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The First Wild Promise

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Stiles comes back to New York with two full suitcases and an agonizing hope in his heart. It's all familiar still, but it's been two years, and everything has changed. It's not just the new construction on old buildings, or the fact that his favorite pizza joint is now a laundromat.

By far the biggest change is that when he knocks on his—no, Derek's—door, it's Lydia Martin who opens it.

He supposes that it's wrong, to expect a warm welcome from her. When he'd left, he'd cut ties with the city itself, hadn't spoken to or heard from Lydia or any number of colleagues and casual acquaintances since he unceremoniously departed.

Still, the icy mask that settles over her features as she regards him, standing sheepishly in the doorway with his bags, is an unpleasant surprise. It's a look he hasn't seen—at least, not directed towards him—since high school, and he wonders what he did to deserve it this time.

Until he looks over her shoulder, that is. And he sees Derek Hale standing there, staring at him with the same confused hurt that Stiles had last seen on his face two years ago. It's only for a split second, until Derek masters his face into its own blank facade, but it's still long enough to take Stiles back to that moment...

And then Derek comes to stand behind Lydia in the doorway, his stance unmistakably protective and wary.

"Stiles," he says, with so little inflection or emotion that the word hardly exists.

"I'm back," Stiles offers weakly.

...

Derek disappears wordlessly, grabbing his jacket and edging around Stiles without so much as a glance, and Lydia purses her lips and reluctantly invites Stiles inside.

She's deadly silent as she fixes him a cup of tea, and he sits at the old, familiar counter and listens to the water bubble and Lydia retrieve mugs with pointed efficiency.

"I got my degree," he says, when he can't stand the silence any longer.

"I saw the Facebook post. Congratulations." She stirs a spoonful of sugar in, and doesn’t look at him.

He wonders if they're together, she and Derek, and the picture in his head is so clear. The way his big body framed hers in the doorway, their stunning good looks... How she would have been there, after Stiles left, been there for Derek on the roughest days... And no denying that they would be beautiful together, that her golden perfection would complement his stormy attractiveness just as her intelligence and competence would complement his strength and gentle resolve. There's some sort of poetic justice there, maybe, that Stiles' first love and his great love had found each other in the wake of his destruction.

He has to ask her, but can't bear to know the truth, leaves it at an awkward, "So, you and Derek are...?"

She lets him believe it, for just a moment. Stiles can see it in her face, as she lets him wonder, about how they've been together...

She lets the thought resonate, before she flips her hair, and says, "No. We're not together, Stiles. Even if I would date your ex... He's not exactly my type."

Stiles nods. “So this arrangement, then, you’re roommates?”

“My lease was up a month after you left,” She says, after sipping her tea primly, “And Derek suddenly found himself living alone. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, initially, but…” She lifts a shoulder. “We live well together.”

Stiles nods. Now that it’s in front of him, he can’t bring himself to touch his own tea.

“Look, Stiles,” Lydia says, breaking silence sharply. Stiles isn’t sure he’s going to like hearing what comes next, but anything’s better than the disconnect between them. “I’m really not sure that it’s a good idea for you to be here. Derek went through a lot, when you left, and I don’t think it’s healthy for him to be suddenly seeing you again.”

“Right,” Stiles says. He doesn’t know what he expected, exactly, coming back here.

“If you really want to talk, we can get coffee next week. You should leave before he comes back.”

“Sure,” Stiles says, “Let’s do coffee.”

Stiles runs into him in the stairwell on his way out anyway, still dragging his baggage behind him. Derek's so startled that he forgets to mask his face, and Stiles can see every single day of the last two years there, in the rawness of his eyes and the set of his jaw. He can see all the pain and uncertainty and doubt and guilt that his disappearance had unearthed in the man who knows him better than anyone else in the world, bar none, and it's…

Stiles has broken the law too many times to count. He's lied, and he's stolen, and he's caused grievous bodily harm. But this, leaving Derek Hale with nothing but demons, this is the worst thing he's ever done.

He opens his mouth, to apologize, maybe, though it can hardly help.

Derek just shakes his head, and pushes past him up the stairs.

The pack had split up after high school, Scott and Kira wanting to stay close to home, Stiles and Lydia yearning to go far away. They both pick schools in New York by chance: Lydia, to nobody’s surprise, is admitted to Columbia, and Stiles swings a fairly good scholarship at NYU. Scott can’t exactly forbid them from leaving, but they’re all battle hardened and wary of being alone and without defenses.

It’s Derek who surprises them all, says that he’s been meaning to get back to New York for a while (and everybody suddenly remembers that he had lived there, once), and that he’s got a buyer for his California property, offers to move back to the city.

No one says out loud that he’s a bodyguard, but Stiles is fairly sure that it’s what they’re all thinking.

It makes Scott feel better, though, about his pack splitting down the middle, and Stiles can’t deny that it’s a comforting thought, to have the two of them there in a city full of strangers.

It’s strange how natural it is, when he and Derek fall together. It’s just a normal afternoon, and Stiles takes Derek’s hand, and it feels breathtaking and almost ordinary, all at once. They move into each other as easy as breathing, no fuss and no drama, and when Stiles needs an apartment after his freshman year, Derek offers his extra room.

It never ends up being used.

The city is different, without Derek. Stiles finds himself a new place, settles into his job, gets a beer with his coworker on Friday evening.

But New York City and Derek Hale are inextricable, in his mind, and he half expects to see him every time he turns a corner.

He never does.

He and Lydia do get coffee, set up a regular date on Thursday afternoons. They both try very hard not to talk about Derek, or about the last few years, though Stiles is dying to know and he’s sure that Lydia has a few thoughts of her own on the matter.

Stiles doesn’t know what he would say to her if she asked—he doesn’t know what he wants back in this city, whether he wants to see Derek at all or to convince him to take Stiles back, or whether he wants to forget the whole incident… he just. He just doesn’t know what to do.

It’s the first time he’s ever had doubts about Derek.

Stiles graduates from college in four years, no problem, and he’s at something of a loss for what to do next.

He ends up applying to grad schools across the country, a few in New York, some in California, and gets accepted to a surprising number of them.

The most tempting offer is at a Chicago school, and Stiles tosses and turns for weeks over what to do—he’s staring down two more years of school, he can hardly commute… but Derek’s life is here in the city, his work and even some friends and he hates to think about uprooting all of that, hates even more the prospect of a long distance relationship.

Derek is almost upsettingly logical about the whole situation—he works mostly freelance for a publisher and can easily work from home or find a new publishing house to work with, but Stiles’ school is in Chicago. He doesn’t even bat an eyelash, just tells Stiles to start looking for apartments and googles a moving company.

It’s when Stiles finds the ring in the back of Derek’s nightstand drawer that it all comes crashing down.

He’s got four years’ worth of anxiety about his relationship, a panicky sense that he has no idea about his future… He’s dragged Derek Hale from west coast to east and now he’s moving again and Derek’s sure to resent him at some point, could give it up in two years when Stiles wants to move again or in two months when he realizes that maybe Stiles isn’t worth chasing across the country, and now there’s a ring, and Derek’s trying to do the noble thing, of course he is, but he’s really just shackling himself to a future unemployed, directionless wreck who happens to hold a Master’s Degree…

By the time the panic passes, Stiles realizes he’s packed his things in something of a fugue state. The movers were supposed to come in a little more than a week and he and Derek had been slowly packing their stuff for the past few, but now he’s finished, somehow, all his stuff thrown haphazardly into unlabeled boxes, and he can’t help but stare at how strange and empty the bedroom looks with all his things gone…

Is it something he’s truly considering, taking off like this, abandoning everything in New York?

He almost talks himself out of it once, twice, even looking at his boxes raises his heart rate again, and he’s just…

He’s just so scared.

He’s stacking up his boxes when Derek walks through the front door.

He only lasts a few weeks before he asks Lydia about Derek.

Her face goes pinched, and she says “He’s fine,” very tightly, in a tone that clearly communicates the opposite.

“Lydia,” Stiles says, “I know that you hate me for what I did. I hate me too, most days. And maybe I don’t deserve—”

“No,” she says sharply, “You don’t deserve.  I’ve been thinking about it for two years, Stiles, and I still don’t understand. How could you do something like that to someone who loved you so much?”

Lydia doesn’t like not knowing, but Stiles has no answer for her.

“It was a mistake,” he says lowly, “I just—”

“There was no mistake. You’re trying to tell me you took Derek Hale, a man whose relationship issues have trust issues, and you strung him along for almost four years, and you lulled him into a sense of false security, and you waited until he was ready to commit to you for good, and then you walked out on him? That's not a mistake, Stiles, that's cruelty, no way around it."

Stiles closes his eyes hard against the sting in them. He wishes there was something to say, but she’s cut to the heart of it, and there’s just nothing left.

"I got scared, Lydia,” Is what he finally comes up with, “Our relationship was… It was just all so easy. We fell in love, and nothing was weird even though it should have been, and we moved in together too soon, but it was easy! Nothing went wrong! We didn't fight over anything bigger than where to go for dinner. I mean, it was me and Derek. We were supposed to be volatile and messy and bad for each other."

“That’s your explanation?” Lydia demands. “That you bolted because it got too easy? There’s no right way to fall in love, Stiles. But when you left…” She shakes her head, and Stiles wishes he could unsee the hurt in her eyes. She had been his best friend, two years ago, and she’s like a stranger to him now. “I was there, Stiles. He hurt every day, and he still does. He pretends better, now, he’s learned to hide it, but it’s still there.”

“I know,” Stiles whispers, shoving his palms into his eyes so he won’t embarrass himself in public.

"No, you don’t. You don’t understand. You told him he was worth nothing, Stiles, when you left like that. You told him he wasn't worth your love, he wasn't worth your future, and worst of all, he wasn't worth the common decency of an explanation."

It hits him like a bullet, her words, and he’s taken a bullet before.

There’s nothing to do for a wound like this. He just has to let it bleed.

Derek doesn’t say anything, at first, when he sees Stiles standing over his pyramid of cardboard boxes. He steps forward, cautiously, like Stiles is a skittish animal that he doesn’t want to frighten.

“I’m moving to Chicago,” Stiles blurts.

“I know,” Derek says slowly, “The movers aren’t coming until next week, Stiles.”

“No, you don’t understand. I’m moving to Chicago. You aren’t coming along.”

Derek’s eyes go wide and disbelieving. “What?” He says, but Stiles can’t say it again. If he tries, he’ll just take it back.

He didn’t prepare well, packing in his frantic state, but he has his phone in his pocket and enough money in his bank account to get him a last minute plane ticket, as expensive as it will be.

“Send my boxes to my new address, okay?” Stiles says, and he can’t watch Derek react to that, can’t watch his face as he realizes what Stiles is doing, and how, and he can’t offer him an explanation when he doesn’t have one himself, so he just… he runs.

He runs down the stairs to hail a cab, and he runs all the way to Chicago.

His boxes arrive a week later, and it doesn’t escape him that it was the day that he and Derek were supposed to arrive here, together.

They’ve all been neatly re-packed, clothes folded and fragile items carefully tucked up in newspaper bundles.

It’s got Derek’s touch all over it, and that… those boxes are what finally make him realize what he’s done.

But it’s a week later, and a week too late.

He wonders if Lydia’s going to bother to show the next week for their standing coffee date. Something is between them, something that hasn’t quite been worked out yet, and it’s something that’s mostly Derek Hale, but somehow bigger.

They seem to have the same silent agreement to avoid the subject, for the most part, and they do for the next few weeks, but it invariably comes up, and when it does, she makes no effort at hiding her disdain for the way Stiles acted. He can't blame her. He thinks that he and Lydia are probably both more angry with Stiles than Derek is, which is its own problem.

Stiles hasn’t told her anything yet, either, about what he’s been thinking about for the past few weeks, but she certainly wouldn’t be surprised to know that he wants to get back together with Derek. He’s still not sure how to broach the subject of seeing Derek at all, much less somehow convincing him to give Stiles another chance. He knows where Derek lives, of course, but he’s already shown up unannounced at his door once, and it would be unfair to do it again, even if there was a guarantee that Lydia wouldn’t open the door and rain hellfire upon him.

He’s desperate, though, and Lydia doesn’t actually have any power to bar him from seeing Derek if it’s something they both want, so he finally gives in and asks her if she could mention it to Derek.

She doesn’t answer right away. She spends a few seconds examining her coffee cup like it holds the answers to the universe, and then she says, not unsympathetically, “I think you should know. He’s been seeing someone recently.”

It thuds, right in Stiles’ solar plexus, and he has to concentrate very hard for a few minutes on breathing steadily and keeping the stars behind his eyelids at bay.

“Who is it?” Stiles finally asks, “Is it serious?”

“His name is Paul. They’re certainly not shopping for rings, but they’ve been dating for a month or so.”

It’s after Stiles came back to town, he realizes, but only barely. He wonders if his sudden reappearance was what drove Derek to accept a date with someone else.

"Have you even met this guy?” Stiles snaps, at a loss for anything else to say, “Because we both know that Derek's potentials have to be thoroughly vetted, for the safety of himself and others."

It's mean and petty of him to say, a cheap shot, but it feels good just the same, it releases some of the unbearable pressure in his stomach.

"I introduced them," Lydia says, matching his sharp tone, and that's all she has to say, because they both know that that's answer enough.

Lydia calls him a week later, tells him that he’s going to take her to a movie. She asks him to come by her apartment a little before eight, to pick her up, and he’s not sure if that means she’s talked to Derek about him or she hasn’t, but he can’t miss the opportunity that Derek might be there, that Stiles might have a chance to see him, if only for a few minutes.

It’s Lydia that opens the door, though, and Stiles can hear Derek moving around in his bedroom, but he doesn’t come out.

“Stiles,” Lydia says as she ushers him inside, “There’s something that you should know before—”

There’s another knock on the door before she can finish, and she shoots Stiles a very meaningful glance as she moves to open it.

It’s a man, blond and good-looking, and he hands Lydia a bouquet of flowers and gives her a kiss on the cheek.

“Stiles,” she says as she ushers the man inside, “This is Paul. Paul, my friend Stiles.”

Paul, Lydia had told him, Derek’s seeing someone named Paul.

“Hi,” Paul says easily, and extends a hand for Stiles to shake, and Stiles has no choice, really, but to shake it and nod at him, because he can’t force any words out.

If Paul knows that Stiles is not only an ex-boyfriend, but the ex-boyfriend, he gives no indication of it. Stiles can’t quite decide whether it’s a good thing or a bad one that Derek’s apparently never mentioned him to the guy he’s seeing.

“You two get acquainted,” Lydia says breezily, and Stiles had always known that she could be ruthless, but he’s never been on this end of it before, “I’ll let Derek know you’re here, Paul.”

“So how long have you known Lydia?” Paul asks, and he’s friendly and attractive and Stiles is drowning.

"Listen," Stiles says lowly in lieu of an answer, before he can stop himself and before Derek can emerge, because he has to say it, he still has to protect Derek in the only way he’s allowed, "Derek is... He's just a really beautiful person. And obviously he's attractive, but I mean his whole person. I know he can be quiet and sort of intimidating, but he's just. He's kind, and he's shockingly sweet, and he's just got a gentle soul. And people have taken advantage of that before. He's been hurt. So just, be genuine with him, okay? He deserves that."

"I know," Paul says confidently, and Stiles hates him and respects him more for it, because he's not lying. "I like Derek. I'm not going to do anything to intentionally hurt him."

"Well," Stiles says, brittle-voiced. He had said the same thing, once. "That's good."

Stiles sees Derek before Derek notices him—he comes out of the bedroom fiddling with the cuffs on his sleeves, and he is, always has been, breathtaking. Sometimes, Stiles can't believe he was ever frightened of him, this bashful, beautiful man who hides his soft heart and vulnerabilities under a hardened face.

He should have scented Stiles as soon as he walked in the front door, and Stiles realizes suddenly that his scent is so normal for Derek, here, in this apartment that they had shared for more than three years, that Derek probably didn’t even register the change.

Derek catches his eye then, and his face goes tight and awkward as he glances from Stiles to Paul. Stiles follows his gaze and Paul’s looking back at Derek, oblivious to the tension in the room, with such open affection that Stiles has to look away.

Stiles knows that soft look--he can feel it on his own face when he gazes at Derek. He’s wearing it right now.

“Stiles and I are going to a movie,” Lydia says casually, as she moves to adjust Derek’s collar minutely, and Derek exhales at that, relaxes with the knowledge that Stiles isn’t here for Derek, to sabotage his life in yet another way.

“Well,” Derek says, avoiding Stiles’ gaze, “Have fun.”

“We will,” Stiles says, when Lydia doesn’t, “Um. You, too.” He nods his head, an awkward, bobbing thing, and Derek is looking at him, now, he can almost feel it, but he can’t bring himself to look.

“Der, we’ve got reservations at eight,” Paul says, the nickname rolling off his tongue easily, and it rises up in Stiles, the bitterness and longing and jealousy, and he has to take deep, shaky breaths to calm himself, and he knows that Derek can hear it all, hell, probably can smell it all, and Derek’s still looking at him when he raises his head, and he doesn’t know what his own face is doing, but Derek’s is filled with something like regret, or maybe something like longing.

He leaves before Stiles can quite figure it out.

Stiles crumples, as soon as the door shuts behind Derek and Paul, as soon as he can be sure that Derek won’t hear the impending panic take him.

“You knew, Lydia,” he croaks, sinking into the couch, head in hands, “How could you? Without even warning me?”

“Because I knew what you wanted, when you wanted to see Derek. I can’t let you set him back like that, Stiles. He deserves to move on.”

“And this is moving on?” Stiles asks, “This is making him happy?”

"You need a reality check," Lydia says harshly. "No, he's not happy. But he's trying. He's dating. He's dating Paul, and they're going out tonight. And maybe this is cruel, but I don't care, because maybe you need to watch this happen to grasp exactly how imperative it is that you let Derek move on if you ever want him to have a chance at happiness. You say you still love him, Stiles, don't you want that for him?"

“I—,” Stiles says, because of course he wants Derek to be happy, he wants it more than anything, but Lydia’s just too much for him, suddenly, and he can’t do it anymore. "I know I left him, okay? I know I did it in the cruelest way I could. And frankly, it wasn't any of your business then, and it isn't now, but I know that you care about Derek, and he deserves that, so I'll take all this from you, Lydia, because he deserves everything that you have to give me. But I didn't do it because I didn't love him, and I never stopped loving him, and I still haven't stopped. I spent the last two years of my life miserable and alone and it was my own fault. It was a choice I made, I understand that, but I suffered, too, I hurt every day without him."

His voice breaks again, he has to pause and breathe harshly, and Lydia’s just regarding him coolly, arms crossed against her chest, because it will never be enough for her, he’ll never be able to make it up to her.

"You know who actually needs to hear this," she says, finally.

“I’m trying,” he says, when he can speak again, “I don’t know how yet, but I’m trying.”

"Okay, Stiles," she says, and her voice is losing its clinical detachment now. She doesn't say sorry, but there's pity, and maybe regret in her eyes. "Okay. It's enough."

They do go to the movie.

They don’t really speak. The anger and the hurt are still there, with both of them, and Stiles doesn’t doubt that the subject will come up again, eventually. But. For now, they’re both quiet.

He takes her home at the end of the night, and it’s a good sign, probably, that she tells him goodnight and goes to bed without seeing him out first. He should leave, but he can’t bring himself to, just yet. He stands in the living room, and it’s strange, how it feels, how similar. There are throw pillows on the couch and French art hanging on the walls, but if he closed his eyes, he could pretend like Lydia’s room was still Derek’s office, like if he padded down the hall to the master bedroom, he’d find Derek there, waiting for him in bed, warm and welcoming.

But the Derek who opens the front door isn’t Stiles’ Derek, it’s Paul’s Derek; it’s a Derek who looks at Stiles warily and says, “What are you doing here?”

He looks worn out, Stiles notes, handsome as ever, but drained, somehow.

“I just walked Lydia home,” Stiles finally says to his shoes, “She went to bed.”

Derek closes the front door and hangs his jacket on its hook.

“How was the date?” Stiles ventures, and then wishes he hadn’t, when Derek’s shoulders slump and he turns to look back at Stiles with some sort of turmoil on his face.

“It, um,” he says, shaking his head, “I don’t think we’re going to be seeing each other again.”

“Did something happen?” Stiles asks, and there’s such a conflict of emotions in him, because Derek’s free again, single, but he also looks just… he looks miserable, and Stiles is a hypocrite, because he’s put that look there, but he wants nothing more than to take it away.

“You happened, Stiles,” he says, defeated, “I don’t know what Lydia was thinking, bringing you here tonight. I couldn’t stop thinking about you, about everything that happened, and then of course Paul noticed, that I wasn’t paying him any attention, and then he asked what was wrong, and I… I guess I thought I was ready to start dating again. But I was wrong, so…” Derek lifts his shoulders, a self-deprecating shrug, and moves into the kitchen.

He’ll want a cup of tea, always does when he’s feeling emotional but won’t admit it, and Stiles hates that he still knows that about him.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly, and it can’t even begin to encompass everything between them, but it’s the first time he’s said it since he got back, and it’s a start. A very small one. “I didn’t know about tonight when Lydia called me. The last thing I wanted was to interfere, or to make it about me somehow.”

Derek gives a short, sharp laugh, and shakes his head. He’s struggling with something, all the things he wants to say to Stiles, and they’re probably cruel, wounded words, words that Stiles has thought thousands of times over the past years, but he clenches his jaw instead of saying anything.

It's strange, to watch Derek fight with himself, like he's been protecting Stiles for so long that he's instinctually unable to hurt him now. Stiles hasn't seen him angry, really angry, in years, and he wonders for a moment if he might now, but Derek just bows his head in defeat.

"It's always about you, Stiles," he says. "I thought I was doing so well without you, had finally started to move on after wallowing pitifully for months after my long-term boyfriend had walked out on me the week before I proposed without so much as an explanation. But now you're back, and I guess I was wrong. You fucked me up when you left, you know. And I worked really hard to put myself back together, and now you just come back out of the blue, and you just fuck me right up again, you don't even have to try. It's just." Derek gives a bitter laugh. "Selfish," he bites out. "You can be so selfish, Stiles."

Stiles gulps around the burn in his throat. "I know," he says. Because there's nothing else to say, really.

And he leaves, because there's nothing left to do.

Stiles gets the text a few days later, from a number that he recognizes instantly, though he’s deleted the contact years ago, if only to prevent himself from making a drunken, hurtful mistake.

I was upset on Friday, it says, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.

Stiles just shakes his head in disbelief, because Derek absolutely should have taken it out on Stiles, probably has so much more that he’s been needing to say, but won’t, both because he doesn’t know how to say it, and because he won’t want to hurt Stiles.

It’s almost worse, now, because he knows without a doubt that Derek is still in love with him.

Derek's not effusive, but still waters run deep, and Derek loves like that. He loves pure and true and terrifying, and Stiles knew the first time that Derek told him he loved him that that was it, for Derek, no regrets and no doubts. True mates, soul mates, life mates—those are all myths, but Derek loves as if they were true, as if he would never move on, never stop loving Stiles, even if Stiles stopped loving him. It's frightening for Stiles, to be loved like that. He can never love in the same way, not with Derek's unflinching constancy, and it drove him out the door and now it's brought him back and it had him standing there, last Friday, watching Derek's heart break all over again.

Stiles has to love his own way, fiercely and suddenly and always full of questions.

It had taken Stiles those two years for him to board a plane, thinking, I can love differently, and it can be just as real.

He wishes that he was still as sure of himself now as he was when he decided to come back from  Chicago, but now he’s not sure that Derek will take him back, not sure that he should, but Stiles can’t stop trying, not this time, can’t stop until he gets an unequivocal ‘no.’

Stiles has been fighting for a long time. He'd thought that it was something that he was good at, and had prided himself on his victories. When it had come to Derek, though, he hadn't even tried, hadn't tried to fight his own fears or insecurities, hadn't tried to fight himself for Derek.

Derek had needed someone to fight for him so badly, and Stiles had walked away.

Stiles won’t make that mistake again.

He doesn’t reply to Derek’s message right away, because he can’t think of anything to say.

He still sees Lydia, once a week, but it’s unfulfilling.

It used to be the three of them, it used to be DerekandStiles, and Lydia. And now... Now, there's Derek, and there's Lydia. And then there's Stiles.

She’s clearly still upset with him. It’s getting better, maybe, but Lydia has a long memory, and it will probably take years before they’re best friends again, like they were before he left.

“I’m trying,” he tells her. “I’m still not really sure how, and I don’t want to push him. But I’m trying, to make things better.”

She surprises him, always does.

“To make things better with Derek,” she says evenly.

“Yes,” Stiles answers, cautious and surprised, because who else—

“You didn’t just leave Derek,” She snaps, when she sees the confusion on his face, and it’s a speech he’s suddenly sure she’s spent hours going over in her head, “Don’t you understand? Not a warning that you were going early, not a word for two years? You avoided all my messages, Stiles, you could have been dead! And I show up at your apartment to help you both pack up, and instead I find Derek, alone, practically out of his mind, all your things suddenly gone? I didn’t know what had happened, Stiles, it took me a month to get it out of him! You were my best friend, Stiles, and not just in the city, and you didn’t bother to send a text? I deserved better.”

She takes a few harsh breaths, trying to calm herself, and Stiles can only nod helplessly, because it’s true, she did deserve better.

“I was so,” He says, and his voice surprises him, scratchy and unsure, “I was so confused and upset, I barely thought about what I was doing. I was in such a blind panic. By the time I realized… It was a week later and I felt so helpless and ashamed and I should have contacted you, I know I should have, but I thought you’d hear from Scott or my dad that I was okay and I just thought that it would be easier for everybody if it was just a clean break…”

He meets her eyes, and they’re filled with tears that she blinks back, furiously, but she can’t hide the hurt anymore from him, or the doubt.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Lydia. It wasn’t because I didn’t trust you or because we weren’t close or whatever else you were thinking. You were my best friend. Derek was… Derek, but you really were my best friend. And I’m just. I’m just so sorry.”

She nods, then, firmly. “Well,” she says briskly, so that neither one of them will cry. “Good. Not that you’re completely forgiven, of course.”

“Of course,” he says, but he’s smiling.

He walks her home, but he doesn’t come up.

“You’re going to see him eventually,” she says, when he leaves outside the building, “In fact, I thought that you were planning some grand reunion.”

“I’m working on it,” Stiles says. “I need to figure out how to do it right this time.”

"He still has the ring," Lydia says, her hair blowing in the cold wind. "He was planning to propose to you the week after you walked out on him, maybe you already know. He had everything all planned out. He still keeps the ring in his nightstand. I've told him it's unhealthy, his therapist agrees. He does most of what she says, you know. He really wants to get better. But this is the one thing he won't budge on."

Stiles knew about the ring before he left, but now... He blinks back the tears that aren't just from the wind in his face.

It's such a Derek thing to do, to keep the engagement ring he never had the chance to use somewhere he would see it often. And Stiles knows him well enough to be confident in the fact that every time Derek saw it, he probably thought about all the ways that he had failed Stiles, all the things he could have said or done to have made him stay…

“So just,” She says, “Just. If you’re going to do this again. Just be sure this time.”

“What do you want?” Derek says when he opens his door to Stiles. It’s without the old edge of hostility, but it carries some new, tired suspicion.

“Right this moment, or in the long run?” Stiles tries.

Derek narrows his eyes. “Both,” he says.

“Well, right this moment, I want you to maybe invite me inside. Please. I’ve got a lot of talking to do, and a lot of explaining, and probably some apologizing.

“Okay,” Derek says, swinging his door open wide, “Fine.”

Stiles toes his shoes off, and goes to sit on the couch.

“What did you want to say?” Derek asks, when he makes no move to continue the conversation.

“I thought you were going to ask me what I wanted in the long run.”

“Stiles,” Derek says, with that familiar annoyance just barely lacing his tone. He’s been saying Stiles’ name like that since Stiles was 16, and it’s almost comforting, how some things never change. “Okay, fine. What do you want in the long run.”

“I want you to be happy,” Stiles says immediately.

Derek’s shocked at that, Stiles can tell. “So this isn’t you asking to get back together?” He says.

“Well,” Stiles hedges, “That was supposed to happen about an hour from now. It was talking point sixty-four. And it was supposed to be a lot more like groveling. But I don’t want to lie to you, so eventually, that was going to happen.”

“Stiles—”

“But remember, my number one goal is for you to be happy. And I’ve made you happy before, and I think I can make you happy again. Even if it’s in a year, or in two years. So I’m going to try to make that happen. But if you say that you’ll be happy with me as your friend, then I’ll sort through my feelings for you and I’ll try to make that happen. And if, after everything you hear, you’ll be happy if I never speak to you again.” Stiles pauses, because he’s prepared himself for that scenario, but it’s definitely his least favorite, “Well,” he says grudgingly, “That will suck. But if that’s what you really want, then. It’s a big city, so that can probably be arranged.”

Derek regards him for a moment, and Stiles wishes he knew what was happening in his brain, but Derek’s always been a bit of a mystery, even to him, and he’s two years out of practice at reading his face.

“How about we start at the beginning,” is what he finally comes up with. “How about you tell me why you left.”

It’s a question that Stiles has agonized over for two years and counting. It’s a question that doesn’t have a simple answer, that has a million answers and no answer at all.

"I had some growing up to do," Stiles starts, and Derek says, "I thought we were supposed to grow up together. I thought we already had."

It’s a fair point. They had grown up together, before they were together.

It was Stiles easy answer, and it wasn’t the whole truth, and they both know it.

“I was scared,” Stiles says finally, because this won’t work if they don’t both know the truth, “I was so fucking scared, Derek.”

“Of me?” He says, with wounded eyes.

“No, of course not! I was scared of my future and what that meant for us, and I was scared that I wasn’t worthy of you changing your life for me, and I was scared of what that ring meant when I found it, because I was. I was scared of that commitment, of holding you back and of chaining us both… It’s simpler here, than in Beacon Hills, but we still live dangerous lives, hell, I could fall down the stairs tomorrow and that could be it. We’ve both lost people, Derek, and the more you meant to me the more it would hurt when you left, when you decided I wasn’t enough or when you got messed up with the wrong pack or ran into a hunter… I was scared and insecure and you were right, I was selfish, and I know I’m rambling and maybe none of this makes any sense, but I got more and more scared, and then I got more and more paranoid and doubtful, and…”

He has to pause, to take a deep breath, but he can’t look at Derek yet, because he’s not finished, “Our lives had been so hard, and it just seemed too easy. With you, it was always so easy. I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

He hangs his head when he’s finished, because he’s still a coward, and it takes him by surprise when Derek’s voice cuts through the silence, hard and loud.

"Just because it was easy, that doesn't mean it wasn't real, Stiles. It was easy because we cared about each other, and because we trusted each other, and because we told each other everything. Or at least, I told you everything. You apparently left some stuff out, like your intentions to take off in the middle of the night with no warning. If I hadn't come home then, would you have even told me? Would you have left a note? Or would you have let me come home to a house with nobody in it, for the second time."

“I know,” Stiles says, “Everything you’re saying is… I know I did the worst thing, and I did it in the worst way. I can’t make promises that I’ll never make another mistake, or that I can guarantee that we’ll always be good from here on out, but I can promise that I’ll never let anything like that happen again without talking to you about it. I know this is hard for you to believe, after all that happened. But we trusted each other, back then. I know a lot of that has been lost. But do you think you could… can you trust me on this?”

Derek doesn’t answer. He sighs, and looks at the floor, and it’s not a no, exactly, but it’s sure as hell not a yes.

Losing Derek's trust is even worse than losing his love. He hasn't always been loved by Derek, but he's always, since the beginning, been trusted by him.

“I agree that we shouldn’t make promises,” Derek says, finally. “So I can’t promise to trust you right away. But I know you. I know that you aren’t malicious, even if you do make stupid choices sometimes. Like blowing town on a whim, without talking to anybody.”

Stiles chokes out a laugh at that, because it’s Derek, and he sounds like himself again—it’s a little less Derek-his-life-partner and a little more Derek-drowning-in-a-pool, but he’ll take it. He’ll take any Derek he can get.

“So I’ll try, Stiles. I’ll try to trust you.”

“I won’t let you down again,” Stiles whispers.

Derek’s wearing a smile when he finally meets Stiles’ eyes. It’s small, but true, and it makes Stiles’ heart jump in his chest.

“So, does this mean,” Stiles starts slowly.

"We can't go back to how we were. You can't move back here. This can't be serious. I don't even know if I want you as my boyfriend yet. But I'll let you take me out. Next Friday."

"I'll take it," Stiles says immediately. “I’ll take it. And I’ll see you next Friday.”

He leaves Derek again. This time, it’s with a smile that he can’t quite stop.

“I’m going out with Derek on Friday,” Stiles tells Lydia, and the very thought makes him smile again, “Like, out out. Maybe he’s already told you. But, you’re my friend, and you’re sort of Derek’s emotional knight in shining armor, so I thought you should know.”

“I know,” she says calmly, sipping her cappuccino.

“I thought you’d be more upset,” Stiles ventures, because her doesn’t want to face her wrath, but he’d definitely braced himself for the possibility.

"I'm a realist, Stiles. I'm willing to give you a trial run."

“A trial run,” he repeats faintly. “I don’t know what that means.”

“It means,” she says, “That I’ll hope for the best, and I’ll give you a few dates. And then in a month, we’ll reevaluate.”

They go on a date on Friday night. Stiles worries about what shirt to wear, and if he put enough deodorant on, and why his hair is doing that annoying spiky thing in the back. He brings Lydia a bottle of wine for her cabinet.

Derek wears a blue button down and Stiles’ favorite jeans, and he lets Stiles hold the door for him.

They don't discuss religion, or politics, or exes.

It's stilted and it's awkward, and it's not easy. It was easy once, but that's gone, and maybe that's okay. Maybe this, this hard work and building of trust, maybe this can work too someday, in its own way.

There are a lot of maybes.

But at the end of the night, when Stiles asks to see him again... That's not a maybe.

That's a yes.