable territory. “I picked up a ball of yarn that fell out of her bag, and she made me carry her groceries.”
Stiles snorts. “Sounds like Bel.”
“Devious and sweet,” Derek corrects, and Stiles grins.
“I feel like she’s psychic half the time,” Stiles says. “Like, she knew I was bi an entire year before I told her. And she told me from day one that Lydia would never be the one for me. She –” Stiles snorts. “She told my father he would fall in love with my mom when the first met in college and they still hated each other’s guts.”
“My grandmother did the same thing to my mother,” Derek says, surprising himself by bringing up Mimi.
“Here’s to scheming matchmaking grandmothers,” Stilts toasts and finishes his drink.
“Indeed,” Derek murmurs, his eyes lingering on the movement of Stiles’s throat.
Stiles catches him staring, but instead of making a snarky comment like Derek expects, he simply wiggles his eyebrows. “I’ve been told I have a nice neck,” he says in a halfway joking tone.
“Then they clearly haven’t been noticing your eyes,” Derek responds, and wow, not only did that sound way too sincere, but his eyes? Seriously? You’re going to scare him off, says a voice in his head sounds like his Aunt Kimberly.
“Aw, Derek,” Stiles says, playing along. “No one told me you were such a romantic.”
Two can play at this game. “Or your mouth,” Derek adds, intentionally dropping his voice lower than usual.
“Inveterate oral fixation,” Stiles replies nonchalantly, and as if to prove a point, he sucks the sugar off his finger, and when he pulls it out of his mouth, it makes a lewd popping sound.
Derek cannot imagine what his expression must look like, but it causes Stiles to laugh. “I am the master of innuendo,” the younger man boasts. “None can conquer me.”
It is so easy to slip into this banter. “I could conquer you,” Derek retorts, “Several times.”
“In several positions?”
Stiles narrows his eyes at Derek, another thin smile splitting his face. “Is this a challenge, Hale?” he asks.
“I don’t know, Stilinski. Is it?”
“Oh, you are on.”
“Yeah. I’m on top of it.”
Stiles bursts into laughter, attracting the other customers’ attention again. Derek smirks, then sees the way the manager is side-eyeing them. “We should probably clear out,” Derek murmurs, tilting his head at the manager.
Stiles catches on and nods, rising from his seat. “Skating?” he asks, and Derek nods. Derek opens the door for Stiles again, and Stiles smirks. “My, what large, strong hands you have –”
Derek follows the laughing boy out the door, feeling lighter than he has in years.
Mabel is right; seeing Stiles on ice is baffling. In this day alone, Derek has seen Stiles stub his toe twice, run into three door frames, and nearly trip and face-plant at least four times. Stiles’s proclivity for being a danger to himself has Derek hovering close to the young man when they start skating, but once it is apparent that Stiles is much more graceful on a rink than dry land, Derek relaxes.
Derek watches on as Stiles races a group of middle schoolers around the rink. Apparently Stiles has never met the kids before (Stiles is from California), but Stiles has a tendency to get roped into things on a whim. Even if Mabel had not already told Derek about it, Derek would know from just spending half the day with the guy.
You would like him, Derek thinks, as if Mimi can hear him from wherever she is. Derek is not sure if there is a heaven or a hell, but he believes in an afterlife, a place where Mimi can continue to bake her cookies and scowl at her lemon squares and wear her shirts inside out.
Derek knows Mimi would love Stiles. In fact, he would fit in perfectly with all the Hales. Stiles is intelligent, confident, witty, and passionate. He would not be scared by Uncle Peter’s melodramatic posturing; he would snark and joke his way into Laura and Cora’s hearts; he would be able to talk comics to William and Shakespeare to Des and debate about action movies with Uncle Zach and Derek’s father. He would become little baby Harper’s favorite, and Liam will look at Derek with that fond, exasperated expression, asking, “How does my own daughter prefer him over me?”
“I’m so sorry my kids are interrupting your date.”
Derek looks down to see a short, middle-aged woman skating beside him. Derek does not recognize her, but she has the same distinctive white-blonde hair of one of the kids chasing after Stiles. “Nah, it’s fine,” Derek says.
“My son and his friends have been cooped up since that storm hit a week ago. There should be laws against having hyperactive preteens indoors for more than three days straight,” the woman scoffs, but she smiles fondly at her son from across the rink.
“My younger cousins were like that whenever the weather was bad,” Derek sympathizes, and the woman smiles wryly.
“Your boyfriend is good with the kids.”
“Stiles?” Derek splutters, and then he recalls the first thing this woman said. Date. She thinks we’re on a date.
The woman nods, either oblivious to or ignoring Derek’s reaction. “You should keep him.”
Derek snorts. “I think I’d need to get his permission, first.”
The woman laughs. “Well. Thank you for letting my kids steal Stiles for a bit. I’ll go save him now.”
“Please, don’t feel obligated –”
“It’s nearly Christmas,” she says, and she smiles softly at Derek. “You should be spending the holidays with your young man.”
Derek swallows. “Merry Christmas,” he says, and she waves at him before gliding away towards her son.
A fond smile twitches on Derek’s lips as he watches Stiles say bye to the kid and his friends. Stiles fist bumps them, ruffles the messy curls of one of them, then drops a kiss on the woman’s cheek before they depart. Stiles catches Derek’s eye and waits for Derek before he beings skating again. “Yo,” he says. “My fingers are going to fall off. Give me your hand.”
Derek obligingly holds out his hand. Stiles threads their fingers together and then shoves their joined hands into Derek’s jacket pocket. Derek flinches, more startled than anything else, but when Stiles tries to pull his hand out, Derek squeezes his fingers and tugs Stiles closer.
“It’s a bit colder than California,” Derek says, aiming to sound unaffected but probably coming off as awkward. Laura says Derek has a special talent for doing that.
“Yeah, a bit,” Stiles says. He tugs on one end of Derek’s scarf. “At least one of us knows how to dress properly.”
“Not really. I fear the wrath of your grandmother.”
“All the women in my life are intimidating,” Stiles mutters.
“You should meet my sisters.”
“Do they also live in New York?” Derek shakes his head. “My family has a ranch in California,” he explains. “Most of my family lives there.”
“Seriously? Hey, maybe you can visit me and my dad the next time you go out there.” Stiles seems to realize what he has said and tries to backtrack. “I mean – not that you have to – but, you know, today was cool, and maybe we could –”
Derek laughs and rubs a thumb over the back of Stiles’s hand. “Maybe,” he says, though inside he is screaming yes yes yes. “It’s … been a while since I visited home.”
Derek can feel Stiles studying him, but Stiles does not push the matter further. Derek is grateful. As easy as he feels around Stiles, Derek never likes choking out his backstory.
They pass a young couple with a small child between them. Stiles smiles at the family as he and Derek pass them and sighs. “Kids are great, man,” he says. “Like, they don’t judge you for anything. They don’t know anything, but they teach you so much.”
“You want kids when you grow up?” Derek asks.
“Definitely. I want to have, like, a small army of children.” Stiles frowns. “Or maybe not, if they all inherit my hyperactivity.” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “I was a nutty child. My children will totally be crazy.”
“They’ll be awesome,” Derek says. Stiles smiles at him. It is smaller than his usual smile, but it seems more sincere, especially with the way the corner of his eyes crinkle. They hold eye contact for a few moments; then Stiles extricates his hand from Derek’s pocket and says, “Race you around the rink.”
“You’re on –” Stiles takes off, and Derek pushes off after him. “Cheater!” he yells at Stiles’s back.
Derek may or may not grab Stiles’s jacket to pull him off course, but he is too busy winning and enjoying himself to care about Stiles’s halfhearted accusations.
When they are through with skating, Derek walks Stiles around the city for the rest of the night. They forgo dinner and instead buy food from any vendors or family owned markets that catch Stiles’s eye. They browse around random stores, going from pawn shops and shoe shops to antique stores and one place that specializes in monogrammed belt buckles. In one outdoors store, Stiles buys a stuffed-animal wolf, claiming it has Derek’s eyebrows. Derek rolls his eyes and buys a tacky plastic NYC keychain that he hooks on one of Stiles’s jacket zippers. Their wanderings are filled with stories and punctuated with jokes and the occasional innuendo (“You can’t beat me,” Stiles insists, and Derek raises an eyebrow and whispers, with his lips brushing Stiles’s ear, “But what if you ask nicely?”, and Stiles’s loud squawk has the owner of the candle shop shooing them out the door).
It is nearly eleven when Derek and Stiles finally return to Mabel’s place. There is a light on in the kitchen, but no one is there, so Derek assumes Mabel and her son are already asleep. He stands under the tiny overhang on Mabel’s stoop, hesitant to leave Stiles.
“Thanks for today,” Stiles says. “It was a thousand times better than shopping with Bel.”
“No problem,” Derek says. “I had a great time.”
There is an awkward moment of silence, and then it is broken by Stiles laughing. “Why are we talking like this is the end of a first date?"
“The woman at the ice rink thought we were on a date,” Derek says without thinking.
“Yeah. She even told me you’re a keeper.”
Stiles laughs. His breath, visible in the crisp December air, puffs out over Derek’s cheek. “What did you tell her?”
“That I’d need your permission first.”
Stiles tilts his head at Derek. “What if I gave you permission to kiss me?”
It takes Derek a second to process exactly what Stiles is suggesting. “For a master of innuendo,” Derek replies, “you’re terrible at pickup lines.”
Stiles grins. “I know.”
His amber eyes seem to glow in the dull yellow-orange of the streetlight, his lips twitching into a tentative smile. Gorgeous is the word that floats around Derek’s head, and Derek thinks, Fuck it.
Derek is again thrown by the fact Stiles is taller than him, but he quickly forgets because he and Stiles are kissing. Stiles’s lips are slow and careful but eager under his, slightly chapped from their day outdoors. Stiles moans softly, and Derek pulls away when the sound goes straight to his gut.
“No, no, come back,” Stiles says, eyes half-closed, his fingers curled in the hair at the base of Derek’s neck.
“If I keep kissing you, I’m not going to stop,” Derek says.
Stiles’s eyes open fully. “I’m okay with that.”
Derek huffs and steps back from Stiles. “I – it’s not that I don’t like you – but I can’t just –” Derek grits his teeth. “I was imagining how much my family would love you if I brought you to visit,” he blurts out, hoping Stiles understands what he is trying to convey.
“And I’ve already named our first two children,” Stiles counters evenly.
Derek looks up, expecting a taunting expression, but Stiles is serious. “You don’t want this to be a one time thing?” Stiles guesses, but he phrases it more like a statement than a question.
Derek nods, swallowing with difficulty.
Stiles reaches out and pulls Derek in by the hips. “What if I told you that I want you to come inside with me,” he says, “and what if told you that I want to spend the rest of my vacation here with you? Look, I – this is crazy, but I feel like I’ve known you – really known you – for more than a day. And if I can, I’d like to get to know you even better.” Stiles looks at Derek, not coyly, just straight on, open and honest.
Derek feels his mouth go dry. “Me too.”
Stiles lets a smile slide across his face. “I’d like to meet your family.”
“I think I’d like that too,” Derek says, allowing his own smile to grow.
“And I’d like to introduce you to more Christopher Nolan.”
“I’d like to know the names of our future children.”
Stiles snorts. “I’m in for the long haul. Are you okay with that?”
“I get clingy and moody,” Derek warns.
“I’m like a barnacle, and I never remember to put the cap on the orange juice.”
“I can live with that.”
“Good,” Stiles says, licking his lips. “Because I need to get you inside and naked right now.”
Derek thinks it is a miracle they do not break anything in their haste to get to Stiles’s room. They shed boots, scarves, and jackets in the foyer, and for a few minutes they kiss with Stiles’s back pressed to the kitchen doorway. Derek almost trips and falls down the stairs when Stiles runs a finger around the inside of Derek’s waistband, and once they get to Stiles’s room and lock the door, Stiles nearly brains himself on the side table trying to take off his socks. Derek laughs, and Stiles fondly says, “Shut up, idiot” before flinging himself at Derek.
They fall onto Stiles’s bed, and Derek revels in the feeling of skin against skin. It has been a long time since Derek has been this intimate with anyone; the last time was a year ago, with a taciturn redhead named Maureen, and eight months before that was Robert, a young journalist with beautiful olive skin. None of them, though, compare to the feeling of Stiles, over Derek, under Derek. Stiles is constantly giving and offering and sighing things like yes and like that and Derek. Derek kisses his way from one mole to another, mapping out Stiles’s body with his lips, while Stiles traces Derek’s triskelion tattoo with his tongue. Derek comes when he is utterly filled by Stiles, and his soft cry is swallowed by Stiles’s gentle yet hungry and addictive lips. Moments later, Stiles reaches his own peak, and once he is through, he lays down bonelessly next to Derek.
Derek has just enough energy to maneuver them until he is wrapped around Stiles, Stiles’s back curling perfectly into Derek’s front, and Derek presses his forehead to the heated skin on the back of Stiles’s neck. Stiles sighs contentedly, and Derek kisses his shoulder.
“You’re pretty damn amazing,” Stiles tells him. He sounds sleepily wrecked, and Derek preens. He caused that.
“You’re not too bad yourself,” he tells Stiles’s shoulder, and he can feel Stiles’s laughter vibrating through his body.
“Go to sleep,” Stiles says. “We have a whole house to cover with Christmas spirit tomorrow.”
Derek kisses Stiles one last time, then succumbs to the comforting somnolence of a dark room shared with a warm body.
When Derek wakes, he is momentarily disoriented. The sun filtering through the window is coming from the wrong direction, and there is a definite lack of clothes on his person. Then Stiles mumbles incoherently from beside him, and Derek remembers everything.
For a second, Derek is overwhelmed by the sheer intensify of whatever … this is. He met Stiles yesterday morning – less than twenty-four hours ago, if the clock on the nightstand is right – but this could not feel more right. Sometime in the night, their positions changed, and now Derek is on his back with Stiles’s arm thrown over his waist, Stiles’s face smushed against his shoulder. Derek is fairly sure there is a puddle of drool on his shoulder, but instead of being repulsed, Derek only thinks it is endearing.
He thinks a twenty-two year old man drooling on him is endearing.
He is in way over his head.
Derek gently extricates himself from Stiles (it is a challenge; first Stiles refuses to let go of Derek’s waist, and then Stiles snuggles even tighter into Derek’s side, and Derek really just wants to stay in this too-small bed with this sleeping octopus) and ambles over to the bathroom. He cleans himself up, splashes some water onto his face, then quickly dresses. He kisses Stiles’s cheek one last time before he silently exits the room, shutting the door behind him.
He is not running away. In fact, Derek fully intends on returning as soon as he has changed his clothes and grabbed some breakfast. Everything is just moving so fast, though, and Derek – Derek wants to settle down with Stiles (not settle down settle down; just regain his footing) before Stiles’s father or (oh, God) Mabel finds out.
Derek has successfully made it to the front door and bends over to retrieve his scarf when a voice floats out of the kitchen. “Derek? You’re not leaving without breakfast, are you?”
Derek drops his scarf and edges into the kitchen. Mabel and her son sit at the kitchen table; Mabel is knitting (it looks like a sweater, but Derek is not sure), and John is eyeing Derek from over a cup of coffee. Derek’s brain choses this moment to helpfully remind him that John is a sheriff and can legally carry a loaded weapon on him.
Derek clears his throat. “I … was just…”
“Derek is really good at making waffles,” Mabel tells John.
“Really,” he says gruffly, still half-glaring at Derek. Derek wonders if there are any incriminating bruises in sight. He is not sure; he did not pay very close attention when he was in front of the mirror earlier.
“They’re all right,” Derek offers. He needs coffee, tea, some form of caffeine. His brain is not functioning at a high enough level to deal with this situation yet.
“Psh, so modest,” Mabel says. “His waffles rival your father’s waffles, John.”
John hmphs, and Mabel seems to take that as a positive sign. “Can you make some with chocolate chips and blueberries?”
Derek sees John perk up and immediately realizes what Mabel is doing. You devious old lady, he thinks affectionately. “Of course,” Derek says and starts collecting the ingredients he needs for his father’s coveted waffle recipe.
“How was yesterday, Derek?” Mabel asks.
“Great,” Derek says. He is genuinely laconic in the morning; if he also happens to be reticent about discussing the previous day, well, so be it.
“Did Stiles enjoy himself?” Mabel pushes on.
“I think so,” Derek replies. He thinks back to last night, pleased moans, eager and intoxicating hands, a voice crooning in his ear and against his skin yes yes like that oh my God Derek yes, and Derek thinks, Stiles definitely enjoyed himself.
“See,” Mabel tells John proudly, “I knew Stiles would love him.”
“I thought you were talking about a ten year old,” he grumbles, and Derek coughs violently.
“So what do you do for a living, Derek?” John asks. He turns a page of his newspaper even though Derek knows he has not been reading it since Derek entered the kitchen.
“I work at a bookstore a few blocks away,” Derek says, “And I’m a woodcarver, so I do some commissions.”
John looks mildly impressed. “That isn’t easy, son,” he says. “Who taught you to carve?”
“My dad’s father.”
“I remember when you first tried woodcarving,” Mabel says.
She gets this expression that Derek recognizes as nostalgia; John must, too, because he buries his face in his hand and groans, “Really, Mom?”
“You cried when you couldn’t make a convincing duck on your first try,” Mabel continues, “and your tears blinded you so much that you accidentally cut yourself with your knife.”
John groans again, and Derek smiles sympathetically. “I was so ashamed of my first carving I convinced my younger sister to throw it into the fireplace,” Derek offers. “And I’ve also accidentally cut myself innumerable times. I think I freaked out my building’s tenant the first time he saw the bloodstains on my workbench.”
John laughs shortly, and Derek counts it as a victory.
There is a sudden clatter of footsteps on the stairs, and Stiles swings into the kitchen, nearly knocking a painting off the wall. “Who’s making the –” he catches sight of Derek. “Derek?”
Derek’s ability to respond is stolen away by Stiles’s appearance. He is wearing loose flannel pajamas slung low on his hips, and his shirt is partially rucked up to show the path of hair leading down from his navel. He is rocking sex hair like a model, and if that were not enough, Derek can see a very obvious set of bruises lining the left side of Stiles’s neck. Derek knows that line continues under Stiles’s t-shirt and down his collarbone, and suddenly Derek wrenches his gaze away because this would literally be the worst moment ever to get an inconveniently timed boner.
“Derek is making waffles,” Mabel preens, and a strangled noise hops out of Stiles’s throat.
“Oh – okay,” Stiles manages. He lingers awkwardly in the doorway.
“Uh – you can help grab some plates?” Derek suggests.
“Yeah. Yeah, sure.”
Stiles has his head halfway inside a cupboard when Mabel leans over and whispers very loudly, “Is he good in bed?”
John spits out his coffee, and Stiles hits his head on the counter when he shoots upright. He yelps, staggering away, and Derek automatically catches him and holds Stiles protectively to his chest.
“Bel!” Stiles shouts, and Mabel cackles.
“If I didn’t mention it, this whole day would be wasted with uncomfortable silences and awkward glances,” Mabel says once she is through with laughing. She is still wearing a gloating smile, though, and Derek would think about glaring at her if he was not so distracted by Stiles – Stiles, whose hair is itching Derek’s nose, whose hand is splayed over Derek’s hip and thigh.
“You are evil,” Stiles mutters darkly.
Mabel smiles sunnily. “Only the best for my favorite grandson.”
“I’m your only grandson,” Stiles grumbles. He lifts himself off of Derek, and Derek lets him go with a brief squeeze on the arm. Derek goes back to his waffles, very pointedly not looking away from the griddle, when he overhears Stiles tell Mabel, “And I’ll have you know, Derek is freaking fantastic in bed.”
Derek flings a waffle onto the floor as John chokes on a gingerbread cookie.
Derek quickly crouches down to retrieve his waffle, and Stiles winks at Derek as he passes on his way to his father. “Dad, cookies before breakfast? Really? We’re trying to keep you from gaining weight over vacation.”
Derek gets up in time to see John finish his coffee and frown at his son. “As long as you used protection,” he eventually says.
Stiles rolls his eyes. “Of course, Father O’ Mine. I was there for Ms. McCall’s safe sex lecture to Scott.”
John turns his gaze to Derek. “Now, son –”
“Dad, we don’t need the I-have-a-gun speech,” Stiles interrupts. “He knows you’re the sheriff.”
“Those waffles better be damn good,” John grumbles, and when Derek makes eye contact with Mabel, she winks at him.
Later, when they are eating Derek’s waffles (which are fucking outstanding, thank you very much), Derek listens to Stiles animatedly recount the movie they saw yesterday. Every so often Stiles shoots him a smile, his thigh a constant line of heat along Derek’s. Derek smiles into his waffles, and when he notices Mabel watching him, he mouths, Thank you.
Mabel smiles back and pushes a plate of cookies to Derek.
Maybe someday / you'll be somewhere / talking to me / as if you knew me, saying / I'll be home for next year, darling / I'll be home for next year / and maybe sometime / in a long time / you'll remember / what I had said there, I said / I'll be home for next year, darling / I'll be home for next year. –Next Year, Two Door Cinema Club
Derek watches through the windshield as Laura jogs down from the house, her hair loose in the wind and her feet bare. “You ready?” he asks.
Beside him, Stiles exhales and drums his fingers against the steering wheel. “Yeah, I’m ready,” he says. “It’s not like I’m meeting a small army. Oh, wait, I am. This is the Hales.”
Derek laughs and leans over the gear shift to press a kiss to Stiles’s jaw. “I’ll protect you,” he says, nuzzling into Stiles’s neck.
“Even if they suddenly turn into zombies and try to eat us?”
“No. Then I’m using you as a shield until I successfully get out of the house.”
“Wow. We really need to revisit our zombie apocalypse survival plan.”
Derek snorts. “Later.”
Derek reaches out, pressing his fingers to Stiles’s jaw, and turns Stiles’s head so Derek can kiss him properly. Stiles opens up to him, easily, willingly, and Derek nips at Stiles’s lower lip just the way Derek knows he likes it.
“Mmmph,” Stiles mumbles. “We should stop. Don’t want to introduce myself to your family with a raging hard-on.”
Derek laughs and pulls away. “Come on.”
The Hale ranch looks just like Derek remembers it. It is early summer, so the fields are still more green than brown, and Derek lets the familiar earthy scent and drone of insects wash over him. The sprawling Hale house sits proud and strong on a gently rolling hilltop. The white wood and dark shutters still represent home to Derek, and he smiles softly when he sees Mimi’s rocking chair.
Laura arrives at the jeep right as Derek is shutting the trunk. “Der!” she shouts, even though she is literally four feet away from him, and Derek catches her when she launches herself at him, wrapping her strong arms around his neck.
“Hey, Laur,” Derek says. “Told you I’d visit soon.”
Laura lets go of him and rolls her eyes. “Yeah, you only came out here because Stiles lives so close by.” Laura takes a step back and finally looks at Stiles, scanning him appraisingly.
“Hi,” Stiles says.
Laura holds out her hand. “Laura Hale,” she says.
“It’s a pleasure to meet the man who persuaded my baby bro to finally come visit his family.”
Derek groans, and Stiles grins. “Derek says you are going to be one of the most intimidating women I’m ever going to meet.”
Laura eyes Derek. “Is that an indirect compliment, Der?”
“More like a warning,” Derek says, and Laura punches his arm.
“Here, Stiles, let me help you out,” Laura says, taking a bag from Stiles. “The rest of the family can’t wait to meet you.”
Stiles lets Laura get a few paces ahead of them. “She’s not bad,” he says.
“She was restraining herself.”
Stiles rolls his eyes. “You’re probably exaggerating.” He reaches out and picks at the collar of Derek’s shirt. “You should wear flannel more often,” he says.
“You wear enough flannel for the both of us.”
“There’s no such thing as too much flannel.”
“You buy a new flannel every week.”
“I wouldn’t have to if you weren’t so fond of popping the buttons off, now, would I?” Stiles challenges, arcing an eyebrow.
Derek scowls and pinches Stiles’s cheek, earning himself a slap on the ass in retaliation.
Laura is waiting for them at the top of the porch. “Please try to refrain from groping each other in the house,” she says with a sharp smirk. “There are small children around.”
The instant the door opens there is an explosion of sound. All the Hales are here – and not just the Hales, but also the extended family, the Lowells and the Fiores and the Stevensons. Stiles flinches in surprise, and Derek automatically threads their fingers together. Stiles squeezes his hand, and then the frenzied, chaotic introductions begin.
By dinnertime, Stiles has memorized everyone’s name. Derek was right, on the very first day they met; Stiles melds into the Hale family dynamic flawlessly. Stiles banters with Peter, trades affectionate remarks disguised as insults with Cora, and challenges Des on her opinions of Othello and Macbeth. Only three minutes into a conversation about Iron Man, William has declared Stiles as his new idol, and Stiles has permanently won over Liam when it took him only twenty seconds to calm Harper down from a rising tantrum.
Derek’s mother leans over as she passes Patricia the plate of watermelon. “If this ends poorly,” she murmurs in Derek’s ear, “I’m not sure if the majority of the family with side with you or Stiles.”
“Definitely Stiles,” Derek replies, “but I have no intention of letting this go wrong.”
Talia smiles at Derek and kisses his temple. “I’m happy for you, darling.”
“I’m happy, too,” Derek says, surprising himself; for the first time in a long while, he genuinely believes himself.
A couple hours later Stiles finds Derek sitting alone on the porch. Stiles hands Derek a beer, and Derek takes it gratefully. “Thanks,” he murmurs.
Stiles takes a seat next to him, pressed right up against Derek’s side. Stiles has never really understood the concept of personal space around Derek, but Derek will never complain about that.
Stiles nudges Derek. “How you doing?”
Derek grins wryly. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that?"
“Your family is great. They love me. Laura and Emilia are already arguing about who is going to arrange our wedding.”
“God, I’m sorry,” Derek says.
Stiles shrugs. “It’s okay. I told you, I’m a long haul kind of guy.” He takes a sip of his beer.
“Stiles. You’re twenty-three.”
“And I’m dating a devastatingly attractive older man. Can’t blame me if I want to lock that down.”
“We’ve been dating for seven months.”
“Relax, Derek. I’m not asking for a proposal.”
“What if I want to propose?”
Stiles turns to him, and Derek loses himself in those amber eyes, searching for an answer in Stiles’s eyes. He cannot find one, but Stiles must see something in Derek’s eyes. Stiles leans backs and looks out over the ranch. “Ask me in the future.”
Derek traces the veins and tendons on the back of Stiles’s free hand. The nighttime noises of the Californian summer surround them, and for a moment, it feels like they have the world to themselves. “I love you,” Derek murmurs.
Stiles leans into Derek. “I love you too,” he responds just as quietly.
For the second time that day, Derek slips his fingers beneath Stiles’s jaw and turns Stiles towards him so he can capture Stiles’s lips with his own. Stiles responds, slowly, sweetly, tasting of beer and the honey from Aunt Emilia’s bees. A hot desire curls thick in Derek’s gut, but it churns slowly, lazily, leaving Derek content to just kiss Stiles like this for the entire night.
Eventually, they have to come up for air. Stiles twists until he is lying down with his head in Derek’s lap, and Derek runs his fingers through Stiles’s hair, occasionally rubbing Stiles’s scalp. If Derek closes his eyes, he can paint a picture of them from an outsider’s perspective; two lone figures with half-empty beer bottles, relaxing on a porch of a large, warm, and inviting house. Behind them sits a worn but well-loved white rocking chair, and even further beyond them, the stars begin to wink into existence in the clear night sky. A full moon bathes the long grasses surrounding the couple with a liquid silver, but the light is not dangerous or scary; instead, it alludes to safety and protection and loyalty, to a pure love that will never cease so long as the Moon revolves around the Earth and the Earth revolves around the Sun.
Perhaps, if the figure sitting up was more aware of the poetry in his blood, he would whisper sweet words into his lover’s ears: I love you to the moon and back, in a thousand ways on a thousand days, for all of time until our universe fades to black. And the figure lying down would pull the other one close, showing him how much he loves him with soft lips and tender fingers, pressing kisses to the scars on his hands and the delicate skin of his eyelids. But they do neither. Instead, they chose to simply exist in their small corner of the vast universe, and their mere proximity, the simultaneous beating of their hearts, is more than enough to convey that same thundering message: I love you, I love you, I love you.