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Cat Got Your Tongue

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Derek wasn't having a good day.

Technically speaking, Derek wasn't having a good life , but like the proverbial frog in a boiling pot, he'd mostly learned to adapt. Bad days were the water in which he swam – or flailed, rather; swimming implied a degree of comfort with his metaphorical pastime that he was yet to acquire – but even by his usual standards, today had been a ceaseless tsunami of suck.

It started with his housemate, Boyd, announcing over breakfast that he wanted to move in with his girlfriend when their current lease ran out. Which was totally cause for celebration, Boyd and Erica being awesome people who deserved each other and happiness and all the rest, but their lease expired next month, leaving Derek less than four weeks in which to make other arrangements. Either he could live alone and come one step closer to fulfilling Laura's prophecy that he end up a crazy catperson before he's thirty, or he could endure the random agony of finding new people to live with.

Derek didn't like new people. He was pretty sure he was allergic. But good single occupancies were hard to find, especially in his price range, and as much as he loved his family, he'd rather die a slow, painful death by unbearable roommate than move back in with any of them. God, his little sister would laugh her fucking ass off.

Not a great start to the day, then, but by no means the worst he'd ever had. Except then his car broke down on the drive to work, and he had to call a tow-truck to take it to the garage – and god only knew how he was meant to afford the repairs, if he had a new bond to be saving for. Adding insult to injury, he then spent fifteen sodden minutes trying and failing to hail a cab in the rain, which conveniently started bucketing down the second he no longer had a car to sit in, before finally catching the bus. Where he ended up getting gum stuck to his pants, a fact he didn't notice until one of his students pointed it out as he hurried to set up for class.

Up until then, Derek had taken comfort from the fact that at least he'd left home early enough to not have missed his lecture, but once you've had a room full of twentysomethings unashamedly pointing and laughing at your ass, it's increasingly difficult to look on the bright side of things.

After that, it was all downhill. He was so off-balance from the bubblegum thing – to say nothing of the fact that he was still wet through – that he dropped his notes an unprecedented four times in the course of an hour, again to laughter from his students. By the time he got back to his office to towel down, he was so agitated that he forgot to be careful of his contacts and ended up knocking one loose – and not only couldn't he find it again (and hello, more expensive replacement things!), but by the time he'd given up the search and changed into his glasses, he was running so late for lunch that the sandwiches were all sold out at his favourite café, forcing him to settle for a lacklustre mug of soup.

His next lecture was a marginal improvement, though by that point, Derek was struggling to see how it could've been worse. But the second he was out of class, Laura called, informing him – with her typical mix of bluntness and sympathy – that his now-famous ex-girlfriend had announced her intention to write a biography about her Troubled Years, which was basically code for The Time I Went Off The Medication My Boyfriend Never Knew I Was On And Tried To Murder Him And His Family. Which, Derek had to sit down for that one. Kate was... all these years later, he still didn't know how to feel about Kate. He'd loved her, and she'd lied to him from the outset about her diagnosis (bipolar with psychosis), and while part of him understood why she'd been afraid to tell him the truth, the consequences had been devastating: she'd gone steadily off the rails, abused him physically and emotionally, resisted his many attempts to find out what was wrong, and when he'd finally broken up with her, she'd responded by setting his house on fire, acting under the deluded belief that he and his family were fairytale monsters.

The fact that she came from a prominent family and had, after her rehabilitation, leveraged their influence to become a well-known spokeswoman for mental health advocacy, was a positive thing. Derek was glad Kate had pulled herself together and was helping others, even if her actions still woke him up at night, but the thought of having the most painful period of his life dissected and displayed for strangers left him in a cold sweat.

Calmly, he'd thanked Laura for the heads up, walked to the nearest bathroom, and vomited in the sink. (The soup hadn't tasted any better the second time around.)

After rinsing his mouth, he went back to his office to try and work, but was so distracted by the whole disaster that he accidentally forwarded a stupid chain mail to everyone in the faculty instead of deleting it. It was one mundane humiliation too many: Derek called it a day, remembering only as he got to the carkpark that his car was in the shop, forcing him to trudge all the way back to the bus stop, where – of course – he'd just missed the bus, necessitating a twenty minute wait for the next one.

And thus his current predicament: walking from the bus stop back to his soon-to-be-ex-apartment, he'd managed to get lost in his own damn neighbourhood. In all the time he'd been living there, he'd only had to take the bus a handful of times, and he was still so worked up about Boyd and Kate and the car that he'd managed to take a series of wrong turns, storming along on furious – if misguided – autopilot. By the time he finally realised that he didn't recognise his surroundings, it was too late: he was stuck in an unfamiliar street with no recollection of how he'd got there, and when he pulled out his phone to try and call Boyd, it gave a single, mournful chirp and died.

Derek stared at his traitor phone. It should have had enough battery to get him through a regular day, he'd checked that morning – except, of course, that he'd had to call AAA, and the tow-truck, and the garage, and then the chat with Laura...

'Great,' said Derek, numbly. 'Just great.'

It was too much. There was only so much shit that Derek could deal with in a given day, and he'd passed his limit hours ago. Angry, shaking and overwhelmed, he was on the brink of throwing his phone in the street when something soft brushed up against his left shin.

'Mrrrp?'

Breathing hard, Derek looked down. A small, mottled cat was rubbing itself on his legs, purring enthusiastically. For a moment, he just stared at it, but when it didn't go away – when it kept on twining between his ankles, vibrating with feline happiness – something in him snapped. He sat down hard, barely conscious of the fact that he'd colonised someone's doorstep, and skritched the cat behind her ears. The purring intensified, the cat leaning into his touch. Derek made a choked noise, hunching forwards, and as though it were an invitation, the cat leapt up onto his shoulder, rubbing her face enthusiastically against the edge of his glasses.

It was the only nice thing that had happened to him all day.

Derek burst into tears.

 

*

 

Stiles woke to the sound of someone crying, though it took him a moment to correctly identify the sound. He was a little groggy, his afternoon nap having stretched on for longer than he'd intended, and given that Scott was out of town, he couldn't think who was making the noise. Puzzled and a little concerned, he yawned, stretched and went to the bedroom window, which looked out onto the street – and blinked, startled, when he realised there was someone on his doorstep. The angle wasn't great, so all he could see was a bit of their knee and elbow, but judging by the sound, it was definitely a guy, and they were definitely crying.

Stiles stepped away from the window, pulling on an oversized shirt and sweats. He knew it wasn't Scott, because even if his best buddy and housemate had fled the pressure of staying with his girlfriend's family, he still would've let himself in. Most likely, it was Isaac, who'd shown up sad and weepy on more than one occasion, usually after being dumped, and no matter his predilection for stupid scarves, Stiles wasn't about to leave a bro in crisis. As he headed for the front door, it honestly never occurred to him that the crying man might be a random passerby, which either said a great deal about the nature of his friendships or his general faith in humanity. Or, quite possibly, both.

Stiles opened the door, and stared.

It wasn't Isaac.

It was, in fact, a stranger.

A handsome, crying stranger.

Who was cuddling his cat.

Right.

'Uh,' said Stiles, stupidly. 'Hi?'

The man leapt to his feet, cheeks visibly reddening despite the designer scruff. The guy looked mortified, his eyes wet and red-rimmed behind square, black glasses. Ordinarily, Stiles would've called them hipster frames, but the stranger was pulling them off like nobody's business. He was wearing a faded green Henley and dark jeans, a leather satchel slung across one shoulder, and he was clutching Stiles's cat to his chest – his muscular, well-defined chest, holy shit – like some sort of talisman.

'Hi,' said the guy, faintly. He gulped, clearly struggling to get himself under control, the blush spreading across his sharp, high cheeks. 'God, I'm so sorry. I just, I've had a really bad day –'

'Hey, man, it's OK,' said Stiles, who was starting to wonder if he was still dreaming. Jesus, the guy was fucking gorgeous – did people that gorgeous even exist in real life? 'I mean, are you OK? Do you, uh, do you need a hand or something? Well, I mean, you seem to have yours pretty full with Tabitha –' the cat mrr ed lazily, recognising her name, '– but is there anything I can do for you?' Please god, let there be something I can do for you.

The guy looked momentarily stunned. Then, as though he couldn't help himself, he croaked out: 'I'm lost. My phone died, I don't live far from here but I'm lost, I got off the stupid bus, and I just –' He stopped, biting his lip. 'I've had a really bad day,' he said again, quietly.

Possibly the guy was a serial killer. Possibly Stiles was about to be murdered in his own kitchen, or kidnapped, or sold a set of encyclopaedias or forcibly converted to Mormonism, or whatever other hideous fate befell those trusting enough to invite strange men into their houses. But the guy just looked wrecked, and his Henley was covered in cat fur where he'd been cuddling Tabitha, and Stiles just didn't have it in him to be sensible.

Gently, he said, 'You want to come in? I was about to make some coffee. You could borrow my phone, maybe have a cup?'

A look came over Hot Guy's face like he was about to start crying again. 'That would be really nice,' he said, hoarsely. 'Thank you.'

'Hey, no problem! I'm Stiles, by the way,' he added, holding out his hand.

'Derek,' said Hot Guy, settling Tabitha in the crook of one arm to free up a hand of his own. His palm was warm, his grip firm without being crushing, and Stiles felt a faint tingle go through him at the contact.

'Well then, Derek,' he said, mouth quirking up in a smile. 'Why don't you come on in?'